As The Old Man Turned

by Joe Roche

The old man said, “Stop the car, I’ll walk the rest of the way.” The younger man silently obeyed.

The old man got out of the car, leaning heavily on his cane, began the long walk down the deserted pier. Halfway down the pier he stopped. The younger man watched as the older man seemed to straighten up and uncurl his body that had been racked the last few years with rheumatism. The younger man got out of the car and slowly walked down the pier, until he stood about ten feet behind and to the side of the old man. He was worried about him. The old man hadn’t been the same since his wife of fifty-six years died two years ago. He thought his request to visit this place was strange, but he took him here anyway, without question. He loved the old man and would certainly do anything he asked. He looked out to sea, wondering what the old man was looking for.

The years dropped from the older mans eyes as he watched the tall, strong young boy walking down the pier, in his summer whites, with his seabag jauntily thrown over his left shoulder with an arrogance that only is afforded the young. The young sailor was looking for his boat. When he found it, he crossed the brow, saluted the ensign and the topside watch and reported aboard his very first duty station. It was 1944.

The young man was told to go below and ask for the COB, who would assign him his bunk. After the COB introduced himself he pointed to a bunk and told him, “That would be his world for the next patrol.” He then introduced him to his new boss, who threw a white apron at him and told him change out of his whites, since he wouldn’t be going anywhere for the next few weeks.

The next few weeks turned into two months of mess cooking, trying to qualify and his first war patrol. During which, his duty station was to sit in the mess hall and use a stop watch. If they were attacked by the Japs, he was to time and count the depth charges.

One patrol led to another and then another and by the end of the third patrol he finally received his coveted Dolphins. It was about three weeks after his fourth patrol that he woke up one morning with terrible pains in his abdomen. He could barely get around. He took some good-natured kidding about trying to get out of work, but by nightfall it was clear something was very wrong and he was rushed over to sick bay. After a preliminary examination it was determined that he had acute appendicitis and would have to be operated on.

It was while he recuperated that his boat went back to sea. He was angry that she went to sea without him and he missed being with his friends and crewmates, but he understood. After all, there was a war going on.

After his recuperation was over, he was given a new set of orders to another boat and immediately went to sea. It was while he was at sea, he found out his first boat was long overdue and was assumed lost.

The old man's eyes clouded up and his memories of so long ago faded once more to a place that he hadn’t visited in such a long time.

As the old man turned, the younger man saw a single tear run down his cheek and was overwhelmed with sadness for his grandfather. He wanted to do something to make it allright for him, but in his heart he knew he couldn’t. That what ever the old man was going through, he and only he, would have to deal with whatever was bothering him.

On the long trip home, the younger man said, “Poppa, what was it that made you so sad back there on the pier?”

The old man never spoke to anyone, including his wife, about what had happened during the war. But he told his grandson. He told him because he finally realized that his story needs to be remembered by people, so these things wouldn’t repeat themselves. He told his story. His grandson listened without interruption. He thought of his Poppa, a kid going away to war.

“Hell, at that age, I was getting ready for four years of fun at college,” thought the younger man.

Two days after they returned home, the old man died peacefully in his sleep.

At the funeral, a card with the following poem was left in the old man's coffin. It read;

There is a port of no return, where ships

May ride at anchor for a little space.

And then, some starless night, the cable slips,

Leaving an eddy at the mooring place . . .

Gulls, veer no longer. Sailor, rest your oar.

No tangled wreckage will be washed ashore.

The young man did not see who placed it there.