The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship*
Sunday Afternoon, September 3, 1939
Dressed in an old, olive-drab sweater, short brown trousers and sneakers, Russell climbed the stairs to the open Tourist class area at the stern of the Promenade deck. He had spent more than an hour walking the cramped Third class cabin passageways, wandering the busy lounge and empty dining saloons on C deck, and poking into the barber shop, beauty salon, and ship’s printing facility. His hands and knees were grimy with the oily dust of the spare anchors he had found and explored on B deck in a chain locker near Athenia’s stern.
Some people stood at the Promenade deck’s railing gazing at heavy, round-shouldered clouds scudding toward the expansive blue horizon. Others sat in chairs napping or reading in the shade of the wide covered galleries that ran along each side of the deck’s central structure. Mothers sat on blankets on the deck and watched their children play. Russell thought all the activity would distract the adults from his explorations. He saw the canvas covers had been removed from the set of lifeboats near the stairs and noted the top lifeboat had been lifted high enough on its davits to allow access to the lower boat, which sat on the deck.
Russell strolled over to the boat for a closer look at its white clapboard hull and the looping rope grab lines that hung in small semi-circles from its polished brown gunwales. He climbed through the railing that separated the passenger space from the lifeboats and peered over the side of the lower boat. A bench ran all the way around the inside of the lifeboat’s hull. Across the central opening there were four wide cross-benches where he knew the oarsmen would sit. After a casual glance over his shoulder, he boosted himself up, put his foot on a grab line loop, and climbed over the gunwale into the boat.
Crouched on the lattice decking in the bottom of the lifeboat, he listened for footsteps that might indicate he had been seen. When he heard no worrisome noises he began to look around. In the bottom of the boat he found six sets of oars, each oar twice as long as he was tall. Russell thought at least two men would be needed to handle such a big oar. He found several coiled ropes, bottles of water, a box marked “Condensed Milk” and a curious looking bucket with a handle on one side. Best of all, however, was a latched box marked “Flares.” Inside the box he found several eight-inch long red cylinders that he knew, when ignited, burned bright enough to illuminate the night. But he easily imagined they could be sticks of dynamite and saw himself commanding this little vessel, sneaking up on a large sailing ship and forcing its surrender by threatening to toss one of his lighted dynamite sticks aboard.
“What’s down there?” a voice asked.
Russell looked up to see a boy’s blue eyes peering at him from under a mop of red hair. He had no idea how long the boy had been watching him, but he was certain to attract some adult’s attention at any moment.
“There’s some really good stuff here,” he said. “Climb in.”
The boy responded without hesitation, throwing a leg over the gunwale and rolling quickly into the boat. He appeared to be a year or two younger than Russell and said his name was Billy.
“Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t think so,” Billy said.
“Good.” Russell directed Billy’s attention to the flares, handing one of the cylinders to the boy, who hefted its weight with both hands.
“It’s a stick of dynamite,” Russell said. Billy’s eyes grew wide and he thrust the cylinder back toward Russell.
“No, no. I’m kidding. It’s really just a flare.”
“What’s a flare?” The boy still appeared apprehensive about the object in his hand.
Russell was about to explain how a flare worked when he heard a woman’s voice call out in a peevish tone.
“Billy, what are you doing in there?”
“Nothing, Mum,” Billy said, rolling his eyes skyward.
“Come out of there this instant.”
Russell quickly replaced the flare in its box, and the two boys climbed out of the lifeboat. After introducing himself to Billy’s mother, Russell suggested he and his new friend might walk partway up the starboard gallery and look for other ships at sea. Minutes later the boys stood in the covered gallery where the sign on a rope across the walkway indicated the space beyond was reserved for Cabin class passengers. They stopped to look out at the broad expanse of ocean, but there was no sign of another ship.
“I bet we could see more from the top deck,” Russell said.
“But we can’t go up there.”
“Sure we can. They won’t mind.” Russell slipped under the rope and continued forward a few paces before he realized Billy wasn’t with him. “Come on,” he said, “we’ll only be up there a few minutes and we’ll come right back.” With a quick glance over his shoulder, Billy bent under the rope and caught up with Russell. They walked past several seated adults who paid no attention to them. At the end of the gallery, they climbed the outside stairway to the Boat deck.
Adults talked or dozed in their deck chairs, taking no notice of the two boys. The view between the lifeboats presented a wide horizon in all directions. A bright afternoon sun slipped in and out of the clouds, while a stiff breeze tousled Russell’s brown hair as he squinted out across the rolling ocean. Looming above the boys was the black tower of Athenia’s lone smoke funnel wrapped in its single white stripe. The breeze carried the dark diesel exhaust over the portside and trailed it away in a long black ribbon.
Walking toward the ship’s stern, Russell spotted an unattended bowl of fresh fruit. He casually picked up an apple, took a big bite, and savored its firm, juicy flesh.
“Stop staring, Billy. The trick is to look like you belong.” Russell held the apple out to his friend. “Do you want a bite?” Billy shook his head. “Suit yourself, but it’s a really good apple.” They walked a few more steps before hearing an adult voice hail them.
“Are you boys supposed to be up here?” A white-coated steward carrying an armful of blankets walked toward them. Russell smiled at the man.
“We’re looking for other ships.”
“And what’s your stateroom number, laddie?” the steward asked.
“B-one seven five,” Russell answered innocently.
“You boys belong in Tourist class. This deck is for Cabin passengers only,” the steward said, his voice taking on a gruff edge. “Run along, now.”
“Thank you. Can we go that way?” Russell pointed toward the stern.
“Go on with ya,” the steward barked.
The boys walked quickly toward the stern of the Boat deck. Russell disposed of his half-eaten apple in a trash bin before they hurried down the external stair to the Tourist haven on the Promenade deck.
“Are we in trouble?” Billy looked worried, and Russell felt a pang of pity for his companion who seemed so ready for adventure but unsure how to handle it.
“No, that man won’t do anything. We left when he told us to, didn’t we? Besides, I’m not staying in B-one seven five.” Russell couldn’t tell if Billy’s expression was one of disbelief or admiration.
“I better go find my mum,” he said, backing away from Russell.
“We had fun, didn’t we?”
Billy nodded and a smile grew across his freckled cheeks before he turned to leave.
“See you tomorrow,” Russell called, but Billy had disappeared into the crowd.
A few minutes later, Russell found space on the Number 5 hatch cover where several people were sunning themselves. He stretched out with his hands behind his head. It had been a fine, adventurous afternoon, he thought. Russell hadn’t found the five-million-dollar strong box, but a sense of accomplishment enveloped him as he watched the clouds blow across the bright blue sky.
* Sunday morning, two full days after the German Army invaded Poland, England declared war on Germany (see blog post March 30, 2017). Though not unexpected, the news stunned many Athenia’s passengers, including young Russell Park’s mother. By early afternoon, however, consensus began to form that the ship had sailed beyond the reach of the new war, and Russell’s father agreed to let him explore the ship on his own.
* * *
In our next blog: Russell’s world turns upside down.
*Builder’s model is located in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Scotland