HOME FROM THE SEA
“I’d recognize that grin,” my Dad said. The deckle-edged photograph showed a man in a t-shirt, dungarees wearing a sailor hat pushed forward over his brow. The cigarette dangling from his mouth obviously burned his eyes. The grin was a ‘go-to-hell’ smile as far as I was concerned.
“When do you figure that was taken?”
Dad continued to look through the maze of stuff in the foot locker opened before us. The picture had fallen from a photo album that had been atop the remainder. “No way of telling from the picture. I doubt Uncle Bill put a date on it,” he said, turning the photo over and nodding that he had been right.
I could see a bosun’s whistle neatly placed among clothes and boxes packed in the locker.
“How long was he in the navy?”
Dad was taking his time with the photo album.
“Was it a long time?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. He put in thirty-two years.” He was looking at pictures of U. S. Naval ships that had been glued into the album. The volume was a long rectangular affair. Maybe fifteen inches long and eight wide. The felt cover had been flimsy causing Dad to be careful when he first took it up. He turned the page to reveal some sort of certificate.
“Ha!” he said. “Bill told me about this. When he was a pollywog.”
The certificate featured a fancy script depicting an event on board ship and involved the Equator. The background of the paper had a blue-green picture of Neptune complete with trident and seaweed wound around his head. It looked like all the sea serpents and anchors and mermaids and other prints on the paper were standard. In the middle of the page was the name:
POLLYWOG WILLIAM DAVID BROWN
WOULD-BE ABLE SEAMAN
“He told me about this...oh years ago.” Dad looked at me, only a quick glance, then stared ahead. “When the ship sailed across the Equator there was a major ceremony for the crewmembers crossing for the first time.”
“They were the pollywogs?”
“Yeah and there was a mock court with some crew members making up the judges and so on to ‘try’ the case before King Neptune to see if they were worthy of begging in the ship’s crew for such a crossing. Bill said he had to crawl through slop from the galley, plead his case to the ship/s cat...a lot of other hazing before it was all over.”
“Just for the first time he crossed though, right?”
“Oh yes. Bill said later he was King Neptune at one crossing.”
The next couple of pages displayed pictures of places in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Then he turned to a photograph that was larger than the snapshots we’d seen before. A young woman stood flanked by two men on either side. I recognized this young version of my grandmother--Dad’s mother. The quintet shared a familiar trait of prominent noses, and light hair which carried through to my father. One of the men was easy to fit into the sailor hat I had seen minutes before. Dad flipped this picture with the same no date result.
“Jackrabbit photo in Spartanburg puts the date on all their prints.” An amateur photographer himself, Dad used the South Carolina mail order photo finishing place when he didn't want to set up his dark room stuff in Mom’s kitchen.
“Do you think this was before Uncle Bill joined the Navy?”
“I’d say it was. He went to work at the gravel pit in Woodberry after high school.” He pointed to one of the males, the only one wearing a necktie. “Roy was already working for the railroad as a ticket agent. So this was before he took off to work in Florida.” That identification took care of one pair of Rose Brown’s brothers.
Dad pushed the footlocker with one foot. The motion gave us both a bit more room to relax with the memory trip.
“Uncle Ab might have just started at the post office.” I knew that Abner Brown served as postmaster in Woodberry for a long time. “Wood was working at the hardware store.” Woodfin Brown eventually owned the store, but took more pleasure in playing the pump organ, a feat he developed by ear. Most of his public playing was done at Unity Presbterian Church that was two miles from their home.
“So three of them never married?”
“Yeah. Wood or Woodfin was engaged to a girl who died in a flu epidemic. Mother married Papa in Concord. Roy got married a couple of years after he went to Florida.”
“Do you know why Bill joined the Navy?”
“To see the world.” He chuckled. “That was what the Navy promised. The Navy also sent him to radio school. He was a radio operator and engineer.”
The question had already formed in my head, but it was too soon.
“So Ab and Wood stayed in Woodberry.”
“Yes. I don’t know how far they ever travelled away from there. They always said they needed to look after MaMa Brown. She was always frail.”
“Was she sick?”
“Not so much sick as disabled.” He must have seen the surprise on my face. “She was left-handed, or would have been. When she was young being left-handed was considered a sign of the devil. So her parents tied her left hand behind her so that she would learn to use her right.” This time he looked at me knowing that I was a southpaw. “As a result she had very little use of her left hand when she was older. It was like she had only one arm.”
I waited while he was reflecting and remembering. The time for the question had come. “Was it because of your Uncle Bill that you tried to join the Navy during the war?”
“Hummpph. I never thought of it that way but it could be. The Army said my hearing wasn’t good enough and turned me down. So I tried the Navy and they said the same thing.”
My wife came to the door of Dad’s workshop. “It’s almost time for supper, you two.” Sne looked at us and then at the foot locker. “Did you ever think you would be doing this?” She came and put her hand on Dad’s shoulder.
“Oh yes,” he said. “Bill wrote to me years ago. Back when he retired from the Navy and took that job as engineer for tbt radio station in Elizabeth City. He asked me to take care of things after he passed. He’d already set it up to live in the Sailor’s Home in Pennsylvania when he was ready. I was warned, I guess you could say.” He smiled and patted the hand resting on his shoulder. “In a way I was honored.” I felt him sharing some of that honor with me.
My father never went to sea, neither did I. His ties to his uncle were ties beyond the bonds of water or land. Just as a faded photograph of a grinning sailor revealed the ties that bound us all.
Supper was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans the Dad had grown in his garden.
TAG; A CHARACTER LOOKING THROUGH A OLD FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM