Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bill Lapham

Turner, Raymond K.

We found him inside his gun turret charred black, his mouth frozen in a permanent smile, teeth white as fresh sheets on a country clothesline. His dogtags said he was Turner, Raymond K., Protestant, Blood Type A+. He was frozen in position and in time as if someone had doused him in black plaster. He had been loading a projectile into the breach of his gun when another had penetrated the armored skin of the turret and exploded. For some reason the explosion did not blow Turner’s body to bits but incinerated him and cemented it into the exact position we found him in. He would still be there, stuck in World War II loading that shell, if we hadn’t gently recovered his body and buried it at sea where it rests still today.

Earlier that day, before Turner, Raymond K. had been hurled from his upper rack by the call to General Quarters, he had been studying a picture of his wife who was back home in Liberty, Iowa. The picture was threadbare and faded, details of the image nearly imperceptible, rubbed away by his fingers and thumbs. The case on the pillow under his head was moist from the tears that had run down the sides of his head. He missed his wife.
He had answered his country’s call to arms with reluctance. Others were. Sure the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, but before December 7, 1941, who had never heard of the place? Hawaii wasn’t even a state for chrissakes.

Before his ship had set sail as part of the fleet invading the Philippine Islands, Turner, Raymond K. had been lying on the beach in Waikiki enjoying the sun and the waves and the motion of the beautiful Hawaiian ladies in their grass skirts. Most guys his age were drunk by noon, or hungover from the night before and sleeping it off in their hotel rooms or back in the barracks on base. Not Turner, Raymond K. He enjoyed his time off sight-seeing, sun-bathing and running on the beach. He liked sitting in the shade of palm trees, looking at Diamondhead while listening to ukulele music. Every once in a while he would climb Tantalus Mountain and hike on the trails in the rainforest above Pearl Harbor and Honolulu. War had brought its own kind of peace to the mind of Turner, Raymond K.

Before his ship had steamed off to the Hawaiian Islands, it was overhauled in the shipyard at Mare Island near San Francisco. Those days had been long and hot. Not that it was hot in San Francisco, it wasn’t, but it was always hot in a ship with no air conditioning. And the destroyer-escort USS VIRGIL J. JOHNSON had never seen any air conditioning. Sweat dripped off the end of Turner, Raymond K.’s nose as he polished the bright work in his gun turret. He referred to it as “his gun turret” because it made the long hours he spent locked up inside it training and cleaning easier to endure. He knew the purpose of every switch, valve, lever, door, swivel and fastener inside the contraption. He could operate the thing blind-folded. And he could lift the shells and stuff them into the breach until 7 times a minute from now until the gates of Hell swung open to welcome him home.

Two years before Turner, Raymond K. hauled his seabag up the brow of his new ship, he was driving a tractor on his Uncle Jim’s farm in Liberty, Iowa. He and Karen had just been married and she was expecting their first child. The doctor in town thirty miles away had given Karen a clean bill of health and said the baby was doing just fine. He could hear his or her heartbeat and it was strong, nothing to worry about. Two days later, Karen miscarried. Such was the state of prenatal medicine at the time. Karen was devastated and Ray could not console her. Eventually, after months of getting used to the idea, Karen resolved that she wouldn’t have a baby until God was ready to give her one, and when that time came, they planned to name the baby William after his great-grandfather from Ireland. Ray was relieved that Karen seemed to be back to her happy self again.

Before Young Ray married Karen and long before he shipped off to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese Navy, he was a strapping young lad living on a farm owned by his father’s brother in Iowa. His parents had been killed in a freak fire at their home two counties away. He had narrowly escaped the blaze and survived only because his dog Jake had jumped on his bed to warn him of the impending danger. Both he and the dog fled the burning house out his bedroom window, and despite yelling until his throat was raw, could not raise the attention of his parents who must have died in their sleep. He never saw them again. The next morning, his Uncle Jim came to the house and found Ray asleep on the grass under the sycamore tree hugging his dog Jake, the smoldering embers of the house lying in ruins not far away.

Not long before the tragic loss of his parents and his house, Raymond K. Turner was born into a peaceful world on the verge of unprecedented wealth, peace and prosperity at the beginning of what would come to be known as the Roaring Twenties. He had a happy childhood living on his parents’ farm, playing with his dog, Jake, growing up strong and smart and morally straight. He worked hard, studied hard and played hard. He loved baseball. He loved his parents and his dog and he could not wait for the day when he would have his own farm and family.

© Bill Lapham 2011

Bill Lapham is a retired submarine sailor and current MFA student at Goddard College in Vermont. Find his blog here.

4 comments:

  1. you've captured the life in an interesting way-front to back- well done Bill

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  2. There's leading up. Then there's leading back. This is the latter, perfected.

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  3. Thank you for the opportunity to Guest Write at this site, MuDJoB

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  4. Lovely writing. You might like to read Charles Baxter's "First Light" which handles time much the way you did here.

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