Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Three Day Pass

“Take me back to that snug green coveWhere the seas roll up their thunder.There let me rest in the earth's cool breastWhere the stars shine out their wonder - - And the seas roll up their thunder.”

From “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” by Otto Kelland

I’d tried for several months to get a three day pass to no avail. I’d painted baseboards. I’d spent hours making my bed, then sleeping on the floor so that it would be wrinkle free for inspection. I’d even used a mix of Thunderbird wine and wax, let the mix dry, then buffed the floor so that Lake R. Van Reenan, the evil Dutchman, could even see the image of his teeth staring back at him as he looked down on my hard work. Everything failed.

Then I met Larry Clyde Jones and it all changed.

I didn’t know it when I first met him, but Larry had an “in” with my old nemesis Lake. I don’t what the “in” was, whether it was an old friendship or something more sinister like intimate knowledge of Van Reenan’s past sins and indiscretions, but whatever it was I found out that Larry could get whatever he wanted from him whenever he wanted it.

I met him at a barracks poker game. It was one of those nights when everything seemed to going my way. I was hitting flushes, inside straights, full houses. Whatever I needed I got. I’ve never had a streak like that before, nor have I since. Once in a while I look back on that night and think, “How lucky could one man be?” Then I come to my senses and realize that luck didn’t have much to do with it. It was one of those choreographed acts of grace I’ve only been able to see in hindsight. The straights and flushes, the full houses, were all part of a Master plan.

Larry, who worked in personnel, was one of the other players at the table. As my streak of luck continued unabated, the others at the table began to complain. But not Larry. He sat stoically, occasionally saying, “I could use your kind of luck, airman,” then throw more money into the pot. As Larry played on stoically the others at the table kept up a steady chorus of complaints. The more they complained the more stoic Larry became, responding in staccato fashion with a series of questions. “What’s the matter with you guys?” he asked. “Can’t take the losses?” Is this all too rich for you.” Each question was met with a uniform response – “You may be able to afford to lose, Jones, but we can’t.” No sooner than they had pleaded their cases Larry would go on. You’re only losing a buck or two a hand, for God’s sake. Now me…I’d watch a monkey make love to a football for a couple of lousy bucks.”

The game went on till about midnight. My streak had broken somewhere during the night, but by the time it had I’d done well enough that an occasional win kept the stack of chips and money piled handsomely high in front of me. As I was cashing in my chips in Larry, who I didn’t know before the game started, introduced himself. “I’m Larry Clyde Joes of the Charleston Joneses,” he said. I nodded, counting my money at the same time. “I’m Phil Dillon of the Boston Dillons.”
Larry seemed impressed. “Oh, we got a blue blood here. You one of those Back Bay boys, are ya?”
“More like Kendall Square and Washington Elms,” I said.
“Sounds important. Sounds high dollar.”
I laughed. “Washington Elms is a government housing project. Do you think if I was high dollar Boston I’d be sittin’ here in Newfoundland freezing my butt off right now?”
‘Guess not.”
He seemed genuinely interested in me, which based on my experience to this point in my military career was surprising. Most of the interaction I’d seen was superficial, born in part from the transient nature of military life and in part from the way military life was structured. Our conversation went on for some time, with Larry asking me about life in a government housing project. He was really curious. I’d occasionally try to ask questions about life in Charleston, but he just kept asking questions about life in Boston. When he was finished asking about life in Boston’s subculture he asked, “So how’d you get to Newfoundland?”
“I volunteered.”
A look of shock came over his face.” “You volunteered?”
“I did.”
“Didn’t your mama tell you not to do things like that?”
At first I didn’t know how to answer. It was, to me, a very funny question. I paused and then explained. “Actually, my mother kind of encouraged it. You see, I’ve got relatives about 20 miles from Corner Brook.”
Larry looked amazed on hearing this. “I didn’t think anyone in the “world” had relatives here.”
“I do.”
Larry began to get more and more curious. He seemed to want to know about my mother’s family. “So what are they like, these relatives of yours.”
“Well, let’s see. I’ve got a seventy-seven year old uncle who’s still a lumberjack and another who’s a night watchman at a lumber mill and one who’s a one toothed old bachelor.”
“Really,” Larry intoned. “Fascinating. Have you visited them?”
“Once back in March. I’ve been trying to get a three day pass since I got back and that damned Dutchman won’t give me one.”
“Van Reenan?”
“Who else?”
“He won’t give you a three day pass?”
“Hell no.”
Larry smiled. It was, as later experience taught me, a knowing smile. “I’ll talk to Lakey Poo for you.”
I was unimpressed. “Good luck,” I said. “Come the next inspection and I’m sure he’ll find some creative way to keep me here at Ernest Harmon.”
“Trust me,” Larry said. “I’ll talk to him.”

Our conversation ended and we made our way to our rooms. By the time I got back to mine I had my winnings counted. “A hundred and ninety one bucks,” I chuckled to myself. “That’ll spend pretty well at the airman’s club.”

Inspection came and went the Friday after the poker game. I got back to the barracks after work and saw a note on my bed. Thinking that it was going to be more of the same that van Reenan had written for months, I never looked at it. I looked out the window for a while, watching the snow fall. “God,” I thought. “It’s only November and the snow is flying and I’ll be watchin’ it for months from this damned barracks.” As I was lamenting my fate there was a knock on my door. “Come on in, it’s open.”
To my surprise it was Larry. “”How’d you do on the inspection?” he asked.
“Like always.”
“Really? You sure?”
“I haven’t looked at his note, but I’m sure it’s the same.”
Larry went over to the bunk and picked up the note. “He wants you to go downstairs to his office and see him.”
“You’re kidding?” I put my hand out and grabbed the note from Larry. “See me,” it said. I was stunned. There was no “Venetian blinds was dirty.” There was no “Messy bunk.” “What time is it?” I asked Larry.
“About three-thirty.”
“You don’t suppose he’s still down there?”
Larry smiled. It was the same smile I’d seen at the poker game a couple of nights earlier. “I’ll bet he’s down there waitin’ just for you.”

I got downstairs and made my way into line behind three other airmen. As each one came out of Sergeant Van Reenan’s office they had the same downcast look I’d seen so often over the months. When my turn came I entered and announced myself. Van Reenan took a note from his desk and said, “Here, take this pass and get the hell out of here before I change my mind.”

Even today I can still remember the flush feeling of my face as the blood rushed from my heart to my head. I was overjoyed. “Thanks, Sarge.” Van Reenan looked back down at his desk and repeated what he’d said. Take the damned pass and get the hell out of here before I change my mind. That’s all I’m gonna’ say.”

Grace, mysterious grace, had intercepted me. The poker game had given me more than enough money for the trip to Mcivers and Larry had wangled the three day pass for me.

By Saturday morning on I was on the bus to Corner Brook. By late afternoon I was in Mcivers. The bus dropped me off close to Billy and Mabel’s. I knocked on the door and Mabel answered. I’d come unannounced and she seemed very surprised. “Philip, my son, ‘tis good to see you, but we weren’t expectin’ you lad.” I tried my best to explain. “I wasn’t expecting to be here, either, Aunt Mabel, but the Air Force gave me a three day pass and I didn’t know how to contact you, so I just came.”
Mabel nodded. “Tis good to see you. I can fix a place for you. How long will you be here in Mcivers?”
“Only till Monday.” I paused for a moment. “Aunt Mabel, I appreciate your hospitality, but I’d like to stay with Fi if I could. I promised him the last time I was here I’d stay with him.”
“Are you sure, my son? Your Uncle Fi lives pretty rough. He’s got no feather bed and no electricity. We’d see to your comfort much better here.”
“I’m sure you would, but I promised him. I’ll be fine.”

I’m not sure whether Mabel agreed with me, but she honored my request. She got Alfred, her youngest son to find Fi and before long they came back. The moment Fi saw me a huge smile filled his face, exposing the one tooth that had found its way into my memory. As he sat down at the dining room table he said what I’d been wanting to hear for months - “Tis so good to see you again, my son. Been six months or more since we’ve seen you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Uncle Fi.”
“Let’s have us a spot of tea and we’ll talk.”

Within five minutes Mabel had fixed some tea and brought out a plate of cookies. She, Fi, and I sat and talked about how things had been at Ernest Harmon and how they’d been in Mcivers for the past eight months. I didn’t have much to report, other than telling them about the drudgery of Air Force life, the failed inspections, and the fateful poker game. My uncle Philip, I found, was still working in the camps. Lionel, Billy and Mabel’s oldest son was still away at university in St John’s. Billy and Mabel themselves were fine. And Ned, the uncle I hadn’t met, the grizzled old veteran of World War I, was going to be back in Mcivers for Christmas. They said he would be returning from Argentia where he was doing something mysterious, something the rest of the family didn’t know about and didn’t care to ask. They were just glad that he would be back in Mcivers for Christmas.

After an hour or so of small talk, Fi and I made our way up to his cabin, which was about a half a mile from Billy and Mabel’s. When we got there I saw what Mabel meant when she said that Fi lived a pretty rough life. The outside looked like most any cabin I’d ever seen. But the inside was more Spartan than I’d imagined. There was a small table covered with an oil cloth, a couple of wooden captain’s chairs, a small dresser, and what appeared to be a military issue bed. Next to the table, on the floor, was a twelve volt battery. There were cables running from the battery to a small radio that was sitting on the table. I asked Fi if the rig actually worked and he told me it did and that he would often tune in hockey games to pass the long Newfoundland nights. ‘The Canadiens?” I asked
Fi looked at me in disbelief. “Oh no my son, not them Jackie Tars. It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs we love here in Mcivers.”
“What on earth is a Jackie Tar?” I asked.
“It’s them damned Frenchmen they got, like Beliveau and the Pocket Rocket.”
I knew something about hockey and tried, without success to reason with him. “Uncle Fi, they’ve got Gump Worsley too.”
“No matter, my son. He’s as good as bein’ a Jackie Tar too. Asides, we got Red Kelly and Bobby Baun and we got Terry Sawchuck in the goal.”

I settled in, realizing that one of us was going to have to sleep either in one of the captain’s chairs or on the floor while the other slept in the bed. In order to be sure he got the bed, I sat down on the floor, signaling him that it would be my resting place for the night. He seemed to accept what I’d done and sat down on the end of the bed.

I began to make small talk about America and American amenities. At one point in the conversation I asked him if he’d ever thought of getting electricity.
“What for?” he asked.
“Well,” I said. “Maybe you could get some electric lights. Maybe you could even get a television.”
“I thought about it a time or two, but figgered I didn’t need it. I got an oil lamp and if I ever get a TV I still got my twelve volt.” He paused and smiled. “Then all I’d need is my twelve volt, a hand crank, and a wife to crank while I watched my Leafs.”
For a moment I thought he was serious, but then looked at his face which was lit up with mischief. “Fi,” I gently chided him. “That’s not a nice way to treat an unsuspecting Yank.” With that, he grinned and his mouth opened wide. I watched his glee at having just had a bit of fun at my expense and watched that bottom left incisor. It seemed that as I watched, transfixed, the lonely tooth appeared to dance, joining in merriment with its earthly owner.

As the darkness descended on the cove Fi lit the oil lamp and sat back down on the bed. “Would you like a piece of candy? Got it from a salesman who come up from Corner Brook a while back.” He asked. He reached under the bed and pulled out a small, rectangular tin can and opened it. There inside were about ten candy canes. He pulled one out and offered to me. “Got more of ‘em under the bed.” I took the candy cane out of courtesy, but I was actually more curious about why Fi, old toothless Fi, had bought so much candy. When I asked him I thought he was once again teasing me. “I don’t need ‘em for myself so much and told him so, but he said if I bought ten tins he could give me a few extra that could grow come the spring if I planted ‘em. So I bought ten tins. Some for you and some to grow.” “Fi,” I chided, this time a bit more sternly than the first. “No, ‘tis true. He told me so.”
“No, my son, ‘tis true.”
“Fi, these things can’t grow. That salesman was just lying to you to get you to buy something you didn’t need.”
His visage changed noticeably. It was the only time I ever saw him angry. “Lord dyin’ tunderin’ fook!” he roared. “He’ll have hell to pay when he comes back to Mcivers.”
I tried to stifle my laughter as I responded. “He won’t be back Fi. He won’t be back.”

For the next hour or so we sat quietly, not saying much. As we did I reflected on this child-like old man. I wondered if all the Parks approached life like him. I knew they were all as kind, but wondered as I sat there in the dim light of the oil lamp if there was some gene that had been passed from generation to generation within the family. “Could it be?” I thought, “that Ma’ had the same gene as Fi and was every bit as addled as this gentle old soul.” The more I thought about it the more frightened I felt. “Could this be me in thirty or forty years?” Fi must have sensed that I was drifting into sentimentalism, because he asked me if I was alright. I told him that I was and he seemed to be reassured. “I won’t hold it against that man,” he said. “I can give some of them things to Billy and Mabel and some to you.”
“Thanks, Fi.”
“Tomorrow we can take us a dory and stay out among the arms a while. Would you like that my son?”
“I would, Fi.”

My mind was racing as Fi snuffed out the oil lamp and darkness engulfed the cabin. At first I couldn’t sleep. It was as if mixed signals were competing within me. One set reminded me of a slow witted, naïve, man who had been taken by a candy salesman. The other beckoned me to the day to come, with the chance to be with this gentle man. It was that thought that seemed to win out and I curled up on the floor and drifted into sleep.

I didn’t know it then, but in the days ahead I would learn much about love, gentleness, and kindness from this old, toothless, addled man. They were to be special days indeed.


Gone Away said...

Keep it coming, Phil; this is excellent!

Anonymous said...

oh you are a great story teller. looking forward to reading more.