The following is a work of fiction.
I only once saw Frankie emotionally shaken, and it didn’t alter my respect for him; in fact, it reinforced it. We got to talking about a friend of his he’d lost during the war. The guy’s name was Joe Stern, a sailor aboard a ship Frankie sailed on for a time. Frankie had served aboard the USS Juneau, which was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in November of 1942. After the sinking, roughly one hundred sailors remained in the open ocean. The remainder of the US boats in the battle retreated, while the one hundred survivors were left alone–victims of hypothermia, shark attacks, and soul-draining exhaustion. When an air rescue group finally arrived eight days later, only ten remained. Frankie was one of the ten.
“It was a hell of a thing, out there in the ocean all them days.” His lips quivered in that way when one attempts to restrain tears. He stared past me as he spoke in quiet, deliberate tones. He appeared to be gazing straight through the walls of his tiny apartment, beyond the steel and brick of the Shady Acres–his eyes treading across the meticulous manicure of the grounds, across plains and valleys, beyond shores, and once more into the numbing cold of the open Pacific. It was as though he was there again, as though the untamed ocean were here in the room with us; for Frankie, I could see, was reliving the experience here before me. I imagined this was one of a thousand such recollections.
“How frightening that must have been! Sharks scare the crap out of me.” I said, stifling a nervous chuckle. It’s true; sharks do scare the crap out of me, but I only said so in a pitiful attempt to offer comfort. But how do you comfort a guy who’s been through something worse than any sort of hell you can imagine?
He glanced at me a moment, his brow furrowed into a misaligned ‘W’, then continued staring through the wall. “You watch “Shark Week”, dontcha? Is that still a thing? You don’t gotta imagine how scary sharks are. You know them just fine by watching them shows…It wasn’t the sharks, son.” The last part, he said in nearly a whisper, as he choked back a wad of saliva.
There followed an agonizing silence that likely lasted a minute, but felt like an hour. “What was the scariest part?” I heard myself ask.
For several moments, I wondered if Frankie was even listening to me, whether he was capable of hearing me through his sudden onslaught of anxious memories. “It was the loneliness.” he said. “That’s the ocean, son. It’s so immense; it’s bigger than anything, and when you’re out there, fully surrounded by it, you feel like there’s nothing to you anymore–like there’s nothing to anybody.” Frankie ran his hand through his thick, silvery mane and turned his eyes to the brown leather loafers upon his feet. “When you’re on a boat, then you have some control, but when the boat’s gone, and it’s just you, you’re nothin but a frail creature, out of your element, treading water for days in the open sea; you realize there’s really nothing to you; you’re nothing compared to all that water. All we had left was each other–me and my shipmates. But the ocean took them away, one by one, and when it did, I wished it had taken me first.”
“But it wasn’t just you.” I said.
“You said ten. Ten survived. So there were nine others, right?”
“Yes, nine others, that’s true.” he said.
“Are any of them still around?” I asked. His response rattled me deeply. He said nothing. For a long time he said nothing at all. He kept staring, but this time not at his shoes or at the wall or into the indiscernable nothing; now he stared directly into my eyes. In all my life, I’ve not seen the sort of pain that I witnessed in Frankie’s face during those eternal moments. Aged eyes of pale blue, furrowed brows, his body bent at the middle, like he was carrying a bag of stones upon his shoulders–he reminded me of pictures I’d seen of firefighters who’d survived the collapse of the towers on 9/11–survived, while their friends had been trapped, crushed, killed. Frankie was the bearer of a special sort of pain–pain of the heart. It’s was a pain that Frankie had carried nearly all his life. Now he was bringing me into his pain, inviting me to witness it close up. “Frankie? I said are there any of the other nine still around?”
“I heard you, son.” he said. “Truth is, I don’t know if any of them other fellas are still alive, or not.”
“You’re kidding me!” I said. “You guys should have been some sort of club or something. You’re one of ten to survive one of the most epic naval battles in US history. You should try and…”
“You ever wonder what it’s like to drown, son?” Frankie interrupted. I flinched at his words, surprised to hear him cut me off. It was not something he was prone to do. To my memory, this was the only time.
“No, Frankie, I haven’t.” I said.
“I can tell you about it.” he said. Then followed more confounding silence, and I knew I would not allow myself to be the one to break it. “When a man drowns, it goes on and on.” he continued.” I know you college kids like to gripe about boring lectures that feel like forever, but I can tell you that the most suffocating boredom at the hands of the most long-winded college professor is nothing compared to the way time stretches itelf when you are drowning in the center of the ocean.” His gaze was focused to some other place. I assume he must have been envisioning that day in his mind–or rather, those days. Those eight excruciating days.
“I don’t understand. You’re still alive, Frankie.”
“It starts with dead limbs.” he continued, as though he hadn’t heard my comment. “Anybody who’s treaded water knows it’s just about the easiest thing in the world; you’d think you could do it for years. You can’t. After a couple days of treading and floating and treading and floating in icy water like that, your arms and legs stop listening to you. They start to give up, even if your mind hasn’t, your body starts to give up.”
Now I was aware of how the room had become so quiet. It was well after lunch, so the hallways were empty; most of the old folks were taking post-meal naps. The only sounds were those of Frankie’s breathing–deep and deliberate–almost like the recounting of the experience instigated the suffusion of something noxious from deep inside him. There were his breaths, accented by the tick-tick of the second hand on the oversized, steel banded watch he always wore–waterproof up to 1000 feet–waterproof, just like its owner. And there was the sound that was only inside my ears, that of my hammering pulse. My awe of the man started with the unlikely manor in which he survived such an experience, the way he’d cheated death. It continued with the courage he displayed in its painful retelling.
“When you first begin to sink, you don’t realize you’re sinking.” he continued. “Of course, we were out there so long, we had to learn early on how to catch bits of sleep while treading water. Problem is, when your body has given up, it stops treading water the second your brain isn’t awake to task it on. So, even though I was telling myself, and any of the other men there with me, ‘Don’t quit! Help’s comin!’, I’d nod off at times, right there in the ocean, and I’d wake up seconds later with my sinuses full of seawater. Pretty soon, all I could taste or smell was that damn ocean. I still hate the ocean. Don’t care much for salt, neither.” He chuckled slightly at this, relieving an incredible tension in the room, which I was thankful for.
I still didn’t speak. He wasn’t finished; I could tell.
“Of course, through all that exhaustion and the fear, I knew it was coming–the drowning. I don’t know if it was four days in, or five, or what, but at some point, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I knew it wouldn’t be right then, at the point of realizing, but I knew it was coming. I kept treading water anyway, but it’s hard to maintain desire when you know the end is near. You start to wonder why you’re paddling at all anymore.”
His words tore at me in the way of a well concealed dagger, flashed out, then concealed once again. His words touched on something unconcious and deep inside me. I fought to restrict a flow of tears, not understanding why the tears were coming in the first place.
“I figure it was nearly to the day the air rescue came, maybe within thirty hours or so, that I started to sink and could no longer rise.” he continued. “Truth be told, I no longer wanted to rise. Like I said, I’d given up on being rescued.” Frankie’s eyes glossed over. No doubt, in that moment, he was there again, sinking in the cold, treacherous Pacific. “It’s the damnedest thing, drowning. For a few minutes, your instincts work like normal; you know to hold your breath, because you’re underwater, and you know a man can’t breathe underwater. But soon, your lungs turn hot; they burn like coals; they scream at you, try to convince you to defy your own instincts and breathe anyway.”
As he spoke, I found myself displaced; I could feel the pressure on my own lungs, sense a frantic attempt to gulp oxygen from anywhere, even if it was buried within trillions of molecules of seawater. How could Frankie know all this, like he’d experienced it? He had lived!
“By the time your resistance wears out, everything inside has gone haywire from the lack of oxygen. You’ve seen a fish flop around when it’s outta water? It’s the same thing happens to a man when you put him under the water. The whole body convulses and bends all directions; everything becomes a blur, and when you’re finally overcome by the urge to pull something into your starving lungs, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. It feels natural because you’re already gone.”
If a guy like Frankie were to teach history classes, everybody would want to major in History. “Frankie, I don’t understand. How could you know all this? Know how it feels, I mean. You’re here!” I said.
“Oh, that ain’t the end of the story. This is where Joe Stern comes in.” he said.
“He was one of the other crew men?” I asked.
“That’s right.” Frankie said, “Joe saved me. I can’t say how he managed it, because I don’t know. I don’t recall ever seeing him out there before it happened. He was quite the angel in that way, comin’ from nowhere like he did, while all the while I figured, in the midst of the swells in that monstrous ocean and the debris floating up and down here and there. Still, here he came, yanked me to the surface, and I never found out how he managed to get me breathing again, but he did it.”
“Did you ever connect again with Joe, after the war, I mean?” I asked.
“No…Joe didn’t survive the war. He didn’t survive the sinking of the Juneau.” he said, his pale blue eyes sinking into silver pools.
“He wasn’t one of the ten?” I asked.
“No, he wasn’t. That day he pulled me from the depths, he was dead already.” he said. “During the sinking, he was hit on the head by a piece of falling debris. It created an embolism–I know that’s what it’s called, because I looked into it afterward–it was like a time bomb inside his brain. It’s incredible he lived as long as he did, afterward.” The silver pool in his right eye overflowed to an exquisite trickle, falling from his cheek, landing on his clasped hands, like raindrops.
Now I was beginning to cry. “What a brave thing Joe did.” I said.
“Brave?” he said. “I suppose so. But I’ll tell you what I’ve learned of bravery, son. It’s different than you think it is. Most people figure that, if you’re scared, you are not brave. Truth is, a brave man is just as scared as a coward. Only difference is, a brave man understands he has nothing to lose. Joe taught me that.”
“So…Joe had nothing to lose because…”
“because Joe was already dead.” Frankie said.
“He knew it. He knew he was dying.” I said.
“Sure did.” he said. “That changed everything for me, when I got it figured out. Any time I’m tempted to play it safe and not do what I know I’m s’posed to, I remember Joe.”
“Ah! So that’s what this story’s all about.” I said, wiping a tear with my shirt sleeve. Frankie stuck a knotted hand into his breast pocket, extracted a kerchief and blew his nose, chuckling as he did so.
“This old man’s got a lot more war tales where that one came from. You won’t be safe till you’ve asked that Carla on a real date.” he said, and he winked at me.