Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Excerpt from my Novel

Since my last post a dear friend and Icelandic military historian, Ragnar Ragnarsson, has passed away. His death reminded me how short life is and what is important. My main thrust now is to finish my novel, set in WWII Iceland. The idea for the novel came from photos I found after my father died. He was a Navy Photomate stationed in Iceland during WWII. I had always hoped Ragnar would give my novel its final edit. Somehow, I think he still will. Here is a chapter from the novel. 

                                 The Moment You See 

          Three days out of Newfoundland the gale hit. For three 
more, the Iceland bound convoy fought the North Atlantic's 
100-knot winds and monolithic swells. Sheathed in a ghostly shell 
of sea-ice, the cutters, destroyers, and transports struggled for 
ballast under their cadaverous weights. Weights that threatened to 
roll them over, taking all hands to the bottom of the sea.
        Aboard the repair ship Vigdis, the men were operating on
depleting reservoirs of adrenalin.  Until the storm ran its course 
there was little for Johnny, a junior officer and naval photographer, 
to do but wait. Wait, while the ship took her blows. Wait, while the 
crew chipped away at the ice with chisels and hammers. Wait, as the 
sea shellacked the weary men and ship with more rime and hoarfrost.
The squall’s unholy howls rang in his ears while the deafening laments of writhing steel echoed around him. Sounds so mournful, it seemed as though the ship itself was crying out in pain. Eating had lost its appeal, barely tolerable with the constant stench of dirty men and farm boys' stomachs hanging in the stale air. Sleep, once a welcome escape, eluded him.  
He wasn’t alone. A week of turbulent sea was exacting its toll on all the men. As the storm raged above them, a human maelstrom was gaining force below decks, kicked up by men forced into tight quarters for weeks. By fear, fatigue, and frustration. By the relentless waiting. 
          Restless, Johnny grabbed his camera. Behind the eye of his 4X5 Speed Graphic he felt a measure of control.  Winding through the ship, he zeroed in on the faces of country boys barely out of high school and wise guys from tough cities. 
          Focus. Snap. Repeat.
          He took shots of men playing cards and craps. Rereading letters from sweethearts. Men absorbed in the pages of their Armed Services paperback novels. Smoking cigarettes. Trying to sleep. All thinking the same things Johnny was thinking: Where am I going? Will I make it? How long before I can go home again?
           For Johnny, home lay near the shores of Long Island Sound. A peaceful place awash in dappled slate-blue light. A place where life made sense to him. Where a dark-haired girl still loved him. Where it was almost time for supper. 
In the row house on Madison Avenue in Port Chester, New York, Mama would be in the kitchen, clanging pots and banging drawers; making soup. Closing his eyes, he could almost smell the onions, garlic, and dill. See, under the strain of her furious chopping and stirring, Mama’s silver-streaked blonde hair slowly unravel from the knot atop her head. As a child he’d called the unruly mass that fell around her granite eyes, Mama’s soup hair. He'd teased her about it, telling her it stank of onions and garlic. In truth, it smelled of safety, comfort, and love.
        Johnny longed to be in her kitchen now, drinking in the heady perfume of her Hungarian cooking. Expelling the retched odor of unclean and seasick men from his nostrils. Throwing his arms around Mama, pulling her close, and waiting for her to initiate the start of their favorite childhood game.
       "Mama! I’m home!”   
        She greeted him at the kitchen doorway. Bent down and hugged him tightly. 
        Suppressing a giggle, he scrunched up his face. "Oh, Mama, your hair smells so bad."
        Johnny nodded. 
       "Ah, but smelly hair mean good soup, Janos.” 
       "No, Mama. It's too stinky."                                                       
        Scowling, she returned to the stove and dipped a finger in the pot to taste her creation. Feigning grave disappointment, she slapped her forehead and rushed up to Johnny. Scooping him into her arms, she headed back to the stove. “How stupid I am. I forget secret ingredient.” 
        Wriggling free, Johnny scrambled from her and ran to his room, laughing the whole way. At his heels was Mama, yelling,  “Come back, secret ingredient! I need you!” 
        When Papa came home he would head to his reading chair in the living room. Spectacles low on the bridge of his nose, he’d soon be lost in the evening paper. It was Johnny’s job to pour him a small glass of Slivovitz before supper. He loved to watch Papa slip the cordial’s delicate rim under the canopy of his thick, grey mustache. Listen to him sigh, as the velvety plum brandy trickled down his throat. Then, smiling, he’d put down his paper as Johnny begged him for a story.                                                                       
        "So, my son. Which one will it be tonight?”         
        Papa knew. They both did. The only stories Johnny ever wanted to hear when he was a child were those of a young Wilhelm Loring, thundering across foreign fields astride a jet black mount. Tales of Papa, clad in a Prussian cavalry officer’s uniform, cutting down the French, the Russians. All who dared lay claim to his Teutonic homeland.
        They were exciting stories of honor and courage told to a child who didn't understand the complexities of warfare or its costs. Told long before Johnny learned Nazis and Prussians shared the same bloodline and borders. Long before Adolf Hitler made being German a dirty word. Before Johnny enlisted in the Navy and realized the enemy was a relative.
Does it bother you, Papa?”
           “What, Jani?”
           “That I might be fighting . . .”
         Papa cleared his throat. “Hitler and his Nazis are not Prussians, son. I am proud you will be fighting them. Very proud.”
        That is the father he missed now. Not the dashing officer of his childhood fantasies but the steady, hardworking immigrant who chauffeured the people on the hill in their Packards and Hudsons. The man who had given up so much to come to America. Make a better life for his family. Papa, sitting in his comfortable chair, wearing his worn woolen sweater, reading. Always reading.
        "Remember, son, what you put in your head no one can take from you."
 Returning to his quarters, Johnny found the copy of Life magazine Papa had given him. The one with the photo of Goebbels, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He flipped to the infamous shot of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister. Staring into the Nazi’s dark, brooding eyes, Johnny was filled with awe at the photographer’s mastery of his subject. In one split second, Eisenstaedt had captured on film the visceral hatred on Goebbels’s face as an aide whispered to him that the photographer was a Jew.
            "The photographer is also a Prussian, Jani. A Prussian you can be proud of.”
             Eisenstaedt’s gift for capturing his subjects at precisely the right moment reminded Johnny of something a photography instructor had once described as, “the moment you see.” Johnny believed he had learned that lesson. Knew when to turn his lens on the sea, ships, and men. Get the shot.  
 But it was a lesson he had yet to master when it came to the one subject he’d photographed more than any other. The subject that mattered most to him.