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Hail Our Fathers
By Rene' de Shazer
Monday, November 27, 2006
Rated "PG" by the Author.
The life of a Merchant Marine during World War II.
Hail, Our Father
This story should tell of the changes a man endured between the ages of 17 and 27 during war, marriage and the birth of his first child. But if it does not tell of the changes of one man, then all will feel the transition and knowledge gained in the first decade before mortality sinks in and our mortal coils age for us without mercy but always, to the last breath with hope.
When Leland’s children asked where his daddy was, their granddad on his side like tall Granddad on mama’s side, he just said he had died. In 1934, Leland’s mother took him and his sister, Betty Ann, to Bogota, Texas, to stay for a while and that turned out to be the last he saw of his father and his grandmother. A child of eight did not concern himself with grownup disagreements, his mother’s tears, nor the poverty in which they existed in the woods. He was content to have his cornbread, to fish or hunt, and to have fresh milk and vegetables when they could get them. He knew only hard work, even at eight years old, when they went to live with mama’s father and took care of the animals. The constant interruptions to his education led to books. He read any books he could find, borrow, or steal.
Leland was a rough man, raised half-wild in the woods in northern Texas. He claimed a French and Cherokee heritage, his Gallic nose and hairless chest attesting wordlessly for him. The authentic French blood in his veins mixed with the dark Cherokee gave him a head of dipping, waving hair that he would never lose. His sister, on the other hand, appeared a mix of African – full lipped with thick, unruly hair tortured into submission with Toni permanents and hot curling irons. Leland fought many an altercation over remarks about Betty Ann, and he defended her despite her being the meanest fighter in her grade.
I am seven years old. My mother and my sister and I have gone to visit mother’s sister, my Aunt Gert. My grandmother, a Cherokee woman who lived with us since before my birth, died last spring so mother says she needs a little help with the kids. A little break. I am excited because we seldom ever left the little farm on the outskirts of Paris, Texas, where I was born. Later in life it was fun to tell the different ship captains in the Merchant Marines that I was born in Paris. My last name, DuBois, is French anyway so they would give a little glance at my dark hair and skin and wonder if I was American. As if they couldn’t tell from my Texas drawl and my papers.
The dark hair and skin came from a French grandfather, a fur trapper seeking his fortune in the woods of the north. Then, of course, my grandmother being Cherokee Indian also contributed to the swarthy complexion and the black hair. My little sister, Betty Ann, looked more Cherokee or even Negro with kinky hair and full lips. I have to watch Betty Ann all the time and she usually manages to get me into trouble.
“Ow,” Betty Ann screams from the back porch.
“Leland, leave her alone,” yells my mother from inside the house.
“I didn’t touch her. I’m no where near her.”
Betty Ann sticks out her little four-year-old tongue. She’s such a baby. But this happens all the time. I’m used to it.
I am making a fishing pole out of a green limb from the scrubby oak trees at Aunt Gert’s. My grandmother taught me how to fish in the little tank back home. Her smooth, chiseled face concentrated on the fishing yet she somehow kept her eyes on me. When we cut ourselves or had a blister or a sore, she’d go into the woods and find roots and leaves for various poultices that usually cured the problem or made it sting like the devil. Her name was something that Laughing Fawn. If I had known what ironic meant back then the meaning of her name would have given me a chuckle because the woman never even smiled much less laughed. And fawns are pretty little animals with big eyes and frisky ways. Grandmother was ugly. Her skin was lined and her cheeks stuck out like eggs carved from stone and covered with cowhide. She couldn’t speak English so she taught me Cherokee which I spoke when I started school. Kids made fun of me because I would fill in with Cherokee words when I couldn’t think of the English. I can’t remember any Cherokee now.
Grandmother never spoke much, but she liked to have me with her all the time. She watched me every second like she was worried someone would snatch me away out there in the middle of the woods. Maybe that’s how she was raised. Anyway, she made fishing bait from corn meal and sugar and lard and other ingredients and we would go to the fishing hole. Then I would get bored and hungry. When she turned her back, I ate the bait. That way we could get on back home sooner. We usually caught enough for dinner.
My father spoke very little himself. He probably got that from his mother. It’s the Cherokee way to be quiet and use words sparingly. That’s how it was at our house. Me on the other hand, my mother called the chatterbox. I liked to talk and to hear talking going on. Dad worked our little farm and did other odd jobs around Paris and that’s how we lived. A quiet life.
I guess my mother got tired of it because we never went back after we went to visit Aunt Gert.
“Leland, I have decided to stay here with Betty Ann and Aunt Gert. You can stay here with us or you can go back to Dad if you want. What do you want?” my mother asked me, looking at me all the while and studying my face. Later in life I realized my mother was a very short woman but me being seven years old, I felt small.
“You can go fishing and think about it, Leland. Tell me when you get back.”
This was an unexpected thing to a boy of seven, having to choose a place to live. I went fishing and thought of my silent, stern father who worked long hours. It didn’t seem like much fun to go back there where I would be alone all the time or with my grandmother. Grandmother like to take me fishing and she taught me some Cherokee words. But boys of seven like their mothers and that was who I wanted to be with most – my mother.
“I guess I’ll just stay here with you,” I told mother later that day.
It seems I don’t remember if she smiled or not, that was over sixty years ago so how could I remember a little thing like that. But, in any event, we stayed with Aunt Gert and I never heard from my father again until I tracked him down much later in life. He moved to Lufkin outside of Houston a ways and my Aunt Gert told me where he was. There weren’t many Leland DuBois’ in the phone book in Lufkin so I had no trouble finding his little frame house.
“Is Leland DuBois here?” I asked the woman at the door. She didn’t want to let me in but sent a man to the wooden porch.
We spoke awhile standing outside on his little wooden porch. I related some tales about my half brothers and grandmother, all the while my heart pounding and feeling like my mouth was full of gauze. Then finally he said, “Who are you?”
The Cherokee have strange ways and so do the French. Since he was half of each it only stands to reason the way he was. I explained myself, but he never tried to contact me in Houston. That’s how my side of the family was. Dad died and was buried there in Lufkin in 1961.
The Children of Leland
For Leland, World War II offered him the opportunity to escape the cattle herding and saving that bored him. Cows are the stupidest creatures on earth he told us always as we grew up. Our father was a cowboy, but we never dared to brag about that. He’d hated being a cowboy, detested the beasts, the cold, the rain, and the discomfort of the cattle trail. His mother and sister depended on his salary so he did what he had to do. To Leland the military looked like an appealing vacation and he was anxious to sign up. He knew he could not abide taking orders from stupid men however. His half brother, Denton, warned him seriously of the lack of qualified leaders in the armed forces.
“The best bet for you, Leland, you just go with the Merchant Marines. If you think cows are dumb, wait until you meet my sergeant. Cows are smarter than any army officer I’ve met,” Denton said, while they drank some beers on the back porch of Leland’s grandmother’s house in Ingram, Texas. “The Merchant Marines don’t have as many rules and you can still serve your country without getting shot at. You can still see the world delivering supplies for the war effort.”
Leland usually followed Denton’s advice that for some reason usually worked out well enough.
“Denton, anything will be better than dragging the same ignorant ass out of the same mud pit every night.”
Then more softly, “But I wish I could just go with you.” Leland cried easily and that’s why Denton worried about him holding up in the military.
“Just do what I tell you this time. I should have joined the Merchant Marines myself. You’ll do a lot better with that outfit than listening to some backward creep yell at you all day.”
Leland had expected that his brother was just drunk and had a bad attitude to go along with his lack of respect for authority in any uniform. Still, Leland figured he would be all right once he left the life of the ranch, once he saw the big, wide world, the real Paris in France.
I am seventeen and trying to prove I am an American. Isn’t that a hell of a note? Born and raised in northern Texas and having to prove myself a citizen. The year is 1943. My country is at war, and I want out of the cowboy life I have been living. Cows have to be the most stupid creatures God ever created. If the Merchant Marines will take me then I can ride on Liberty ships, deliver supplies, and leave the long, cold, wet nights in the saddle behind me. Anything would be better. And I’ll get to see the world. Plus my cousin Earl also agrees with Denton. Earl says the Merchant Marines aren’t as all fired set on kissin’ the butts of officers like the Navy or the Army. He had heard this from several friends who managed to join. Earl himself had bad knees and asthma and probably would not be accepted in the military due to medical reasons. It’s just as well since Earl was always too mean and too lazy to be part of a team.
Earl told me, “The Merchant Marines means hard work of which I am not afraid, three meals a day, and a steady paycheck.” All things I have not experienced yet.
Still, I have to prove I was born because my mother could not find my birth certificate and the recruiting officer really wants that little item. Most likely, no birth certificate was issued at the country doctor’s office where I was born in Paris, and my mother probably never got around to applying for one.
I’ve had to borrow Earl’s truck to drive around all over creation, back to Aunt Gert’s, and to my mother and stepfather’s house, and to my old school house to get records of my existence. The recruiting officer said the government would accept letters, signed and notarized, avowing to knowledge of my birth and American heritage.
“What about my French grandfather and Cherokee grandmother?” I asked him. I figured I would just be honest up front before I started on the research of proving my life.
“That doesn’t matter son. Where were you born?” he said, looking at papers on his desk.
“In Paris,” I said, without even thinking of France.
“Where?” he eyed me up sternly, peering into my face searching for foreignness there.
“Oh, well, Paris, Texas, sir.”
Then we both had a little laugh, and he told me what kinds of birth and citizenship proof I would need to join up with the Merchant Marines. And that is what I am doing, looking for proof positive of my past.
I had stayed in touch fairly well with mother since I quit the seventh grade. We needed to earn a living of some kind. She and I had worked side-by-side for a while in the cotton fields near Aunt Gert’s house to make some money for food and clothes. Then when I was fifteen, a rancher that my half-brother Denton worked for hired a few hands. That gave me a place to live in the bunk house and food, or so I thought. The pay came in spurts, just enough to keep a fellow hanging on. But it was miserable work trying to move his herds from Paris to Kansas City for slaughter. I know cowboys seem so romantic to the girls (not that it didn’t help me catch a few) but there’s nothing romantic about endless days and sleepless nights in the open. We did get to do a little rodeoing and team penning when the new feed lots were fattening up, and we only had ranch chores to do. That was pretty fun but I won’t miss the saddle. No, not at all.
It took me less than a week to have all my signed and notarized letters of proof of my American citizenship and I took it back to the recruiter in Dallas. I forgot to mention that Dallas was the nearest recruiting office. Earl, my cousin, lived in Grapevine, sort of between Ft. Worth and Dallas, so I had been staying with him looking for work when the idea came that it was time to join up and serve my country. At seventeen, they couldn’t draft me but since we couldn’t find my birth certificate, what did it matter. I could lie. I wanted to do my duty, that’s for sure. But, taking orders from some old ornery drill sergeant certainly was something I wanted to avoid. The Merchant Marines sounded the most likely to fill my bill.
The recruiter inspected my various letters with a slight smile and sent me on down to the doctor for my physical. Then another wall went up in my face. My weight was too low by two pounds.
‘Son, you have to weigh 128 pounds to join the Merchant Marines. I’m sorry,” the doctor said. He wrote something on my chart.
Sure I was disappointed while I buttoned my britches and shirt. But a thought occurred to me and I was determined.
‘Well, don’t you leave. I’ll be back after lunch,” I told that medicine man. He just shook his head but said nothing more.
It was nearly noon, so I went to the grocery store, bought a pound of bananas and two quarts of milk. Forcing myself to eat all the fruit and drink the half gallon of liquid gave me belly ache, but it only lasted until the doctor weighed me again.
‘One hundred and twenty eight and a half pounds. You passed the physical, kid. Congratulations.”
‘Got anything for a stomachache?” I asked him, happy as if he had told me I’d just won a hundred dollars.
‘Well, you didn’t have to hurt yourself. I wouldn’t have cared if you came back in here with bricks in your pockets if you want to join that badly,” he said, signing off on my medical examination.
After suffering through tests the rest of the day, I was in the Merchant Marines.
That barroom conversation with Denton seemed like it happened to someone else, another boy who still lived in north Texas, pulling cows and their loyal little heifers out of muddy streams. Not to this man who only two years later checked into a hotel alone to become human again before stepping forth into yet another new life, to become human after living an inhuman existence in the belly of a whale.
After six weeks at sea, his legs quivered apprehensively, disconnected from the nerves that enabled them to succumb to constant motion, waves of war and desperation holding the clinging limbs on their short courses to the bridge, the galley, the head, the bunk. His balance, he knew, waited suspended a few hours away, a few blocks away, some streets and some meals away from where he navigated the streets now – just moments off the ship. He wondered if other people could see the electricity around his legs as they strove to find a way to collaborate with the flat, motionless ground. He no longer attempted to find his balance too soon after returning from the sea. It was out there and would find him without his help.
Shore leave they called it. Leland DuBois’ shore leaves in Houston, Texas, frequently included constant drinking, an occasional fight, a rare arrest. Leland was not the only one who anticipated his shore leaves. Several young women from the port area who worked for the binocular manufacturing company kept up with which ships arrived when. Sometime Leland sent them a note saying he would be in town and the date. He always told them he would see them a day later than he actually arrived. The lovely Texan girls bared to him their slender fingers and arms burned by the melted wax used to polish the binocular lenses. Leland gently lifted reddened and blistered or bandaged palms to his lips and thanked them for helping the men at war. He bought these Texan angels beers and gave them gifts from Venezuela or France. They returned the gifts with their agreeable companionship and more.
But this shore leave none of the sweet, tenderhearted females met his ship just back from Europe. Leland withheld the knowledge of his return to all but one woman this time. Even she did not know the exact date of his arrival. He figured they would be spending plenty of time together in the future – forever, it seemed. Leland needed some time for the balance to find him and it would not come in the presence of gaiety, friends, alcohol, and feigned romance. He needed to meet up with his elusive stabilization in solitude first.
First Mate DuBois hailed a grimy taxi to humid downtown Houston to find a hotel. The ride from the port of Houston along the waterway took only a few minutes. He watched the water the color of iced tea with a few drops of milk on a ride to the city that seemed exceptionally shorter than he recalled in the past. Usually he had girls on both sides of him with red lipstick and just curled hair.
The cab driver interrogated his passenger about where he’d been and what he’d done. Leland usually enjoyed conversations with strangers, any conversation for that matter. The banter he’d lacked as a child was important to him as a young adult. But having just disembarked less than an hour before, the cabby’s questions were tiresome. He requested to be dropped at the corner of Gray and Louisiana. The interaction with the inquisitive cab driver drained him sufficiently to need escape. He wanted a drink after all and entered a bar he’d never visited on previous liberties. With a cold, bitter beer and a cigarette, he could let the memories of this most recent voyage wash over him, his body still physically sensing the surge of cross seas. It was not only state of the weather and ocean that numbed him to this accepting his elusive equilibrium, but also the state of his life. But he had not actually made a decision yet, no commitment to the one woman who awaited his return from the belly of the whale, of the Liberty ship that had housed him with even less space than Jonah must have occupied while he awaited his redemption.
His navy blue sea bag yoked to his back made him a beast of burden slowly trudging toward his needed solitary room at the Red Lion Inn. As the long passages to Europe grew increasingly fraught with barely missed torpedoes and submarines, the merchant marines truly intertwined with the war effort. Even the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Mexico concealed angry German submarines, closer to his country’s shore than any politician dared to admit. People needed to feel safe even if it was not true . Civilian anxiety was bad for any political career.
Leland had not believed such treachery existed during his days not so long ago as a cowboy on that old ranch near Paris, Texas. But danger and distrust infiltrated even the merchant ships that Denton had promised would be better than serving in other branches. He’d met so many poorer and rougher than he, if that was possible. At least his mother, a stocky German woman, made him, Betty Ann, and various half-brothers bathe, where laundered clothes, stay very clean. He may have gone to be hungry a few times, but never dirty. At the beginning of his last voyage, Leland roughly drug his bunkmate aboard the Joseph Conrad into the passageway and scrubbed him with lye soap.
“Don’t you ever come stink up my bunk again, pod’ner, or you’ll see more than a red ass next time.” Things smelled pretty sweet after that for a ship full of antiauthoritarian bastards.
Wayne (Sieger) drinks, adventures
Mama (Zelda Mecon)
I am seventy years old and a simple man. Nearly seventy, that is, because my birthday is one week from today. So I am seventy and still feel the same as when I was seventeen or seven. My oldest daughter, Karen, celebrates her own birthday today (the birthdays are one week apart) and since it is only three days until Christmas, we are celebrating both our birthdays and Christ’s birthday today. Karen likes to get things done ahead of time. She’s been that way since she was a baby. Anyway, it’s sort of appropriate to have everyone over today for Christmas and her birthday since everyone jokes that Karen could walk on water if she ever fell in. She just never falls in. So her sister and two brothers and a couple of aunts and uncles, my wife’s side, are converging here in the “backside of nowhere” as Karen calls it, in Gonzales, Texas, for turkey and ham and all else she can think of to cook. The others are coming from Houston so they’ll probably bring little or nothing. They can’t be counted on for much.
Anyway, my wife just died. We’d have been married fifty years next May if she’d made it. But she didn’t. She had kidney cancer, the doctors say, but I wonder if any of those monkeys know what they’re doing. Maybe if I’d taken her to Houston to M. D. Anderson, she’d still be here sleeping in our big, king-size bed. She’d helping Karen with the cooking though Lord knows cooking had started wearing her out the last few months before she went into the hospital in Seguin. Who knows if M. D. Anderson could have helped. I surely don’t know. Soon as that rodeo got kicked off last fall, Merne was never herself again. The surgery plum sapped all her energy.
But she did hang on. She wasn’t a real feisty girl but she did ask for a cigarette a couple of times even with that respirator breathing for her. That really made Karen laugh, but it made me kind of mad because I had been after Merne for years, decades even, to quit smoking. She could be stubborn.
Plus she was noncommittal, if you know what I mean. No one even knew Merne was sick until she herself got too weak to cook our supper. Then she grew scared but she didn’t like to talk to me about what the doctors said. Karen and her doctor husband would ask us what the doctors were saying, but I never knew. Or at least I couldn’t remember. So Karen and Woodrow would have to call the doctor and have him explain it then they would tell us again and they told everyone else meaning Merne’s two brothers and her sister in Los Angeles and the other three kids.
Luckily, in a way, if a death can ever be lucky, the letter from that murdered man’s wife came the day after Merne’s death. I opened it, read it, and hid it before my two daughters arrived to help me with picking out their mother’s clothes for the burial. The letter could wait. That death had happened over fifty years ago. I had a recent loss to contend with and it was tearing me apart. Thank God for Karen and Rita. They more or less took over the funeral arrangements and that is getting me through. The letter could wait.
So today we are having Christmas early “come hell or high water” so Karen can get back to her husband and their boat down in St. Thomas. Wood came in for the funeral but he can scarcely stand to be away from his yacht so he’s already down there waiting for Karen to come celebrate Christmas with him. Karen’s son, Timmy, is here at the house this morning for the party and he wants me to take him hunting. He’s a natural hunter. Has been since he was fourteen and went out with me the first time. Timmy is tall and handsome like his mother. Nothing like his ugly daddy from Karen’s first marriage. Not that I dislike Doug, the first one. We get along just fine and he brings Timmy out to Gonzales once a year at deer season. But Doug could never have kept up with Karen and her ambitious ways. They split up after Timmy was born when Doug took up with another woman at the phone company. Timmy lived with Karen until he was nearly fifteen, then decided he wanted to know his father better and moved back to Houston. Karen lived in Phoenix by then with Wood. She graduated from college out there in Arizona after she was thirty years old, the first person in the whole family with a master’s degree. Except that woman Merne’s brother married. She says she has a master’s degree, too. She probably does.
I only finished seventh grade. Later in life I took some college drafting classes at the University of Houston before they figured out that I had not finished high school so they wouldn’t let me enroll again. That’s all right. Life and reading lots of books have educated me just fine. I started my own business back in the seventies making aluminum screens and doors and made a good living. All my kids graduated high school, at least, but only Karen went on to college. The oldest boy, Bub, got drafted and spent his year in Viet Nam which really ruined him. Not that he was ever a very bright boy. Always a bit lazy. Well, very lazy. I would have sent him on to medical school or at least nurse’s training since he was a medic in
Viet Nam, but he didn’t want that.
“I want to be a screen man, like you,” he told me.
But that turned out to be him just wanting a free ride the rest of his life. He married the dumbest girl out of high school he could find, from a white trash background, and they were just on easy street with Dad paying the way. And Merne would get so mad if I said anything to Bub at all. My own wife always took his side in every situation, against me. She would go days, sometimes longer, without speaking to me at all. And since we owned and ran the business together, it was difficult to get away from. We would go to lunch and she would just eat and smoke. She protected that boy until the day she died on December 5. Now we’ll see what happens.
But anyway, Bub and June are coming today and it will be nice to have all the kids together. They haven’t been together in one room for several years. Not until their mother had surgery. Then Karen flew in from St. Thomas and stayed in a motel on I-10 near the hospital thinking her mother would be out in a few days. Then she had to come and stay with me at our double-wide trailer twelve miles from the small town of Gonzales. Gonzales is the sight of many battles for Texas independence. Still it’s a small town where they don’t accept strangers like Merne or me because our grandparents weren’t born here. We just always liked the area because we came here for deer hunting and so we bought this little piece of property and then bought this nice trailer with plenty of room for two. We finally retired out here two years ago. It’s not much but we like it out here. It’s peaceful. Houston is just too big and busy and now dangerous it seems like. But now that Merne’s gone, I don’t know if I’ll stay here. I don’t know what I will do. If only she would have quit smoking.
Had my first assignment on the S. S. Tusatalla out of Norfolk, Virginia. The cargo was trucks and tanks for troops in France. We sailed from Norfolk across the Atlantic in terrible seas and storms. Many of the other fellows threw up the first few days. I felt a little queasy myself the first couple of hours but after that I was all right. Only Rooney stayed seasick from morning until night. Some of the others like O’Grady and Ratliffe teased Rooney about eating squid for breakfast just to watch the poor guy turn green. Rooney lost about fifteen pounds before we tied the ship in Marseilles. He couldn’t wait to get off the boat as you might imagine.
During the passage, one of the tanks was lost because the waves pitched the boat so from side to side. The chains binding it to the deck finally snapped during a particularly violent jerking and it slid on through the metal lifelines into the swirling foam. Nothing could have prevented it except maybe if the government had the sense not to overload the Liberty ships. But it was war time. The artillery was needed in Europe and it was our duty to deliver whatever our troops needed. When we arrived in Marseilles I was happy that the captain had to tell the receiving sergeant that we only had three tanks instead of four for him. I never heard any recriminations take place so maybe that kind of thing was expected. We had done our best and I felt proud to successfully complete my first voyage. For a boy born in Paris, Texas, a trip to France was something I never dreamed would happen to me.
At this point in time, the French were as happy to see American sailors as we were to step on dry land. French girls came to our tables in pairs and trios. They sat and spoke a little English while we tried to learn some of their language. I had never had a steady girlfriend living on the ranch the way I did, so this was all new and wondrous to me. As time and experiences with the girls grew, I learned they really wanted chocolate and silk stockings if we could get them. The whole country was starving. Some of the girls would take any food or money we could give them. In turn, they would dance with us. Some of the guys asked for more and got that, too. War is rough for everyone. Things could start fairly innocently and escalate into violence.
During one shore leave, as all shore leaves went, the crew chipped in and got a party together in a suite at one of the hotels in Marseilles. As usual, in one corner a poker game under a cloud of cigar smoke occupied anywhere from eight to ten guys staring at hopeful hands of cards. The girls slouched around asking for American cigarettes and drinking wine. Someone had brought a radio from the ship to listen to music and news. When a song finally crackled through, some of us would dance.
Yvonne, one of the older girls, pulled me away from the poker game between hands. That woman loved dancing. I wasn’t any good at it but I liked holding Yvonne close to me. It made the day seem less lonely.
Suddenly a door slammed open and a small, dark haired woman ran screaming from the bedroom. Wearing a black dress and a carrying her high heeled shoes, she darted for the door leading out of the suite into the hallway. Before she reached the brass knob, the unwieldy mass of our first mate, Charlie Engels, staggered toward her preparing for a tackle. Rodriguez, one of the Puerto Rican fellows who was dancing near Yvonne and me, stuck out a foot and tripped that goon Engels who splattered drunkenly to the floor with a roar. The girl, who had turned to face her attacker with upraised hands holding always to her shoes, spun quickly to the door and escaped.
The guys playing poker paused only long enough to take in the entertainment and returned their attention to the game. Only now the tension in the room prepared everyone for Engels’ revenge. The song ended and the girls instinctively began gathering their purses, chocolates, stockings, and shoes. Quietly they hoped to reach the door and escape after their friend but Engels roared again. Even though he made no move toward the exiting females, they froze momentarily.
It was Yvonne, who was a little older as I said, probably nineteen or twenty, who gathered her wits and hissed, ‘Allez, allez vous,” to the other girls. She motioned in a gathering gesture toward the door and the girls stepped out. That relaxed me a bit. Women don’t need to see a bunch of drunk guys fighting.
‘Who tripped me!” Engels bellowed from his back. His nose was streaming blood and it sputtered as he shouted.
No one even so much as glanced at Rodriguez who was at least a half foot shorter than Engels.
‘Who tripped me, you bastards!”
Finally, I had to say something.
‘You tripped on the rug, you drunk son of a bitch. Go back to bed and sleep it off.”
‘Shut up, DuBois. I ain’t going to nowhere until Riggo admits he tripped me.”
Riggo was Rodriguez’ closest, maybe only, friend.
I went over and held out a hand to Engels.
‘It wasn’t Riggo. Get up and go to bed.”
I could smell the whiskey even standing over this derelict we were obligated call a first mate. No mate of mine would ever try to tackle a terrified girl. It just wasn’t right. Engels groaned in self-pity. He opened eyes and considered a moment before grabbing my outstretched hand. The weight and the smell of the man nearly knocked me unconscious, but he lurched to his feet and swayed as his gaze slid around the room. His small, blue, bloodshot eyes reminded me of a bull’s eyes we had on the farm once that penned my mother in the barn. We had to slaughter the bull, he was so mean and ornery. Like that animal, Engels was still and tense, ready to move when anyone else moved. The only way was for me to muscle him out of there. To my surprise he went limp when I twisted his bulky arm behind him. Then Rodriguez finally helped me get the big idiot to bed.
The party pretty much broke up in the absence of the females and the tension of the fight. The Tusatalla was pulling out in the morning and every crewmember needed to report on board by six in the morning. Otherwise the boat just left without them. That’s the way the Merchant Marines worked. As nice as it was to see a foreign country, no one wanted to be left behind with the Germans threatening to attack at any given moment.
As many fellows as could, found couches or corners to sleep in. We were young and didn’t worry about sleep as much. Rodriguez and Riggo, their dark faces nervous, figured it was best for them to catch a taxi back to the dock and sleep on the boat.
“Ol’ Engels, he’s drunk. He won’t remember a thing,” I told them, deciding I’d go on back to the ship with them. ‘Don’t worry.”
Rodriguez shook his head in a familiar and accepting way. He’d been born in the United States and was an American citizen and a good, clean worker. Riggo was, too. We’d pulled k.p. duty many a time together being some of the youngest and newest recruits on the Tusatalla. Both of them worked hard as I did.
Riggo said sadly, ‘Engels, he told us he hates Puerto Ricans.”
‘I thought you were Italian.”
‘That don’t make no difference to Engels.”
‘Well, don’t worry, he’s a drunk. He’ll forget,” I reassured them. I hoped it was true .
And indeed when we weighed anchor the next morning, Engels seemed green and hungover enough that the whole last few days of shore leave might have been a bad dream for him. The only time we were required to wear uniforms was in port and Engels starched, khaki shirt and pants looked somehow violated next to his hangdog face. He didn’t speak to me at all, nor to Rodriguez, nor to Riggo, for several days on our way to Venezuela unless giving an order like chip the rust or mop the deck. Things went along fine although every once in a while I’d notice him glaring at me. I figured he was trying to get his brain to work and that exercise was paining him something fierce.
Anyway, we all just forgot about the whole thing and life aboard a war time Liberty ship assumed its monotonous pace of watches, meals, sleeping, poker games, and other duties as assigned. In Venezuela we picked up a new first mate, but most of the crew remained the same. Caracas harbor could be somewhat treacherous at night with petty thieves waiting to pinch anything a sailor might have foolishly left lying about or even buttoned up in a pocket.
One night we were boarded by Venezuelan soldiers with guns and bayonets. They were yelling in Spanish that we had loaded property that was not ours. Rodriguez translated for me although his Spanish was only a little better than mine. He had learned it from his grandmother just as I had learned Cherokee from mine. He just had longer to practice because he said his grandmother was still living with his parents in New Jersey.
‘They are after the rum and vodka we loaded this afternoon,” Riggo joined in.
‘That was rum and vodka we loaded?” I whispered. ‘The boxes said soap.”
‘Man, you Texans are gullible,” Riggo snickered.
This conversation was taking place in our darkened bunkroom where we had turned out the light and locked the door when we realized what was going on. The Venezuelans went through the sleeping quarters banging on doors and looking in the rooms. Just as they neared our door, someone shouted in Spanish again and the boots clomped down the hall and faded to the deck outside.
‘Oh, someone found it. Good, let’s go to sleep,” said Rodriguez.
The excitement died away as I wondered over the contrast of the monotony of the sea and the violence of the land. People were always creating a ruckus of some kind.
Next we sailed north. As the weeks passed and my experience at sea helped me achieve some little bit of seniority over new sailors arriving all the time, I was allowed to steer the ship on some watches. Winter in the North Atlantic is bitterly cold making me long to be back in the warm, Caribbean waters off Caracas. This night we were just leaving Norfolk in January head back to Venezuela carrying gasoline fuel tanks. When my watch was over at two a.m. I walked stiffly back to my bunk, left on all my clothes, and piled a blanket and a coat on top of myself to try and warm up. It seemed I had been asleep two minutes when a torpedo alarm went off.
‘All hands on deck,” the bo’sun yelled through a megaphone down the hallway.
I groaned and started to obey the command. As soon as my foot touched the frozen floor, I changed my mind. If a torpedo hit us with the fuel we were carrying, no one would be alive anyway. I shrank back into my warm cocoon and waited. It was the first order deliberately disobeyed. I lived (and so did the rest of the crew) to ignore several more.
My first trip back to Dallas after the months at sea was essential. I hoped to feel centered again after the savagery and danger I had encountered with men living daily with death on the next wave. My eighteenth birthday had passed by with me nearly forgetting about it altogether. Mail call a few days later held cards from my mother and Aunt Gert and Betty Ann and Christmas gifts of soap, shaving cream, tooth powder, and a new, red tooth brush. All practical things I needed.
January in Dallas only bettered the North Atlantic with less rain and flat ground. I hated to be cold. But I had expected it. Winters in north Texas were mostly unpleasant. Instead of calling my mother right away I started searching for a hotel on an impulse which surprised me. It seemed like an instinctual need to go into a cave and wait until I felt human in the world of land folks again: a world that was solid under my feet, not ready to give way at any moment to the ocean or to unseen enemies wanting to kill me for delivering supplies to their enemies. I had to fit into a world again where men did not swear continuously, blindly stay up all night playing poker, or wildly chop off the hand of a man who cheated at cards. This had happened only two weeks ago. I was on watch at the time, but Ratliffe, who cheated all the time finally crossed Engels (that bull headed asshole) and Engels drug him into the galley and chopped of Ratliff’s hand. I agree that a man should not cheat his shipmates, but the punishment should fit the crime. Thank God I was not part of it. Still, just being on the ship at the time made me feel tainted by the savagery of men, all of us.
A few days in a hotel, anonymous and quiet, would help me make the transition back to the real world of my mother and sister. They would be hurt if they knew I was in town without calling, but I had to do it. It must be the Cherokee in me that calls me to a cave and aloneness for a time. I am not fit for human company right now.
The two-week leave cleared the taint of the shipping life away. My girls (mother, aunt, and sister) fed me well and fussed over my skinny torso till I’m sure I gained ten pounds. Aunt Gert understood my stay in Dallas prior to coming to her place. Home I cannot call it. She never planned on us staying with her forever, I’m sure. And now with Betty Ann turning into such a hellion, wild eyed and quick to anger, she probably regrets she ever offered my mother sanctuary there. Still, they are sisters and sisters make do, at least they did back then. And they both insisted that I come and stay with them.
‘We never know when you boys are coming back,” mother sighed after lunch one day. She did not want to say ‘if” to me, but the ‘if” was in her voice. Women worry over the future so much more than young men. That always perplexed me since nothing can be done by all the fretting. We just have to do, not vex ourselves over what might happen.
Betty Ann at fifteen sulked about the house.
‘It is so boring out here,” she complained several times a day.
Country life is not for everyone. I offered to take her to the movie in town and that seemed to perk her up for a bit. We saw a Tom Mix movie and got an ice cream afterward. She had turned into a pretty girl with a lot of Cherokee coloring and kinky black hair she tied back from her face with a scarf. My own dark hair was curly but hers was plumb frizzy.
‘What’s it like on those big boats?” she asked me over her dish of strawberry sundae, her black eyes on her treat.
‘Oh, it’s full of a lot of roughneck, loud, smelly guys. You’d hate it. No place for a lady, that for certain.”
‘I don’t want to be no lady,” she flared but thought better of tearing into me. After all I was some diversion from her mundane life.
She was quiet a moment then said, ‘So some of them are smelly?” Her nose wrinkled as if the odor invaded even now.
‘Oh, yea, there was one old boy came aboard in Pensacola that would not take a shower. He smelled and his clothes were rank, too. The hell of it was, he was bunking with me and I told him out right he needed a bath and to wash his dirty dungarees.”
‘You had to tell him to bathe?”
Mother had made us bathe every night unless the well had frozen over. We were poor but we were always bathed and in clean clothes.
‘Yep, but he wouldn’t so some of us tackle him one night and scrubbed with a brush until he had a rash all over. After that he took a shower every night but he still wouldn’t wash his clothes.”
‘Then what did ya’ll do to him?”
When he came off his watch one night, I told him to go wash his clothes. He just ignored me and laid his skinny butt down in the bunk. So I picked up his clothes off the floor and started throwing them out the porthole. He started to slug me but thought better of it. Probably remembered that scrubbing in the head he’d gotten.”
Betty Ann laughed a long time over that story. It was really the last time I remember her laughing. I mean I saw her several times later in life. Later in life she did not have much to laugh about, I guess.
She asked me about the ports I’d visited. I told her of the boys in Caracas who would dive for lobster and bring you a fresh one for a quarter. Hearing about the French girls put a dreamy look in her eye. I didn’t tell her that many of them her age were trying to get food and money any way they could. I told about the French francs I had saved on the ship before the last one I was on and how we decided to play poker with it. Then everyone put in their French francs and I kept winning and the others laughed at me for keeping it all because it wasn’t worth much in France these days. I kept raking it in and kept it in a box. Then when we arrived in the port in Maine, I took it all to the bank and got American money for it. Never told a soul until I told Betty Ann. That seemed to make her puff up a little that we had a big secret.
My next ship was out of the Port of Houston, so I had to catch the train there. My mother saw me off with a hug and told me she was planning to get married again to Ben Ayers. Ben lived in Paris, but had a piece of property near Waco so they’d be moving. I told her that was good and congratulations. She would send me the address so I could come visit. I promised to write. Then I headed for Houston where I would meet Donald, my best friend, and Merne, my wife.
My train arrived in downtown Houston about seven hours after leaving Dallas. That’s a hell of note today when you can drive there in four hours on Interstate 45 or fly it in about fifty minutes. But this was 1946. Things have progressed a little but not enough, I’d say. Nobody really asked me.
It was only three o’clock or thereabouts. There was one whole night to kill in another strange town. A couple of other crewmen from Dallas and myself decided to walk to the Red Lion bar we’d heard so much about, then think about finding a hotel for the night. In the morning, we could catch a bus that would take us to the Port of Houston. I hoped briefly that I had heard the last of Engels then just put the stupid pig out of my mind. No sense worrying about events over which I had no control.
Smitty and Petersen, the other two guys had been to Houston before so we found the bar and went in. It was a bit fancier than I’d planned with dark booths and red brocade wallpaper, but we had our uniforms on. A uniformed man during the war was usually welcome anywhere until a brawl broke out. The prices for beer were also a little steeper than most joints I felt comfortable in. Still it probably kept the riff raff out and I had just gotten paid, so I splurged. I paid for my beer at the bar and walked over to the juke box where a guy not in uniform swayed to and fro like a palm tree trying to make a selection. I was waiting for him to finish, sipping my beer and looking around as my eyes adjusted to the obscurity, which I will always remember as a having the reddish glow I associate with Christmas. The man in dark, dress pants and a white, long sleeved shirt with the cuffs rolled up continued to sway for another full minute so I stepped closer to see what the deal was. He was staring with bloodshot, brown eyes at the names of songs, his finger frozen in the glass shield pointing at D-8.
‘Just let me know when you are through,” I said in what I thought was polite tone. People take everything I say wrong, so I have to be careful to this day. My daughters say I sound abrupt all the time. I try to be I don’t know softer, but it doesn’t seem to work. In any event the guy just keeps staring and I realize the dumbass has passed out standing at the jukebox. Looking around the room for companions and seeing a couple of girls in the corner with a Navy boy, I go over.
‘Do you know that guy over at the juke box?” I asked them. They just stare at me until the chestnut-haired on shakes her head and smiles.
‘No we don’t know him. He’s been standing there a while,” she said, smiling and laughing. I figured she was laughing at me. But I liked her smile and the pretty, thick hair smoothed back into a ponytail. My own smile came unbidden and our eyes met for a second before the Navy boy slid his arm around both girls and leaned back into the territorial stance guys assume. He’d probably been at sea awhile himself and been buying drinks which made some dimwits think they owned the females. Total stupidity. If it was that easy to catch a girl, there wouldn’t be any left.
Not wanting a fight within my first hour in Houston, I mumbled thanks for the lack of information and went back to the plastered simpleton by the music machine.
‘Hey, are you all right, buddy?”
His hair was jet black and parted carefully and arranged with a fine-toothed comb. He had a broad forehead, smooth and tan, and thick, black eyebrows. Most girls would probably find him handsome. Even with the beads of sweat that had formed under his hairline. My words of deep concern elicited no response, not even a flicker of a bushy eyebrow nor a movement of the veined eyeballs.
Then I made the movement that more or less sealed our fates forever. I poked at his shoulder more to see if he was real and not a wax statue standing there. The big moron fell over. He fell with the swiftness and rigidity of a sawed off East Texas pine tree. Then he made not another movement to belie his living or dead status. The bartender watched all this solemnly and finished drying a wine glass and hanging it in the rack before coming around to survey the lump that once had been standing before the music machine. He had fallen stiffly but now appeared limp and breathing. At least the fall had not killed him.
‘He a regular?” I asked the barkeeper.
‘Been in a couple of times,” came the weary reply.
‘He wasn’t. He came in with a girl. Then she left about an hour ago so they probably had a fight. Happens all the time.”
By this time, the falling man was listening to the conversation about him and his eyes indicated he understood. He raised a hand and asked for a lift up.
‘Could you help a fallen man to his feet?” he said in a deep voice. His accent was not Texan but the voice was deep and rhythmic.
I extended my hand. Seemed I was always helping some drunk off the floor.
‘Thank you, soldier. Could I buy you a drink?” the words came out crisply, not the indistinct sounds I expected from a man who just fell over in a drunken stupor.
‘I’m a sailor and I think you’ve had enough. Better call a cab on home,” I suggested turning to walk away from any involvement with another damned alcoholic.
He looked at his gold wristwatch and called after me.
‘I have to be at the radio station at 5:30 p.m. and it’s 5:20. Can’t go home.”
He directed this at me as if there were something I could or should do. He looked rather pitiful in his nice, rumpled clothes and gold watch shining in the dim bar lights.
Still, I would have enough of soused up sailors in the weeks to come. Helping this civilian ranked low on my list of fun things to do.
‘Call a taxi,” I suggested again and waved my farewell as I turned back to the juke box where all this started.
He followed me over and stood by my side. His breath smelled of stale alcohol and cigarettes and pleaded, ‘Drive me over in my car. I’ll pay for a cab for you back here. Then I’ll have my car and you can be rid of me.”
I pointed out that I was already rid of him. However, I liked him for some reason and after arguing awhile in a goodnatured way I drove him to the station a few blocks away. It was still daylight outside and humid as Houston is so famous for. He introduced himself as Donald Dennison, a radio announcer on KBIZ. He invited me to come back after his two hour spot on the afternoon show. I said I’d be there and I could walk back to the bar. I sort of wanted one more look at the chestnut-haired girl and to see if the Navy boy had figured out that he was not going to be kept around for long.
She was walking out the door when I was walking in. A smile crossed her lips. She was alone. She didn’t look mad or anything. Her face was soft, her lips full and red, her eyes green. It was cool out since the sun began to set and she had a white sweater over a white blouse and print skirt. If I’d been wearing my cowboy hat I would have tipped it to her, she looked so good.
‘Hello, again,” she said pausing.
‘Howdy, ma’am. Are you leaving so soon?” was the only stupid thing I could think to say.
‘Yes. My girlfriend is going to the movies with the Navy man and I need to get home.”
‘Well, my name is Leland. What’s yours.”
‘I’m Merne, Leland. Maybe I’ll see you in here again sometime.”
‘Maybe. But I’m shipping out tomorrow.”
‘I’ve heard that before.”
I must have looked confused which was not an unusual expression on my silly face. She just laughed and walked away and I figured I’d never see her again.
My two train buddies played pool inside the Red Lion. I joined the game to pass the time until Donald’s show ended. We drove south of downtown in his white Packard to the Braeswood area where Don still lived with his parents in a spacious, rambling home. Being a simple man from the woods, the house was actually the first brick one I’d ever been inside. To me, Donald was wealthy beyond belief and when he offered to let me spend the night, I hesitated not wanting to be beholdin’ to this stranger.
‘Well, don’t leave yet. It’s not even eight o’clock. Let’s make some drinks.”
‘Where are your mother and father?” I asked, looking around the kitchen that was larger than the house I grew up in, the one we left my own father in. The counter tops were some kind of ceramic tile, shiny and colorful with each one containing a design. Without really thinking about it, I touched it and felt the smooth, cool surface. My mother and my aunt worked on wooden counters inside or chopping blocks out on the back porch. This room reminded me of the galley on the ship only more personal and comfortable.
Don had been busy pouring various liquids into a tall, glass pitcher.
‘They’ll be home directly,” he replied. ‘Do you like martinis?”
‘Never had one,” I said, walking around this kitchen looking at the plates from different states hanging on the wall. It was a nice collection. Each plate bore the name of the state and usually indicated the state flower or bird or some such information. It seemed educational. I thought I would like to collect plates one day and I do. That idea started right there in that kitchen. Funny how little things get triggered. The window sills overflowed with whatnots of little birds. I started to pick one up when Donald cleared his throat.
‘Mother’s pretty particular about those china birds. She brought them back with her.”
‘From China?” I couldn’t believe I was in the kitchen of someone who had the money to travel to China.
‘No, from San Francisco. We went there when I was fifteen.”
He handed me a drink with an olive in it.
‘I was working on a ranch outside Paris when I was fifteen.”
‘Oh, France, huh,” Donald sounded bored and could not have been paying attention.
‘No, Texas,” I laughed and sipped the drink and gasped for breath, coughing at the burning feeling all the way down to my belly.
It was Don’s turn to laugh. And he laughed longer than necessary, in my opinion. When I could catch my breath, I told him to find me a cab. I’d had enough of rich folks for the evening.
‘Oh, don’t go. Stay here and we’ll go swimming and you can spend the night. What time do you have to be at the port again?”
I told him and decided he could let me stay. His folks came home. The Denison’s were hospitable and friendly and insisted that I spend the night. It was the first time I’d slept in a bed that wasn’t a bunk since I left home three years prior. It sure was nice and made me start thinking about my own place one of these days. A home that belonged to me and not a blood relative, an employer, or Uncle Sam.
As Mrs. Denison downed a few of the martinis, she began explaining Donald to me. While they were all extremely nice, they did not seem that interested in my background. That was fine. I’d come from the woods and that’s all anyone needed to know. Wasn’t that interesting to city folks, most likely. Anyway, explaining Donald and why he was not in the service because he didn’t weigh enough at the time and he had a bad knee took several hours. Mrs. Denison was short and plump and wore some big gold bracelets and rings. Mr. Denison, on the other hand, was tall and slender and quiet. But I could tell he loved her from the way they were together. They smiled and laughed at each other’s jokes. Or at least, he laughed at her jokes and she rubbed his arm or patted his stomach from time to time. He mostly listened until about 10:30 and excused himself to bed. He shook my hand before leaving the kitchen where we’d spent the evening sitting around a small glass table with wrought iron legs.
‘Any friend of Donald’s is welcome in our home,” he said.
‘Except Peter Duncan and Cleve Johnson,” Mrs. Denison replied.
‘Oh, mama, don’t bring that up,” Donald whined.
‘Well, those boys are no good,” she said as if the fellows were still in grammar school.
Still, it was a treat for me to see what a real family must be like after the varied back woods, country ways I had been exposed to in my life. These parents seemed to really care about Donald. Plus, they were still together.
The evening began to wind down by eleven o’clock which was early for me. But I was a guest in someone’s home and not out with a bunch of ruffian bums from a ship. This was civilized. I liked it. The Denison’s would never know what that meant to me to be accepted and confided in like an equal. It all seemed so perfect. I wanted this in my life.
As Donald showed me around the meandering rooms and hallways, he apologized for his parents.
‘My mother’s such a pain in the neck. She baby’s me so much,” he complained as he found sheets and towels.
‘Don’t say that about your folks. You don’t know how good you’ve got it.”
‘Well, exteriors can fool you, sailor. Beware of the lee shore, as it says in Moby Dick. Sometimes it looks safe when it isn’t,” he continued to the room where I would sleep. The four poster bed looked to be made of mahogany or some dark, heavy wood like that. I knew mahogany from a coffee table at the Rockin’ J.
I just shook my head.
‘The way you talk, city boy.”
He threw the linens on the bed and said good night after saying he’d get me to the port on time. I set the alarm on the side table, just in case. People don’t always do what they say they will. The longer I knew Donald, the more this became true . But the next day, he dropped me off on time with no sign of a hangover and gave me his address to write him a letter. I wanted to send some kind of thank you to his parents who had not been up when I left. And that was the beginning of my knowing Donald. We’ve always kept up with each other even though a lapse of several years might intervene.
We left Houston with a storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The skies had been overcast ever since I had arrived on the train the day before. Now the winds picked up considerably as the last of the cargo of heavy artillery and fuel tanks were stored in the holds. By 4:30 a.m. the next day, twenty hours after Donald dropped me, the lines binding the ship to the dock coiled neatly on the decks and the S. S. Joseph Conrad slipped eastward through the ship channel. The industrial area surrounding the ship yard boasted mostly warehouses and nothing of beauty to occupy one’s gaze. After spending the night in a classy home in an uptown neighborhood, life seemed changed for me. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the future before. Now it seemed more important. Here I was eighteen years old on the deck of a warship and no real plans. I figured I better get one. Rain started pelting me in the darkness of the clouy morning. Since my watch was not until that evening, I found my way to my new quarters for the next four weeks and stretched out on my bunk. After about an hour, Rodriguez and Riggo came in and woke me up from my early morning nap.
‘Hey, I haven’t seen you two since Caracas in November. It was now the beginning of March.
‘Yep, we’re bunking with you. We traded the guys that were in here,” Rodriguez said.
‘Yea, and guess who the first mate is,” said Riggo, throwing his navy blue duffel on the floor near the bulkhead.
‘Not Engels,” I groaned.
‘He already spotted us and started giving us shit detail. We’re cleaning heads twice a day for the duration.”
‘That’s not fair,” I said. ‘As a matter of fact, it’s against regulations.”
‘Apparently it’s not against Engels’ regulations. Since we are Puerto Rican, he says we don’t get the same rules as everyone else.”
I shook my head. Engels was an idiot. That could not be changed. I felt sorry for Rodriguez and Riggo. But it would do no good for me to become in involved other than as a sympathizer. Actually, even sympathizing could be dangerous as far as incurring the wrath of the officers. K.P. and other loathesome details like chipping rust were saved as punishment for whatever whim the officers could dream up. Contrary to my cousin Earl’s advice, the Merchant Marines was still a government organization with the same maniac’s running the show as any of the armed forces. We just didn’t get to defend ourselves due to a serious lack of available ammunition. Still, it was better than sitting in a trench somewhere or fighting on the beaches in the open. But instead of feeling like we were doing something for our country and the war effort, it felt that we were expendable commodities. If the ship I was sailing did not deliver the goods, the next one would. We became more interested in preserving ourselves.
The storm outside had subsided and the ship was sailing smoothly. My advice to Rodriquez and Riggo were to steer clear of the first mate and do their work. Then there would be no trouble. Boy, was I ever wrong about that.
On day three out in the Gulf of Mexico and rounding the southern tip of Florida into the Caribbean, the sun came out strong and hot. No one on deck wore shirts when working maintenance detail. I was in the bo’sun’s chair, hanging by a halyard from the mast painting it the marine gray we had aboard by the barrel. As I worked from top to bottom, the halyard became longer. Engels, I later learned, saw me up there and instructed the helmsman to turn the ship from side to side. That caused me to swing in wider and wider arcs as I painted. To me it was fun. I held on to the bucket and slapped a few strokes of pigment onto the mast as I swung by. The entire deck crew stopped what they were doing to watch me fly out over the ocean on the port side, make a pass at the mast, and arch out over the starboard side. Laughter was replaced quickly by shouts of concern when the captain stepped out and determined I might splatter against the metal. Engels never said a word about his hand in it.
About the tenth night into the cruise, on a clear, starry night, Engels disappeared. Nothing was amiss at breakfast. My two Latin roommates had been on nightwatch at opposite ends of the boat. Both were sound asleep when my alarm clock sounded at 5:30 a.m. My own watch started at six. I had time use the head, brush my teeth, and grab a cup of coffee and a cigarette. I’d avoided Engels successfully the last few days. This morning was no different. By midday, however, no one had seen the first mate. The captain organized a search of every bunk where the surly simpleton could have been passed out or fallen down. He was no where to be found and it had to be concluded regretfully that we had lost a man at sea. Extensive questioning brought no information to light. Rodriguez and Riggo were exceptionally quiet on the subject, I thought. When I found Engels cigar holder in our bunk a few days later, I was pretty sure my roommates knew more than they were telling. But Engels had asked for it. No one liked him and in a war on a ship at sea, we were all sitting ducks at the mercy of God, the Germans, or each other.
The amazing thing, or two amazing things, about Engels disappearing was that the likelihood of a body ever being found was about the same as the French fighting their own battles. The other was that the murder weapon was water, waves, and a war. Things happened all the time for no good reason. This was for a good reason, it seemed at the time. After receiving a letter about it fifty odd years later, it’s a little more difficult to say. Engels wife at the time of his death wanted answers. Apparently this letter had been trying to find its way to me for many years and had just arrived in Gonzales. I had plenty of time to respond. I felt no hurry.
We unloaded and reloaded cargo in Savannah, Georgia, and sailed again for Europe. It had been a year since I had been in Marseilles. The Germans had been pushed out of the country for the time being. I was looking forward to a relaxed time off after a month at sea. This time a few of us delivered mail for the military stationed near Marseilles. It was an easy job and I volunteered to do it. The pay was the same no matter if I was aboard or on the land working. My theory that there were three kinds of people in the war - living, dead, or at sea which was neither - held true . The need to be alive and on the land tugged at me more often now.
Those of us working the mail trucks were boarded in a villa on a hill overlooking Marseilles. The view to the south was still green and lush, a vineyard still fluorishing. To the north, the brown destruction reminded of the Western plains of Texas. Only this country had once been alive and growing. The envy of the world. It would be years before the land would be usable again. Our villa, however, was quite nice recalling to me the stay at Donald’s house before I left on this voyage. I was growing to like nice places and comfortable beds.
A dusty road ran past our little palace, as I called it, and it lead to a mountain the Germans had blasted a tunnel through. As they had been fought back behind the French boundaries, the Germans left ammunition and barrels of gunpowder if they could not carry it with them. The tunnel still held various boxes and crates of shells and mines. Signs posted at both ends warned of live ammo in both French and English.
One pleasant afternoon after the mail had been delivered, a few of us were drinking and dealing cards on the veranda. Jenkins, the new first mate, spotted one of the recently hired young crewmen walking toward the grounds. The boy was shorter than I was, maybe five and a half feet tall, blond haired, and slender. He wore only a t-shirt and cut-off khaki shorts. Jenkins was barechested in the warm, spring sun. His loaded rifle nearby announced his duty as watchman for that shift. Since Jenkins’ attention followed the new kid, we all looked up from a cards to see what the fascination was.
The kid carried a couple of land mines, one in each hand, and was swinging them like a ball and bat and he was on the way to the sand lot to slug a few home runs.
‘Hold it right there, Caskey,” yelled Jenkins from the second story where we were occupied.
At the sound of his name the kid looked up but kept walking toward the gate to the estate.
‘I said halt, dumbass,” Jenkins shouted again.
Caskey stopped. He looked up dumbly and grinned like a jack-o-lantern.
‘I see what you’ve got in your hands. Don’t come any closer with those,” Jenkins snarled and raised his gun.
‘What are you going to do? Shoot me? These are duds, Jenkins,” Caskey called. Then he swung his arms together and clinked the mines. Even from the veranda, I could hear the metal touch metal and instinctively moved back in my chair a stood up, ready to duck inside the house. Miraculously, no explosion followed the playful tapping.
Jenkins cocked the rifle and fired a shot at Caskey’s feet only about two yards behind him. Caskey froze.
‘You bet I’ll kill your ass if you come one step closer. Now, you don’t know if those are duds or not. We don’t take souveniers from the tunnel. Understand.”
‘Yes, sir,” Caskey replied, his face gone white now.
‘Okay, I’m going to tell you exactly what you are going to do with your souvenier land mines, so listen carefully.”
‘Yes, sir,” Caskey repeated in the same tight tone.
‘Carefully and without touching them together walk over to the well.”
When Caskey was in position, he waited in silence. Sun shone on the sweat on his face.
‘Now hold the mines out at arm’s length over the well. When I say drop them, you let go and fall to the ground and roll away as fast as you can.”
Caskey tried to answer but no sound came out so he just nodded. The rifle was still trained on him but I could see that Jenkins’ finger was no longer on the trigger.
‘OK. Ready. Drop them!”
Caskey followed the order, fell to the ground and was about ten feet from the well and still rolling when the explosion came. Rocks and dirt rained down for nearly five minutes it seemed. Caskey wet his pants. He also could not hear for several days.
Jenkins and the rest of us had covered our ears and backed away from the edge of the veranda, unhurt. Jenkins seemed calm as usually.
He righted the chairs that had fallen and asked, ‘Who’s deal is it?”
And such was war to the men in the Merchant Marines. Stupid kids like Caskey guarded and parented by over aged adolescents like Jenkins. Maybe it was the same everywhere in every war. Children in charge of other children.
Someone dealt the cards, and we continued playing our hands.
Two months later, in the fall of 1945, I found myself back in Houston. Against my better judgement, I looked up Donald Denison.
‘Hey, you’re back. How long this time,” he said with some enthusiasm.
I was pleased he hadn’t hung up on me like my little sister had last time I called her. Mother wasn’t home so I never found out what was eating Betty Ann until later. A fight with a boyfriend. Anyway, no one knew me in Houston. Donald would be better than hanging out with sailors all the time. Maybe I’d get to see his house again and get a better look at those red china hummingbirds.
‘I ship out on October 5 so I have four days.”
‘Great. If you can get to the Red Lion, I’ll meet you there after my shift at the station.”
‘I guess I can do that.”
‘Good. I have a couple of girls that want to meet a sailor. Maybe one of them will like me, too.”
‘Oh, no, don’t set me up with anyone.”
‘Don’t worry. It’s just for fun.”
Donald hung up before I could protest enough. I had really hoped to run into Merne again. Her green eyes and that little laugh gave me plenty to think about when I was standing watch in the cold North Atlantic. No one else I’d met stayed on my mind like Merne.
I walked through downtown Houston with mostly empty streets. The Buffalo Bayou ran swiftly near the train station after a recent rain. An old lady next to me on the train said the bayou would flood from time to time in the summer months. She was nice. And when it looked as if she would talk longer, I pretended to sleep and she stopped. The sky was clear now. The air still felt a little balmy to people from up north. Houston usually skipped fall, the old lady said. Summer just melted into winter which was a series of cool fronts followed by rain. Might freeze in January or February but you could wear short sleeves at Christmas usually, she said.
That was fine with me. I hated the cold. I was liking Houston better all the time. It held a feeling of promise in the buildings and the people strolling the streets after the lunch time rush. I liked it fine.
I went into the Woolworth store to buy some tooth powder and aftershave lotion. My poker winnings fattened my wallet so I splurged on some gum and hair oil. Donald used some good smelling stuff on his jet black hair. Maybe it would help straighten out some of my curls. It was worth a try.
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