The little red-haired girl and the magical island

sailboat going into the wind, island in background

Peter stepped off the long ladder and walkway he’d been climbing to get onto a small platform, somewhat precariously perched on top of a ship unloader. 

This was not one of the old, traditional cranes, still standing nearby. Those would swing a scoop down into a ship’s cargo hold where they grabbed bulk goods, like potassium or rock phosphate. Then lifted up the full scoop, swung it in over land and dropped the load into a bunker. From there, a conveyor belt moved the bulk goods up to a big silo for storage. That was the old technology — noisy, dusty and rather slow.

The unloader Peter stood on was their modern replacement. It worked on the Archimedes’ screw principle where you can move even water uphill by using a screw. Instead of slowly, scoop by scoop, a ship was swiftly unloaded by a huge, articulated arm that reached down into the hold to ingest the granular goods, depositing directly onto the conveyor belt for transport to the silo. 

Peter looked over at the little operator’s cabin, at the end of its own boom, from where the operator could maneuver the unloader arm all around the hold, to get into every corner. With so much less dust and dirt, since this was an enclosed system. Definitely more efficient.

Except today. The unloader just sat there. Silent. Which was why Peter was here: To find and correct whatever electrical problem that kept it idle. Back in electrical engineering school, they might have neglected to include that the job could some day involve sitting on top of an unloader arm, high above a dock and deep water next to it. Yet there he was. 

The harbor was quiet. Except for occasional seagulls and terns circling around. 

Tomorrow would be different. A 30,000 ton ship was due at first light. A ship that had to be unloaded within a limited window of time. Which meant Peter needed to find and fix the problem before then. 

They could still use the old cranes, sitting there on either side of the old bunker. It would take longer. Once they did, Peter wouldn’t be able to work on the unloader, as it would be boxed in by cranes and ship. It was today or not at all.

Right now he was perched on a platform at the end of the main arm of the unloader. The vertical screw itself hung down from the end of it, with the tip just a foot above the concrete of the wharf.

He was deep into checking relays, circuits and wiring paths. Peeking into every electrical panel and junction box. It was a slow process narrowing down where the problem might be.  

A couple times, he had gone back down to the dock to turn power back on and then climbed up to the operator’s cabin to wake up the beast. Move the main arm. Check. Move the vertical boom. Check. Actually get the screw to work. No check.

Every trip up and down included climbing several ladders and walkways high up above the ground. Definitely didn’t want to fall from up here.

wharf - ship unloader and cranes, island tip
Wharf with ship unloader in front, 2 cranes and a bunker. Across the shipping channel is the northern tip of the magical island. Beyond, in the haze, is open water.

He leaned back after checking yet another wiring path and junction box and looked out over the harbor. Most harbors have piers and wharves. Buildings, cranes, railroad tracks. Warehouses. Loading and unloading. A breakwater to protect the harbor from storms.

This harbor was different on the last count. There was a nice, gently curved shipping channel that came in from the open sea. Or as open as it gets. He could see the Danish coastline across several miles of water. 

The curved channel created one of the few natural harbors on this part of the Swedish coast. It was the remnant of a pre-historic river.

But a nice, deep channel doesn’t matter without protection from storms and waves. This is where the Island came in. By nature, only a sandbank. Its highest natural point a few feet above the water. However, back in the 1700s, someone had a brilliant idea to build a fortress there, turning the mostly submerged sandbank into an island. 

Extensive ramparts were built. Then peace broke out. It was eventually decided that the fortress was no longer needed. Work stopped. The stone walls remained. Forming a strange island with several little lakes. A haven for birds. 

And also a haven for a small group of people who were fortunate enough to own summer cottages on the island.

Most people in the city would never set foot over on the island. The part occupied by the birds was a sanctuary and off-limits much of the year. Plus you had to have a boat to get over to the small colony of cottages. Or know someone there.

There was a summer when Peter was in his tweens and lived in this city. He was decidedly like Charlie Brown at that point. Yes, that Charlie Brown. Of Peanuts fame. In more ways than he wanted to recount. And there was a Lucy (actually several) in his life, always ready to knock him down if he got ideas. 

Like Charlie Brown, Peter too was afflicted with the little red-haired girl. Except he was actually friends with her.

Her family had a summer cottage on the island. He was a frequent visitor. It was a magical place. Just across that strip of water. On one side, city and industry. On the other, pristine gardens. Beaches for laying in the sun. The shallowest water he’d ever seen. You could walk forever out into the sea. Truly magical. And the little red-haired girl was his friend.

With all the optimism of youth, he really thought she was the one. That unlike Charlie Brown, he’d succeeded in not only talking to the red-haired girl, but actually impressing her. It was a great summer.

But summers end. And as so often happens in life, Peter and the red-haired girl eventually went their separate ways. 

Now it was 20 some years later. Peter didn’t feel at all like Charlie Brown anymore. He’d grown up, found his niche and was good at it. Traveled around the world to install and maintain ship unloaders. His specialty was finding and fixing problems that stumped others on his team. Which is why the company had sent him here.

It was the first time in many years that he was back in this city, this harbor.

The cluster of cottages was still there over on the island. Just 150 yards maybe and another world. Here, industries, the push to get things done. Over there, cottages, pretty little gardens, leisure. 

He hadn’t thought of the red-haired girl for a long time. But now that he was here, he wondered how things had turned out for her. And did her family still have their cottage over on the island? 

The day went on. Peter had narrowed things down, but still hadn’t found the culprit. Somewhere in the literally miles of wiring on the unloader, there was a short or a faulty component. Or even worse, an intermittent problem. That was definitely a possibility. What if everything looked perfectly fine when he ran tracer tests and then under load, with real voltage and power applied, whatever the issue was kicked in and prevented things from working? 

He didn’t like that possibility at all. 

It would be just like Lucy holding the ball for Charlie Brown to run and kick. Promising that she’d hold it still this time. Then at the last second moving it anyway. So he’d fall flat on his face. Every time. But during setup, it all looked perfect. 

Again, Peter had made his way to the end of the horizontal arm, which actually pointed diagonally up, making the walk along the walkway a bit of a climb. He was on the service platform right at the top of the joint for the vertical arm. Dug into his schematics book one more time. There must be something he was missing. And it might be right around here, where things moved during operation. Plus the motors for the screw were here. It would make sense for something to wear out here. Or cause a tiny little short.

A sailboat making its way down the harbor interrupted his thoughts. It looked like it had just started from over on the island. Now it was gliding down the shipping channel, coming closer to where he was.

He watched it gracefully glide through the waves. He was no sailor, but liked watching sailboats effortlessly move along the water. Though this was not so effortless. The breeze was against the sailboat, so it moved in a zig-zag pattern, tacking every so often. He knew that was how it kept moving forward, sideways into the wind, but it also made it seem about to be driven back the other way at any moment.

The boat had just completed a tack and was coming diagonally across the channel towards where Peter was. Then, maybe 25 yards from this side of the channel, the sailboat began to tacked again, to move away, headed closer to the island-side. That’s when he saw her. As the sail and boom swung over, he noticed the red mane of the woman at the tiller. She was busy with the tacking process and there was one short moment that he saw her profile clearly. 

There was no doubt. It was her. The little red-haired girl. Except not so little anymore.

If someone had asked him, would he recognize a friend from school he hadn’t seen in over 20 years on the street, he’d have said probably not. After all, people change. Years go by. And yet, there she was.

The sailboat completed the tack and was now headed diagonally away from him. At that point, the woman at the rudder turned around to look at the unloader. Peter realized it must look rather strange to see a person sitting high up on the end of the horizontal arm. He waved and wondered if she recognized him, the way he’d recognized her. 

Probably not. Why would she? He was decked out in a safety vest and helmet. Plus absolutely no reason for her to expect him here today. Or any day. Their paths had gone different ways not long after the summer he’d spent visiting the island.

The woman waved back and for one instant he could feel her looking straight at him. From 50-60 yards away. 

A man appeared from the boat’s cabin. He gave her a quick hug and put his hand on the tiller, next to hers, helping keep the course through the choppy waters. Clearly they were enjoying their day of sailing.

Peter sat there, on top of the unloader arm, watching the sailboat continue the zig-zag journey down the channel. He guessed they were heading for a marina out of sight, beyond the shipyard. Eventually the sailboat disappeared from view.

He went back to troubleshooting. Suddenly again feeling like Charlie Brown. Hearing Lucy going: “You can’t do anything right, can you?” 

Certainly he must have already checked this one circuit 3 or 4 times. Yet something in his gut told him to check it again. Or was he just dragging his feet, hoping the sailboat would come back through while he was still up here?

He shook his head at that thought and turned on the circuit tracer one more time. This time it didn’t give him the “all is well” beep. Something wasn’t right. Another look at the schematics. This just might be it.

That was it. Late in the afternoon, Peter was up in the operator’s cabin, testing the unloader. This time, everything worked. One little, intermittent short. A cable rubbed by a sharp piece of metal to sometimes cause a problem. Apparently no-one had ever run into this issue before on the unloaders. It certainly wasn’t documented. Fortunately, once he found it, it wasn’t that complicated a repair. 

Everything worked. His job was done. He packed up his things and climbed down to the dock. Got everything loaded into his company van and was ready to head out. He’d stop by the harbor master’s office on the way to report that the unloader was fully operational again. They’d be ready for the ship when it came in tomorrow morning.

But first, he went over and sat down on the dock, right next to the edge. Leaning his back against the wheels of the ship unloader. It had been a long day. Lots of walking and climbing. A few minutes rest would be okay before he started the drive home. After all, who knew when he’d be back in this area again? Not anytime soon. In another week, he was heading to the UK to work on the installation of one of these unloaders. And after that, there was another one in the Netherlands on his schedule.

He soaked in the early evening sun and enjoyed listening to seagulls and the lapping of the water against the wharf pilings. Across the water was the island with its cottages. Still peaceful. Still magic. 

It had been a great summer, that one so long ago. Fun. Friends. When he’d finally started feeling less like a bumbling Charlie Brown, always beset by Lucy, and more like his own person.

Out in the shipping channel, the sailboat was coming back. No zig-zagging now. It raced along with the wind. Again he waved and the woman and the man in the boat waved back at him.

For one second he almost yelled at them to come over to the wharf. It would be great to talk with her again. Nothing complicated. Just to say “Hello” and catch up a little. But even as he thought this, the boat was gliding on, past him. Moment gone. 

And he realized, good so. It was okay. As it should be. He was here, in the ordinary world. She was there in the magic world. The world where Charlie Brown can actually kick the ball and score.

But he was okay in the ordinary world. No, better than okay. 

It had been good to see the red-haired girl again today. To see that she’d, from all appearances, come out okay. Because in truth, that little red-haired girl had been as unattainable for him as for Charlie Brown. And that was okay.

Life took him down another path. He was happy with his work and his family. It was just nice, reassuring, to see that life had been good to her too. 

Over on the other side of the water, the sailboat eased in to the dock and he saw the woman jump out to tie the boat. 

“Take that, Lucy,” Peter said to himself as he got up and walked to the van.