Back to Stories Index

One Great Thing
By Edward F. Petersen


     Not one, but two old lighthouses stand guard above the sparkling water of Constellation Bay. The short and stout Little Star Light squats down on a rock pile across the inlet. And, in the middle of a small fishing village called Stars of the Sea, the tall and graceful Big Star Light stretches up into the blue, summer sky.

     There is a wonderful museum inside of Big Star Light. It is watched over by an old man who is rather tall and graceful himself. His name is Donald MacDoogle.


     The old man was a fisherman when he was young. He owned a small boat and earned a hard living from the sea. He never made much money, but there was always food on his family’s table and a roof over their heads. Besides, Donald MacDoogle had always considered himself rich with the beauty of the stars and the sea.

     The years blew by and as his life sailed on, the fisherman found himself all alone and growing old. Taking care of his boat and tackle had become a long and lonesome chore. So, Donald MacDoogle sold his boat and became keeper of  the Stars of the Sea Museum.

     
A boy has come to Stars of the Sea to stay with the old man for the summer. The boy is kind of short and stout and is Donald MacDoogle’s only grandson. His name is Douglas MacDoogle.

     Douglas and his Donpa live in the tidy, white house next to Big Star Light. The boy helps the old man keep the museum in shipshape condition. He sweeps the floor and rubs oil into the woodwork. He polishes the brass fittings and keeps the shelves of the gift shop stocked with souvenirs. But Douglas always stops working when visitors come in. He listens closely to his Donpa tell them stories about Constellation Bay. And he loves to watch their eyes widen when the old man whispers to them about rumors concerning shipwrecks and sunken treasure.

    Douglas and his Donpa have become true pals and they look forward to their summer evenings together. The boy has discovered that he can share his secret joys and troubles with his Donpa, and the old man has found that he can speak to his grandson about cares he holds deep inside his heart and would never mention to anyone else.

      Every evening, after supper, Douglas and his Donpa climb the impossibly long spiral staircase to the catwalk at the top of Big Star Light. There, they sit and talk until the stars light up at sunset. The old man and the boy keep their eyes peeled “out front” toward the ocean as the fishing boats return from their daily excursions, then they turn around to savor the last blaze of sun as it sizzles into Constellation Bay. Sometimes, the pair are treated to the spectacular sight of whales swimming by.  And Donald MacDoogle often plays his bagpipes.
    
      Douglas enjoys the music of the bagpipes. His Donpa plays slow, sad songs that feel just right as night skims across the water toward Stars of the Sea. They wonder if the whales might like the music too, because, every so often, when there’s an off-shore breeze, the whales stop and just float awhile as if they’re listening.
     
    One evening, in the fading purple twilight, Douglas was lending an ear to his Donpa’s memories of summers long past. The old man went quiet for a bit then said,

     “Ah, Dougie, time blows by so fast, and before you know it, ’tis too late.”

     “Too late for what, Donpa?”

     “Too late to shine your light, lad. When I look out upon this world, I realize how much I love it, and how lucky I’ve been to live here beneath these stars and beside this beautiful bay.  I . . . I sometimes wish that I could’ve been a better man.”

     “You are a very good man,” Douglas said.

     “Well, I worked hard, Dougie. I raised a family and did what I had to do, but I always wanted to do something more,  something . . . great to thank this world that’s been so good to me. I always thought there’d be time enough, but now I’m old, and I guess . . . “

     The old man shook his head and looked out across the water in silence. The boy was quiet too.

    
     “Do you know what I wish?” Donald MacDoogle finally asked. “Do you know what I wish tonight upon this Big Star Light?”


      Douglas looked up at his Donpa.

      “I wish that there’s still time enough for me to do one great thing to thank this world of ours. I don’t want to live out my whole life without doing one great thing.”

     “Do you know what I wish, Donpa?” Douglas asked.

     “What, lad?”

     “I wish that I can be here to help you when you do your one great thing.”

     The days rolled in and out like breakers along the seashore. The boy and his Donpa rode those warm, sparkling days through the summer. They worked in the museum or they took the skiff over to the rock pile and checked on Little Star Light. Every evening, they climbed to the top of the lighthouse where they would wish and wonder and watch the sky turn colors as the fisherman returned. Douglas could, by then, recognize each one of their boats. And, of course, the whales went by, this night swimming north, that night ambling south. The huge mammals still paused sometimes when the wind was right and the bagpipes were singing. Everything seemed almost perfect from their perch upon Big Star Light. In fact, Douglas and his Donpa were beginning to wonder if the world around Constellation Bay was ever going to need one great thing from a rather tall and graceful old man helped out by his kind of short and stout grandson.

     Then, on an evening near the end of August, Douglas and his Donpa were closing the museum for the day when they saw a crowd of people running toward the bay.

     “What’s up?” Donald MacDoogle asked Mrs. Lopez as she ran by.

      “Zee whales!” Mrs. Lopez replied, panting. “Zee whales are trapped in the bay! 

     The boy and the old man followed the commotion and found that it was true. There was a fleet of fishing boats way up Constellation Bay circling around dark shapes in the water. The whales.

     “How’d they get up there?” Douglas asked Mr. Vanderzee.

     “Just swam in, and now they won’t turn around. That water gets mighty shallow up there.”

     “What’s going to happen to them, Mr. Vanderzee?”

     “They’re gonna get stuck in the sand, Douglas. Every fisherman in town is up there a tryin’ to turn’em, but they just keep a swimmin’ toward the sandbars. Once they’re beached we’ll never move’em.”

     “Come on, Dougie, “ Donald MacDoogle said. “We can get a better view from up-top.”

     The boy and his Donpa clambered to their look-out on top of the lighthouse. They could see the whales swimming up the bay toward shallow water, and they watched the fisherman, one by one, turn their boats back toward Stars of the Sea.

     “They’re giving up Donpa.”

     “They have to, lad. They don’t want to run their boats aground. Those sandbars up there change from day to day.”

     “Why won’t the whales turn around?” Douglas asked.

     “I don’t know,” the old man sighed. “I’ve seen whales do some crazy things over the years.”

     “Like what Donpa?”

     “Like just what they’re doing. Beach themselves for no apparent reason, or leap out of the water and crash back down with a spectacular splash. That’s called breaching. I’ve even seen a whale push Captain Bob Bumper’s boat around with his head like it was a toy. Whales are magnificent but mysterious creatures. They do what they get a mind to. Maybe they like to play just like us landlubbers .  .  .  and perhaps they get confused like we do  every once in a while.”

     “What will happen if they get stuck?” Douglas asked.

     “They’ll likely die, Dougie. They’re much too heavy to be out of the water, and when the tide goes out, it’ll be even worse. They can’t breathe properly when they’re beached like that, and even if they could, they’ll starve to death as they bake in the sun.”

     “Then we have to do something, Donpa!”

     “I don’t know what, lad. If all those fisherman can’t turn them around, then I just don’t know what we can do.”


     Douglas and his Donpa watched the whales swim farther and farther from the safety of their home in the sea. They felt helpless and sad. Donald MacDoogle went and fetched his bagpipes.

     “Playing music opens the heart and lets the sadness out, Dougie. The sadness hurts less when I let it out through the pipes.”

     The moment the first notes began to hum from the bagpipes, Douglas jumped up excitedly.

     “DONPA!”

     “What, lad, what!?”

     “The bagpipes, Donpa . . . you know . . . the bagpipes!”

     The puzzled old man frowned at the pipes for a moment, and then his eyes lit up.

   “Why, Douglas, you’re a chip off the old MacDoogle block. That’s a brilliant idea, and it’s certainly worth a try.”


     The partners sprang into action. They tore down and around, around and down the one hundred and ninety-nine, iron steps in the spiral staircase. They rushed out the door and ran down Castor Street toward the bay. They clomped along the wooden gangway, scrambled over the dunes and arrived, out of breath, at the dock. The boy got into the skiff.  Donpa handed him the bagpipes and then climbed aboard himself. They buckled their life-jackets tightly around their chests. The old man bent over the outboard motor, gave it a little pat and whispered something to it. He yanked hard on the cord and the motor sputtered to life.

     “Wow, Donpa! It started on the very first try.”

     “Maybe that’s a good sign, Dougie, maybe that’s a good sign”

     The boy took over at the tiller and turned the tiny boat up toward the dangerous shallows of Constellation Bay.

     Douglas steered the skiff closer and closer to the whales. He didn’t much like the smoky smell that always surrounded their boat rides, but he did delight in the throaty rumble of the motor as they putted along. Finally they arrived. Their skiff was now the only boat following a pod of about a dozen whales lumbering toward disaster.


     “Okay, Donpa, do your thing.”

     “Put’er in neutral, mate,” The old man said.

     “Aye, Aye Cap’n,” the boy replied.

     Donald MacDoogle stood up in the boat and picked up the bagpipes. He placed the leather bag under his arm, arranged his fingers on the chanter and blew into the blow pipe. The bag filled up with air. A low droning hum and a high piercing melody exploded from the pipes. Douglas had to smile; it’s hard not to smile when bagpipes are blasting three feet from your ears.


     .  .  . Could it be that the whales were stopping? It looks like they .  .  . Yes, they were! The whales were now just floating there as if they were listening to the music.

     “Dougie, put’er back in gear and bring’er about,” The old man said between breaths.

     “Here we go, Donpa. Let’s hope this works.”


     Douglas turned the skiff around while Donald MacDoogle played an old Scottish marching song on the pipes. One by one, the colossal creatures disappeared under water until the entire pod submerged. Their waves rocked the boat for a bit, but then everything became strangely calm. The boat slowly putted back down toward the inlet. And for what seemed like a long time, the bagpipes sang out to an empty bay.

     All of a sudden, they bobbed up, one after another, and they were actually following the skiff. The whales had turned around!

    
     The people in Stars of the Sea watched what was happening. They scurried out onto the docks and lined up along the bulkhead to cheer and applaud for the procession of dark shapes plodding along against the sunset sky. The shadowy forms of a dozen whales were slowly but surely trailing the silhouette of two figures in a tiny boat, one was rather tall and graceful and the other kind of short and stout.


     “Donpa, do you know what? This is it! This is it!” Douglas shouted. “This is your one great thing and I was here to help you. We got our wish!”

     The music stopped for a moment. Donald MacDoogle wrinkled his forehead and then his eyes twinkled.

     “I believe you’re right, Dougie, ha ha ha, I believe you’re right!”
     
    
He shook his head, and the pipes sang out again.

     The powerful, revolving lanterns in Big Star Light and Little Star Light flashed to life just as the unlikely parade passed between them. Two bright beams began circling among the stars. And their shimmering reflections crisscrossed upon the sea.



Copyright © 2015 Edward F. Petersen – All Rights Reserved