Years ago we’d visit Liz’s folks. The visits were difficult. Her mother and father lived in Hell. Parts of Hell could have been a form of punishment, but other areas were okay.
Liz grew up in a cluster of houses built in the Thirties with green lawns flowing to the street. Getting there was hell. We’d cross the border from the safe, pastoral quiet of Windsor by the Ambassador Bridge and drive through Detroit. Liz grew up in Hell Michigan. I would have said it was no hell. It failed to charm me the first time I saw it.
“I had a happy childhood in Hell,” Liz always insisted.
The road to Hell was being paved every year. Signs hung from the lampposts on Michigan Avenue.
“Don’t get out of your car.”
What the signs meant were don’t even think of slowing down or lowering a window to ask directions. People in that part of Detroit could smell weakness. They are sharks.
I walked in on a robbery in progress at a gas station. The bulletproof glass cubicle where the cashier sat was wide open. One man had a shotgun to the head of the cashier and another, standing lookout, leaned on the doorframe and tapped the business end of his sawed-off in his left palm. He was, how shall I say it, calm and polite.
“If I were you, I’d get in my car and gas up somewhere else.”
I thanked him for his kindness, but I turned and asked, “How do I get to Hell?”
“Look around, Bud. You’re standing in it.”
After circling the downtown several times, and driving past King’s Bookstore twice, I pointed out Tiger Stadium to my son and said they had good red hots there although the team was no hell. They did have a pitcher who was showing promise, a guy named Denny McLain who eventually won thirty games in a season, but fire and brimstone couldn’t help the Tigers out of the basement.
“It must be hell to be in last place for so long.”
Liz pleaded. She wanted to get out of Detroit and go straight to Hell. I didn’t mind the experience, nor did my son who saw a different side of life and possibly death. We slowed at the robbery station. The hold-up men had departed. They must have filled up for free. A nozzle lay on the ground. The attendant was gone.
“I want to go to Hell,” Liz said.
We found our way out of the labyrinth.
I had a dream once when I ran a fever. I was asked about the afterlife. The answer has stayed with me. Hell is a question, an equation that can’t be solved. Purgatory is how the question is solved, and the answer is Heaven. Dante could have saved himself a lot of time had he realized that.
Liz’s mother, Helen, met us as we pulled into the driveway.
“I should have told you about the detour. Eventually, you’ll be able to get to Hell sooner, but for now, the area around the Ambassador Bridge is a bit tricky.”
Liz’s father Hal was watching the television. He’d spotted a stain on his trousers that likely happened during lunch and without looking up he kept scratching at the spot on his elastic waist khakis, and said, “You made it.”
“Were you expecting we wouldn’t,” I asked?
He simply laughed, though it wasn’t a chuckle or a belly laugh but more a breathy huh. Hal could take all the fun out of fun. I sat and watched the television. It was overbearing. It was a court. The host was more interested in hah-hahs than jurisprudence. I couldn’t help be feel glad not to be a plaintiff. Noise. People jumping up and down with pitiful glee. The court was out of order but it was part of the hell of daytime television.
Dinner was equally silent until Robbie asked Hal about the war. I had told Robbie repeatedly not to raise the subject with his grandfather. Hal had a terrible time, Liz told me.
“What was World War Two like for you, Grampa?” Hal’s hands began to shake. He set down his cutlery and wiped his mouth on a napkin. There was a long silence. I told my son to eat his green beans.
Hal turned to me and shouted.
“Leave the goddamed boy alone. Can’t you see he’s curious and wants to know? If I don’t answer his question the story will die with me and my shipmates.”
There was a long silence. I wanted to ask for gravy or for someone to pass me the pepper but both were right in front of me.
“Well, son, I served on the U.S S. Indianapolis. Ever heard the story? We delivered some secret cargo to an island south of Japan. Our mission was top secret. We didn’t know where we were. The Navy kept our whereabouts top secret and the person who knew where we took r&r during our voyage back. He probably figured our mission was accomplished. We were also under radio silence.”
“I was sitting in my anti-aircraft bay, having checked and cleaned my guns when I looked overboard and there were these straight white lines as if someone had drawn chalk marks on the ocean. I shouted, ‘Fish! Fish!’ and everyone thought I’d seen flying fish, fish that leap so high out of the water they look as if they have wings. I should have shouted, ‘Torpedoes to starboard.’”
“A Japanese sub caught up with us and put two fish – our term for torpedoes – into our side even though we had asdic and radar and extra plating. It was such a fine, sweltering July day, the operators probably knocked off to have a smoke.
I sat there and watched. There was nothing I could do. I knew what was about to happen. People see traffic accidents in slow motion. I felt paralyzed, and kept shouting, “Fish! Fish!,” but no one understood what I meant. I should have shouted ice cream. That would have gotten someone’s attention.
Then, just forward of my gun bay, there was an explosion followed by a second blast down the hull. The Indianapolis shook as if it was that pepper shaker in front of your Dad he keeps staring at because he’s looking for a way to change the topic,”
“I’ve never told anyone what happened next. We began to list to starboard and our bow began to sink, and even though general quarters had been sounded, most of the guys were below decks playing cards, eating in the mess, or taking forty winks in their bunks. The announcement came from the bridge: abandon ship.
I didn’t know what to do, so I lit a cigarette until we began to roll over like an old dog. I could see the bridge and the stack pointing to the horizon and decided I’d better get in the water and be free of the ship because when a ship sinks, the suction pulls everything down with it.
Oil was burning. I swore I could see a third fish aimed at our midship. I tossed my butt in the gun bay and leaped for my life. Then I swam like hell. I turned and heard screams coming from the midship where the third torpedo hit. Men who’d lost an arm or a leg were begging for help as the Indianapolis slid beneath the waves.”
“For the next four hours I swam as far away as possible until, exhausted, I lay on my back with my arms and legs spread. I floated. The last thing I remember was staring at the sun until I was almost blind and thinking, ‘This is how a sailor dies at sea. I said God I’m all yours. Send me to Heaven or send me to Hell. I’ve made my peace. I die knowing I loved and was loved.
I was certain I heard my late mother saying, ‘Not now, dear.’”
“Out of nowhere, a raft bumped into my head. In it were three guys, mangled, burned, all dead. I hauled myself into the inflatable – that’s what we called them – and tossed the three bodies into the ocean, saying a prayer for each as they sank in the depths. When they were in the water, their arms raised as if they wanted to hold onto life. Each had a look of astonishment on his face. I can’t forget that.”
“ I don’t know how long I floated. I was thirsty. I kept thinking about what I’d give for a cold beer. There was a bar down the street from my home and I loved to go there on summer afternoons because the place had air conditioning. Cool air and a cold beer were all I wanted. Schlitz. At that point, any brand, freshly pulled from the bartender’s pump would have been a gift from heaven.”
“ I was half asleep when a voice called from the water. He begged to join me in the raft. I said ‘Sure. I could use the company.’ He’d been floating on a plank for three days and as he handed it to me, as he climbed in he got a sudden look on his face that wasn’t shock or surprise but exclamation as if something startled and surprised him. Then he was pulled back into the water. After the Indianapolis sank, the survivors were picked off one by one by sharks. I never saw him again as he disappeared in the depths but an arm floated to the surface. I spent hours clubbing those damned fish as I fought for my life.”
Robbie spoke up. “What happened next, Grandpa?”
That evening when I thought everything had settled down, I asked Hal what brought him to Hell. I knew the story but I wanted my son to hear it.
“Your grandmother,” he said .“I fell in love with her. I used to make jokes when we were first married about her cooking coming from Hell’s Kitchen because she burned everything. I’ve spent the better part of my life in Hell. My happy Hell. Hell is the stories we keep.”
I was wakened in the night by the sound of someone shouting. “Fish! Fish!”
It was Hal. My wife said he had nights like that since the war.
“In his mind, when he had his terrors, he was back on the Indianapolis and trying to warn his shipmates about the torpedoes. The hard part for him was the futility, that moment when he knew the inevitable was going to happen and could do nothing about it. Old friends said the war changed him. He understood helplessness. Hell is about being helpless.”
I lay in the dark and thought about the endless horizon of the Pacific, the loneliness he must have felt, and the luck that he, of all people, was carried away from the cluster of survivors and picked up by a Catalina flying boat. When he got back to Hawaii, an officer told him he had his nerve breaking off from the main pod of survivors.
“Are you aware that while we were saving you we could have saved ten others? What makes you so special?”
Luck is what leads one to Hell. He asked Helen why he was so lucky. Hal’s life in Hell was happy and non-descript though he couldn’t abide the sight of blood, fire, or the ocean. He tried to go lake fishing once but broke down because he was terrified he’d catch an arm or raise the souls of the dead he tossed overboard.