Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Three Pieces: Henry Cordova

Windward Passage

Every time the quartermasters officially logged the ship's position, twice a day, at sunrise and sunset; they made it a point to carefully plot it on a large chart hung on a mess deck bulkhead. It wasn't just for the amusement of the crew, the idea was that if we were to sink unexpectedly, everyone would have an opportunity to know where away the nearest land was, and how far. We had been away from Norfolk for several days now, steaming at a steady 12 knots for the Canal, so I knew that that evening we would we transiting the Windward Passage, the channel separating Cuba and Haiti, the gateway to the Caribbean.

It seemed that this was the first time I had some time to myself. They had been working us pretty hard, drills, refueling from an oiler that came alongside, the interminable inspections, an endless grind of vital and trivial activities which seemed designed primarily to keep our minds off our troubles. I was exhausted, I should have gone below and collapsed on my rack--I had the midwatch that night, bridge lookout; but I was determined to have some time to myself. I needed to get away.

It was my first time away from home, at least the first time when I knew I would be away for months, and the enormity of my new situation was starting to sink in. Life had become intolerable, constant work, constant fear, the unbending routine, the discipline, the feeling that you were always being watched, that you were always behind, and you were never alone. I was starting to become homesick, and not just a nostalgia for what I had left behind, but the horrifying realization that my life was changing for a very long time. The days last forever when you're 20 and the only escape is sleep, when they let you. If you were awake you were suffering, and you dared tell no one.

Life below decks was a nightmare, the berthing spaces were small and crowded, mine was the size of a small classroom, and forty men and all their possessions were crammed in there. My little piece of it, my rack and my locker, gave no room for anything but sleep, and during "lights out" only silence and immobility were tolerated. During the day it was constantly being cleaned, and during the brief times between it was inevitably patrolled by petty officers determined to make your life miserable. Later I came to realize that this regimen was essential to prevent disorder and even violence, but at the time I was convinced I had been stranded in the circle of Hell reserved for bullies and their victims. I was seized with a creeping claustrophobia of the soul that never stopped, and I was coming to fear that there was no possible way I could endure two more years of this. Life had suddenly become impossible, and there was no relief in sight.

I finished my coffee, lit a cigarette and pushed through the blackout curtains covering the watertight doors onto the main deck. For a moment I was blind, the ship was running dark, with only her navigation lights on, and until my eyes adjusted I had to grope my way by feel to the spot I had picked earlier: a bollard on the starboard side of the fo'c'sle, by the lifelines. I could see a glowing coal already there, someone must have had the same idea, but when he saw me coming he flipped his butt over the side and walked aft. I guess he sought solitude as well. I was alone.

I sat on the cold, wet steel, gripped the lifeline stanchion with both hands and began to weep. Never, before or since have I been so profoundly unhappy, so uncompromisingly miserable. Part of my depression came from my intellectual realization that my situation was really not all that bad, certainly not as terrifying as that faced by the infantry huddled in foxholes, waiting for death to come for them out of the endless night.

After all, thousands went through what I was going through now and survived, even prospered. But I realized now how weak I was, how unprepared for even this relatively mild inconvenience. I was forced to face my inadequacy, my childishness and my cowardice. I bitterly rehearsed my own shortcomings in my own mind, I missed my mommy, missed my girlfriend, I missed my stuck-up clueless college friends and my puerile civilian existence. I punished myself with my own sarcasm for my foolishness and my weakness. I was starting to see how pathetically I was responding to an episode that thousands were breezing through right now, that millions had successfully navigated in the past with no lasting damage. I was ashamed of myself for my inability to cope with an experience that even I recognized to be essentially benign. I was worthless and I wanted to die.

Dewey pushed through the night like a locomotive, the water rushed past, flickering with the phosphorescence of the tropics, the only light visible on a dark and overcast night. The air was warm and moist, like I had remembered it from so many similar nights growing up near the sea in Florida. I couldn't even enjoy the beauty of it, I flogged myself with my incapacity to extract even a little pleasure out of what I knew was going to be a milestone in my life, if I could just get through it. The ship groaned, the waves slapped against the sides and hissed and flushed as they sped on their own mindless errands. The rumble of the engines throbbed through the soles of my boots and I could hear the hum of the ventilators, the wind in the wires, even the squeak of the sonar. I knew this was all there, and I hated it, and I hated myself for hating it. It was wasted on me, I just wanted to go home and I hated myself for my weakness.

Far out to sea, on the invisible horizon, I saw a flash. A few seconds later it repeated, and then again, at regular intervals. It had to be Cuba, the light at Cabo Maisí, the very easternmost point of the island, warning this Yankee warship to give her a wide berth. I recalled from the ship's dead reckoning track on the mess deck chart that we would pass within 20 miles of the Cuban coast. The lighthouse beckoned to me, it called.

It would be so easy, I thought. I could slip over the side, no one would miss me until morning muster, even if the lookouts should somehow see me go in the water; by the time the word got to the bridge and they turned around there would be no way they could find me. They had made this point very clear in our training. It's hard to recover a floater even in broad daylight and calm seas. And even if they did find me, I could always say it was an accident, I wouldn't get in trouble, I'd get the traditional shot of medicinal brandy and a day off from work, Naval custom. But no, Dewey would roar off into the night without me, I would be on my own. I could swim west, towards the land of my grandfathers. Could I swim for a night and a day without stopping? Probably not, I was a good swimmer but twenty miles of open sea was probably too much, not to mention the current and the sharks. If the Cubans found me I would probably spend some time in a Cuban jail, perhaps be interrogated, but I knew nothing that would betray my country, and certainly not even Fidel would lock up un naufragado indefinitely. I would go home a hero, perhaps even be discharged from the service. But even if I didn't get away with it, even if I drowned, wouldn't it be better than this? The agony was intolerable, I just couldn't take it any more, even taking my chances with the sea seemed preferable to this infinite misery.

Of course, it was lunacy. There was no way I would jump into that water, no way I could talk myself into it. It was just another pathetic fantasy to distract myself from the immediate necessity of dealing with the problems of the real world. I was contemptible. The light blinked on, as if laughing at my hesitation and my whimpering helplessness. The lighthouse offered an alternative, albeit an almost hopeless one, but an alternative nonetheless; and I was too much of a coward to even kill myself and put an end to it all. I would go back to the torture and humiliation and endure it because I had no other choice.

I could feel the soot starting to rain down on me. Like a gentle hard drizzle, invisible in the dark, but unmistakable by its feel, its sound, even its smell. Periodically, the black gang would run live steam through the stacks to clean out the accumulated carbon from the day's steaming. Usually, it was done in the middle of the night to avoid giving away the ship's position and to spare the crew the mess. Like now. They were "blowing tubes" and I was on deck. The skipper usually took the wind into account to avoid fouling the ship, but sometimes it couldn't be helped and the deck force would have an extra special clean up in the morning. I knew, I was on the deck force, and not only would the clean dungarees I was wearing now need to be laundered, but the ones I wore on sweepers tomorrow would get filthy as well. More work, more bother, and another inspection for sure tomorrow. And I would have to take another shower before I went on watch at midnight, cutting even further into my sleep time. I flipped my smoke over the side and went back to work.

Editors Note: Early submissions for The Hiss Quarterly before we merged came with regards to a theme of "The Hair O' The Dog" -- hence the flavor of this particular piece.

Photo Credit: DogFrog at Flickr --East Uskmouth Lighthouse, February 2007

Thoughts Upon Hearing the Arecibo Radio Observatory was About to be Closed for Budgetary Reasons

I visited Arecibo Observatory in 1971, I was in Puerto Rico on business, and I took a Sunday off to visit the place. It's a two hour drive from San Juan, and nestled in some pretty spectacular jungle-covered Karst topography: a very beautiful drive into an isolated and haunted countryside.

When I arrived the place was deserted. There was a small building, similar to a motel, where I supposed visiting researchers were quartered; but nobody was home. The permanent staff probably had houses in town (Arecibo proper is about a half-hour drive further north, on the coast). Next door, the control room was visible; through the locked glass doors I could see electronic equipment, powered up, but no one was there. Only my car was in the parking area. At the edge of the lot was a little observation platform where you could walk right up to the edge of the dish itself. It spread before me, filling a vast natural depression. The feeling was very much like standing at the edge of Meteor Crater in Arizona, except I could see suspended above me, on huge white towers, the receivers placed at the focus of the parabola.

The silence, the isolation, the grandeur of it all really affected me. The sheer audacity of the structure, the combination of natural beauty and technological brilliance was almost overpowering. I imagine it would be very similar to be standing alone at Stonehenge on a sunny windy day, accompanied only by ghosts.

Observatories are holy places. They are as impressive and beautiful as a medieval cathedral and by necessity are usually located in lonely and desolate landscapes. Like cathedrals, they are temples to the ineffable, to the incredibly remote, and to our faith in being able to connect with it-- places of worship, in a way, sacred places. I know it's sentimental and impractical of me, but if this site is to be abandoned, let it not be replaced with a farm or village or reservoir or some other practical symbol of the economy. Let it naturally decay into ruins, as a monument to our boldness, and to our stupidity. Centuries from now, men will stand in that place and say 'we once explored the stars from here'.

Photo Credit: robanhk at Flickr --Gregorian reflector dome (where radio waves are focused on the receivers) and a linear feed antenna (long vertical structure) hanging above the 305 meter dish at Arecibo Observatory.


Well I was just seventeen, you know what I mean, and before too long I had just graduated from high school and gotten my first VW beetle, a brand spanking new Bahama Blau '64. The Beatles had come out just six months earlier, right after JFK was blown away, and America was reeling under the first wave of the British Invasion. The new music was everywhere, and we were all affecting British accents. I was spending my last free summer before college started in the fall, and I was determined to party. My Uncle Manny, my mother's younger brother, lived in Hollywood and off I went to visit him and my cousin Bobby, much later to be known as Bobby the coke dealer, but for the time being he was just a surfer.

Uncle Manny was a trip, he was a musician, a drummer, who played the big Miami Beach hotels, and he was a good one, #3 Latin percussionist in the country, according to a Downbeat poll (Tito Puente was #1!). With his blond hair, blue eyes and Bronx accent he could pass for an Anglo, and even had his name legally changed from Rodriguez to Rodgers. But his specialty was Latin music, and when the style caught on in Miami, he had to play under the stage name of Rodriguez, and sing in Spanish so people would believe he was a genuine Spic. There is a moral in there somewhere, and I made it a point to let it sink in: be neither proud nor ashamed of your heritage, it is the one thing about you that you can neither be praised nor blamed for. You had nothing to do with it.

Cousin Bobby had turned out like his grandfather, not his abuelita, he was dark with black wavy hair, and a very Aztec nose, rather like mine. The only false touch was his bright red hair, an unfortunate result of a peroxide accident while attempting to achieve the appropriate sunbleached surfer do. Until it grew out he would just have to explain to everyone what had happened. Bobby was on to all the latest clothing styles and dance steps, and his slang changed hourly. Back then those things mattered to me. My own Saturday night Tampa hangout, the Palladium Ballroom in West Tampa, was definitely bush league compared to the War Memorial Auditorium in Hollywood. There was British invasion on the radio, but R&B still ruled America, I even had another cousin, Rod Justo, who fronted the quintessential W Tampa big band rock and roll outfit, Rodney and the Mystics, at the Palladium.

But that's another story for another time: my Saturday night fever days. For the time I had wheels and I was going to South Florida, I was out of high school, college bound, and I had a new car. Life was good. I made several trips there that summer before school started, and eventually I could make the trip at an average speed of 67 miles per hour, not bad for a car that topped out at a modest 72! And this was in the days before the Interstate, East on 60 and then South on 27. If I traveled at night, I could just pick up the Miami stations just as the Tampa ones were starting to fade on my bug's Blaupunkt radio. And I always kept one button reserved for CMCA, "the friendly voice of Cuba", when the Feds weren't jamming Fidel's English language broadcasts. You could pick up that monster transmitter in the Panhandle on a good night. It was during one of these mad dashes through the sugar cane barrens of South Florida that I heard the song that changed my life, it was my epiphany, my road to Damascus. It was the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.

I had heard the Stones before, they had come out with their first American release just a few months earlier, a creditable version of the old R&B classic "All Over Now" (Becuz' I uuuuused to luv her, but it's alllllllll ovah now") But Satisfaction was different. From the pounding hypnotic base beat to the signature fuzz bass opening notes, this was like nothing I, or anyone else had heard before. Most popular music was about love, or lust masquerading as love, this was about sex, violence and politics and money. Mick Jagger struck a note that resonates in me to this day, this was not about simple adolescent sexual tension, it was about how that natural, awkward, inevitable teen horniness was recognized, manipulated, used, and eventually exploited for commercial purposes. Capitalism had found a way to make a profit on testosterone, and Mick was hip to their scam and he was clueing me in on it. And from that day on our generation was also wise to it, and we were not going to fall for it any more.

"When I'm watching my TV,
and a man comes on and tells me,
how white my
shirts should be,
but he can't be a man 'cuz he doesn't smoke
the same
cigarettes as me."

It was all there, the media control of the natural human urge to find a mate, expressing itself as consumer products designed to enhance your attractiveness and sexual status (we all wore mod suits, white shirts and neckties to dances then) and we all smoked the right fags. How clear, how true, what economy of language, what clarity of thought. The song goes on, the singer's own art is turned against him, he runs around the world, drives his car, he can sing his song and sign his contracts but he still can't get laid. "Baby better come back maybe next week, can't you see I'm on a losing streak? I CAN"T GET NO.....Satisfaction. " In three tiny verses and a bridge, it's all there, the whole consumerist marketing mechanism that devours society, seasoned in its own sexual juices. The Blues of the American Negro filtered through the soul of the British working class, and spoon-fed to middle-American suburban teen culture; what a trio of hell-bound demographics that is!

"...a man comes on the radio, telling me more and more, about some useless information, 'sposed to try my imagination..."

You get the impression Jagger has not quite figured out just what is happening to him, but he knows something is going on and it's not right. The song is only superficially simple, it is a marvelous multilayered construction alternating with anger, sarcasm, outrage and despair. After Satisfaction, no one wore white shirts any more. Even the Beatles Carnaby Street fashion was exposed for the elitist sham it really was. And all this time, a little just-turned-17 kid driving through the darkness, his mind throbbing with hormones and media images, suddenly saw how it all came together, the music, the clothes, the fashion, the hair, the slang, the dances, even the cars and Bobby's surfboard, it was not our folk art any more, it had been expropriated by a few dozen old men in New York and LA and (now) in London, who were telling us what we wanted so they could turn around and sell it to us. And for a brief moment Mick had grabbed the microphone away from them just long enough to scream out loud that we STILL could... get no, satisfaction...

This was subversive shit, and it struck at the heart of the system. And I ain't been the same since.

Photo Credit: EDgAr H. Acapulco 07 Bugs. at Flickr

About the author: Henry Cordova was born in 1947 in Tampa, Florida. He was educated as a scientist and mathematician, served in the US Navy, and works as a geographer/cartographer for a municipal government in South Florida. Henry's interests include sailing, amateur astronomy, celestial navigation and writing non fiction for magazines.