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The Moral

by Jack Phillips Lowe

Good to see you, have a seat. Me? I’m the same as ever. I’m just hanging out, trying to resurrect my grandmother.

Yeah, for real. Right, back in 1986. I’m trying to remember a story she always used to tell. Naw, it’s rough going. It’s been a few years, after all.

The last time? Must’ve been right before she died. We were all sitting in the living room. It was a Saturday night. I remember that, because T. J. Hooker was on TV. Sure I was listening, sort of. You know when people keep repeating stuff, over and over, you don’t really hear them after a while? Well, cut me some slack, okay? It was Heather Locklear, for Christ’s sake.

Yes, I would. Laugh, but it hasn’t been scientifically refuted. If I were one of those 1-900 psychics, I could probably do it. I’d bring Grandma back, in her prime, to sit here with us. Of course, she’d have the words. Grandma could tell this story right.

I can’t so much recall the story as the way Grandma told it. Lots of visuals, plenty of color. Technicolor, like in movies from the 1940’s. The Malaysian sun of sixty-eight years ago, burning lemon-yellow. The contrast of silver Japanese Zeroes cutting through blue Asian skies. The steel-gray American destroyer the Zeroes are bearing down on. Colors straight from the crayon box.

Then it’s like a cartoon, one of those old Warner Brothers cartoons. On the deck of the destroyer, curled up in his sleeping bag like Elmer Fudd, is my great-uncle Jerry. Sound asleep. It’s not the best place for a nap, but a sailor’s got to grab some z’s wherever he can. Jerry frowns in his sleep, disturbed by what he thinks are buzzing flies. Lazily, he reaches up and shoos the flies. But the buzzing persists, growing ever louder.

Finally, Jerry’s annoyed enough to sit up and open his eyes. In true WB style, his eyes bulge out of his skull when he realizes that the buzzing is a squadron of Emperor Hirohito’s finest, swooping down on him like avenging angels. His eyeballs do, in fact, leave their sockets and hang in mid-air when Jerry tries to unzip his sleeping bag. The zipper — wait for it — is stuck. Tight.

Chuck Jones himself couldn’t have dreamed this up. With Japanese bullets strafing the deck, Jerry has to make like a bullfrog and hop for his life. He hops left, he hops right, in a serpentine pattern as hot Axis lead traces into the wood. Jerry dives below deck to safety, just as the destroyer’s cannons crane skyward and roar. The lucky Zeroes retreat to the Land of the Rising Sun. The unlucky ones meet a moist end. Jerry makes a narrow escape. Or does he?

Then it’s like a James T. Farrell story. Picture an Irish bar on the west side of Chicago, circa 1961. The air is thick with the smells of smoke and beer. A Cubs game flickers on a black-and-white TV hanging from the ceiling. Frankie Laine croons from a jukebox in back. Perched on a stool at the bar itself, close to the taps, is my great-uncle Jerry. Between boilermakers, he treats his fellow patrons to the story you’ve just heard.

According to Grandma, Jerry was a modest man. He wasn’t one to brag on himself or the things he was proud of, such as his military service. Like many Irishmen, he did drink — but only on special occasions. Like Tuesday. When he drank, the booze tended to loosen his tongue. And when it did, Jerry would add this epilogue to his harrowing tale.

Members of a skeptical audience — i.e., most of them — are invited to view physical proof of Jerry’s adventure. There was, Jerry tells them, one piece of shrapnel that didn’t miss its mark. Off to the men’s room they go, to see what Jerry calls “the place where Hirohito kissed me,” the bit of Japanese Air Force he’d sit on till his dying day.

That’s what I can remember. There was all kinds of other stuff, including a moral to tie it together. But like most of the story, it’s lost in the folds of my mind.

Look at the time. I didn’t mean to ramble on. This is a dangerous ride we’ve taken. The past can be a maze of mirrors. Finding the entrance is easy, but finding the exit can be damn near impossible. Let me walk you to the door.

It’s been great seeing you again. Before you go, may I ask you something? Did anything in my story move you? Make you smile, however slightly? Oh... sorry. No, don’t answer. Forgive me for getting personal. I just hoped to do justice to the tale. But you know, it wasn’t anywhere near what Grandma used to tell. Not even close.

Copyright © 2011 by Jack Phillips Lowe

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