You in the Navy, 1941

Gretchen VanWormer


A story: 

It was early morning, dark, and the deck was wet.

Planes, warming up for patrol, sat on the Ranger’s slick deck, propeller blades whirring.  

You were in sick bay when Mateas called about the arm.  That’s all it was at first—a severed arm on the dark deck of the aircraft carrier.  You and Mateas stood over the thing for a second, not quite sure what to do with it, whether to take it with you, or what.  You turned and saw officers standing over something larger:  the rest of the kid, cut almost in half.  They told you he’d slipped and backed into the prop. 

Mateas asked you to help him sew the kid back together.  He was dead, but they wanted to bury him at sea.  This was just before the war—you had no way of keeping the body.

Back in sick bay, you and Mateas reattached the arm, closed the chest, using black thread, because it didn’t matter what color the sutures were. 

Others wrapped him in canvas, put weights on him, and his friends came down to see him, because his face was completely intact. 

They dropped him in the Atlantic, somewhere around the coast of Northwest Africa.  You and the ship continued on to Bermuda.


*          *          *


I know why I replay this story.  It’s not because it’s the most gruesome.  Once, during the invasion of North Africa, you pulled a kid out of the rear seat of an airplane, the cockpit full of blood.  The plane had been bombing, and some shrapnel came up through the side of the cockpit, tore out the kid’s femur, his femoral artery.  When the guy didn’t respond, the pilot came right back to the ship, but it was too late.  “That femoral artery, you’ll die in three minutes.  It’s a pump,” you said later.  “That was kind of gruesome.”

This story isn’t the most magical, either.  That one was on the destroyer, Escort.  You were sailing along the Mediterranean, “…the bluest ocean of all.  You go through the Straits of Gibraltar where Gibraltar is on one side and North Africa is onto the other, and you get into this great blue water.  It’s pretty.  You like these stories?”  You were staring over the side of the ship, doing nothing, when the water began to darken.  “A blue ocean, and it’s getting dark!”  Then, right beside you, a whale came up.  “Just that quick we went by it, you know.  But there it was.” 

Your wife, my grandmother, isn’t on the Ranger, just her brother, Mateas, which doesn’t help this story much.  I like the ones in Gulfport.  I picture her brown hair still tight from the curlers, flowered dress neatly pressed, as she rides the train down from Vermont alone, back when her name was still Paquina, not Patricia.  I see you stationed in Mississippi, sitting in some noisy bar, waiting, waiting.  This is her:  “You see, I have no sense of traveling.  I still don’t.  He said I took forever to get down there.  (Laughs.)  But, yes, I did go down, and we stayed in Gulfport, Mississippi for a while.”  This was in 1945.  She stayed for 14 months. 

In fairness, the prop story does seem a little incomplete.  There are several things I’d like to change about your carved up kid, or tack onto him.  If I knew the precise shade or quality of light, not just that it was “dark,” for instance.  You use that word a lot:  dark.  It’s not very specific.  Or if I knew how the humidity clung to your skin, or how the ocean behaved herself that morning—black and white photos turn all oceans solid and metallic.  If I knew these things, I could do a better job with atmosphere.   

There’s also the matter of what happened to certain parts.  Because once you told me you removed the kid’s organs and placed them in a separate canvas bag before stitching him up.  You’re weren’t sure what happened to that bag, though, or why you did it.  I’d like to hold that bag—feel the texture of the sailcloth, the weight of the kid’s liver, pancreas, heart.  I’d like to know if any fluids bled through the cloth, and, if so, if they’d be dried and brown at the time of disposal, something you could scrape off with a fingernail.  Also, the splash.  What sound, trajectory of water—how fast did the bag sink?  What was the weather?  Because one time I saw the sun split open the clouds at the exact moment when holy water skidded across the shiny surface of a coffin, and God, what a tacky, awful story.  If anything that saccharine happened in your story, I’d like to axe it, or at least draw attention elsewhere—invent a bored sailor standing by the rail, picturing a bevy of nurses in flagrante delicto.  Anything to tweak the tone. 

The kid’s face—the one part perfectly intact.  What did that look like?  I picture his skin bronzed from the weeks or months on the Atlantic.  Or freckled—nose peeling, lips cracked.  Maybe he was green with seasickness, an old scar over his right eyebrow, a chipped tooth.  Back then you had blue eyes, blond hair—should I have him look like you?  Like Mateas?  Or was his face just a dead thing—gray and liquefying and not something you’d particularly want to bring to mind? 

And while we’re at it—how much of your uniform were you wearing when you stitched the kid?  Was your shirt sticky with blood, or did you change first?  What about his arm—the severed one.  When you found it, was it still in its sleeve?   

And I’d like to hear more about that black thread.  Its sheen.  Its gauge.  Because either way, I think I can do something with it.  That’s why I replay this story:  the obvious metaphor.  Black thread as ink, typed-up words.  

Because now that you’re ash, this ink is all I’ve got.  So I fumble for the parts, try to pull the dark threads through.  I want to stitch your story, make it whole and shapely—picture those nurses flagrante—before the pieces drift.