Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
|Table of Contents|
Chapter 22: Lights’ Last Gleaming
It suddenly dawned on Stella that it was Earl she had heard about in the news. “Oh, my gosh, that was you?” She looked quickly back and forth between Henry and Gibby. “Are you all... all right?”
“Fine,” Gibby said as he massaged his hand beneath the counter. “Although I feel a few years older, and none the wiser.” The doctor had told him to expect some stiffness after his beating, but this wasn’t that, this was a numbness, a disconnect between what his brain told his hand to do and what it partially wouldn’t. He flexed his fingers, finding them slow to respond.
“Elroy.” The softness in her eyes turned intentionally stone cold. “It’s about time that slimy bastard got his up-and-comings.” She blew out a stream of blue smoke. “I’ll take care of him... soon.”
Henry gave Stella an appraising eye and, for a moment, he almost felt some pity for Elroy. Almost. “Fortunately for us, Earl found his way here. He saved our hides.”
“Earl here is a pistol-packing saint,” Gibby said. “Four street punks who didn’t like the color of Henry’s skin followed Henry here. Next thing I know, Henry comes flying through the door, followed by these apes, who were high on blood lust and God knows what else, who start kicking and punching the crap out of him.
“I got Earl safely behind the counter, grabbed Joe DiMaggio here,” indicating the bat, “and went straight at them. Wham! I didn’t have a chance. I go flying across the room, upturning tables and chairs along the way. I’ve got the wind knocked out of me, while Henry is kicked senseless, and I can’t lift a hand.
“The leader of this gang of hooligans, a mean ugly son of a bitch, now has my bat and makes to crack Henry’s skull open with it. I’ve got to tell you, at that moment, I thought Henry was toast, and for my own chances... well...” He took a bite of the sandwich.
“Earl found the gun I had stashed behind the bar. Blamm! He took out two of the apes at point-blank range. The other two skedaddle out the back just as the cops arrive. So, I made Earl a deal he couldn’t turn down.” Gibby reached for another sandwich. “He gets free room and board in exchange for his music. I made up a room for him in the back.”
Stella blew out a long appreciative whistle. “I knew there was something about you that I liked, Earl. Hero. Talent. Handsome. What other secrets are you keeping from us?”
Earl smiled, saving his answer for another time.
“Answer this for me,” Stella asked Earl. “How did you get special privileges at the Veterans’ Hospital when you had been a Merchant Marine cook? You were never an officer, yet you were given officer’s privileges and veteran’s benefits that you were never entitled to — not that you don’t deserve them — unless you served in some capacity you’re keeping under wraps?”
“Earl,” Gibby laughed, were you a goddamned spy? OSS?”
Henry looked long and hard at Earl and had to wonder.
“No,” Earl answered, “nothing so dramatic. When the winds of war were first blowing across Europe, I figured it wouldn’t be too long before FDR got us into the fight. I packed my bags and went down to the recruiting office. The Army and Navy both turned me down. They said I was too old.
“The Merchant Marine said they’d take me, and it wasn’t long before I was baking up a storm on a Liberty ship on the Murmansk run. I was a ship’s cook and never fired a shot. I had two ships sunk beneath me. The last, I was the only survivor.”
“Is that where you lost your sight?” Stella asked.
“No,” he answered and began to play Long Ago and Far Away.
“What I’m about to tell you is classified.” He put his finger to his lips. “Top Secret. If you tell another living soul, I’ll disavow saying a thing and give your home address to Elroy.” He ran his fingers long and hard across the keyboard.
“The war ended for me on July 5th, 1942. I was with the Merchant Marine, convoying cargo to the Soviet Union. Of the thirty-three ships that left Iceland, eleven made it to Murmansk. The ship I was on is at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. I was the only survivor.
“When they fished me out of the water, I had a busted ankle and a bad case of hypothermia. The nearest hospital was in Murmansk, the coldest godforsaken place I’ve ever known. The hospital was short of skilled doctors, nurses, medicine and food. After ten days, and two botched operations on my foot, they said that they had done all they could. I was lucky to be alive.”
“I spent the winter in a poorly heated dorm with eighteen other guys. We were all walking wounded, half of whom couldn’t speak English. The cold was mind-numbing. The thought of spending another winter there drove me nuts. Three of our number committed suicide.
“In the spring I hitched a ride back to Iceland. I swore I’d never eat another herring for as long as I lived.” He turned towards where Gibby sat. “How about ordering in an anchovy pizza tomorrow?” After tapping three notes deliberately off-key, he continued. “From there I hitched a ride on a British freighter bound for Africa. There was plenty of work to do, but none for a cripple, so I just hung around waiting for a ride home.”
Earl has a limp, Stella thought, but it’s minor, something a seasoned professional like myself might recognize. At a casual glance, most people wouldn’t notice it.
“Thanksgiving Day, I reached Bari, Italy. Bari was one of the busiest ports in the Allied-occupied Adriatic. The harbor was jammed with ships. Most, when emptied, were going back to Africa, some to England, a few back to the States. I was on a waiting list. There was nothing to do but wait and keep out of the way. At least it was warm, the food good, and the wine plentiful.
“On December 2nd, 1943, I got word that I had a billet on ship leaving for the States. Three days and I’d be on my way home. After a celebration dinner and a bottle of wine, I went to the movies. That bottle of wine saved my life.”
His finger hit a single dramatic key.
“I had to pee. While I was in the head an enormous explosion rocked the building. Hell, the whole wall came down and left me pissing in public. When the dust settled, I could see that a massive chandelier that hung in the center of the theater had crashed down, crushing everyone below it — right where I had been sitting. The side of the building facing the harbor collapsed when a second pressure wave from an explosion in the harbor buried everyone else. I crawled out of the bathroom without a scratch.
“Out on the street I could see that the night sky was filled with white, yellow, and red ribbons of light. Hundreds of anti-aircraft guns were firing at the German planes, only there weren’t any planes, at least none that I could see. It had been a small air raid, but a damned lucky one for the Nazis.
“Bari’s old town took some serious damage, buildings collapsed, brick walls blocked the streets, windows were just gaping holes. A church tower collapsed on a neighboring restaurant. There were more dead than injured. All this caused by the first two gigantic explosions. I hurried towards the harbor to see if the ship that was to take me home was still afloat.
“It was far from over. More German bombs found targets in the harbor. What was left of the once mighty Luftwaffe, who were supposed to be fighting to the last plane defending the Reich, managed to surprise us; nobody expected it. We were caught with our pants down, and from what I could see it was worse than Pearl Harbor, only this time it was the Merchant Marine that took the shellacking.
“I heard a shrill, ear-piercing whine. Then a brilliant nova of light and flame rose a thousand feet into the night sky. That had been a fully loaded gasoline tanker, there one moment, gone the next. Any ships anchored nearby suffered the same fate.
The John Henry, a freighter I had seen earlier in the day, was the next to go. I was blown off my feet. It was a cataclysmic explosion beyond anything I had seen. An unbelievable broiling cloud rose at least three thousand feet before slowly rolling inland.
“I lay stunned where I had been slammed against the wall of a school. The second floor of the building collapsed inwards from the impact of the explosion. My ankle lay twisted to one side, broken for the second time.
“That was the lucky part: this time the doctors were able to fix it right. A thick oily smoke stung my eyes and burned my lungs. That was the unlucky part, that broiling black cloud was the last thing I ever saw.”
Stella reached out, her fingers resting on the top of his hand. Earl let her hand stay. There was visible tension in his neck, a slight tremble to his voice as he continued. “I remember smelling garlic. When they found me, my scalp and neck were blistered. My ears were almost raw flesh. My eyes hurt something awful.”
“No one knew what had been on the John Henry. At least, not anyone alive. There were thousands dead, a lot more burned and injured. They tried to treat me at an Army Hospital, but they didn’t know what they were dealing with. It wasn’t until I got stateside, at Walter Reed Hospital, that I learned that the damage to my eyes was permanent. The cargo the John Henry was carrying was top secret. Far as I know, it still is. She was carrying mustard gas.”
“Mustard gas?” Henry, Gibby and Stella repeated in surprise.
“You heard right,” Earl said. “Mustard gas had been packed into a hundred tons of artillery shells for use against the Nazis should they try to use chemical weapons on us. Had the doctors known, they might have been able to save my sight back at Bari. They couldn’t because they didn’t know. It was the luck of the draw.”
He took off his dark glasses, which he rarely did. The scars were evident. “Here’s the rub: the ship that I was supposed to ship out on, once unloaded, was the John Henry. I was listed, prematurely, on the ship’s register as being a member of the crew. I’m the only survivor of a ship I never set foot on, so the government thinks that I knew what made up her cargo. That’s how I found out it had been mustard gas.
“The government still has a tight lid on what happened. They thought if they could bury me in the bureaucracy of a dead-end hospital, I couldn’t do any harm, happy as a clam to have three squares and clean laundry. I guess Mann did me a big favor by booting me out of there.”
“You going to blow the whistle on them?” Gibby asked.
“Can’t say what I’m going to do, at least not yet. The fact that Mann contributed to Elroy’s delinquency, that Elroy stole my money... I just may have to do something.”
He slipped his glasses back on, then took a long pull of his drink. “Let’s see if I can get this right this time,” he said as he began to play Stella By Starlight.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith