Ode to Ernest Shackleton

by Bill Corden (March 2019)



The Endurance stranded in Antarctic ice of the Weddell Sea, 1912. Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society.

 
Overture
 
Talk about a close shave,
Talk about a rogue wave,
Talk about dangling from a thread—
 
Talk about thin ice,
Talk about a razor slice—
one false move, we're dead.
 
Talk about the skin of your teeth,
Talk about shaking like a leaf,
Talk about living on the edge.
 
Talk about taking your last breath,
Talk about facing death—
one more step it's off the ledge.
 
Talk about a granite will—
There's no man who's
been braver still
than Ernest Shackleton.
 
1.
 
You know when you sign up with him
Your future's lookin' mighty grim . . .
Touch and go to live or die—
And on this man you must rely.
 
But we have got a Captain here
Who's been in jams before;
This is Ernest Shackleton,
who could ask for more?
 
Ernest Henry Shackleton
a man among few men;
to take you to the limit
and bring you back again.
 
Off we sail to the unknown;
Endurance is our deck,
Mostly by the wind we're blown—
our ship a tiny speck . . .
 
into that frozen, endless waste,
the unforgiving sea:
this, for their existence 
is where adventurers must be.
 
Down toward the southern pole
where death is close at hand
Endurance and her steely men
they head for no man's land;
 
the voyage that would bring them fame
saw fate deny the finished game
for winter had them pay the price
and locked their vessel up in ice.
 
The ocean clamped, and crushed the keel;
our Captain cursing at the wheel—
Endurance groaned
and cracked
and splintered
and finally-succumbed,
and, with a final cry of
"she's going boys"——
the ocean depth she plumbed.
 
2.
 
With any other man alive
everyone would perish—
with any other man alive
they all would die in anguish.
 
But this was Captain Shackleton,
born to beat disaster
all but one believed he was
the undisputed master;
 
He had got them into this
and he would get them out—
just hang on to his every word
and rescue's in no doubt.
 
Let's take a moment to assess
the qualities this man possessed,
for what he had was rare, indeed;
not one I know could match his lead.
 
Can you from any of your friends
find one to slide the tackle on
and match the admiration and the faith
inspired by Ernest Shackleton?
 
And, so, they kept the salvage
from the sunken mother ship,
and trekked across the ice floes
with frostbite on their lip,
 
drifting on in aimless ways
they find protection in a bay
and here is where the boss's thoughts
makes plans to get them back to port.
 
Elephant island is their base—
there can be no remoter place.
The only land that they could fit
was on this God-forsaken spit;
 
But the Captain, he was confident:
now we've got some room,
now, we've got some choices
to fight off certain doom.
 
Some mild dissent is muffled
while preparations made;
for the carpenter, he's ruffled
the peace of the brigade.
 
Our Captain's not just good at sea
he's expert in diplomacy,
and wisely culls him from the herd
the carping, Scottish thunderbird.
 
He puts him straight away to work
to get the lifeboat ready;
keeps him fully occupied
and hold the mission steady . . .
 
and then, when launching date is due,
he picks him for the rescue crew;
for to leave him back with the other rivals
would guarantee their lost survival.
 
3.
 
All the preparations made
the ropes, and gear made fast,
six men began a journey
that would likely be their last.
 
The men they left behind, they cheered
for Captain Shackleton, he steered.
Not one among them wavered
that in this man they called “The Boss"
They had their only saviour.
 
This sturdy ship it had a name—
"St Caird" was on the bow;
and though it wasn't made for this,
it's all they had right now.
 
Fearlessly they headed East
to pick up pushing winds,
compass, clock and sextant
their only useful friends.
 
The ocean swells they roiled, they crashed.
the waves were broken ice
but they were made of stronger stuff,
they would not think twice.
 
for fourteen days and nights they sailed
their misery untold;
and then, as if by miracle
a coastline did unfold.
 
And it was where they meant to be—
the only island in the sea
that offered them a chance, at most,
for whalers had set up a post.
 
South Georgia Island—
still remote and cold;
the whalers built a station here
to mine the ocean's gold.
 
They pulled the Caird up on the beach
but they were still quite far from reach;
a mountain range stood in the way
of our heroes, and the Stromness Bay.
 
Did that stop them? Not at all.
They simply scaled the icy wall,
and pushed their way through ice and snow
until they reached that bay below.
 
The journey had been . . .  epic;
They'd sailed 900 miles
facing death a thousand times—
it was the trial of trials.
 
Did he stop to catch his breath?
His men were faced with certain death—
So he set out his course to find
the twenty-two he'd left behind.
 
In the middle of a war
he opened every Consul's door,
and rigged and crewed a rescue ship
to pluck his men
from that island's grip.
 
No one was surprised
to look at the horizon
and a boat hove into view—
Our Captain's come to save us!
And everybody knew.
 
You can't expect a lengthy life
from someone so unique;
the gifts that he was given
are too numerous to speak.
 
So, when he went back to the fold
at forty seven young years old
The world was half expectant—
they knew this man would leave the earth
With that compass clock and sextant.
 
 

__________________________________
Bill Corden is a happily retired sports columnist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Now he writes, plays music and makes people laugh.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
Comments
3 Mar 2019
Send an emailStsphen Schecter
How nice to read the ballad form again, the story carried by the rhythm, reminding us how the world once seemed, and may seem again, a cause celebre to the young and the brave.

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