Sunday Jun 23

Jeffers Carol Jeffers blends narrative nonfiction and fiction to explore the human condition. She has published a short piece in the California Writers Club Review, has another to be published in Persimmon Tree this year. Her long-form manuscript, The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity, a semi-finalist in the 2017 Pirates’ Alley William Faulkner Writing Competition (Walter Isaacson, judge) will be published late August, 2018 by Koehler Books. Another long-form manuscript draft has been completed. A Professor Emeritus of Art Education, her interest in the human experience began in the classroom.

Sea Wall

          He stands on the sea wall in the December wind, glad for his pea coat and, gazing across the vast inlet, remembers the convoy of ships that zigged and zagged to outwit the U-Boats and deliver him safely to this place three months earlier. His eyes fixed, Ernest is pensive and anticipates another convoy scheduled to arrive tomorrow steaming straight ahead with President Wilson aboard. Standing on that same sea wall a century later, this is how I imagine him, the young man from Kansas City, my grandfather, still auburn-haired at twenty-nine. He is a sailor—a “gob” my grandmother called him—based in Brittany as the “Great War” winds down.

            Duties done for the day, he inhales deeply on his perch above the rocks and cobalt water of the old French port long guarded by a Medieval fortress known as the Chateau de Brest, rechristened during the war as the U.S.S. Carola. “They tried to turn it into a ship,” he chortles. “The Navy’s little fib. But regulations are regulations.” Supplies for the fleet can only be transferred ship-to-ship. He thinks of his buddy who had passed around an article in a home town paper where an AP correspondent had described the “Carola” as “a craft that never went to sea and never will, a ‘vessel’ with stone walls, underground dungeons, twenty miles of tunnels and a vast hulk of masonry anchored to mother earth.” That was the truth, they had agreed, the correspondent had gotten it right.

           “Well, tit for tat,” he snickers, remembering how he had fibbed his way past the Navy eye test. His smart, loyal Marjorie had taught him how to distinguish colors. There they were, newlyweds, standing in a thread shop. This one is red, she had said, holding up a spool. This is green, she continued, showing another. Still another was brown, she told him. Could he see the difference? They went back and forth between the different reds and greens until he had memorized what shade of gray-brown they appeared to him.

            Sweet Marjorie. He aches for her, misses her company. A restless wave sprays over the rocks and he takes stock of all that has happened in the past eighteen months, all that has led to this moment, and does not notice the thickening clouds in the North Atlantic skies, the mid- afternoon sun still desperate to break through. The November 11th Armistice was already a month and a day ago, he thinks, a time of relief, of drunken celebrations. So much champagne, whiskey spilling over the stories of terrible battles and bombardments, over the losses, the wrong turns made, lies told. Washing away so many alliances and secrets. “All except one,” he shivers, pulls up his collar. The secret he and Marjorie were never to reveal, the one they would carry to their graves.

            He remembers when it all began, National Registration Day in early June of ’17. He sees her in the crowd cheering him on as he marched in the parade of eligible young men proudly carrying their new draft cards. What a day it had been, church bells and horns and marching bands on Main Street. And so loud. Patriotism’s fervor had pounded his ears and sluiced through his veins. He flushes at the memories. Was it that night, the two of them caught up in the heat? Or had it happened another night that excited summer? He scuffs his shoe against the stone wall. Should have been more careful.

           He kicks again. They had slipped across the state line in September for a courthouse ceremony in Kansas. No white gown and flowers for her. Her friends had not stood with her at the altar; Maude was not her maid of honor. And here Marjorie had been so prominent in the church, active in the youth group.

           Four months later he stood with her on the platform of the train station, he remembers, the two of them stoic, resigned to the plan—ruse—her mother had cooked up to handle “the situation.” Get back on course. Her mother, he sighs. So insistent, opinionated, unpleasant. Aw hell, maybe she was right, Marjorie’s reputation, her virtue, had to be protected. A final embrace before she boarded and even through her bulky winter coat he had felt her body’s changes. Time to go. She was off to Colorado “to nurse a sick cousin,” they were to tell everyone. Consumption it was. When she returned in a couple of months, it would all be over. The orphanage would handle the rest.

            Gulls screech overhead, a child wails in the park behind. He mourns his own, a baby boy she had said, now ten months old, lost to him. All that seems so distant now. He stares at the horizon blurred in the mist and can no longer discern the meaning of honor, duty, sacrifice that drove so many choices. Pivotal decisions that changed so many lives. Too many like the moment when they had said goodbye in late April ’18. She had seen him off as he boarded the train for basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station. Apart again. When, he spits, when would they ever set their own course?

            He thinks of the German siege of Chateau Thierry and the battle that raged for forty-one of the days he was in basic training. They had heard so much about it. American machine-gunners called in, fighting hard to hold the bridge across the Marne River to protect Paris just sixty miles away. It had hardened his resolve. He was still committed, wanted to do his part.

            He looks out and spots a solitary ship heading for the docks. What was it carrying? The Leviathan arrived in early October carrying troops, so many sick with the flu, so many dying, so many dead. He pictures the caskets, hundreds of them, lined up on the wharf. And it was only the beginning as thousands more sons were lost to disease, souls interred in French soil before they could join their brethren fighting in the Argonne forest. Still dying after the fighting had stopped.

            He feels the first drops of rain. The daily shower the Carola contingent has grown accustomed to. “Time to get back, polish shoes, press the uniform. Early morning inspection, big day tomorrow.”

            I step off the seawall and take my husband’s hand. We stroll along the promenade that leads from the chateau toward the train station, following the same route my grandfather described in a letter dated December 13, 1918, the big day when the air was electrified and an American President set foot for the first time on foreign soil.

            I can see Grandpa racing back to his office. He wants to get a letter off on the first ship out. “My Darling Wife,” he types, fingers pulsing with adrenaline and pride. He wants to capture the day, share it with Marjorie. He wants her to see the “diving and dipping dirigibles and aeroplanes flying over the Bay… the approaching fleet of ten battle-ships… and finally the “George Washington” with its distinguished statesmen aboard…”

            He wants her to hear the “assembly call,” and the sounds of the full contingent marching in rank down the road to its “picturesque bend” where the president and his procession passed by. He wants her to feel the jubilation, “everyman hat in hand… yelling to the top of his voice…”

            Her wants her to see as if with her own eyes the “red carpet” and “elegantly decorated train-shed with palms and flowers…” and hear the Navy jazz band playing for Woodrow Wilson as he boarded the “special train for Paris” where the peace talks would begin. He wants her to feel his pride, the pride of America and notes the impact of what he knew to be a profound and world-changing event, the arrival of “the youth of a nation which has scarcely reached its majority to be the guiding star at a peace conference on the outcome of which the security of the whole world depends.” He is moved and writes with pride of America “sitting at the head of council with nations centuries old directing them to that freedom of people for which it so valiantly fought, England, the motherland and tongue and present ally, aided by the French whose land we now defend. Then we may truly say that the United States, ‘a little child’ as it were, shall lead them.”

            He pauses, takes a breath, then turns from such loftiness to more practical matters, tells Marjorie about the newsreel man putting the footage in the outgoing mail. “Look for me on the left,” he tells her.

            Grandpa would later write of that sad, lonely Christmas 1918 that came with “no trees or toys for the boys.” He and a thousand other sailors in the chateau barracks despondent, caught in a let-down after the excitement of Wilson’s arrival and the hope for a quick treaty to end The War to End All Wars. They are restless in their bunks. The Yanks had come over and now that it was over over here, they wanted to go home. He re-reads the latest letter from Marjorie before lights out, holds it close, relieved that the news is good. She is well again, recovered from the terrible flu. She had nursed her parents and kid brother through it, and then, exhausted, had come down with it. She would be returning to work soon, she said. He kicks the blanket, hating that she had to work while he was away, hating that she had to live with her mother.

           He fluffs the pillow, pulls up the blanket, and thinks of the course ahead. The one they will chart together, a true course with no more wrong turns. She would no longer have to work or be forced to live with her mother. They would move into their own place, set up housekeeping—wind up their new Edison, a wedding present, play some Diamond Discs, have some fun. They would have children, start a proper family. He would assume his responsibilities, and she would be a good wife and mother. Maybe they would use the new installment plan she mentioned to buy a “Henry.” It would be grand to drive his own car. Maybe Marjorie was right, they would use her Liberty bond to buy some furniture.

           Things would be better, no more losses and everything to be gained. He felt sure of it. The future belonged to them. He dreams of the day when he will become head of household, and the two of them will free themselves of her mother’s grip. She could sit at their table, but only as long as she understood that they had arrived. They would be in charge. No more of her entangling schemes.

            My husband and I return to the chateau, wait for him at the gate. I imagine him inside as the young man, I remember him as the old man, bent, wrinkled, White Owl cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth. The gate will open and I want to tell him that my siblings and I found the old Edison in the corner of the basement. How we cranked it up and played those “Diamond Discs.” I want to tell him that we know now. I want to say “Grandpa, it’s all right. We know you went back to Colorado, reclaimed your little child, my Uncle Bob. Raised him as the oldest of your four children.”