Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

49. A Fish Pitched Up by an Angry Sea

Lionel Boyd Johnson was intellectually ambitious enough, in 1911, to sail alone from Tobago to London in a sloop named the Lady’s Slipper. His purpose was to gain a higher education.

He enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science.

His education was interrupted by the First World War. He enlisted in the infantry, fought with distinction, was commissioned in the field, was mentioned four times in dispatches. He was gassed in the second Battle of Ypres, was hospitalized for two years, and then discharged.

And he set sail for home, for Tobago, alone in the Lady’s Slipper again.

When only eighty miles from home, he was stopped and searched by a German submarine, the U-99. He was taken prisoner, and his little vessel was used by the Huns for target practice. While still surfaced, the submarine was surprised and captured by the British destroyer, the Raven.

Johnson and the Germans were taken on board the destroyer and the U-99 was sunk.

The Raven was bound for the Mediterranean, but it never got there. It lost its steering; it could only wallow helplessly or make grand, clockwise circles. It came to rest at last in the Cape Verde Islands.

Johnson stayed in those islands for eight months, awaiting some sort of transportation to the Western Hemisphere.

He got a job at last as a crewman on a fishing vessel that was carrying illegal immigrants to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The vessel was blown ashore at Newport, Rhode Island.

By that time Johnson had developed a conviction that something was trying to get him somewhere for some reason. So he stayed in Newport for a while to see if he had a destiny there. He worked as a gardener and carpenter on the famous Rumfoord Estate.

During that time, he glimpsed many distinguished guests of the Rumfoords, among them, J. P. Morgan, General John J. Pershing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, Warren Gamaliel Harding, and Harry Houdini. And it was during that time that the First World War came to an end, having killed ten million persons and wounded twenty million, Johnson among them.

When the war ended, the young rakehell of the Rumfoord family, Remington Rumfoord, IV, proposed to sail his steam yacht, the Scheherazade, around the world, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, and Japan. He invited Johnson to accompany him as first mate, and Johnson agreed.

Johnson saw many wonders of the world on the voyage. The Scheherazade was rammed in a fog in Bombay harbor, and only Johnson survived. He stayed in India for two years, becoming a follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He was arrested for leading groups that protested British rule by lying down on railroad tracks. When his jail term was over, he was shipped at Crown expense to his home in Tobago.

There, he built another schooner, which he called the Lady’s Slipper II.

And he sailed her about the Caribbean, an idler, still seeking the storm that would drive him ashore on what was unmistakably his destiny.

In 1922, he sought shelter from a hurricane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which country was then occupied by United States Marines.

Johnson was approached there by a brilliant, self-educated, idealistic Marine deserter named Earl McCabe. McCabe was a corporal. He had just stolen his company’s recreation fund. He offered Johnson five hundred dollars for transportation to Miami.

The two set sail for Miami.

But a gale hounded the schooner onto the rocks of San Lorenzo. The boat went down. Johnson and McCabe, absolutely naked, managed to swim ashore. As Bokonon himself reports the adventure:

A fish pitched up
By the angry sea,
I gasped on land,
And I became me.

He was enchanted by the mystery of coming ashore naked on an unfamiliar island. He resolved to let the adventure run its full course, resolved to see just how far a man might go, emerging naked from salt water.

It was a rebirth for him:

Be like a baby,
The Bible say,
So I stay like a baby
To this very day.

How he came by the name of Bokonon was very simple. “Bokonon” was the pronunciation given the name Johnson in the island’s English dialect.

As for that dialect . . .

The dialect of San Lorenzo is both easy to understand and difficult to write down. I say it is easy to understand, but I speak only for myself. Others have found it as incomprehensible as Basque, so my understanding of it may be telepathic.

Philip Castle, in his book, gave a phonetic demonstration of the dialect and caught its flavor very well. He chose for his sample the San Lorenzan version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

In American English, one version of that immortal poem goes like this:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Shining in the sky so bright,
Like a tea tray in the night,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

In San Lorenzan dialect, according to Castle, the same poem went like this:

Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,
Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.
Put-shinik on lo shee zo brath,
Kam oon teetron on lo nath,
Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-poll store,
Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.

Shortly after Johnson became Bokonon, incidentally, the lifeboat of his shattered ship was found on shore. That boat was later painted gold and made the bed of the island’s chief executive.

“There is a legend, made up by Bokonon,” Philip Castle wrote in his book, “that the golden boat will sail again when the end of the world is near.”

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