February 3, 1973, somewhere off the New York coast –
Once, there was a war where three men were told to put their hammers down. The gun with the barrel as long as two Cadillacs wouldn’t fire without them pulling the trigger, hammers down, sweaty and grimy hands rubbing against the handles of the grips until the coastal village in their scope was left plain, sulfurous smoke wafting on the wind. It took three men, a trinitarian tribunal of three, to deal out death and judgment on the innocent, lest their mass destruction be considered inhumane.
Hey man, one said, Hey, man, I don’t know how I feel about this. When the time comes, I dunno if I’m gonna be able to pull that trigger, yaknow? I mean, that’s… That’s some heavy shit, man. That’s some heavy shit there, knowing you, yaknow… Like you wake up and that’s it, man. You dead.
There is and was nothing like the moral objectors. No way to tell you what a conversation like this is like. Even now, the scene plays in your mind and you think a thing. But there is nothing like that. Nothing is as simple as you think until you’re there, in that moment, deciding the fate of another life. Each man is given a pistol for just such a moment, and told if the man next to you does that, if he doesn’t pull that fucking trigger for whatever reason, Well, you shoot his fucking head off and pull that goddamn trigger for him. In a conversation like that, things can only go one way. Boom. And you better be damned sure you do your job, otherwise you can’t be so sure what the guy seated next to you will do. Peace is a lot like war in that sense. You can say you’ll do a million things. Tomorrow we’ll go here, the day after there. After it’s all done, you can say what you could have done, should have done, what the “right” thing to do was. But what do you know? What do any of us know, really, when it comes to a moment like that? You never know what the person sitting next to you will do. Whether you’re a gun control technician perched in the lofty tribunal court of the gun director atop the ship, or a slant-eye on the island just trying to feed your kids with a coconut and some rice, you wake up, see the guy on the other side of the water out there, and maybe you’ll have tomorrow. Maybe you won’t. But you don’t know. None of us do.
On his tour of duty, Frederick made it a policy to keep his hammer squeezed. It was the two bastards next to him who were responsible for whatever happened. Not him. Never him. Occasionally, he would look through the scope just to see something, anything, and there would be a child or a hut or a village or a flock of chickens or some other sign of family or life. And he’d shut his eyes again, lean his head back and just squeeze. The other sonsabitches were the ones who did it, he would tell himself. But that wasn’t the way it felt inside. It wasn’t that simple, at least not when he told the story to his therapist three decades later.
As a gun control technician, Frederick had a reprieve that day. It was February, he was outside, and he was on deck with the wind instead of the confines of the gun director’s three seats. What civilians don’t know is that anyone who has been in the Navy can request to be buried at sea. It’s a right conferred by duty. That morning, Frederick was one of the ones who fired off a salute with a rifle for some past Navyman, scattering the ashes on the water, then tucking his gun away in the gunshaft, right there off the deck of the ship so that he could change out of his dress uniform. He would be right back, he said to Thimmer, to clean the rifle.
The war was not over yet, and the Basilone had returned to New York for repairs. Simple things like handrails, CO2 bottle brackets, and boiler maintenance needed to be replaced. The ship may have survived the tour, but the physical exhaustion of war caused her to sigh heavily that morning. There was a tremor of expectancy pulsing through the crew, everyone ready to get into port and go to the city. Neil Young’s After the Goldrush had played all summer long and on through Christmas. It was the only album on board. Guys loaned each other their radios to pick up the stations from New York for each shift, but thank Christ it was only a matter of time before they could pour out into the city. What did they care about a radio, after all? They were gonna get some ass once they docked.
A ship is a strange community, unique in that it is cut off from the world and in constant danger of being attacked and destroyed. Paranoia breeds easily in the military, and the only certainty is that the guy next to you will do his job just like you’re doing yours, or Boom. No matter how casual a man seems, this is never far from his mind.
Frederick was thinking about what he was going to do once he got offboard. Women loved a guy in a suit, but did he feel like playing with them tonight, drawing it out? Making them dime on him before he-
There was a sudden, silencing rumble – the kind that makes everything harshly stop, time thick like marmalade on the tongue, everyone statuesque as the brain registers facial muscles tightening and the grind into instinct as that moment, that instantaneous moment travels – and his body righted itself in a way that any enlisted man knows after years onboard a ship. His head came through jumper, his arms still in the air, waving it into place as the floor wobbled and swayed under him. He turned, and then night fell as the lights lost their power.
Another frozen moment, infinitesimally different, moved through more quickly this time, no time for mistakes, no time for anything save the primal survival of men who might just be your savior before this was through. There was another soft, distant rumble as the lights came back and a generator switched, bathing everything in a dim yellow. All of the guys in the quarters looked to one another, golden gods and shadowed spirits in the emergency lights, harbingers of death, the Chirons of their time, confirming that yeah, that just happened. And yeah, it had to be a torpedo. And yeah, there had to have been an attack. And yeah, get your ass out of that bed right goddamn now, ’cause that really just goddamn happened.
The pinging of the Claxon siren began and did not stop for two hours. Ping after ping. The pings putting everyone on edge, the pings eliciting every instinctual response, the pings for self preserva-ping-tion. By the time Frederick, ping, had moved towards the door, an excited voice began, “All hands-” Ping. “-to battle stations.” Ping. “This is not-” Ping. “-a drill.” Ping. “Repeat.” Ping. All hands-” Ping. “-to battlestations.” Ping. “This-” Ping. “-is not a drill.” Ping.
He flew up the stairs, each specter of man and dimly glowing god shoving another out of the way, nothing civil about wanting to reach daylight and get to your post. Nothing civil about wanting air, wanting the opportunity that space provided to live. Fuck civility. This was war. Evolution. Let the gods defend themselves.
Each of the crew had to be at their battle station for body count. A man assigned to his place was more easily counted this way than by yelling a call and response down the john, Hey, you in there? Yeah, I’m here.
Under such strain, living in confinement for months, the brain acts curiously, building apprehensions into realities and repeating those realities, rumors whisking from stem to stern. Unlike on land, though, the rumor is the same and not lost in translation. And then, when a thing is a truth, it travels even more quickly as if by providence, as if God Himself says, “This is true.”
When the boiler exploded and water began to appear in thin air, gushing from tanks and apparating through walls, the entire crew knew, even if they weren’t there. This was true. Someone had to die.
Frederick reached the deck of the ship and saw the neat plumes of black there, the four boiled bodies cracking open, splitting and popping in the windy, overcast February morning, someone trying to cover them with a tablecloth-like sheet, a group of men trying to force a door open, the stench, that ungodly stench of something now no longer human, the mixture of boiled meat, smoke, ash and fuel, even as he moved past crewman Swoyer, just up from below and –my god, my god, my god, were those broiled clumps of jelly his hands? – everyone knew at that same moment that there had been no torpedo, there had been no attack, but this was not something they had prepared for in their exercises, and something really bad had happened.
Frederick scrambled up and up, once last glance down at the deck as he mounted his controls in the gun director, shoving the earphones which could muffle the destruction of villages over his head, the voice from before which had commanded him to his battle station now telling him with pregnant, determinant pauses that the boiler had exploded. That there were casualties. That he should have died.
“I’ll be right back,” he had told Thimmer. “Help you clean up.” Clean the rifles. Ah yes, a distant promise now. Had that even been today? Moments ago? Ah, dammit, where was Thimmer?
Yes, that Thimmer. The same. That mountain of a man, all 6’2”, all 295 pounds, that same Thimmer who had come on board the same time as Frederick, who wanted to go to college and see his kids again, maybe plant a garden and take them to a game or two, the Thimmer who wasn’t especially funny but made up for it with the roar of a laugh, yes, now, that Thimmer. The same.
Thimmer had been leaning against the door, waiting for Frederick to return. The door had been shut as a matter of protocol when cleaning weapons, and he was making small talk with Fire Technician Kelley, a black guy who got excited over black empowerment and didn’t feel second rate to anyone since he was the highest ranking black man on board. The gun shaft had been right above the boiler, and that’s what did it. Heat rises, anyone will tell you that, and when Boiler Three broke below, there was nowhere for the steam to go but up. Thimmer, in a chair against the door, had been inside the room Frederick had seen them trying to force open, all those guys, why hadn’t it made sense before? And Swoyer, a boiler technician, had his hands melted off. Literally. When the boiler began to overheat, he was the one who sealed the valve to contain it, his hands losing all sensation as nerve endings pop and blistered, turning pink, then white, then grey, peeling, peeling, until yes, my god, those were his hands, those skeletal claws of bone, the skin flapping as it fell off, that sickening smell of roasted flesh, yes, that had really happened. Yes, those were four bodies under the sheets on the deck he had seen, with names attached to them like BT1 Hearrold, 34; BTFN Raun, 19; BTFN Zajazckowski, 21; and BTFN Hardin, that 20 year old boy delivered on board with the ashes he had just let go of. And yes, Thimmer was sitting down in the chair, propped against the door, right above the boiler, the steam apparating through the metal floor, sealing them in like an oven, yes, that same Thimmer, when they shoved that door open, had plopped right onto the floor and burst open like a Jello-mold gone wrong. That was Thimmer, and Death, that last enemy, had his full meal from the appetizer of Swoyer right down through jellied dessert of Thimmer.
As Frederick sat there, the last seat he wanted to sit in, he kept going over it all in his head for those two hours, trying to make sense of it, trying to take the words in his headset and turn them around and around and why, why hadn’t it been him? What purpose did it serve?
When he came down from the gun director those two hours later, he passed by the shaft and muttered something that sounded like, “Shouldabimee,” but no one took notice. All eyes were on the guy who scooping up pieces of clothes drenched in the syrup of ruptured bodies, swatches of hair falling off the scalp into the muck of lost humanity and one guy unashamedly puking over the siderail which still needed to be repaired.
Seventeen hours of information silence descended, but the explosion and miles of black cloud and ash were too big for the New York newspapers to not spread across the wire. Rumors reached the western coast, losing all elements of truth by the time their echo returned, and the families of those on board would be visited shortly after lunch the following day by men in dress uniforms like the one Frederick had gone below to take off.
“Yes sir, I’m alive,” Frederick said into the receiver. “But let me call you right back, okay? I need to call Grammarie. No, I’m fine. Listen-. No-. I promise, I’ll call you right back. I’ll call you right back. I’ll be right back.”
USS Basilone DD824 was towed to the Boston Naval Ship Yard for repairs immediately. A court marshal was issued against Captain and statements from the men in the boiler room provided evidence that he had pushed the crew to an unrealistic point so that he could have the ship participate in training exercises scheduled two days following the explosion. It was determined that the explosion was caused by three two-inch tubes becoming unstable from rapid heating and cooling, causing water to flash to steam with superheating and the boiler thereafter blowing up and out of its casing. The steam reached above 1200 degrees, becoming entirely gaseous and able to transfer through safety walls, floors and ceilings. Eight men died within a two minute period, making the USS Basilone the worst non-wartime casualty loss for its time.