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Saturday, July 23, 2011


by joan mitchell

Today I played vegetable all day. Didn't do anything. Napped once. Did a little painting. Went to watch a movie and decided to look at disc 2 of Victory At Sea, the WW2 documentaries of war film footage. Richard Rodgers composed the theme music. Copyright 1952. I have seen all of these Victory At Sea episodes on tv then and the years that followed. They were on tv every Saturday for quite awhile. This was the Navy's war experience. The Big Picture was the Army's part of the war. I liked the wartime documentaries. They showed what my daddy, uncles, and the guys of their generation did while they were away from home. I learned a good bit watching them, too. Like, I don't want to be in a war. Watching today, the 50s comedy hit Please Mr Custer played in my head, "I don't wanna go. There's a redskin waitin out there, fixin to take my hair."

The narrator, Leonard Graves, was sufficiently dramatic. A lot of times the script meant to be poetic, and almost was, in a cowboy poetry kind of way, using words like Victory the way a sports announcer reports a touchdown or homerun or a basket. One of the things he said was so good I had to write it down, "Soldiers are citizens of death's gray land." Sounds like it was picked up from a war poet. The early 50s were less than a decade out of the war; people who had lost a boy still missed him. Victory at Sea was my favorite of the war documentaries, because I loved to watch the ocean, see the ships bobbing from side to side, the prow of the ship going under, then up out of the water and back under. In childhood I wondered what those waves were like. I wanted to see them and ride them. Looking at the ships in rough sea now, I remember what it was like on a small WW2 destroyer, up, down, rolling side to side, the front of the ship goes under and the turning screws come out of the water in back. The front rises out of the water and the screws set back down in the water, again and again.

They don't tell about the whole interior of the ship smelling of puke and 3/4 of the crew laid out in the agony of seasickness. Nobody in shape to clean up the mess. The 1/4 that didn't get seasick, one of them me, we were so busy keeping the ships business going we didn't have time to clean anything, and we had to stay at it round the clock 2 days and nights. I didn't want to go into the compartment where the racks (beds) were occupied by guys wishing they were dead. The smell got to me worse than the moving boat. I enjoyed the up and down, side to side. I told myself if they had this ride at an amusement park I'd pay to ride it. In this case, they're paying me. How can I beat that? By the time the storm calmed and everybody started waking up and cleaning up, I'd regretted I didn't get seasick, because I never got a minute's rest. Still, I'd rather work than have a churning belly all the time.

The word was that seasickness came from liquid sloshing back and forth in the stomach. We were advised to eat saltines, because they settle like bread and don't move around. It worked for me. I always consumed a mess of saltines when the weather was rough. I did not like seasickness and I did like the ship in rough water. Had it made. One time at night I had to stand watch on the top deck where the semaphore people roost. I had a steel hand rail to cling to watching the front of the ship go under, then receive the giant wave that covers the entire ship. It was like standing in the water at the beach receiving the waves. I was all the way at the top of the ship's structure and the wave went over my head. I clung to the rail when it hit me, every time. They were Yee-Haw moments. It wasn't the sort of thing I could mention I enjoyed. Y'aren't supposed to enjoy anything in the Navy. I spent a lot of time gawking at the ocean, attempting not to be noticed. For me, the only good thing about being on a Navy ship was the ocean. I have to admire people who take a sailboat round the world, whether they stop along the way or not. That is just about the ultimate challenge, self-sufficient on the great big sea.

I have no specific recollections from those years from about 10 to 15 seeing Victory At Sea with the same zeal some people watch the Andy Griffith Show. I do remember, however, my feelings, some of my thoughts from then and some of the conclusions I drew then that I still live by. First thing it told me was I did not want to be in a war. It looks cool to be tossing depth charges off the back of a destroyer and watching the surface of the water bulge and explode. But I tend to think about what it's like in the submarine, in a bubble under water about to be popped. Never in my lifetime have I wanted to be in a situation that I had to kill somebody or be killed. That's too extreme. I'm not of warrior mind. Never have been. Since my daddy and some uncles were in the war, I figured there would be a war for me. There almost was. I was set free from my sentence just as Vietnam was cranking up. Slipped out by a frog hair the way Jet Li walked out of prison in Romeo Must Die. 

It still bothers me now like it did in my boyhood to see guys just out of boot camp, not long out of high school, not much older than me, running out of water craft troop carriers onto the beach, bent over running toward the dunes and fall down like a knee gave out, and not get up. I thought then as I think now: I don't wanna be that guy. In that time of my life, life itself was everything. I lived on waiting for time to go by until I'm out of high school and on the way to self-sufficiency. When I'm free, ready to start my own life, the draft subjects me to 2 years of involuntary servitude. Of course, I signed. It was that or behind bars prison. At least on floating prison I was able to visit Valencia, Rome, Napoli, Athens, Nice and some other places. That was worth it, being able to walk among people of Rome, of Athens, be in their midst, see how they live, their shops, their houses, their traffic, their churches, their nightlife, the varieties of people, hearing another language. Wherever I was, it was the same moon overhead at night as the moon at home. The full moon on a clear night at sea is a sight to behold. It's, like, cosmic.   


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