Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Robert leaned on the starboard rail of the cruise ship and gazed at the crumpled Norwegian shoreline with its improbable acclivities and deep inlets. White foam frothed around the rocks at the water’s edge. His eyes remained reasonably sharp when viewing things from this distance, barring the few floaters which sometimes distracted him. A glance at his watch, however, told him nothing. He put on his reading glasses. It was 10 a.m., time for brunch, one of the endless series of meals aboard ship.

Robert turned his attention to the deck. It was a late spring day under sunny skies, and the clothes worn by his fellow passengers included t-shirts, frocks, tennis shorts, and even bathing suits. Robert wore suntan pants and a long sleeve shirt, but he still felt cold. He also felt every one of his 85 years.

This was his first excursion on a full size liner. He enjoyed being on water, but until now had avoided cruises. He had spent many hours in a much smaller craft, his own garage-built sea skiff. 60 years ago he skillfully had cut and assembled the wooden frame. He had soaked plyscore in order to get it to bend properly to the gentle curves, and then layered sheet upon sheet of fiberglass cloth over the top. Mahogany trim, a windshield, lights, control hardware, and a 25 horsepower Evinrude completed the boat. She had given decades of service until dry rot became too advanced to repair. Lately Robert felt the rot had spread to him.

He had sailed the North Sea before, too, but that was nearly 70 years earlier and there had been little pleasurable about it. After all these years, the sharp bite of the North Sea air in his nostrils was starkly familiar. Every sea, every ocean every gulf – to say nothing of every port – has a distinctive odor. It has something to do with the mix of sea life, currents, winds, and any nearby human activity.

A breeze that seemed to refresh the other passengers chilled Robert. He decided it was for the best that no cruises had been available in March. He had requested one, but, while cruises sailed along the Norwegian coast even in mid-winter, the Russian port of Murmansk was closed to such traffic until late May. The travel agent strongly had recommended booking for July or August. Robert compromised and chose June.
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In March 1945 Robert was first Bo ‘sun on the Caesar Rodney. Most of the Liberty ship’s crew were civilian, but officers and petty officers typically were Navy, as were the gun crews. Robert was Navy, after a fashion, and a chief petty officer. It was “after a fashion” because he was Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard had been absorbed into the Naval Reserve for the duration of the war.

The convoy of 20 ships kept as far from the Norwegian coast as was practical, but that was close enough. Even this late in the war, German aircraft and submarines operating from Norway posed a constant danger. At this time of year, however, ice to the north was as dangerous as the Germans to the south.

Robert stood next to the 3-inch gun at the bow. The frigid wind sliced through his peacoat as though it were a cotton tee-shirt. The sea was choppy. It frequently sprayed onto the deck, stinging his eyes, and freezing on cables and winches.

Robert was permitted to work the civilian deck crew, all union members, for up to three hours per day to scrub, scrape rust, paint, and perform other maintenance. He had the option to save the hours and use them all at once, which he often did on warm routes so that the ship would come into port spanking clean. On the Murmansk run, however, he used a more conventional schedule, because the ice could not be allowed to build up.

The afternoon sky was gray and dreary, but the visibility was still too good for his taste. His four hour duty was almost up. The four-on/eight-off schedule required that he return to duty at midnight. Most of the men hated that shift, since it meant not getting to their bunks until 4 a.m. Robert, however, rather liked the dark solitude of the night hours.
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The late morning sky was a painfully bright blue. Robert stifled a sneeze as he glanced at the sun. He walked past the onboard swimming pool. Poolside were couples of all ages, a smattering of children, and a large number of singles. His eyes strayed to a bosomy young woman overflowing the top of her pink bikini. He suspected she wouldn’t remain single for long.

At brunch Robert found himself seated at a table occupied mostly by young singles. Robert smiled at his own tendency to consider “young” anyone under 50. In the service, anyone over 25 was likely to have been called “Pops.” Robert became aware that one of his commensal companions was talking to him.

“Excuse me?” Robert asked.

“I said, ‘Have you ever been married, or are you an old bachelor?’” asked a well-groomed man in his 30s.

“I was married, and I guess I’m now an old bachelor.”

“Good for you!” the fellow said with a slap to the shoulder that dislodged crabmeat from Robert’s fork. His duty to the elderly done, the self-satisfied younger man turned his attention to a woman next to him.

“So which do you recommend?” asked a young woman seated across from Robert.

“About what?”

“Should you get married or not?”

“Either way, you’ll regret it.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” she said.

“Yes, it is.”

No one else talked to him for the remainder of the meal.

Robert had met his wife Rachel in Morristown High School in 1941. They married in 1946 after he had left the service. They remained married for the next 52 years. During those years, they raised two children, built a home, built a business, built a life. Then one day she was gone. Heart failure, the doctors said.

After leaving the table, Robert again walked past the pool. Spray from splashing children caught his cheek. He no longer was used to children. Both of his own offspring soon would be collecting social security. His son lived in San Francisco with constantly changing male companions. Though his son’s lifestyle puzzled him, Robert at least admired his vital post-60 libido. His daughter had given him the closest thing he ever had to grandchildren: her two stepchildren from her second marriage.

Robert walked to the stern to watch the skeet shooting. The passenger with the shotgun wasn’t a bad shot. One clay pigeon after another disintegrated.
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The Caesar Rodney vibrated as the engine pushed the blunt bow through the choppy sea at nine knots. The ship was heavily laden with food, ammunition, truck parts, engine parts, and, of all things, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but still it could have sailed faster. The speed was determined by the slowest ship in the convoy.

A seaman pointed out to Robert a dark dot in the sky. “PBY two o’clock,” the AB said casually.

This was not unusual. British and American PBY Catalinas kept up long range patrols over the North Sea. German Condors and flying boats did the same, of course.

The aircraft closed on the convoy. As the silhouette grew, Robert distinguished twin stabilizers on the tail. A bulge above the fuselage looked suspiciously like a third engine. It wasn’t a PBY. Just as Robert reached this conclusion the General Quarters alarm went off. The aircraft soon was close enough to identify as a Blohm and Voss 138. Primarily used for reconnaissance, it nonetheless was heavily armed and often attacked surface ships on its own. The crew also would radio an alert to any German submarines in the area. The aircraft was headed straight for the Caesar Rodney.

Liberty ships were armed with eight 20mm anti-aircraft cannons as well as 50mm machine guns, but hitting a fast-moving target took a stroke of luck. New warships were armed with fancy radar-controlled triple-A, which were much more effective, but these weren’t installed on merchant ships. Earlier in the war when still just an AB himself, Robert had manned a 20mm, but now he stood by feeling helpless.

The 138 had a 20mm of its own, which opened fire. Shells raked the deck and obliterated the chest of a gunner. Robert pulled the man out of his harness and took his place at the 20mm. He got off four rounds. On the fifth, there was no report but just a hiss. He yanked the smoking magazine off the gun and threw it over the side, burning his hands in the process. The round went off as the magazine hit the water.

The 138 strafed two other ships and dropped 110-lb bombs at a third. It is difficult for anything other than a dive bomber to hit a moving vessel, even a lumbering Liberty, so Robert was not surprised when the bombs missed. The aircraft turned and withdrew to the east.

Robert inspected the lifeboats before going off watch, but he didn’t place much confidence in them. He placed his hopes instead on the four large rafts, and he made sure their launch racks were greased and ice-free. These could be in the water seconds after the ship was hit. There often was no time to lower boats in such circumstances. The Liberty hull was a half-inch of steel, no match for a torpedo. In fact, more than a few Liberty ships had gone to the bottom when the hulls cracked along welded seams for no other reason than metal fatigue. In the cold of the North Sea, hypothermia would overtake a swimmer in ten minutes.

Robert ate his meal and returned to his tiny quarters, which he shared with a petty officer second class from Georgia named Bunson. Bunson wasn’t in the cabin when Robert entered. He lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. As usual, Robert awoke before his alarm clock went off. Bunson was in the other bunk.

The cold night air shocked him into alertness as he walked out onto the deck. Only seconds after his eyes adjusted to the dark, the central ship of the convoy exploded. An escorting British corvette immediately turned, apparently having detected the location of the attacking submarine. Robert didn’t much like the British, but he preferred them as escorts. American warship crews were competent enough once they went into action, but there always was a noticeable delay, as though they invariably were taken by surprise. He also had grudging respect for the German submarine crews who, if anything, were in more danger than the merchantmen.

The Caesar Rodney’s gunners manned the 3-inch and 5-inch guns even though there was nothing visible at which to shoot. There were no further attacks during the next four hours. Robert had no idea if the corvette had any luck. The one sinking wreck was left behind. It would be up to the escort ships to circle back and pick up any survivors.
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Aboard the cruise ship, Robert’s nose betrayed him. This wasn’t the odor of the Barents Sea he remembered. Part of the difference might have been the weather. He never before had been here on such a glorious day. Another part no doubt was Murmansk itself, whose odors had changed in more than 66 years. Patterns of sunlight and shadow played over the approaching shoreline. The city nestled prettily below low hills.

On one of the hills, Robert saw the solitary figure of a man. He instinctively waved, even though he knew it to be a statue, and a huge one at that. Something about the hill with the statue tugged at his memory. What had been there before? Gun batteries, he recalled.

He hadn’t seen more of the place on his previous visits than he could see from the deck and dock. At the time, the Soviets viewed their Western allies with suspicion. NKVD internal security troops had kept the dock area cordoned off with barbed wire, and allied sailors were not allowed past the wire. This time around, the docks were free of troops and barbed wire. Everything looked decidedly civilian.

For a moment, Robert wondered what had motivated him to come here again. He knew it had to do with some sense about time – not just time remaining to him, which he knew was short, but time in some larger sense.

He debarked with the rest of the passengers and joined a bus tour. The bus took them first to the museum and then up into the hills. The destination was the figure he had seen from the ship. It was a 360-foot statue of an unknown soldier, affectionately named Alyusha by the locals. During the war, anti-aircraft batteries had been located in the same spot, guarding against Axis aircraft based in Norway and Finland that could and did reach Murmansk. Not all of the tourists at the site were from his bus. Some were bored Russian children shepherded by teachers.

In the blue harbor below, Robert could see the cruise ship shining in the sunlight like a white pearl. At this time of year, the sun scarcely bothered to set at all. Robert’s focus blurred and then sharpened and then blurred again. He felt exhausted. He looked for a place to sit. He felt a pain in his chest. 40mm anti-aircraft guns stood to his right and left. A soldier smoking a foul-smelling cigarette spoke to him with a confused expression. Robert couldn’t hear him. Robert waved to the Liberty ships approaching the harbor.

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