Eleven Hundred Men Went Into The Water – Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes

The author in Ocean City, MD, 2016-2017.  Photo by author.

I’ve had Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws in my To-Be-Read list for several years. A writer friend recently recommended its dramatic opening chapter, so finally I picked it up and took it with me on my beach vacation last month.

It was that opening scene which stuck with me as I waded ankle-deep in riptide currents on my last day of vacation, unexpectedly recalling with visceral clarity the suspense of a young woman swimming and being snapped in two.

            As might be expected, Benchley’s novel provides a thorough exploration of the characters—of course I pictured them as the actors from the 1975 Spielberg film—including an impossible-to-forget liaison between the police chief’s wife and the expert marine biologist. A different colleague suggested it as a teaching text for a graduate lecture on “How To Write Sex Scenes.” I’d recommend it as a classic example of write-what-you-know, or more precisely, don’t write what you don’t know. One misplaced detail destroys plausibility.  Benchley describes Chief Brody’s wife heading out for her assignation and changing her clothes in a gas station restroom: “She stripped, and standing on the cold floor in her bare feet. . .” I had to put the book down and laugh. No women would ever stand barefoot in a gas station restroom!

My favorite scene in the movie wasn’t in the book, but I did find it quoted elsewhere, described as “one of the most famous monologues in film history.” During a drinking-and-male-bonding moment, fishing-boat captain Quint reveals his naval experience during World War II:

            Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian . . . just delivered the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. . . Very first light, Chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. . . And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. . . Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then . . . ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, and the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and . . . rip you to pieces (quoted in Vincent & Vladic, p. 80).

 

With the movie scene as my introduction to this W.W. II Pacific Ocean disaster, I was delighted to stumble across Lynn Vincent and Sarah Vladic’s  Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight To Exonerate an Innocent Man.  In the movie Jaws, Quint explains that “the bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.”  Not exactly. In Vincent’s and Vladic’s book, we learn the truth, details too horrible for a summer action film. As the vessel quickly filled with seawater, a distress signal was sent; when the “Abandon Ship” order came, Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Woods dismissed his men and stayed alone at his post, bracing himself against a bulkhead due to the extreme list (tilt), sending and re-sending the SOS as the ship went down to the deep.  He didn’t know the equipment was damaged, and the distress signal never went through. Due to a series of miscommunications, back at Naval HQ in the Philippines, officers assumed the Indianapolis had arrived at her next destination. Despite these and other institutional failures, Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay himself was court-martialed for losing his ship. For fifty years, his crew fought to clear his name.

The true horrors the men of the Indianapolis faced were worse than only sharks. Drifting in the ocean, in too few life rafts, men were covered in ship fuel, oil coating their bodies and dripping into their eyes. Rare, salvaged food supplies were hoarded and fought over. Days of dehydration led to hallucinations. Some hallucinated that rescue was nigh:

Their beloved Indy had not sunk at all! She was anchored just below the surface—and there were treats to be had: Ice cream sundaes! Candy bars! Ice-cold Coca-Cola! The men dove happily down to take their pick. Not far off, a hotel was discovered suspended on the water, and anyone could enjoy an hour of rest in the one available bunk if he just waited his turn in line. So far, the line was only fifteen men deep, because some had found an even better option: an A & W root beer stand with free floats served by beautiful pin-up girls (221).

Men swam to their death, thinking they were grasping salvation.

In others, dehydration brought out violent paranoia. Men turned against each other, seeing their mates as enemies. To some, cannibalism meant survival.  Survivors were forced to kill their comrades in self-defense. One group of friends made a pact to kill one another if a man developed signs of insanity.

In school, we learned the basic elements of plot: Man versus man; man versus nature.  The horrors that humans can do far outstrip Benchley’s and Spielberg’s giant shark.  The tragedy of the Indianapolis is that it is true.

Still, Quint’s speech captures the essence of the horror of the historical event. It resonates in my mind, impossible to forget, not only due to its subject matter.  He concludes: “. . . eleven hundred men went into the water. Three hundred sixteen men come out. The sharks took the rest.” Quint’s speech is the epitome of oration. I find myself repeating and reciting the penultimate words of his monologue. Finally, I realize: it’s poetry.

Ĕ  lév  ĕn / hún  drĕd / mén  wĕnt  /  ín   tð  /  thĕ  wát  ĕr

Thrée / hún  drĕd  /  síx  tĕen  /  mén  /  cóme   ðut.

Thĕ shárks  /  tóok  /  thĕ   rést.

Robert Shaw, the actor playing Quint, re-wrote this speech himself before filming. His words are memorable enough to make me think of Shakespeare and the shipwreck in The Tempest; the presumed drowning of Ferdinand’s father:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made.

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

Both doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

Ding-dong.

Hark! I hear them, — ding-dong, bell.

–The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2

Playbill from Drury Lane Theatre,1757 production

For landlubbers interested in history or those who have served, I recommend this recounting of the Indianapolis saga. Now that summer has ended and the lifeguards have gone home, it’s a perfect time to read or re-read, or watch again the movie version of Jaws. For classic drama, magic, and romance, check out Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

To those in the path of Hurricane Florence, I wish you the safety of solid ground – no shipwrecks, no sharks, no dehydration – and to evacuees I hope you encounter no dirty gas station restroom floors.

 

Further Reading:

“50 Years of US Pin-ups.” The Week. December 12, 2008. Web.

“Connecting with the USS Indianapolis”. Schmidt Ocean Institute. Website.

Hughes, Neil. “The Indianapolis Speech by Robert Shaw in Jaws (1975).”  Blog. March 10, 2013.  Web.

Phillips, Karen. “ ‘We Knew the Ship Was Doomed’: USS Indianapolis Survivor Recalls Four Days In Shark-Filled Sea.” The Washington Post. August 20, 2017. Web.

Rein, Lisa. “Researchers Find Wreckage Of Lost WWII Warship USS Indianapolis.” The Washington Post. August 19, 2017. Web.

Books/Media:

Benchley, Peter. Jaws. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1974. Print.

Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib, performance by Robert Shaw, Universal Pictures, 1975. Motion Picture.

Vincent, Lynn and Sara Vladic. Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight To Exonerate an Innocent Man.  NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Print.

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The Wildness of Growing Up [Book Review]

           

             Francesca Lia Block’s The Waters & The Wild is as beautiful and evocative as her other books, moving and full of longing, with a surprise bittersweet ending.  The teen years are a time when belonging is essential, and the faerie/changeling metaphor is perfect to describe the despair of not-fitting-in.

Bee wakes up one morning to find her doppleganger, a look-alike who declares that she wants her life back, and promptly disappears.  In her search for answers, Bee befriends a brilliant nerd Haze, who thinks he may be the progeny of aliens, and Sarah, a plump would-be starlet who sings like Billie Holiday and believes she is a reincarnated slave girl.  The three new friends are powerful together and create their own tribe.  They pretend to be invisible to give them the moxy to crash the popular girl’s party. Finally, Bee belongs.

Or does she? Who is the look-alike girl whose life Bee may have unknowingly stolen?

            Block creates rich, dynamic characters and deftly shifts point-of-view to give voice to each of the friends. On the downside, the plot is a little thin.  The ending has not been seeded well; it bears the surprise of the unexpected and not a fulfillment. Still, Block writes beautifully as always and can get away with just about anything. The occasional poem inserts contribute to the theme and tone.  The optimistic resolution demonstrates that the despair of high school doesn’t last forever. This is a near-perfect book for outcasts and ‘alternative’ teens longing to belong.

 

Block, Francesca Lia. The Waters & The Wild. N.Y.: HarperTeen, 2009.

 

Ms. Block’s website: www.francescaliablock.com

 

 

When the Fey Envy Humans

The original Little Mermaid wants to become human, not to marry a Disnified prince, but because she longs for a human soul.  In my favorite Irish folktale, “The Priest’s Supper,” the fey ask a priest about their eternal destiny.

You and I secretly or not-so-secretly wish magic was real, but it’s  a curious quirk of many of the old tales: our favorite supernatural entities want to be human.

quotation from A Green And Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

In Frederick S. Durbin’s A Green and Ancient Light, a young man’s Grandmother has an old family friend who is eventually revealed as Otherworldly.

Durbin’s book offers the same appeal as one of my childhood favorites, Bette Greene’s The Summer of My German Soldier, although his is a fantastic setting to Greene’s realism. Durbin’s nearly-teen protagonist helps rescue an enemy soldier in a conflict that is never named but feels like an alternate-Earth World War II. The appeal of these books is their exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to be “other.”  In both of these books, enemy combatants/reluctant soldiers have more humanity than some fellow citizens.

The family friend, the fey Mr. Girandole, eventually reveals that he loved Grandmother, but did not want to deprive her of the normal life of growing old with a person who ages beside you. As long as Grandfather was alive, Mr. Girandole kept a respectful distance.

At one point he confesses:

“I knew that humans have a gift that is not granted to us in Faery: this gift of giving the heart in devotion to one other soul, and walking through days of a limited number. This love of which your people are capable . . . It’s warmer than the warmest hearth in winter. It’s like a meteor, lighting the sky before it passes beyond” (215).

He offers an important insight regarding the importance and strength of love. Love is all the more valuable when offered, knowing that one day we will be separated from our beloved.

Cold days are upon us. Give thanks for your humanity this wintry season. And remember to love. Love deeply.

Love like a blazing hearth. Love cosmically, like a meteor.  In the words of the poet Kathleen Norris, may our love be

“starlike
and wild, as wide as grass,
solemn as the moon.” (from her poem “Little Girls in Church”)

Love like a human. Love with wild abandon. Love big enough to make the Good People envious.

 

Works Referenced

Durbin, Frederic S. A Green and Ancient Light. N.Y.: Saga Press, 2016.

Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. N.Y.: Bantam/Dell/Scholastic, 1973, 2006.

Norris, Kathleen. “Little Girls In Church” [poem] in Little Girls In Church. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

Who Is the Stolen Child? [Book Review]

Fleeing America and on a quest of last resort, Brigid returns to the family home in Ireland, to her uncle’s cottage on a fictional St. Brigid’s Island one mile from the Aran Islands off of Ireland’s west coast. She comes seeking a miracle child, and a man — or even a womb — is not necessary if she can find the holy saint’s blessed, or magical, well. To the islanders and perhaps the author, the pagan goddess Brigid blends indistinguishably into the Christian saint.

“The Yank” Brigid has a gift, the same gift her mother had which drove her from the island all those years before: hands that heal. The gift comes with a price, and as she gives health and life to others, time and time again Brigid’s womb compensates by expelling the new life within her until she loses even that organ itself. St. Brigid’s hidden well is her one hope, but the islanders don’t reveal their secrets to outsiders.

Stalwart Emer, although born to the island,  is as much an outsider as Brigid; she is a woman with hands that give hurt, doubt, and despair. As a friendship and love between the two women develops, passion and need and desperation blur, fueled and intensified by their respective secrets. Both Emer and Brigid think Brigid’s hands can heal Emer, but some life-wounds are too immense for either magic or love to cure.

Like Yeats’ poem, which lends itself to the title, the magic of the fairies lives still on the island. Who is the titular Stolen Child? Is it all the children cast from Brigid’s womb? Is it Brigid’s mother, Nuala, who fled the island with Brigid inside her? As a child Emer hoped to be stolen by the faeries but as a mother, she lives in hawkish overprotective terror that her son Niall will be taken.

Author Lisa Carey seamlessly adds to the trove of faerie lore with an organic authority as great as Lady Wilde’s. At the same time as I inwardly accuse her of inventing folklore, I wonder if perhaps she only offers one or another fairy story I haven’t yet encountered.  I bristle because the tale of St. Brigid’s cloak expanding into a land grant for her abbey was transferred from the Curragh to the fictional island; in Carey’s world, there is no Kildare, no Church of the Oaks. Likewise, the Gaelic response to hello which I’ve learned, Dia is Muire duit — literally “God and Mary be with you [too]” — has been reinvented into “Brigid and Mary be with you.” I’m open to the possibility of regional differences and readerly suspension-of-disbelief, but I can’t help wondering: in what else has the author misled the reader? At least on the copyright page she acknowledges this artistic license to which I object. Still, Carey’s writing is so compelling and her weaving of folklore into village life is so adept that generations from now, people may very well point to the legends in this novel as authentic.

This is a powerful, intense, and haunting book.  Emer’s gift of pain and Brigid’s gift of healing are foils, and any accusations of witchcraft could equally apply to a fear of forbidden love. Carey offers the worst kind of horror, the horror of human frailties. Deep inside us, we all carry Emer’s pain. In her darkest hour,

                            “[Emer] stays alone . . . with no ability to break the ugliness

she has begun, and not enough courage to ask someone,

her son, her sister, her lover, to help pull her out from

underneath the terrible weight of herself” (296).

On the island, beside Brigid’s healing well, there is too a cursing stone.

Domestic horror as much as magical realism underpin this historical fiction about the resettling of islanders to the Irish mainland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Carey’s novel reminds us that fairies aren’t cute benign tinkerbells. The darkness of Emer’s childhood only expands as the novel progresses. The reader is briefly lulled by the quaint Celtic island culture, but we should have known better.  In the end, St. Brigid herself offers unexpected hope and redemption.  The Stolen Child is a beautiful, dark, disturbing tour-de-force. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Bonus material: I especially appreciate the “Author’s Picks: Favorite Books by Irish Authors” and web links on the islands Inisbofin and Inishark which the author provides at the end of her book.

 

Craft notes: Author Lisa Carey deftly handles point-of-view and the gradual revelation of backstory. This is an expertly crafted novel, and I look forward to reading more of this author.

Halloween or Year-Round Monster Trucks [Book Review]

Brilliant concept! (Why didn’t I think of this?) After Halloween, for the rest of the year, monsters drive trucks and utility vehicles. The werewolf drives a back hoe to dig deep holes for bones and squeaky toys; the yeti drives a snow plow; the minotaur cleverly drives a BULL-dozer. The witch appropriately trades her broom in for a street-sweeper. And the mummy drives (can you guess?) the ambulance, of course! Kudos for including an ogre, yeti, and minotaur among the diverse monsters. Humorous illustrations by Misa Saburi. This is a gem of a book. I only wish there had been some literal oversized big-wheel monster trucks. A year-round book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary; not only for October.

Keller, Joy and Misa Saburi (illus).  Monster Trucks. New York, NY : Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

What I’m Reading Now (October 2017)

I’m reading Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth’s “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales” now.

Jacob Grimm said of Schonwerth, “No one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse.”

Here’s a great quotation from the introduction:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies

Mimi the Librarian’s Recommended Reading List

In Georgia Briggs’ book Icon, twelve-year old Euphrosyne has been renamed Hillary by the anti-religious government in the new “Era of Tolerance.” Her family has been killed, on Pascha (Easter) night, and she goes to live with her grandparents. Her teachers, psychologist, and even her grandfather want her to forget her past life and embrace the new secular tolerance. Euphrosyne struggles to hold onto her faith and identity in a new America hostile to religion. The one bright spot in her life is Mimi the Public Librarian, who provides thoughtful books which encourage Euphrosyne.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time before these books are censored by the new government . . .

Mimi doesn’t work at the Library anymore, but I offer you her Booklist, supplemented by a few titles of my own:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies (and surviving our own, too)

Mimi’s picks:

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak.     High school is hard enough without being outcast, too. Freshman Melinda Sordino carries a dark secret. It is only when she learns to speak her truth that she can find true healing.

 

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time.   Meg Murray’s father has gone missing, and she and her brother Charles Wallace travel across space and time to find him. She battles the monstrous IT and saves her brother and father through the power of love. Chapters 9 and 12 are some of my favorite pages in all of literature.  (I sometimes use Meg’s technique from Chapter 9 to ward off intrusive thoughts.)

 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia.       This beloved fantasy series is enjoyable on its own merits and is also well known for its Christian allegories. In Euphrosyne and Mimi’s world, it is outlawed. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” C. S. Lewis wrote: “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” He provides these brave child-heroes and child-heroines in his classic Narnia tales.

 

Lowry, Lois. The Giver.      In this society,  sameness is celebrated while pain and emotions are regulated out of existence.  Will Jonas be strong and brave enough to change things?

 

 

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars.     In Nazi-occupied Denmark, 10 year-old Annemarie helps hide her Jewish friend Ellen and learns about the courage required to resist evil.

 

 

Cynthia’s picks:

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints 4 Volumes; arranged chronologically by saints’ days.    The classic reference book on Eastern and Western pre- and post-schism saints. Offers a saint (often more than one) for every day of the year. I wish Mimi had shown Euphrosyne this book. The life of St. Hilary of Poitier, although not Euphrosyne’s patron or true namesake, might still have encouraged her.  St. Hilary is best known for fighting heresy and enduring exile for the Christian faith. Available in many medium-to-large public libraries.  A close second is the Catholic Encyclopedia, originally available in print, but now available online at http://newadvent.org/cathen/

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales.          I especially want to get my hands on The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm : the Complete First Edition translated & edited by Jack Zipes (2014) but really any edition will do. Stay away from sanitized, Disneyified versions.  C.S. Lewis wrote about the importance of fairy tales in order to teach children hope and justice: “let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.    In this dystopian future, a character commonly known as “the Savage” argues that beauty, poetry, and belief in God trump safety and mandated happiness.

 

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.              Now available online at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/  All the Savage from Brave New World had to read on his reservation was William Shakespeare, and that’s good enough for me. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotations is from the play The Winter’s Tale: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t”

 

 

Go forth and read. Books, like Georgia Briggs’ Icon, have the power to inspire and transform. And give us courage to face our post-modern, dystopian lives.