Written by Ben White
The Sunday boardwalk was empty. Summer had been a beach blanket tossed into the air to scatter sand and tourism while casting profits into businesses, but now it had fluttered back down to quietly settle on the local hope of making it through the off season. Post-Labor Day September had come as no more than a towel spread out next to that dirty blanket, and its hems were tattered with shorter days and a hint of cooler temperatures blowing in off the ocean.
School had started, but Cole found that the new school was much different than his old one, and not just because it was the seventh grade and a transition into middle school. It marked a complete change of environment. Being new to the community didn’t help even though he had stayed with his grandparents for the summer. He had left six years of friends in Norfolk; the same house, the same school, the same Navy base. But those Navy-dependent days had ended.
The Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance payment had come in, and the Navy had moved Cole and his mother back down to his parents’ hometown in North Carolina. His mother was going to renovate her aunt’s beach house and that is where they would live. “Start a new chapter,” his mother had said. He liked the old chapters; he liked the old book.
His mother told him it would get better when school started. He was doubtful. Not a week into the school year, and he had already confirmed those doubts. He didn’t know anyone, but the teachers all knew him. They knew his mother, and they had known his father. Actually, most of them had taught his parents and a couple of the teachers had even gone to school with them. Those teachers remembered them as high school sweethearts.
His parents had been academic and athletic standouts who were married right out of high school in between graduation and his father’s basic training. Cole was born in San Diego the next year, but had very few memories of California. His memories were more vivid of Biloxi, but his family only lived there for just under three years before moving to Virginia in time for Cole to start elementary school. That’s where his life took root. But that was where his roots were yanked out of the ground and transplanted to the small, remote coastal town in North Carolina.
Here, Cole was still too new to be an academic or athletic standout. He stood out only because the teachers knew his parents, which came with the expectation of him to be just like them.
That expectation kept reminding him of his father’s praise. You’re a better ball player than I ever was, his father had told him. But that was baseball, and Cole had arrived too late in the summer to play, and would not put his glove on with a team again until the spring. Academically, he was finding it hard to engage in the lessons.
He was working on a small dinghy after school; recaulking it and prepping it to paint. Then he would have a boat to take out to row, or maybe fish in. That had been his grandfather’s idea, and the project was started under his grandfather’s guidance. Now, it was his project, and had become an activity that kept him busy. He was in no hurry to finish it, because it kept him from having to face thinking about his otherwise lonely afternoons. He discovered that he was a perfectionist and had the patience to make the dinghy perfect.
His mother also discovered his craftiness, and often had him help with projects inside the house. The renovation was coming along nicely, and Cole, though he hated to admit it, was very comfortable in the beach cottage. It was away from the bed-and-breakfast establishments and the boardwalk businesses, and he liked the feeling of being separate from the tourists. The tourists who visited this town were family oriented and peaceful compared to other beach resorts, but Cole still did not feel any connection with them or to their vacation activities. He had helped his grandfather in the Coney Cone (an ice cream shop shaped like a waffle cone turned upside down) by sweeping the floor, restocking napkin dispensers, and wiping tables, but he found it easy to be ignored by the shop’s patrons.
And now, summer was gone. The tourists had vacated the town to the locals, school had started, and Cole’s days had to adjust to new routines. The dinghy project kept his mind busy.
This was the first Sunday without tourists, and Cole had decided to walk along the beach to the lighthouse and then to the boardwalk. It was a quiet walk and the ocean was calm; beautiful and extending away from rolling waves, back out to the horizon.
Cole stopped at the lighthouse and looked out on the sea. He breathed in the smell of the salty water, and as he exhaled, his breath bumped across his soft sobs. He bit his lip and wiped the tears from his eyes. Another deep breath helped him make up his mind to continue his walk, but his legs were weak with emotion. He stopped and sat down in the sand.
It was always the same. Anytime he was alone on the shore, looking out over the water, he felt a closeness to his father. But it was a dichotomous feeling because as good as it felt for him to remember, it was a reminder of his dad’s death. It was a good-sad, he thought, and then he would think about how strange “good-sad” sounded, and usually that would be enough to help him think of other things.
There were, however, times of solitude when he wanted to feel the good-sad. It was the doorway to a place where he could remember his past. He sat there on the beach until he could no longer separate his feelings of loss from the feelings of facing them, and that was when the good-sad was at its peak.
A seagull above him squawked. Stupid bird. He wiped his eyes again, stood up, and continued his walk.
The beach curved around the shore away from where the lighthouse stood, to a place where a concrete walk started. The concrete led along the beach where tourists would swim beneath the vigilance of summer lifeguards. A little farther up the beach the concrete would ultimately change into the boardwalk where the tourists would get their beach essentials; lunches, snacks, ice cream cones, T-shirts, and souvenirs. Cole decided to keep walking all the way to the Coney Cone to see if his grandfather needed help with the after-season cleanup.
As he walked along the concrete path, he saw a figure sitting on a bench, and as he got closer, Cole saw that it was a man dressed in an old pea coat wearing Navy dungarees and an old Dixie cup hat. Cole slowed down to absorb as much information as possible about the man before having to walk by him.
The Sunday morning had warmed up, and the breeze from the ocean had all but stopped. The old man had his legs crossed with his right thrust over his left, anchored down by a black boot that completed a pair of boondockers into which the dungarees were tucked. The man’s hands were pushed tightly into the pockets of the pea coat and his elbows were tightly tucked into his sides to complete Cole’s idea that the man was at first thought, cold, and on second thought, sick. It certainly wasn’t cold enough for the man to be wrapped up in a heavy wool jacket.
On the sleeve of the jacket, there was a patch with three chevrons beneath an overarching bar that touched the end of the third chevron. In between the chevrons’ downward-pointing apex and the height of the bar was a pair of crossed anchors. Above the overarching bar, there was an embroidered eagle sitting. And above the eagle’s wings were two stars; one above each wing.
Learn your rates and ranks, Cole’s father had told him back in Norfolk. That way you can show the right respect to everyone on base.
A Master Chief Bo’s’n’s Mate, Cole thought, recognizing the insignia.
As Cole walked closer, the old man turned his head. There was a look on his face that made Cole think the man had been expecting him to walk by; a look of strange familiarity. The man’s shoulders readjusted to pull the pea coat in around him again as if the turning of his head had loosened up the tight seal of wool and warmth.
The man didn’t smile, but his face was welcoming. His head tilted back and his eyes squinted to shield themselves from the glare of the morning sky. His cheeks pulled tight and the wrinkles around his eyes gathered in deep lines.
“Good morning, Cole.”
Cole did not know the man, so he was shocked to hear the greeting by name. The man stared at Cole, and Cole felt compelled to stop.
“Good morning,” Cole started. The words came out as a slow statement, but still had enough wonder attached to sound vaguely like a question. “Master Chief,” Cole added as an afterthought.
“Come here. Sit down.” The old man warmed up to the fact that Cole called him by his rank. Taking a hand out of his pocket and drawing it toward him he beckoned Cole to sit down on the bench. Cole hesitated.
“It’s okay. Come on. Sit down.” The man pointed to the bench with his whole hand.
Cole took a few slow steps toward the bench.
“How do you know me?” Cole asked.
The old man gave a faint smile. “I’m a…” The man seemed to look for the right words. “…a friend; a friend of the family. I’ve known you since you were born.”
Cole moved slowly toward the bench. It made sense that someone would know his family in this town, but he was still apprehensive. He sat down beside the old man.
“How are you?”
“Fine,” Cole replied, looking at the man, then looking out toward the ocean, across the sand.
“Good.” The man nodded. “I was sorry to hear about your father.”
It was not the first time Cole had heard this sentiment since moving to North Carolina. In fact, it was about the hundredth time he had heard it. He responded by nodding his head and looking to his left up the concrete path. From where he was sitting, he figured he could run and beat the old man to the boardwalk if he needed to escape.
“He was a good sailor. I liked him.”
“You knew him?” It was a lame question, but Cole was feeling uncomfortable, and couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Sure. I knew him when he was younger than you are now.”
This was different. There had been much talk about his father when he was in high school, but not even his grandfather had opened up about when Cole’s father had been a boy. Cole was curious. He was drawn in by the calm demeanor of the old man.
“Were you in the Navy with him?” Cole asked.
“I was with him everywhere he went,” the old man said. He looked directly into Cole’s eyes. Cole could not turn away. He didn’t know what the man meant, and had a sense that he should stand up and walk – or run – away.
“I think I should see if my grandfather needs help,” Cole said, about to stand up.
“That old man has been cleaning his ice cream shop by himself for years. You can stay and talk to me,” the man replied. “Besides, I think you want to know about your father.”
The way the old man said that scared Cole, but he could not leave. He couldn’t even stand up. He looked at the old man and felt his eyes burning with fought-back tears.
“I was there when he was born. I was there when he ran these beaches as a boy. I was there when he broke his arm behind the lighthouse. I was there when he got married. And I was even there when his ship was hit. When he was trapped below decks. When he drowned.”
Cole bit down. “You were there?”
“I was there.”
“You saw him?”
“I held him.”
Cole quickly wiped a tear to keep it from drifting down his cheek. Then he took the back of his hand and wiped it across his eyes. He blinked and wiped again.
“What do you mean?” Cole asked.
“There are many mysteries in this world, Cole. Many mysteries on the sea.”
Cole sighed. “I’ve got to go,” he said, rediscovering the strength and need to get up and leave the old man.
“It’s okay, Cole. I think you know what I mean. You feel him too.”
Cole was startled to hear someone outside his own mind and body tell him what he could feel.
“How do you know?” Cole asked.
A long silence allowed them both to sit beside each other and look out at the ocean. The waves pushed in and then retreated from the beach. The sky kept warming beneath the sun, but the old man kept his pea coat pulled in tight. Time stopped.
“Look at those seagulls,” the Master Chief broke the silence.
Cole looked at the birds swirling around something that had washed ashore. The Master Chief took his hand out of his jacket pocket. He held a waxed wrapper with crackers inside. He took a cracker and broke it into pieces. He threw the pieces into the air, and the seagulls flew over to where they had landed. Cole watched.
The birds fought and flew; hovered, flew, fought, hovered, begged. The Master Chief threw more cracker chunks into the air. The seagulls swirled around, anxiously seeking the favor of his aim and generosity. Cole watched.
“Everything is connected, Cole.”
Cole sat on the bench and watched the Master Chief feed the seagulls. While he watched, a calmness came over his mind and body, a gentle understanding. The Master Chief didn’t say another word as he fed the birds, but there was a shared sense moving between the man and the boy.
I am with him now, the Master Chief had said. Cole let the good-sad creep back up his spine, but this time it was more good than sad. The seagulls screeched and fought over the crackers, landing to devour every crumb on the sand and concrete walkway.
“I can feel him,” Cole said softly.
The Master Chief smiled. “Of course you can, Cole. He is here.” With that, he threw the last of the crackers up into the air. The seagulls called one last time, then – all of them, in unison – came down and landed on the beach right in front of Cole and the old Master Chief. They stood still in a line looking at Cole. They squawked randomly, nodding their heads at Cole while he stared back, amazed.
Cole looked at the Master Chief wondering what was happening. The good-sad turned all good, and Cole knew his father was there; watching.
“Everything is connected, Cole, and the world is full of mysteries. Sailors may know this most of all.” A couple of the seagulls squawked again, and then, as if their formation had been called to attention, they turned around and took off. The unison they had displayed on the ground dissolved into a frenzy of flight as they individually went their own ways, into the sky, out to sea, or along the boardwalk.
“You better run home, Cole. Your mom is wondering where you are,” the Master Chief said. Cole stood up. He looked to the sky to see the last of the seagulls trail away, then looked at the Master Chief. He had a deep sense of comfort he didn’t have words for. His grief was gone.
“Will I see you again?” Cole asked the old Bo’s’n’s Mate.
“If you need me, I’ll be here. If you don’t need me, I’ll be here.”
“Go on now. Get home. Fair winds…”
“And,” Cole said, “following seas.”
The Master Chief smiled, and his head tilted back and forth into a nod as his eyes sparkled beneath the Dixie cup hat.
Jogging, Cole headed back away from the boardwalk toward the lighthouse. He had lost track of time, and he was sure the Master Chief was right; his mom was probably wondering where he had gone. As he got to where the beach started to bend in the direction of the lighthouse, he felt a shadow go over him; a quick passing. He looked up, but the sky was empty; not even a cloud. He looked back at the bench on the concrete walkway.
It was empty as well.
featured in our summer 2018 issue