Then, rising up out of the water, it looked like an enormous angry black fist, snapping its great thumb loudly and repeatedly. And then we saw that another many-fingered hand had wrapped itself tightly around this fist in a wriggling death grip. The two wrestling specters were in fact the legendary sperm whale in mortal combat with that denizen of the deep, the giant squid.
The whale breached, twirling as it exploded up into the air. On deck, ship's work ceased as everyone rushed to the starboard side and gaped in awe at a spectacle very few humans had witnessed before. But the outcome of this titanic battle was by no means certain, for it was impossible to tell who was eating whom. Did the whale stalk the squid through the black abyss, clamp onto its prey and drag it helplessly up a mile or so into the bright light of day for a cruel feast, or was it perhaps the squid that had attacked the unsuspecting whale? The eye of the squid bore, in its grim implacability, a look of cool determination, while it was the whale that seemed to be the one creating all the ruckus.
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Which creature was playing with its catch and which one was fighting for its life we would never know, for it was the Captain's prerogative to stop the ship or not, and no one questioned it, nor did anyone consider for even one second suggesting to the old man that this was perhaps something worth looking at, or at least slowing down the old rust bucket for, you know, one precious minute, just for the hell of it.
Think maybe we could break the mind-numbing monotony of another boring workday at sea just for a few lousy minutes? No sir.
The unnecessary stopping of a United States Naval vessel, if only for a rare moment like this one, was completely out of the question; the need to stay the course, to stick to business, was paramount. That was the Navy way.
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The splashing and snapping sounds faded as the fight raged on. Then finally it passed out of our sight altogether as the ship steamed along its determined way, and before long we too were out of the sight of that huge unblinking eye. Ship's work continued. Deck seamen went back to chipping away at the perpetually rusting haze gray paint. Down below, Enginemen toiled uninterrupted in the insufferable heat. Amidships, in the galley, sweat-drenched mess cooks prepared another predictable meal for the crew.
Up in the breeze on the starboard wing of the bridge, the captain lighted his sweet-smelling pipe and casually observed the passing wonder. I scrambled up the ladders to the bridge to fix the temperamental radar while the ship and its men proceeded undistracted over the great blue highway, oblivious to the outside world except for its effect on the movement of the ship. Chapter Two It was , the year Vietnam really started to heat up. On the Fourth of July, a month after high school graduation, the five-year exile from my beloved mother came to an abrupt end when a little chunk of plaque lodged itself in the left coronary artery of her fragile heart and killed her at the desperate age of forty.
I had lost my bearing with little grasp of what lay ahead, or to which direction I should turn in the coming months, consequently, my first unwary step out of childhood was smack into deep shit. I got drafted. There is a perilous and brief period in a young man's life when he is suitable and useful for military induction. At age eighteen he is nearly full grown, but still very much a boy, not yet cognizant in most cases of his own individuality and self- worth. Still bound by the shackles of authority, he is, if normally brought up, the malleable product of a culture that claims to value certain qualities in its young males: obedience, selflessness, and unflinching loyalty.
His parents, his football coach, and his scout leader strive to instill such virtues in the boy so that by the time he reaches the age of eighteen he should be willing to "jump" when told to do so, and ask "how high?
I'm your father. I'm your coach.
I'm your preacher. I'm God and your ass is mine. You may kiss it if you like. In our little town, the largely working-class families reared children much as their parents had, in the traditional American way. When duty called, a young man was expected to answer, or have a good reason not to, or at the very least, a believable and acceptable excuse not to. While college deferments and sympathetic family doctors were available to some the day Uncle Sam came to town, the rest found themselves caught out in the open without any means of escape.
Many ambivalent young men simply resigned themselves to the war and accepted their fates as plain dumb luck. Others, who felt the patriotic urge, assumed the responsibility of serving their country, stood up and volunteered. Still, many others, out of mortal fear or moral outrage, simply refused to go and thus began a movement. Conceived in the valiant spirit of victory, our generation was born into the crucible of a post war America saturated in the stuff of combat and, sensing it in the womb, we came out sniffing the air for gun smoke.
And boy did we know how to die; that was crucial. You didn't just fall down dead; no, you imploded into the fatal bullet like they always did in the movies, then clasping your hands over the mortal wound to retain the last glimmer of life, you died standing your ground and then slowly and dramatically fell into the grass, being careful not to put your hand down to break the fall--it being nobler to get a bruise than spoil the effect. Our earnest boyhood dream was to someday become real war heroes just like our dads had been. We expected it. Maybe we even wanted it.
Then one day we lost interest in the childish games. We put away our cap guns, boxed-up the tin soldiers and model airplanes, said goodbye to catching frogs, flying moon-faced kites on windy days and riding clunky old bicycles down dusty country roads.
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Something big and wonderful was blowing in the wind and it spoke of the entire meaning and mystery of life and we followed it out of town like the pied piper. Girls were better than all that kid stuff combined. Better by far than the best day ever at the swimming hole--ten times more fun than Christmas.
No ball game no matter how fantastic the win nor what the score, nothing heretofore conceivable exceeded the thrill of the chase, the exciting hit to first, then to second, on to third base, and a final ecstatic slide into home plate. Not so fast boys. There was an ominous knock at the front door. He returned now, years later, to claim that we'd made some kind of unspoken pact with him. It was pay up time.
How could it be? We were just little boys goofing around in a make believe world, having some innocent fun with our toys. The Selective Service hung over our heads like the sword of Damocles. Upon turning draft age, all young men had a crucial decision to make. Considering myself somewhat outside of the social scene and woefully too thin and clumsy to be of any use on the football field, I chose not to participate in either of those two teenage exercises in awkwardness, and judging from an old high school annual photograph of the turnout at my class prom, I was not alone on the outside.
Convinced that I was really not the kind of guy who fit the profile of the typical red-blooded American warrior, I fully expected the higher powers to recognize that fact when my name came up. Some general intelligence tests eliminated the mentally incompetent. I believe we were also tested for certain disqualifying socio-pathologies, psychoses, neuroses and other mal-adjustments, but perhaps not, judging from the variety of mental misfits often encountered in the military.
Like cattle gone to auction, we were herded from one inspection to another and our bodies were thoroughly examined from every aspect, front to back and top to bottom. They checked our hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, eyes, ears, noses, throats, teeth, skulls, hair, skin, spines, arms, hands, fingernails, legs, knees, feet, toenails, penises, testicles and assholes.
For an inspection of our assholes a group of a hundred or so were led into an auditorium and ordered to form a big circle. This was all new and intimidating stuff and no one felt like challenging the authority of the United States military so we obediently did what we were told and removed our clothes and piled them at our feet. He stopped now and then to make notations on particular anuses; a few of them required closer scrutiny and some discussion with colleagues.
Meanwhile the lot of us, trying not to make eye contact with those across the room, gazed blankly at the view between our legs of the very peculiar spectacle of a long upside-down row of a wide variety of butt holes and eyebrows. We were still civilians at this point, with Constitutional Rights and all that, just like everyone else. So we thought. The technician placed a set of headphones on me and then, with some knurled knobs, he adjusted the dials on the test equipment.
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At first the tones were faint and indistinguishable from the ringing left in my ears after the last time my brother and I went deer hunting together. That got me all screwed up right off the bat. Soon there were loud whistles, foghorns, and sirens blaring left and right so loudly that I could hear them in both ears simultaneously, and they were coming faster than I could keep up with them and getting me so confused that, in utter frustration, I ripped the headphones off and slammed them down on the table.
At that very moment the examiner re-entered the room. I told you to leave those goddamned headphones on until I got back.