Wharfinger Yarns

by: Ralph E. Ahseln   May 28, 2012

Manger's marina was empty now. Gone were all the boat owners who had been there since Friday night. The old Wharfinger hated holidays. It was the crowd and the noises he'd come to resent. The smell of cooking hotdogs almost made him sick. And, Stale beer ? He fought off a feeling he might throw up.

He knew that the garbage bins at the top of the ramp would be overflowing. And STINK ?, it was almost too much for the old man. He had always knew that there's nothing worse that stale beer and moldy pork and beans sitting around for days until the garbage truck came. He grumbled that there would be piles of aluminum drink cans and empty (he hoped) glass bottles and jars too. He'd have to pick all of them out of the mess. The Waste Removal company made a big deal out of recycling. He didn't want to risk them NOT picking up the Holiday mess just because of some cans and bottles he'd missed.

It was like that every holiday, but this one was always specially bothersome to him. It made the old man all the more grumpy to see people having fun. To him, it should have been a quiet day. Not one of celebration. Memorial Day. Not for car races or hot dogs, not even a day to give thanks to those in the military, but remembering those who sacrificed ALL that they were or would ever be.

Part of why he felt so Out Of Touch with the others, was a deep feeling of shame. Or maybe embarrassment. It all had to do with a moment in his past that, on certain days, or when someone asked..THAT question, would cause him to hang his head and change the subject.

Fall, 1950, San Diego California.
The young man sat on the bottom "rack" of the 4 high military bunk bed frame. He'd just got his new"Blues"from the supply clerk. Now he felt like a real Sailor for the first time since he'd been called up from the Reserves. In typical U.S. Navy form, they had fouled up his orders so badly that for a month the navy didn't know what to do with him. Now the Bureau of Personnel had cut him a new set or orders . "Active Duty" with the fleet. He was really going to war. As a Naval Reservist, he'd not been to a specialist school and wasn't qualified to join any ship, yet. The clerks at the base decided they would call him a Radioman and find a ship needing one of those. "You can learn once you're on board. they don't care anyway." they said. The young man had messed around with radios as a hobby, so it kind of was OK, he guessed.
Sitting around in a barracks gets boring quickly, so the young sailor walked the hallways just to kill time. There on a hall bulletin board was a notice "Now taking applications for FIRE CONTROL school. Graduates will receive a bonus and a 25 percent pay increase over current rating"... That caught the kid's eye. As a rated Seaman, his pay was $96 a month. A bonus AND an extra bump would be awesome. Coming out of a school almost guaranteed a rate of 3rd Class Petty Officer and that would mean close to probably.... 150 bucks a month? With a higher rate, even More! He decided that was for him.
Sitting on the rack across from the kid was "The Old Man". A 24 year old Fleet Marine corpsman. Fleet Marines were Navy guys assigned to the Marines. they wore Marine uniforms with Navy insignia. Corpsmen were always on the Beach with the marines. Patching them up after a fight. He had just finished his Tour in the "Conflict" in an Asian country called Korea. The most Bitter Man the kid had ever known. Sullen, withdrawn and Nervous all the time. The young man and the "Old Man" had struck up a friendship. That really only meant they'd gone to the Enlisted Man's Club for beers a few times. The kid only knew the corpsman as Bob, no last name or where he'd come from.
Leaning forward on his rack during a lull in conversation, the young kid spoke "I'm going to apply for Fire Control school. I can make more money and probably get a rate quickly too."
It happened so quickly, the kid didn't have a chance to duck. The corpsman leaped to his feet, with both his hands, grabbed the "V" of the kid's Navy Jumper. Pulling the young man close to his face, the older man Shouted.
"You'll F***in' Die Kid !, You'll F***in' DIE !". Then he sat down, his whole body shaking. The young man was stunned and slowly sat down next to the corpsman. "I don't understand" he said. The Older man began quietly and as he continued he got louder until it was almost a shout. He explained that FIRE CONTROLMAN in Korea, were Navy guys who are part of the Fleet Marines. They were out there in the mud and mess of war. They were sent to distant Hill tops to spot for the artillery. The "eyes" of the army, marine and navy guns. Because the enemy KNEW they were there on the hill tops, they became prime targets for the bad guys. The older man had seen the results. "Few Artillery Spotters EVER lived to come home. I've seen them all blown to hell.. "You'll F***in' DIE, Kid ! ".

The young man spent his remaining active duty as a Radioman, on a US Navy Cruiser, In the Mediterranean Sea, Thousands of miles from Korea. No guns were ever fired in anger at him, his life was never in danger, he got drunk in every port he visited. His WAR was a quiet one. Oh, He did get a medal. Not for bravery or anything like that, But, for the Occupation of Germany (technically the US was still at war with them in 1951). And even that was silly because he was never closer than about 500 miles from that country.
But, he was still alive.
The young man eventually went home, married and had kids.
End of that story...

Finally, the last of the crowd had gone away. The Wharfinger moved out of his old desk chair and slowly walked outside. He surveyed the mess left by the boat owners and their guests. They all had Barbecued and drank, celebrating something called "Memorial Day". Most of them had no idea what that meant. It was just another day of Play to them. Walking around the marina, the Wharfinger saw lots of cheap plastic flags and red,white and blue streamers, but not one ribbon or sign saying "lest we forget".

Sighing, he turned around, shaded his eyes from the lowering sun, he tipped his head up along the length of the old wooden flag staff in front of his office. His gaze fell on the Nation's flag gently waltzing on its staff. His old tattered flag that he had carried with him for years. Every day he pulled the halyard until the flag was Two Blocked on the mast, every day but one. Today, the flag had gone to the top.. and then was slowly lowered to its half way point. "in Memorium".

The old man walked back to his office. Stumpy, his tailless cat, stirred and rolled up into a ball, and went fast asleep. Things were getting to be normal again. There would be a lot of work for him tomorrow. The Clean Up would take him all day. That was for tomorrow. Now, He poured himself a cup of cold coffee and sat in his old chair. He was glad the holiday was over.

There was still a gnawing in his gut, a cold sweat and his hands were shaking. This particular day had always done that to him. He had an emptiness. Was it because no one had asked the question that always caused him to cringe. It was THE day it always happened. The question came from younger people directed to the Older men.."What did you do in the War? "

He was always ashamed to have to explain that, while he was a veteran of a war, he never had to face the horror of war. He couldn't stand tall with those who had. He didn't have nightmares about friends who could never come home. He just couldn't feel "right" standing in a group of veterans, at some military cemetery, Listening to a band play. He couldn't feel as though he'd earned the honor of saluting those who'd fallen. The Old Wharfinger's shame and embarrassment for being alive, was Palpable.

At last, he got up from his chair and shuffled over to a corner of the room. There under the bookshelf was his cracked and dusty Sea Chest. The padlock had long since rusted through and was hanging loosely in the hasp. He pulled the cover back and began pulling out sheaves of paper, ancient cigar boxes and hands full of unidentifiable trinkets. At the very bottom he found what he was looking for. A tin box with disintegrating rubber bands holding it shut. As he began plucking the bands away from the box, tears ran down his face. Then a distant voice came to him, a voice from a time past. A young man's voice. First quietly speaking but raising in volume as the old man pulled away the bands. The box was open.

In the old Wharfinger's hand was an official looking paper saying "Honorable Discharge", a small bronze button that had an Eagle with wing folded, and lastly, a strip of ribbon, half red, half black with white edges. The ribbon was attached to a round chunk of bronze metal with the figure of Neptune on it...on which was written, ...Occupation Service. The voice in the Old Wharfinger's head spoke loudly now.. " You'll F***in' DIE , Kid ! "

Now the Old man knew.... Today was in honor of an Unknown Sailor/Marine... A Hero, Who, one day Sitting on a bunk in a barracks in San Diego California.... Saved his life. Saved him from Dying on some hill top. Saved him from being... Remembered... on THIS DAY.

        r. ahseln May 28, 2012