Shooting the Breeze
Arrived at my quarters, we tip our chairs back against the front of the house, preferring to fight the mosquitoes than talk in the stuffy living room. The moon is bright, illuminating the treeless Navy Housing relentlessly, etching detail boldly, creating impenetrable shadows of mystery. The loud blast of the anti-aircraft somewhere nearby stops our talk, and the rattle of machine guns from the cane fields raises our voices. Army searchlights chase the many planes aloft, in all this routine practice.
My friend has a defeatingly pleasant trait of sharing with you his chuckling anticipation of the laugh to come, without blowing the plot. There were three of us who had a congenial sense of humor on the transport coming out, and the last story brings our absent friend vividly to our minds. A Navy flier of our rank, he joined a big carrier on our arrival here, and vanished the way pals do in the Navy. We sit silently for a while in the moonlight, each with his own thoughts, our cigarettes glowing and diminishing like fireflies. I am thinking of the Gods of Sparta, of Athens and of old Troy. The last war as a whole was not theirs. Big battle wagons hammered away at each other. Men as thick as ants hurled great weights miles through the air, killing hundreds at a burst, that they had never seen.
This was not "the ringing plains of windy Troy." This was not the individual arm bringing down the sword, so personally forged, on the clanging shield. That the Gods could watch. So today they must be happy in their lusty way, for we are back to duels, to the whining dive of the torpedo plane, to two warriors aloft in their shining wings, fighting over a bomber.
Our friend was such a warrior and we remember him with deep affection, for in May we three were shipmates for thirteen days in the Pacific. It is not a name one would associate with Mars. Lovelace it was, and he hailed from Virginia. We laughed with him in May, and we have just heard of his death in his plane, the first day of June. The old Gods of "windy Troy" must have moved eagerly to the edge of their classic clouds when Lovelace and OHare, alone and just below them, went to meet the oncoming Jap formation. Don Lovelace had only a spoonful of gas, for he had been up in the first fight, so with one eye on his fuel gauge and one on the nearest Jap, he closed in and shot him down. Cursing his luck, he had to descend, and with his last drop of waning power and with almost a hitch of his pants he made the deck of the carrier that he had fought to protect. OHare got all the rest. Lovelace in the Coral Sea that doesnt sound like Mars.
My friend, who seldom smokes, puts his cigarette carefully out in the ashtray on the grass beside him. Then he quietly judges and smacks a mosquito on the back of his neck. His soft Virginia voice sounds pleasant in the night. "I was ordered to England for gunnery observation, away back during the height of the big air blitzes. I spent a long time in English ships, the Prince of Wales and many others. Daring fighters and great seamen, the British. I had been teaching at the Naval Academy, we were at peace, and attuned to quiet routine. Montreal seemed a long way from war when I went aboard one of the big Empress ships and was assigned a comfortable stateroom topsides. Well, the trip down the St. Lawrence was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen, brilliant sunshine and not too cold. I I felt I was on a holiday the days at sea just vied with one another to be perfect weather. We were alone and running fast.
"The great river was a blue mirror broken only by our wake, bronze ripples at dawn, red at sunset. Night, and the full moon sparkled the glassy surface with her golden mist, as we glided on as in a dream.
"We passed through the Straits of Belle Isle, as lyric in its way as the Aegean. Then to the north over the still calm of the Atlantic was Labradors bleak coast. We never spoke a ship, just zigged and zagged along, like I used to do when I was a kid riding a bike on a quiet road of a summers evening in Virginia.
"That night the bright moon silhouetted us against dark waters, making our ship a good target for subs, as in our passing we were an ever changing shadow on an empty sea. Then, glowing with a ghostly silver light, an iceberg loomed out of the night, moved through the moonwake and melted slowly into the enfolding sea and the sky.
"Its passing was the passing of peace. It came on to blow, real North Atlantic weather, with huge leaden seas roaring at us out of the filthy scudding murk. Then on a wild night we received a message that a ship had been torpedoed a few hundred miles ahead. Little hope for the survivors in this fury of icy wind and sea. This we learned later,was the vessel on which so many British children were lost.
"In a day or so we passed a big oil slick, a greasy canopy to some ships grave. Our ship kept avoiding wreckage, floating in big circles some distance apart, just like counting graves. A good place to hide a periscope among black timbers and debris. At dusk we swept past two ships boats, gunwales awash, with bodies sloshing about in one of them. We swerved away from a third boat, like avoiding a lee shore, lest it should be a submarine trap. Suddenly like jacks-in-a-box, a half dozen tiny dark figures rose up in the bitter cold of the twilight, croaking hoarsely like bullfrogs. On we rushed, and first their voices and then the boat faded quickly into the descending gloom. What else could we do in a graveyard like this with subs more sudden than ghosts?
"The last night in fine weather we listened to submarine warnings ahead. Before dawn we passed a sinking freighter. With the rising sun we saw another shattered vessel being towed to port. But as we steamed south past the familiar landmark of Ailsa Craig, Scotland was green and peaceful on our port hand and Ireland a blue mist to the west. What we had seen were but shadows in a dream."
I blow a puff of cigarette smoke at two mosquitoes diving at me down a moonbeam. He tips his glass up, drains the last of the cool liquid, and the moon sparkles bright in the disk at the lifted bottom. "You are so good at spell-binding," I say, "that I forgot to be a host. Have another, a bird cant fly with one wing."
"No thanks you wont believe it, but I still could not realize that I was leaving peace. The Irish Channel got busy, but in a lazy untroubled way. Even entering Liverpool towards sunset, with sunken ships to either side of the swept channel, did not take away the impression of peace. But that night shattered it for ever.
Arriving too late to make the tidal lock docks, we anchored in the stream, riding quietly to our ground tackle in the complete blackout. Suddenly the ship quivered to the distant rumble of gunfire. Ashore air raid sirens wailed their eerie warning. Growing rapidly louder, sounded the throbbing ominous roar of bombers unseen in the star filled September sky.
"Each plane seemed to be steering for us as all hell broke loose. Flashes of gunfire leaped like distant lightning all along the shore. Flares falling slowly in dazzling light exposed the black shapes of warehouses, the stacks and masts of ships we did not know were there. Exploding bombs set the night aquiver with flame that subsided almost as quickly as gun flashes, but fires were soon roaring on the docks, in warehouses and lumberyards, and a ship was engulfed by flames, its mast a glowing cross. The long pale arms of the searchlights scurrying across the sky caught one plane for a moment, revealing a gossamer moth frantically weaving and diving for darkness. The high heavens were spattered by bursting projectiles. Bits of the broken metal occasionally formed an iron rain rattling on deck, splashing in the black water. Many bombs fell in the stream, one so close that its mighty impact shivered the ship from stem to stern. The raging fires on shore silhouetted a number of vessels low in the water with crazy lists to their masts.
"This was all that I had imagined a raid to be. At last I had comprehended that peace was gone, that war had engulfed our generation."
He stands up, thin and straight, tucks his shirt in neatly, hitches up his trousers and pushes the black visor back off his damp forehead. "Anchors aweigh! [Yawn] Say, did you see the sunset yesterday?" "Yes, I did a vermilion ball sinking behind the mountains, below that mass of clouds that always hangs above them. Rays shooting up. A red sky at night is the sailors delight. " "Yeah. And A red sky in the morning, the sailor takes warning. [Chuckle] All right, Im superstitious if you insist, but I saw the same thing at dawn from a carrier. The first sun rays refracting through a break in the clouds made the Rising Sun of the Japanese flag, just like yesterday, and I half felt it was an omen. Well, we have set CONDITION ONE here, they have issued side-arms to all officers and C.P.O.s, and I can recognize an omen the second time. Laugh!" he says with a grin. "Shoot!" I answer.
"Well, shortly after Pearl Harbor my Rat-top, a mighty ship, sailed from here on a mission to the west. One morning before dawn I was standing watch high above the flight deck which lay like a long island on the sea. There was no moon but the night was eerily alight. We were reeling off the knots, and I could see the destroyers weaving about, could see the ever-changing wake, the horizon, clouds and dark seas. I didnt like it, [chuckle] you know what a big loom a carrier makes. She looks like a floating apartment house! The east got bright red, and I warned all my watch again to keep a sharp lookout.
"The sun at last came up, a glowing red ball; the red rays broke out all over the whole east, making a perfect Jap flag. I had a premonition that it was a symbol, but naturally didnt mention it. The sun climbed up and the day was too clear, every object hard cut, a regular weather breeder. My watch was relieved and I went below for breakfast. Thereafter I was busy with spotting drill, checking gun crews, firing simple target practices; but all day the same sharp clarity in the air somehow caused the premonition to stick. It was still there in the wardroom at dinner. I must be nuts! I said to myself. In the midst of conversation with my messmates and with my mouth open for the lump of cheese with the apple pie, there was a rolling sickening thud. The ship took a heavy list almost at once. Everybody jumped up.
" 'Silence!' said the Exec. Take your stations in order!' General Quarters was sounding, the lights stayed on, but the ship had slowed and was wallowing in long slow rolls, hanging interminably on the beam flooding with water. Some hurried below for damage control and to the engines. We others formed at the base of the one ladder that led up to deck, climbing topsides to our stations. Crossing the Right deck was like walking along the face of a mountain. High in the mast, I felt as if the roll to the listed side would plunge us under. At last the bulkheads were shored up below, and the list compensated for by flooding. The torpedo made a big hole. All about us we could hear the depth charges going off. Our destroyers were busy.
"For the next two days we knew that submarines were following us, hoping to sneak in at night and finish us off, but we made Pearl Harbor and were soon repaired. Now, disbeliever and son of a disbeliever, was that, or wasnt that an omen?"
I walk up as far as the road with him. The traffic is very light. Tanks and guns must all be where they belong. The moon is in the zenith, and the long shadows of the houses have shrunk up under the eaves. Our talk has turned from ships and war to books and the 19th century. "Gosh" I say, "some of those writers you just mentioned were personally decadent, definitely perverted. Their bilge stank, yet Lord, their writing was good art." He laughs softly, "Orchids grow from rotten stumps! Thanks and goodnight."
Back to my last night in Navy Housing. Yesterday the Commandant of the Navy Yard sent his coxswain with an invitation to come and live in his Quarters.