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Memory of a Midnight Sea

Today is Memorial Day, so it occurs to me that this may be an appropriate memory to haul to the surface. I resubmit it for your perusal.

It seems like pirates in are in the news every time I turn around these days. But when this story popped up a while back it really caught my attention:

You can probably imagine my interest in the report but my association goes deeper than simply being an author who writes about pirates. Almost twenty years ago, you see, I was U.S. Marine Sergeant “Pete” Peterson and I served on the USS Dubuque for a while.

Luckily, the time I spent on the De Puke (as we called it) was almost entirely taken up by sleeping, playing Spades, and reading Michael Crichton novels rather than fighting pirates or saving the free world. I remember a tattered copy of Jurassic Park making the rounds from jarhead to jarhead throughout the berthing area and it ignited all sorts of lively debate about how well Steven Spielberg had (or hadn’t) interpreted it. Crichton was considered high literature to us in those days. If I remember correctly, a copy of Congo was being passed along not far behind it.

This was in the early to mid-90’s and there seemed to be a new war or conflict springing up every other week. Young as we were, we were anxious for pirates to fight, or an embassy to evacuate, or a “peacekeeping mission” to join. Day after day, we’d run through our drills and study our battle plans and then we’d stand outside the hatch at night smoking our cigarettes as the sea rolled past.

Standing outside on the ship’s walkways at night was an explicit violation of the posted and oft repeated rules, but we did it anyway because it was so much easier than wandering through a mile of dark corridors to the authorized smoking area in the fo’c’s’le (that’s pronounced foke-sull, short for forecastle if you’re wondering). Those nights were the darkest I’ve ever seen. In the middle of an ocean there is no hint of a man-made light source. There’s no streetlamp, no spotlight, no glow on the horizon from the city in the distance. It’s pure unblemished night, a beautiful thing, and haunting. It was while standing in that wholly natural dark that I first saw the ocean shine. Below me, in the curling whitewater of the ship’s wake, dull green swells of light shimmered, rolled, and faded away.

Bioluminescence is a miraculous thing. It’s an effect caused by millions of microscopic sea creatures that are invisible to the naked eye until their tiny lives are disturbed by something like the passage of a warship. When the ship passes through large groups of them, it sends them whorling and seething in its wake and the violent motion causes them to give off light. In some parts of the world the sea can glow with this “living-light” as brightly as if it were lit from below like a swimming pool. I rarely saw it so spectacular, though. Usually it was nothing but a dim glow, faint ripples and swells in the darkness, scarcely more. In the presence of this natural wonder, we’d toss our cigarette butts to the wind and grumble about the absence of a war in which to prove ourselves and let our talents shine.

One night (I think we were off the coast of Myanmar) we were awakened by something that sounded like a jack hammer rapping on the hull. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. We sat up in our racks confused and baffled, looking at one another as if to say, “Did you hear that?” Then the ship’s intercom whined and whistled. “General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations. General quarters!” This wasn’t a drill.

Here, at last, was some adventure. Was it pirates? Were we under attack? Was this an act of war? Whatever it was, the sad truth is that aboard a ship, a marine’s battle station is in his berthing area; while sailors rush to the control rooms, the armory, the flight deck and sickbay, we few, we proud, we stay in our beds and grumble. So we listened as the footsteps of the crew pounded through the corridors above us. We listened to the alarms and announcements chattering over the intercom. We heard our Cobra attack helicopters spin up and launch and fade into the distance and then, of all things, we went back to sleep.

In the morning we learned that it had been a local fisherman who’d been spooked by the sight of our ship and fired at us in a panic. That’s the story they told us anyway. I guess machine guns are basic equipment on fishing boats in that part of the world. In the end, no missiles had been launched, no boat sunk, no pirates captured. We were disappointed that it had all been resolved peacefully and we went back to our racks and our Crichton novels and we wondered when we’d get to see some action and have some of that adventure we’d left our homes to find.

For me, the action never came. I remember thinking, near the end of my service in the Marine Corps, that the whole thing had been a waste. Except for a few boring days of flight control during the Bosnian conflict, six years of preparation for war had gone totally unused. I was what they call an Air Support Operations Operator. It was my job to coordinate and control fighter planes and helicopters during troop transports, bombing runs, and med-evacs. I’d spent untold hours in training and here I was leaving the Corps without having seen or done any of the things I’d so foolishly hoped to. No battle had been fought, no war was ever joined. I had no shining moment of valor to tell my children of in years to come. What a shame, I thought.

When I saw the news report of the old Dubuque last week it plucked a strange chord inside me. I was glad that the Marines had reclaimed a ship from pirates. I was glad that, like those tiny creatures in the midnight sea, they had a chance to shine. I was even more glad that due to their long hours of training, the whole affair was accomplished without a shot being fired or a drop of blood being spilled. But most of all, it made me glad that I spent my own time in the service doing little more than reading Crichton novels and dreaming.

I don’t have any telling scars or combat decorations. And I don’t have memories of distant wars won or lost. Instead, I remember the thousand colors of a Mediterranean sunset. I remember the white stone bastions of Malta and the fruited jungles of Thailand. I remember swimming in the Phillipine Sea hundreds of miles from land. I remember waterspouts in the mid-Atlantic dancing together, four and five at a time, like white ribbons hung from the belly of a thunderhead. I remember the deep, sapphire blue of pacific island bays. I remember the Aegean Sea lying flat as a looking glass while Orion and his starry host sauntered through its ageless deeps. By grace, none of these memories are overshadowed by the passage of war, and that is a blessed preservation. War is no adventure; it’s an erasure.

Thank goodness for the sailors and marines of the USS Dubuque and all the many others. But all these years later, when I recall the midnight sea roiling in bioluminescent heaves, I thank God that I never did live in that moment of shimmering, swirling chaos. My time of service was undisturbed, only a faint twinkle, never shining. It’s a gift, this dimmer glow, and in the stillness that follows there is a blessing in which to live, and sleep, and fondly dream.


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