The East-West Homegoing crossing, from the Bay of Naples, down around Sicily and its somber dark-red-lit volcanic peaks and out into the stormy Atlantic, was a lot more exciting than the voyage out, even though we weren’t scanning for the snorkels of enemy submarines from the time of departing Port of New York to arriving at the wreckage-strewn harbor of Naples. The difference was weather. Going out in midsummer we hadn’t had any. Coming back, we had one of the worst winter storms on record.
Making the run from England to Boston a thousand miles north of where we were crossing in the bouncing, swinging little Marion McKinley Bovard, the Queen Elizabeth lost part of her bridge to wave action, nearly a hundred feet above the waterline. Months later, I ran into an Army nurse who had been on that run. When I asked her what it was like, she stared into space, shook her head and finally said, “Have you ever seen 2,400 men and women all puking at once?”
But down where we were, a thousand miles south, we were only in a brutally fierce, but not record-breaking storm. As soon as I saw a mimeograph standing idle, I had volunteered to put out a ship’s newspaper, so I had the run of the ship, barring a few places where I might hurt myself or fall overboard.
I had stationed myself in the captain’s bridge for the duration of the storm, where I kept my eyes fastened on the ship’s clinometer. We’d roll right 25 degrees, then come left about as many on the return — then 26 degrees, 30, 32, 30 — -and then a big one, 38 degrees, 42, 40, 43, 35 — and I couldn’t help myself, I just had to ask the third officer, standing next to me watching the same mad dance of the clinometer, “What if, you know. it hits a swell at the wrong time and just doesn’t come back?”
And he gave me a look and pulled at his beard and looked for help at the captain, who was looking at some bright red “NOTICE TO AIRMEN” among his readouts. And then he said, “It’s hard to answer that. I think most seamen would start to worry when it began rolling 36 degrees, maybe 37. One thing I can tell you for sure. though, the clinometer goes past 41 or 42 degrees and that’s all she wrote. That sunnabitch ain’t coming back.”
And he bent low to study something on the floor near his feet and I suddenly saw that some of the deck crew had been putting me on, because what they were doing was being at maximum don’t laughness.
“Oh, you bastards,” I said, but only at low volume, because even at low volume you don’t call a ship’s captain a bastard on his own bridge. “I have to pee,” I said, and took myself to the bridge’s jakes, and when I came out of there they were all looking like a bunch of men who had just had a good laugh. They didn’t offer to tell me over what, though, and I didn’t ask.
One more little thing. On November 11th, the Bovard bouncing around on the swells, the third officer called, “Cap’n? You said I should let you know when it was getting onto 11 a.m. local.”
“Oh, right,” the captain said, his eyes roving the bridge and coming to settle on me. “You, Pohl. How would you like to sound the tribute?”
I said, “What?” and the captain sighed and gestured to the third. Who took my hand and placed it on a black-upholstered switch of some kind.
“When I say ‘push’ you push, all right?” he said, eyes on the switch. “Push!” And I pushed, and the hugest basso profundo sound I ever heard erupted from behind me, and swelled and filled the world, and the universe, and didn’t go away until the third wrestled my frozen hand away from the switch, and shouted in my unhearing ear, “Happy Armistice Day!”
And I stared at him, mouth ajar, because I had never imagined that anyone was still celebrating the end of that pipsqueak little 1918 war — in 1945.
And then we were dead-slowing into the Hampton Roads docks, and before you knew it, I was two-stepping it down the gangway to the long row of discharge clerks, wearing my Class As, and a moment later one of them was steam-pressing to my breast the cutout of an eagle that we called the Ruptured Duck, which had the magical ability to transform my unpressed uniform into a mere ill-fitting civilian suit — and I was climbing into the bus that would take us to the train station and ultimately back to my civilian life in Greenwich Village. And once again, after four years, I could make my own decision about where I slept that night, and what I could do when I woke up.