She was a Wac sergeant as dark
and dazzling as a tango,
Bonita de la Noche.
I a lanky sailor in bowlegged trousers,
just back from fourteen months aboard
a navy destroyer escort crippled by
too much war,
too many typhoons,
too many sub patrols,
and the kamikaze in Okinawa.
She was a flawless twenty-one,
su amante seductiva.
I was twenty with a phony ID.
Big for my size,
they used to quip when I was
the tall underfed kid
in a town at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay,
where crabs grow and kids climb
oyster shell mountains.
Aged by war, I reserved the right
to raise some hell,
She called me Sparks,
I called her Stripes,
We met on her three day pass
and my weekend liberty at
LA’s 322 Club just off Pershing Square;
and for six sweet months it was
our weekend rendezvous,
a quixotic oasis in a turbulent sea
of dogface greens and jacktar blues.
Stripes flew in from San Francisco
where she was a crypto expert
in a hush-hush unit we never discussed.
I bussed in from San Diego
where my ship in dry dock was
waiting (as I was) to be decommissioned
and sold for scrap.
Stripes worried when I
knocked back too many dry martinis,
straight up no fruit.
She worried too much,
like the time I ran naked
through the halls of the Hotel Ambassador
or the time she had to buy me
out of jail for slugging some black suit
making a play for her,
though she later insinuated
he had me in mind.
Or the Sunday morning
after a no fruit liquid Saturday night
in Hollywood’s Billy Berg’s grooving
with Yardbird and Dizzy and Slim Gaillard and
Harry the Hipster Gibson,
and me occupying the men’s room urinal
next to Peter Lawford and later writing
a verse about it called I Pissed
Where Peter Pissed.
That was the Sunday she pulled me,
saved my pickled ass,
from the insidious Santa Monica rip tide and wondered why.
Camus called it the gentle and restrained
friendship of women.
Stripes was the first woman to know me
as man and friend,
the first to say she loved me,
unless you count Hannah the Hostess
who propositioned me on the dance floor
of the Christian Services Men’s Club
when I was training to be a ditty dah ditty
radioman at government expense
at an Ohio university,
which in those days may have turned out
more operators and fewer virgins
than any place of learning on the planet.
The war that would never end
ended too soon,
goodbyes filtered through whistles,
smoke, and steam.
Strolling tonight along the Chesapeake,
an aging man lost in the stars,
as had happened so many times at sea,
and saluting me from the station platform
with a smile and a tear and stripes,
Bonita de la Noche,
not knowing she was the woman I
would seek and fail to find
in all the women I would meet.
© Gene Williamson