467493_401955479823982_599886721_oThe ride home from the lake was unusually quiet. He peered in the rearview mirror to see if his talkative grandson, strapped into the seat behind him, had fallen asleep. The boy looked out the window, and then down into his lap. There he held the small bluegill, wrapped in foil, his first catch. A moment of triumph in the life of a six-year-old, perhaps second only to removing the training wheels, at last.

“Everything all right?”

The boy nodded his head, then turned his gaze out the window to view the passing landscape.

“Sure?” He flicked his eyes from the road to the mirror.



“The joy of fishing just doesn’t last.” The boy’s shrugged shoulders and splayed, uplifted palms expressed the disquiet reflected in his voice.

He nodded and smiled into the mirror.

“I guess that’s why we will have to go back again.”


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Memory and imagination collide,

the power of

infinite creativity


in an instant.

The ever present

Now of inspiration.

An entire universe begins,

expands in white heat;

cools, coalesces, congeals,

then collapses upon itself.

To begin again.

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The Special Agent

The shrug of his shoulders, the pursed lips, and raised eyebrows as he lights his cigarette speak for Thomas Grady like an expletive.

He slouches in his desk chair, reaching into his back pocket to remove his wallet, easing the effort by rolling onto his right side. With a flip of his wrist, the wallet skids across the desk. It flops open against a pile of unfiled reports, displaying the gold shield marked Special Agent.

Settling back in his chair, Tommy draws on his cigarette, then snatches it between practiced fingers from his lips. His eyes close for a moment, as he sighs the smoke into the stale air above his desk.

“What a bunch of boobs. Bee-oh-oh-ooobs.” He shakes his head and laughs a dry, sardonic cackle. “In all my twenty-three years as a cop, I never seen anything like these guys.”

The cigarette in his right hand streaks the air, trailing smoke like a skywriter in a broad, inclusive arc.

“You know the ship we seized for smuggling — the Gloria Celeste? Well, I just paid a little visit to her down at the Boston Fuel Pier, where those mindless wondahs from Customs are supposed to be guarding the evidence. I walked right up the gangway and boarded the ship. Nobody in sight. Nobody challenged me. Nothin’.”

His hand cleaves the air with a definitive slash. The ash falls in a trajectory from his cigarette to the carpet, tumbling as it disintegrates into fine flakes.

“So, I walked around, checking things out, and you wouldn’t believe what I found. I looked down into the main hold through the cargo hatch, which was open. Guess what I see. You won’t believe this.”

His listener shrugs.

“Tiny marijuana plants.” Tommy peeks through a crevice between his thumb and forefinger. “Coming up through the cracks in the deck planking — about ankle high.” He throws back his head, laughing in a loud staccato. “Perfect little plants. You couldn’t grow them any better in a greenhouse.” He cackles again, plucking a shred of tobacco from his tongue.”That ship is supposed to be United States property now. But it’s a ganja farm. Bee-autiful. What a bunch of boobs. And they call themselves federal agents.”

Rising from his chair with a groan, he shuffles the stack of phone messages on his desk, and stuffs them into the corner of the desk blotter.

“Now that’s irony, ain’t it? Yeah, I know irony when I see it. I went to college too, ya know. Right about the time you were learning how to write your last name.”

He glances over his shoulder, placing the cigarette between his lips, where it bobbles as he talks. A wadded paper missile grazes the top of his head, and he ducks, cackling again.

“Nice shot, college boy.”

The smoke swirls around his head as he saunters over to the door. His corduroy sports jacket hangs on a hook behind the door. He retrieves a crumpled soft-pack of Salems from the inside pocket, and shakes one loose. He lights the cigarette on the butt of the last one, then returns to his desk and snuffs out the butt in the ashtray. His finger probes the pack.

“I’d quit this habit, but then I’d have to call myself a quittah, and that would never do.” Picking up the ashtray from his desk, he transfers it with the pack of cigarettes to the shared computer desk, two strides across the cramped office.

“Gotta type a report to the U.S. Attorney about his new marijuana farm. He might be able to use the plants as additional evidence. Not to mention that it’ll embarrass the hell out of Customs. Oh, well. All in a day’s work.”

He sidles up to the computer desk and pulls out the chair.

“This thing workin’?” He drops into the chair and grunts a puff of smoke. From the breast pocket of his shirt, he produces a pair of reading glasses, placing them low on the bridge of his nose. Peering over the glasses, he laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

“Doctah’s ordahs.”

Tommy turns to his work, tapping the keyboard before him with all the zeal of a concert pianist playing a favorite sonata.

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The White Eye

maxresdefaultA ride in his grandfather’s car always proved to be an adventure. He never knew quite where they might end up. Maybe just an errand. Sometimes a stop, or two, along the way to talk with friends or clients. A trip to the levee just to see how the river flowed. An ice-cold Coke or an ice-cream cone somewhere along the way.

He sat in the front seat of the Oldsmobile, the latest model, plush seats, electric windows, and fully equipped, including air-conditioning, perhaps the greatest luxury of all, especially on this hot, humid summer afternoon in late August. Away up north, where he lived, far from this small delta town along the Mississippi River, most cars had no air-conditioners. The only relief from summer heat back home would have been to roll down the rear window of the station wagon, the seat facing backwards, his usual place when his family traveled.

Today was different, somehow. His grandfather had not said where they were going. The boy glanced at his face and tried to guess, but could read nothing in the calm, deliberate features. His grandfather’s slight smile gave away little, since it usually graced his lips, except when he spoke of injustice or unrest in the world. Then it would become a thin, weary frown, and the corners of his mouth would draw in a sharp tisk of disapproval.

“Where are we going, Grandad?”

“You’ll see. We’re almost there.”

The town spanned only about ten or twelve blocks from one end to the other, at least in their part of it. But, the car had driven beyond the street where they often would have turned to drive to the lake or the country club for a swim on unbearably hot afternoons, like this one. Instead, they turned at the next corner to go in the opposite direction, down a street lined with ramshackle houses and unpainted shanties with bowed roofs.

He peered out the car window, his eyes just barely above the door. After a few blocks, they passed a corner market, where a few men stood out front, glaring at the large, blue car as they drove by, warily trying to see inside.

His grandfather turned the car at the next corner, and soon pulled up in front of a long, low, one-story building. Much of the white paint on the siding had peeled away. Out front, a sign swinging from the porch overhang above the steps read, “Still Waters Home for the Aged.”

He looked at his grandfather, who shut off the engine.

“We’re here. Let’s go on in.”

The boy opened the passenger door, stepped onto the street, and heaved the door shut. The heat bore down on his shoulders. His grandfather strode around the front of the car, and they walked together up the wooden stairs to the open porch. A few men, as old as any the boy had ever seen, sat in rocking chairs on the porch, and they rocked to a standstill, as he and his grandfather opened the screen door and walked inside.

The door opened into a wide hallway, which stretched through the middle of the building to the open back door. A reception desk occupied most of the center of the hallway, with room to pass through on the left. On either side of the hall, a set of large doors mirrored each other. Above the door on the right hung a sign labeled “WOMEN,” and on the left, “MEN.” Beyond the reception desk, another set of doors exactly matched the others.

His grandfather approached the desk. A caged fan oscillated with an occasional rattle on a shelf above the desk. A small, turquoise transistor radio, its cover taped together, played blues quietly to one side. The singer’s raw, plaintive voice desired a paradise with nothing to do.

The receptionist, a broad-shouldered woman in a blue flower print dress, her glossed hair flipped up at the ends, looked up and greeted them with a smile. A young boy with close-cropped hair, dressed in shorts and an open-collar green checkered shirt, stood beside her behind the desk. The two boys eyed each other, the way foreigners do, but neither spoke.

“Afternoon, Mr. Walter. It’s a hot one, ain’t it?”

“It certainly is, Miz Annabelle. This, too, will pass.”

“So right. So right. Can I help y’all?” she asked, with an expression nearing gratitude.

“We came to see Melvin Brown.”

“Yessir, Mr. Walter. You’ll find him as usual, all the way to the far wall on the right side.”

“Thank-you, Miz Annabelle.”

“And, who is this young man you bringed with you today, may I ask?

“This is my grandson, Will.”

“Well, hello, Will.” She turned to the boy standing at her side. “Sammy Lee, say hey to Will,” she prodded.


“Hey,” the boy replied.

His grandfather placed a hand on his shoulder, and turned him toward the door to the men’s ward. The boy turned the knob and opened the door, and they entered a large, open room with canvas partitions, which separated the beds lining the walls on either side and across the back. Two ceiling fans whirred overhead, stirring the air, but providing little relief from the heat and humidity. The windows on either side of the room were propped open, but not a whisper of a breeze came through them.

They walked toward the back of the room, and approached one of the cots at the far right corner. An old man, withered and frail, watched them come nearer, as he lay in the bed, his head resting on a pillow, its blue striped cotton ticking stained with sweat. His dark eyes glistened, and he raised himself to his left elbow.

“Well, hey, Mr. Walter. So good to see you, sir,” his voice rasped.

“And you, Melvin.”

“Y’all is too kind to stop by on such a day.”

“Not at all. Came to see how you’ve been coming along.”

“Well, I’m doin’ all right. All right, I guess.” He brushed a fly from his face. “The doc said he had to take my foot, ‘count of my sugar.” He pointed toward the foot of the bed. The form of his remaining foot raised beneath the cotton sheet.

“I’m so sorry to hear it.”

“Matter of time. Just so.”

“I want you to meet my grandson, Will.”

“Mos’ pleased to meet you, young man.” He stretched out his bony right hand.

Will shook his hand. It felt like leather. He had never before shaken a black man’s hand. Ever.

“Good to meet you, too.”

“Your grandpappy and I go way back. ‘Bout thirty, forty year, I reckon.”

“Melvin and I picked cotton together, once upon a time, back when we were both young.”

“Your grandpappy could pick nigh two hund’ed pounds a day, once he got ta goin’.” Melvin winked.

“Hard times. Had to eat somehow.” His grandfather smiled.

“But, Mr. Tip, he had his eye on you.”

“Nothing much Mr. Tip Misner didn’t see.”

“Some things he noticed more’n others, I’d say. People, too.”

“I suppose.”

“You’ll never have to pick no cotton, mos’ like.” Melvin eyed Will.

“Prob’ly not.”

“Hard work. But, nothin’ wrong with that. Everbody ought to know what hard work is.”

“Well … I guess.”

Melvin glanced sidelong at Will. “You know what the white-eye is, Will?”


“White-eye is when a man is played out, after workin’ a long day in the field. His eyes sets back in his haid, and his eyelids sag down, an’ all you can see is the whites.” His weary eyes mimicked his words. “You ever been that tired?”

Will smiled and shrugged. “Guess not.”

“Mos’ folks hadn’t. Not today. Everthang’s done for ‘em. You grandpappy knows. He never took nothin’ from nobody that he didn’t earn. He done made somethin’ of hisself. You can learn a lot from a man like him.”

“We didn’t come here to talk about me, now, Melvin,” said Walter. “We came to see you.”

“Well, you seen me. Such as I am. No good to nobody. I ‘spect that they be takin’ other parts of me sooner or later. Little by little. Like an ol’ gingerbread man. Jus’ gobbled up. You know that story, Will?”

The boy nodded. He eyed the place where the missing foot should have been, and looked away.

“Is there anything you need? Anything we can get you?” asked Walter.

“The good Lawd takes care of all my needs. Yessir. I don’t lack a single thing. Thank you, though.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yessir. Won’t be long now, I ‘spect. I won’t have no needs at all.” He smiled wearily, and laid his head back on the pillow. “But, don’t y’all worry none ‘bout me. Dyin’ is the last thing I’ll ever do.”

Will peered up at his grandfather, who stood nearly half again as tall. A slow, wry smile spread across his face, as he shook his head. Will noticed, not for the first time, the deep sun-weathered creases on the back of his neck.

“Bout got the white-eye now,” said Melvin, quietly.

They rode away in silence. Instead of going home, his grandfather took Highway 65 out of town, driving north along the lake. After a few miles, he turned left onto a gravel side road, flat and straight, and drove through the fields, white with cotton. A cloud of dust followed the car.

“Hard work is good. Work like that can come nigh to break a man. Especially when he has no choice,” was all he said. His smile had turned to a thin, weary frown.

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When Is, Is Not

When art eludes
most common sense,

And truth succumbs
to tolerance;

When darkness comes,
but call it light;

When virtue’s vice,
and wicked’s right;

When good is bad
and reason ends;

When in his mind
a man suspends

The will to know
where wisdom dawns;

When age-old words,
their meanings gone,

Are without form
and void of thought;

Then no is yes,
And is, is not.

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Ninety Percent of the Time

517FA7k2PALCormac McCarthy writes books that pull back the drapes to look full well upon the human condition. That is, the human condition unredeemed. I think he does it for a purpose, because his main characters always seem ripe for redemption. At least, they are searching for it. They are usually “good” people, surrounded by evil, who are looking for a way out.

In No Country for Old Men, an especially hard novel to read for its unfettered violence, a county sheriff in rural Texas during the early 1980s is confronted by an evil that he has never before witnessed in his lifetime, and never heard about from others before him. It is an evil in the form of a single relentless killer without remorse or inhibition, driven by a logic all his own, leaving human lives destroyed in his wake.

As he confronts this evil, the sheriff ruminates how his job has changed over time. In the beginning, when he was a younger man, the “old time” sheriffs rarely even carried firearms. And they knew the people they were hired to protect by name, often by phone number. Not the case so much, anymore. People come and go, and society is more transient. Yet, even in his current day, sheriffs are counted upon to do their duty and enforce the law, using the least force necessary and without abuse of the citizens, despite the few laws that govern their actions. Does it work? “Ninety percent of the time,” Sheriff Bell says. “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.”

But those days are gone.

If what Sheriff Bell says is true, and I think it is, then what does that say about our society? We often hear some people say that things aren’t getting worse in our country as time goes by. They’re actually getting better. The violent crime rates are down, they say. Maybe that’s true. But the crimes that are committed seem to be getting ever more vicious over time. And that has little to do with the weapons being used, and everything to do with those who are using them.

One indication of the true state of things is the number of laws that govern us today, as opposed to twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. We have more laws than ever before, restricting our freedoms and telling us how we must behave. If it takes very little to govern good people, and yet we need more and more laws to govern our society, then what does that say about us? Are we becoming a bad people, ungovernable even by the many laws already imposed upon us? Why are so many more laws necessary today?

Our founders believed firmly that people could govern themselves, but only if they remained a moral people. As John Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Was he right?

Perhaps we are soon to find out. Fewer and fewer people attend religious services of any kind on a regular basis these days. The name of God and the person of Christ are despised and mocked more and more, rather than revered as they once were in this country. Our marriages and families are falling apart. Folks don’t even bother to learn their neighbors’ names, much less who they are. Our people have less and less respect for authority. Our leaders aren’t trustworthy, because our people don’t care enough to hold them accountable for their lies and deceit. Nothing like the “old times.” This is a true state of affairs, isn’t it? At least, ninety percent of the time now, it would seem.

Time for redemption, before America becomes no country for old men, or anyone else who might care about human decency.


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Life is Choice

Version 2Life is Choice. As Americans, every moment of our conscious lives, we are blessed with the ability to choose. We make small, seemingly insignificant choices, and we make large, momentous decisions. Each of those choices contributes to who we are, and who we become over time. We can’t control everything that happens in our lives, but we can choose how we respond.

Choices have consequences. I’m reminded of the often quoted lines from “The Road Not Taken,” one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
/ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / 
I took the one less traveled by, / 
And that has made all the difference.


In my younger days, that poem was a favorite among those who saw themselves as non-conformists, bent on being fiercely self-reliant, in the tradition of Thoreau. That bent was fairly popular back in the sixties and seventies. We failed to understand, however, that we had entirely missed Frost’s point. You see, the poem is not about the road less traveled by. It is about the road not taken, as the title clearly indicates. In fact, Frost clearly makes the point in saying that the road he chose, though he fancied it as being less traveled, was really no more or less desirable than the other:

“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”

So, though he committed to one road over the other based merely on his own perception, it was impossible to say which would have been a better road for him to travel. All he could say for certain was that his choice had “made all the difference.” But, he doesn’t really say whether that difference was good or bad.

Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” then, is not a celebration of the fact that he had sought his own, unique way, but a realization that he would never know which way was better, and a lament that he could never go back and take the other.

The older I become, the more I understand and appreciate what Frost meant.

 The toughest choices in life are the ones whose outcomes are either unclear or equally desirable in appearance. Isn’t that true? And, isn’t this the way life really is? We cannot know, at least in this life, that we are always making the right choice, especially when we rely solely on our own limited perception. All we can know is that our choices, indeed, will make all the difference. That’s life.

The ability to choose is vitally important to our lives as individuals, as human beings. It is no less important to the life of a nation. We are blessed to live in a nation that offers the freedom to choose. Here’s to good choices.

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In the Beginning


So much depends upon that one phrase, doesn’t it? A person’s entire worldview is based on what words follow that phrase. Every person, no matter what we are taught as children or as adults, must eventually come on our own to believe what came next, or else we live without regard to who or what we are as human beings.  Perhaps some people do that without thinking, or even try to live without any meaningful regard to first beginnings.  After all, it is almost football season. What could be more important?

But, no matter how we might try to avoid it, sooner or later, we are faced with deciding — choosing — for ourselves what came next, because that will determine everything that follows.  And, nobody on the face of the earth really can know, definitively, what came next, because we weren’t there at the beginning to witness it.  And nobody, no human being, (apologies to Mr. Hawking) possesses all knowledge and can say definitively that science can teach us everything we need to know about how the universe began. (We still argue about when an individual human life begins.)  We will never, ever be that smart.  So, we must decide at some point, based upon what we are able to learn from the world around us and, more importantly, what we believe about what we learn.

Some believe that God created the heavens and the earth and that they have a purpose and an end.  Some believe that it all came from nothing out of necessity or by chance and that the end is irrelevant and meaningless. So what?  Well, our history as a human race and as human beings is a story.  Our individual stories are inextricably woven into the story of human history and the history of the universe, for that matter.  They are the same story.  As with every story, the end is shaped by the beginning.  And the beginning is what we choose to believe.  As it is with the universe, so it is with us as a race, so it is with us as a nation, and so it is with us as individual people.  It is most important.

Maybe some people don’t care about or lose interest in their stories, or are so harried by strife and turmoil that they can’t see or understand the stories of their lives.  Some decide that their stories are absurd nonsense.  Perhaps it all depends on how they choose to see their beginnings.

The stories of some of us are cut short too soon.  Some end happily.  Some end sadly.  But the greatest tragedy, I think, are those that just end — finis — mainly because the ones telling them never really decided on how they began.

We love stories. We especially love stories that end well. We find ourselves wanting them to go on forever. I think the ability to tell stories is part of what makes us human.  The story we choose to tell is part of what makes us beings, rather than mere living entities.  And every story starts with the phrase: “In the beginning.”

How does your story begin?

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Version 2In late spring, the sea is rarely calm in the Windward Passage. The current funnels swiftly from the southern Caribbean through the narrow passage between Cuba and Haiti, flowing headlong into the incessant northeast trade winds. Water and wind always contend in that place; both are resolute and unyielding. Only a sudden downpour of a passing squall brings relative calm, when the sea undulates smoothly, pocked with rain.

The Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton patrolled the Windward Passage in June of 1984, prowling a barrier visible only to those on the bridge whose duty it was to check the progress of the ship each hour. They traced the slow movement of the ship, back and forth along a line penciled on the chart by the navigator, scribing an indelible rut in the frayed chart paper from west to east, and back again.

The cutter rolled about five degrees either side of vertical in the heavy swells, not enough to create discomfort, but enough to keep the men aware of the movement. In the pilothouse, the officer on watch scanned the horizon with binoculars, searching for contacts that might try to elude them. The small wooden boats, carrying human cargo, often remained invisible to modern radar. He walked outside onto the port bridgewing, into the bright sunlight. From either bridgewing, the officer could see fifteen miles in any direction, but the small sailboats were hard to spot, often blending with the whitecaps.

It was time for the change of watch. The helmsman stood at the wheel behind a console in the pilothouse. He shifted his weight impatiently from one foot to the other, as he repeated his last orders a second time to his reluctant relief.

The watch officer, a lieutenant junior-grade, welcomed his own relief, who stepped over the coaming from the pilothouse door and joined him on the bridgewing.

“Anything new?” Habit prompted the question.

The lieutenant shook his head, after removing his sunglasses, polishing them on the pocket of his uniform shirt. In a glance, the two shared the boredom of routine, punctuated by the change of watch.

“The Old Man wants to change course at 1615.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “A half hour from now. That way, we’ll be in a good position at dusk.”

On occasion, the ship departed from the barrier, running to a station on the northwest coast of Haiti, near the Ile de La Tortue. The tactic had worked previously to lure unsuspecting smugglers to attempt a nighttime gambit through the open passage.

“Okay. I’ve got it,” said the relieving officer. They exchanged feinted salutes.

The lieutenant walked to the lee side of the bridge-wing, and looked over the rail toward the horizon, where the mountainous coastline of Haiti rose from the water underneath a dark brow of clouds, highlighted by the afternoon sun. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt the sting of his shirt collar whip against the left side of his chin. The negative image of the coastline, by now memorized, remained etched in the semi-darkness of his mind’s eye. Steadying himself with his hands on the rail, he could feel crumbs of salt beneath his fingers. The rail vibrated with the steady hum of the engines, as the ship continued her slow predation.

After a three-month patrol, it was time to go home. He knew they would soon return to Port-au-Prince to refuel and pay a final visit to the consulate there, before departing for homeport. Another visit to the capital city did not appeal to him, however. The sights and smells of the harbor stained his memory — smells of charcoal cooking fires, diesel fumes, and raw sewage, which sluiced into the harbor after a heavy rain, tinting the ebbed tide a murky cocoa within a half-mile of the shoreline.

Each time he had been there, from the moment they arrived in port, the ship had been quickly surrounded by lateen sails and small rowboats filled with items for barter, mostly made of mahogany: chess sets, dinnerware, cooking utensils, and rudely carved naked figurines, both male and female. A crucifix bearing the emaciated, tortured body of Christ. Finely crafted sculptures of gaunt men with contorted faces and hollow eyes, reaching for the sky. All of these items could be traded for a carton of cigarettes or an unwanted pair of shoes.

In town, the filthy streets teemed with multi-colored buses and taxis, horns blaring, piously inscribed across their hoods with slogans in French, proclaiming “God Saves,” or some other similar platitude. It held nothing for him.

He opened his eyes, as the wind shifted across his face, to see the ship begin a broad turn to port, heeling slightly. He looked back along the sleek form of the ship, almost four-hundred feet long from stem to stern, and watched the wake follow in a sweeping arc. It seemed to him that they were turning early, and he confirmed the fact with a look at his watch.

Curious about the change of plans, the lieutenant walked over to the door of the pilothouse. As he ducked his head inside to inquire, the captain nearly knocked him to the deck in his haste to get outside.

“Have you seen it?”

“Seen what, sir?”

“The boat.”

“No, sir. What boat?”

The captain peered at him from beneath overgrown eyebrows, with something approaching annoyance, and indicated with a flick of his wrist a small speck among the whitecaps, near the horizon. He put his binoculars to his eyes. A gaff-rigged sailboat. The lieutenant had not seen it until just now. Perhaps he had missed it among the whitecaps.

The ship began to come out of the turn, and gained speed rapidly, heading toward the boat to intercept. The captain scurried back inside, yelling to the watch officer to have the boarding party piped to the bridge over the 1-MC. As the announcement came over the speakers, the boatswain was already gathering a boat crew, and preparing the starboard motor lifeboat to deploy.

Twenty minutes later, the boarding party stood ready alongside the starboard boat. About two hundred yards abeam, the sailboat lolled like a bloated whale carcass in the six-foot swells. Even with binoculars, it was impossible to count the number of heads peering over the gunwale of the boat. Occasionally, a wave would break over the bow of the sailboat, and the heads would all disappear, only to reappear after a moment.

The boarding party consisted of an officer, four petty officers, and the Haitian interpreter, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who spoke fluent Creole, working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They all clambered into the boat, and it was lowered slowly to the water.
Thick white smoke billowed from the cutter’s stacks, as she backed down and turned to parallel the heading of the dwarfed sailboat, taking station upwind and about a hundred yards behind to avoid any danger of drifting down on the frail wooden craft.

The lieutenant climbed down the starboard ladder and walked aft, along the boat deck. He reached the flight deck, or the “Steel Beach,” where the embarked helicopter sat tied down in its center. Two dozen of the ship’s crew basked in the afternoon sun, lounging around the helicopter. Some were lifting weights, or jumping rope, spending the few free hours between watches in an attempt to gain respite from a grueling routine of watch standing and boardings, repeated endlessly, it seemed.

A young seaman, who had been reading, placed his comic book face down on the deck and eyed the sailboat warily. It undoubtedly meant a missed meal or a sleepless night or two standing a towline watch. This boat, like four others so far on this patrol, would likely have to be towed at slow speed to Port-au-Prince. He knew, as did everyone else on the ship, that the boat was probably laden with illegal migrants, attempting to escape a life of destitution to seek a new one in the United States.

The lieutenant strode over to the Chief Radioman, who stood near the tail of the helicopter, leaning against the safety nets that skirted the flight deck. He had paused in his daily exercise circuit of the flight deck to observe the progress of the boarding.

“Afternoon, sir,” growled the Chief through a full, graying beard. “I suppose you were the one who spotted this one?” He spoke with resignation.

“No, Chief. You can’t hang this one on me.”

“I was about to commend your vigilance, Lieutenant.” He smiled, teeth gleaming through the beard. “Just as soon that we missed this one, sir. Time to go home.”

The boarding party had just reached the sailboat. The boarding officer leaped from the motor lifeboat into the sailboat, and disappeared among the tangle of bodies onboard. A petty officer and the interpreter followed.

The lieutenant leaned on the safety nets next to the Chief, and looked down onto the fantail below, where a detail of seven were inflating a large, donut-shaped thirty-man life raft, sometime used to ferry people in large numbers to the ship, in instances just like this one.

Once they arrived onboard, the men, women, and children from the sailboat would be identified and interviewed by an immigration officer, to determine their legal status. Most, if not all, would be repatriated to their homeland. All of them had in common a desperate desire to flee abject poverty and pestilence, most likely selling all their possessions to gain passage on this sailboat, hired to smuggle them into the United States. They would return home with nothing but twenty-five dollars, given to each by the Red Cross.

Repatriation was the policy of both governments, a policy shared along with their common heritage, ironically, of being the first nations among their neighbors to gain independence from European rule. These illegal migrants were considered to be a threat to the stability of both countries, for different reasons.

The same process had been repeated countless times already over several years. Surely, at some point, either the people or their governments would have to surrender. Until then, the process continued unabated.

One of the men below kicked the life raft into place at the rail, swearing and muttering at the inconvenience. The other men laughed at his consternation.

The cutter’s executive officer approached the lieutenant on the flight deck, walkie-talkie in hand. He craned his neck over the safety nets and called to the men below.

“Make sure that raft is ready to go. Cap’n is very concerned that the boat is not stable.” He indicated the sailboat with a double-tick of his thumb. Turning to the lieutenant, he said with a frown, “The boarding officer says there’s about six inches of water in the bottom of that boat. We’re moving a little closer to launch the raft. When the captain says go, I want that raft over the side. Understand?”

“Aye, sir,” replied the lieutenant, standing upright.

The radio in the exec’s hand crackled as he paced toward the side to get a better look at the sailboat. Instead of a steady, rhythmic roll, the boat yawed, corkscrewing through the tops of the breaking waves. The boat was close enough to notice that its length was painted in two broad bands, bright blue over chartreuse. Pitch from between the planks stained the side in long, fuscous streaks. The yellowed sail bore three large patches, one of which had burst open, and the torn flap snapped in the stiff breeze. The boat rolled so far over on her side that the keel was visible, streaming bright rivulets as it cleared the water. The motor lifeboat followed close astern.

“Look at that.” The Chief grabbed the lieutenant’s arm.

They both looked to see a ganglion of bodies surging from the sailboat onto the motor lifeboat, forming a human bridge, over which others crawled, grasping, clawing for safety. A second later, the wind toppled the sailboat, sending the mast and sail crashing into the waves, and dumping the human cargo into the sea.

The exec groaned. He scampered back to the bridge as he lifted the radio to his mouth and screamed the plight of the sailboat into it. Word of the capsizing scudded throughout the ship. The crew bolted from their leisure activities, rushing to man their emergency stations.

“Come on!” the Chief yelled, tugging at the lieutenant’s sleeve.

They ran forward together the length of the flight deck, climbing the ladder to the next level, where the ship’s life rafts were stowed. They worked together to free the rafts from their harnesses, kicking them overboard. The rafts burst open as they impacted the water in orange and black blooms, engulfed in geysers of spray. One of the rafts caught the Chief’s sleeve as it fell overboard, nearly carrying him with it. He screamed in agony, holding his broken forearm. The lieutenant helped him climb back down to the flight deck, and guided him through the nearest hatch to seek the corpsman on his own.

The team on the fantail managed to get their huge raft over the rail. The wind pressed it against the side of the ship, until the sheer weight of the raft carried it into the water.

The crew swarmed the decks, rushing to launch the remaining two ship’s boats, and tossing life rings, lifejackets — anything that would float — into the water. Small, seething explosions told where frantic arms flailed the water around the overturned hull.

Wind and waves quickly spread the people and flotsam across the surface of the water, speckling an acre of seascape in just a few minutes. A score of survivors already had crawled into the empty boats and life rafts, and they in turn reached out to the others who grasped at the air, their mouths gaping open in pleas for help.

The flight crew readied the helicopter to launch. Within five minutes, the engine whined into life, and the blades began a slow rotation, gradually picking up speed, until the aircraft jerked off the deck, rising swiftly into the air. The helo soon began dipping and hovering, plucking survivors from the water in a basket lowered on a cable.

A motor lifeboat, dangerously overloaded with the first survivors, came alongside the ship. The lieutenant ran down the ladder to the weather deck to help haul them aboard. Two crewmen had prepared a rope ladder at the gangway, which dangled fifteen feet down the side of the ship into the water.

One by one, the boats towed the life rafts back to the ship. The bottom of each raft sloshed with a foul, yellowish gruel of seawater, vomit, and human excrement. Terrified, spent faces stared up in the air, their eyes glazed. Clinging to the sides of the rafts and to each other, the way a child awakened from a nightmare clings to her mother, most were too afraid or tired to climb the ladder. The lieutenant and the other crew nearby lay prone on the deck, reaching over the side to pull them up by their arms. Some hung lifeless as they were pulled aboard.

He saw the exhausted face of the boarding officer among the others.

“Jacques is missing,” the boarding officer called, weakly.


“Jacques is missing,” he yelled. “I saw him go under. He had about eight or ten people hanging onto him. Then he slipped out of his lifejacket. The others went down with him. I didn’t see him come up.” The Haitian interpreter had disappeared beneath the waves with several of his former countrymen clinging to him.

The lieutenant reached down to help the boarding officer out of the raft, who instead lifted up an old man by the shoulders, slumped next to him in the bottom of the raft. The old man’s head drooped, his chin resting on his collarbone, sharply visible underneath the taut, dusky skin. He shivered uncontrollably. His clothes were gone and his entire body was covered with the yellow gruel.

Grasping the man’s armpits, the lieutenant lifted him to safety, with the help of the crewman beside him. The old man looked up at him with hollow eyes, set in a gaunt, contorted face.

It was a face that he had seen many times before, carved grotesquely in dark mahogany, and traded for a pittance.



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Broken Dreams

What quick-pulsed unrest
sends your shadowed form
in silent flight from sleep
to search with dark eyes,
wide with dawn-dread storm,
the spirit-feinting strewn light?

What manner of faith
do you keep tonight
with practiced hands so slight
and tender? What shards,
broken (ah, yes) dreams,
lie clear in lunate, raised palms?

Each crystalline split tells
past times, spent schemes;
as turned, light edges touch,
catch color (lost images, all that calms).
Your moonlit tears now shine such.

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