This is an excerpt from my new novel, The Lifer, a story about a young sailor who died in a terrible accident aboard the USS Enterprise while the ship was at sea off the coast of Vietnam in January of 1969. As most old salty dogs know, the spirits of the sailors who die at sea sometimes remain aboard the ship. In The Lifer, I explore the question; What happens to the ghosts of the dead sailors when the time comes to decommission the ship?
USS Enterprise Decommissioning
Jake is standing on the flight deck. Stars twinkle in the night sky overhead. Jake is looking down at the deck. One second he’s standing there in the dark, wearing dungaree pants, a dungaree shirt, a white hat crimped on his head. It’s calm, dark and the water of the harbor spreads out calm as glass next to the ship. The next second, it’s bright sunlight, the ship is moving fast over the rolling ocean. Fighter jets all around him. Engines roaring. Pilots are in the cockpits. Flight deck workers walk by carrying chocks and chains. Bombs and rockets loaded under every jet’s wings. Suddenly it flashes back to nighttime in the harbor. Jake in dungarees. Then it flashes back to sunlight, fighter jets. The ocean is rolling all around the ship.
JANUARY 14, 1969 NEAR HAWAII
Brilliant sunlight sparkles on the rolling ocean. The flight deck of the USS Enterprise is packed with jet aircraft. An old Chief Petty Officer in flight deck gear walks up to Jake and puts his mouth on the sound attenuator covering Jake’s ear. “Break down the chains on this bird,” the chief says. “She’s ready to launch.”
Jakes gives the chief a thumbs-up, then scrambles around the jet, ducking under the nose, walking outboard of the intake ducts. He breaks down the chains on the port side main landing gear. He ducks under the tailcones and walks up the starboard side of the aircraft, starts breaking down the chains on the main mount.
Suddenly a massive explosion. Several aircraft engulfed in flames. Men running for their lives away from the burning aircraft.
Jake is consumed in fire.
|Fire on the flight deck, USS Enterprise, January 1969|
It’s nighttime on the flight deck. Standing in the same location, Jake is there now in his dungarees and white hat.
Bright sunlight on the flight deck, ocean rolling past the ship. Flames everywhere. Black smoke towering into blue sky. Jake inside the fire burning alive. Incinerated, he crumples to the deck.
Nighttime. Jake is standing on the flight deck. The cool dark sky overhead. The dark steel beneath the soles of his boots. The dark water, calm, reflecting the stars up in heaven.
* * *
A red bulb glows inside a metal cage, shining through the darkness, shining off the Linoleum tiles on the deck in the berthing compartment. Rows of lockers and rows of bunks where the crew sleeps. The compartment is deserted. Completely silent. Jake walks through a door at the end of an aisle. He walks along the row of lockers and bunks and turns into one of the narrow compartments. He grabs a combination lock and turns the dial, pops the hasp and lifts his locker open. The light in its cage a smear like coals across the polished floor.
Jake strips off his shirt. He puts it along with his white hat into the locker. He pulls off his black boondocker boots, tosses them into the locker, pulls off his pants and throws them into the locker too.
Jake climbs into his bunk. Close on his face. Expressionless. He turns his bunk light on and pulls a picture from under his pillow. She’s about 20 years old. Pretty. Jake stares at the picture for a long time and then gradually dozes off holding the picture. It slips down onto the pillow beside him and it looks like the young woman in the picture is sleeping next to him.
He’s dreaming or remembering.
Jake is riding a motorcycle. Wearing only sunglasses, no helmet. His favorite jeans and a t-shirt. He’s on a secondary road in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He passes a sign, WELCOME TO VISALIA POP 23,000. Cars with big wide hoods and trunks, lots of glass on the road around him. Obviously, it’s the 1960s.
Jake pulls onto a dirt driveway at a small wooden house shaded by huge weeping willows. He knocks at the door. A man answers.
“Good afternoon, Mister Ramirez, sir,” Jake says.
“You’re just in time to help put a few hives on the truck,” Mr. Ramirez says. Behind him in the kitchen, Olga, the beautiful 20-year-old woman in Jake’s picture.
Olga is smiling at Jake from behind her father. “Daddy,” Olga says, “Jake doesn’t want to move bee hives. He’s going to get stung!”
Mr. Ramirez looks at his daughter. She’s so beautiful it makes his heart ache. “This young man has been stung already,” he says.
“Stop, Daddy, you’re embarrassing me.”
“Sorry, my dear,” he says. “But Jake has to show me he’s worthy of being with my daughter.” Mr. Ramirez smiles at Jake and walks past him toward the back of the house where a field and rows of beehives are visible in the distance.
A few minutes later, Jake is wearing a bee bonnet with a screen down over his face. He has on a long sleeve lab coat and gloves with long cuffs up to his elbows. Mr. Ramirez doesn’t wear any protection from the bees.
“You don’t wear any protection?” Jake says.
“The bees love me,” he says.
There’s about an acre of land between them and the Ramirez house. Rows of flowers and tomatoes, string beans and herbs are growing in great profusion. Wooden bee boxes spread out all along a dirt path. Bees are swarming everywhere. Loud buzzing. Mr. Ramirez is calm, he’s holding a smoker, puffing it around one of the hives to sedate the bees as he slides the little openings closed on the sides of the hive to keep the bees in.
Jake and Mr. Ramirez load several bee boxes into the back of an old pickup truck. Jake stiffens and raises his arm as if to slap the back of his neck, but he pauses.
“That’s right, Jake,” Mr. Ramirez says, “I know it hurts but you must remain calm.”
“Don’t panic. It will make the bees excited, and they’ll swarm on you.
“But it stings.”
“Be a man, Jake.” He smirks. “Take a bee sting. It’s nothing.
They continue moving bee boxes into the back of the truck.
Mr. Ramirez closes the tailgate and climbs into the cab as Jake walks toward the house.
Olga walks over and as Jake removes the bonnet and the gloves, she takes his hand.
Mr. Ramirez rolls up in the truck and stops beside them. “Did I give you permission to hold my daughter’s hand?” he says.
Jake let’s go of Olga’s hand, looking guilty.
“Daddy, stop, you’re embarrassing me,” Olga says.
“Sorry, sir,” Jake says and steps close to the truck. He whispers, “Mr. Ramirez, sir, may I have permission to hold your daughter’s hand?
Mr. Ramirez looks at this daughter questioningly. She nods vigorously in the affirmative.
“Perhaps if you toughen up,” Mr. Ramirez smiles. And learn to take a bee sting without complaining.”
The truck rolls away.
“Good bye, Daddy,” Olga says.
“Good bye, Mi Hija.”
Jake and Olga walk around behind the barn and alongside a creek through some tall grass. Sunshine fills the blue sky. There are birds and bugs. A fish jumps on the water.
“I’m going to miss you,” Olga says.
“I’m going to miss you too, Olga. I really wish I didn’t have to go.”
“You be careful on that ship, Jake. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Don’t worry,” Jake stops and faces Olga. They stand close together. “I won’t be on land in Vietnam. I’ll be out on the Ocean on the ship where it’s safe.”
“I’ll be praying for you every day.”
“Don’t worry. I’m in the Navy so I’ll be on the ship, not fighting in the jungle.”
“You better come back in one piece.”
“Are you going to wait for me, Olga?”
“Yes, Jake. I’ll wait for you.”
Jake drops down on one knee and removes a diamond solitaire ring from the tiny watch pocket on the front of his jeans. He takes Olga’s hand as if to slip the ring on her finger. Olga’s face brightens. Her mouth open in awe as she looks down at him.
“Jake, what are you doing?”
“Olga Ramirez,” he says, “will you marry me?”
“Yes, Jake! Yes. I’ll marry you.”
He slips the ring on her finger and stands up. They hug and kiss.
The corridor in the Pentagon is crowded with military personnel and civilians. A Navy admiral carrying a briefcase walks briskly along.
The admiral holds his ID card up to a scanner and sliding doors open. Marine guards pop to attention as he passes. The admiral places his hand flat on a black panel next to a metal door. A light scans his handprint and the door opens. Further, along the corridor, another pair of armed marine guards pop to attention as he approaches a black metal door. Printed on the door “DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE NUMINOUS DIVISION.” The Admiral steps up and puts his face into a bowl-shaped indentation beside the door. A green light scans his eye. The doors open and he enters.
|The Pentagon, Washington DC|
Behind a desk Mr. Shertzer is sitting, clicking away on a computer keyboard. The Admiral enters.
“Shertzer, you have to see this,” the admiral says.
“Just one second, sir. Let me hit send on this email to the president and I’ll be right with you.”
The admiral puts his hat on the corner of Shertzer’s desk and sits down.
“We should have seen this coming, I mean they’re dismantling the Enterprise, what did we expect?”
Shertzer has his finger raised over his mouse about to click send on his email, but he stops and looks critically at the Admiral’s hat on the corner of his immaculately clean desk.
The Admiral pops open his briefcase and starts shuffling papers around inside, not seeing Shertzer who is now glaring at the offending hat.
“There have been some really horrible accidents on the Big E over the years,” the admiral says. “She’s been around the world what? More than a dozen times. She’s had at least what? A couple hundred sailors die on board over the past 50-years. Why didn’t we do some scans on her when she first entered the yards to be decommissioned?” The Admiral realizes Shertzer isn’t answering, so he looks up and sees Shertzer staring at his hat on the desk. The Admiral snatches his hat from the desk with one hand and with the other, he plucks an envelope from his briefcase and hands it to Shertzer.
“Sorry about that, Shertzer. I forgot about your anal-retentive thing with the desk.”
Shertzer breathes a sigh of relief, clicks send on the email and snatches the envelope from the admiral. He reads the info on the front of the envelope, then removes a letter opener from his desk and slits the envelope along the top and reaches in. He removes the packet of papers and places them on his desk. He slowly reads the top page. Then he turns it over, and looks at the next page, which is a grainy copy of an old black and white photograph. It shows the Enterprise at sea. He reads the caption. The next page shows the Enterprise tied to a pier. Shertzer reads the caption and flips the page over. The next page is another picture, taken from a distance. There’s a huge tower of flame and smoke rising from the Enterprise’s flight deck. The same as image as in Jake’s dream. The caption reads “USS ENTERPRISE, JANUARY 14, 1969.”
Shertzer looks at the Admiral and says, “Let’s get down there right away.”
Check back for new chapters every week.