The liner was the size of a city block. Massive metal hull cradling a dozen decks packed with 15,000 sweaty, profane troops, propelled by four steam turbines cranking up over 200,000 shaft horsepower which shoved over 80,000 tons through the North Atlantic. A monument of human engineering, and at present, a bobbing, discombobulated child’s toy tossed by the infinite, rampaging dark green ocean under the boiling clouds of its nearly indistinguishable collaborative sky. Most of its 15,000 men on board hurling into their helmets because the ship’s buckets were already full and the toilets were overflowing. It’s crew straining, and usually failing, to discern what in the hell was in front of them, where were the five destroyers that were supposed to be surrounding them, what direction they were even heading. Those five destroyers in even worse shape. If the liner was a toy they were barely peanut shells. No one could stand up without holding on. No one had slept for days. Only two had working radars, and their crews could barely read what they said. One was struggling to catch up to the convoy after what its captain felt was a useless depth charge run yielding nothing.
Two men experienced the scene in serenity.
The first was a newspaper correspondent attached to an infantry unit lying on a top bunk with a sketchpad. In his bags was a portable typewriter and a camera, but he was also an artist. He preferred making drawings when he could. He could capture intent and, he felt, more completely capture the emotions of the men through sketches than photographs because their faces couldn’t hide in shadows; their faces communicating so thoroughly the horrors of war. His seasickness had pretty much settled down, if not completely. He mostly kept his eyes closed, because if his eyes followed his pencil across the page his stomach would begin to roll like the ocean again. He drew from memory, and in his mind he knew he drew the most wonderful images, filled with humor and irony and bitter sadness. Average men sucked into war for a noble cause. A generation of Christ symbols.
The second was a German seaman seated at his post on the bridge of the U-Boat stalking the convoy. Its captain had a glimpse from miles off of the big liner coming right at them before the storm obscured his view and the convoy, unbeknownst to the captain, zigged in a different direction. The captain made assumptions as to the new direction; a correct assumption as it happened, followed then by an incorrect one, followed finally by another correct one, though the U-boat was now badly out of position and had to reveal more of itself than the captain would have preferred to fix that, a tactic which might arguably be considered a mistake.
Three hours earlier the German seaman had been in the narrow bunk into which he rotated with two other equally smelly men, each on a different shift. He clutched a pencil and a notepad in which he was composing the gist of a story he’d hoped might begin to incubate before he went on duty. He was a writer, or at least saw himself as such. He had written long stories about life on a farm not far from the Austrian border and about the disruption wrought, first by economics and then by politics. He wrote passionate odes about friends who had “disappeared” from his small town and then from the ranks of fellow sailors. He was a devout Lutheran, and he imbued his stories with a sense of hope and sacrifice and the inevitability of time eroding human evils the way a stream would eventually correct an offending bend and put itself back on a correct course. He had finished such a story just before they sailed and placed in in the hands of a friend he knew was going on leave and would deliver it home. He was immensely satisfied, even content, with what he had written. He knew if anything happened to him at such a young age he had still contributed something to make the world a better place.
He wondered, as he watched his captain groping for a correct course, if it was always like that in times of human delusion. If small human beings, like drops of water in the stream, gradually effected course corrections away from tyranny. If there were entire generations of Christ symbols. And he was still serenely contemplating this in the split second between the depth charge from the oblivious destroyer cracking the U-boat’s hull and the explosion of the icy ocean that engulfed him in darkness.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.