The Task

The strangest thing about the whole affair was the fact that it took me over two hours to work out what had happened. Being assigned to a Liberty Ship was a risky posting to say the least, but I took it in stride from when I first boarded. A lot of the boys were especially nervous this time though as we’d be going on a solo run. It wasn’t ideal, but the The main problem was sleep. I didn’t do well on campouts at First Baptist when I was a kid, and I don’t do well in similar situations now. Even when they’re not running their mouths or engaging in general tomfoolery, people make noise in bunches. That’s just how it is. The out-of-tune chorus of snores, groans, belches and farts was usually just a bit too much for me. As much fun as I had with the other guys in the mess hall or tossing the baseball on deck, I took it upon myself on any given crossing to find a hidey-hole in one of the holds to throw a blanket down for shut-eye. Engine noise was a bit loud, but at least it was consistent.

In essence, what this all means is that when that dirty nazi torpedo slammed into us, it may very well have completely destroyed me before I had a chance to realize what was happening. That is, I didn’t exist anymore, even as pieces of pieces. My mother was always possessed of the notion that a person who wasn’t properly buried was simply not able to receive their place in the Kingdom of God. Funny enough, I never personally believed that, but I only made the mistake of informing her of that once and of course got a bright red cheek in response. In the end, I ultimately realised it didn’t even matter. I had no idea I was dead because I had no time to react to it. Back in ’42, most of the ships were not even equipped with deck guns or dazzle paint. Hell, if we didn’t have at least four of us chugging along to England, I’d be lucky to even see a single destroyer escort.

I woke up the following morning and rubbed my eyes. It was a bit strange not to be hearing Thomas’ yapping down there, which I usually used as my alarm clock. This is what inspired my first panic—not that I was alone, more that I was worried about being late. I bounded up the ladder, then upstairs and slowed down when I noticed nobody was in any of the hallways. If that was the case, then the reason I hadn’t heard Thomas earlier was easy. I woke up before him for a change. That meant that I was alone for breakfast, which suited me fine. I ate some powdered eggs and coffee while reading an old National Geographic. By the time I’d finished learning about the Maori people down in New Zealand, I started to feel really odd. I mean I love every ounce of time I can get to myself, but I’m not deaf. A completely empty canteen? On a ship with fifty men aboard, not to mention a few women and the nurse? For almost an hour? I left the room and went to Clarence’s and knocked on the hatch. No answer. I went up on deck and looked around, but I couldn’t see Jack or anyone else. I rushed down to the galley; the cook at this point would easily be up peeling and soaking potatoes. It was empty as a tomb. As I rushed up the staircase to the bridge, I could hear my heart thumping in my ears in panic, trying to pound its way out of my chest and to wherever it was I thought it had deserved to end up.

The bridge was empty, and it was at this point, I finally turned my attention to the empty lifeboat davits adoring the boat deck. Not all were empty, but three were. I rushed back all the way down in record time to where I’d woke up. I noticed no hull breaches, no overpowering smell of oil or any steam hisses. Indeed, the entire SS Steven O’Malley seemed to be enjoying a steady and smooth day of sailing. I went up to the radio room, fiddled with the dial like Troy showed me, trying desperately to find any kind of signal. There was nothing, not a single solitary snippet at all on any channel. I felt the sweat crawling down my back as I trembled. How was it possible that I wasn’t even getting the weather report?! For the next hour, I walked the deck terrified, not wanting to touch the wheel as I had no idea if our course was even correct or, worse, if it was and I’d ruin it. Finally, I perked, hearing the low drone from high above and seeing the silhouette of the Catalina bearing down low to the water. I jumped up and waved my hand, but he didn’t rock his wings to signal he saw me. Three more catalinas appeared over the course of the next half hour all equally ignorant of my presence. That’s when the thought first slipped in, and I started to realize and then accept what had happened to me.

I had to acknowledge it. I had to give the thought due credit. I tried all the contingencies for the rest of the crossing, constant radio checks, blowing the horn as loud as I could to alert anybody, and even figuring out how to use the Morse lamp and searchlights. I even eventually experimented with the wheel, but I found that if I did, it would just revert itself back to what it was doing. Actually watching it, I realised that it was gently steering itself, seemingly making course corrections as and when needed. I yelled my lungs out to the shore as the ship veered in to Portsmouth, gently sliding into a dock. The ramps lowered all on their lonesome and the ship stayed there, waiting for the influx of cargo that never came. When it was time to leave we…I…watched as the whistle blew and we slowly drifted out and back towards Norfolk. Roughly every week, a crossing was made, and it went on this way for years. One crossing after another on that same ocean, rain or shine. I tried the first time to leave, to see if I could go ashore. I can get down to the staging area on a dock but no further. And I always find myself compelled by forces not my own to re-board for the next crossing. Months passed, and then years. The ships larder would be miraculously refilled with all necessary provisions. Oddly I noticed these even had updated expiry dates, as did the magazines and books which filled the lending library. The latter were actually updated even more frequently than they were when I was a living man. I had a really great time last month when I got those vampire novels by that Rice woman. I found I could identify a lot with that solitude. The loneliness should have driven me insane of course, but whoever it is that’s pulling the strings seems to be intent on making that somewhat bearable for me. Maybe that’s the purpose of all these empty composition books I keep finding.

I knew when the war ended, and I was satisfied that we had won it, though I felt no pull to celebrate. After all, I had ceased my ability to contribute to its outcome, so—odd as it was—the fight against the nazis was longer really mine. I’ve become consigned to my fate, the overseer or maybe caretaker of these journeys. I could never bring myself to call myself the captain, heavens no. I wasn’t near so qualified. I was just some dumb hick from Arkansas who failed the medical when I tried to join the reserves. My father always told me not to take what I hadn’t earned, and I can safely say I follow that advice even past the depths of my grave. As the years have passed, I’ve filled many of these notebooks with my thoughts and the sights I saw. The oil tankers have become ridiculously huge, as do those floating pleasure palaces, though I must admit I do like the sight of a girl in a bikini giggling by the pool when I pass close enough to one, even if mother thinks it’s a sin. She doesn’t chide me on it either in person or in my dreams.

I don’t know why this task has fallen to me. There were thousands of these ships that made the rounds. I’ve never seen another with one like me. Actually I haven’t seen another Liberty ship since around the end of the 1950’s. I suppose that makes this one the last and only one. Portsmouth and Norfolk have both grown. Portsmouth grew taller, Norfolk got sleeker with newer boats in port with fresher sailors, and the faces got more colorful too. My father always said eventually Uncle Sam would get over that little hangup. From what I can tell in the papers though, we have a long way to go to learn the lessons those awful camps taught us. I couldn’t tell you as I sit here and write this story—as I have a thousand times before—what it is exactly that I think I’m meant to do or what my duties exactly are. Nobody or nothing ever gets on, and nobody and nothing ever gets off. Maybe mother was right and there is a plan for us all and perhaps my role is best known as “curator”, but then who is there to see it? I suppose I have seen glimmers a time or two in people’s eyes. It’s usually kids. That’s how these things go isn’t it? There have been moments where I’ve been all but sure somebody can see the ship and maybe even me, but I try no to put much stock into it. Even if I’m write, and then even if anybody believed a young girl tugging on her father’s coat and pointing wildly in my general direction, I’ve known for awhile I won’t be leaving this post.

In May of 1945, I felt a sudden peace with this duty, and I honestly count myself lucky enough that this peace has continued unto now. I’ve never really asked why I was chosen for whatever this is. Where else was the universe going to find somebody that could tolerate his own company as much as I did but in that little bunk I made for myself in the hold?

Landscape Photograph of Body of Water

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