Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Sea Story

The Jerk That Saved His Life

As Jake and I waited patently in the impossibly long line, I suddenly became aware of how strangely comfortable my feet are. I admired my tennis shoes & gently wiggled my toes. A small scarlet backpack filed with a few of the day’s necessities, some fruit, a camera and a light jacket hung squarely on my back. It was comforting to wear civilian clothes again. Jake was a trusted friend and a fellow sailor onboard the USS George Washington, a Nimitz-Class aircraft carrier forward deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. A thick layer of dark dray clouds obscured the sun that October morning, the air was moist and thick with the smell diesel fumes and the occasional waft of men’s cologne. Sometime during the night we had dropped anchor a few nautical miles from the foggy coast of Naples, Italy. I was waiting our turn to board a ferry that would take us to a day of well-needed rest & relaxation.

As I slowly pulled away from our enormous island-of-a-ship; the ferry’s deafening whistle signaled we were off! Thick plumes of opaque smoke blew across the bubbling rainbow-streaked water as we taxied to shore. Testosterone-fused chatter filled my ears from all sides. There were conversations about the looming adventures of bar hopping, scouring the city for tattoo parlors and hopes of meeting exotic young women whose names they couldn’t pronounce. As we approached the bobbing foreign shore the sky began to clear despite roomers of a storm.

Jake & I spent the day exploring the city, stretching our legs on long walks down the quant cobblestone streets. We admired baroque architecture, gorged on authentic Italian pizza and took photographs of the days adventure to share with our families when we returned home.

As evening approached, Mother Nature suddenly changed her temperament. The sky blackened, and strange winds blew from all directions. Jake and I scrambled to catch the next ferry back to the safety of our ship before the storm left us stranded. Nervous ferryboat captains were anxiously working in dangerous waters complicated by the now-drunken sailors that were returning by the droves.

I hadn’t had much to drink that day, but I couldn’t say the same for one recent arrival. He was alone and desperately intoxicated. His head hung low, as if he were trying to connect his chin with his collarbone. I nudged Jake; ‘Hey take a look at this guy’. His bony arms hung limp and swayed involuntarily as his thin frame struggled to stand upright. Jake chuckled and then casually turned back around. Out of my peripheral vision, I watched the blonde, drunken stranger staggering slowly towards a 13-ton ferry that was slamming into the side of an unprotected pier in 20-foot swells. He was completely unaware of the potential fatal danger that was merely a short stumble away. If he fell off the pier and didn’t instantly drown he would certainly be crushed like a tender seashell. Looking back now I can’t help but wonder if all the events of the day led to this brief fateful moment. Suddenly he staggered directly onto the edge of the pier – in an instant I lunged toward him just as his foot teetered on the edge of disaster  - using a murderous grip I hooked his tricep and with a single jerk pulled him to safety. A few moments passed as I processed what just happened. My heart was pounding violently against the smooth interior of my polyester rain jacket. I waited for the gratitude due a hero that was certainly about to ensue; however, to my surprise he simply turned to offer me a dirty look. He was completely oblivious to what just happened. He returned to his blurry posture. Eventually we all made it safely back to the ship. Each went his separate way in search of a rack and a good night’s sleep.

The following morning, I looked down at my feet and wiggled my toes in my steel-toed boots, musing on the day before. It was back to work and life as usual on the ship. I was walking down a passageway and turned a sharp corner, and there he was! On quick observation of his uniform, I immediately offered a crisp salute to the Lieutenant. He instinctively mirrored my action with an unchanging expression. Our eyes only met for a moment, but I could tell that he didn’t recognize me and had no memory of the jerk that saved his life.