I guess it’s kind of long. Just read what you can.
It was Sunday on the coast and my mother was listening to the radio while she did the dishes. The announcer broke in with news about a World War II naval destroyer that would be docking soon off the Ventura pier. He went on to say that the ship had been in the Third Fleet, under Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey. The public was invited to board and inspect the warship, without charge, and that a light lunch would be furnished, courtesy of the U.S. Navy. The ship, the USS Wedderburn, would lie at anchor for seven days.
It was Sunday in the desert, too. I was assistant Farm Advisor at that time and we had experiments in several crops that were coming to a close. Some of the harvests were over and some would begin again on Monday. I had slept in and was going to treat myself to lunch downtown. I had a shower and shave and picked up the phone for the call. Since my dad died I tried to call my mother once a week.
She was doing pretty well. After fifty-some years of marriage she had recently gotten her own checking account and was writing checks and paying bills. My dad had made the living and she had taken care of the house and children. That's the way it was, then. So now my mother was paying attention to things she'd never had to think about before.
She read the paper and watched the news more closely, balanced her checkbook, paid attention to interest rates being paid by various institutions, played the piano; she read and wrote poetry, maintained the garden, and thought women who considered themselves liberated were silly. A woman did what she had to do. And she was not immune to the knowledge of what some women had to do. She knew well that women had to be tough.
"Oh, I was just thinking about calling you. I don't know what to think about your brother."
"Uh, I'm fine; how are you?"
"What? Oh, yes. How are you and everything. I just don't understand Buddy. You know his old ship is here in Ventura for a week?"
"Oh, yeah? The old Wedderburn?"
"Yes. I wanted to go see it but he doesn't want to."
"Well, he did see a lot of it. Two years without getting off the thing. You know, no liberty in the Pacific.”
"I know, but I wanted to take the tour and I wanted him to show me around. Do you know what he said when I asked him?" I was pretty sure about his response, because he only spoke about the ship when the two of us were alone and were under the influence of certain beverages. But I had to ask.
"What did he say?”
"He said he would pay for the taxi if I wanted to go. I said I wanted to go with him but he said 'no way' and I should take a neighbor! Or the cat! I can't understand his attitude. I thought he would be interested in seeing his old ship, something that he was a part of. It's history, now. What do you think, Al?"
My brother had told me:
“They kept coming, the little bastards weren’t even shooting, the kamikazis, they just rammed into the ships and blew them apart. It was raining and the trigger on my gun had a short in it. The trigger was a lever you moved with your knee. Every time I fired the gun I got a shock; the rain and the short in the trigger and I got zapped every time. I had the shock all the time the trigger was depressed. I think it made me very accurate, because I didn’t waste any time. But I was one scared son-of-a-bitch!”
"I don't think he's going to change his mind, Ma. He was stuck on that thing for twenty-five months! It's not like it was a lot of fun and he's got fond memories of his life there. He was sick of it then and he's still sick of it. What about Marilyn? Can she get away for a couple days?" I tried passing the duty to my sister, because I knew the invitation would shift to me within the next few sentences.
My mother said: "I called Marilyn first, because she lives closer, but she's working overtime and she can't leave her children alone. That's why I was just going to call you when you called. Why don't you come up?"
"Down. Why don't you?"
"I can't right now, Ma. The harvests are starting again Monday and that'll go for at least a week. I can't leave my boss to do everything. I'm sorry. Why don't you ask a neighbor? Ask Mrs. Lopez. Maybe she'd like to go." I knew this was a lame suggestion. While Mrs. Lopez was a neighbor and a friend, she was not family, and this I knew was in my mother's mind, a family obligation, a duty.
"I don't want to go with Mrs. Lopez. She didn't have a son in…well, she did, but he wasn't in…well, I think he was in the South Pacific, but…well, let me think about it."
" Could I speak with my mean brother for a minute?"
"All right. When are you coming up?"
"Oh, all right, down!."
"Probably in a week, when the harvests are over. I just can't leave right now, Ma."
"Oh, I understand. Just like Daddy. He used to be in the middle of the lemon harvests and they'd go on strike, the pickers I mean. And then when he was inspecting strawberry's we'd have rain and everything stopped but we couldn't go anywhere because it was wet. It's always something. Well, when you can spare the time to visit your poor old mother, please do so."
Now she was my mother again, playing the role of the cast-off and forgotten matron, portraying a pitiful black-and-white image flickering across the silver screen. She was enjoying herself. Her children had seen this little performance over the years, in various forms. We had all applauded. My dad would look over the top of the newspaper or Hemingway novel or Hitchcock magazine and shake his head. The expression on his face would not change. He had known her for a long time.
"That was not worthy of you, Ma," I said. "You used to do a great Mrs. Miniver or Mrs. Joad, but this deal about the ship, come on!"
"Well, I'm sorry, but I thought it would be… patriotic! My son… your brother served on that ship and I think one of us should be there to see it! Do you know he won't even take me shopping at Safeway because you can see the pier from there? He won't drive to town until the Wedderburn is gone!"
And another time he said:
“And the typhoon, that was in ’44, we tied ourselves into our bunks. You couldn’t go on deck; there were lines to hold onto, but if the sea came over, nobody is strong enough to hold onto the line. It was howling, screaming, the wind screamed and the ship pitched and dove into the big trough; man, in my bunk it felt like we went straight down! In the morning we looked around and there were three sister-ships gone. They did go straight down, hard! Destroyers, man! Right to the bottom, all hands!”
"I get the picture, Ma. Can I speak to my big brudda now, please?"
"All right, but I don't think you see what I'm talking about, here. This is about America! I'll go get him."
My remembrance of this is fairly close, but I don't want to make a caricature of my family. My mother was a loving, sensitive, forgiving, generous, hard-working, hard-headed and staunchly protective woman. She stood, standing rigidly erect, five feet tall. Her own measurements never tallied with those of us who were called upon to measure and mark her altitude.
She wanted to be taller and nobody in the family could figure out why. After all the stretching with Jack Lalanne there was never an improvement in her elevation. She seldom needed to exhibit more than a look to quell a family disturbance. If the look didn't work she grabbed a broom. And that was the sign that peace had better come quickly. I heard muffled noises and a deep voice came on the line.
"Yeah! Who is this? The woman here says a relative wants to talk to me. What's it all about?"
"That's great. First I have to put up with Helen Hayes and now you. So you're not going to see the Wedderburn? Hell, I'd like to see it myself!"
"Super! Come on over and take Mom with you." I could hear my mother's voice in the near background and then my brother telling her to go away. She says something else and my brother asks her if she wants to get on the phone again, and she says no. He then begs her for a little privacy and I hear her mumbling something, obviously working up an attitude.
A memory flashes and I am reliving conversations with my dad on the phone and my mother, whom I had just spoken with, is chattering away in the background. My father tells me to hold on a minute because he has to deal with my mother. The phone moves away from his mouth but I still hear the conversation.
"You're hovering!" he would say. "Do you have to hover? Can't you go do something? Do you want to talk with him again? Come here!" She says no, she doesn't and my dad would come back on the line.
"I don't know what's wrong with her. She'd better start taking notes so she'll say everything she wants to say all at one time. As soon as I get on the line she starts talking again; I don't know. So how are things in the desert?"
That memory fades as my brother comes back on the line. "I think she's trying to drive me crazy. Now that the Old Man's gone she's only got me to push around."
"Is she pushing you around? She's five-feet nothing and you're six-feet four. Is she abusing you? This sounds serious. I'll call the welfare people, or some kind of child-protection outfit.” But he wasn’t really listening.
"It's not helping my love-life any, either. I can't bring anybody here after a date. So it's either going to her place or I spend money on a motel. That gets expensive."
"Hell, get your own place. The Old Man's been gone what, a year?"
"Yeah, a little over a year. I guess I could get a place and come by once in a while to take Mom shopping. She and Mrs. Lopez can take the bus to hang out in the thrift shops… or you could move in!" He thought he was being funny.
"No, I couldn't either. My job is here, thank God. I mean, I love our mother, but I couldn't take it for more than a week-end. She has a devious streak that I never noticed growing up."
"Tell me about it! She's a politician when it comes to working people. She gets her way before you know what's happened. I mean it's nice to have someone do my laundry and cooking, and I appreciate it! And she likes the room and board money I give her. I don't know. I'll tough it out for a while longer. Well, I see her lurking in the kitchen. I know she wants to talk to you again. When are you coming up?"
"I'll try to get off a little early, maybe in a couple days."
"Good. Well, O.K, here's Mom. See you!"
"Later." A few clicks and bumps and mumbles.
"It's me, again."
"It sounds just like you, Ma."
"You think you’re so funny. Are you sure you can't come up?"
"Down. Yes, I'm sure, but not right now. I really have to work, Ma, but I'll see you pretty soon."
"Well, all right. Maybe I will ask Mrs. Lopez. Now I think of it, one of her sons was in the Pacific. Buddy said he'll pay for a taxi. Maybe I'll take Mrs. Lopez to lunch and make him pay for that, too! What do you think, Al?"
"Nice touch! If you can bully him into paying you might as well go someplace swanky."
"Well, I don't know about swanky, but someplace nice; maybe down on the wharf." I could hear the gears clicking. I was glad my mother had Mrs. Lopez to pal around with. It was nice to hear her making plans.
"Well, I'm on my way out the door, Ma. Talk to you later. Give my love to the Navy!"
"Oh, all right. Maybe we'll have Chinese. There's a nice little place by the pier. I'll have to think about that." I was sure she would think about that. And of course my big brother would pay.
And then I remember he said:
“And I remember laying in my bunk, Al, tied in, scared beyond scared, knowing I was dying, and I worked on a poem, really, like, ‘Down and down, salt scouring flesh from bone, bone against bone, the mix of blood and bone-dust and the sweat and fear, sudden meeting with death, death being better than the fear, all the impact of meeting with the sand bottom, the mixture making a horrendous subterranean soup, blood-soup made by the bodies of dead sailors, looking for Neptune to make us all right again.’ Pretty crazy, huh? And I thought about Mom and the old man and Marilyn and you. I knew I wouldn’t get back.”
"O.K., Ma. Well, have a good time!” And as I hung up I began to formulate a plan by which I could visit my people very soon. I felt the need to see them as soon as possible, like they might not be there in the typhoon morning.