Another Last Word

A Pearl Harbor Memory


I tried to sell a book of stories to a regional publisher recently. The owners were older, they liked me, they were enthusiastic, we could maybe do something.

But then it went to their editorial board. Full of damn kids. Your stories are so old. Like you. Who cares?

Not exactly what was said, but you know.

Fine. I’ve been hit harder. And they missed the point.

Because it isn’t about me, you damn kids. It’s about what you will be called upon to do.

Yes, you.

Sometime in the 1970s I was standing sideways in the cockpit of my dad’s sailboat heeled over halfway to hell crossing the Santa Barbara Channel on a close reach to Santa Cruz Island. We were fighting upwind through walls of water, as anyone who has been there will know. The sun is blazing but you’re still freezing, obviously, because you are soaked and terrified of just one simple anything going wrong.

I was at the helm with the lee rail buried in the water. That’s nothing special. I was a kid. I had that job because I wasn’t strong enough to trim the sheets. That means control the sails. Pull ropes, crank winches, get up and make the damn boat go in the direction you want it to go.

My dad’s hat blew off and went over the side. He never, ever, used profanity in my presence, but he looked at me with the fury of Satan and said, “Turn this son of a bitch around.”

I put the wheel downwind, gybing at full speed, a dangerous move I’d been taught from birth as a life-saving measure. Maybe it’s something only sailors will understand, but your boat is going in one direction full speed and you’re doing everything you can to keep it that way, and then you throw it into reverse. All that power has to go somewhere: The boom and sails sweep the deck and anyone not paying attention overboard, everything not nailed down flies apart in a horrendous shuddering and shaking and you’re taking on water from the other side while putting the fear of God into any survivors still clinging to the lifelines.

And then you do it again.

We careened around in a huge circle and came back up into the wind following our own wake, searching for his hat like it was a person overboard. There was nothing special about the hat that I was aware of; it was one of those short-brimmed Greek fisherman caps that were in fashion at the time, but that’s not why Dad had it. I think it was the closest thing he could find to the Navy uniform cap he wore as an officer on a destroyer.

My dad stood over me, behind me, telling me what to do, but not doing it himself. The captain doesn’t do — the captain tells you what to do. I didn’t get this as a kid, but I came to understand when I found myself in charge later in life. My dad and I didn’t have the best relationship, but on the boat, it was here are the orders you follow the orders and it gets done and it’s done and it’s good because there’s no room for error.

And it was fine.

Six foot swells, a wind blowing a small gale, we’re plowing through at seven knots, boat pounding into the troughs, shuddering, shaking, terrifying, and then a crew member leans way over the side like a harpooner out of Melville while another crew member clings to his belt from behind and he picks up Dad’s hat with the boathook because that damn ocean, God bless her, wasn’t going to take any more than she already had from my dad (another story). He put the soaking thing on his head like this is the regular deal, we do this all the time, and that was the end of it, and we didn’t even talk about it then, later, or ever. Just give me back my hat ocean don’t make me tell you again because you don’t want that.

The guy who pulled my dad’s hat out of the drink survived Pearl Harbor.

Is that story too old?

Huge man, by the way. Just right for Melville. Well over six feet, north of 250 pounds. Crazy long silver goatee. Faded Navy tattoos. What is that? An anchor? A girl? He couldn’t remember. Grew up a Jack Mormon in Salt Lake. He’d never seen the ocean before he enlisted. Didn’t know what it looked like. His hitch was up before World War II started. But he needed a job, so just stayed.

U.S.S. West Virginia. Wireless man. Should’ve been on duty that day, but he was in jail because he got drunk in Honolulu the night before and beat up a bunch of shore patrolmen. Yes, read that again: Beat up a bunch of shore patrolmen. 

I spent some time with him before he died, in the 2010s. My dad, his oldest friend, was already gone. He was a bit out of it, but he looked at me and said, “I f…ed up.”

I said, “Yeah, you did. What else did you do?”

He was dying, but he gripped my arm with the strength of a lion taking down some animal. I wasn’t expecting that, but I took it. He was trying to tell me something.

My dad and I didn’t have that. He didn’t try to say anything.

That’s an old story, I know.

But it’s worth telling, and remembering.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.