It began in East Peoria, Illinois, sometime around the time the U.S. went to war in 1941. Max Blue would not be born for another 40 years or so, but his progenitor, Paul Fritz, full of piss and vinegar, praying to grow up tall, was learning how to play baseball, and marveling at East Peoria High School halfback Charlie Gilkerson and his ability to run over and around outmatched defenders. Charlie Gilkerson was the only black student attending East Peoria High School at that time, and indeed his family was the only black family living in East Peoria. They lived on a hill near the edge of town; it was called Nigger Hill.
Ten years later, young Fritz was learning how to handle the duties of a U.S. Destroyer at sea Officer of the Deck. And learning the legend of Boats.
Silent as death was the room. Only the occasional rattle of the window and moan of the wind broke the monotony. The old man slowly got up from his chair by the window, rearranged the shabby blanket over his shoulders, and moved with short, halting steps to a small table where he bent to turn on a battered radio.
. . . clouds thickening late in the afternoon. Blizzard conditions are expected with accumulations up to eight inches. Temperatures will fall to zero degrees or below. Wind chill factor of forty below. You are advised to stay inside if at all possible . . .
The old man returned to his chair, where he watched the wind-blown snow rise in great clouds, blocking the sun and causing oddly shaped shadows to be cast on the frozen ground. At intervals the gusts subsided, and the bright sun reflected with dazzling brilliance on the freshly fallen snow. Each flake, it seemed, caught the rays, bounced them around, and discarded them to be seen as sparkling gems to the attentive eye.
. . . and now, live from the Chapel of King’s College in Cambridge,England, we present a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The program combines the readings of Biblical Christmas lessons with performances of traditional hymns and carols . . .
The old man was alone with his memories, but they were rich, and he reviewed them often. These days his needs were few, which matched his resources. He wanted to get through another winter. He looked forward to spring, and to sitting on a bench in RiverfrontPark with his friend Sparks. They liked to watch the boats on the river and swap sea stories; both had served many years in the Navy, mostly at sea.
. . . with righteousness He shall judge the poor . . .
As the snow swirled before his eyes, it was transformed into salt spray . . .
. . . He struggled to keep his balance on the wildly gyrating, ice-slick deck of a U.S. Navy World War II Geary class Destroyer. The admirals and politicians liked to call these ships the greyhounds of the fleet. The men who made them go called them tin cans and rust buckets.
A crew of three men in life jackets huddled close to the bulkhead, port side, just forward of the amidships passageway. He saw the fear in their eyes, and measured it against his own. As Boatswain’s Mate First Class, he had been in charge of more fueling details than he could count, but he had never seen one like this. The sea was the enemy, and it was attacking from all sides with battleship force. He could see waves crashing over the bridge, 50 feet above him.
“Okay, you shit-birds, let’s get some fuckin’ lifelines rigged here, whaddaya think this is, a fuckin’ picnic?” He shouted above the roar of the sea.
“What the fuck’s goin’ on, Boats? The Old Man tryin’ get us all killed?” It was Vink; Boatswain’s Mate Third Class, arms like 16-inch shells, the strongest man on the ship, and probably in the whole 7th Fleet.
“Never mind about the Old Man, he wouldn’t have us out here if he didn’t think we could handle it.”
Boats was not as confident as he sounded. He knew the Captain was fueling out of desperation. Normally they fueled at sea every six or seven days, but the weather had been so rotten the Old Man had put it off for four extra days hoping for a break; instead, it got worse. Boats also knew that running out of fuel was of less concern than restoring ballast. In a sea like this, with fuel tanks depleted, the Captain was worried about capsizing.
Boats trusted the Captain; had trusted him since the first day he came aboard in Nagoya. The Captain was a redheaded Irishman, rough as a barnacle, and fearless as a hammerhead shark. Boats remembered the first time the Skipper took the con leaving Nagoya. They were tied up alongside a dock, and no sooner had the All lines clear call gone to the bridge, than he heard a quiet but firm voice of authority say, “All back full.” The ship had shot backwards from the dock and into the channel in an instant. The Captain knew the crew was watching him, and the cheer from the fantail let him know they liked his style.
Boats also remembered how the Old Man had backed him the last time Vink got in trouble on liberty in Sasebo. He had simply told the Captain, I need Vink. Now the Captain needed him, and he didn’t have to be reminded.
The ship was maneuvering to come alongside an aircraft carrier they could barely make out, laboring in the heavy seas several thousand yards ahead. Just our luck, he thought, to get mixed up with a bunch of flyboys instead of some real Navy tanker-men who know what they’re doing. This would not be easy, but he knew the Captain had the con, and Chief Petzhold had the helm, and this comforted him. It was no time for amateurs.
. . . and the Angel of the Lord seduced the Virgin Mary . . .
“You got everything under control, Boats?” The high-pitched voice from behind jarred him. It was Ensign Craig, an Engineering Division Officer.
Boats thought Why can’t this little shit just go away and leave us alone? All he can do is get in the way. He threw a half-salute at the Ensign and shouted, “Yes, sir.”
Ensign Craig was a hopeless case. Out of some ROT corps school in Texas. A pharmacist, for Christ’s sake, and the Navy wanted to make an Engineering officer out of him. The Ensign had been aboard for eight months, and still didn’t know his ass from the after fan room.
“Look, Mr. Craig . . .” The words were half out of his mouth when the deck dropped like a falling roller coaster, and a monster wave slammed him against the bulkhead. He managed to stay on his feet, and immediately saw that his men, hooked to the lifeline, were safe.
Ensign Craig was not. The wave caught the young officer off balance and folded his back around a life raft stanchion like a gymnast on a high bar. He crumpled to the deck, and floated quietly off into the wildly tossing sea.
“MAN OVERBOARD!” Boats bellowed.
Seaman Faust on the sound-powered phones relayed the message to the bridge. “Man overboard, port side amidships, this is not a drill.”
. . . go and search diligently for the young child . . .
Boats riveted his eyes to Ensign Craig in the bright orange life jacket growing smaller and smaller in the foaming, swirling sea. The Ensign was either paralyzed or unconscious because there was no sign of him struggling.
The ship heeled sharply to port, and rolled at a perilous 45-degree angle as the Captain did not hesitate to attempt rescue of the stricken man. The sound from the ship’s loudspeakers filled the air, the voice sounding almost nonchalant. “Now hear this. Now hear this. Man overboard, port side. Man overboard, port side. All hands, man your man-overboard stations. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.”
They had practiced this procedure until they were sick of it, but always in fair weather. The drill called for putting a whaleboat in the water, but today, Boats thought, if we try that we might have the whole boat crew in the water. He knew what he had to do. “Vink,” he shouted, “secure this line to the winch, I’m goin’ after him.” He tied one end of an inch-thick hawser around his waist.
“You’re crazy, Boats. You can’t swim in that sea.”
“When I reach him, I’ll signal with the Very Pistol.” He patted the holster on his belt, and dived into the water.
Boats was a strong swimmer, but more than strength was needed here. He had gauged the direction and flow of the waves, and as the ship came around, judged the moment to jump that would carry him as close as possible to the man in the water. The surge of the slate-gray sea carried him to within 20 yards of the crippled Ensign, and he began to swim towards him with all the strength he could muster. Instantly he sensed that he could make headway, and the feeling exhilarated him because he knew that the rescue would be successful. In ten minutes that seemed like hours, he was alongside the helpless officer, who looked at him with grateful eyes. “What took you so long, Boats?” he asked.
Boats secured the line around the Ensign’s waist and said, “Navy red tape, sir. I had to apply for hazardous duty pay.” He fired the Very Pistol.
. . . when they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy . . .
Later, in a Yokosuka bar, one of his drinking buddies asked him a question. “Boats, how come you risk yo black ass to save that pimp Ensign’s white ass?”
. . . he came unto his own and his own received him not . . .
Boats didn’t know the answer then, and after all these years, he still didn’t know the answer. One thing he did know though; whatever the answer was, it had nothing to do with skin color.
. . . full of grace and truth .