By Geoffrey Norman on 1.17.05 @ 12:05AM
He contacted me — by e-mail — after he’d received my daughter’s wedding invitation. “Damn right I’ll be there,” Al said. “You want me to pick up some crabs and a bushel of oysters when I come through Maryland?”
That was the pattern. When he’d drive up from Pensacola, Florida, to see us in Vermont, Al would always detour through Oxford, near the mouth of the Choptank River where he’d spent the best years of his youth and, maybe, his entire life.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “How long can you stay?”
Turned out, he couldn’t stay a single night. Could not, in fact, make it at all. His next e-mail said, “I’m afraid I won’t be there for the wedding. They found this damned cancer and it looks like I’m going to be joining old Jones pretty soon.”
“Jones” would be Robert F. Jones, a novelist and magazine writer — most prominently with Sports Illustrated — and a neighbor and hunting companion of mine. On his many visits to Vermont, Al had gotten to know Jones and they’d become friends. Al admired Jones’s for his talent, his erudition, and his bluster. Jones’s was fascinated by Al’s story. He’d been a POW in Vietnam for five and a half years.
When Jones had died of pancreatic cancer six months earlier, Al sent me an e-mail. “Hard to believe old Jones has gone west,” he said. “And before I got a chance to talk to him about his last book.”
WHEN I TOLD MY DAUGHTER that Al wouldn’t be coming — and why — she cried. The tears were part bridal sentimentality, of course. But there was something else. She remembered going out with her sister on Al’s sailboat when they were not quite school age, back when we were spending time on the Gulf Coast. Al would call and say, “Why don’t you pick up a bucket of fried chicken somewhere and bring your girls over for a sunset cruise.”
We’d meet him at the Naval Air Station dock, on Bayou Texar off Pensacola Bay. Al had retired from the Navy by then but he still had privileges or, maybe it was just a courtesy. Either way, it was a prime spot and seemed like a reasonable perq.
His greeting was always efficient — almost brusque — and it had taken the girls a while to get used to it. We would hand over the chicken, the cooler, and whatever else we had brought with us and then come aboard. Al would immediately start working the lines and giving the girls jobs — holding this one, coiling that one — in a manner that made it clear these were important, even vital, tasks; that they weren’t passengers or guests on his vessel — they were crew. And, of course, they loved it.
“They like him because he doesn’t patronize them,” I told my wife once.
“Wrong,” she said, “Al patronizes everybody. They like him because he treats them like they’re adults.”
She said it with affection, though she could find Al exasperating. Like, I suppose, a lot of women. And it was true that Al had a way of explaining things so carefully and in such elementary language that you could believe he thought you were a little slow. It was as though he worried that if he didn’t make sure of every detail, there would be a misunderstanding and things would go suddenly, disastrously wrong.
But, then, you could forgive this as understandable since his plane had taken a direct hit from a surface-to-air missile that cooked off his entire bomb load, blowing him out of the sky in a dirty orange explosion that ignited the propellant in his ejector seat. He came to hanging in his parachute four or five thousand feet over North Vietnam. Al had a very sure sense of just how badly wrong things could go.
ONCE WE HAD CAST OFF, Al would handle the boat until we had cleared the channel and were in the deep water of Pensacola Bay. Then he would turn the helm over to one of the girls, give her a course to steer and explain how to read the telltales to make sure we were on the correct point-of-sail. Even though they had heard it before, they would listen intently.
“Let’s sail out to the pass,” Al might say, “and see what the Gulf looks like.”
Then, while the girls sailed the boat, he would get busy with the rituals of stowing gear, coiling lines, and generally making things shipshape. It was partly his nature and the other part his love of the boat, a 32-foot sloop that he’d bought with some of the money that had accumulated while he was a POW. The rest of the money had been spent by a wife he’d divorced not long after he came home. That wife had been his second. The first marriage had been worse and had also included children. Al barely knew them.
These days, he had the boat.
Once or twice a year, he would singlehand it from Pensacola across the Gulf, and then around to the Bahamas where he would spend a couple of months anchoring in the shelter of little, uninhabited Cays, spearing fish and lobsters for food, then sailing on to some small harbor town when he needed ice or water or, even, a little human contact.
I wondered about those trips. Hadn’t he experienced enough solitude? The worst part of his entire captivity, he once told me, had been when he was locked in a little metal crib, alone, for 13 months.
“It isn’t the solitude so much,” he said, when I made the point. “It’s the sailing. Since I’ve come home, motion is my mantra.”
AT THE MOUTH OF Pensacola Bay, Al would luff the sails and we’d eat our fried chicken and drink our sodas while we watched a school of bottle-nosed dolphins and listened to the mournful sound they made through their blowholes. Toward dusk, we would sail back to the marina, generally upwind, with Al explaining to the girls about how you tacked. At the dock, he would tell them that they were a great crew and that he wanted them to come back so he could teach them about oiling teak and polishing brightwork.
But there were fewer and fewer of those sailing trips once my daughters started school. We were in Vermont most of the time so Al began coming up to visit. He treated the drive like a cross-country hop and the passenger seat of his little truck would be piled with charts on which he had marked his route — and his alternates — in yellow highlight ink. He’d designed routes to beat the tolls and take advantage of the best gasoline prices, to take him by the homes of a couple of his old POW buddies and, also, to visit Oxford and the Choptank where would pick up some seafood for us. The night of his arrival, we’d always have friends over to help us eat the oysters that Al and I would shuck.
On one of those evenings, he got into a conversation with someone who wanted to know about his time in captivity. The questions weren’t particularly hostile, inquisitory or, even, political. Merely detailed and intense, with a focus on the physical suffering.
Al did his best to deflect them — treating them like gnats — but he couldn’t make them go away. Finally, he said, “I’m really sorry. I’d like to help but, you see, I only remember the funny parts.”
MOST OF AL’S VISITS came in the Fall when he would bring an old shotgun he’d used to hunt ducks on the Eastern shore. That had been in the '50s and he hadn’t done any hunting since then. He wanted to get back into it so he would go out with me and my dog when we hunted birds — grouse and woodcock — in the aspen and gone-by apple orchards. He wasn’t much of a shot — maybe because his gun was too big and clunky for the kind of quick work we were doing — but he was enthusiastic and he wanted to know everything. He asked questions about the dog and how you trained one; the birds and how you knew where to look for them; the guns and what made one superior to another.
It took me a while to realize that his was not so much a personality quirk as learned behavior. Late in the war, when the heat was off and Al was not in solitary but sharing a cell with one or more of the other POWs, there was nothing to do but talk — tell stories and ask questions. A lot of what he knew, Al told me once, he’d learned from his fellow POWs. One of them had taught him how to take apart a V-8 engine and rebuild it and when he got home, Al bought the right model pickup so he could test himself.
“Only had to check the manual a couple of times. Everything else was right here.” He tapped his head with his finger. “Department of Auto Mechanics. Hanoi U.”
I suppose the POW experience could also explain Al’s fondness for long stories. He enjoyed listening to them and he especially liked telling them. He was good at it, too.
He and I were sitting at the table in my kitchen one evening, after an afternoon of hunting. A neighbor who had flown fighters with the Air Force had come by and stayed for a beer. While my wife and I listened, my neighbor and Al talked about their fighter pilot days.
“You must have flown out of Nellis,” Al said at one point.
“Sure,” my neighbor said.
“Well, I remember when I was at Miramar, back in the real early '60s, one of the other guys in the squadron and I decided to take a couple of F-8s out for a little cross-country hop. Bob was the guy’s name. Neither of us had ever been to Vegas so we filed a flight plan for Nellis and took off one Saturday afternoon.”
AL DESCRIBED JUST what the F-8 could do, in a lot of technical detail that my neighbor understood and appreciated. Then Al explained that while he had enjoyed hell-raising as much as the next fighter pilot, his intentions on this trip were relatively pure. He’d always liked show tunes and there was a singer — I don’t remember which one — at one of the casinos that night. Al planned to play a little blackjack, eat a good dinner, and then catch the show.
Bob, it seemed, had more ambitious plans. So once they were in Vegas, they split up and agreed to meet back at the flight line at “oh-dawn-thirty.”
“Last I saw Bob,” Al said, “he was heading down the strip with this gleam in his eye.”
Al’s night went pretty much the way he planned. “When the wake-up call came, I didn’t even have to go into the bathroom to throw up. I was ready to fly.”
But when he got back out to Nellis, there was no sign of Bob.
“I figured he was just running late so I changed into my flight suit and put my g-suit on over it. Bob’s stuff was still hanging there, next to mine. Then I went into flight -ops, thinking he might have been there waiting for me. But no sign of Bob and no message from him. I drank a cup of coffee and I talked the duty officer for a while. Then it’s getting hot inside all those clothes, so I decided to take a walk out to the flight line just to get some air and look at the airplanes while I’m waiting.”
The F-8s were parked at the end of the flight line and Al had walked a long way before he came to them. And he was thinking, as he walked, that there was something wrong, something out of place, but he couldn’t quite figure out what.
He realized, when he got closer, that there was someone in the cockpit of one of the planes. He guessed that one of the enlisted men from the service crew had climbed up there and gone to sleep.
“So I went up the ladder all ready to wake the guy up and tell him to get the hell out of our airplane. Turned out, it wasn’t some Air Force tech guy. It was Bob. Totally passed out. And it seemed he had gotten separated from his clothes since I last saw him. He wasn’t wearing a single stitch except for his flight helmet. The oxygen mask was pulled off to one side and the visor was down, covering his eyes. And written on the visor, in red lipstick, along with the shape of a valentine, were the words, “Bye Bob.”
I MADE IT TO PENSACOLA not long after my daughter’s wedding. Al’s wife — “the one I should have married the first time” — met me in the driveway.
“How is he?”
“Bad,” Sheryl said. “Real bad.” Like Al, she never tried to sugar-coat it.
“I won’t stay long.”
“Stay until he tells you to leave. He’s been looking forward to this.”
Al looked wasted and talking made him tired. But he made the effort it took to brief me. The essential piece was … the doctors had given up on chemo and other treatments that morning. He was now a hospice patient.
I couldn’t think of anything to say so I merely nodded.
“Now,” Al said, as though that were all housekeeping stuff and he was relieved to be done with it. “Are you busy? You have to be anywhere in the next couple of hours?”
“Let’s take a ride.”
A friend of his was building a boat, he explained when we got in my car, and he wanted me to see it. The boat wasn’t really important, though; the drive was the point. Motion was still his mantra, it seemed, and maybe it gave him some relief.
We talked about small things. It would not have been Al if he’d tried to run some transcendent insight on me. In one of those conversations he would get into with my friends in Vermont, someone had once asked him if he had any regrets about those five and a half years, “what with the way the war turned out, you know.”
“I’m an old fighter pilot,” Al said, shaking his head. “The way I look at it, the blue sky behind you is just wasted air space.”
Before I left that day, Al said, “When will you be back?”
“Couple of months.”
“I’ll hang on that long.”
“Then I’ll see you in a couple of months.”
He didn’t make it. Before I even opened the card with the Pensacola postmark, I thought of the line from some old song — “Another good man gone.”
Then I said, out loud so he could hear it, “Bye, Al.”
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