Six In The Dark — Kintsugi Poetry Hop Day 5

 

 

Apologies for missing Day 4. It’s one of those lifetimes. And, I should be happy to have one of those lifetimes, because it sure beats the alternative….

Today, I walked the dog TWICE and pondered what to write. I couldn’t come up with anything. I scrolled through Facebook and went through my friends’ pictures of seiners at work and memes that they’d posted. Nothing spoke to me. That’s not to say I don’t love pictures of seiners, ‘cause I do–in my weird, boat-stalker-y way. But, there wasn’t anything there that really spoke to me on-topic, as it were, about darkness and light and such things. So, I put it away, all of it, and thought about what will be my next project: bringing my thesis back from the dead and publishing it. Exciting, eh? What’s even more exciting is that it’s all about minor aids to navigation in U.S. Waters from 1785-1939, a time that encompasses the old USLHS (that’s U.S. Lighthouse Service). You’re probably having the same reaction I had when Dr. Robert Browning, U.S. Coast Guard Historian, suggested the topic to me back in 1993. I swear the first words out of the man’s mouth after, “Well! Nice to meet you!” were “Have I got a thesis topic for YOU!”

I smiled politely and nodded.

And didn’t give it a second thought.

Until I did.

Buoys, it turns out, are pretty dang fascinating. I hunted through the Coast Guard Archives, the National Archives, the U.S. Patent Office (THERE’S a cool place to go for inspiration!), the Southern Historical Collection, the archives at Yorktown ATON School… I wrote to people, I interviewed people, I scored a trip on Red Birch, another WWII vintage black-hull fleet 180’ tender, to find out how they changed out ice buoys in Chesapeake Bay. I wrote it all up. I produced a Commandant’s Bulletin insert in 1995 that remains in print today. I had one of the ATON Admirals (6th District, I think), so positively giddy to meet me, that he invited me to the annual Aids to Navigation Conference at the Mayflower in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t have medals,” he smiled.

And he handed me a tie-tac in the shape of a lighthouse.

I still have it.

It is the coolest award … ever.

“No one ever pays attention to us,” he said. “We’re just out there doing a job, but we’re not Search and Rescue or Drug Interdiction, or doing things like Mariel [Boatlift]. We’re just out there doing a job…”

He’s right. They’re just out there doing a job.

But he’s NOT right.

It was a 180’ Black-Hulled Fleet Tender named Blackthorn that rocked the Coast Guard to its core in 1980.

Blackthorn

I was an archivist for the Coast Guard from 1993-96. It still ranks as one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever held. As part of it, I went through the Cutter Files. ALL OF THE CUTTER FILES. I organized them, created finding aids, got to know each vessel by pictures, by SITREPs, by their individual histories. I got through the As. I’d moved on to the Bs.

Some things in a job will never let you go.

The plain, grey Hollinger box with a white label sat on my desk. “BLACKTHORN WLB-391” had been written on it in Sharpie. Well, archivally, that’s the first thing you change. I flipped open the box. Row after row of file folders. The old kind. Archivally, that’s the second thing you change. Papers had been stapled together, the staples had rusted, and so had paperclips.

Photos …. Photos … The first thing you start with is the photos….

Capricorn.

She looked pretty banged up in the bow. The pictures were those 8×10 black and whites that look a little grainy. I set them aside. There were pictures of WLB-391. Construction pictures, crew pictures, the standard stuff. I sorted them and set them aside as well. While photos are first, they’re not the first thing you look at as far as creating a finding aid.

Construction records.

Crew records.

SITREPs from Tampa.

Standard stuff.

Coroner’s Report.

I opened it.

And the story unfolded.

Horribly…

“Having just completed her overhaul, Blackthorn was outward bound from Tampa Bay on the night of 28 January 1980. Meanwhile the tanker Capricorn was standing into the bay. The captain, LCDR George Sepel was on the bridge, but ENS John Ryan had the conn. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthorn continued almost in mid-channel. The brightly lit passenger vessel obscured the ability of the crews of Blackthorn and Capricorn to see each other. Capricorn began to turn left, but this would not allow the ships to pass port-to-port. Unable to make radio contact with the tender, Capricorn’s pilot blew two short whistle blasts to have the ships pass starboard-to-starboard. With the officer of the deck confused in regard to the standard operating procedure, Blackthorn’s captain issued orders for evasive action.”

A dark night on the bridge of Blackthorn, an Ensign at the conn; a perfect storm of ships and plays of light, the confused blast of whistles as they traveled over water….

“Though the ships collided, damage did not seem to be extensive. The problem, however, was that Capricorn’s anchor was ready for letting go. It became imbedded in the tender’s hull and ripped open the port side. Just seconds after the slack in the anchor chain became taut, Blackthorn capsized. Six off-duty personnel who had mustered when they heard the collision alarm were trapped in the dark. Several crew members who had just reported aboard tried to escape and in the process trapped themselves in the engine room. Though 27 crewmen survived the collision, 23 perished.”

It was the largest peacetime loss of life for the Coast Guard. It happened in 3 minutes. Capricorn’s anchor had capsized Blackthorn. While 27 men were pulled alive from the water, they were not unchanged. Twenty years later, LCDR Sepel, then living in Juneau, Alaska, still had nightmares about that night.

January 28, 1980.

What the official incident record omits is the finding of the coroner. Witnesses at the time claimed they heard banging on the hull.

Banging on the hull…

The ship never flooded.

The coroner found fatal injuries “consistent with suffocation”

In the dark.

No water in the lungs.

They had not drowned….

I sat there, staring at that report for a long time.

It wasn’t the only time I shed a tear when cataloging the Cutter Files. Or The Incident Files. Or files relating to historical people/heroes of the Coast Guard … don’t get me started on Doug Munro, okay? Medal of Honor winner that he was, and brave beyond the call of anything even resembling duty, and the results of his sacrifice to provide covering fire for the Marines on Guadalcanal (September 27, 1942, and the Marines have never forgotten this), but those last words: “Did they get off?” break my heart even today…

Banging on the hull of Blackthorn.

Hoping against hope someone will hear. And know.

We’re still here. We’re still alive…

“In the end the primary responsibility for the collision was placed with LCDR Sepel as he had permitted an inexperienced junior officer to conn the ship in an unfamiliar waterway with heavy traffic.”

The cold assessment of the situation. Official. Indifferent.

Because the echo of that drumbeat against the hull is too much to bear….

raising Blackthorn

For more information:

http://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/Blackthorn1944.pdf

http://www.sptimes.com/News/012800/Worldandnation/Three_minutes_that_ro.shtml

BLACKTHORN REMEMBRED

Bright-lit sea, lithely shifts

Leaving trails of blithe-smudged night

And clear-dark skies full of

Cheer, of anchors weighed and

Knots pulled free as men and ship

Traverse the deep, whilst thoughts of

Home and loved ones dear

O’er-stepped by duty , promise’d ,made,

Resound in hearts that

Ne’er expected loss.

Rending metal, shrieking

Echoes, pounding feet of

Men made desperate,

Eternal moment,

Metal tearing,

Bulkheads shatter

Evening sky pierced so dark

Rapping fades as

Even hope becomes a

Derelict …

 

IN MEMORIAM… et SEMPER PARATUS

CWO Jack J. Roberts

SS1 Subrino Avila

MK1 Bruce Lafond

MK1 Danny R. Maxcy

SA Charles D. Hall

ET1 Jerome F. Ressler

ENS Frank J. Sarna

SA William R. Flores

MKC Luther D. Stidhem

MK2 Richard D. Boone

QM2 Gary W. Crumly

DC2 Daniel M. Estrada

EM2 Thomas R. Faulkner

SS3 Donald R. Frank

QM3 Richard W. Gauld

DC3 Lawrence D. Frye

EM3 Edward F. Sindelar

SNGM Randolph B. Barnaby

FA Michael K. Luke

SA Warren R. Brewer

SA Glen E. Harrison

SA John E. Prosko

SA George Rovolis, Jr.

Snapping The Perfect Chalk Line — Kintsugi Blog Hop Day 3

I’m hesitant to write this. Seriously hesitant to write this… It’s because it’s going to be about a man and a place and the pursuit of perfection. Doesn’t sound too horrible and dark yet, does it? I’m not going to say that it was the pursuit of the perfectly snapped chalk line that led to this person’s demise, because that would be silly and inaccurate. Long after the events, I would sit at the Kennecott Glacier Lodge, a cold beer in my hand, and look at the roof of the newly-restored Kennecott Recreation Hall. I’d study that roof–that perfectly fitted roof with perfect rows of nails and perfectly aligned shingles….

Rec Hall

And I’d inevitably find myself with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes  that no swig of brew could staunch. And, if I gave myself over to it completely, the tragedy would overwhelm me and I’d shift my gaze to Fireweed Mountain across the Kennicott Glacier…. If only for a few moments to forget. If only for a few moments to believe he is still among us.

Because, every time I see that perfectly aligned roof, I know he is…

To say he was a weird duck is an understatement. He lived in a waterless cabin. He was a pastry chef of no small acclaim. He had been the subject of a piece by The New York Times. As is common, apparently, with pastry chefs, he was completely and utterly OCD. In his waterless cabin, he would bake wedding cakes in his wood-fired stove. In Kennecott (the Mill Town), he was an astoundingly detailed finish carpenter. The two go hand in hand, I guess. Perfection in the kitchen and perfection laying shingles, or building handrails, or laying cement, or performing myriad other tasks as the restoration crew did.

Then one day ….

There had been a death. I stop and try to find the words to talk about it still, even though nearly 10 years have passed us by since the event itself. The horror is still fresh. The impact was devastating. It ended so suddenly, so violently. One shot. One shot in the sunlit night…

For three days, a tearful crew toiled to carve and finish his casket. All other work stopped. It was desperate hands and hearts that shaped the wood, that planed the sides, that fitted dowels and made it perfect. Like he would have.

On that third day, we met at his waterless cabin. We cried our tears and said our goodbyes. A mournful crew loaded the casket onto a wilderness rescue gurney and set about, with ropes and pulleys, to heave it up the side of the mountain to a small meadow he’d purchased the year before. It has an excellent view of Fireweed Mountain.

Straining and steadying, heaving and pulling, barely breathing, barely seeing though tears, it took nearly an hour for the crew to haul the casket to that place where they had dug the grave.

“Go on,” I said to my husband. I held my kids’ hands tightly. “We’ll wait here…”

“It’s sad,” said the Park Superintendent. And he meant it. The one thing I respected about the man is that he meant it. And, when he died less than a year later of liver cancer, my respect for him never wavered. Of all the Park Service management people I ever knew, he, alone, was the only truly human being….

My children were confused. My daughter most of all.

“How could he go?” she asked. Her brow furrowed. “He had red tomatoes in the greenhouse. How can you go when there are tomatoes in the greenhouse?”

Those are the images the children have of that day: of tomatoes in the greenhouse, of fresh-baked bread barely sliced on the kitchen counter, of the Kennecott crew sorrowfully burying one of their own….

He left us.

He did.

He left us.

I watched my husband struggle with that.

We should have known.

Isn’t that always the way?

That we should have known?

There must have been signs.

We were too stupid.

We missed them.

How could we not know?

The scramble and tangle of arms and legs that heaved and pulled and guided and caught and steadied and moved that gurney up the mountain.

How could he not know how much he was loved?

He should’ve known.

Isn’t that always the way?

There should’ve been signs.

He’s not here to see this. He wasn’t there to see them build the casket, run the pulley line, heave him homeward…

And still…

I’d sit.

Staring at the Kennecott Rec Hall Roof.

His roof.

That perfect line of perfect nails.

death's kiss edited

Death’s Perfect Kiss

Into Its arms, you flung yourself

With

Wild abandon, all hope lost,

Into that darkness, deep

Descent

A spiral stair, which stemmed the pain.

But, love forgot, and soon

Forsakes

The one who swiftly, woefully strayed

To take your measured, precise grave,

This shallow site of peace and rest.

What wanton madness

Desolates

The heart that, other times, had spared

Such joy and raucous amity

That shattered us beyond repair–

At your departure.

Indifferent arms enveloped you

Your wildness hidden by Its wing

Your laughter silenced by Its Kiss

That gathered you beyond our loving.

The Un-Broken Edge of Darkness — Kintsugi Day 2

I remember the day we moved in to our recent abode and I opened a box labeled “teapots.” I collect them–Hall, character teapots, Lipton… all sorts. I have one teapot that means more to me than the others. It’s not because it’s particularly beautiful of elegant. It’s not because it’s old or finely-made. It has an astonishing provenance–it once belonged to General Douglas MacArthur–but that’s not what makes it precious. What makes it precious can be summed up in one word:

Howard.

More specifically: Uncle Howard. Fine-tune that specificity even more and you get: my mom’s brother Howard. Who was Howard and how in the world did he come to own General MacArthur’s teapot that he bequeathed, in turn, to his niece?

Ebay?

Estate sale?

Glamorous benefit auction?

No.

He received it from the General’s own hands upon the occasion of his departure as MacArthur’s Command Sargent Major. But, Howard’s and MacArthur’s relationship went beyond that. Howard babysat MacArthur’s kids, and there was a real fondness between them.

And then, of course, there was Corregidor….

Howard was one of the unlucky. Well, maybe “unlucky” isn’t the correct word. In the desperate days of death and rout that were the end of the American forces first on Bataan and then Corregidor, Howard was captured. He spent three months chained to a dungeon wall–a dungeon near the sea, that flooded with every high tide. I remember his stories of the filth that washed in with that tide–how he and three others struggled to keep their heads above water. He spoke of how his clothes rotted off him.

And then, of course, there was the Death, or “Hell,” Ship….

I remember stories of three Death Ships–packed with American POWs. These grim ferries brought POWs to camps in Japan and on Mainland Asia. Howard spoke of the unrelenting darkness, the stench, the screams of men whose minds fractured, who slipped, irretrievably, into madness. One of his friends succumbed. He died en route. And the Americans, with faulty intelligence guiding them, torpedoed one of the ships.

“We heard it hit,” Howard said.

He fell silent.

“Unlucky bastards…”

And then, of course, there was the Death Camp…

Howard was there until the end of the War. The boy from Oklahoma returned home changed, but not broken. He transferred to a different branch of the service, he married, he raised kids, he finally retired to Florida. He had a wicked-funny sense of humor. I could tell you stories of sombreros and silly string and lemons. He talked about the War, but was never ruled by it. In the end, he won that War. But, cancer got him 2003, but at least it was quick…

And my mother was left. The last of Linns standing….

 

So, that’s Howard. The owner of the teapot. A man unshattered by experiences that cost other men everything. So, when I began to unwrap a ball of packing paper, my heart sank at the sound of a tell-tale tinkle. The teapot shattered as Howard had never…IMAG2161

And then, of course, I cried…

But then, I pulled out the pieces this evening as I thought about Howard and kintsugi and things broken and repaired. Hindsight carries with it a sedative of sorts–an elixir that soothes us and makes us realize that we survived some horrific event or series of events and came out better for it.

Time pours gold between the cracks and strengthens us. Perhaps that’s the process that saved Howard in the dungeon, in the stinking hold of the Death Ship, in a POW camp, and beyond.

Howard was never bitter. He was never openly “haunted,” and, I suspect, never privately “haunted” either. He never said a bad word about what happened.

I stared at the splintered sherds of teapot.

Howard truly turned darkness into light.

Maybe I can do the same….

IMAG2163

Within my hands, a history held

In pieces shattered, sharp and smooth

Within my heart, I stand here moved

To mend the thing that so long dwelled

With he who other men impelled

To wreck their lives on distant shores

To battle fierce for freedom’s sake

And their full measure glory take.

So cowardice in them abhor,

So answer they the call of war.

In darkest places unforeseen

Did young men so naïvely slip

And thus bereft, the wicked strip’d

The comeliness of youthful mien.

In haunted eyes and quavering voice

In horrors of the past extolled

Whilst ribbons of the loss enfold

The bitter tang of choice.

Within my hands, our history held

In pieces shattered, sharp and smooth

Within my heart, I stand here moved

To mend the thing …

My own ghosts quelled….