Footnote to the Rhyme of the Mariner: What the Merchant Marines Saw

By Christopher Ketcham

(Note: Merchant mariners who fought in World War II were never honestly recognized or remunerated for the terrors they endured from the wolf-pack u-boats of the German navy. In Brooklyn I’ve spent a little time, several years, in bars where old Liberty ship mariners used to drink. Below is a true story, pieced together and much embellished or perhaps too little embellished, of a father who discovers his son’s death and of the son in the Atlantic after his ship has gone down.)

Captain Joe threw himself against the walls, he dervished into night-stand and liquor rack and writing table and he smacked a great oil lantern to the ground and for some reason it went out when the oil spilled, now the place stinking of oil and blackness and he spinning and screaming and spinning and falling down exhausted, he lay against the wall in a corner of the little room for a long while, and outside the braver of the crew, who perhaps had no respect, stood in a line in the corridor to the door listening, saying nothing, worried now for the man who would lead them home through the wolf-pack. Lt. Appleman, who knew, who had seen it through his own glasses, quietly and furiously told them to move away.

There was a shadow on the ship then.

The oil fire lay over the water hurling its yellow limbs down into the water, then dousing out, reengaging. Fists of white and yellow fell, meteors that blew out. All Sigmund could see was the yellow bubbling above him and below the darkness that fed from the light, sucking it in, at once illuminated and dashing all light in its mushy feeding shapes. A shark sped past him, gaining on blood somewhere, and Sig felt the air going out of him. He breast-stroked, felt himself rising, the water boiling above him, frozen beneath him…breath out….more air gone, swim faster. Die now, don’t die. The history of the planet, he thought, the sun and the sea, water and fire. Three sharks rammed him: blind for the bodies of the crew of the Tarkington…God, they are crass, they are devils, they should wait. Suddenly, mud-darkness, cool and without shape, without light, the burbling, babbling thousand suns gone. And he thought of all the people who had drowned, though to think of every death took less than one-twentieth of a second, because he selfishly hated them for dying, that he would be like them, but they for a hung twentieth of a second all drowned, lining up, drowning, and seeing himself line up, drowning, the dead, drowning, and he waking up not catching his breath, feeling sick, wanting to throw up, feeling the sun much too hot, after a sunburn on Coney Island, his mother putting yogurt on his cheeks.

A current had caught him fast away from the fire, or the fire had swum away, or he dolphining had swum under it faster than it could burn, for now he was free of it and vomiting water, seizing air with his tongue and he could feel the sea was thick and heavy and viscous and felt like gauze, like blood feels in the mouth. He looked at his hands: black as tar. He began to hyperventilate: burnt, I’ve been burnt, my hands, my body, die, I will die.

– Joseph! Joseph!

And no one answered, and there was no echo, he was in a warehouse by the sea, it was Brooklyn, the mice scattered, it was summer, winter, the ice scanned the rock of the pier for weaknesses. A project for school: erosion. The waves moved into the stone and made the stone, man-carved and ugly, silly, practical – the waves made by their destruction a beauty of the staunch built thing, which was finally eroded and was no more and then no one could say it was beautiful.

– Joe!

The waves hooked and beveled, and the sea steamed from the heat of the fire, fog blew in white pennants. Sig came to rest on the wreck, also burnt and black, of a rowboat that had held men upon whom the fire on the water came without warning, swallowing the flesh but leaving the wood alive. Sig thought he saw blast prints in the boat, which was not sinking yet but seemed to fill with an oily jet like a desert spring, subtle and kind, something to drink from, which he did, then vomited. Sig hung here with right arm snug around the wood, like a leaf.

– Joe?

And no one answering and in the darkness the oil tide carried him but the fire burned in the other direction and the great ship in its yellow light sunk at last with all hands. Sig watched this but thought he was seeing the circus at five years old. And he remembered he was seeing the ship go down, and he started screaming:

– Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty!

And screaming he took a drink, he pulled the oil murk with a breast stroke, remembering to keep moving, the frozen water worked its tongue smoothly up his calve, shivers pulled in like ten birds waiting. He saw Brooklyn, where the first dead man in history washed up when he was six years old and he and the ten grasses that lay down in Rockaway when he lay on the beach in Breezy Point. And the ten birds poisonous as mildew and the fluid from the new shock absorbers in the 1940 Fords.

– Daddy! he cried out. Joe!

A ship appeared after a while, wearing rays of light on its bow. The SS Hunt hid north of the battle and now it was running cemetery duty, pulling men from the frozen sea.

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