Read At the Midway Online

Authors: J. Clayton Rogers

At the Midway (6 page)

BOOK: At the Midway
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The mammals emerged.

The Tu-nel emerged.

With the giant sea reptiles gone, the Tu-nel could once again venture into the wide ocean.  There was competition, of course.  Encounters with giant sharks rarely ended happily.  But the attrition was never on the same scale as it had been during the Mesozoic.  Over tens of millions of years, the Tu-nel became more streamlined, more pelagic.  One breed, descended from the Tu-nel of Gondwanaland, sported necks that took up half their body length.  What made them so imposing was their strength.  Having descended from bull-necked cynodonts, their long necks were far sturdier than the sinuous extensions of the plesiosaurs, whose ancestors were slender-necked reptiles.  This was to be a crucial feature in the next great challenge the Tu-nel faced.

The arrival of the first whales.

 

V

 

December, 1907

24°45'N, 67°59'W

 

From a marine's diary:

Reveille at five bells; beans for breakfast; color guard; bright work call 8:15; sack call 8:30; quarters 9:15; recall 10:00; morris tube gun drill 10:10; a bluejacket was knocked overboard while working the davits but was rescued by the torpedo boat Whipple; vomited; stubbed my toe while laying below to draw clean hammocks; played checkers; went on watch at 4; somebody stole my drawers.

 

"Ensign Garrett has the devil up him, and I think he wants to make me his apprentice," Midshipman Beck murmured as he hunched over his meal.

"You don't have to put up with Sand-Crab Singleton, so count your blessings," Midshipman Davis responded while fighting for elbow room on the narrow table.  They were in the junior officers' mess, crammed to the corners with young men fresh from the Academy.  For many this was their first voyage of any length and only now were they regaining their appetites.  The air was filled with awkward, new-learned slang.  'Punk' for bread; 'sand' for salt; 'slumgullion' for any kind of soup or stew; 'salt horse' for salt beef.  They bolted their meals, for there was no telling when they would be called to quarters in one of Captain Oates' infernal drills.  And with the ship stewards and mess men behaving the way they were, the uncertainty of dining was increased tenfold.

"Uh... moke.  Moke!  You carrying that pot or did you spill some on your head?  We need some Java here."  Beck eyed with distaste the murky glass of water next to his empty coffee mug. The ship's fresh water supply had been drawn from a lake in the Dismal Swamp near Norfolk.  It possessed a variety of discolorations, one part due to rust from the
Florida's
iron water tank, another part from the juniper berries that had fallen into the lake, and a third part due, no doubt, to something that best remained a mystery.  A long line of admirals from the Civil War to the present swore it prevented everything from scurvy to seasickness.  And after one sip of it, a long list of ratings had switched to tea and coffee, which were at least boiled beforehand.

"Hey, moke, don't any of you spades have ears?"

Amos Macklin had had no intention of acknowledging Beck.  A 'moke' was a colored mess boy or hall attendant and he still thought of himself as a Seaman Second Class.  But the middy's last volley picked a scab.  Shrugging, he brought the coffee pot over and topped the metal cup so close to the rim that Beck could not lift it without spilling some.

"No, sir, spades don't have ears.  Nor do shovels or rakes, last I heard."

Beck leaned down to sip some of the dark liquid off the edge.  The ship yawed suddenly and rode up on the beam and the table jumped into the midshipman's face.  Gasping, he inhaled a nose-full of hot coffee.

"Whoa!" Davis laughed.

"Son of a bitch!" Beck choked.

There were embarrassed titters from the junior officers around him.  These young men had been chosen not only for their clean-cut complexions, but for their equally spotless morals.  It was the rare curse that passed their lips.

But Beck had hot coffee up his nose and he knew who to blame.  All the associations ran together.  From a black hand had come a black liquid which had nearly gagged him--which equaled a black insult.  When he turned, however, Macklin was out of sight.

"It was an accident," Davis said, his consolation soured by the doubt in his voice.

Amos Macklin was pleased as hell by his little subversion.  He'd never asked for this chicken-gut job and the best people to blame were the ones sitting where he had wanted to sit.

Methuselah's nightmare premonition had come true.

Up to a month ago, the stewards on the ships of the Atlantic Fleet had been Japanese.  They were popular with the crews.  And the very fact that they seemed to enjoy serving the white men did much to demythologize the victors of Tsushima.  The sailors who had destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905 might be less inclined to engage the Americans if they knew a few hundred cousins were on board.

But then it was announced that the grand cruise would include several stops on the West Coast.  Anti-Japanese demonstrations had become endemic to California.  The residents were certain the Japanese population of San Francisco and environs represented the vanguard of a yellow invasion.  It all seemed far
-
fetched to Easterners.  But was it?  Several newspapers reported that an army of ten thousand Japs was practicing maneuvers just south of the Mexican border.  Nothing had been confirmed, but many Americans were beginning to feel that improbable did not mean impossible.  Although Roosevelt had compelled the western states to rescind some of their anti-Japanese laws, to sail past the Golden Gate with a passel of Nips on board would make poor political sense.  So, abruptly, they were banned.

The black sailors drafted to replace them were finding out the hard way that joining the Navy was not like signing the articles on a merchant tramp or whaler, which assigned one a specialty--such as second mate or carpenter's mate--for the length of the voyage.

There was plenty of cooking to be done:

There was the captain's mess, where Oates ate alone.

The wardroom mess, for the commissioned officers.  This was the preferred lair of the reporters, who dubbed it the 'jollification mess' in the papers.

The junior officers' mess, where Beck sat nursing his nose.

The chief petty officers' mess.

The warrant officers' mess.

And the biggest of the lot, the general mess, where the ordinary seaman dined on some of the best food ever served to American jackies.  Reporters with the Fleet made much of the fact that Japanese sailors had to do with bean
-
curd, fish and seaweed, while the American boys could dine on veal, sausage, succotash, potatoes, pork chops, applesauce, corn bread, eggs, and thick beef stew
-
-
not to mention the comfits that would be served when they sailed into distant ports.   All of which was prepared and served up by the new, black stewards.

But since anger and resentment had a way of spoiling flavor, not all of the fine food stowed aboard for the sailors arrived on their tables in the best condition.  This did not affect the captains and rear admirals.  They had to pay for their own food.  As a consequence, a flag officer's mess was usually a miserable affair, and a captain's not much better.  But those officers concerned about the morale of their men took note of the badly prepared food in the general mess.  They were certain their coloreds were burning and over
-
boiling and under
-
cooking on purpose.  They took it upon themselves to assure the blacks they would win back their rating at the conclusion of the voyage.  On some ships, the cooking improved.  But Amos Macklin was historically
-
minded.

"You know what Andrew Jackson told the slaves in the War of 1812?" he said to one of his black mates.  "He told them they could have their freedom, once they beat the British.  We didn't get free for half a hundred years after that, and the British were beat and long gone.  You know the story.  We all do.  Andy Jackson was laughing all the way up his white ass.  That's what this navy is doing.  They're laughing at us.  And they call it 'nigger heaven.'"

The man to whom he spoke did not respond.  Like Macklin, he had been present for a little speech Captain Oates had given the new stewards.  "I know you boys have been given a raw deal, but I swear the Navy will make it up to you," began Captain Oates' speech to his new stewards.  It was the closest thing they'd ever seen to a white man begging.  But most of them were unmoved.  Some of them had already been "met by the galley"--it was fast becoming a standard phrase--by bluejackets who were irate over the poor quality of the cooking, not to mention the glum manner in which it was served.  The bruised stewards dared not tell the ship surgeons anything other than that they'd fallen down a hatch, leaving the surgeons bewildered as to why these once-nimble men were suddenly tripping over their own feet.

The steward to whom Macklin spoke was certain Macklin would be met by the galley.  He did not want to share his fate.  Without saying a word, he shuffled away.  Amos knew what was on his mind, and made a sound of disgust.  The grand old navy
-
-
dead and gone!  As a child in Savannah, he'd heard grizzled black tars regale listeners with tales of the sea; and then, when they'd had enough to drink, amuse them with jigs and sea chanties.  There had been no such thing as a majority or minority in the union navy.  The sailors manning the ships were from around the world.  High in the sheets, you were as likely to meet a mate from Madagascar as a whelp from Nantucket.  But the day of sail was gone
-
-
as well as, it was apparent to Macklin, the day of seaman equality.  Just as ships still bore masts beside their funnels, the black man seemed merely a vestige of the past.  Appearance was everything, and everything was white.

The day after learning of the admiral's order, Amos had received his Clothing and Small Store Requisition: watch cap, pancake cap, cap-ribbon; two sets of heavy underwear, two white jumpers and trousers, two white hats, a heavy blue overcoat, a blue overshirt, blue trousers, six pairs of wool socks, six pairs of cotton; a pair of high shoes, bathing trunks, leggings, a silk neckerchief, two towels, two wool blankets; a scrub brush, shoe brush and whisk broom; soap, assorted buttons, needles, thread, and white clothes-stops for putting it all into a few compact rolls.  The Navy made a big to-do over the fact that this was given the men gratis.  But the bare truth was that this was the kit of an ordinary seaman.

He needed a break from the young, innocent faces of the midshipmen in the junior officers' mess, so he went to the chief cook, an ancient black who always looked as though he were about to fall asleep, but who in fact possessed a stunning reservoir of energy.  He had to.  Overseeing the preparation of three huge meals a day demanded the most out of a man, if he wasn't to be met by the galley.

"I'll take the slop," Amos told him, nodding at a couple of pails.

The cook nodded wordlessly.  The story of Midshipman Beck and his coffee had already circulated back to the galley and scullery.  It was not surprising Macklin wanted to get away for a spell.

Opening the galley hatchway, Amos was relieved to find a stiff breeze coming in off the port beam, hitting him directly in the face.  He would have to walk all the way around the superstructure and the aft turrets so that he could empty the buckets to starboard.  He'd been in the Navy too long to perpetuate the novice trick of throwing scraps into the wind--with a faceful of muck as the result.

This little chore would take him at least ten minutes--more if he could dally convincingly.  With luck, he would not have to face Beck again until breakfast.

It was dark, but Amos could see the
Minnesota
and the
Ohio
from the hatchway.  Their running lights glowed eerily in the light fog, like the globe lamps Amos had once seen on a misty street in Liverpool. 
Ardois
lights winked continuously, like insomniac insects.  Foggy tentacles reached out and grasped for the bridge and the brightwork.  One of them chucked Amos on the chin, and he shivered.  This was one of those uneasy nights when the world seemed set to grab you.  Perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea, after all.  Come to think of it, he could finish this task in five minutes, tops.  The tall ventilator funnels moaned, as if to hurry him on his way.

He had taken only a few steps when he heard a man sobbing.  Resting the buckets on the deck, he peered into the darkness under one of the lifeboats.  It took him several seconds to make out the man prone beneath it--several seconds more to recognize him.

"Gilroy?  That you?"

The man did not answer.  The sobbing continued, only now Amos realized he was not crying.  He was suffocating, fighting for air.

Even in daylight recognizing Gilroy would have been difficult.  His face was darker than Macklin's, yet he was a white man.  He was part of the Artificer Branch, a Fireman Second Class--one of the 'black crew'.  This was the group that lived and worked in the bowels of the ship, along with the stokers and engineers and coal passers.  The members of the black crew were the only white men Amos ever felt sorry for.

Looking across at the
Minnesota
, he noted the water surging up around its armor belt.  For the first leg of their journey, Admiral Evans had ordered that a speed of eleven knots be maintained.  From Virginia to the Caribbean, no variation would be allowed.  The voyage had hardly begun, and already the schedule was tight.  At flank speed the
Florida
could manage 16.2 knots
-
-
the slowest in the Fleet. These were spurts that put only a brief strain on the black crews.  But day after day at eleven knots was a killing pace.  Combined with the tough training maneuvers they'd undergone prior to their departure, the quick transit was pushing the black crew beyond endurance.

BOOK: At the Midway
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

A Crown Of War (Book 4) by Michael Ploof
Falling Apart (Barely Alive #2) by Bonnie R. Paulson
Bring the Jubilee by Ward W. Moore
The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh
The Pirate Captain by Kerry Lynne
The Rogue's Proposal by Jennifer Haymore
Loving Care by Gail Gaymer Martin