Monday, July 15, 2013

III. January 1946

Seaman First Class Charles Knowles (Damage Control) crouched on deck of the U.S.S. McCord in his dungarees, the ever-present pack of Pall Malls rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. With his back to a bulkhead he was enjoying sunset over the Pacific. Even after four years in the U.S. Navy, he never got tired of watching the ever-changing courtship dance of ocean and sky, especially at dawn and sunset. With a steaming cup of coffee in a thick Navy watch mug on the deck near his right foot, he was sharpening a pocket knife on a whetstone in his left hand, a lit cigarette dangling precariously from the side of his mouth.

Truth be told, he was still slightly hung-over. This was his first day back at sea after a week of shore leave with his brother Jack, a corporal in the army who was fond of both drinking and fighting. Charlie was pretty sure this was the first full day since the beginning of leave that he hadn’t had any alcohol, and the scratches on his hands from the fistfight he had lost to an imposing rosebush outside a tea house had begun to heal. He chuckled to himself, thinking about the dress whites he had to throw out because they were too bloodstained to salvage. At least soldiers’ uniforms were dark; a swabbie had to be more careful of his uniform when wearing his whites.

It would have all been just a fun break from his shipboard routine if Jack hadn’t wandered into a bar frequented by a squad of Negro paratroopers and started shouting racial slurs. Sometimes Charlie wondered whether Jack’s enthusiasm for drinking and fighting weren’t a kind of death wish. Just dragging Jack out of that bar in more or less one piece had gotten Charlie a black eye for his troubles. Their combined blood alcohol levels were enough for all of their brothers put together, which would have convinced wiser men to go sleep it off, but nobody would have accused the Knowles boys of wisdom, especially that week. So Charlie suggested the visit to the tea house.

Upon entering the elaborate gardens, Jack had turned to the left and said “What was that you said about my brother?” Then Jack took a swing in the general direction he had been looking, missing whatever he was aiming at and falling on his ass in a messy heap. Convinced his big brother was in danger, Charlie came at the rosebush with fists flying, doing some damage to the carefully groomed old growth before realizing he was beating up a rosebush with thorns as hard as teak and as long as his thumbnail. As much as he looked forward to shore leave, he was relieved the most recent one was over and he was back at sea.

Charlie wiped the knife blade on the cuff of his dungarees, folded it and put it in his front pocket then tucked the whetstone into a hip pocket. He tossed the spent cigarette butt over the side, polished off the last of the coffee and stood to head back to damage control.

He hadn’t gone five steps when a hatch door opened behind him and a familiar voice boomed out “Hey Knowles, come here and make yourself useful!”

Charlie turned around to see Smitty, the cook, stick his head and arm through the hatch and motion for him to approach. They had a mutual need for coffee at all hours of the day and night, and having it always available made Smitty a buddy in Charlie’s eyes. “What you need, Smitty?” He grinned to show his willingness to help.

“One of the damned kids left a side of beef out in the pantry and its gone bad. I just came across it and none of them are anywhere to be found. Help me heft it overboard?” The “kids” were Smitty’s mess crew, mostly young recruits who hadn’t gotten through basic training in time to see any action during the war and were pretty universally disappointed not to have had a chance to fight. Charlie turned around and followed Smitty, shaking his head sadly over the waste of meat.

* * *

Growing up in a small town, the youngest of a bunch of boys whose mother had died when he was only five years old, Charlie had a rough-and-tumble childhood. Although his father remarried a few years later to provide the boys with a mother figure, May wasn’t exactly the warm, maternal type and sometimes seemed more like a tyrant housekeeper. Rumored to be a witch, his father dismissed the whispers about May as superstitious hogwash. But for some reason she had a soft spot for Charlie, often telling him that he was special for being the seventh son of a seventh son. Many afternoons, while his father was busy working, May would send Charlie hunting for frogs and paid him a penny for each one he brought home alive in a big old flour sack reserved for that purpose. He never knew what she used them for, she never cooked frogs legs for dinner, but those pennies allowed him to buy cheap novels that he devoured like other kids ate candy.

He never felt especially deprived even though there were other families in town who had more; bigger houses, more food, better clothes. But those families tended to keep company with each other and turn their noses up at the Knowles brood. Being half Indian on both his mother’s side (Cherokee) and his father’s (Sioux) didn’t make them any more socially acceptable either. He met Carl “Junior” Michel in school, the oldest in a family of six kids, and they became friends right away. Junior’s mom took Charlie under her wing and treated him like one of hers. This was the most mother he had since his own had died. Junior’s family also carried Indian blood and Mama Mary looked like a squaw right out of a western novel.

He and Junior shared a love of music and reading, and both had big dreams of leaving southwest Missouri and the Great Depression behind. Charlie’s Uncle Jasper, nicknamed Uncle Jap, taught him to play guitar. Junior’s dad played just about any instrument from piano to fiddle and had taught his eldest son to play as well. When the boys got together they’d play the kind of music forbidden at home, tin-pan alley songs and dirty boogies, and talk about the places they’d go and the things they’d see when they grew up.

Charlie turned 15 in late November of 1941. A few weeks later the world was shocked by Japan’s attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In a rush of patriotic outrage, he and Junior both enlisted in the military, lying about their age and swearing they were both 18 years old. Junior went into the Army but Charlie knew that the Navy was where he belonged. After all, didn’t the enemy choose its attack on that branch of the Service? Who did they think they were to blow our ships out of the water, to come to our house and start a fight?

After basic training, Charlie was sent to school to learn damage control, the Navy’s maintenance and emergency repair specialists. Damage controlmen helped maintain ship stability, learned firefighting, fire prevention, how to repair damage control equipment and how to defend against chemical, biological and radiological attacks, which were new areas of concern as the war progressed. And as the war progressed, Charlie also learned that regardless of his classification a seaman, referred to as a swabbie, was expected to pitch in wherever he was needed. Strictly staying within your job description was a luxury only officers could afford.

* * *

The smell hit his nose as he followed Smitty through the labyrinth of corridors and into the large pantry. Nauseating and a little sweet, the beef wasn’t as far gone as some of the dead animals he’d smelled as a kid but bad enough that he was glad Smitty wasn’t planning to salvage it. Smitty was built like a small barrel with legs and arms, yet still surprisingly strong and flexible for a portly man.

Smitty crouched down and next to a long counter and Charlie followed suit. The stainless steel shelf bolted to the bulkhead a few inches off the floor contained roughly half a cow and the smell intensified. Smitty scratched his sandy-blond head, shoving his cap back in the process, and blew out and exasperated breath.

“It’s a good thing we just stocked up or this would be a much bigger problem. Any ideas on how to get this mess out of here without stinking ourselves up?”

“Well sir,” Charlie began, “I think the only thing to do is just grab it from either end and get it out of here as quick as we can. We’ll worry about laundry later. Some of the kids are still fighting sea-sickness aren’t they?” Smitty nodded. “Then getting rid of the smell in here is probably more important than trying to keep our fatigues clean.”

They reached in at the same time, each grabbing an end of the beef, and hauled it off the shelf. It left a smear of blood, fat and stinky flesh behind, but there’d be time to clean up the mess after the main problem had been handled.

Charlie walked backward with his head craned around to look out for obstacles as they awkwardly managed the carcass through the kitchen, the mess hall and the corridor toward the hatch. When they reached the hatch to the deck, Charlie crouched down and rested his end of the meat on his knees, untucked his t-shirt and wiped his hands on it thoroughly enough to get the hatch open without smearing it with gunk. Swinging the carcass, on a count of three, they tossed the side of beef over the rail and into the warm Pacific.

“It might be a good night for fishing, Charlie, what with all that chum in the water.” Smitty chuckled at his own wit.

“You know, Smitty, you might be right. But first let’s go clean up the rest of your mess and then you owe me a cup of coffee for helping you.” Charlie wiped his hands again on the now dirty t-shirt, then pulled out a cigarette and his Zippo as a reward for his efforts.

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