Hearken

By M.A. Pelletier

There is a certain beauty of simplicity about the voice pipe concept. It is simply a pipe, and you talk (or shout) down it. The person at the far end cocks an ear to it then shouts back. At each end is a funnel-shaped horn, which probably matches the acoustic impedance of free air to the impedance of the pipe. – The Museum of Retro Technology


“That gangplank is really narrow!” the woman calls out again from the doorway of the museum behind us. I wave, my back to her, acknowledging for the fourth time that we’re aware of the gangplank and the risks awaiting us. Jay-sus! I think; if it’s that dangerous why don’t they fix it? It’s a beautiful sunny day in Oswego, New York, and my father and I are about to climb aboard the LT-5 tugboat that is floating at dock by the H. Lee White Marine Museum in Oswego Harbor.

My father and I have come to see the museum and the boat as another stop on the long list I have of “How to keep Dad occupied and happy while visiting in New York.” This is only the second or third place we’ve gone, and I think I’m actually starting to enjoy myself. The gulls pivot and reel overhead, crying out like lost souls as we approach the gangplank, my father walking slowly behind Hugo, the four-wheeled walker that saves both of us a lot of angst. Hugo offers handlebars to lean on, hand brakes to stop it, and even a seat, for when one gets tired and needs a break. I daily bless the inventor whoever that may be, for Hugo is a life saver. My father’s cane hangs over Hugo’s front bar, and when we get to the seawall next to the tug Dad deftly lifts the cane and parks Hugo aside, pushing the black handles down to set the brakes. “You good with that, Dad?” I ask, already worried about navigating without Hugo. “Yup,” he says. “All set.”

The gangplank is indeed a thin, bumpy passage; narrow uprights with spans of looping chain the only thing between the lapping, black water of the harbor and us. A fleeting vision of my father wedged in that narrow dark space of water between the wall and the boat flashes through me, but then is gone in the bright sun. He leads and I follow; my hands on either side of him, ready to grab his belt should he totter or trip. He is still taller than I am, even at 85, but his once-broad frame is thin now, the knobby bones hiding under fabric. I can feel the eyes of the nervous woman from the museum boring into us from behind. Two stairs of metal grating await us at the end of the gangplank, and we step down them one at a time, navigating without incident.

We’re on deck. The boat rocks ever so slightly in the water, but the footing is solid and sound on the steel deck. A rail is mounted on the side of the LT-5’s cabin, bolted there decades ago for the sailors to have hand holds while navigating the deck in rolling seas, but today under sunny skies and wheeling gulls, it gives my father a second place to hold on, push off, and pull forward from. He is grinning broadly, and without warning or even thinking about it, I abruptly realize that this is the best thing we will ever do together.

We climb the incline of the foredeck, and reach the tapering prow of the boat. A set of steep metal stairs, called the bridge ladder, I learn later learn, rises from the center of the foredeck to the wheel house above us. Dad lays one hand on the shiny grey stair rail to steady himself while I continue on to the very point of the prow. It is a graceful curve of iron and steel, with seventy years of grey paint layered on like filo dough, thickening the shining rail. I stand in the prow and feel salt spray on my face as the boat rises and crashes under me in my mind.

For an instant I am an 18 year-old soldier, headed for some distant shore off the coast of Europe, German subs lurking beneath me under every dark wave. Voices clamor around me, words drifting on briny air: Ahoy! Bring ‘er aft! And, All hands on deck! Shouting, scrambling men surround me. I feel the rolling ocean, hear the drone of airplanes overhead, and see soldiers constantly scanning the dark water for German subs. Where was my father in all of this?

The grey of the deck is the ubiquitous grey of soldiering and ships. Shiny and enameled and layered on with brushes held first by a shipyard’s working man, then a soldier, and now probably a volunteer. My dad has made his way up the slope and stands next to me, looking out over the prow too; grinning back at me when I turn to smile at him. A long lock of his pure white hair blows from under his ball cap, which proclaims “Proud WWII Veteran”; the lock of hair waves like a signal flag. “Let’s go up,” he says, gesturing to the wheel house. “Sure,” I reply, “You think you can manage those stairs?” “I think so,” he says, “I’ll just step up them one at a time.” He states it plainly; like he’s ordering fries with a burger; not like he’s 85 and has just parked his walker on the dock now far below.

But I immediately like the plan. The steep stairway has a narrow pipe for a hand railing on both sides, uprights spaced far apart. I can follow him up and, using a trick I learned while ladder training in the fire department, hold the rail on both sides of him, making my body the basket that can catch him should he miss-step or falter. He weighs less than I do now, this once strapping father of mine. One step at a time, hooking his cane on the rail ahead for retrieval and repositioning after each step, we climb. The wind is fresh, the air clear and full of promise.

The small deck in front of the flat glass view screen of the wheel house reveals the full panorama of the harbor, and we’re one step closer to the gulls. We could reach up and touch the sky, but we don’t. The tilt of the deck seems more pronounced, but by now we both feel like seasoned sailors and we don’t even notice.  Stepping over the high metal lip into the wheel house, Dad leans on his cane a little, but he is moving really freely and well, and I can tell he is totally in the moment. My heart swells with a sweet ache –– why did I wait this long to spend time with him?

There’s a long brass tube in the wheel house, rising up through the steel floor, the graceful curve tarnished along its length but burnished a shiny gold at the smooth flare of its mouthpiece which ends at chest height. My father tells me it is a speaking tube for the pilot to talk to the engine guy. Dad seems to know a lot about this boat, and boats in general, which is great because all I know is that they make me sea sick. I look at the brass tube and the flaring opening at its end, inviting a voice like a trumpet mouthpiece. “Really?” I ask, doubtfully. “Yeah, really!” my dad says, lovingly mocking me and smiling that eye-crinkling smile of his. “They only had radios for outside communication, to call other boats; not everywhere like it is today,” he tells me. An idea ignites and flares inside me. “I’m going to run down to the engine room and you can call a message down to me, okay?” I tell him. “Sure!” he says, indulging me just as he did years ago when I tried to build tiny walnut-shell boxes in his basement workshop.

I leave the wheel house by the back stairs and work my way hurriedly down to the engine room, instinctively knowing where it lies in the tug’s floor plan. I pass one other visitor on the way, and he looks up, startled, wondering at my haste. I smile and say “Hi!” then flash past him down the steps into the greasy, dim, silent engine room. The insides of the engine room walls are painted red, making me feel like I’m in the belly of the beast. The engine lies in the v-shaped floor beneath me like a giant, sleeping. I know the whole boat would throb with its power if it was running.

I stop, my excited breathing the only sound other that the soft creaking of the boat at moor. “Hello!” I shout out, the sudden sound making me momentarily embarrassed. I’m 51 years old, and cavorting around this boat like a kid on a field trip. The soft waves of the harbor slap the steel hull in a dulled murmur. Then I hear it, coming from somewhere along the wall of the engine room. A soft “Hellooooo!” I am stunned. My dad is calling me from way out there in the sunshine, all the way down a tube that was designed when he wasn’t even born yet, calling me down the same channel that frantic soldiers used when a German sub was spotted starboard, calling me from the wheel house like the captain; and I can barely find the voice to answer him. Momentarily I am overwhelmed by history, love and fear. They crush into me; pressing the import of this moment when I must answer my father, call him back to me. Then I am just as abruptly freed from all of them. “Hello!” I holler back, excitement rising in me, a grin splitting my face. It’s crazy, I know, but I can’t believe it really works. Will he answer me? What if the engines were running? It would be so loud then; you would have to hold your ear to the tube, pressing tightly to hear the urgent message.

I have to find where the brass tube comes into this room. I search the walls and the ceiling above me, climbing from one catwalk to another. I can’t find it though, and I hear my father calling a couple more times in that oddly disconnected voice. Each time he calls I feel the pull more strongly, the pull to be back in the sunshine, standing next to my living father again. I scan the room once more, looking for a gleam of brass in the dimness. “I can’t find it Dad,” I shout. “I’m coming back up!”

I race back up the stairs, over doorway lips, up the slope of the boat, one deck after another, until I am in the wheel house, breathless, standing next to my father, both of us grinning widely. Another man, the one I passed in the hallway, is there now too. I pant a little, but when I smile at my dad he laughs back at my glee. “Pretty neat, huh?” he asks me. “That was cool, Dad!” I say.

I wonder, later, at that amazing day: our smiles and the childish joy we felt, the way my father opened up to the experience, blooming brightly like a winter-bound geranium. I remember the people we met there who listened to him speak about his experiences in the war, their faces interested and amazed. And I hear his voice, drifting down the speaking tube towards me; calling me from somewhere I cannot reach. ∎

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