Frank Zappa is Alive and Well and Living in Sarnia
25 May 2022

The Science Centre sold glow in the dark stickers of the stars in their gift shop.  I came home from a field trip with a pack and stuck them to my bedroom ceiling.  My own universe.  A cosmos of my own devising that I could stare into as I fell asleep each night.  

I was not a scholar of the sky per se.  I was more of a dinosaur guy buy I could reel off the names of the planets in a pinch, back in those days when Pluto was still a contender.  

As an adult I have stared up at the night sky from the middle of oceans and from latitudes far north and I’ve seen a universe so busy, a glance upwards can’t help but reveal a shooting star streak across it.  I’ve seen the northern lights dance on the horizon and I have identified constellations from books.  Sounded out their syllables and enjoyed each one as it rolled off my tongue.  CASS – EEE – OH – PEE – AH.  But something is out of whack in the celestial sphere.  Whatever role the cosmos play in things has been altered.  For myself this means the black cloud I have belabored under these past weeks has broadened and engulfed the ship.  Or, maybe, I am just a Jonah.  Either way, the diffident in me says I’m probably attributing myself far too much credit.  Nonetheless, the turbo on our generator has gone KAPUT and we have been tied up in Sarnia for five days awaiting a new one or an external generator that we will temporarily install on deck.  Whichever arrives first.

Sarnia is located on the St. Clair River at the southern end of Lake Huron.  The name is the Latin for Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands.  It is a chemical refinery town but if you look east, away from the stacks, and onto the town itself it is quaint and attractive, as small Canadian towns are, with pleasant residential neighborhoods, laid out on tree-lined streets. The ubiquitous church spire and shore side apartments and condominiums can be seen from the ship.  We are tied up at the Government Pier, next to Centennial Park and opposite the grain elevator.  Across the river is Port Huron, Michigan where I once made a stop as a teenager sailing on the Tall Ship Rose and watched a trick shot trick shoot on a pool table at a busy bar I snuck into.  

Summer finally arrived this past Saturday in southern Ontario.  By 11 AM the temperature was 25˚C and the deck hands busied themselves painting on deck.  The sky over Michigan began to bruise like black ink spilled on blotting paper and spread towards us.  Within minutes the temperature dropped and then the rain started, though to call this rain is a stretch.  This was Niagara-ine in its intensity. Bolts of lightning split the sky as the squall passed over us.  But just as quickly as it was on us it was gone.  The same system would worsen, travel across Ontario and later lay waste to Ottawa and much of St. Lawrence region Quebec with tornado and thunderstorms.  Just as the moors are to Wuthering Heights or Monument Valley is to a John Ford western, the weather is a featured character in any nautical tale, this brief one notwithstanding.  

Few things feel quite as unnatural to me as a ship in stasis.  While the engineering department is run off their feet, we on the deck are running out of things to do.  Night watches are interminable.  Before I ship out, I judiciously select enough reading material to get me through my rotation but now I find myself, having had so much free time, perilously close to consuming my stash.  Corey, a shaven-headed, perpetually cheerful wheelsman from Newfoundland by way of Nova Scotia, relieved me of the watch early last night,

‘We’re going to have to ask the company to get us more comfortable chairs if we’re going to be sitting around any longer,’ he said half-joking, half-serious.  ‘My back is fucked!’

I have been passing the time the best I can when not on duty.  I’ve been running.  I’ve walked through the park and identified all the trees using my National Geographic guide to Trees and Shrubs and the google app.  I have found white willow, eastern white pine, black cotton wood, silver maple, boxelder maple, honey suckle and ash.  

My bird watching skills have also improved thanks to Peterson’sGuide to the Birds of North America.  I have identified two species I had hitherto not seen: mourning dove and semipalmated plover.  The ship has been taken over by grackles. They flicker gregariously to and fro, their iridescent blue head feathers glinting in the sun, and though it is wrong to anthropomorphize animals I cant help but get the feeling that they are having a really good time.

The turbo is being shipped from Europe.  The earliest date of delivery seems to be Wednesday but this can change.  In the meantime we are preparing to install an external generator which will be set up on our aftermost hatch.  This involves cutting a hole in the deck to run wires through to the engine room and setting up and welding I beams to the hatch for the unit to sit on.  Today there is a heavy lift crane on standby as well as a team of workers all being paid by the hour.  The generator has been ‘half an hour away’ for the last 12 hours.

I was surprised to see that our heavy-lift crane operator is none other then Frank Zappa.  Apparently, he faked his death and is living a quiet, normal life in Sarnia, Ontario.  He looks good.  The working life suits him.  He must be nearing 80 but doesn’t look a day over 30.  He has swapped the fags for a vape and the bell bottoms for high viz orange workwear. A black ball cap sits on top of his black curls.  The thick moustache and soul patch remain.  

‘Does it cost more to have Frank Zappa as our crane operator?’ I asked our increasingly harassed ship’s superintendent Ian who is bedeviled by questions from every swinging dick on board as to when the generator or the new turbo will arrive.  Of course this is a moot question.  Zappa is incognito, hiding behind thick sunglasses and an assumed name.  Otherwise like Ian, he would be similarly harangued, but by greedy concert promoters and loyal fans, all of them hungry for a comeback tour.

I’m not easily starstruck but sometimes it gets me.  As a barista in London I had to surrender the reigns of the espresso machine to a colleague when I saw Woody Allen was in line for a coffee while I disappeared into the stairwell and had a panic attack.  This time I am older and more composed. I try and snap pictures of Zappa from a discreet distance while he works the crane controls.  Soon, he’s all set up and there’s nothing for him to do but wait.  He kicks back, puts his legs up on the controls and scrolls through his phone and sucks on his vape. And why shouldn’t he take it easy? After all this is the man who wrote such stone-cold classics as ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ and ‘Why Does it Hurt When I Pee’.  Surely, he is entitled to a little down time after facing off against Tipper Gore and her censorship crusade in the supreme court.  Even if it was almost 40 years ago, that’s got to take it out of you. 

Across the slip from us, the Canada Geese that loiter around the grain elevator, as though somehow aware they’re in the presence of music royalty, set to squalling.  Their dissonant bleats bounce off the cement of the silos and comes back at us full of reverb.  Zappa remains impassive behind his shades.

My sister went to the Science Centre too, once, all those years ago.  Evidently, she bought her own pack of glow in the dark stars because one night I went to bed and there was a brand-new constellation in my bedroom ceiling’s night sky.  A super cluster of stars that spelled FUCK YOU directly above my pillow.

There’s still no sign of the generator.  It seems the cosmos are not done fooling with us yet.  

‘They never are!’ Is what Zappa would tell you if you asked him.