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Authors: Jack; Cady

Tags: #Fiction, #Ghost

Jonah Watch

BOOK: Jonah Watch
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For Carol, a fellow historian

Author's Note

This tale remembers the cutters
, and the
men who sailed them. Experienced seamen who recall the early 1950s, which is the setting for this story, will see that the Coast Guard cutter
is a conglomerate of the 125-foot and 110-foot classes.

As to the spectral, other-worldly nature of what follows: I never saw a Coast Guard log doctored, but I have seen events that were deliberately omitted. Each incident in this story actually occurred in one form or another. The ghost of Jensen (a fictional name) appeared climbing the ladder to the bridge of a neighboring cutter on more than one occasion. The incident of the
Hester C.
(another fictional name) is a matter of record, although the spectral manifestation that accompanied it is not. I have no explanation for these events, nor seek any. They happened. I witnessed them while in a state of sobriety when I am firmly convinced I was not crazy.

All other events are a matter of official record, whether they be six downed airmen, or a terrible case of epilepsy. In the cause of fiction it has been necessary to change the tactical disposition of cutters, while names of vessels towed are entirely fictional. However, the names are common to that coast. Here and there they may accidentally match the name of a real vessel.

Like the ship, the crew is a conglomerate of characteristics observed among hundreds of seamen. The exceptions are Masters and Racca. No doubt there are plenty of men on that coast who have no courage, but this writer has met only one. His name was quite a common name, and he was old and tired and failing in the business of fishing. In his younger days, it was said of him that he had been brave.

Last, this book is an exercise in total recall. It took a year to write, but the only research material needed was a chart of the coast. In a way the book took more than a year. I first tried it in '61, then in '69, then in '73, and finally wrote it in 1980. I left the Coast Guard in '56. It took twenty-four years to gather enough skill and objectivity to tell the story. My admiration for those unsung men who save life at sea was so great that sentiment blocked the earlier attempts.

So Jonah Arose, and Went Unto Nineveh,

According to the Word of the Lord.

—Jonah 3:3

Chapter 1

On those far northern shores where the wind sets north-
northeast, and where remote lighthouses are haunted by dark tales of men flung upright from the surf—as if the dead rose through spray like pathetic divines—the summer slides in on the memory of ice. Sunlight polishes the luminous green of the outer islands. Old men unprop their feet from crackling wood stoves. They stop their winter yarning; stretch, turn weathered faces to the sun. Brick streets glisten with melt from high-piled banks and stockades and walls of snow. Young men blink fantastically in the sun. Their downcast, high-bowed vessels no longer plunge doubled up on the moorings. The young men hunger and begin to laugh. They seem strangely unamazed to be alive.

The summer shuffle begins. There is a last-minute rearrangement of crews aboard the trawlers. Nets repaired during winter and deemed "twill do" seem old and fragile in the sun. The ships' chandlers enjoy a surge of business, dealing almost lustily in the perfume of manila, of tarred marlin, of enameled boxes of electronics designed to aid in the taking of fish. To the east the swells bat down and the North Atlantic settles promissory toward the tranquility of summer. On the white ships, arc welders sputter against winter damage. Here and there a new face appears, a new set of hands, a new body to be groomed and trained and then thrown against the inevitability of September.

Ernie Brace came aboard on a day that surrounded the cutter
with the over-flooding certainty of sunlight. The tide was full and the gangway taut, for the tidal fall in those waters is great. When the tide was at half, the gangway pointed straight across from ship to pier. It gave rattles like the clank of pans being beaten by chains. At full tide the gangway pinged like a drumhead telegraphing the uncertainty of Brace's steps. He moved like any other seaman deuce sprung high schooled and timid from the fields and small towns of Indiana or Kansas. His fresh seabag was glazed white in the sun. It hung stiff over a narrow shoulder that leaned with its weight. Brace's slender body was clad in issue blues, like a brushed and newly blocked sack from which popped his unremarkable-appearing, brown-haired head—a head, some supposed, that was stuffed with young arrogance which the man would not lose until he had survived some heavy weather.

He was new to the ship, but he represented nothing new. They come and go, these young ones, like confused cherubs or corn-fed angels ashore in Rome. Plunking untraveled seabags to the quarterdeck, they cause small ripples as they enter the community of the ship, only to soon leave with no trace of a wake. They go to service schools or by draft to weather cutters. They are great requesters of transfers—or were.

Yet, it does not seem long ago. We were all rougher then, as we are certainly smoother now. Those who are not sandpapered flat.

The sea is the same, and the brawling northeastern ports remain. The narrow white Coast Guard ships churn white froth as they appear and disappear like phantoms into shrouds of mist. These new ones are bright with bold red stripes on their bows and with commission pennants snapping from stubby masts; yet, they hold a hint of other ships. They tell a subdued vision of converted subchaser hulls made awkward by high boxlike deckhouses. Short fantails disappear into a winter fog of memory, but yes—the sea is the same. Mist and the sparkle of the sun turned dull on polished bronze, and always, finally, the ice fog and ash-gray light of winter. What seems a tale of the wind is really a tale of ice and the mist.

Brace blinked in that sun and looked at his first assignment. Confused. His mouth was not naturally large and now it was tight. His dark eyes were more fearful than timid. It must have seemed to him that he had been sent to the very belly of chaos.

Beneath his hand a rail twisted away; the round, solid steel grotesquely bent like half a question. Before his eyes, a second rail twisted downward from the boat deck. Foundations, where gear lockers once stood, looked like an erect tumble of steel shrubbery, while the lockers themselves, as Brace would discover, were taking a swim off Georges Bank. Cutter
was poxed with spots of red lead over newly cleaned steel. The house was streaked with rusty slashes of new welds that bled toward the deck. On the boat deck beside twisted and empty davits two seamen stopped their work, nudged each other, laughed; winked like a couple engaged in an extravagant romance. They waited for chief bosun Dane to appear, stubby legged and bawling. On the fantail the yeoman, Howard, nursed a light hangover and checked a requisition of stores. He bit at the end of a yellow pencil and rubbed his aching, dark-haired head. Through the open midship hatch sounded the curse of an engineman and the rattle of chain falls. The radio made desultory pops from the bridge. The steward Amon scampered aft ... stopped; his olive Hawaiian face managed to look bland and incredulous at the same time.

"New man?"

"Brace. Where should I go?"

"I make your acquaintance Brace—make it later," and Amon chugged toward the after hatch bearing news.

Coils of towline hung like wheat-colored festoons along the undamaged areas of rail. The 20-mm guns were shrouded in canvas. They pointed skyward like small, clothed steeples. Brace looked forward, looked aft, moved an indecisive step. The 125-foot length of
seemed a tattered and inchoate jumble. He eased his unspotted seabag onto a small patch of tar, and the cook, Lamp, having received the news of a new mouth and stomach, bumped through the after hatch in time to see bosun Dane appear like a moving gargoyle from forward.

Men stopped work. Waited. Whispered and chuckled. On the boat deck, one of the seamen bounced on his heels like an ape, rolled his eyes to heaven, gurgled a poor imitation of a death rattle. Brace stood confused and unsuspecting. Dane approached as surely as the tide.

He was toadlike with rheumatism, Dane, and he stood in that crew like a minor god when the sun shone, like Jehovah, Itself, during gale. In this crucial matter of saving life and property at sea, it was known that when the wind blew black from the northeast, Dane's rheumatism went before it. In the winter just past, a frozen and nearly whipped deck gang had watched Dane balance on a pitching rail and put a heaving line accurately into the teeth of a forty-knot blow. He was hated by some, respected by all, and he was secretly loved—as those who are unreligious may still think kindly of the Madonna.

Water slapped the pier. Gulls squawked. Brace reported.

"Another tailwagger." Dane reached for the thin service record which was as stiff and new between its covers as Brace's seabag. Dane fanned himself with the record and puffed. He stood erect for a moment, then slumped back to the demands of rheumatism. He was a blockish sort. A troll. Short and heavy with thin lips, thick forearms, thick waist. He sniffed as if he sensed the presence of a garbage scow. He seemed to be listening to the gulls and the silence about the decks.

"Where you from, puppy?"

Brace admitted that he hailed from southern Illinois. Timid. Tremulous. A low voice from a boy who seemed unsure whether he was under attack. Wonderment crossed his smooth face. He was pained like a newsboy who is refused payment because his journal carries wrong-headed editorials.

Dane gazed with scorn. He managed to say with his manner that he had always expected somewhat more of southern Illinois. The broad, thin-lipped toad mouth was flat with disapproval. His hunched shoulders flexed. Threatening. One hand held the service record, the other flicked horny-handed to make dents in the new covers. His thick shoulders hunched and his hands seemed scarcely restrained from tearing Brace to fragments. On the boat deck a man sniggered.

Brace stepped backward, bumped the gangway with his foot, stumbled.

"Stand," Dane told him. "Stay ... sit ... roll over ... play dead."


"Jump through hoops ... waggle your butt ... say sir to officers but not to your betters ... slather ... chase your tail 'til you rupture ... and shed those raggedy blues and get into dungarees."

Brace moved to pick up his seabag.

"Stand. Did I say pick that up—no—I-did-not-say-pick-that-up ... ," and the harangue began. Did Brace have a mother? Was she proud? Why? A father? How could Brace be sure? A woman? Mona? What kind of a cornfield name was Mona? Dane warmed to his task and Brace, slow to understand, became monosyllabic and shocked.

No doubt it was the sun. The sun warmed Dane's rheumatism, and he rose joyfully to intimidation that appalled all of his previous efforts in that line. He swarmed over Brace. His words were as hot as fire in a cargo of raw sulphur. This god-blessed blankety son of a plowshare and a mule ... his voice rose, ran the scale of sound and pitch and volume. His face became red and apoplectic. Across the pier, the crew on the cutter
stopped work and listened and whooped to encourage his raving. Dane fumed, fizzled, spat, walked heavenward through curses, while Brace first became red with anger and then redder with shame as the whoops from
centered on him like a spotlight. Dane moved easily through a cloud of metaphor and returned to the basics of Brace's high school locker room. Brace turned from fear and anger to fury. His face was white.

It was the result Dane wanted. It made him pleased. He stopped midsentence, looked at the pale, tense face and trembling hands that were not able to stay unclenched. Brace was within two seconds of forgetting the consequences of attempting murder. Dane smiled, and it was a smile like a grandfather bequeathing his gold watch to an ambitious posterity.

"You pass," Dane said. "And welcome aboard."

He turned from Brace to display the back of his neck as he bent forward to rub his knee. He hollered for Glass, seaman, and Glass tumbled down the ladder from the bridge in a panting, red-faced, hysteric scramble; as if doom had just cracked and he had a few things to attend to before the end of the world. From the boat deck came the sound of someone choking with laughter, while another man beat fists helplessly against a rolled canvas in an agony of entertainment. Glass skidded to a stop, wild-eyed, saw that the play was ended and resumed his composure. Glass was a tall, teacherly-looking Jew from the Boston slums who read detective stories and dreamed of being a professional criminal.

"It's the way we do it here," Glass said to Brace. "You can get used to almost anything," and he led the trembling Brace below decks like a nurse leading a patient who suffers from tottering old age.

Chapter 2

"Boys, boys ... " in later years, when he ran the mess at the
South Portland Base, the cook, Reeser Lamp, would claim that he was the first man to see Brace come aboard; and he would believe it. Lamp claimed the credit as he would claim every other minor miracle during those years when he cooked aboard the cutter

Lamp was a man with a propensity for miracles. On the most tedious day, he would still feel charged to understand every opaque reasoning of divinity. Nothing happened that was without meaning—if only a body could figure the meaning—and Reeser Lamp was the man with the answers. He would have made an annoying preacher or a successful spiritualist. After a lifetime spent musing on the fortunate aspects of his birth, he has now had a chance to test the final miracle. He was a good cook.

In Lamp's memory, Brace arrived on a day loaded with mixed portents. The summer with its clear and unoppressive light made the Gulf of Maine a sort of giant pond where yachtsmen flourished and lobstermen went about with their usual grumbles. Trawlers bearing the names of saints and wives and other martyrs churned beside Portland Head and the lightship. Their business was cod and their office was Georges Bank. From the moorings in South Portland it was possible to distinguish several of the thousands of islands on that rocky coast. The buoy yard smelled of barnacles and kelp and red lead: the nun buoys lay in red and black rows like components of artillery, and the lighted bells and whistles lay on tubby, slanted bases, immobile and silent like abandoned buildings. It was an easy day, and summer is a routine time for cutters assigned to search and rescue.
and its twin,
, were moored at the pier like tired laborers slumbering.

Still, in Lamp's imagination (packed as it was with as many signs and symbols as a flag locker), there was something peculiar about the appearance of Ernie Brace on an easy day in sunlight. In those later years, cooking at the Base, Lamp would interrupt his interminable reminiscence of a tour of duty in the Far East to draw one more moral from the advent of Brace.

"Boys," he would say, "Boys, boys ... ," and shake his red-blond-haired head that was small above his great belly and heavy shanks. "Be double-dog-damn if I knew what I was feeling. Only somehow the luck was backward." A tawny, lionlike head; but small, like a cat's head placed over the girth of an aging rhinoceros.

A new voice would always ask the same question, and there were always plenty of new voices. The mess at that base was casual with transient sailors, ambulatories from the Marine hospital, and visitors attached to the First District offices.

"Did you know he was a Jonah, cook?"

"The luck had been bad but it was turnin'. That was that bad winter ... ," Lamp would pause, shake the small, leonine head slowly and with genuine sorrow.
had lost a man that winter. Cecil Jensen, an engineman, at sea and the body unrecovered. Lost with the fishing vessel

"Maybe it was somebody else, cook. You already were a-tough'n it."

"Backward. Not good, not bad, just backward. I be double-dog-damn if I knew what I was feeling."

By then Lamp had trouble with his legs. He did not move with the lumbering, seagoing accuracy of former days when he would prop himself against the face of the oven, or the hot bulkhead by the stove.
was a tough sea boat, but it was a masterpiece neither of comfort nor design. It had been battered too often, was stretched toward age like fraying cable. It was reengined after each war. The original blueprints, mute beneath stacks of outdated charts in the lower drawer of the chartbox, called for auxiliary sail.

"Did the luck change right away?"

"It didn't work that way, boys."

"I don't believe in Jonahs, cook. I don't hardly believe in admirals."

"I believe in broken legs." (This from a man wearing a cast.)

"Me, I believe in women."

"Sure now, and I believe in payday."

Cooks generally talk too much, and it is their fate to be razzed and raspberried. On these occasions Lamp would retreat to his galley where it is said that he prayed for the souls of degenerate sailors ...

"Mother Lamp," seaman Glass explained to apprentice seaman Brace, as Brace unpacked the stiff, new seabag. "Howard—he's the yeoman—Howard gave him that name and it stuck." Glass turned as the small sunlight that penetrated to the crew's compartment was blocked by a silhouette. "That's Howard."

Yeoman Howard, hangover intact, was approaching with Brace's watchkeeping assignment.

"I want a transfer," Brace muttered into the mouth of the seabag. His voice was soft and still trembling from the attack by Dane. "Everybody said that it was different when you got a ship."

"Me, too," Glass said. "I want a transfer. To that
cutter in L.A. Champagne. Movie stars."

Brace rummaged deep in the bag, found a framed photograph of a young woman, looked at Glass and Howard. He dropped the photograph back into the bag.

"He's in our section," Howard told Glass.

"That gets me off the four-to-eight," Glass said. "You're a true shipmate, chum.''

Brace stood looking about the shadowed interior of the crew's compartment. The odor of polished wax nearly obscured the smell of work clothes in need of washing. Bunks tiered three-deep ran the portside length of the compartment; layers of canvas, cotton and wool, pressing so close that the intimacy of other feet and butts, of sweat and beer farts and snores, was a flat statement. Brace shivered and unrolled bedding. He wrinkled his rather long but nondescript nose that was as unpimpled, unlined, and bland as his forehead.

"Seamen bunk forward," Howard told him. "You get a better ride."

"Take an upper," Glass said kindly. "Don't hardly anybody ever vomit, but why take chances?" He turned to Howard. "You was seen last night with a very evil lady.''

"Is he always that way?" Brace stood holding new blankets draped over one arm. He seemed for an instant very close to tears.

"She's shy," said Howard. "Like me."

"Me, too," Glass said. "I'm shy. I got a fine mind, but it always takes ten seconds ... "

"Because if he is," Brace said, "then this is a zoo."

"We were just talkin' about that," Glass told him.

"This is the cutter
," Howard said. "The captain is Phil Levere, mustang. The chief bosun is Roy Dane. You are apprentice seaman Brace."

"He means that the old man must be slipping," Glass explained. "The District almost always sends us seamen."

"Do what you can with him," Howard told Glass. He turned away.

"A zoo ... an absolute zoo ... "

"Terrible man," Glass was saying as Howard disappeared up the ladder. "No consideration of us working class. Get squared away and I'll take you on a tour ... "

If the ship was not a masterpiece of design, the same could not be said of the crew, although when Brace joined, he would find a crew that had indeed been tough'n it. Mother Lamp had good reason to cluck and worry.

After a winter of continued shock, the crew walked through the sunlight like invalids given new hope. The memory of the drowned Cecil Jensen was strong. On the messdeck men still avoided sitting in what had been Jensen's customary place. In the engine room, his handwritten watch-standing orders maintained his presence. An engineman first class with six years aboard a vessel is not easily erased.

The crew went ashore like men with storm warnings still flying in their souls. Their hair was freshly shorn, but their heads were not light; as though the thick ruff of fur grown for a downeast winter still bowed them trembling into their foulweather gear.

Good men. As strong and certain as the heavy-shanked and moral-headed Lamp. They appear in groups of two or three, or singly with a face poked into the mask of an antique and rickety radar, like a submariner before a periscope as
staggers beneath blows that bring green water crashing to the bridge. They stand solid on the heaving fantail or lean against the shock of the sea, grasping with numb fingers as breaking water washes the deck to push them like arrows about to be twanged from the lifelines. Their eyebrows and watch caps glisten with ice. Like spectres they appear in the low moan of dying winds, and they amble the decks and shout and laugh. A North Atlantic mosaic of winter. A perpetual rattle of coffee mug in the galley, the blown, delicate curve of carefully rigged lines, and the six-inch towing hawser sagging astern and shaking water from its tons, to appear three hundred yards away snugged to the bows of a distressed vessel.

Simple men and true. No better than their predecessors; no better than their successors, perhaps. A sailor takes what he finds and learns to make it work—and, of course, a red stripe on your bow does not sail the ship ...

When you are young, as Brace was young, the day can arrive exalted like the cadenced thunder of Kipling on his red ladder of dawn—or the dawn can mutter across the earth in an orange mist of confusion. The way you experience dawn may depend on something as simple as whether you catch the midwatch or the four-to-eight.

Dawn comes early in Maine summers. While your crew lies sleeping, you stand watch in exhilarating solitude. Dreaming—as we old men recall—of romance and the love of distant friends. The 25-amp radio crackles indifferently on the watch frequency of 2670, the globed nightlights are red and shadow-casting through the dark ship, and the harbor is a placid canvas carrying a tracery of light, a network, a web, the silent and lighted waterfront of cities. As the dawn arrives, the duty engineman appears on the main deck, stretches, gaps, yawns and sniffs the salt- and petroleum-smelling air. He scratches, as if the boredom of a cold-iron watch was palpable in his armpit and could be rubbed away. Gulls slide by in the darkness. Water pops and slushes between the hull and the pier. Across the harbor sound yells of stevedores coming to work, and distantly, the putting of a small boat carrying stores bound for a Greek or Panamanian ship swinging in quarantine. There is a rattle of pans from the galley as Lamp bustles about with thick whispers and exhortations to the Hawaiian steward Amon, who is still sleepy-eyed, who will be brewing the cup of tea that gives him strength to load the huge coffee urn. With the movement of your fellows the confusion returns.

" ... B-race ... "

"Get crackin'."

Dane, knowing on the brute level of the sea that there is desperately much to learn and that summer is short, pressed Brace to the limit. He cursed, scorned, saved back filthy and bone-cracking jobs.

Amazed Dane. Stupefied Dane. Electric over ignorance. Crude even among sailors, and like all sailors—as with other cynical forms of life—possessed of rough compassion.

"If you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever a-bloody-gin step inside a line I will have your rotting guts for neckties ... ," for, if Brace
step between line and rail, the sea would do the tearing.

Perturbed Dane. Red-faced. Melancholy—for at the end of three weeks it became clear that this young one was aboard to stay. If he was sometimes surly, he was also quiet and hard-working. The crew began to trust his beginner's job. The crew's acceptance meant that the old man would keep Brace. Captain Levere, mustang, kept his men. Since it was foolish to expect sense from the District, the crew assumed that to the south in the bustling offices which represented official mercy at sea, Levere commanded respect.

Seaman Glass took apprentice seaman Brace ashore and got him drunk on dime glasses of beer. It was a great success, and the next day Dane lovingly put Brace and his throbbing head to chipping paint on the bow; blazing sun heating the steel deck like a blowtorch.

"He don't respond to girls," Glass worried.

" ... your kind of girls." Because of his tour of duty in the Far East, Lamp lived easily beside the oriental convictions of his steward, Amon; assuming that Amon had convictions, but Lamp worried over Jewishness and circumcision. Lamp cruelly rejected Glass's concern and supposed privately to yeoman Howard that Glass's pursuit of Portland bar girls had overtones of the occult, of dark deeds.

Yeoman Howard, dark, glandular and slim, who pursued constantly and with average success, once more mentioned to Lamp that he, Howard, already had a mother. Lamp clucked and fussed and mentioned to yeoman Howard that there would be a day of reckoning.

But then, Lamp clucked over all of them, those hard-ridden men who blinked in the summer sun and gradually returned to life and vigor. Except for Jensen who of course remained dead.

BOOK: Jonah Watch
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