Taps

Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

“Why do you always do that, Great-grandpa Bill?” Ginny Benson asked

“Do what, Ginny?” replied old Bill Frye.

“Take off your glasses and tap them on the table when you look out that window?”

“Do I do that? Hmmm…I guess I do. Didn’t even notice the tapping. Here, let me put them back on so I see your pretty face,” Bill said with a smile.

“So why do you do that? And always when you look out the window on the ocean side of the house,” Ginny said.

“My, you do notice a lot for someone so young. Just the ocean side, you say?”

“Yep. Hardly ever when you look out the road side of your house.”

“Hmmm…maybe because I’ve seen the ocean long enough in my life that I know what she looks like? Don’t even need my glasses,” old Bill said.

“Uh huh. But you always tell me how the ocean’s a living thing, changing every second and you have to keep your eyes on it. So why…?”

“My, my, but you’re a tight listener, Ginny. With a memory like your great-grandmother’s, God rest her sweet soul. And you favor her more each and every day.”

“Okay. But you still didn’t answer my question. Why do you take them off and tap them on your table like that,” Ginny said as she sat at the window seat next to Bill.

“…and in your stubborn lines of inquiry, I might add.”

“I guess.”

“So let’s see, why do I take off my glasses when I look out at the ocean? Well, like I said, I was a seaman for more than sixty years, even if you’ve only ever seen me live on shore. I’ve probably spent more time at sea than ashore.”

“Mommy and Grandma say they’ve seen more of you since Great-grandma June died than they ever did.”

“Yeah, well, making up for lost time, I guess. And I regret that loss. That’s what old seamen do, Ginny. We sit around, stare out windows and listen to the clock tick as we look back, remember how lucky we’ve been and then regret,” Bill said, looking out the window again.

“Regret? You’ve lived a long time, made a successful career in commercial fishing for six decades. You even survived Pearl Harbor, Grandpa told me,” Ginny said, her voice rising.

“He did, did he? What’d he tell you?” Bill’s eyes narrowed.

“He said you escaped from a ship after it was torpedoed by the Japanese. He told me it capsized and you got off. But he told me that’s all he knew. Even Grandma doesn’t know what happened.”

“I survived, honey, when a lot of other men didn’t. Isn’t that enough to know?”

“I suppose. But you still didn’t answer my questions.”

“How old are you now, Ginny?”

“Thirteen. Fourteen in two weeks.”

“My you’re growing up so fast. So bright, so mature for your young age. You know what I was doing when I was about your age?”

“I don’t know. Paper route?”

“At fifteen I was working on my uncle Frank’s boat off Port Orford. I hauled in Dungeness crab for him every day until I turned 17, when I decided I’d seen enough of crabs and the Oregon coast. Told myself I never wanted to see no crab pots or fishing nets again. I wanted to see what the rest of the world looked like from the deck of a real vessel. So I joined the Navy.”

“Still waiting on tapping your glasses, Grampy Bill.”

“I admire your persistence, Ginny. Must’ve gotten that from me. So I signed up and they sent me to basic training and then to a ship called the USS Oklahoma, which was moored in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. I never seen any place so beautiful in my life. It was a sweet time, let me tell you. All that warm sunshine, the sweet smell of hibiscus and Island girls. After standing in cold water and smelling of crab and whiting for two years, this was heaven,” Bill said, a softer tone to his voice. 

“I met a girl there named Missy Kochiyama. This is before I met your Great-grandmother. Japanese-American girl, born in Hawaii. Nisei they called kids whose folks had come from Japan. For whatever reason, we hit it right off when a buddy of mine asked me to tag along to meet some girls he knew. After that, whenever I got shore leave, which happened more times than you might think, we’d meet up and have us a sweet time. We were real close.”

“Did you love her?”

“Yep, honey, I did. And she loved me, too. I even gave her my Mom’s watch, which your great-great-grandma gifted to me before she passed. And she gave me a watch with Japanese characters that her dad used as a student in Kyoto. We told each other that our watches were each other’s beating hearts. And whenever we wished we could be near one another, to just put the watch to our ear and there the other would be.”

“That’s so sweet! So how’s this fit into…”

“Oh, yeah. Well, the Oklahoma was one of the biggest and best battleships in the fleet. And to stay that way, we trained and drilled and had inspections to keep us sharp. In fact, we were preparing to have an inspection on Monday, December eighth, so we had a lot of our doors and hatches wide open when the Japs hit us. Three torpedoes, bang-bang-bang, in our port side right off.” 

“That must have been so frightening, Grampy Bill!”

“That was the second most frightening thing ever happened to me, Ginny. Water began pouring in from the holes those fish made and with all those hatches open, the Okie took on water faster than anyone could close and dog them. The ship began to list to port and a lot of boys found themselves trapped before they could get above decks. Then five more fish hit her and the Okie really began sinking and over she went.”

“Oh my God!”

“Me and a bunch of fellas were trapped in a compartment underneath the No. 4 gun turret, which, when she went keel-over-teakettle, was then underwater. We were stuck in there for 25 hours, with no power, thinning air, and water starting to come over my feet like on that old trawler of my uncle’s,” Bill said.

Ginny leaned forward and grasped her great-grandfather’s crooked hands.

“So what did you do? What happened?” she said.

“We all took turns banging on the bulkhead above us with a wrench. Clang-clang, clang-clang! Like a horrible heartbeat. It was an awful racket and with everyone’s nerves shot, it became almost too much to bear. We could hear the same thing going on in the Number 4 Radio Room next to us. Some of the guys were ready to die after eighteen hours of this stuff. I knew exactly how long we were locked in that box because I kept looking Missy’s dad’s watch. When one of the guys saw the Japanese figures on its face, he tried grabbing it from me and I dropped it into the water, which was rising higher all the time. I found it and put back in my pocket. The air pressure getting tighter and the continuous clanging made my ears hurt so bad. I was pretty sure I was gonna be deaf before I was gonna be dead.”

“Then what happened, Great-grandpa?”

“Other sailors and civilian workers from the Navy Yard brought in air compressors, pumps, chipping tools and torches alongside the part of our hull still above water. We had no idea this was going on, of course. It wasn’t until we heard the first sounds of an air hammer a full day after the attack. One of the guys in Number 4 Radio Room, on his way out, told a fella from the Navy Yard we were still alive on the other side of the bulkhead. He banged on the steel and yelled to tell us he was gonna get us out.”

“And he did. Wow!” 

“It wasn’t that simple, Ginny. See, we had water rising and if they just cut a hole in that bulkhead, willy-nilly, all the air that was in our compartment would blow out that hole and water would take its place. We knew this because as soon as we saw a drill bit come through the wall, we could hear the hiss of the air going out and watch the water begin coming in. So four of us went under the water and horsed the hatch shut. That gave us a chance, I guess. But it wasn’t going to be that simple.”

“What do you mean?”

“The water was still rising as the construction crew started at the bulkhead with an air hammer. I heard later that when they tried cutting through another place on the ship with an acetylene torch it sucked the air right out of the compartment. The water rushed in and all those fellas died on the spot. So with the water rising in our compartment and that air hammer gnawing away at the bulkhead, it was a race to see if we’d get out in time, if at all. And now I can tell you what was the most scared I’ve ever been. Right there.”

“I…I can’t imagine, Grampy Bill.”

“I hope you never try, Ginny. After about an hour of this stuff, the big fella who was hammering into the wall had finished the third side of a square he was cutting for us. But time was running out for him, too. Water was up to his knees and rising as fast as it was for us. We were ready to tear into that slab of steel with our fingers by then. This fella knew none of us had too long left, so he says, ‘Look out for your hands, boys,’ and he takes a sledgehammer and begins wanging away at that steel. He bent it back toward us until there was this triangular space we could shimmy through. We got out of that ship as fast as we could, let me tell you. But found out later more than 400 of our shipmates weren’t so lucky. That’ll gnaw on you for a long time, Ginny.”

“What a story! So when you look out at the ocean you take your glasses off and tap them like those wrenches and hammers and stuff you heard that day?” Ginny said.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Bill sighed.

Just as she was about to get up, Ginny asked, “Whatever happened to that girl, Missy, Grampy?”

“I never saw her again. Even went down to where they kept all the bigshot Japanese residents. Like those internment camps they had back on the mainland. She wasn’t there either.”

“How sad. Well, thank you Grampy Bill. I’m honored you shared that story with me.” Ginny kissed Bill’s forehead.

“You’re welcome, honey. But let’s just keep it between us, okay? Our secret. Just some of those things old men think about when our real last day grows near.” Bill gave Ginny a wink.

“You bet. Love you, Grampy Bill.”

“Love you, Ginny.”

As she left the room, Bill stared out at the ocean again and sighed. 

“Couldn’t tell her. Just couldn’t,” he whispered to himself.

Once more he felt for the old tarnished watch in his breast pocket, its hands pointing to about 8:30 AM, when the salt water stopped it on December 9, 1941. That was two days after Missy Kochiyama took her father’s car out to Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning in hope of waving to young Billy Frye, when he said he would be above deck.

With his fingers touching the old watch, old Bill gazed toward the southwest, removed his glasses and tapped heartbeats on the table with them as the sun set in the Pacific behind Neahkahnie Point on the Oregon coast.

Another first-and-a-half draft based on Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project. This week’s theme was the Sense of Sound. I was presented with three photos for inspiration: one showed an old man staring into the camera, a pair of eyeglasses, and, finally, a photo of the ocean at sunset . The fact that today is the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed me in that direction. And another prompt I read today suggested I try writing a story all in dialogue. I came close, but I couldn’t finish it the way I wanted that way…today..

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