Friday, July 26, 2019

Bye-Bye by Phil Slattery

A former naval officer tells a stranger a story of young love from his time on Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise; by Phil Slattery.

I was sporadically dozing in my seat at an airport gate at Dallas-Fort Worth, waiting for my wife to return from ladies' room, when another late middle-aged man with close-cropped white hair sat a couple of seats down from me. He opened up a paperback book he had been carrying, A History of the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise, CVN-65.

"You interested in maritime history?" I asked.

"That's right," he said.

"I was on the Big E for two deployments with VA-95, the Green Lizards, an A-6 squadron, in 1986 and '88. I was an intelligence officer. It was a great time."

"I was on her then too," said the man. "I was ship's company."

"Glad to meet you after all these years. My name's Dave." I reached over and shook his hand.

"Mine's Bob. Glad to meet you, Dave."

"God, we made some great port calls during those cruises, didn't we?"

"I had a blast. What do you do now?"

"I retired from the government recently," I said. "I'm now trying to establish a second career as a writer."

"I'm about to retire as an air traffic controller. Do you ever write any maritime history or non-fiction?"

"No, I stick to fiction, but I do use some incidents from my time in the service as the basis for many of my stories."

"Like what?"

"Well, the story I had most recently published was about something I saw when we made that port call in Toulon."

"What was that?" asked Bob.

"Well, if you remember, because the Enterprise's draft was too deep for the harbor, we had to anchor offshore, and the ship hired those local charter boats to ferry the crew from the ship to shore."

"I remember," said Bob.

"We were there for what? Five days? On the last day of the port call, I was heading back early to the ship and instead of waiting for an officer's boat, I caught one of the last boats back for the enlisted, a large cabin cruiser. It was probably the last boat for E-5s. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and sunny with a mild breeze, the kind of day you see only on postcards or in the movies set in the south of France.

"I remember that day vividly. I had boarded the boat and was standing on the stern, soaking up the beauty of the day, while I waited for the last of the sailors to embark. I remember clearly, almost as if it were happening now, the sound of the waves lapping against the dock, the call of the gulls flapping about, the young sailors' banter as they waited in line, and the older sailors' moans as they sobered up, all crowding together on the small wharf waiting for the next launch. I can almost still feel and smell the salt spray carried on the breeze. I miss that so badly now that I live in New Mexico.

"Among the crowd was one sailor that stood out, a second class petty officer of around twenty, in spotless white cracker jacks and Dixie cup , while almost everyone else was in their civvies. He was blonde, clean-shaven except for a neat moustache, in good shape, and had his arms around a pretty blonde French girl a little younger than he in a light, flowery summer dress holding a bouquet of daisies. When they weren't lightly kissing, they held their faces close together, their noses almost touching, looking into each other's blue eyes, whispering who knows what promises to each other. I have to admit that I envied him. I had made a date with a hot French chick the second day in, but she stood me up, and I had spent the port call hanging out with my squadron mates swilling beer and cognac in a sidewalk café.

"Anyway, in a few minutes, the boat's crew cast off the bow line while the boat's skipper started revving the engines. The petty officer's shipmates on the stern started calling for him to hurry up, that it was the last boat for his rank, and he would face non-judicial punishment, Captain's mast, if he missed the boat.

"The petty officer kissed the girl quickly but passionately, hurried across the wharf, and stepped over the rail and down onto the stern. From there, he hurried forward a few steps to amidships and leapt onto the gunwale, where he balanced himself by holding onto the railing running up to the helm on the cabin top. The look in his eyes said he would watch her until he was back on the E and would probably watch her from there if he could find some binoculars. For him, leaving sight of her was not just unpleasant, it was obviously painful.

"As he gazed at her, she stood on the wharf, gazing at him, waving gently, tears flowing, saying in a delicate French accent over a breaking voice, 'Bye-bye. Bye-bye.'

"The sailor watched and waved back with a gentle back and forth of his free hand. His heart was breaking so badly, you could almost feel it crack.

"The boat's crew cast off the stern line, and we were untethered to the dock. The captain revved the engines up and down, up and down. I don't know if they were cold or what, but for a few, long minutes we did not move. We held our position within a step of the dock, while the French girl waved and cried and the sailor's heart must have felt like it was being ripped from his chest.

"'Bye-bye,' said the French girl. 'Bye-bye.' Her tears fell into her bouquet as her voice broke.

"The petty officer waved and could not take his eyes off her. He leaned a little farther toward her.

"A deep voice came from behind me. A large, burly first-class petty officer in white cracker jacks stepped up and spoke over the din. 'Don't do it, man. Don't do it. It'll be Captain's mast for you. You can find another one. You always have. It'll be the brig for you. Don't do it.'

"The girl continued to cry and wave and moan, 'Bye-bye. Bye-bye.'

"The engines revved a little higher.

"The second-class leaned still a little farther toward the girl, his eyes fixed on her.

"'Don't do it, man,' said the first class. 'Don't do it. This chick's bad juju . It'll be Captain's mast for you. You can find another.'

"'Bye-bye,' said the girl. 'Bye-bye.'

"The engines revved a few times more, each rev higher than the last.

"The second class leaned still a little farther toward the girl, his eyes fixed on her.

"Don't do it, man,' said the first class. 'Your career can't stand another Captain's mast. We're heading back to the Philippines before we go home. Hook up with the chick you had there. You don't want to be standing tall in front of the Captain. He's got a boner for you, man.'

"'Bye-bye,' said the girl. 'Bye-bye.'

"The engines revved their highest yet and stayed there. The boat's bow started turning toward the sea and the new direction made the waves rock her a little more strongly. The girl's face was awash in tears, her eyes and cheeks red.

"As the boat rolled toward the wharf, the second class leapt from the gunwale, onto the wharf, and rushed over to the girl. They held each other tightly and kissed over and over, whispering more and more promises.

"The first class leapt onto the gunwale where the second class had been, and waved over and over, laughing, saying, 'Bye-bye! Bye-bye! See you at Captain's mast. Bye-bye!'

"Over and over, he laughed and waved and said, 'Bye-bye! Bye-bye!' until the wharf and couple were well beyond ear shot. Then he joined some other shipmates and they laughed and made some jokes at the second class's expense until we reached the ship.

"I have often wondered what happened to that sailor and his girl. I have seen a lot of sailors make a lot of promises to a lot of girls. A lot of times, the girls marry their sailors, come to the States, and get divorced á toute de suite , so that they can get a green card and a rich guy. Sometimes one just dumps the other, pure and simple. But I always hoped these two made it somehow, against all the odds. They just seemed to be really in love, but that's so rare. As old as I am and as long as I've been married, I'm not even certain that I know what love is. Maybe I just hate the thought of a pretty girl like that being hurt. Maybe I'm just too soft-hearted."

"They made it," said the man.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I was that first class petty officer. You probably don't recognize me because of all the weight I've put on in thirty-three years, but that was me. I don't jump onto gunwales anymore. I'd capsize the boat. The second class was Jimmy Englewood. We were both Masters at Arms and had been on shore patrol that day. It went bad for Jimmy. He had had gotten into some trouble back in Alameda and on other port calls and missing that boat was the last straw. He got a bad conduct discharge. He was out by the time the ship made it down to Perth, which is where he got off the E. He got a job there, saved up his money, and flew Marie, the girl, down to get married. I've stayed in touch with him since he left the ship. They moved back to the States after a few years and settled in Seattle. They've been wonderfully happy. He had a good job as a diesel mechanic and she became a secretary and translator for an import company. They had five kids and seven grandkids. I don't think they were ever apart for more than a day after she got off the plane in Australia. I just never expected him to seriously fall for a woman so quickly. I don't know how many chicks he had scattered across the Pac and I.O. when he met Marie. He was always loyal to her though. I have always felt like an ass for saying those things in Toulon."

"Well, you were an ass. You have to admit that, but that's just sailor's banter. It's really wonderful hearing that Jimmy and Marie worked out. Wonderful. I am so glad to hear that. What are they doing now?"

"He died. I'm heading home from his funeral. Bladder cancer."

"I'm sorry. How's Marie doing?"

"Distraught. It came suddenly. He was diagnosed only a few months ago. They had no prior clue that he was seriously ill. Her children think she may have to be hospitalized for a while, but they're sure she'll recover eventually. They're a close family. They'll be there for her."

"I guess that's as good as it gets," I said.

"I guess. The last I saw of her, she was putting daisies on his grave and whispering something over and over. Neither my hearing nor my French is very good anymore, but I'm pretty certain she was saying, 'I'll fly to you as soon as you call, sweetheart, as soon as you call. Bye-bye. Bye-bye.'"

4 comments:

  1. Sentimental romantic tale clearly told. Sometimes life changing gambles pay off.

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  2. Nice dialogue. Touching scene as the ship departs. A little overdone with the many "bye byes." Tough ending with him dying, but reflective of life as it is.

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    1. It is a lot of bye-byes, but that's how it happened. Actually, I probably have less than the couple said. This story is based on something I saw on the Toulon dock in 1986. Only what happened in Toulon is fact. All else is fiction. This is a story I have had in my system since 1986. There were a couple of previous drafts, but only recently did I settle on this version. For some reason it has been really preying on my mind of late. The drive just wouldn't go away until I wrote the story and got it out of my system.

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  3. A heart-warming "happily ever after 'til death do us part" love story. Nostalgic and concise.

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