Read an Excerpt
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 20, 1900. The son of Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, and Martha Justine Hollenbeck. I had one sister, Veronica, younger than I, who died the same year these strange incidents began.
Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, was a swine. There, I’ve written it down after all these years. He was a total swine. No, he wasn’t. He was a sick man. His brain was gnarled—shadow ridden, you might say.
Veronica and I (especially Veronica) suffered greatly at his hands. His discipline was iron based. The Navy spared him from being institutionalized, I believe. Where else could his near-demented behavior be permitted? Our mother, tenderhearted and emotional, died before she was forty. I should say, “escaped” before she was forty. Her wifehood was an extended sojourn in Hell.
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I present a small example:
One day in March 1915, Mother, Veronica, and I received an invitation (an order) to attend a dinner on father’s ship (a supply ship, I recall). None of us wanted to go, but there was scant alternative—Daddy’s ship for dinner or, for refusing, several weeks (perhaps a month) of indeterminate punishment.
So we donned our respectful bibs and tuckers, and were driven to the Navy Yard, there to discover that Daddy’s ship was anchored on the Hudson River, which, with driving winds, was being whipped into minor tsunamis.
Would any husband and father in his right mind have permitted his family to face such a perilous experience? I ask you, would any husband and father in his right mind not have canceled the entire crazy venture and taken his family to a decent restaurant? I answer for you. Of course he would. Did Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, behave as though he was in his right mind? One guess. We were scheduled to have dinner aboard the USS White—Swine, it should have been named. If we all drowned en route—what is it the ruffian set says today?—tough titties. Regrettable but unavoidable.
We stepped, lurchingly, aboard the Captain’s gig—his private launch—and departed. The side awnings were lowered, Dad’s concession to reality, no doubt. The wind, however, was blowing so tremendously that the awnings kept flapping open at their bottoms, spraying us with Hudson River. Needless to say—I say it regardless—the waves were more than choppy; they were semi-mountainous. The gig shuddered and bounced, tilted and rocked. Mother pleaded with the Captain to turn back, but he remained adamant, lips compressed and bloodless. We would be arriving at the ship “toot-sweet”—he actually used the phrase, or, should I say, butchered it? Mother held a handkerchief to her lips, no doubt to prevent losing any prior meals that day. Veronica wept. I take that back; attempted (in vain) to keep from weeping, because the Captain loathed her tears, making it abundantly clear that he did with many a dark critical glance.
Somehow, despite my conviction that we were all destined for the bottom of the river, we finally arrived—still alive but damp—at Dad’s ship, which, dear reader, was scarcely the conclusion of our mal de mer nightmare. There were, you see, no convenient steps to the deck, only an exterior metal ladder, which, because of the leaping waves, was running with water. Up this slip-and-slide companionway climbed the White clan, totally convinced that death of one variety or another—by falling and/or drowning—was imminent. (Actually falling first, then submersion in the briny deep.)
The spotlight of the gig glared on—increasing our blind ascent—what with the ship’s spotlight also on—and Mother went first, assisted (poorly) by a terrified sailor. To my amazement—and disbelieving relief—she neither fell nor submerged, achieving the deck, still damp but unscathed. Veronica went next. At that moment, I summoned a hope for guardian angels. Surrendering completely her effort not to weep and offend the Captain, she labored, assisted, up the puddling ladder, slipping more than once and shedding copious tears and sobs. I followed; gripping the cold ladder railing so rigidly, my hands went numb. No assistance for me. Father either assumed I was strong enough to manage on my own—or else harbored a secret hope that I would tumble to a watery grave and relieve him of an irritating son.
Whatever the case, I climbed alone, clutching the ladder railing with both hands. Above me—I tried not to look up but did, distracted by the wild flapping of Veronica’s skirt, catching sight, at one point, of her underpants—a momentary glimpse of wetness. No surprise. I did the same. I wonder if Mother had, also, suffered alike. The weakness could not possibly have come from Father’s side of the genes. If he had any weakness, it was a total inability to identify with other human beings.
At one point of the death-defying climb, Veronica slipped off the ladder completely, screaming in terror, the high heel of her left shoe (why didn’t she wear mountain-climbing boots?) nicking the top of my head (why didn’t I wear a fireman’s helmet?), which began to drip blood. A chancy moment. Was Veronica to hurtle to the river? Was I to bleed to death?
Neither. Veronica, sobbing, stricken to the core, poor sweet dear that she was, regained her footing, assisted by the sailor who was with her, and was hauled up onto the deck by another sailor, a burly, redheaded, chuckling lout of a man. I followed, and so, to my chagrin, did Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, a thin smile on his granite lips. He was amused by the entire event. I’m sure Mother could have killed him. Ditto. Twice over.
A few words about my sister. Veronica was a truly gentle soul. Once, in a driving rainstorm, she picked up a bleeding puppy that had been struck (and deserted) by a speeding motorist. She carried it home—five blocks—in her arms. By a stroke of ill fortune, the Captain was not away that afternoon and ordered her to remove “that damned, whining beast” from the premises before it bled all over the handmade Chinese rug.
Only a hysterical, weeping fit by Veronica—and an atypical temperamental foot-stomping by Mother—not to mention a few choice verbal attacks by me, laced with impulsive profanities (for which I later paid a hefty price; I leave that to your imagination) persuaded the outgunned Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, to—stiffly—allow Veronica to take the shivering, silent—still bleeding—“mutt” to an unused corner of the cellar.
I went down there with her, disobeying the good Captain’s injunction to “go to your damned room.” (Another dereliction for which I paid hefty price number 2.) There I watched the dear, sweet, bless-her-noble-heart girl—still crying softly, gulping down body-racking sobs—care, with loving gentleness, for the puppy (she was, poor girl, a teenage Florence Nightingale), washing and bandaging, with household bandages, no less. (“Puppy needs them more than him.” Revealing to me—as if I needed it—her detestation of our father.) Fixing the puppy’s cuts and bruises, then kissing its damp head, crying anew when the puppy licked her hand.
Happy ending? You want a happy ending? Skip it. In the early morning, Veronica rushed down to the cellar to see if the puppy was all right. It was gone. She ran to question Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, and Mother told her Father had gone for the day to discharge his naval duties—probably beating some sailor to death with a chain. But I digress.
Crying helplessly, Veronica, suspecting the worst (most logically), hurried outside. To find the puppy on the back porch, curled up in an uncovered cardboard box. Needless to say—I am vengefully pleased to say—it was still raining, and the puppy was shaking uncontrollably and dying. Which it did that afternoon. I would like to describe the burial ceremony conducted by a heart-stricken Veronica, but the memory is too painful to relive in detail.
One more Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, anecdote. One more black star in his Book of Swinishness. Its conclusion? He castigated Veronica (severely) for ruining a blanket, using a box of household bandages, and digging an unauthorized grave in the backyard soil and, further, conducting an “un-Christian” funeral ceremony without express permission from the Church. Was he kidding? No.
* * *
Veronica was never very healthy, much less robust. Mother drove her—a long, inconvenient drive—to a naval hospital for treatment. Captain You Know Who would not permit Veronica—or Mother or me—to be treated by a local physician. He was a naval officer (by God), and treatment for a naval officer’s family must (repeat, must) by administered by a naval hospital or clinic. (By God.)
Veronica grew weaker by the year. By the time the influenza epidemic landed on the United States, she was primed for the blow, hardly resistant at all. Poor, dear, sweet Veronica. I still miss her and weep for her unhappiness.
The Captain had his brutal effect on me, mostly in my preteen years. A Pisces (it has been labeled “the trash bin of the zodiac”), I, too, cried a lot before I was fifteen. Then my rising sign, whatever it may be (actually, I know), must have risen strongly and declared itself, for I began to shut myself off from Captain B. S., USN. He no longer “got” to me. If I’d been the happy owner of a loaded pistol, I would probably (I do not say “undoubtedly”) have shot him many times over. For Veronica. For Mother. For myself. No guilt involved. I knew that much. More like a sense of grinning justification.
* * *
I have avoided, long enough, the transmission of my “terrible tale.” (Remember, of course, that it is, as well, a wondrous tale.) You know, already, that I have been too emotionally bound up to convey it for more than sixty years. So if I forget myself and allow my Arthur Black commercial overstatement to leak through, kindly take pity on the blind-eyed, money-seeking element in my elderly author persona. I promise you that what I am about to tell you did not ooze from my diseased brain. It happened.
* * *
Return with me to 1918. I was eighteen years of age. World War One was in full swing. Captain Bradford Smith White, USN, wanted me, naturally, to join the Navy; he would see to it that I got a “proper” position. Does it surprise you to read that I demurred? I enlisted in the army. I cannot adequately describe the intense pleasure I experienced when I witnessed the look of utter revulsion on his face when I told him the “good news.” (I was going to war for Uncle Sam!)
So there I was, an army enlistee, no doubt destined for a journey to France.
It was not the exact beginning of my nightmare-to-come, but it was certainly a good start.
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