Elusive Shelter

sailor

The storm raced across the ocean and suddenly enveloped the ship. A hard wind hit the starboard side and driving rain pummeled sailors on lookout as they grabbed waterproof gear for protection. Inside, the crew hung on to whatever they could. Belongings and anything not fastened down shifted and crashed on the deck as the ship listed one way then another. The propellers came out of the back-end of a giant wave, spinning in air and water as the ship bucked its way to the next wave. Some of the superstitious members of the crew thought the storm was chasing them away for the actions they had done. Old-timers laughed and said that is the way it is out here—a calmness that can quickly turn violent.

The ship, a US Navy destroyer, had been deployed to Vietnam and sent to the gun line to shell coastal villages and enemy strongholds. The captain and officers gave the crew speeches about the need to fight communism here before it reached America. Signalman 3rd class Jake Cronin had tried to forget the destruction their ship wrought in this “fight against communism” knowing that not everyone the shells found were the enemy. Even out at sea the smell of gunpowder, burning shacks and death seemed to follow them.

Jake, like the rest of the crew, looked forward to returning to America after their year assignment. They were two days from port and a storm was not going to dampen his spirit.

The storm stalled and the ship found clear weather as it reached the coast of California and pulled alongside a pier at a harbor town where they would dry-dock for repairs. Jake could see from his duty station the town and a park with a small lake. He looked through his binoculars and saw a rusted weather-beaten sign that simply said: Welcome to Redemption.

Jake went below decks to his berthing area to change into his dress whites. Raised voices of his shipmates, anxious for a few hours of freedom in their own country, filled the bunk area.

“Hurry up, Jake, the bars and women are waiting,” yelled Bill Ely through the din of eager voices.

“Yeah, I’ll meet you later. I am going for a walk through town first.”

“You’re a strange kid, Jake,” Bill chuckled. “Just don’t get lost. You haven’t been around normal people in a long time.”

Liberty call sounded and those not on duty left the ship and went straight to a fishermen’s bar at the end of the wharf.

Jake’s mind was on the park and it drew him with images and childhood memories of the park in his hometown and peaceful times. When he got out of high school he joined the Navy at the encouragement of his two cousins who already were sailors. Better than being drafted into the Army they said. Even though he barely passed the swim test at boot camp, the Navy took him. His best friend Richard wanted the two of them to go in the Army together. Richard ended up as a door gunner on a Huey in Vietnam. A letter from home said he was missing in action when the chopper didn’t return to base.

Jake’s first steps onto solid land greeted his sea legs with a shock. It seemed that the land was out of balance, not the fact that he had been rolling with the rhythm of the sea for months. He felt awkward trying to walk on a surface that didn’t move under him. His senses sprang alive with the smells and colors that those that lived their whole lives on the land took for granted. An alien world compared to the sea and its shades of blue-green, grays and of course the vastness of endless water. He wanted to take it all in, to reconnect with a world that a year ago was his.

He passed by the bar and watched his shipmates pile in. The stench of dead fish decaying on the shoreline mingled with the smell of stale beer. The houses along the street leading away from the pier were weather-beaten and in need of repair. The homeowners came out of their houses to see their new visitors. They didn’t say much but the smile on their careworn faces were friendly. Jake waved to them and they waved back. It appeared the arrival of the ship was a bit of an oddity and an unexpected sight in a town whose best days were past.

Jake bypassed the main street of the town, walked through the gates of the park and onto the path that led to the lake. It was a serene day and the early October day was still warm. There were a few people in the park enjoying the weather. He walked around a rotund man in bib dungarees who waddled more than walked. Even though he seemed older it was hard to tell. His child-like face masked his age.

“Nice day isn’t it,” Jake said. The man gave Jake a vacant stare and a forced grin as if that what was expected of him and plodded on. His shoelaces were untied and his hair was messy. Jake wondered if anyone cared for him.

Jake put his thoughts away and made his way to a picnic table above a sloping bank at the edge of the lake and lit a cigarette.

Two young men and a girl came towards him.

“Hey, Navy. Got an extra one of those?”

Jake tossed the pack. “Sure take a couple. We get them pretty cheap on the ship.”

The kid grabbed the pack in mid-air.

“See, I told you he was an all right guy,” he said to his friends who followed him.

The kid was white, stocky, and rugged. He looked to be at least 17. Only a few years younger than me, thought Jake, but a world away. He wore a white t-shirt and dungarees. He swaggered up to Jake.

“I’m Jimmy and this here is Nate.” He nodded his head towards a tall, lanky black kid with a headband, suede tasseled vest, and bell bottoms. The uniform of the day thought Jake.

“And this sweet thing is Delia.”

She was small built with long blonde hair, green eyes, and tanned skin. Her tie-dye shirt was faded. Frayed bell bottoms covered her sandals and dragged along the ground. A peace medallion hung from a leather strand around her neck.

“We saw your ship come in. Sort of freaked people with the town being on hard times and such,” she said. “I guess maybe some work…?”

Jimmy cut in between them and interrupted her. “Seen any fighting?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, man. No battle scars yet.” He didn’t want to tell Jimmy that his ship shelled towns much like this one and that those people had seen much harder times.

“My brother is in the Marines and I’m joining up soon myself,” Jimmy exclaimed.

Nate whacked his arm. “What’s wrong with your head man? You lookin’ to die like Bobby Thompson? Times might be tough around here right now, but we can get high and hang out in our park and ain’t no Viet Cong shooting your ass. And besides, I ain’t fighting Tricky Dick’s war. Those people done nothing to me.”

“Bobby wasn’t tough enough. I was always tougher than him. Besides we got to stop those commies. Even Father Murphy said so in church last week,” Jimmy shot back, shoving Nate.

Nate stood his ground. “Chill, Jimmy.”

Jimmy stopped, head hung down. They went to the top of the bank near the lake and skipped stones across the water as they had always done since they were little kids growing up in the neighborhood.

Delia and Jake walked over and sat behind them. Both looked out over the lake, each lost in their own thoughts. Delia broke the silence first. “You’re kind of shy. What’s wrong don’t you like girls,” she said with a smile.

Jake burst out laughing. “I like girls alright. It’s just that you’re not the kind I have been hanging around with in most of the ports I have been to.”

“You’re lucky you know. Always moving place to place, not stuck like we are.”

“I thought so too…at one time. But just moving around isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Depends on what you do in the next place. And of course, what we do is kill people and blow shit up. They don’t call my ship a destroyer for nothin’. I would rather be stuck here for a while. Seems peaceful enough. What could go wrong here?” Jake lit another cigarette and offered one to Delia and lit hers. “I had friends like Jimmy. Eager beavers couldn’t wait to pick up a gun for Uncle Sam and show how tough they were. Too many war movies or playing Cowboys and Indians I guess. Some of them are dead now. Ah, enough of this kind of talk. I came here to forget that shit. I’d rather remember the dances at the Arlington Hotel and the times we got blitzed on Genesee beer at Popes Ravine.”

“I can’t just call you ‘Navy’. What’s your name?”

“Jake.”

“Okay, Jake.” She smiled. “You know a lot of people say we shouldn’t be in this war and that it isn’t doing anyone any good.”

“I know. I get the newspapers from home and we started to get US radio stations the closer we got to here. It seems like the country is tearing apart. Mom said one of my friends left town and went to Canada. I don’t know if I could leave my country. I’m not happy with what is going on but not much I can do without being thrown in the brig.”

Delia reached behind her neck and undid the peace medallion. “Here, you keep this. It will remind you of today.”

“Thanks. I’ll have to hide it under my shirt.” Jake laughed. “They’ll think I am a commie sympathizer if the crew sees it.”

Leaves on the trees rustled as the wind picked up. Ominous gunmetal gray clouds were off the coast.

“This looks like the same storm that hit us on the way here,” Jake said as a chill went through him.

The large man in the bib overalls and child-like face Jake saw earlier walked towards the bank near the lake. The man’s choice to sit couldn’t have been worse.

He plopped down directly in front of Nate and Jimmy who had been skipping stones across the water. Jimmy became agitated at the obstruction of his line of fire.

“Hey, dummy, get out of the way,” he yelled.

In a world of his own, he paid no attention to Jimmy.

Jimmy, incensed at being ignored, threw a stone at the man’s head.

As if being jostled from a dream, the man yelled in a high pitched voice, “Leave me alone!”

But this didn’t stop Jimmy and Nate. With a fury, they pressed their attack. They hurled pebbles onto the man’s head. The man swatted around his head as if he was being stung by angry bees.

The calmness of the day had evaporated.

Jake rose to stop Jimmy and Nate. The man also rose, walked a few feet and dove into the lake.

His two assailants cheered at their victory and hooted at their vanquished foe.

As minutes passed and he didn’t rise to the surface their elation turned to stunned silence.

“Something’s not right, man,” Nate said with rising anxiety.

A look of panic set into Jimmy’s face. “We’ve got to find him,” he said as he and Nate dove into the lake.

A frantic Jimmy broke to the surface. “Hey Navy, come in and help us.”

“I can’t swim,” shouted Jake.

“You’re in the Navy, what the fuck do you mean you can’t swim!”

“I never saw the point. Where would I swim to?” Painful memories of burning shoreline villages and desperate people walking into the water, reaching out towards his ship swept back into his head.

“Go call the cops,” Jake said to Delia as he took off his shoes, rolled up his pants and ran along the shore. A broken beer bottle hidden in the mud sliced open the bottom of his foot, blood oozed into the water.

Jimmy and Nate, exhausted by their search, crawled up on to the shore and stared blankly at the lake that was choppy with the arrival of the storm. Jake, feeling helpless, joined them. Thunder, like the echoes of shells exploding, turned his mind inward seeking an elusive shelter.

Police with a rescue boat in tow arrived and proceeded to drag the lake, while others walked along the shore. After a short while the police on the boat called out and the lifeless body was raised out of the water as rain fell.

After questioning Jimmy, Nate, and Delia a police officer turned to Jake eyeing his uniform.

“You certainly don’t look like you belong with this bunch,” the cop said, looking with contempt towards the others.

“I’m just visiting,” said Jake. He sat on the picnic table his head bowed down. “I came to the park for a little R and R, you know, rest and relaxation. I’m from the Navy destroyer at the pier.”

“Well it doesn’t look like you got your ‘R and R’ here did you. There’s the guy who will be resting—forever.” The cop pointed to the lifeless figure on the bank as it was being put in a body bag. “Your story is the same as theirs. Get back to your ship. I have its name if we need anything more from you.”

Jake walked back through the park and towards the pier. Mud caked his trousers and he limped from his sliced foot. Bill Ely stood in the doorway of the fishermen’s bar.

“Jesus, Jake, what the hell happened? Didn’t I tell you not to get lost?

Jake looked back through the rain and the mist towards the park and the flashing police car lights. He saw the ambulance crew load the body of a simple man who only wanted a moment of peace near a lake. He saw Delia, Nate and Jimmy walk the path out of the park as they went their separate ways to their homes. He looked into the bar where his shipmates had drunk themselves into oblivion only caring about the here and now. Forget the past. Ignore the future.

“I’m still lost—but I don’t think I am the only one.” He clutched the peace medallion Delia had given him. This will remind you of today.

Jake Cronin turned away and headed to the ship leaving Redemption behind.

 

The end.