Straits, a Novel in Progress, Chapter 1

Some of you know I’m working on a book. How about a sample? As of the minute I’m posting here, this is what the first chapter looks like. At this point, everything is subject to change.

***

Straits of Florida, 1942

Bach raised a finger and replaced his headphones over the one ear he’d been using to listen to Marcus Clark’s joke. “Contact,” he whispered, then shouted toward the bridge. “Contact, eighty-eight degrees!”
Marcus sprang from his crouch on the deck and staggered out of the way of the Old Man who was already stomping toward the tiny sonar-radio room.
“What have you got?”
“Subsurface contact, Sir. Doppler shows it approaching.”
Lieutenant McCormick squinted at Marcus who had flattened himself against a bulkhead. “Do you have business on my bridge?”
“I was just—no, Sir.”
“Get your country ass on deck.” He turned to the Master Chief who waited for the command. “Battle stations.”
Marcus slid down the ladder rails from the bridge. A fireman on deck saw him, started, and swiveled his face toward the horizon. The ship klaxon sounded, Marcus’ shoes thumped against the wooden deck, and the Calusa changed course to pursue another Nazi U-boat.
Contact. Clear for action.” The chief’s voice resonated in all the cutter’s spaces, initiating the rehearsed chaos of men preparing to murder other men. Once or twice per day, the Navy sent the Key West based cutters into the Florida Straits to track down a hostile contact. It was always a U-boat. The Coast Guard scrambled to the site in question, picked up a blip on the screen, lost it again, and started a search pattern that resulted in tons of ordnance dropped into the water. During Marcus’ time on duty, the enemy had slipped away every time. He had been at sea for nearly a year now except for short shore liberty in Florida, or on one side or the other of the transatlantic convoy route. The only sign of the enemy he had seen to make him believe that U-boats were more than far-fetched sea stories had been the sinking of two allied merchant vessels the past February, torpedoed in plain sight of their escorts. Calusa had fished a few survivors from the freezing waters.
After the fire and smoke, the screeching steel of sinking ships, and the oil covered survivors they recovered, Marcus had come to believe in U-boats the same way he believed in avalanches and earthquakes as a force beyond his control. He figured that if he did his job the best way he knew how, he’d be OK. There was no other way to think about it. Despite his Baptist upbringing, Marcus didn’t claim to know if God existed, or if he took time to notice every minor dustup in this big war. Still, he prayed as his mother urged in each of her letters.
Who would miss me? This was his measure of how much his life mattered. Theona, his Liverpool girlfriend, would miss him.
Thoughts of Theona’s rose-scented skin evaporated as he hustled past the armored gun tubs and life rafts to the racks of depth charges along the starboard aft. Running on a deck crowded with equipment and other rushing men was going the right way for a cracked head. It seemed everything aboard a warship was designed specifically for sailors to brain themselves in passing.
Laura. Laura would miss him. He’d never touched her, of course, a married woman. But some kind of electricity flowed between them. Their friendship seemed always on the verge of shifting into something more. Something dangerous. Zelk told him he should watch out for her, that the way she looked at him was trouble. Marcus sometimes thought Laura was just the kind of trouble he needed, but he didn’t know how he’d feel later about having plowed another serviceman’s wife while that man was fighting overseas.
The silhouette of a Navy destroyer moved on the horizon, and the drone of a seaplane came and went overhead. They were burning a lot of fuel to locate the sub, but from here it could strike supplies headed for North Africa or Italy. It could head north and lurk off Norfolk. It could be long gone by nightfall if they let it slip away.
Marcus grabbed the steel rail alongside the depth charge racks and took up his station at the K-gun before the others showed up. He grinned at his team as they arrived. “Y’all ready to kill some fish?”
“Don’t be a rube all your life,” Evans said, but he grinned back.
“Fish is all we ever kill, ain’t it?”
“Should’ve joined the Army so I could kill Nazis every goddamned day,” Evans said.
Marcus squinted at the small blasphemy. Evans believed that anything that didn’t result in dead Nazis was a waste of precious time. All business on deck. He put up a tough front, but it’s easy to be hard-boiled during the daylight. At night it’s a different thing altogether.
Evans ain’t no different from me in that respect, Marcus thought. If fighting is what he rolls out of the bunk for each day, it must be so he can get home to his family. Or maybe it’s because of the stories of what Hitler is doing to the Jews overseas. Evans and Zelkowitz were Jews, a fact that had come up in conversation shortly after they met. The implications of what this war must mean to them had taken some time to sink in.
Marcus looked up at the clear, blue sky and inhaled. “If I could be out on the water without all this fuss, I’d be happy as a clam,” he said.
Zelk moaned. he had a death-grip on the rail with his right hand and three steel pots dangling from their chin straps in his left.
“You ain’t looking too good,” Marcus said.
“Old Zelk is always good to go, aren’t you, Zelk?” Evans moved toward him and held out a hand. “Give me a brain bucket.”
Zelk lifted his ginger thatched head, exhaled sharply through flapping lips, and nodded. Zelk stayed seasick most of the time, but the crew respected him because he did his job, regardless. Zelk and Evans came from the same part of Brooklyn, and had enlisted together the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor hit the papers. Marcus had never been around New Yorkers before enlisting. He’d never been outside the state of Florida, except aboard a Coast Guard cutter. Marcus’ father had advised him to enlist in the Coast Guard so he could be based out of Florida instead of being shipped to some far corner of the world with one of the other services. Marcus had followed that advice, and it had turned out to be sound. Maybe Poppy’s time in the Great War led him to cajole me to stay this side of the pond, Marcus thought.  His father had served in France, and it must have been bad because he never spoke about it.
Evans and Zelk had wanted to get away from Brooklyn, but like Marcus wanted stay on the right side of the world, so they enlisted with a request to be stationed together. It seemed unfair to Marcus that he, being single, was based in his home state while Evans was so far from his family in New York.  As far as Marcus could ascertain from the ribbing Evans gave Zelk about being a virgin, he had never so much as had a girlfriend. Zelk was short, thick, and wore glasses. Evans was a lanky man. Marcus thought he looked a bit like Gary Cooper. The way the two New Yorkers talked had grated on Marcus’ nerves until he grew accustomed to it. They called Marcus ‘cracker’ and made fun of his accent, though he hadn’t known he had one. He referred to them as Abbot and Costello and liked them better the first time they laughed at that.
They all grabbed the rail for balance when the Calusa poured on speed and heeled hard to starboard. The increasingly sharp turn brought the dark water up beside them. It looked as though an immense blue-black wall stood alongside the ship, full of shifting, amorphous shadows. He reached out and caught spray from the Atlantic surface on his fingertips. Calusa gradually straightened her course, though she continued to pitch and roll, pushing through murk that alternately revealed and obscured nearby ships participating in the hunt, all dwarfed by waves as oblivious to human endeavors as the moon or stars. Water broke over the side, drenching them to the skin, but it was welcome relief from the heat. Marcus licked salt from his lips and in spite of everything enjoyed simply being out on the water.
Calusa ran with depth charges loaded and ready during the transit through sub country. Locating and destroying the invisible enemy required quick reaction, so everything was hair-trigger while they were underway. The CO could be hard on the crew at times, but they all recognized that he’d been doing this for longer than any of them, except the Master Chief.
Marcus scanned the K-gun and went through the mental checklist each member of the gun team was trained to use. Evans opened the weapon’s breech, slammed a cartridge into the chamber, closed it, and attached the firing lanyard. Zelk stood by, belching repeatedly, but ready to work. He passed Marcus a helmet, and then turned and vomited over the side so violently that Marcus thought he might bruise his own ribs.
As far as Marcus could tell, anti-submarine warfare always started either with some Navy fly-boy spotting a sub, dropping a couple charges on it, usually missing the mark, and then flying home to cold beer and friendly women at the officers’ club. Either that or some swabbie on a merchant deck thought he saw a periscope. Then the drill began. The ships did a search pattern, rolled out a carpet of depth charges, and killed tons of local wildlife. Marcus had seen all types floating on the surface after an attack run. Tuna, mackerel, shark, marlin. On the Cuban side of the straits, he’d seen fishermen show up after the commotion was over to fill their boats with an easy catch. When this war was over, he was going to buy a boat and do some serious salt water fishing with Poppy. They’d have a lot of catching up to do.
Zelk seemed to have regained control of his stomach for the time being. He took hold of the hemp davit lines that lifted the 450-pound depth charges onto the firing tray. Marcus, strongest man on the team, worked the barrel end of the K-gun and muscled the charges into place. A depth charge was more or less a bomb on a stick, a much larger version of the rifle grenade infantrymen were using all over the world. Loading this monster was a good way to lose a finger, but so far he’d only pinched off some skin a couple times. They’d all run this drill until they could do it in the dark, but Marcus never forgot the potential destruction housed in each of the heavy, barrel-shaped charges he loaded. At night he lay awake sometimes, conscious of the hundreds of charges sleeping on deck in their racks, any one of which could cripple their small ship.
Marcus loved anything mechanical and found the engineering at work in anti-submarine warfare fascinating. Once airborne, the depth charge separated from its tray and sunk, weighted end down. When its pressure-sensitive fuse tripped at a preset depth, boom. Anything caught in the kill radius would be crushed like a beer can. U-boat commanders, if their boat survived the attack, would surface and try to either surrender or bring their deck guns to bear on allied ships while an engineer stayed below to scuttle the sub. Either way involved a bunch of terrified Germans rushing out on top of the sub, and allied sailors couldn’t tell an attempted counterattack from a surrender until after a few of the submariners had been hosed down by the deck guns. Marcus had heard all the stories. Just once, he thought, I’d like to see a Nazi submarine for myself. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he remembered the bodies he had once helped pull from the water and remembered that someone’s death would nearly always be the result of seeing the enemy up close.
The throb of Calusa’s engines deepened, and the aft end of the ship dipped several inches beneath their feet as the vessel increased speed. This was Evans’ unspoken cue to load a cartridge. He opened the breech, grabbed one of the slightly larger than coffee can-sized cartridges, and pushed it into place. He left the breech open until the order came to fire, standard procedure to avoid an accidental discharge. Evans claimed pride in his team always being the first to fire. Marcus and Zelk stood back a respectful distance from the readied weapon until time to load another round. The K-gun was as loud as a howitzer, spewed fire ten feet into the air after a fired charge, and created a concussion that gunners felt in their internal organs. Marcus didn’t think the fireworks display alone justified the wear and tear on his body, but he suspected Evans would come out here and shoot the thing off for the sheer joy of it. What do people like him do when the war is over? Marcus wondered, watching Evans’ face. Evans chewed gum and winked at him.
Prepare to fire,” the Master Chief ordered over ship loudspeakers.
Evans slammed shut the breech, attached the lanyard, and armed the trigger. Marcus and Zelk stood by to reload. Zelk had plenty of room since he worked the davit ropes. Marcus stood almost jammed between the ammunition rack and the K-gun. The best he could do was cram his fingers in his ears and gut it out. “Commence firing.”
Evans yanked the lanyard, and the K-gun roared, flinging the charge out over the waves. Before the first shot splashed into the water, Marcus attached the lifting bracket to the next charge on the ammo rack while Zelk inserted another arbor into the smoking gun tube. Having been fired simultaneously from port, starboard, and aft, three depth charges exploded beneath the waves, shaking Calusa and showering everyone on deck with salt spray.
Evans dropped in another cartridge while Zelk took up slack on the lines and lifted another barrel shaped charge out of the rack. Marcus swung the charge to the gun, wrestled it onto the arbor tray, and secured it. Evans closed the breech, and the loaders stepped back again. When Evans pulled the lanyard again, instead of the report of the gun there issued a loud pop from the breech mechanism.
“Misfire,” Evans called out.
A training exercise would have been paused for a misfire. But no way was Evans going by the book with an enemy sub swimming in their wake. Instead of waiting the 10 minutes called for in the Navy ordnance pamphlet, Evans opened the breech and caught the ejected dud cartridge. The cylinder had a firing pin divot in the top. Zelk let go of the ropes and let the lifting bracket crash to the deck. Marcus put his head down and tried to flatten himself against the depth charge rack. Evans drew back like a baseball pitcher to toss the cartridge overboard. It exploded. Shrapnel clanged against metal and something softer hit Marcus’ helmet. He looked up to see Evans sit down hard on the deck and fall back. Evans’ right arm ended at the elbow. Marcus had a second to note the jet of blood from Evans’ stump before twin ice picks of pain stabbed into both his ears. The right side of his neck lit up as though a glowing coal were being held against the skin. His knees buckled and the Calusa spun around him and the Atlantic around the ship and there was Zelk shaking his head like a wet dog and holding his ears with blood shining and pieces of flesh and bone stuck to the wet denim he wore. Zelk was yelling, cursing, but Marcus couldn’t hear him. He knelt with his hands over his ears, and all he could hear was a high-pitched whine like a tiny electric motor running in his head. Now it was Marcus’ turn to vomit. He let go on the deck between his knees, and then he was on his back, spitting and looking straight up at the noonday sun. Charges detonated port side and aft. He felt the vibration where his skeleton was closest to the deck. Damned lucky for the sub if it had gone to ground off their starboard side. Zelk moved over him, blocking the light for a split second. Going to help Evans. Good. I’ll be OK, he thought. I’ll just catch my breath a minute. Saltwater rained on his face. He shivered. The sun was too goddamned bright, so he closed his eyes.
#
Sustained agony like he had never known, never suspected could exist, lit up his skull the way electricity inhabits a buzzing light bulb. He reached up to his ears to press against the pain. Strong hands took him by the wrists and pushed his arms back to the thin sick bay mattress. Corpsman Sturgess held him down, kneeling beside the bunk until Marcus got a hold on himself, then eased his grip and wagged a finger in front of Marcus’ face. He moved closer so Marcus could see him clearly and slowly mouthed, ‘Don’t touch your head.’
There was a whining, ringing noise. Must be something wrong with his ears. It was maddening, and the pain made him want to punch someone, break something. The small sick bay space spun round and round, and he couldn’t quite focus his eyes, but Marcus recognized Zelk sitting in a folding chair by the doorway. A man wrapped in bloody bandages who had to be Evans lay on the bunk beside him. Marcus must have turned green because Sturgess produced a steel bucket and rolled him on his side, which only exacerbated the nausea. He wretched and moaned, and all he could hear was the high-pitched whining.
“I can’t hear nothing but ringing in my ears,” Marcus said. Sturgess nodded agreement and gestured for silence with a finger to his lips.
Marcus closed his eyes and lay back against the damp pillow, grinding his teeth. Sturgess wiped his lips with a damp, clean smelling towel, an act of kindness that nearly made Marcus weep. Sturgess jabbed something into his thigh, and he would have jumped straight up in surprise if that little stab hadn’t been competing for his attention with what was going on in his head. He composed himself as best he could and said, “Thank you,” through gritted teeth to Sturgess and silently to God, someone he hadn’t spoken to much lately. A warm dreaminess washed over him as though he were suddenly supported by feather pillows. He saw a man’s face, covered with black petroleum, surface from dark water and disappear again. It looked a lot like Poppy’s face, but that didn’t make any sense at all. Maybe he could sleep. He wanted to sleep, but what was that infernal noise? Was the tractor about to throw a rod? He’d never get all those rows and rows of young orange trees disked if the tractor broke now.
No, wait. He was on the Calusa. Marcus opened his eyes. That was Evans over there, and Corpsman Sturgess who had just wiped the puke from his lips and given him something in the leg. Morphine. That Sturgess was a good man. He’d had a hard time of it being the only negro aboard the Calusa, but sort of like Zelk he just sailored back and put his detractors to shame.
He touched the side of his neck and found a bandage. His fingers came away spotted with blood. Both eyes worked, even if they wouldn’t focus at the moment. He was grateful for that. The ears though—he hummed to himself. The vibration in his throat felt right, but he heard nothing despite trying again and again. Sturgess tapped him on the leg. He and Zelk were laughing. Zelk seemed fine. He didn’t even look seasick.
“Something funny to you?” Marcus asked the room.
Sturgess looked around and came up with a pad and pencil. He sat in a metal chair and scribbled, then held it up for Marcus.
The note said, “CAN YOU READ THIS?” Sturgess handwriting was god-awful, and it kept snaking around the page. Must be practicing to be a real doctor, Marcus thought.
“Sure I can read it.” He had to squint hard to make the letters stop moving. “I’m deaf, not ignorant.” He chuckled, but it wasn’t so funny when he couldn’t hear himself laugh. Maybe he could sleep. His eyelids must have weighed five pounds apiece.
Sturgess wrote again. “YOUR HUMMING. LOUD AS HELL.”
“Is that Evans?” Marcus indicated the unmoving figure on the other bunk, bandaged from chest to neck. “Is he going to be OK?”
“RGT HAND AMPUTATED. SHRPNL 2 FACE. EYES BURNED.”
Marcus shifted, and Sturgess hastily scratched, “WILL LIVE. UNSURE OF EYES.”
Damned fool Evans. People like him thought nothing could touch them. Marcus would have waited the lousy 10 minutes. Say, this war wouldn’t be so bad if he could feel like this all the time.
Bach appeared in the doorway, detached headphones around his neck. His lips started moving. Sturgess interrupted him with a raised hand and beckoned him inside. Bach entered carrying a gray-green tin box the size of a loaf of bread and held it up so Marcus could see the top. The box’s sealed lid bore a stained label on which appeared the words Erste Hilfe. Bach’s lips moved some more, and Sturgess went back to scribbling.
“NAZI MED KIT FROM SUB.”
“We got one.”
Nods all around. Zelk’s cheeks puffed out while he mimicked an explosion with his big, freckled hands.
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Marcus mumbled, closing his eyes. “We chased them and chased them. Finally pop one of the sons-of-bitches open and I’m…” His voice trailed off as the morphine bore him on a plush oriental carpet toward a dark tunnel of perfect silence.

#
His bed was one of many spaced evenly in the room. About half of the thirty-or-so beds held men in various states of disrepair. The windows stood open, and sheer drapes rolled and swirled in the warm breeze circulating over the sweating patients. Evans lay in the bed next to Marcus. He had bandages over his eyes, and his face was scabbed and puffy. A Purple Heart medal stood out against the white of Evans’ pillow.  Marcus’ head throbbed too much to think about moving it, so he felt his own pillow and found a medal pinned there as well. The sun rode high in the sky outside. That stick in the leg must have put him out for the rest of the day and night.
Warm liquid ran from his right ear, alarming him. He reached up and found a clear fluid with a swirl of blood suspended in it. He wiped his fingers on the sheet covering him to the waist and discovered a tube protruding from a needle in his left arm. A bottle labeled ‘saline solution’ dripped into him, making his left arm feel nicely cool despite his being drenched in sweat. He carefully kicked the sheet off his legs and lay in only the flimsy hospital gown.
The whole thing came back to him at once. The explosion, the pain, the blood from poor Evans’ horrible injury. The deafness. As before, he heard only a high-pitched whining that seemed to originate in the center of his head, higher than any pitch an animal or a musical instrument could imitate. If silence had a sound, he imagined this would be it.
A nurse stood at the foot of another patient’s bed on the opposite side of the ward writing something on a clipboard. Marcus raised his right arm and waved for her attention. She replaced the clipboard and turned away to leave. He dropped his arm and waited. Most of the patients appeared to be asleep, and he didn’t want to disturb them with an unruly outburst.
What if his hearing didn’t come back? What good is a coastie who can’t hear alarms or follow gunnery commands? He clamped down on a strong impulse to snatch out the IV and flee the hospital. Maybe he’d improved overnight. He vocalized, just a little, to see if he could hear the sound of his own voice.
“Hmmm. Aaah.”
Evans jumped a bit in the next bed, tried to sit up, and flopped back down. His lips moved. Others in the ward stirred. A couple men sat up in their beds and looked at Evans. One of these put a hand beside his mouth and seemed to shout. A stout young nurse came trotting into the room, got her bearings, and headed for Evans’ bed. Marcus watched her face. She arrived scowling at whatever Evans was saying to her and shifted her glare over to him. She planted her hands on her wide hips and seemed to bark something, at him? Marcus pointed to his draining ear and made a what-can-you-do gesture. The nurse huffed and approached Marcus’ bed. She said something that started with “Do you,” he thought, but he didn’t catch it. The infernal whining—or was it a ringing?—drowned everything out.
Marcus mimed pencil and paper, and she disappeared. His head throbbed, so he lay back and closed his eyes. His ears hurt. They really hurt a lot. The morphine had banished the pain aboard Calusa, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to trade the pain for that kind of oblivion again. He’d liked it too much. At least whiskey had the virtue of making a man feel like dying the next day. He decided he’d give a month’s pay for a bottle right now. Maybe he could bribe the nurse. He looked at her again. No.
He wanted to talk to a doctor. The drainage from his right ear made him wonder if he had an infection. He didn’t know how serious that could be. He wondered if he would want to go on living as a deaf person. He had always had a plan simmering on a back burner of his mind to find the right girl, get married, and maybe have kids. What kind of girl would go for a washed up coastie who couldn’t hear a word she said?
Now that he thought of it, his father might have occasionally called it blessing not to be able to hear his mother, and she accused him of being deaf to what she said anyway. That’s why Marcus put it off, the marriage thing. Life at sea is so simple. If he had it his way, it would be just him on his own boat, on his own terms. Maybe he’d get a parrot for company. Maybe a tattoo of a parrot. He dozed.
Time passed. He woke. Why didn’t they put a clock on the wall in here? The sun was a little lower, and the breeze had calmed. He was on shore, and it would have taken at least the rest of the day and night to get back to port from where they’d been out hunting that contact. He saw palm trees outside the window and felt pretty sure he was back in Key West, though he had never seen the inside of the hospital there. He hadn’t been to a hospital since that spooked horse threw him in the grove and broke his arm when he was twelve. He looked down at his body without moving his head any more than necessary. At least he was unhurt from the neck down. He tried to smell salt on the breeze but got mostly disinfectant and body odor.
He thought of those poor bastards on the U-boat and wondered what life in a submarine might be like, slipping quietly through the deep, running on battery power until dark then risking everything by surfacing to run the diesels and recharge. As bad as the chow was on the cutter, it must be truly horrendous on a sub out for extended periods with no hope of resupply. And the smell aboard that boat had to be foul. Those men endured all the hardships of life on a sub only to have their hull crushed by a depth charge.
Sure, they were Nazis, and Nazis deserved to die. But they were men, and who’s to say where he would be now if he’d been born in Wilhelmshaven instead of Tampa.  Drowning in a sinking submarine was the most terrifying way to die Marcus could imagine. He hoped it had been quick for them.

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