A Letter Home

Rebecca Buchanan

[Note: This story also appears in the forthcoming Megaloi Theoi: A Devotional in Honor of The Dioskouroi and Their Family]

USS JE Harrison

Somewhere in the Mediterranean

21 May 1944

Dear Mama and Sarah and Uncle Charlie,

Sorry it’s been so long since my last letter. We been busy these last couple of months. I think the Krauts know the end is coming for them, and they’re fighting hard. But, don’t you worry. I’m good. Me and the boys (especially Staci), we look after each other. And Captain Karlson, he’s a good man. Lots of Navy in his family. He knows what he’s doing.

Anyway, we got into a fire fight a couple of weeks back (can’t tell you the specifics; those censors will just cut that right outta the letter) and we been busy getting the ship fixed up. She’s still not 100%. We’re going into port (sorry, can’t say where) to have the screw and a couple other pieces set to rights. Then we’ll be back out in the fight again. I sure hope the war isn’t over by then, I still —-

23 May 1944

Sorry about that, but something happened. I’m not sure as how much I should actually tell you, how much I should write down. I’m afraid the censors might cut it out. Or maybe they’ll think I’m a Section 8 and send me home. I’m not ready to come home yet. The war isn’t over yet.

But, well, here goes.

So, it was two days ago. I’m sitting in my bunk writing this letter and Staci, he’s sitting across from me, going on and on about these melomakaronas (honey cakes) that his Yiayia (that’s what Greeks call their grandmas) used to make for him when he was a kid. And they sound real good and I’m getting hungry just listening to him. And while he’s talking and I’m writing, he’s whittling away at this piece of wood. He says it’s a horse, but it doesn’t look like one to me. Berthing’s pretty low down in the belly of the ship. All you can really hear down there is the engines and sometimes the sonar (it sounds kinda musical). Anyway, eventually we both realize that the Harrison’s starting to pitch side to side. Now, storms aren’t uncommon out here, especially this time of year, so we aren’t worried at first. We knew we’d done a good job getting the ship fixed up. But the ship’s pitching harder and harder. And the lights flickered a couple of times. Then Chief Peters (he’s the guy who snores too much), he comes staggering down the ladder and he is drenched like a drowning rat, wet from his head to his toes and there’s water coming outta the top of his boots. And he glares at us and yells “Can’t you hear that storm outside?!” and just then the Captain comes on the squawk box and orders “Battlestations! Battlestations!”

Staci and I, we grab our life vests and our hats and we run up the ladder and I can hear Chief Peters swearing after us (not a church-going man, that one). And we get up to the deck and I gotta say that is the worst storm I have ever seen in my life. Worse than that thunder and tornado storm that ripped through Faribault in ’38 and tore up the school and the Woolworth’s. The clouds were piled up to heaven and stretched from one horizon to the other. They were so dark, I couldn’t tell where the clouds ended and the ocean started, or what was rain and what was ocean spray. There was so much static electricity in the air, it felt like lightning was crawling across my skin. The ship was heaving and bucking and this huge wave came rolling up the side of the ship and across the deck. Guys grabbed onto lifelines and each other and anything else they could to keep from being washed over. The wind and the water were so loud, screaming around the ship, I couldn’t hardly hear anything. Chief Peters came up behind and grabbed us by the shoulders and shoved us towards the stern. As we’re sliding around, hanging on to hatches and railings and anything we can, I can see why he’s in such a hurry. The depth charges were loose.

We carry 160 of those things on the Harrison, most of them on these launchers at the stern. One of the launchers was cracked wide open — I’m still not sure how that happened, I guess maybe we didn’t fix everything after the fight as well as we thought we did — and the way the ship was bucking the charges were getting knocked out and rolling around on the deck. If even one of those charges went off, well, I’m not lying, it would have blown a hole straight through the deck and out the bottom of the ship. We’d sink for sure.

And I realize we’re in big trouble. And Staci, he realizes it too cause he starts swearing in Greek. I caught only a couple of words, but they aren’t fit to put in this letter. So, the three of us, we dive forward to help try to corral the charges. But the ship is heaving and the deck is wet and these huge waves keep coming up and washing over us and the rain is beating down. I lost my hat. I couldn’t see most of the time, and couldn’t hardly hear anything, and I’m afraid I’m gonna knock somebody over the rail or get knocked over myself by one of the charges. Honest Mama, I’ve never been so scared in all my life.

I manage to get a couple of them, one at a time, and we form up this line, and we start passing them below deck, where they can be stowed safely. Chief Peters, he gets a rope strung between the launcher and the door below decks, but we can’t hang onto that and the charges at the same time. And we can’t even stay on our feet for long, cause the ship keeps knocking us down, so we end up on our knees and bellies, sliding and passing the charges along. But there’s more of them rolling around than we can catch. And then one of them — I can see it right in front of me — goes sliding across the deck and over the edge and into the water. For just a minute, the ocean heaves up and this big wave carries the charge right back up level with the ship and I think maybe it’s gonna dump it back on the deck. But then the water goes back down and the charge goes down and a moment later, there’s this loud boom and the ship shakes. The boom is muffled some by the storm, but I can hear the collision alarm going off.

That’s when Staci comes slipping and sliding up to me and passed me. He grabs my arm and yells something — it might have been something like “Die-os-kour-aye” or something. I couldn’t make it out, what with his accent and the storm roaring around us. And then he’s going down the deck, back towards the door. And I go after him. I hear yelling and turn to see Chief Peters flapping his arms and yelling at us to get back here, get back in line, what are you doing, seaman?! But Staci’s my best friend. I gotta see what he’s doing. I’m afraid he’s lost it.

So I go running after him as best I can, grabbing onto stuff and even people a couple of times. Waves are washing over me. The ship is going up and down. I finally get to the door and I half fall down the ladder and water comes pouring down after me. When I get to the bottom of the ladder, I step in more water. It’s up passed my ankles. Part of me hopes that it’s just water that got washed down from the deck. But, in the pit of my stomach, I know that charge blew a hole in the keel. We’re sinking.

That’s when Staci runs into me again and he’s babbling something fierce in Greek. I can’t catch more than two or three words at a time. I keep yelling at him that we need to get back up on deck, that he needs to slow down cause I don’t understand and he finally switches to English. “The Twins!” he’s yelling, waving that wooden horse around in my face. “The Twins! Just like my Yiayia taught me!” And he goes running back up the ladder to the door, and I’m climbing after him, yelling at him to stop cause I seriously think he’s lost it.

When I get to the door above, I realize he’s headed forward, not aft. I follow after him as best I can, hunched against the waves. My hands are so sore by then that I can barely feel whatever I grab to keep myself upright. When I finally catch sight of Staci again, he’s way up at the bow, leaning against the lifelines. He’s yelling something I can’t make out, his arms raised way up over his head. I think maybe he’s praying. And then he heaves that little wooden horse into the water and I’m close enough by now to hear him clear. “Die-yos-khar-aye!” he’s yelling. “Die-yos-khar-aye!” At least, that’s as near as I can spell what he was yelling. I think he’s yelling that we’re all gonna die and I’m about to agree with him, when — well —

Mama, Sarah, Uncle Charlie, you probably aren’t going to believe this. If I hadn’t seen it, if some sailor had told me this, I wouldn’t have believed him. I’d have thought he was sunsick or seasick or something. But I swear to you, as God is my witness, this is exactly what happened.

These two waves came up on either side of us and curled up and I thought for sure they were going to slam down and knock us both dead. But they didn’t. They just stopped. Curled up there, all grey-black-blue, towering over our heads. And the water moved and the waves changed shape, turned into great big horse heads with foam for the manes. And the ship bucked sudden and I fell and went sliding back across the deck and slammed right into the bulkhead below the bridge. And when my head stopped ringing and I looked up again, the waves were still there but they’d changed again. They weren’t just horse heads anymore. They were horses, with riders. Two guys — men — whatever — with great bright lights like St Elmo’s fire glowing above their heads. They were all roiling water and foam and froth but I could see them clear as day. I swear I could see fish swimming around inside them. And they reached down with one hand each and they grabbed the sides of the ship, one on either side, their hands of water pressing up against the sides. And I thought for just a minute that they were going to crush the ship. But they didn’t. And that’s when I realized that they were guiding the ship, holding us up, keeping us afloat.

And they kept us up, Mama, those boys on their horses with the fires over their heads. They kept us up. I don’t know how long they held us up. I just remember Staci waving his arms and yelling and then the alarm stopped blaring and I knew the guys below had gotten the hatches closed. The water was contained. We weren’t going to sink after all. And those boys on their horses, they pulled back, away from the ship. And the waves curled and rolled in on themselves and fell down beside the ship and they were gone.

After that, it was a piece of cake. We rode out the storm no problem. It only lasted about another hour, and wasn’t near so powerful that last hour. The ship didn’t take on any more water. Once the storm had blown itself out and the sun came out, we got to work fixing what we could, and I worked up the nerve to ask Staci just what in the heck had happened. But he just smiled at me. This big stupid grin. And he shrugged and said, “The Twins. They are friends to sailors.” And that was it.

Well, almost it. As we were trying to fix the broken launcher and get the charges back in place, Chief Peters comes stomping over and starts screaming at us for abandoning our posts. And the other guys, they’re looking back and forth between us and Chief Peters, like they’re not sure what’s going on or who to believe (Chief Peters, he isn’t real popular cause of his snoring and other stuff). And Chief Peters marches us on up to the Captain’s office and pounds on the door and marches us in before the Captain can even say “enter.” And Chief Peters starts going on and on about how we were derelict in our duty. Which is true. And Staci’s getting angrier and angrier and I’m afraid he’s going blurt out something about praying to the ocean spirits or something. But before he can say anything, the Captain holds up his hand to stop Chief Peters. And he dismisses Chief Peters. Chief Peters just glares at us as he marches out of the room.

The Captain, he’s real quiet for a minute, looking us over. Finally he says, “Anastacios, you’re a Greek national, right?” And Staci says, “Yes, sir, I left for America after the Germans took my home.” The Captain nods real slow, still looking us over. Then he says, “Spent some time sailing around Greece in my younger days. Heard lots of stories. Glad to have you aboard, Anastacios. We can use all the help we can get in this war. Even from old myths.”

I must’ve been gaping at him like a fish cause he got this funny smile on his face. He says, “Send Chief Peters back in here. Dismissed.”

I’m not sure what the Captain said to him, but Chief Peters hasn’t bothered us anymore about being derelict in our duty. Nobody else has said anything about seeing anything weird during the storm. I guess they were all below decks closing up the hatches or back at the stern trying to get all the charges. I haven’t asked the Captain what he saw. But now, every time he sees me or Staci, he gives us this little nod.

So, anyway, crazy as it sounds, that’s what happened. Whatever it is that happened.

We’ll be pulling into port in a couple of days, to get the rudder and the charge launcher and some other stuff fixed up. Staci says he’s going to try to get the ingredients for melomakaronas and teach Cook how to make them. But they won’t be as good as his Yiayia’s.

By the way, as I write this, he’s sitting across from me carving another horse. Says he still owes one to The Twins. Think I’m going to have to ask him about some of those things his Yiayia taught him.

Signing off now. Love you all.

Your son/brother/nephew,

Mikey

[Many thanks to Jodi, John, Ron and Shirl for their invaluable assistance.]

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One Response to A Letter Home

  1. Tomb says:

    This just made my night! When I join the Navy I wonder if I can get enough spare time to learn how to whittle…

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