I Saw an Old Man Smile Today

by Mike Hemming

A younger man, a grandson I guess, pushed his wheelchair to the brow. He sat looking at the black hull in front of him. After a bit he gathered some strength he probably didn’t know he had and heaved himself to his feet. His grandson concerned, took his arm, where upon the old feet shuffled forward to the grey steel bridge of his past. Stepping carefully up he planted one foot then the other on the brow. Taking his time he shuffled forward into his memories.

Reaching the midway point he stopped and with a glance commanded the young one to release his arm. Turning aft he straightened and threw an oft practiced salute to the ensign snapping in the stiff river breeze. A knarled fingered but straight armed salute given with the casual but respectful way of a long time whitehat. Turning once more he continued his trek to his old home.

Reaching the slotted deck he turned aft with the attentive man at his side. Treading carefully in his old man way, he moved to a deck hatch. Stopping and looking down, he spoke some words that the other listened to. I could not hear them and didn’t move forward to try. The words were not for anyone that was there in the flesh. They were for long ago shipmates faded in his mind but firmly held in his heart.

He stared down at the shiny steel ladder that he and others had vaulted upwards on and slid down so many times with youthful exuberance. With his youth gone the ladder no longer led to his home. No longer could it launch him out to exotic ports of call, the ladder was a barrier to his past.

The old one didn’t seem to mind, he was close enough. The river's wind gusts drew the wonderful smell to his nostrils once more. The smell that only one who had been there through thick and thin could love for a lifetime to bring back his past. His past paraded through his mind to flare and fade like sparks.

After a time, he tired and turned to retrace his steps to land. Tired though he was, his steps seemed stronger and jauntier now. Traces of the walk of a gotohell young whitehat were there. Reaching the center of the brow he again turned to salute his colors with practiced ease. At the end of the brow as he stepped down, the last vestiges of his spark faded to a smoldering ember.

After turning and sitting down heavily again the wheelchair, he knew he would never again see, feel, smell or hear the thunder of submarine engines.

As he passed by, I saluted a smiling old man with a tear in his eye.