The plaintive bugle sound echoes across
the Thames, bouncing from the roofs of the Coast Guard Academy and the
stone buildings of Connecticut College to lose itself among the bleak late
winter hills. Topside watches on the river boats slowly lower their flags
as duty officers and duty chiefs on their respective boats stand at attention.
Outlined against the fading late afternoon
New London sky at the head of Pier 12 stands a tall figure in blues and
peacoat. Collar up around ears red from the cold river wind, white hat
resting forward on his forehead. His arm at salute, rigid against the shivering
cold. The bugle sounds "carry-on" and the figure drops his salute and stands
watching the low black submarine alongside the pier. He sees the duty chief
reach into his jacket pocket pull out a pipe and light it. The chief looks
around, exchanges a few words with the topside watch and duty officer.
They laugh and the chief and duty officer go below pulling the after battery
hatch shut with a metallic spang. The tall figure on the pier walks to
A silhouette in a stained, outsize dirty
brown hooded parka, his pistol belt and forty-five looped loosely around
his middle, peers around the forward edge of the sail. "Topside aye. Whaddya
"I'm looking for a guy on your boat"
"Whozat?" responds the watch.
"Fitzgerald, Electrician's mate - he
still on board?"
Topside stands motionless, mittened
hands wrapped around a steaming cup. Face hidden in the obscurity of the
The tall youth walks closer, "I met
him a couple months ago in the upper base gee-dunk. I'm leaving tomorrow
and thought I'd drop down and see him. He said he'd give me a tour of the
boat. I know he goes home often. Newport I think. Not transferred is he?
Said something about a transfer."
Topside looks over the rim of his cup.
"Man don't you know? Ole Fitz went down with the Rayfin. Somewhere off
The wind is picking up now. Small whitecaps
appear on the dark river's surface and twilight settles in. There are sounds
on the wind of a crew laboring in the drydock. A spring loaded hatch snaps
upright on a submarine. A short echo over the water and the hatch closes
again. An outboard exhaust opens somewhere as a diesel starts. Smoke rolls
low across the water as a second engine comes on line for a battery charge
and the low throb of powerful engines carries on the river through the
increasing darkness of the lower base.
The young man stands on the hill of
the submarine base looking down at the dark river that flows to the sea.
There's a hint of spring in the wind as he pushes his hands deep into peacoat
pockets. Shivering in the cold he lights a cigarette, turns and walks away.
Shaken by the news, his mind drifts
from image to image as he reflects on how he came to be in this place.
Slowly it became clear this was not just a way to fill the time between
high school and a civilian career. He knows nothing of the turmoil to come
in the decade we call the sixties and how his life and perspective will
be forever changed as he begins the crossing of those lines in life. That
crossing that will set off events and mark the levels of deeper insight
A sailor's life can often be a lonely
one, to live so close and be so isolated. Loneliness can well up and cover
you like a blanket, sparked by a plaintive melody on the radio, a sunset,
a girl's perfume or the way a street light silhouettes objects in a rainspattered
street far from home.
A strange illusion, this Navy of ours.
A paradox of permanence and fleeting friendships. Always the same Navy
- but the ships and the buddies came and went as we moved on. And moments
that seemed at the time to stretch long and timeless into the future gave
way over the years to fading memories until many of the names are gone
and the dates are no longer clear.
The time and the memories all sliding
Flowing slowly like the Thames River
to the sea.