Friday, December 8

The O'possum, Red Tom and a Broken Leg

Today's post written by Acasta mamber Charles Winchester 

Dearest Brother,

      I take this opportunity to write to you a story which I trust you will find entertaining and perhaps humourous.  I must begin by relating to you an event that occurred nearly a year ago.  You know from my previous posts that we are on Blockade Duty off the coast of North America, in particular the U. States, who are now our enemy.  Whilst idling at sea near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, a bit of flotsam consisting of rotting pieces of trees, marsh grasses and seaweed passed by on the tides emanating from that river.  This platform had, through Heaven only knows what circumstance, become the temporary home and aquatic conveyance of a most peculiar creature: Didelphis Virginiana, or as he is commonly known, the American O’possum.  In form and appearance you would find him unique in every aspect.  At a distance you might mistake him for a great rat, but on closer inspection you would instantly find the similarity to rodent kind to be superficial at best.  His head is long with a pointed snout and a mouth filled with a prodigious number of tiny teeth much in the form of tiny needles.  With these and the ferocious swinging of his head from side to side he tears whatever he finds in his mouth asunder.  He is also covered with long hair, grey, tending towards black in places, almost white in others.  Small, almost inconsequential, pink ears top his head;  His pale pink feet almost in the shape of a hand with each digit mounted by a long sharp claw.  Behind is a long tail, almost the length of the body, which is pink and naked, or rather, covered in very sparse hair so as to appear hairless.  The most remarkable thing about this creature, however, is the fact that on it’s underside it possesses a pocket or pouch.  The doctor’s books say this pocket is used to carry the young of this creature who are born prematurely but afterwards remove to the pocket until they are ready to face the world.  It is also unusual that within the pocket the creature’s teats are located from which the offspring feed before emerging upon maturity.  As far as is known there are no species of creatures related to this sort in N. America, but apparently others of his kind inhabit S. America and New Holland in great variety. But you could find this information in any library of Natural History so allow me to continue my story.

As this unfortunate passenger was sighted on our larboard side the crew and officers to a man looked to see what caused the stir.  Many thought retrieving the poor fellow a good idea but no one seemed willing to enter the water to bring it on board.  There happened among our ship’s company a Red Indian who was familiar with the O’possum, both being the Natural inhabitants of America.  Without a word, the fellow leapt from the side and in a moment had the terrified creature held fast in a length of rope and safely on the deck amid ships.  The unhappy animal writhed and hissed in such a terrible manner that no one would get near it. A cage was called for and soon our O’possum was safely contained.  In a matter of weeks the Indian, whom we call Red Tom, had tamed it and it had grown fat and sleek. The crew held a sincere fascination with the creature and fed it scraps of biscuit, beef and pork on every occasion.  Still no one other than the Red Tom deigned to touch it when it was out of its cage.  In a month’s time he was going about his duty with the O’possum on his shoulder or even clinging around his neck whilst high in the rigging.  The animal seemed very adept at climbing and could often be found in the ropes or on a spar as Tom worked aloft.  Our Frenchman, the Surgeon’s Mate, Baptiste, took a particular interest in the O’possum as was his peculiar passion for animals in general and all things in the Natural world.  And, as they say, thereby hangs a tale.

Five days ago Red Tom grew seriously ill with a fever and great congestion in his chest.  His coughing could be heard all over the ship both day and night without abating.  In his turmoil he called for the O’possum to be brought to him as a comfort.  The Doctor would have none of it, for, in his view, the creature was filthy and would contaminate the sick room with its contagion.  The Doctor, perhaps rightly, believed Red Tom’s close association with the creature had led to his current illness.  In truth, however, from my observations of the O’possum, which, I must admit, has also captured my fascination, I find the thing cleaner and more fastidious than most of the Ship’s crew. But the Doctor is Lord of His Castle and Red Tom would have to heal or die without his companion.  Two days later, it seemed Tom would expire in a matter of hours.  Baptiste, the Surgeon’s Mate, through much pleading and exhortation, and prevailing upon his sympathy for his patient, caused the Doctor to relent his former prohibition. The O’possum was delivered and kept his vigil beside Red Tom, albeit from the safety of his cage.  By morning Tom seemed to have improved greatly. The crew attributed this to the O’possum. The Doctor, however, scorned this opinion, saying his plasters and doses had clearly been for naught.

Last night, during the Middle Watch, it is supposed about two O’clock, as Tom recalls a noise that woke him about that time, the O’possum and his cage was turned out upon the deck. No one knows who the culprit was.  The crew mumbles in secret that it was the Doctor who, being irritated with the animal from the start, removed it in secret. I do not subscribe to this way of thinking as the Doctor, besides being an honourable man, is not the sort to bite his tongue but would remove the animal forthright if that were his desire.  I suspect over the last few days he has grown tolerant of the O’possum, if not fond of it.  I hold that one of the ship’s hands, knowing that Tom was out of danger, released the animal by way of a joke or prank. Whatever the truth may be, the creature had escaped and was round about the ship in the darkness.  This would not do, as most of the crew feared the O’possum and what might happen if he were tread upon in the night.  Lieutenant Lord Fitzroy led the crew a merry chase through the night, searching high and low throughout the ship, to no avail.  No on slept much last night.  

By first light it was generally believed that the hapless creature had fallen overboard.  Red Tom who had become much excited during the endeavours, had come out to join in the search, though in his weakened condition could do nothing more than watch from the Doctor’s chair on the Quarter deck.  About noon, a cry from the main top set all eyes skyward and those below running on deck.  Jemmy Small, a topman, had laid his hand upon the O’possum whilst reaching for a stay.  The animal, as the crew feared he would do if frightened, had bitten the top man ferociously on the hand which had nearly caused him to fall, and would have done, had he not been an experience hand of many years in the tops. Seeing this, a marine climbed up part way with the intent of shooting the creature but the Sergeant of Marines called him down again.  At this point Red Tom was making his way to the ropes but the Doctor restrained him, for as weak as he was, he surely would have fallen.  Before you could jump here goes Baptiste aloft with the O’possum cage tied to his belt. In the tops he removes his jacket, gently wrapping it around the animal, like a mother swaddling her new born babe.  A loud Huzzah goes up from the hands watching with intent from the deck and in the rigging around the Frenchman. He climbs down with a broad smile on his face and his eyes fixt on Red Tom. Just as he is about to take his last step down his leg catches in the cage and down goes Baptiste and down goes the cage and down goes the O’possum.  A loud snap and a crack, the cage spills open and its contents run across the deck.  Red Tom picks up his little friend, holding him inside his coat.  I look back to see Baptiste sprawled upon the deck, wincing in pain and holding his ankle.  The Doctor goes to him but Baptsite can’t stand on his leg nor can he walk.  He is taken below and the Doctor soon reports that the lesser bone in his right leg is broken just above the ankle.  I suppose he is fortunate that this could have been far worse.  The Doctor was able to splint and bandage his leg.  We all feared he would lose the leg but the Doctor scoffed at this, his being not a general surgeon but a true Doctor.  Our ship in general and Baptiste in particular are fortunate in that.  

Red Tom and the O’possum sit with the Frenchman day and night while he is convalescing.  Both seem to bring him cheer.  The Doctor says this will aid in his healing and therefore the O’possum is allowed to stay as well.  As you know, Baptiste is our Story Teller so now that he is free from his duties for a while he is keeping us entertained with his tales of his life before he came aboard the Acasta.

It is my sincerest wish that you, Brother, have found this story amusing and that it may lighten your day and that of your Dear Family, if you so choose to share it with them.  I Remain Affectionately,

Your Brother
Harold H. Day, Midshipman
Aboard HMS Acasta,
Halifax, N. American Station

As recorded in his journal, dedicated to his Brother, James A. Day. 23rd April, 1813.

Real life note: Tony Gerard really DID recently break his leg, and to NO ONE'S surprise, there was in fact a Possum involved. Get well soon Tony!

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