NEW FICTION: The Man Who Could Not Die (Chapter 4)
October 30, 2002
Continuing the transcribed journal excerpts of J.M. Lincoln...
1947, Aboard the Ocean’s Glory: I am—and for the last 18 months have been—a crew member aboard a fishing vessel docked in the waters of Cape Cod. I still do not know how I have arrived at this place. Following my return to America at the end of the war I again sought out my children. The search brought me from New York to New Jersey and north along the coast, eventually to Massachusetts, but I found neither Janey nor Joshua. My possessions were light, though I had retrieved a small cache of funds prior to the war years.
I sought employment and quickly found work as a deck hand aboard the Ocean’s Glory. The work is daunting. We sail before dawn and do not return until night has fallen. Often we are at sea for several consecutive days. We drink often, and heavily. The captain of the vessel is a 45-year-old man named Mitchell. To look at the man one would assume he was a decade older—his face is weathered from a lifetime saltwater and sea air. His hands are gruff from physical labor. A once black, thick head of hair is gray and thinning, with only sporadic streaks of its original hue toward the back of his neck. His waist is full and his arms barrel thick. He drinks cheap scotch, never minding to pour it into a glass flask before swallowing deep. I am concerned for the man’s safety, having seen with my own eyes the damage he’s wrought upon his liver. But such words cannot be spoken lest my sanity be brought into question. Best to let the man live his life.
It occurs to me I am nearly 90 years of age—twice that of the captain, and while in my mind I feel much older, my strength and stamina are as they were 20, even 50 years ago. I drink with my shipmates and we discuss war stories, love stories, life stories—but I am ever careful to reveal too many truths about myself. My vigilante actions during the war, for example, will not be revealed to these men or to anyone else. Those memories will live and die with me here upon these pages. For now, I am a fisherman; I desire little else from life save to, perhaps, one day see my children again, though in truth I know not whether they are alive or dead.
1955, the Storm: The years aboard the Ocean’s Glory pass quickly like the tides. In the past eight years I’ve gown from novice seaman to an experienced man of the ocean.
My career at sea ends on May 8, 1955.
We are 20 miles at sea when the storm hits. The waves are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even Mitchell, who’s logged more miles at sea than the most experienced naval captains, is aghast as he turns the wheel hard to port. But I know his effort is wasted. There are seven of us aboard the Ocean’s Glory. There are three life preservers. The waves rise above the ship’s hull and crash across her deck in violent, uncontrolled fits of hostility. The engines cut out and all is quiet but for the savage storm.
“To the deck,” I tell my shipmates.
They look at me as if I am a man with a death wish; perhaps, I am. But not today.
“This vessel is going to capsize. Do you want to live or do you want to die?”
There is no time to debate. There is no time at all. The storm rips through the starboard side of the vessel and the ocean rushes in to greet us. We are overcome with panic and urgency. There is no time.
My head and body vanish beneath the cold water and when I emerge again the Ocean’s Glory is gone, consumed by a ravenous ocean. The waves around me rise and fall with such rapidity for a moment I cannot ascertain left from right, top from bottom. The trio of life preservers floats next to me, mere inches distant. Reaching the floatation devices requires tremendous effort and several minutes but at last they are in my grasp. The sky and waters are black, becoming lit only for brief seconds by strikes of lightning.
I spot Mitchell first. He is approximately 15 feet distant. I scream out to him and begin to swim in his direction. At last he sees me; after what seems an eternity he is within arms reach.
“Take this!” I shout, and thrust a life preserver toward him. He takes hold.
“What’s the use? We’re dead men! Dead men!”
“Do you see anyone else?” I ask, ignoring his optimism.
Eventually we spot Collins and DeWitt. Eventually we spot them all. Their heads bob up and down as if spring loaded. Eventually we are one, a single floating unit in the middle of a twisting, raging sea. We are one. We are alive.
Despite the overall pessimism of the captain and crew, I do my best to help to keep us alive, at times becoming a living life raft for the tired and wounded to cling to. Finally, long after the storm we are spotted by the cargo ship Cigale en route to Miami, Florida.
It is in Miami that I make two startling discoveries:
1. Joshua, my only son, is dead.
2. A newspaper advertisement may quite possibly affect the remaining days of my life.
I learn of Joshua’s fate while reading the Miami Herald several days after the Ocean’s Bounty became an appetizer for an insatiable ocean. He’d made the front page.
Transworld Airlines Flight 19 had departed Miami Airport at 9:55 a.m. EST en route to Rome, Italy. The storm that was bombarding the hull of the Ocean’s Glory was, 1,800 miles south, also decimating the Florida coast. Joshua had been a pilot with Transworld for many years, having completed flight school in his early fifties. He was an experienced pilot with more than two million air miles logged, and having flown to every continent including Antarctica. He’d planned to retire at year’s end.
Flight 19 had a crew of six and a passenger load of 105. Joshua had flown through many storms. In extreme weather it was standard operating procedure to fly above the storm. But 23 minutes into the air, on ascension from 35,000 to 40,000 feet, a lightning strike destroyed the left engine of the jet. The plane plummeted 28,500 feet in a matter of seconds before slightly leveling off. Joshua and his copilot, a 21-year-old novice named Brad DeLaney who’d only been flying professionally for three weeks, struggled to bring the plane down gently atop the Atlantic, while radioing SOS. But at 535 feet above sea level the left wing of the plane, its metal fuselage severely compromised by the electrical strike and strain of the jet’s rapid descent, collapsed, and Flight 19—and the 111 men, women, and children onboard—plunged into the Atlantic. More than one-half of the passengers survived, and were dragged aboard the Coast Guard rescue vessel Sea Tiger. None of the crew, including Joshua, was as fortunate; however, his body and the bodies of most of the other passengers and flight crew had been salvaged from the seas.
I contacted Transworld and learned that Joshua was listed as having “no living relatives.” As such, the airline had taken it among itself to fund his burial. He was laid to rest not in Miami but in a rural town outside of New Orleans. I learn later that nearly all of the deceased at the graveyard in Routtonvale, Louisiana, perished in various airline tragedies over the last 50 years, a realization that saddens me deeply, and in Joshua’s case, angers me. I do not want to see him buried among strangers whose only commonality is to have perished catastrophically and unexpectedly. A curious thought begins to form in my mind.
I mentioned earlier a newspaper advertisement.
I discover the ad in the same newspaper in which I learn of my son’s death. It may be helpful were I to first explain the current political climate and ideology currently prevalent in the US.
Following the nuclear assault on Japan, the world found itself at a curious crossroads. While destructively the U.S. had proven its superiority to the world, the country’s leaders realized it was only a matter of time before the other super-powers of the world—in particular, the Soviet Union—developed their own weapons of mass destruction. With the threat of the “red” menace constantly on the minds of America’s leaders, it is little wonder—to me at least—that the nation’s policy makers have begun to single out those individuals—particularly actors, actresses, and other persons of notoriety—whose loyalties toward the U.S. were questionable. Patriotism is a matter most serious, and written or spoken statements to the contrary are not tolerated. The private lives of hundreds of individuals are placed under the U.S. Senate’s scrutiny as the search to identify persons with “communist allegiances” intensifies. The neutrality once prevalent in the U.S. has been replaced by a policy of active, if not overactive, involvement against individuals and nations who would threaten democracy.
The cautious paranoia eventually spreads toward America’s “super humans” population. Individuals such as the American Dream, the Nuclear Family, and Five-to-Zero are questioned before the newly formed “U.S. Congressional Subcommittee to Protect America from Potential Super-Human Hostiles.” During the Subcommittee’s opening sessions held July 15, 1954, the American Dream, whom I consider the single-most patriotic man in the nation, is scrutinized and publicly denounced as a communist, a charge he vehemently denies. He weeps publicly before the nation, expressing his love of and for America. There is no doubt as to his sincerity, yet the Subcommittee continues to assassinate his character, calling his exploits during World War II “theatrical acts designed to manipulate a nervous nation into seeing something that really wasn’t.”
Several days later, on July 19, 1954, nearly 4,000 former GIs march on Capital Hill, demanding to publicly affirm the American Dream’s patriotism. The request is ignored by Congress; but while the Subcommittee continues its investigation of super-humans, the persecution against the American Dream diminishes greatly. Dozens of other committees are formed, the purpose of which is to dissect even more individuals to protect the nation against communism. We are the strongest nation in the world. We have the bomb. But we are also fearful that one day soon we will no longer be elite in this regard. We look at our neighbors with suspicion. Something—some sort of a unifying symbol—is needed.
The newspaper advertisement appears on page 33 of the Herald. The ad appears between two other announcements. The former of which announces the engagement of Tony Martinelli to Carla DeLuca, both previously of Baton Rogue but, as late, of Miami; the latter simply reads “House for rent, inquiries: 58-623.” Between these poorly worded cryptic messages is another poorly worded cryptic message: “Men wanted. Masks required. Inquire 231-b Palm.”
The room is dim and dirty. It appears as though a thick layer of invisible oil hangs upon all four walls and the floor. The ceiling, an ornamental tin ceiling circa 1920, appears withered and beat; a thick layer of rust has grown, fungus like, from the right corner of the ceiling and spreads outward. A single lamp illuminates the room. There is a solitary window, but it is obscured by thick blue drapery. There are two men sitting at a small table. Sitting and reading. They seem indifferent to my presence. A third man stands near the window. I feel awkward in the presence of these men, though perhaps it is merely the silence that causes this sensation. The two seated men continue to read though I cannot, in the dimness of the room, identify what they are reading. The standing man is, likewise, equally peculiar; his features nearly obscured entirely in shadow. It is he who speaks to me.
“For the past three weeks I’ve been traveling from city to city, placing the same ad in newspapers across the country. Most men who walk through that door are sent away a second later. Most…but not all. Seated are Red and White. I located Red in Seattle. White I picked up in Boston—try not to let his accent annoy you too much.”
The men nod slightly, not bothering to look up.
“I wasn’t sure where I’d find you, but I knew I’d find you sooner or later; it was only a matter of time.”
“What exactly…do you do here?” I asked.
“Here? Nothing here. This is just a room, and a substandard one at that. Nothing is done here. What I am doing is recruiting men of unique and extraordinary ability. Three in total. Red, from Seattle. White, from Boston. And you…Blue.”
“But…what do you do?”
July 4, 1956: The Red, White, and Blue makes its official debut at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in a much lauded press conference. More than 3,500 spectators are in appearance as President Dwight D. Eisenhower begins his brief, albeit colorful, opening speech. We are introduced as the “New Dealers for a new era.” (The New Dealers was a super-human crime-fighting quartet created during FDR’s administration and answerable to FDR alone. Although formidable, and despite their abilities—which were considerable—the lives of the New Dealers were abruptly destroyed during the attempted rescue of Sarah McGowan in New York on December 23, 1939. McGowan had been kidnapped and was being held hostage by a mentally disturbed would-be suitor, Willie Morgan, who used the colorful nom de plume the Monopolist. Although McGowan escaped from her estranged captor, the New Dealers and the Monopolist were jointly killed moments later in a violent explosion believed to be triggered by the suicidal Monopolist who, wanting everything—but being unable to possess his one “true love”—elected instead to end his life [and, unfortunately, the lives of the New Dealers].)
“This isn’t the 1930s,” Eisenhower reminds the crowd, “and these new champions—this trio of liberty—will work as a special unit, assisting the police and FBI; they will also handle special…covert…assignments.”
We stand there, atop a small podium before a large crowd of curious onlookers. There is laughter. There is skepticism. There is indifference. But to many of the older adults in the crowd who, perhaps, recall the New Dealers and the causes for which they stood, we represent hope. To the children and adolescents in attendance, we are viewed as real-life comic book super-heroes, which, in a sense, I suppose we are. As I stand tall upon the podium draped in a blue uniform that is part cotton, part chain-mail, and entirely too warm for Philadelphia in July, I cannot help but feel awkward and as self-conscious as a child on the first day of school. As I stand before the gazing eyes of thousands of strangers from Philadelphia and its surrounding boroughs, I cannot help but feel as though it is all a dream. The mask—we each wear a mask the color of which matches our “code” name—is surprisingly cool upon my face, but the metal fastener is too tight across the back of my neck and only adds to my feeling of awkwardness.
“Recently,” Eisenhower tells the crowd, “we’ve seen the emergence of ‘super-agents of evil’ whose main objective is the annihilation of freedom and democracy. Individuals such as The Red Death and the self-proclaimed Stalinist pose a threat to the security of our nation and to the safety of its people. I can assure you the apprehension of these individuals will be the top priority of Red, White, and Blue.”
He continues to speak, but my thoughts are miles distant. I gaze blankly across the ocean of faces, wondering if Janey is among them. At times I think I see Joshua, though I know that is impossible.
At the conclusion of Eisenhower’s speech the three of us raise our right hands in the air and join them in a symbolic gesture of unity. The act is dramatized further still as an explosion of color (a trick by Red) encircles our joined hands. There is a brief outpouring of applause and cheers from the spectators, but again I feel ill at ease by the theatrics, as if we are not individuals seeking to make a difference but are little more than circus performers. Nonetheless, the stage show is ended, and there is no going back.
NEXT: The Man Who Could Not Die continues with 'The Red, White, and Blue Years.'
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