Taking a Walk

by Mike Hemming
 
 

"Hey Mom, I'm gonna take a walk down the beach. I'll be back before lunch."

Heading down the nearly empty morning beach into the sun and salt air. The sun, he hadn't seen much of, these last months. No sun, canned air, frozen and canned food and that funny smell was his life now. His qual Dolphins pinned on his hat just a few days ago shone in the still golden morning light. He almost didn’t wear the hat but picked it up out of habit on the way out.

Life was good, finally qualified, made 3rd. class, and thinking of the future, he was happy.

"Not yet 20, I got the world by the balls", he thought. "Going places and gonna do things, free from small seaside town life forever now."

He walked on leaving his prints in the sand to be washed away now or later by the eddies of the surf. There were few other people that were near or even far on this beach at this early fall time of year. It had been during the warming spring the last time he had left footprints here.

After a while, he reached his usual turning around place and he could see an old man sitting alone another 50 yards or so farther on. As he starts his turn, he noticed the man looking at him. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have paid any attention or cared. He had learned to avoid 'civvies' somewhat because they didn’t understand his love for the boats. Some were even hostile to the military, even among his high school friends, especially those that had gone to some colleges.

But something made him keep on walking toward the man sitting there in a beach chair. Reaching the man who had never taken his eyes off him, he realizes the man was old, I mean, really old.

"Hi!"

His answer is a slight smile and a nod.

"Nice day."

Again, a small smile and a nod is all the young man gets.

"May I sit and rest in this chair?" he asks, not knowing why he doesn’t just return home. The old one still looking steadily at him nods again. He sits, noticing that as he does the old mans steel blue eyes are the most alive and vibrant thing about him. It dawns on the young one and he asks,

"Can you speak?"

A negative shake of the head is his answer.

"Okay, We will just sit and watch the ocean for a bit then."

With a smile and a nod, the old one looks back to the morning sunlit sea. After a time, as the young one turns and makes excuses to leave, he sees the man is looking at his hat.

"You a boat sailor?"

A nod.

"Really, what boat?"

Forgetting the old one can’t speak, but fingers moving on a gnarled thin-skinned hand give a 3-digit answer.

"Damn, what year you qualify?"

A 2-digit answer preceding the war indicates the old one is close to 100 years old.

Stunned to silence, the young one sits back and stays quiet for a bit. Then he chats for a while about his boat and what its like, while the other listens, nods and smiles. He talks of long patrols and ops and the great crew they have. He proudly points out that he is newly qualified and wears his brand new Dolphins.

After a bit he realizes the old man is sad now.

"They are all gone now, aren't they?"

"You are the last one, aren't you?"

The nods and welling tears tell the lonely old man's story faster and more strongly than words. Unable to speak again, the young one sits back silently and the two look out over the beautiful ocean again. Calm and serene now, they both know the many moods she can show men that dare to travel on her. Green here near the shore, but they both know the brilliant blue of the deep sea where they have both sailed.

Approaching footsteps breaks their wordless contemplation and communication.

"Grandpa, are you okay?"

A nod and a twinkle in his eye give his answer. The two younger men introduce themselves, the grandson seeing the Dolphins recognizes them and comments.

"Its nice you stopped to talk to him since he never sees the others anymore. He is all alone except for me and mom now."

They both talk for a bit, the grandson telling the other a little of his grandfather’s service that he knows of. Toward the end of the conversation, the grandson mentions that his grandfather lost all his memorabilia in fire a while back.

After a while, the young sailor stands and says,

"I’ll be going now."

Then he hesitates when he sees the old man looking at his Dolphins once more. Thinking and moving quickly he removes his hat, unpins the silver emblem with his name and the so recent date engraved on the back. Leaning forward he pins the Dolphins on the older one's frayed and faded sweater vest.

Stepping back he salutes the older man in a semi-formal way saying,

"Thank you, sir".

As he takes his leave, he nods to the grandson and says in a low voice,

"See that when his time comes those fish go with him, he earned them in a harder time than me."

The two watch the sailor walk away up the beach.

"Why didn’t you speak to him, Grandpa?"

In a soft, low voice he says,

"Because I didn’t need to and I wanted to hear about his boats."

"Besides, I wanted to see what kind of young men were sub sailors these days."

"And?"

"That one is the best. It takes a real shipmate to give your qualification Dolphins to be buried with an old man you will never see again."

 

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