Editorial team father and son detail life of 19th century Bath sailor


Fred Hill, right, and Alex Hill discuss the hundreds of nearly 140-year-old letters they referenced when writing “A Flick of Sunshine” on 5/26. John Terhune / The time record

“I can’t kill Will!” read the headline in the Bath Independent of February 7, 1885. “Another escape for Jackson.”

Richard Willis Jackson was not yet 24 when the Bath newspaper reported his near drowning during a trip to Liverpool, England, but the young sailor was already a local celebrity for his many brushes with death. He had survived a lightning strike, a dive into a partially frozen pond to save a young boy and a nine-month abandonment in the Marshall Islands.

Now, well over a century after Will Jackson’s luck finally ran out, a father and son team has granted him a worthy honor: immortal life as the subject of their book, “A Flick of Sunshine.”

“I know you’ll know what to do with this,” recalls Fred Hill, his mother told him in 1977 when she sent him a collection of several hundred letters written by Jackson, his uncle.

Hill, then Paris correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, didn’t have time to write Jackson’s story, but he saw the value – and the fragility – of the nearly 100-year-old letters, which were mostly written in pencil. He and his middle school student son Alex worked together to copy the contents of the letters for posterity.

But aside from Alex Hill’s ninth-grade essay titled “The Adventures of My Great Uncle,” Jackson’s story went untold for decades. It was only after Fred Hill retired to Bath in 2006 and began writing books like “Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs”, which detailed the history of one of the world’s greatest shipbuilders. Maine, that he once again turned his attention to Jackson.

About five years ago, Alex Hill decided to join his father in writing “A Flick of Sunshine,” which he said was a daunting undertaking for a rookie writer working in fintech.

“It took me a while,” said Hill, who lives in California. “I should just go home and sit down and focus on getting started. But once I started collaborating with my dad was really fun.

The couple used Jackson’s letters, his diary, a book he helped write and archival newspaper articles to trace his journey from a gregarious high school student in Bath to the ship’s youngest crew member. 233-foot Rainier, a job that brought him $12 a month.

Christopher Timm of the Maritime Museum, center, poses with Alex and Fred Hill who are considering donating Jackson’s letters to the museum.

While pay was low even by 1883 standards, Jackson earned a rich adventure bonus, from a close run-in with the Krakatoa eruption to his stranding on the Marshall Islands after the Rainier crashed. en route to Hyogo, Japan.

“He knew he would find a day to make things right,” Alex Hill said of his great-great-uncle, who spent his days in the Marshall Islands fishing with the natives and endlessly reading an almanac that had survived the sinking. “He was very optimistic. It seems like he never really understood that or got frustrated.

That same optimism fueled Jackson’s descendants through two years of research and writing, endless hours of phone calls across the country, and long pandemic-related publication delays, according to Fred Hill. “A Flick of Sunshine”, named after a line in a story by Joseph Conrad, popped up at sellers like Mockingbird Bookshop in Bath and Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick in March.

Like their ancestor before them, Fred and Alex Hill are already planning their next adventure. They are currently written about a third of a novel about the Maine Lobster Wars.

“It’s about the clash of clans,” said Fred Hill. “I won’t tell you more, because I’m afraid someone will steal it from me.”

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