A tidewater morning, p.1
A Tidewater Morning
Three Tales from Youth
Open Road Integrated Media
TO CARLOS FUENTES
The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.
—SIR THOMAS BROWNE, Urn Burial
A TIDEWATER MORNING
A BIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM STYRON
These narratives reflect the experiences of the author at the ages of twenty, ten, and thirteen. The tales are an imaginative reshaping of real events and are linked by a chain of memories.
The memories are of a single place—the Virginia Tidewater of the 1930s. This was a region occupied with preparations for war. It was not the drowsy Old Virginia of legend but part of a busy New South, where heavy industry and the presence of the military had begun to encroach on a pastoral way of life.
Ironically, such an intrusion doubtless helped many of the people, white and black, to survive the worst of the Great Depression.
On April Fool’s Day, 1945 (which was also Easter Sunday), the Second Marine Division, in which Doug Stiles and I were platoon leaders, made an assault on the southeast coast of Okinawa. Actually this was a fake assault, and we had problems about that. Anyway, on the same day, fifteen miles to the north, the First and Sixth Marine divisions, together with two Army divisions, moved ashore in an area of the island coast known as the Hagushi beaches, where the troops met no resistance on a clear, balmy spring morning. Okinawa was the last stepping-stone before the Japanese mainland. It was by far the largest invasion since the landing in Normandy, and the most massive operation of the Pacific war. Although the enemy didn’t make an appearance during the first few days, the Japanese and American troops eventually clashed with enormous violence, producing more casualties on both sides than any other campaign in the Pacific. But this took place weeks later.
Stiles and I were both lean, mean, splendidly trained young lieutenants, hungry for Japanese heads. Together we had learned to become infantry officers at Camp Lejeune, at Quantico, in the boondocks around San Diego, and finally on Saipan—the divisional staging area for the assault on Okinawa. We were weapons experts, knew the subtleties of infantry tactics, all the tricks of cover and concealment, night fighting, bayonet fighting, knife fighting, ground-to-air communication—everything. We could with no queasiness whatever handle grenades and high explosives. We possessed beautifully honed killers’ skills, waiting to be tried. We were proud of the powers of leadership that would make us able to goad several dozen troops through enemy fire over terrain of every type of wetness and dryness and alien loathsomeness. As physical specimens we were also appallingly fit.
Lolling these later years before the flickering tube, I have viewed golden lads in the surf or snow, twisting and swerving with the grace of antelopes; this may cause me a twitch of nostalgia, but also an admiration totally ungrudging, since I can truthfully say, “Paul Whitehurst was once like that.” Never again in my life would my health have such incandescence as it did at twenty. The ambition of my years of puberty—when I was literally and disgracefully a ninety-eight-pound weakling—was finally achieved: I had real muscles, and I knew how to use them. I smoked cigarettes, but so did nearly all Marines, and this seemed to have no effect on my senses, which responded as delicately to the ambient air as those of an Apache scout. Over all this manly pulchritude was spread a patina of golden suntan. I was the ideal size for a Marine platoon leader, which is to say tall but not excessively so, well fleshed but not brawny: guys that were too big made a fine target for a Jap bullet.
Stiles had always been a natural athlete—among other things, a champion swimmer at Yale—and therefore had had no need to gloat, as I did, over the supple strength we had gained from unending hours of pooping and snooping. Another thing that united us (and I can look back only with wonder at this part of our conditioned behavior) was our almost complete absence of fear.
Almost, I say. In the privacy of our most searching and intimate conversation Stiles and I both confessed to a healthy amount of the gut-heaving frights and willies that any infantryman feels at the prospect of battle. But a Marine platoon leader is a bit like a scoutmaster who, in taking his tykes on a tramp through the woods, encounters murky, nearly unfordable streams, poisonous rattlesnakes, nests of vicious wasps, huge grizzly bears. Though scared half out of his wits himself by these threats and obstacles, the scoutmaster has to make a stout show of it and display no loss of nerve, lest the little troop get infected by the fright oozing out of him and then scatter everywhere, irretrievably disbanded.
A Marine platoon leader—in those days rating highest in death risk among all U.S. service ranks and categories—must therefore, paradoxically, appear the bravest while having the greatest cause for terror. Scores of second lieutenants had, only weeks before, been butchered like calves on Iwo Jima. Stiles and I discussed this frequently, with a certain wryness of tone. Yet while admitting freely to passing spasms of sickening fear, we both concluded that our need to constantly display coolness and imperturbability made us, to a large extent, cool and imperturbable, until fear itself began to settle far aft amid the cargo of other mixed concerns and emotions. In the first place, we were on the go nearly every day and too busy to pay much attention to fear. Furthermore, we welcomed the prospect of battle, yearned for its perils and its challenges and excitement. After all, it was not to obtain some sedentary administrative sinecure that we joined the Corps. For that we could have joined the Army. We joined for the glamour, the toughness, for the sense of belonging to the most gallant of warrior orders. And out of some nearly inscrutable passion—mingling the desire to kill with the thrill of risking death—we embraced the giddiest ideal of virility. “God Bless America” and the fight against evil had a great deal to do with it, of course—we all thought it a noble war—but the patriotic motif was secondary. I think we might have loved the Marines had the Corps been Finnish or Greek. Basically, I believe we wanted to become modestly proportioned but alluring icons of our era; by shooting a squad or two of maniacal Japs, we would cover ourselves with glory and Silver Stars, come back to the States on leave to screw a flock of eager girls, and with our tailored forest-green uniforms and sparkling gold bars stride down the street looking every bit as heroic as Tyrone Power. We would have been embarrassed to concern ourselves much about fear.
You can imagine our chagrin, then, when just after we sailed from Saipan we learned that the division’s assault on Okinawa—a five-day voyage away—was no assault at all but a feint, a diversion. There would be no landing of the troops. Instead, while the other Marine and Army units were staging their real invasion to the north, we would be engaged in a mock amphibious attack: scores of landing craft churning toward the coast under protective clouds of smoke, halting at the last moment, wheeling about, then returning to the fleet of mother ships standing offshore—the entire demonstration, of course, intended to deceive the Japanese forces and suck them away from the authentic invaders storming the Hagushi beaches. After this hollow and pretentious display, the division would be placed in a status known as floating reserve. That meant day after day of wallowing about on intolerably confining ships, enduring stupefying tedium, eating food that became increasingly vile owing to long storage, and waiting for the moment to arrive when everyone would be put ashore to finally get a taste of battle. So far, so good—action-starved Marines could put up with nearly anything so long as they got a shot at the enemy sooner or later—but there was an ominous hitch. Rumors had been spreading before L (for Love) Day morning tha
A troopship may be the most disagreeable domestic environment devised by man—a cramped, fetid space occupied by quintuple the number of human beings it was designed to accommodate. Men slept in bunks or hammocks so tightly squeezed together that the reclining bodies looked like slabs of meat packed for the market wagons. No prison on earth could rival the bowels of a troopship for incessant noise: the stridor and bellowing of hundreds of voices, feet thumping, snoring, cackles, whistles, weapons clanging against deck and bulkhead, and over all the groaning and grinding of the ship itself as it rocked its way through vast seas. Troops could not walk in these jammed and suffocating quarters; they sidled sideways, rump to groin, in an atmosphere that smelled of bodies, bad breath, cooking, flatulence, and quite often vomit, for seasickness was endemic and by no means confined to lads from the Great Plains. The dumb-ox queues that are a common feature of military life took on here, throughout the dim passageways of a troopship, a kind of squalid endlessness—three-hour-long lines for food, two-hour lines for the shower, squirming lines for the toilets, even lines to allow the troops in regulated shifts to emerge from their tomb and breathe for a brief spell the salty air of the foredeck or fantail.
In good weather the deck was a refuge, and it was here, in the afternoon—perhaps eighteen hours before our “assault” on Okinawa—that I fell asleep, shielded from the wind by a hatchway cover while I dreamed the most troubled, confusing, and unbearably sad dreams I could ever try to remember. They had to do with my childhood and with my mother and father, but were resonant with no echo of serenity, no mood of repose, containing rather a vague but fearful augury of the never-endingness of war. I woke up suddenly, not in my usual spirit of businesslike enthusiasm, but overwhelmed by sorrow and with longing for something quite unnameable. Feeling the great ship shimmying beneath me, I blinked out at the swelling ocean billows and realized I had suffered almost my first real attack of homesickness since I had been in the Pacific. But what was the message of those dreams? I wondered. Why had they made me feel so vulnerable, so helpless—so little like a Marine, so much like a lost boy?
Stiles was gazing down at me when I awoke. He had an expression of sullen gloom, and the unhappiness suffused his face, which was one of those homely-handsome Anglo-Saxon faces with a slightly hooked, prominent patrician nose, shrewd hazel eyes, and big, square, flashing teeth that dominated his looks gleefully when he laughed—and he was a great laugher. But today he was gray with glumness. He was wearing a regulation sweatshirt and shorts, and held in his hand a Modern Library edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan He reached down and gave me a tug upward until I stood erect and then walked with him toward the rail, the two of us threading our way through several dozen Marines sprawled out on the deck, cleaning the M-ls and BARs for the tenth or twentieth or thirtieth time on the voyage.
“You’ve heard the scuttlebutt, haven’t you?” he said, as we leaned on the rail. Approaching Okinawa, the General Washburn had slowed to what seemed about three-quarters speed, and the rest of the fleet had slowed, too. We gazed at the immense armada steaming northward on all sides of us—scores of troop transports and supply ships, at least one flattop of the Essex class, a couple of battlewagons, and, far out on the flanks, a pack of darting destroyer-escorts, moving like swift, nervous sheepdogs as they rode herd on our lumbering way through a breezy sea flecked with foam and spindrift. “The scuttlebutt,” Stiles went on, “is that we won’t be landing on Okinawa, even after we’re put in floating reserve. Someone said that Happy Halloran thinks the whole division’s going to be sent back to Saipan.”
“Well,” I said, “what do you know about that?” My tone was blasé, but the distress, the instant sense of letdown, was like the grip of nausea in my stomach. “How can you be so sure?” I paused. “Shit!”
“I don’t know,” Stiles replied, “but the Old Man’s almost always right about things like that.” He paused and looked skyward. “You seen any action today?”
He was speaking of battles in the air. As the fleet had neared Japanese waters, commencing the day before, kamikazes and other Jap planes—fighters and bombers—had been emboldened to strike like hornets during their forays from bases on Kyushu. Yesterday, Stiles and I and hundreds of other cheering Marines had witnessed from the ship’s deck a dogfight such as most of us had seen only in the Fox Movietone newsreels. It had been so close overhead that I did not need my binoculars: a Zero and a Hellcat in a marvelous spiraling duel, the American at first dominating the skirmish, the shiny bullet of a plane swooping in pursuit of its prey unshakably and with such precision that the movements of the two enemies seemed to possess, for an instant, an almost loverlike choreography; then, in a swift twist impossible to follow, the Jap close behind the Hellcat, spurting machine-gun bursts of smoke and pinpricks of flame; another reversal, the whining screech of both engines very clear now, because lower, almost over the ship’s stacks. Then—Jesus!—a sudden explosion, a pluming bituminous beard of smoke, every heart skipping a beat (our boy? theirs?), and now—oh, happiness—the fuselage with its red Rising Sun wobbling seaward like a maimed hawk and plunging into the waves only yards away with the sweet finality those newsreels had shown us ever since Pearl Harbor. “That Jap son of a bitch could fly,” Stiles had said appreciatively through the chorus of cheers, as the Hellcat streaked back toward its flattop and we watched a geyser of steam rise from the Zero’s tomb, an umbrella of windswept dew receding swiftly southward.
But today, nothing. It was just as well. We needed nothing to distract us from our disappointment.
“We could go see the Old Man,” I suggested. “Maybe he’ll give it to us straight.” I was still afflicted by the somber residue of my dreams, but I was unable to touch the source of my discontent, as if I had been plunged in mourning, but restless mourning for someone whose identity I could not place, someplace once loved but irreparably destroyed.
Lieutenant Colonel Timothy (“Happy”) Halloran had a tiny cabin, but it was a cabin—as befitted an officer of his rank—and when we entered he was shaving over a washbasin. He scraped around and beneath a truly spellbinding black handlebar mustache. His reflected eyes peered back at us from a small steel mirror that hung from the bulkhead. All the rest I could see was a rear view of his beautifully muscled torso; the shiny scar of a bullet wound near the armpit (this received at Tarawa) enhanced the glamorous presence of a man for whom—during those days—the word “admiration” would sound paltry and stale. Two young priests approaching a monsignor of especial renown and charisma, rookies deferentially making their presence known to Joe DiMaggio, a couple of extremely fresh congressmen seeking counsel from the Speaker of the House—this was the way Stiles and I came to visit Happy Halloran. Our very reverence compelled a certain irreverence, and Halloran himself encouraged informality; he was one of those estimable Marine officers who, without losing a shred of authority, exercised the common touch.
He scratched at his face, ignoring the hoodlum flies—stowaways from Saipan—that buzzed around him. His shaving cream was scented with lavender, which seemed as incongruous as the mere fact of his shaving at this hour—until it occurred to me how very Halloran it was. He wanted to make the landing, aborted as it might be, with a reasonably unstubbled face and
“Hiya, Dougie,” he said to Stiles, then to me: "Hiya, Paul, how’s your hammer hangin’? Sit down and take a load off.”
“Thank you, sir,” we said in unison, easing ourselves down on his bunk.
“So the long-awaited confrontation with our reptile foe, me laddies, is going to be but a wee scuffle, without a shot fired in anger.” He continued to shave while he uttered these words, which were intended to sound Scottish, I supposed, but resembled no dialect or accent I had ever heard. To me it was a small wart, but such an attempt at mimicry marked the height of his sense of the comic. Even now, through the lather, he was grinning at what he had just said. He had a touch of swarthiness—I supposed he could be described as black Irish—and the dimpled smile that plumped up his cheeks, and his hearty midwestern voice, gave a distant impression of Clark Gable. With whimsical affection I once thought that if you could distill the sheer masculinity he exuded, make of it some volatile essence, you would have an adman’s triumph—a cologne called Cock and Balls, smelling of leather, sweat, and gunpowder. At that time he was for me the matchless Marine officer. He was a graduate of the Citadel, where he had focused on engineering and had been made to read Longfellow. He had never heard of Franz Joseph Haydn, Anton Chekhov, or William Blake. But because I was one of his votaries, this ignorance was a virtually uncorrectable defect that made no difference.
A Tidewater Morning by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes