Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Screech!


“A favourite tradition that prevails on the island of Newfoundland is the “Screech In” ceremony which includes a drink of the infamous Newfoundland Screech Rum and kissing a cod fish - or by lack thereof, the posterior of a puffin and repeating a semi-dialect, slightly risqué recitation. The reward of this ritual is a certificate naming the holder thereof as now “an Honorary Newfoundlander”

-
From “Newfound and Labrador.com”

I didn’t realize when I left Mcivers how long eight months could be. Life at Ernest Harmon from March till November was almost exclusively a series of monotonous daily events. Nights at the airman’s club, boozing, followed days at work in the relay center, and vice versa. I’d occasionally try to break the monotony by going into Stephenville to visit some of the local haunts, but they didn’t provide much relief. About the only thing different about Stephenville’s honky tonk’s were the brands. At the airman’s club a fella’ could get Johnny Walker or Canadian Club. In Stephenville a local trade Whiskey called “Schreech” was the in thing. The label on the bottle said it all. There, in bold black letters inscribed against a tan background, it most proudly proclaimed its poison. The locals swore by it. One even told me that if I drank a good sized shot of Screech and followed it up by kissing a codfish I’d become an honorary Newfoundlander. Each time the offer was made I’d politely pass, knowing that with roots in Mcivers I’d already made the grade.

The relationship between the folks in Stephenville was symbiotic, but strained. The locals liked the money, but they didn’t like what they perceived as the haughty attitude most Americans brought to Newfoundland with them. One of the popular songs that floated from bar to bar was a little ditty called “Yank Go Home.” I’m not sure that I can recite it verbatim, but it went something like this:

“Yank go home, we don’t wantcha’ around
Your kind of bullshit will get us down,
We are just poor Newfoundlanders,
We are used to the simple life here.”

About the best that Harmon’s airmen could respond to such eloquence was by referring to Newfoundlanders as “Goofie Newfies.”

As I said, the relationship between Americans and Newfoundlanders in Stephenville was strangely symbiotic. It was all very simple, very straightforward. One side reaped economic benefit. The other got whiskey and women in exchange.

I was hoping to get a three day pass as soon as I got back from Mcivers, but getting it proved to be much harder than I thought it would be. The key was to pass the barracks’ weekly inspection, which was conducted by our First Sergeant, Lake R. Van Reenan. From March to November the results became predictable. After each inspection he’d leave a note on my bunk with the reason I’d failed the inspection. One read, “Dirty baseboards, no three day pass.” For the next inspection I prepared by painting the baseboards, thinking that would do the trick. That effort was followed by another pithy little note – “Bunk messy, no three day pass.” As soon as I fixed one problem, Van Reenan would find another. “Floor not buffed good enough, no three day pass.” “Sink dirty, no three day pass.” By the end of April, when I read the following note, I really saw red. “Venetian blinds dirty, no three day pass,” it read. It was the last straw for me. The morning after the inspection I went downstairs to his office to complain. I waited in line for about fifteen minutes, watching my peers go in, then reappear a few minutes later with glum looks on their faces. Finally I heard him bark out my name, “Dillon!” “Yessir,” I responded as I entered his office. He was sitting there, face down, looking at some papers on his desk. I stood at attention for a minute or so and he acknowledged my presence. “What the hell you want Dillon,” as he looked up. His face, which was round, punctuated by a very square jaw and a flat top haircut, was almost beet red. Hoping it wasn’t colored by anger I launched into my protest. “Sergeant Van Reenan, I can’t see how I failed the inspection yesterday.”
“What don’t you understand,” he said quizzically. “I said you failed it. That’s enough.”
“You said my Venetian blinds were dirty.”
“They was!”
“But, sarge, I don’t have any Venetian blinds in my room.”
“Dammit Dillon. I said they was dirty and by God they was! Now get the hell out of my office.”
Thinking by now I had nothing to lose I let my Irish cynicism take over. As I turned around to leave I mumbled, “You’d save your self a whole lot of words if you’d just start writing “No three day pass” instead of all the crap you’ve been puttin’ down, you evil old Dutchman.”

The remark cost me sixty days restricted to base.

Toward the end of August I’d almost completely given up any hope of ever seeing Mcivers again. It was about that time that I met Joe. I didn’t know a lot about him at first. I’d heard he’d been busted from staff sergeant to airman third for failure to repair. He’d gone on a three day bender about the same time I’d visited Mcivers in March, and gotten arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for public drunkenness at the end of it. By the time he sobered up he was in the stockade for ninety days, missing three stripes.

The relationship was, like the relationship between the airmen of Harmon the citizens of Stephenville, symbiotic, with one major difference. The relationship between me and Joe Yanochick was really toxic.

I was introduced to him by my work supervisor, Sergeant Clarence Simmons. The introduction was perfunctory. At a pre-shift meeting, Simmons introduced him as “the new man.” After the meeting I walked over and introduced myself to him. “Hey Joe, I’m Phil Dillon, good to have you on board with us.” Joe, who was a fairly short man, with wavy blond hair that he was almost constantly stroking nervously with his right hand, smiled, revealing straight, but yellow teeth. “Yanochick…Joe Yanochick,” he responded. While the teeth stood out, there was something else that was very pronounced about Joe. His eyes were dark brown, sunken back in their sockets, with dark black circles around them. They gave him the appearance of being a ghost.

It took about a month or so for the friendship, if it could be called that, to develop. I knew that he had a proclivity for drink and I shared that. It seemed that as we worked together that his mind was always on the end of the shift so that he could “go tie one on.” I would occasionally go over to the airman’s club with him, hoist a few, then go back to the barracks. The next day I’d hear the stories of how Joe had closed the place down, looking as sober after twenty or thirty drinks as he had when he started.

That was one of the amazing things about Joe. He could tie one on and no one could really tell. Drunk or sober Joe always looked the same. About the only way of knowing came when he wouldn’t show up for work. The other, I learned, was his love for Kahlil Gibran. One night, at a break in our work, I saw Joe curled up in a chair hidden behind some of the teletype relay equipment. I got curious and went over to see what he was doing. He was sitting, feet propped up against one of the teletype machines, reading a book. “Whatchya reading, Joe”? I asked.
The Prophet.”
“Good, is it?”
“It’s really good. Listen to this.” With that he began to read out loud:
“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.”
“What do you suppose it’s talking about, Joe?” I asked
“Lack of vision and purpose in life, I think”
I looked down at Joe and saw, for the first time, that there was much more to this man than I’d been led to believe or even believed myself. I sensed, perhaps hoped that Joe Yanochick, the drunk, the barracks stepchild, the butt of everyone’s jokes, had a soul after all. Gibran was telling Joe all about his drifting life and Joe was telling me, reaching out for help.
“Can I see it,” I asked. Joe folded the pages over to be sure he wouldn’t lose his place and handed the book to me. My eyes then caught the following words – “For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction. Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing; and let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and, like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.”
I handed the book back to Joe, then thought for a moment about getting philosophical about what I’d read, but decided against it. “What good would it do?” I thought. Seeing Joe, eyes sunken back in their sockets, circled in black, told me all I needed to know. Joe wasn’t being philosophical. He was feeling sorry for himself, giving himself an excuse to live out of a bottle, blaming fate for what had happened to him.

In the days after that little encounter Joe retreated further and further into drink. And, strangely I began to retreat with him. His off duty time, and mine, was consumed with consumption. Days at work were pure agony and nights were blurs, with few if any memories. Years later I was to read another of Gibran’s work and see those days for what they were. The words have always been reminders, warnings to never return to those days – “When I walk vacant-eyed through the streets of the clamourous city, the children follow me, shouting, “Here is a blind man! Let us give him a walking cane to feel his way.”

It ended, abruptly, with a strange act of grace. We were out one night, as had become our custom, drinking heavily as the night passed. I don’t remember how we got to the road we were on, but I do remember that as we drifted from one side of the road to the other the car began to sputter for a minute or so, then died. Joe tried cranking the engine several times with no luck. “Aw shit,” he mumbled. “Outta’ gas. As he leaned over the steering wheel I chuckled. “How far are we from Harmon?”
“I dunno’,” Joe replied.
“Well if you ain’t a friggin’ genius,” I said, laughing uncontrollably.
“You ain’t so smart yourself. You’re sittin’ in the passenger’s seat. Haven’t they told you to stay away from drunks like me.” With that we both began to laugh.

It took us a few more minutes to asses our position. I began to worry. By now it was late October and the hints of winter were already starting to fill the air. The temperature was in the twenties and the “hawk was talking.” I listened to the wind, which was gusting at about thirty miles an hour, howling outside the car. “Are we gonna’ freeze to death, Joe?” I asked.
“Nah,” he answered. “I’ve done this before and I’ll get us out of this. He got out of the car and went back to the trunk. In a minute or so he came back, proudly displaying a gas can and a long piece of rubber hose, about three quarters of an inch in diameter. As he held them up he announced proudly, “We’re gonna’ take someone else’s.”
“What?” I asked.
“You know. We’ll find someone’s car and siphon some gas.
“God, Joe, that’s stealing.”
“We’re just gonna’ borrow some.”

With that we began to make our way, walking down the road. As we did I began to realize that my old theory about alcohol being insulation against winter’s cold was as false as the old theories that the earth was flat. I was getting colder by the second, shivering as we walked. About fifteen minutes after we’d set out we saw some lights about a hundred yards ahead of us as we crested a hill. When we got there we could see a car parked near the road. I was cold, shivering, but still not sober enough to have a full grasp of what was going on. But Joe, who really did look the same way drunk as he did sober, seemed to be in control. “Here he said,” as he took the gas cap off the car. “Lay down on the ground and hold the hose in the gas tank and suck on it. I’ll hold the gas can. When you feel gas coming through, let go and I’ll put the hose in the gas can.”
I laid down and went to work. I inhaled on the hose a couple of time to no avail. “Harder,” Joe whispered. I tried again…..and again. Finally, after two or three minutes the gas came pouring through. As it did I inadvertently swallowed what I later surmised was about four ounces of gas. Joe grabbed the hose and began emptying gas from the unsuspecting Newfoundlander’s car, paying no attention to my plight. I sputtered and gagged and Joe collected the gasoline. When he was done he grabbed me by the arm and commanded, “Lessgo’.” I vomited all the way back to the car and as I did Joe made light of my misery. “You better not light a cigarette right now,” he laughed. From that point on I don’t remember how we got back to Ernest Harmon.

I woke up the next day with the worst hangover I’ve ever had. It was, by God’s grace, one of the most wonderful object lesson’s I’ve ever had. From that point on I steered clear of Joe, not because I wanted to, but because I knew I had to. I had to escape. The term wasn’t in vogue back then, but it was every bit as unhealthy as those co-dependent relationships psychiatrists make fortunes on nowadays.

I have to admit even now that there were still some of the things about being Joe Yanochick’s friend that stayed with me. The strange mixtures I saw in him were attractive to me. His melancholy approach to life, his love of literary rhythm, his love of whiskey in jar had found their places in me. What I had to learn from that point on was that there were some things I needed to keep and some I needed to cut off at their roots.

Over the years I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to Joe Yanochick. I assume, based on those few months in Newfoundland, that he probably flamed out, but I don’t know for sure. Sometimes, when my faith is at a very high point, I imagine him at Carnegie Hall reciting large tracts of Kahlil Gibran and Omar Khayyam or telling stories and tales of intrigue and adventure to adoring audiences.

I think in the same way I idealized the few good qualities in my father and ignored the bad, I also did with Joe. The reality wasn’t good, so I created a new reality, one that had grains of truth in it, but little inner substance. Holding out hope for Joe, in some strange way, also helped keep in tact the aura I’d created around my father. If Joe could make Carnegie Hall, if grace could find him, then surely it could have found its way to my father. It was a vicious circle.

Once I pulled away from Joe I began to set my sights once again on getting back to Mcivers. It was now late October and it seemed, based on my track record and rapport with Lake R. Van Reenan, the possibility of that coming to pass was very remote.

It only took a few weeks to prove how wrong I was.

4 comments:

Gone Away said...

Great stuff again, Phil. And an excellent contrast with the mood of the previous chapter. I love the quiet presence of your later wisdom in what you write; watching your younger self go through the learning process, seeing how God guided you, yet never intruding. It gives great depth to your writing.

Anonymous said...

not enough o's in loooooooooong for that one.

Doug Worgul said...

Fine, fine story. Thank you.

drw

Allan said...

Egads! Phil, your runin with van Reenan reminded me of a navy experience I had aboard ship. Johnson, a rather stalky seaman had decided while I was on leave that my bunk was a more choice accomodation than his own and had moved into it during my absence. Upon my return I was, needless to say, somewhat put out by the intrusion into what had hitherto been my personal space.

Later the same day Johnson and I chanced to meet in the mess deck and I confronted him. He, of course, pleaded innocent saying that the bunk was empty and he simply took it and it was now his. I knew that he knew better and my anger grew, finally erupting in 'if you're not out of that bunk in ten minutes I'll kill ya'.

Johnson's face broke into a wry smile at my outburst as he responded, 'so kill me'. What was I to do? I knew I couldn't kill him and suddenly the stupidity of my behavior got the better of me and we both started laughing.

We ended up becoming friends and I let him keep the bunk. That wasn't the way he told it, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it.