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The Fearless Frogman
It was thirty miles offshore, and stormy, but the daredevil swimmer plunged into the Atlantic with a crisp “Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!” Our author recalls bold Captain Boyton, a mixture of Jules Verne, Tom Swift, and a bit of Walter Mitty.
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
After a time, however, merely floating downstream began to pall on Boyton: true, it was wet, but where was the risk? He had had a surfeit of safety. Then Peru got embroiled with Chile in one of their periodic struggles, and Boyton’s spirits revived: here at last was an opportunity to get blown to smithereens. He entered the Peruvian naval service and, as he told it, paddled silently out, under cover of night, to a Chilean man-of-war, affixed to her 125 pounds of dynamite, and thereby broke the Chilean blockade—though Peru lost the war. When he returned to New York he held the rank of captain in the Peruvian Navy.
He returned to retire, since there seemed, regrettably, to be no other ways in which he could threaten his personal actuarial balance. To shake the water out ol his ears and capitalize on his fame, he opened a bar and grill at 38 West Twenty-ninth Street in New York; he called it The Ship, and it became a favorite haunt of Manhattan sports. To relieve his tedium, he was reduced to playing pranks on Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
In May, 1885, the British lion was irritable. His tail was being tweaked by the Irish; there had been some incidents involving dynamite; one of the chief Fenian leaders, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was trumpeting his defiance from a Manhattan sanctuary. Additionally, the lion’s tail was being yanked by Imperial Russia over a border dispute in northwest Afghanistan; contemporary statesmen fancied they could descry war clouds lowering. While this minuscule crisis was bubbling, a Russian corvette, the Strelok, and a British man-of-war, the Garnet, had coincidentally dropped anchor in New York Harbor, and Boyton therefore undertook to soothe the dolors of the moment by showing how simple it would be to blow the Garnet out of the water. If he was shot in the process, why, then the laugh would be on him; but he did not propose to get shot.
As privily as possible, considering that he was attended by two or three friends and a noisy gaggle of newspaper reporters, Boyton went to the docks with a dummy torpedo, found a boatman named Steve Connors, and told him he planned to attach it to the hull of the Garnet. “Oh, wurra!” said the boatman, according to the accounts, eyeing the cigar-shaped, four-foot dummy. “Oh, Rossa! a dirrty, desprit business!” His eyes glowed. “For five dollars I’m in for the night wid yez.”
The conspirators were first rowed across the Upper Bay to Staten Island. They proceeded to the barroom of the Bay View Hotel to fortify their spirits against the night’s sinister enterprise, and here they were nearly toiled before they had fairly begun. For the barroom was full of British bluejackets, and all hands eyed the group of newcomers curiously. What were they up to, in their dark slouch hats and with their coat collars turned up? To allay suspicion, one of the reporters remarked casually, in a clear, carrying baritone, “I’ll bet a fiver the white dog licks the brindle.” The others accepted his gambit, and for a few minutes there was lively talk ol an imaginary fight to be staged between two imaginary bull terriers. The bluejackets went back to their beers.
But the talk had aroused one righteous citizen, and he slipped out to notify the police. Before long the place was surrounded by Staten Island constabulary intent on halting the illegal dogfight. Plaintively the reporters now insisted that their talk had all been a joke. A hack driver who had been nursing his drink in a corner, and who had confidently expected to earn a pretty penny by transporting all the sports to their fighting pit, was so disturbed to find his wages vanishing that he lost his temper and slugged a reporter. That did it. Everybody was arrested.
It took Boyton and his party an hour to talk themselves out of captivity, but fortunately, when they made their chastened way back to the Bay View Hotel, they found that the bluejackets had all returned to the Garnet. The atmosphere was serene. Boylon led the way down to the shore.
The Garnet lay in the Narrows off Staten Island, two lights at her masthead. Boyton, having clad himself in his rubber suit and lighted a cigar, slipped silently into the water, towing the torpedo behind him. He meant to paddle beyond the British ship and thenfloat down upon her on the tide; but on his first cast he came, instead, alongside an American cutter. She seemed to be too small to be the Garnet, so he called out, “What vessel is this?” An astonished American marine answered that it was the Endeavor.
“Well, then, let me come alongside and take away a torpedo I’ve tied to her by mistake.”
“For God’s sake, take it away quick!”
Boyton paddled away for a second try. Across the water the voices of his party came to him; Connors was rowing them out near the Garnet; half the party had started to sing “God Save the Queen” whilst the other half had struck up “Is This Mr. Reilly?” Boyton heard Connors exclaim, “Byes, this is dirrty work,” and a moment later, “Oh, Rossa, you’re a daisy!”