Anchor Detail

Anchor Detail

My boot toes butted up against the bullnose, the forward-most part of the ship, when my stutter came back. “Don’t worry, boy,” Daddy always told me. “You’ll outgrow it.”

He was mostly right, but it still turned up like a black sheep at a funeral, at the worst possible times. Like right then, I was almost surely the only one who grasped the evolving scene as my 16,000-ton ship sliced through the waters of Souda Bay, bearing down on a Greek fisherman’s nets. I could see him in his little dinghy, a dot of white on turquoise, rowing to beat the band out toward a tiny buoy that marked the net. Seemed like he couldn’t decide whether to row or wave his arms, he was so desperate to get somebody’s attention.

I keyed the push-to-talk on my radio and felt that old clamping feeling in the back of my throat. I had to say something, fast. We were closing at 500 yards a minute. Come on, push through it, Jenkins, I thought.

When I got nervous or over-excited, it felt like a gate sliding closed, breath racing up from my diaphragm to get through before it shut. Once it shut, it was like pushing weight underwater to move words. “B-b-b-bridge, f-forward lookout” finally poured out.

The Junior Officer of the Deck answered immediately, authority snapping off his voice like water off taut lines, “Bridge, go.” Ensign Barnes. Of course. The worst possible guy to be on the other end.

The Greek’s eyes fixed mine across the distance as I tried to tamp down the rising panic of being locked in my own head. I keyed the radio again, “W-w-w-we’re about to run over a f-f-fisherman’s nets. Approx-approx-about 150 yards off the starboard bow.” Damn it.

Ten months of bridge watches told me it was too late. I knew the sequence of events now happening on the bridge mirrored my speech—a series of relays, herky-jerk, before thoughts translated to action. Ensign Barnes would report to the Officer of the Deck, who would run onto the bridge wing to verify what Barnes reported and then yell at the conning officer to relay an order to the helm. The helmsman would repeat the order and finally, small turns on the ship’s wheel 50 feet above us would translate to a rudder angle change far below the waterline.

In the meantime, I was rooted in place. The rough hull slashed the nets, and the wake of us passing hovered on the verge of pulling the fisherman himself under.

I lifted a quick prayer for that fisherman, even as I watched him throw his back into reversing his course. What chance does a little guy have in this world, you know? The ship’s air-powered whistle flared to life, five throaty blasts that screamed, “DANGER!” to everybody from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Suez Canal.

The dinghy tipped wildly back and forth, the little Greek clinging to its gunwales, and somehow, he stayed upright. He locked eyes with me again, and I followed him down the side until I couldn’t see him anymore. Last I saw, he’d sagged to the bottom of the boat, crossing himself. Something about the way he sank in on himself sat on my gut hard, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I didn’t have time to chew on that cud, because I’d raised the ire of Senior Chief Samuels. He flicked his Marlboro overboard.

I never knew what “larger than life” meant until I met Boatswain’s Mate Senior Chief Petty Officer Jake Samuels. Let me just put it this way: sea stories involving him didn’t need to be stretched. He wasn’t even supposed to be smoking, but nobody, including the Executive Officer, the second in command, had the nerve to tell him.

The past summer, a storm blew up right next to the ship and pushed us off the pier after-hours. Microburst, the weather guessers called it. Senior climbed up the stern gate to get back on the ship. Stuff was flying around all over the place, 60 knot winds were howling, and we were headed for the shoal across the harbor. All of a sudden he was up on the foc’sle, barking orders and taking a maul to the stoppers holding the anchor chains.

“He. Calmed. The. Storm,” the guys whispered on the mess decks afterwards, reverent, as if Jesus himself was a chain-smoking, throat-punching badass wearing a khaki uniform.

“Damn it, Mel!” Senior Chief uncoiled, a spring of temper and tar. I winced, partly because he called me by the nickname I still hadn’t quite gotten used to, but mostly because I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of his famously profane ass-chewings.

I supposed it could be worse. He called Seaman Hansmacher, a devout, quiet kid from Minnesota, “Hand Job.” All I had to worry about was being nicknamed after Mel Tillis, the famous country singer who stuttered when he talked.

“Stop skylarking after that damn fishing boat and do your job!” He was in my face by now, and he bumped me as the ship maneuvered to starboard to swing the stern clear. I watched, helpless, as the radio left my hand, bounced off the top lifeline, and clattered down the front of the ship, making a barely noticeable splash some 35 feet below.

“Well, that’s gonna leave a mark, Senior said. “Goddamn Mel.”

My job was Petty Officer in Charge of the Foc’sle Under Instruction. I was supposed to be running the anchor crew as we steamed into anchorage in Souda Bay, Crete for a quick stop to top off on stores and fuel before we sailed through the Suez Canal and made the long lefthand curve into the Persian Gulf. The invasion of Iraq was all the buzz on the smoke deck. Our 320 Marines would be some of the last to the party.

I’d been promoted that week to Petty Officer Third Class which, in a Boatswain’s Mate’s world, means it’s time to shit or get off the pot. BM3 is the rank where you’re supposed to start taking charge of things. My brief brush with authority had been going fine up until the fisherman threw a wrench in the routine.

I’d memorized all the equipment and the steps for every deck evolution. I’d practiced all the reports and commands I needed to say as we neared the anchorage. BM1 Peterson, my Leading Petty Officer, drilled me whenever we had a minute. It got to where he could yell “1,000 yards to anchorage” at me across the mess decks, and I’d holler back, “Make the anchor ready for letting go.” Then I’d tell him, “Maul man approaching the anchor chain and tripping the riding stopper.” So it killed me that Senior probably thought I was dumb or lazy.

I braced myself for the ass-chewing, but none came. “Better let Lazaro take it from here,” Senior said almost gently, Lazaro being the officially qualified Petty Officer in Charge. It took a minute to sink in that Senior wasn’t going to yell, but he was firing me. Double Damn. He had that, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” look.

Senior fished for a fresh cigarette in his life vest pocket as I found my way aft to the anchor controller, where I sulked around and watched Lazaro do his thing. It was a cold day on deck, but embarrassment burned hot in my vest. What must it be like to be able to say anything you want, anytime? I wondered. Lazaro casually made a radio report, and I mouthed the words I knew he was saying without a hitch, but what good did that do me now?

Senior motioned BM1 Peterson over. A ship’s foc’sle is the exposed forward deck, a terribly windy place, but by concentrating hard, I caught snippets of their conversation.

“Well, so much for that…experiment,” Senior said.

“Oh, don’t know…been working with him…probably still be okay.”

“Goddamn Ditch…mother of all details…need three crews.”

“Yeah, my buddy…last week said…20 hours. You don’t think…I backed…up?”

“Nah…fucking soup sandwich…locked up…risk.”

The gist of it came through loud and clear, burning my ears. They didn’t trust me to run a foc’sle crew for part of the long transit through the Suez, even if BM1 kept an eye on me as the safety officer for my crew. Senior had told us the quickest route to Iraq’s coast was through the Suez Canal, aka the Ditch, but military ships commanded a low priority, since Egypt only half-supported the war. He’d also told us how narrow the Ditch was, only 100 yards on either side in places. If we lost propulsion in one of those narrows, we could clog up the whole works. Getting the anchors down quickly would be the only way to control our motion.

My mind drifted back to the fisherman. The puckered oval of his mouth, the way he dropped to the floor of his boat and crossed himself, had seared on my brain. It dawned on me, slowly, the connection I hadn’t had time to make earlier.

Despair is a universal language

The little Greek wore the same deflated look Daddy had two years ago when he told us he was out of options after a string of bad years. The bank was foreclosing the farm, and there’d be no money for college.

I drove to the Des Moines recruiting office the next day, where the recruiter acted sympathetic as he listened to my story but shook his head afterward. The stakes being high, my stutter sat in the office with us, witness to my potential enlistment.

“I don’t think we can get you past the screening,” he’d said. “The Navy won’t let you in with a stammer.”

But fate smiled. He was short one enlistment, it was two days before a new month, and war loomed. He got a gleam in his eye when I told him my ASVAB score. “How are you at flying under the radar, Jenkins?” he’d asked, and slapped me on the back. He coached me to keep my mouth shut at the processing station, and told me he’d do right by the Navy, too, putting me in under the Boatswain’s Mate rating.

“It’s not like a Boatswain’s Mate has a lot of responsibility. You’ll mostly bust rust and tie knots,” he’d assured me. He hadn’t been completely wrong. That was what I’d done my first few months. How was he supposed to know I’d ace my first advancement exam and make E-4?

We anchored without further mishap and launched one of the small boats. I loved boat operations, the mechanics of the winch and davit, the way the boat bobbed next to the ship—a toddler alongside its parent—before casting off and heading out on its own. When I drove the boat, I was completely confident. It was pure judgment and mechanical skill, and I didn’t have to say anything to anybody. The boat officer handled the radio communication.

The plan was to meet the husbanding agent at the pier, where we’d pick up a rental vehicle and drive over to the U.S. Naval Station to replace lost or expired identification cards. I was the boat coxswain and duty driver for the van. BM1 had been stationed at port operations here a few years before, so he would act as a guide.

The route from the Marathi Piers to the Souda Bay Naval Station snaked up from the harbor basin, opened into a main highway that traversed the western portion of the island, then constricted again to wind through a small village before arrival at the main gate. It was a 30-minute drive, barring accident or goat-herd encounter, BM1 said. He sat next to me in the front bucket seats and navigated. Behind us, sailors chattered and pointed out the windows, happy to be on solid ground. It was a good place to make landfall, I thought, even if it was a million miles from Iowa. Snow-capped mountains rose in the distance, in the island’s interior.

“How did you feel up there today, Mel?” BM1 asked. “Did you notice any difference in how it went for you?”

Ensign Barnes interjected from the seat behind, “Y-y-y-yeah, M-M-M-Mel. Tell us about the fisherman.”

BM1 turned to glare at the officer, as I flushed, grateful he intervened. “You don’t call him Mel, sir. That’s our nickname for him.” He adjusted the vent to get more heat and whirled back toward the Ensign. “What are you even doing on this ride? I thought you couldn’t have your picture taken overseas.”

A wave of suppressed laughter rippled through the other sailors in the van. I wanted to laugh, myself. Ensign Barnes was one of those guys who lorded his rank over you, even though BM1 said seniority among Ensigns was like virtue among whores. Rumors had flown around the ship on the Atlantic transit about how the Ensign refused to have a cruise book picture taken due to his supposed prior enlisted special operations service.

I hoped Barnes would focus his attention elsewhere, so I answered, barely above a whisper. “It was better…up until the fisherman. D-d-do you think he’ll get his nets back?”

BM1 sighed and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “I dunno, Mel. A war’s about to start.” He punched his own leg and raised his voice. “In fact, I don’t know why the fuck we’re running over here getting everybody a shiny new ID card just to go suck on a Scud.” He raised his hands above his shoulders and shook them, “Here we come, Saddam! We don’t have any offensive weapons, but we’ll whip your ass in admin!”

Some of the sailors laughed, but it was gallows humor. We’d run chemical drills since leaving homeport, but we all knew if we took a direct hit from a dirty missile, our chances of living long enough to don our gas masks were slim.

I must have looked upset because BM1 stopped himself, “It’ll be okay. He’s probably already called the embassy, and Uncle Sam’ll pay him ten times what they’re worth.” I wanted to believe him, but somehow it seemed farfetched that the fisherman would know who to call.

We pulled to a stop sign and he removed his Oakleys to fix his eyes on the bald-faced mountain rising in the distance to our left. He sported a funny band of white around his eyes, like a raccoon, from wearing sunglasses on deck. “Shipmates,” he said, pointing to the ribbon of road that wound that way. “It don’t look like much, but some of the best nights I ever had happened out on that peninsula.”

His eyes got all dreamy. “I remember one night at Mike’s Roadhouse, this blonde from Sweden came onto me and I took her and her sister home.” He stopped and checked on his wedding ring, on a chain around his neck. “That was before I got married, of course. There was this taverna in Tersanas that had the best pastitsio.” He trailed off.

Most of the sailors in the van were like me, wide-eyed first termers who had never been overseas. All we’d managed to see was the pimpled backside of Morehead City, North Carolina, where we’d picked up Marines two weeks ago; and the eye-burning blue of open ocean, which we’d transited at near top speed, en route to the Persian Gulf.

BM1 punched his leg again, and sighed, “To the right, Mel.”

When we arrived at the base, he whistled when he saw the concrete fortress of the entry point. “Damn. I used to stand gate guard here.”

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips under his thick mustache. “I was on watch one day in ‘96, when a goat herd wandered in. Back then, the base and village just kind of melted into each other, so there was no stopping ‘em. The gate didn’t even shut. We had to just let the shepherd round ‘em up and take ‘em back out.”

I wondered if he was telling a sea story, the kind sailors sometimes stretched a little in the retelling, but he gestured to his right, where the access point road opened to the rest of the base. “That used to be a single-lane dirt road.”

No more. The wide, dark asphalt now bristled with fuel and supply vehicles. “The war machine came to Souda Bay,” BM1 said so softly I knew it wasn’t a sea story.

“Yeah, I can’t wait! We’re gonna be on the front lines of history!” Ensign Barnes wiggled in his seat.

BM1 shot him a hard look. “Special operator, my ass,” he said under his breath. “He’s practically wagging his tail.”

One thing having a speech impediment does is make you a watcher, an observer of human nature. Once I’d been around a person for some time, I could pretty well predict what they were going to do, like a very modest superpower. For example, I knew Ensign Barnes would invoke his officer privilege to go first in the ID line.

The Personnelman Third Class helping us was a pixie of a kid, maybe five feet even in her uniform. She reminded me of my little sister. Sure enough, Ensign Barnes stood at the counter as soon as we got there, shifting from one foot to the other, impatient to have his picture taken.

“What do you have behind the counter there, PN3?” he said while she typed his information in the computer.

“Yeah, you keep glancing at something down by your feet.” Operations Specialist Third Class Jakes leaned over the counter, trying to see. “What you got back there?”

“You guys promise not to be mean?” The PN3 looked from the Ensign to Jakes, and then to the other eight sailors now fringing the counter in anticipation.

“We promise,” they clamored in unison.

“It’s a baby kitten, barely two weeks old” she said softly. “The Seabees were working on the new armory and they found him in the construction dumpster.”

My ears perked up. A kitten! For several weeks, the only living thing we’d seen besides ourselves was the hawk that had inexplicably appeared halfway across the Atlantic. The lookouts watched him hunt through the night vision equipment once we got close enough to land for smaller birds to find their way onto the ship.

“Well, let’s see him,” Jakes said.

“I don’t know.” Her eyes darted back and forth between them and her feet. “I don’t like to take him out of his box. He’s tiny, and he gets cold.”

“Oh, come on, let’s see the thing,” Ensign Barnes stamped his foot. “I’ll order you if I have to. Besides, if it can’t survive being picked up, it’s not a very good pet, is it?”

She considered, then bent down and carefully pulled the tiny body out of the cardboard box at her feet, wrapping a blanket around it as she straightened.

I hung back while the other sailors jostled for a vantage point, shoving each other, surging forward.

“That little shrimp is good as dead,” Jakes laughed. “You should have left it in the dumpster.” The girl’s face drained white as the form he was working on

I advanced a step, then hesitated, my throat constricting. So what if the other sailors made fun of this girl trying to save a kitten? What could I, Mr. Great Communicator, do? It was one thing to talk around the guys I knew, the other deck sailors. I barely knew most of these sailors, and Barnes had already shown he didn’t mind punching down. Opening my mouth would invite them to make fun of me.

One of the girl’s coworkers circled, smirking, “We been trying to tell her that ever since she brought it in. It’s too young to live without its mama, and we’re practically in a war zone.”

BM1 roared from his seat, “You’re not in a war zone; you’re in a fucking Personnel Office! Now how about helping the kid process these ID cards, instead of giving her shit?”

His outburst unstuck me. She looked on the verge of tears. I waded in, pulling sailors back from the counter one by one. “Leave her alone. Leave her…alone. B-b-back up.” My shipmates were so surprised they parted and let me through. “L-let me see.”

I took the kitten from the girl, tucked the blanket corner around it, and held it up to examine it. The kit’s eyes were barely open.

“Listen to me,” I said. “I had one just like this 18 months ago. B-b-b-barn kitten. Its mama got run over by a…c-cattle hauler. Go down to medical and get a couple of medicine droppers, get you some g-goat’s milk and mix it with an egg yolk and Karo syrup. Heat it in the microwave until it’s just warm.” I felt the sailors’ eyes boring into my back, but I kept going, words flowing now like the Gulf stream. “Drop that mixture in the baby’s mouth 8-10 times a day until it stops trying to suck on the dropper, then transition to soft food for a week or two, then regular food. Keep it wrapped up and warm. It’ll be okay.” I met her eyes. “I promise.”  I handed the kitten back, and the PN3 smiled shyly, sniffling but hopeful.

On the way out, Jakes grabbed my shoulder from behind. “So you’re telling me you can talk just fine when there’s a pussy involved, is that it, Jenkins?” He was smiling, but not in a friendly way. I remembered that he’d had to take over the forward repair locker phone talker job when the locker officer discovered I couldn’t do it effectively.

He wasn’t completely wrong. I supposed the lesson I learned from the recruiter about flying under the radar had stayed with me. I wasn’t likely to open my mouth. But we’d landed in a hard corner of a hard world, and I didn’t want to be someone who could make it a little easier, but didn’t.

I felt the blush rising from the soles of my feet, more anger than embarrassment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw BM1 watching, his Oakleys halfway to his face, poised to step in. I faced Jakes: “Yeah, that’s it. That’s my b-b-big scam. I fake a condition that m-m-makes people think I’m a f-f-fucking dumbass.” I headed toward the van, leaving him staring after me, speechless.

At the stop sign where we’d turn to head back toward the piers, BM1 said, “Take a right here.” I frowned at him. To the right was the bald-faced mountain he’d pointed out earlier. What was he up to?

Ensign Barnes roused from a half-sleep in the seat behind us, “Hold on, BM1. That’s not the way back to the ship. We need to go left.”

“Put the van in park, Mel.” I pulled off the road and moved the gear shifter to park.

“Will you please join me outside, sir?” BM1 requested, strangely formal all of a sudden. I rolled the window down and listened to them argue, BM1 pacing and Ensign Barnes standing, arms crossed, looking smug.

“Sir, we are headed into the shit. I’ve chewed on it this whole ride.” BM1 stopped pacing and stared Ensign Barnes in the face. “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, and we don’t have chemical protection.” Barnes shrugged and motioned for BM1 to get to the point. “I want to take the van on just a short detour, show ‘em a bit of the country.” BM1 waved in our direction, and I ducked. “You gonna tell me we shouldn’t let these sailors live a little?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you, BM1. I hate to pull rank with a guy of your seniority, but there’s a lot to be done, and our country needs us.”

“Come on, sir, don’t you ever wonder why people have you paged all over the ship?” He tried another tack. Other junior officers routinely called the ship’s control station and asked the enlisted watch standers to page Barnes to random places on the ship. It was something of a shipwide joke. “I’ll tell you,” BM1 continued. “It’s because they think you’re a tool. This is your chance to show ‘em you’re not.”

If the Ensign was surprised, he didn’t show it. “It’s not my job to be liked. It’s my job to complete the mission. Our mission is to support the upcoming conflict in Iraq. I’m surprised you can’t see that. What do you have, 12 years in? Up for Chief?”

I wondered why the officer was so enthusiastic about the war. It seemed he couldn’t wait to get there. BM1 spat in the dirt.

“Sir, these are kids,” he said, his tone as close to a plea as I’d ever heard from him.  “They’ve just screamed across the Atlantic and the Med in 16 days to face God knows what in the Ditch and beyond. Some of them may never do anything else. The ship will be there when we get back.”

Ensign Barnes smirked and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll let our driver decide,” he said, rocking back and forth. He started walking back toward the van, and I had to roll the window up, so I didn’t hear the end of the conversation.

They climbed back in the cabin. “Mel, you’re driving,” BM1 began. “It’s your call. We can take a detour out into the country and see some sights, or we can go back to the ship.” The rest of the sailors were quiet, as if holding their breath.

I cut my eyes from BM1 to the grinning officer behind us, sensing that something bigger than the single decision hung from the steering column. What was the right thing? Neither of them offered an answer. The Ensign outranked BM1, but BM1 had more credibility. Nobody liked Barnes, but he had a point. There was a war to get to.

It occurred to me that it all connected—the fisherman, the girl with the kitten, my stutter, the war to our east—anchors that kept us in a narrow channel.

I wavered for just a moment more, then turned the wheel and stepped on the accelerator. What chance does a little guy have in this world?

The big van lumbered to the right, toward the bald-faced mountain in the distance.



About the Author

Kristy Bell is a poet, fiction writer, and Navy veteran who lives in rural southwest Georgia. Her fiction regularly places characters in environments where they are forced to choose between embracing or suppressing their humanity. She has work in Livina Press and Press Roi, and work forthcoming in Snake Nation Review and Hallaren Literary Magazine. Find her on Twitter at red_dirt_poet.


Image by Military_Material from Pixabay