Talks to Me.
I have taught art history for decades stretching back to my days at Muskingum College. I took a 10-hour art history class in my junior year and was asked by the professor, Louie Palmer, to be his teaching assistant during my senior year. Probably, my senior year as his teaching assistant was the most educational experience during my college years. Since the days back in the mid-60s, I have taught various art history classes at three additional schools.
Additionally, I am in the process of teaching art history to my two grandchildren, Jack who is five and Owen who is three. Jack began when he was three by asking me about a couple of paintings. Today, Jack can identify about a half-dozen artists and several dozen paintings. Ask him what his favorite painting is, and he will tell you Chagall's I and the Village. Ask Owen, it is The Drawbridge at Arles by van Gogh. However, ask Jack what is Papa's favorite painting, he will gladly tell you William Turner's The Fighting Téméraire.
In my home, I have a wooden cradle for infants made from the wood of the Téméraire. It is a rather large cradle. It could hold a child who was more than an infant. Therefore, when late at night several weeks ago when I heard the cradle talk, I listened.
"Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk with you. I know that I'm a rugged cradle. However, I wasn't originally cut to be a baby's cradle. In fact, in my first life, I was from a British man-of-war, the HMS Fighting Téméraire. More to the point, I was from Captain Eliab Harvey's cabin. That's right, when my mahogany lumber was first cut, it was for the cabin of the captain of the Téméraire. Do you recall the battle of Trafalgar?"
I don't know why he asked that question. I have a framed picture of Turner's The Fighting Téméraire in my house. Additionally, I have a mouse pad with the same picture. However, since I did not quickly answer the cradle, it continued thinking that I did not know about that great battle. "Lord Nelson and his fleet defeated the Spanish and French armadas near the Straits of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Nelson destroyed twenty ships without one of his being sunk.
"Before the battle began, Nelson said to all the officers and sailors of his fleet, 'England expects that every man will do his duty.' The Téméraire was second in the battle line setup by Nelson. As the battle wore on, my captain tried to protect Nelson and his ship by sailing in front of the admiral. It should be noted that the word, Téméraire, means bold. As the Téméraire's captain started to move in front of Nelson, Nelson signaled to Harvey, "I'll thank you Captain Harvey to keep to your station, which is astern of the Victory." Nelson waved us back and told us to return to our battle station, he would do this duty for England no matter the cost to himself. On that day, we all did our duty for England, including Nelson, who died of his wounds in the midst of that great naval battle.
"I was proud of the ship. The Téméraire's history was a long and proud one. The Téméraire was bold that day. More to the point, it was its finest hour. However, within a couple dozen years of that battle, the Admiralty directed the decommissioning of the Téméraire. She was ordered to be hauled to the breaker's yard and to be cut-up. Surely, that was the Téméraire's saddest day, when she was towed from Sheerness to Deptford by one of those new steam-driven tugs. There we were, that brave and majestic warship, undertow by a tug that looked like some demonic black swan taking its bounty away from life at sea. It was very sad, sad indeed.
"It took some time for the Téméraire to be gutted. Many a former sailor came to pay their respects while that once proud ship was devoured. One of those visitors was Quentin Thackeray, the Téméraire's boatswain. Quent, as they called him, had been at Trafalgar and came to pay his respects. He spent more time there than most. He walked what remained of the ship. Then he walked into the captain's cabin without saying anything—just thinking.
I asked the cradle what Quent did in the cabin.
"Quent just ran his hand along the wood, as if trying to get some sort of reading from it. I watched him do this every day that he came to the ship to think. It was as if he were sanding down the wood and his thoughts into something smoother and better.
"Then one afternoon, Quent came back and stripped me and some other large pieces of the mahogany from Captain Harvey's cabin. It was months before I realized what old Quent was up to. He took the wood and made a cradle for his first grandchild. His creation was a celebration of the new age that had been born with the defeat of the Spanish and French fleets. Now, that great warship was decommission and dismantled—an era had ended, but a new age has dawned.
"However, that new age could also promise peace symbolized by Quent's grandson. Surely, that young boy would hear England's call for duty when he grew up. The only question was whether his duty would be in waging war again or finding a better and more peaceful way of confronting international conflicts. Quent had seen war at its most violent. He prayed, as he built me, that peace would reign as war had during his lifetime. Quent's nautical version of beating swords into plowshares did not find universal acceptance in his grandson's life, nor even in this present age. Peace is allusive even today. Nonetheless, I carry that dream of a better day as parents rock their babies in the mahogany wood of the Téméraire.
"You can see how sturdy I am—peace needs to be built that same way—strong and firm. I have played my part in both war and peace. If I'll be remembered for my contribution to one or the other, I hope that I'm remembered as that strong cradle of peace and hope. My desire is that peace would be waged as fiercely and with as much determination as war has been waged in the past."
PS Since the Téméraire's cradle spoke with me, I have thought a great deal about Quent's creation of the cradle as a symbol of peace over war. Therefore, I decided to give Jack and Owen the cradle. Perhaps, their generation will get Quent's message and work toward making the world a place for peace. I hope that their generation will not face what so many generations of the past have faced.
Jack and Owen busied themselves filling the empty cradle with stuffed animals.
Jack and Owen thought that a cradle full of Owen's stuffed toys looked better than an empty one.
Owen, wearing his crown as king, wants to make sure that Jack puts all the toys into the cradle.
Owen found his stuffed train engine and drives it to the cradle while Jack tells Owen about Turner's painting, The Fighting Téméraire, which is Papa's favorite.
Finally, I wonder when the Téméraire's cradle will talk to Jack and Owen. It took years to talk to me. When I told the boys about the Tibetan cabinet talking to me, Jack dissed the notion. He said, "Papa, how can the cabinet talk? It doesn't have a mouth."
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