Sixteen Time Zones from Home
by C. G. Thompson
January, 1944. Perched on a bunk in the depths of the battleship, he considers a letter to his parents. The night before, he and his shipmates had crossed the equator. “Pollywogs,” those new to the crossing, were summoned by King Neptune to prove they were worthy of becoming “Shellbacks.” He chewed hard tack for breakfast, wore his clothes backwards, crawled through a long tube of rotting food.
He unfolds the colorful certificate he received. It’s bordered with fanciful drawings of mermaids as well as sketches of dolphins, starfish, lobsters, and other sea creatures. He reads his name, his ship’s name, the date. Only one word suggests war: “Latitude: 00000. Longitude: Censored.”
Knowing the dangers of careless talk, he avoids telling his parents of the ritual. Instead, he mentions sleeping in shifts, the benefits of exercise, a fellow sailor and former cabbie who’s a master of card tricks. Missing home, he asks if Joan and Dan tied the knot.
A zigzag course takes the ship through the Southwest Pacific, where two weeks later it nears Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville. The blink of an island is controlled by the Japanese. Its landscape is forbidding – mountains, marshes, a smoking volcano.
“Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” an ensign jokes as the island comes into view.
Stateside, he’d be shoveling snow for elderly neighbors. On the island, he swings a sledgehammer, pounding together Marston Mat to create steel runways atop swampland. Enemy fire routinely interrupts the work.
“I can’t complain,” he writes one stifling day in August.
That afternoon, he adds his hands to those unloading an engine for a Corsair. The crate tumbles off center. The engine crushes him, breaking his pelvis and legs, causing internal injuries.
He is seventeen. He begs a friend to shoot him.
By December, he’s able to hold a pencil at the fleet hospital, a hot building of canvas and wood. Christmas week, the temperature refuses to budge from 88 degrees. Wrapped in casts and bandages, he thinks of his favorite boyhood movie, The Mummy. Then he remembers the King’s court, costumed in mops, ropes, seaweed. Humor intact, they’d made do with what they had.
He is a Shellback, believes in hope.
“I don’t have a worry in the world,” he scrawls.
C.G. Thompson writes both fiction and poetry. Her stories recently have appeared in 50-Word Stories, Fictive Dream, Yalobusha Review, and TL:DR Press’s Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire, among others. Her poems have appeared in North Carolina Literary Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Redheaded Stepchild.
Photograph of Seabees laying down Marston matting courtesy of the US Navy Seabee Museum blog, via the post “Bougainville Diary: The Naval Construction Battalion First Marine Amphibious Corps (53rd Seabees) on Bougainville” by Julius Lacano.