FICTION

A Question of Time

JOHN RHODES STURDY July 15 1943
FICTION

A Question of Time

JOHN RHODES STURDY July 15 1943

THE OLD MAN’S son was born on Christmas Eve, and the Old Man’s brother, Walter, who is in Operations at home, did the walking up and down outside the delivery room, pulling at his tie in great agitation. (“I may have been only a substitute, but it was awful!” he said later.) And all the relatives were there, beaming with pride and delight, as though each was personally responsible for the healthy-looking heir to the MacDonald fortune—a little farm in British Columbia when this thing is over.

FICTION

In fact, everybody was there but the Old Man. I suppose he knew that it was going to happen because we hadn’t been away from the home base very long this time. That'probably accounted for the way he used to lose himself in thought on the bridge, staring at the sea and the convoy and not seeing either, all the way out. But, of course, he couldn’t have known it would happen when it did.

As a matter of fact when he—instead of Walter— should have been pacing up and down tearing his hair he was sitting in the wardroom giving me the devil, because he had just received a licking at cribbage. I admire the Old Man because I think he is the best corvette captain afloat, and even because he can produce magnificent offspring like the son at that moment being born, but he is the worst cribbage player in the Ocean Escort Force.

I glanced at the clock on the bulkhead. It was nearly midnight.

“Look, sir,” I said. “It’s almost Christmas. We can’t quarrel on Christmas.”

He grunted something. He is thirty-seven, two years older than I. We had gone into the Navy together, starting from scratch—a couple of civilians with an idea. What we learned about ships we learned fast, and I repeat that the Old Man’s the best corvette captain I know.

“Yes,” he muttered. “I wonder what they’re doing at home?” His eyes grew thoughtful, as I had noticed many times on this voyage. And then he said, “I know I should have beaten you that time!”

“Christmas,” I repeated. “People don’t fight on Christmas.”

And then the bell started ringing—bang in our ears and through our brains and down to our feet— and we left the wardroom table so fast the cribbage board crashed on the deck and the cards flew in the air.

We got up top. The whole North Atlantic was alight, it seemed. Flares were hanging in the sky, like little electric bulbs on a Christmas tree, and the ships of the convoy were bathed in silver, and almost before we reached the bridge our own gun was pumping star shells into the heavens, sprinkling the night with their brilliance.

F’ar over on the port quarter a tanker was going down, fast, and we could see the smoke belching out of her and the flames leaping up at her bridge. A

corvette was racing by her at top speed, dropping a couple of carlay floats for the men in the water, screaming out on a quarter sweep.

The Old Man took over from Tompkins, the sublieutenant who had rung action stations. He swung theshiphard over to starboard—a 180-degree turn at maximum revolutions that made her lean so far that seas went racing down the starboard main deck, dousing the waiting depth charge crews with water.

Suddenly the Old Man said, “I see him,” quietly and grimly, with his blue eyes contracted. And then we all saw him, a dim shape about 1,000 yards off the starboard quarter of the convoy.

He was running. As we straightened out I shouted down to the forward gun to load H.E., and we lobbed three shells at him, dropping them very close. Then he started to dive. We went after him with the engines wide open, and the little ship pounding with the strain from the screw and the choppy sea. There was a sharp wind in our faces, and it bit with the cold of North Atlantic December, but we hardly noticed it now. We were warm inside, warm with the excitement of this moment. Down below I could see the gun crew crouched and tense, and back aft, under the eerie light of star shells, I saw the men at the depth charge throwers.

“Stand by to drop a ten-charge pattern !”

This was it! We had waited a long time for our first U-boat. Months of convoy, months of Atlantic

A Question of Time

Ordinary superstition at sea is bad enough, but when the men begin to say their ship is jinxed . . . that means real trouble ahead

JOHN RHODES STURDY

crossings successfully completed—and that was something in itself, but not what we really wanted. We wanted credit for a submarine. Maybe there was a jinx on us. We didn’t know. But other corvettes came into port with accounts of U-boats destroyed—blown up, rammed, sunk—and we could only listen. We had done a good job. We had convoyed many, many ships on the mid-ocean run, but we needed action, if only for the crew’s sake. A crew withers if it doesn’t get action.

And now, here it was. I saw the Old Man, and his eyes were bright. I saw the lookouts and the signalmen, and I knew there was a pounding in their hearts.

“Stand by!”

“Port ten !” said the Old Man.

And a faraway voice answered, “Ten of port on, sir!”

We could hear the U-boat under the surface. We were gaining on him, beat for beat of the propeller, and within the next few moments we would crash 3,000 pounds of TNT on his head.

“Midships!”

And then that faraway voice, coming up the tube to the bridge, “The helm’s jammed, sir !”

The Old Man jumped for the engine-room voice tube. I heard him shout orders—heard his voice, but not the words. I was staring forward, helplessly, watching the stem of the ship swing over to port, and keep swinging, away from the track of

the U-boat, away from our credit and our victory.

We got straightened out eventually, but it was too late then. We saw a destroyer streak for the spot, we heard the explosion of depth charges, and felt the “rrhumpV of them coming to our bottom under the surface.

For a long time the Old Man did not say anything. He stood gripping the bridge rail, staring into the night. And then, eventually, in a weary voice he turned to me and said, “Take over, Number One.” We looked at each other. We had been friends for a long time. We were never such friends as at that moment.

There was no more action that night. In the morning the destroyer signalled that her attack had been successful.

THE OLD MAN and I did not play cribbage again. A deadly pall descended over the entire ship for the rest of the voyage. The crew is my responsibility and I tried to brighten up their spirits a bit, got the boys working, attempted to interest them in something, but I wasn’t very successful. They were really “down” this time.

I felt low myself. We had been so close! And that destroyer’s crew was dancing with glee, probably.

I went to see the Old Man in his cabin a couple of hours after we tied up at our Irish base. He was sitting at his desk, with a cablegram in one hand and the deck log book open on his knees.

“Look,” he said, and handed the cable to me. It was from his brother Walter: “Eight-pound Son

and Heir Successfully Launched at 0005 December 25. Mary and He Both Doing Well. Congratulations. Walter.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s news! Congratulations!” He grinned ruefully. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to an entry in the log book. The date was December 5. His finger underlined the entry.

“0005—Helm jammed. Lost contact with U-boat.”

“Just a coincidence,” I said, looking at him.

“Sure,” he muttered, and slammed the book shut. He wasn’t acting at all the way a proud father should act. So I called for the steward, and told him to bring us a bottle, and we drank the health of the MacDonald heir. But we were both conscious of that entry in the log—0005 hours, five minutes past midnight. It may sound silly, our acting this way, but things happen to you! in a corvette on mid-ocean escort. You’re not quite normal after a time.

Of course the news about the Old Man becoming a father swept like fire through the ship, and, because you can’t keep anything a secret in a corvette unless it’s locked up in the safe, so did the story about the entry in the log. I watched the thing gathering momentum, and I couldn’t check it. In the seamen’s mess, in the petty officers’ mess, all around the ship, it was the chief subject of discussion. We were jinxed. We were the hoodoo ship of the North Atlantic. And you didn’t have to look far to discover the reason—it was there, in black and white, for anyone who cared to glance in the deck log book.

An eight-pound baby was to blame for it all.

Perhaps it is right to laugh at this point, but at the time I didn’t laugh. I was working with a dejected crew, a crew that believed the cards were stacked against it. One day I heard a seaman mutter, “Let me tell you, it’s only the beginning. The Old Man and his kid have jinxed the ship for sure. Tilings’ll get worse. And sooner or later some Heinie will put a tin fish into us.”

Not good, that sort of talk. And it kept up.

We were away four months-—and nothing happened. We made several trips, and there were U-boats rammed and sunk by other corvettes with us, but we never had a smell of one. That made matters worse. The days and nights of pounding and pitching, of wet mess decks and oil in the drinking water, of soaked blankets and cold food, and seas over the bridge and salt in your eyes and ears and mouth—those things make a man cry for relief. And for us it never came.

Then suddenly we were going home, back across the Atlantic for our annual refit, and that made us a little more cheerful as we headed west, our bows into the seas, the pounding pistons singing a song in our ears.

“We should be home by the 25th of the month,” the Old Man said to me.

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“Why the 25th?” I asked.

“I want my son christened on that day,” he said deliberately. “He was born on the 25th.” The Old Man looked at me. “I think the crew hate my son,” he added grimly.

“Hate a baby they’ve never seen— that’s ridiculous!” I said, and tried to laugh.

“But they do—damn them!” he exploded.

I stared out at the plunging convoy.

The Old Man hardly ever spoke to any of us on the bridge or in the wardroom. He would come down for his meals and eat in silence, staring glumly at his plate, and conversation around the table nearly always died at that point. The two subs, Tompkins and Elliott, and Jones, the navigator, and myself all were uncomfortable in the Old Man’s presence. He had changed completely. There were no more cribbage games. He was quick to bawl out his officers and men, as though he were purposely riding them because he knew what they were thinking.

And I believe that deep down he was as superstitious as the rest of us.

That poor innocent little babe, who happened to have been born at an unfortunate moment, was playing havoc with the men of one of His Majesty’s Canadian corvettes.

On one thing the Old Man was definite—it soon became an obsession with him—and that was to reach the home port by the 25th of

the month, four months after Christmas. He was constantly going to the chart and pouring over it, figuring hours and speeds and courses.

And when the signal came from the Senior Officer: “Detach and

proceed independently,” he walked into the wardroom with a pad and pencil and did some more figuring.

“Yes,” he said eventually, half to me and half to himself. “Yes, we should make it. But there won’t be much to spare.” His voice sounded as though he were really saying, “Yes, I’ll get my son christened—despite you and the crew and the whole hanged Navy!”

Just to say something I remarked, “Don’t forget the difference in time between here and home.”

“Difference in time?” he echoed. And suddenly he was staring at me as though he had never seen me before. “Great guns!” he cried. “Ring for the cox’n!”

Wondering, I did as he ordered. He was tapping the table with his pencil, and his eyes were shining. I thought for a moment he was going ’round the bend; after all he had served a long time in corvettes.

The coxswain, cap in hand, appeared in the wardroom doorway. The coxswain was a little man with a red face who had been in ships for years.

“Come in, cox’n,” said the Old Man from the head of the table. He

looked like a justice of the Supreme Court.

“Yes, sir,” said the coxswain. “Now,” said the Old Man, “about my son.”

“Your son, sir?”

“Yes, my son.” He was glaring at the coxswain. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know I had a son !”

“Why—yes, sir. I knew, sir.”

I was staring at the Old Man. Was this the final breakdown of Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald, RCNVR? Was this the end of the best corvette captain afloat?

■ “You don’t like my son, do you?” repeated the Old Man.

“I don’t know him, sir,” the coxswain replied helplessly.

“What difference does that make?” demanded the Old Man. “You haven’t liked him since the moment he was born. In fact, you wish he had never been born. You and the crew.” The coxswain was beginning to sweat a little. “Oh, no, sir! I wouldn’t say that, sir !”

“Don’t beat around the bush. My son has jinxed the ship—right? We’re all going to be torpedoed on account of my son—right? That’s what they think in the mess decks, isn’t it?” The coxswain was laboring painfully. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. “Well, sir, not exactly. But the truth is, seamen are awful superstitious, as you know, sir. And the baby’s birth, sir, happening at the same time as the jammed helm ...”

“Who said it was the same time?” “What, sir? Well, five minutes past midnight ...”

The Old Man leaned over the table. “Did you ever hear of the zones, i cox’n?”

Tons of enlightenment suddenly ¡ dropped on my head. Of course! “What, sir?” the coxswain asked. “Did it ever occur to you that five | minutes past midnight at home is not five minutes past midnight off the Irish coast? There happens to be a difference of three hours. The helm jammed at 0005 Greenwich Mean Time. But my son was born at 0005 Atlantic Standard time. Not quite the same thing, eh?”

“Oh, gosh, sir,” cried the coxswain. “I didn’t think of that.”

Neither had the Old Man, nor me. “I’m quite aware you didn’t, cox’n,” said the Old Man triumphantly. “And you can clear lower decks and tell the crew that no son of mine is a jinx. And what’s more, you can tell them that my son is going to be christened aboard the ship when we get inYou see—”

The bell went before he could finish. I was at his heels when we hit the upper deck, and the bewildered coxswain was behind us. Climbing to the bridge, bumping into running men, I looked out across the ocean. We were alone and the sea was calm under a blue sky.

Jones, the navigator, met us on the bridge.

“Good contact, sir,” he said quickly to the Old Man.

Young Tompkins had the listening phones on his ears, and he turned now to the captain.

“Classify as submarine, sir,” he said. “Bearing green four-five . . . range 1,000 yards and closing.”

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The Old Man’s face was pale as he moved to the voice tube. Maybe, deep in his heart, he was praying. I think I was praying with him.

“Starboard ten,” the Old Man ordered down the tube. Did his voice quiver a little? Or was that my imagination?

rT^HE DEPTH charge crews were J. standing by. The Old Man called f >r speed. He glanced at me for an instant, and I could read his mind, I could understand the defiant look in his eyes.

We were running fast now, water churning white as it slipped away from the steel hull of the ship. And I could hear Tompkins’ voice as he read off the ranges, closing, closing, until . . .

The throwers popped, and I watched the cans in the air. Up they flew, against the sky, and then down, smacking the water and disappearing below the surface. Very pretty— pretty as a picture.

We waited. And suddenly the ocean shook, and the sea astern of us was blurred. The ship trembled, once, twice . . . we counted breathlessly as the TNT charges exploded in the depths.

We slackened speed. Down on deck the crews quickly reloaded the throwers. The Old Man, his lips tight, watched Tompkins.

Suddenly Tompkins gave a bearing.

“Hard a-port !” the Old Man ordered.

We made another run over the spot. Depth charges again shook the sea into turmoil. Great geysers of white water reached for the sky. And still he was there, below, refusing to give in, trying to run for it.

We dumped 46 charges on top of him. Inside our little ship pipes were broken and leaks were sprung.

And then, suddenly, like a great wounded shark parting the waters, he came to the surface.

Beside me, on the bridge, a twin machine gun opened fire, streaking armor-piercing and tracer bullets at the conning-tower of the U-boat.

There was no attempt to man the submarine’s deck gun, and we closed him. No sign of life came from that dark hull.

“Watch him,” I heard the Old Man caution. “Watch him!”

We were drawing near.

And then he replied. From his bridge a gun opened fire. I could hear the shells bursting, I could see the track of the tracers. He was firing directly at our bridge, rapidly and accurately, and suddenly the boy on the twin machine guns seemed to leaf) in the air.

I moved toward the gun. But then I felt queer in the head. I went down on my hands and knees, and I found I couldn’t rise. There was a mist in front of my eyes.

But I saw the Old Man for a moment. He was standing over the crumpled body of the machine gunner, and I’ll never forget him. He was bareheaded, with his eyes wide and bright, firing those guns with bloodstained hands, his body crouched and tense . . .

He got the U-boat commander, shot him through the heart. And

then the Germans gave up. I was j unconscious when the U-boat crew | scrambled out on deck, waving arms wildly, shouting for mercy. We had a ! boat there before the submarine could be scuttled, and young Tompkins | took command of her. He raised a White Ensign on her little mast, and j we took her in tow.

I hardly knew about the rest of the voyage, because I was sick, with a hole in me. We ran into fold weather that next day. Twice the line to the U-boat snapped and we almost lost her, but not quite. The Old Man wouldn’t let her go. And we broke down once, wallowing in the seas like a helpless child. Heaven only knows how we ever made port. I think our German prisoners at times wished they had gone down in their submarine. But the Old Man brought us in, and I made them carry me up on deck when we passed through the gate into the harbor—this was one credit that no one could dispute, and I wanted to be in on it.

Astern of us rode the U-boat. The ensign was no longer white, but it was waving.

T WAS present for the christening;

1 I was the godfather. And James Alexander MacDonald, four months old and strong and healthy, was piped aboard with all the honors we could give him. The crew lined up on deck, and the Officer of the Day saluted him.

He was christened with salt water, on the wardroom table covered with our ensign. And the ship’s bell held the christening water.

Then the coxswain came up to the Old Man who looked disgustingly proud. Twirling his cap in his hands, the coxswain said, “Sir, would you : mind if the little gentleman got his ! hands dirty for a bit? We’d like to j have him on the for’ard gun platj form, sir.”

I was helped up there on deck because I was curious to see what would happen. The entire crew was assembled around the gun, and the chief engineer was standing in the j centre with a pan of oil in his hands. !

The coxswain took the baby from . the Old Man’s arms and holding one fat litt le hand, dipped it in the oil and [ then pressed the hand against the side of the gun shield.

And so, some day if you see a corvette with the imprint of a baby’s ; hand on the forward gun, you’ll know that’s us. It’s our insignia.

Walter, the Old Man’s brother, was beside me, and when the cheering had died down I said, “Well, we didn’t make it for the 25th, but who cares?”

“What 25th?” asked Walter.

“You know,” I said. “Twentyfifth of the month, the baby’s anniversary. December 25 at 0005, remember?”

“But,” said Walter, “that was Greenwich Mean Time. I said so in my cable. You know, like an official signal. Or did I forget to put in GMT? Well, anyway, the baby was born at five minutes past nine, our time, on December 24.”

“Walter,” I said hoarsely, “promise me never to breathe a word about that around this ship!”

He promised.