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October 28th, 1776
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AWOKE, disoriented and alone. His tall, muscular frame fit the built-in bed poorly. It creaked as he shifted. A gray circle of light hovered in the air above his feet, weakly illuminating the room with a ghostly pallor. He ached all over. His stomach churned. The walls seemed to undulate, adding to his discomfort. Ben groaned as he rubbed his forehead in an attempt to soothe the throbbing. Perhaps he had drunk too much wine last night. Yet he didn’t recall overindulging.
“I’m getting too old,” he muttered.
Ben hauled himself up on the side of the bed. His feet hit the wooden floor. It was cold—devoid of the carpet they would have touched at home. There was a distant rumble of thunder. Ben shivered. Where was he?
The cobwebs cleared quickly from his mind. He had set sail from Philadelphia only yesterday, his final destination Paris. Ben had accepted a formidable responsibility. He had been named the unofficial American ambassador to the French royal court. He carried a copy of the Declaration of Independence, recently signed. Back in America, skirmishes between insurgents and the British had already occurred. An all-out war could erupt at any time. Assuring French support would be key to winning any larger conflict against the British.
There was not much to hold him in Philadelphia now. After the passing of his wife Deborah, Ben had returned from England briefly to put his domestic affairs in order. But he had found his daughter Sally had his house on Market Street well in hand. Ben welcomed the new assignment to travel to France—until this morning, that is.
The sky of the prior evening, with high clouds streaked bright crimson and gold, had been stunning. “So much for ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight’,” Ben grumbled.
Ben had coined more than a few of his own witty sayings over the years, but not this one. And he realized that predicting the weather was hardly an exact science. Yet, he had hoped for at least a few days of calm sailing based on the ancient adage. But the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse, with wind gusts and hard sheets of rain buffeting the ship. She tilted severely from swell to swell.
Cautiously, Ben fumbled toward the gray circle of light. Through the porthole, he could glean nothing except the gray sea and sky, indistinguishable even at the horizon. As he watched, the sky lit up with a flash, and a crack of thunder immediately followed. The ship trembled. The lightning strike was very close by, possibly even a direct hit.
Ben sent up a prayer that the lightning rod was in working order. He certainly wouldn’t want to find himself attempting to swim back to shore in these seas. Still, the ship seemed solidly built and up for the stress of a rough ocean crossing. Her timbers creaked, but they appeared to be holding firm as Ben dressed in foul weather gear. He burst out the door of his cramped stateroom, in search of fresher air.