Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shipping Out

In our garage on Gaviota Street you could find a fabulous miscellany of keepsakes to fuel the imagination. Of particular delight was the huge steamer trunk into which my mother had packed for safekeeping trinkets from her marriage. There were salt and pepper shakers from her honeymoon to Niagara Falls, and doilies and tablecloths from an era when she'd decorate the Passover table, photo albums of aunts, uncles, and cousins from a bygone life of comfort in Brooklyn: pictures of sun-kissed relatives frolicking on Brighton Beach or necking in Prospect Park.

I was always drawn to the quartered storage section of the steamer trunk that held my father's war memorabilia. There was an officer's samurai sword and seppuku blade he had collected in Tokyo, Japanese coins in odd shapes formed around a cut-out center, paper money from ports of call in Brazil and the Pacific Islands.

He had assembled a photobook of snapshots of Rio's Sugar Loaf, rising like a dream of happiness from Buenos Aires, pictures of himself--a chief petty officer in a white liberty uniform with jaunty sailor's hat--mugging with his buddies outside a bar on shore leave, a snapshot of him towering over a geisha in her kimono in a Tokyo street, the rubble of the bombed-out city behind them.

My father, to whom I owe my debt of gratitude for the wicked magic of puns and wisecracking humor, wrote a delicious line of parody beneath each photo. Today it's a wondrous keepsake of oxymoronical history told in a montage of wartime snaps tempered by an irony that life would one day in an imaginary future be filled with peace, prosperity, and funny-bones for all.

My favorite: a photo of my father in an outrageously over-sized helmet sitting behind the anti-aircraft guns on the USS Patoka, the tanker on which he served through both Atlantic and Pacific campaigns. He wears a steadfast grimace as he aims the "double barrels-of-trouble" skyward at imaginary formations of Mitsubishi Zeros and suicide planes.

His appended caption: "If the Japs had ever seen this picture, they never would have surrendered."

While I attribute my ever-sustaining love of music to my mother (who played the violin as a child and spun countless records of crooners on our turntable), it's my dad who infused a happy admixture of irony and wanderlust in my veins. The trinkets and lore in the steamer trunk fuelled my lifelong fascination with Japan, with world travel, and with the absolute necessity to carve a wicked pun in the face of mortal combat--real or imagined.

I grew up with my share of plastic machine guns and war toys, marched soldiers across parade grounds I had scraped in the mud outside our garage, played frogman in the Doughboy swimming pool that my folks had erected in the backyard.

By junior high school I had mixed feelings about it all. I hated the Vietnam war, collected my own scrapbook of photos torn from the pages of Newsweek, shots of helicopters ferrying out the wounded after a pointless battle in the Mekong Delta, writing my own wry and cynical remarks about the lies of the Johnson Administration--all remarkable for a 12-year-old. But I still loved military hardware, having been raised in the mid-1950s mythology of peace through might. I loved to pause during the day when then heavy pop and roar of the propellers of a vintage DC3 or Neptune submarine-chaser flew over the playground. I loved the B-36 bomber most of all, with its six rear-facing engines and obscenely long fuselage that accommodated hydrogen bombs.

But in my second year at Granada Hills High School, the U.S. Navy (doubtlessly faced with grim press in the middle of the War) had launched its own public relations campaign, enticing adolescents to join the ranks for a weekend as Navy journalists. The notice came to my high school journalism class and said I could come, armed with notebook, camera, and a best friend, down to the barracks in San Pedro for a weekend tour of duty. How could I refuse?

My chum Matt Garbutt and I took a Navy bus from the Valley to the Depot, racing each other to capture the top bunk in the barracks when we arrived that evening. In the morning, we woke at reveille, attended classes on Navy operations, ate a huge breakfast of eggs and potatoes, and then were shuttled out to the harbor where a mine sweeper waited to take us to sea. Navy photographers took photos of us posing in the open doors of Marine helicopters, walking across the gangplank to our ship, standing with the smiling crew in their blue utility uniforms.

It was a mistake. The sweeper had a wooden hull, to protect it from the magnetic detonation of harbor mines, and so bobbed like a cork on the mild Pacific waves outside San Pedro harbor. Worse, it ran on diesel fuel, belching out fumes that would make even the most hearty soul lean over the rail and puke. In less than a half hour out to sea, I was green and spinning, having chucked my eggs and potatoes overboard, and spent the balance of the "Day in the Navy" rolling in agony in the First Officer's bunk, trying to keep down the saltine crackers he fed me before abandoning me to hours of a steady pitch and roll.

A few weeks later, a manila envelope from the Navy came to my home. It contained a certificate attesting that I had completed my Day, along with a glossy 8x10 photo. Before we left the dock--I had neatly forgotten-- they had taken a picture of me where I sat behind the double barrels of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the deck. I had pasted my father's ruthless determination across my mug.

At that moment the shutter had clicked, I had been too excited to recall the photos of flag-draped coffins stacked neatly on a pier from Newsweek, the infamous picture of young Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked through the streets outside Trang Bang, the clothes burned off her body by American napalm.

It was one hell of a photograph that the Navy sent in an effort to recruit me.

If the Commies had ever seen that picture, they never would have won the war.


Char said...

I'm torn when it comes to the subject of torn. If only people could listen instead of killing others.

tangobaby said...

I had the chance to see a scrapbook recently of American tourists who were in Nazi Germany before the war began. It was fascinating to see the tiny captions written in white ink on the black pages, where the photos had been pasted in so carefully.

It occurred to me that often our own impressions from personal events are much more honest about world events than the images we are presented with from "trusted" sources.

Perhaps if we used family histories instead of textbooks, we'd actually learn something.

A Cuban In London said...

Keepsakes and music. What else can one want from a post? I'm looking forward to a post by you, my dear friend, on the music you listen whilst driving. I used to run a section called 'Road Songs' on my blog. It finished last year but i loved it. I enjoyed every single word of this post. Memorabilia is a fascinating subject. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.