Memorial to a Warrior
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”~Edgar Allan Poe.
I became insane. My intervals of horrible sanity have been shorter than Mr. Poe’s. And for that I am thankful. Horrible sanity demands thinking, contemplation, openness to realities that threaten comfort. Real sanity is frightening—a thing that requires getting used to. Memorial Day 2013 was not a holiday from sanity for me. I am a writer, and a writer works during periods of insanity and intervals of horrible sanity. My interval of dreadful lucidity demanded of me that I contemplate and write a suitable memorial for a warrior.
The warrior was Timothy James Hurley, Jr. (I am TJH III). In 1939, at age seventeen, this fighter got himself thrown out of high school over a fight for the honor of a girlfriend, who he subsequently left to go to war. His father, TJH, Sr., would not sign for the underage combatant to join the cavalry (My father had fantasies of dying during a charge up San Juan or an equivalent hill.) But his father would sign for him to join the Navy, which he did. He was well suited for the life of a warrior.
He was soon on a destroyer running escort pre-Pearl Harbor for American convoys. He protected tankers taking supplies to embattled England. He nearly went overboard during a terrible North Atlantic storm in the winter of 1939-1940. He later acted as if he was sorry he didn’t. After Pearl Harbor, service on destroyers might not have been dangerous enough, and he volunteered for submarine duty. By 1943 he was married to a singer, and by 1944 his first son was born. He left his wife and infant son with his parents and left to do battle with the Imperial Japanese Empire.
His career was a success. He rose rapidly to chief petty officer and turned down a field promotion to lieutenant. His combat position on the submarine was gunner’s mate, but his non-combat position was boat’s secretary. He served on many different boats. Submariners were superstitious that spending too much time on a single boat invited disaster. His boats sank many Japanese ships and killed many Japanese combatants. He wrote the war patrol reports and other paper work required on the boats—including fictionalized leave passes when needed.
Years later he told tales that could have terrorized Edgar Allen Poe. Tales of depth charge attacks that went on for hours, while he sat with his crew mates in their underwear in sweltering, humid conditions, all machinery silenced. Lethal explosives shook the submerged boat and rattled their teeth and courage. And tested their will to live. He thrived on it. His telling of it sounded nostalgic for the shared near death experience. More than once in later years he would tell me that he didn’t expect to live past thirty years, and that he was sometimes regretful he was denied a warrior’s death—ruminations both perplexing and disturbing to his Boomer son.
In 1997, I attended a reunion of the Bowfin’s crews at Pearl Harbor. Although not crew, I was surviving kin of a deceased crewmember. The Bowfin, built shortly after the Japanese attack, was nicknamed The Pearl Harbor Avenger. She reaped revenge with pride. Now a part of the Arizona Memorial, the boat is permanently berthed in Pearl Harbor at the Bowfin Boat Museum. At the crew’s reunion, an event closed to the public, I met old men, the survivors of Bowfin’s many war patrols. When we were all taken to the battleship Arizona on a small boat, my father’s fellow crewmembers stood beside Japanese tourists and gazed at the list of names and the oil seeping from the official underwater gravesite. I speculated that some of the old, weeping Japanese men might have been in the crews attempting to kill my father and his boat mates, the American men now aged and standing tearful at the memorial. I imagined that the elderly Japanese men might have been on a tanker that escaped my father’s torpedoes—torpedoes intent on their deaths. I made eye contact with American and Japanese alike. No one spoke. I asked myself why. I understand that our brave boys protected our freedom from a heinous enemy. But why is hatred and war a necessary part of human history? And what compels us to memorialize the resulting violence and death? Horrible sanity required that I pull back the curtain and confront the struggling old man hiding behind the image of the Great and All Powerful Oz.
Life is complex. War contemplated after the fact is complicated. It is not the simple patriotic purpose it seems to be at the moment warriors are engaged in battle. I received no answers at the Arizona or the Bowfin.
There was an evening ceremony at Bowfin Park that honored the warriors, the ones who died before their hair could turn white and the ones who lived to old age with the grayness of war in their minds as well as on their heads. I wondered: which group struggled more to make it through the dark nights?
As dusk made it easier to see the ghosts, I climbed the gangplank of the proud, gray memorial. The submarine was deserted except for a solitary sailor guarding the tangible evidence of the bravery of her crew. I moved along the slatted wooden deck and ducked under the wire railing. I headed toward the stern with a brown paper bag. “Sir—?” the sailor called. He said I was entering space forbidden to the public for safety reasons. I know now I was also plunging into horrible sanity, space where photographs of a smiling young sailor in medals evoke more than simple pride. I was going beyond the protective railing into space where memories struggle for explanations.
I turned. My father was the chief petty officer, I explained. I told the guard how my father hid a bottle of rum in his office waste basket under his chair, and how the captain would walk by and rub his chin, and how that was the signal for my father to slide the waste basket out within the captain’s reach. I showed the sentry the bottle of rum in my bag and told him of my plan to pour it on the boat’s stern. The sailor saluted. I returned the salute and proceeded to my task. After I emptied the bottle, I went below with it. I was alone in the boat; but I did not feel alone. I made my way along the narrow passageway to the alcove and desk where my father sat forty-seven years before and wrote reports for war patrols numbers four and five. I didn’t actually hear typing, but I thought I did. The wastebasket was gone, so I set the empty rum bottle on his desk. I didn’t know what to say to the ghosts on the Bowfin in 1997. So I left without a word.
Were I alone on the Bowfin today, Memorial Day 2013, I would tell the spirit of the submarine’s chief petty officer that I am sorry we can’t talk together any longer about life. I would tell him I hope the life of a warrior where he exists now is fulfilling, uncomplicated. I would tell him that the thoughts of the son he left behind are complex, sometimes discomforting. I would describe how I contemplate his bravery and the war he won for my freedom. Horrible sanity, I would tell him, requires courage similar to that which was demanded of the young warrior who endured hours of depth charging.
My father didn’t die the warrior’s death he desired while battling the Japanese enemy. He died after doing battle with three packs of cigarettes a day, four heart attacks and a bypass. He died alone in his bedroom. Not beside his fellow heroes in an exploding submarine. He died in battle with himself, not his enemy. Or maybe with his enemy. Were I alone on the Bowfin today with my father, I would tell him I have spent a lifetime of horrible sanity pondering why. And struggling mightily to write a suitable memorial.
Thank you for reading. I hope to see you next Memorial Day.
Memorial to a Warrior a Memoir © 2013 Timothy Hurley
<a rel=“author” href=“ https://plus.google.com/u/0/104338235214791699021/about?tab=XX”>Timothy Hurley</a>