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Amid the smelly stretch of riptides and treacherous currents formed by the confluence of the upper East River and Long Island Sound stands a small low-lying island. Surmounted for most of its length by ancient prison buildings, it is an island hardly distinguishable, in its time-exhausted drabness, from those dozen or so other islands occupied by prisons and hospitals which give to the New York waterways such a bleak look of municipal necessity and—for some reason especially at twilight—that air of melancholy and erosion of the spirit. Yet something here compels a second glance. Something makes this island seem even excessively ugly, and a meaner and shabbier eyesore. Perhaps this is because of the island’s situation; for a prison island it just seems to be in too nice a place. It commands a fine wide view of the blue Sound to the east and the white houses on the mainland nearby—houses which, though situated in the Bronx, are so neat and scrubbed and summery-looking as to make New York City seem as remote as Nantucket. One passing by the island might more logically envision a pretty park here, or groves of trees, or a harbor for sailboats, than this squalid acre of prison buildings. Yet perhaps it’s the buildings themselves which make the place look more than ordinarily grim and depressing—so that the cleanly utilitarian, white marble structures on the other of the city’s islands seem, by comparison, almost beguiling sanctuaries. These date back nearly a century, soot-encrusted brick piles of turrets and fake moats and parapets and Victorian towers. With these, and with their crenellated battlements and loftyembrasures and all the sham artifices of fortressed power, the buildings possess a calculated, ridiculous ugliness, as if for someone locked within the walls they must add to the injury of simple confinement the diurnal insulting reminder—in every nook and cranny unavoidable and symbolic—of his incarceration.
Time has imparted little dignity to the place. Rain and soot and wind have weathered it, but the stain which they have printed upon those grandiose walls seems to have left no patina of mellowness, and has only made them more dirty. It would be a sad place to be. In any case, whichever makes the island so oppressive—the prospect, so close, of the clean white houses, or the prison’s appalling architecture—either, to anyone held captive there, would make the idea of freedom more precious. Precious enough, indeed, that a man might risk—given enough anguish, and enough fury—the mile of channel, and the extraordinary tides.
It so happened that during most of the last war the island and prison were in the possession of the United States Navy, which had leased the place from the city in order to lock up members of its personnel—sailors and marines and coast guardsmen—who had offended against the rules and regulations. These prisoners (although the population naturally fluctuated, it rarely went below two thousand men) were not major offenders. That is to say, they were not men who had murdered or committed treason or viciously assaulted an officer or committed any crime so dreadful that the total weight of naval wrath and justice had sunk mountainously about them and had swallowed them up for twenty years. But if these men had not been guilty of supreme crimes, they were not precisely minor offenders, either: they had thieved and raped and deserted and had been caught committing buggery and had been drunk or asleep, or both, while on duty and had been, almost to a man at one time or another, away without leave. They had all received courts-martial of some sort, and their average term of sentence was three and a half years. Yet, possessing neither the respectability of innocence nor the glamour of ruthless criminals, they shared a desperate, tribal feeling of inadequacy and were often victims, even within themselves, of sour contempt. No one displayed this contempt, however, with such cocky amusement as the marines who were on the island to guard them, and who called them simply “yardbirds.”
The prisoners were a sad lot, and the marines (there were two hundred of them, officers and men) ruled the island with a piratical swagger and a fine grip on the principles of intimidation. Few prisoners were ever beaten, for this in itself was a court-martial offense; but the history of bondage has shown that to slap a man about invites rebellion, while a tyranny of simple scorn cows the will and ulcerates the soul. Armed only with short billy clubs of hickory, the marines sauntered safe and serene and with a wisecracking arrogance among the fidgety horde, poking ribs and facetiously whacking behinds. The prisoners were gray with the grayness of men who seldom are exposed to light and suffer the sick, constant ache of loneliness. It was the peculiar grayness somehow stamped only upon the perpetually browbeaten—a lackluster and forlorn complexion, the hue of smoke. By day the prisoners worked—making rope in the rope shop, shoveling coal in the power plant, hauling gar- bage, sweeping and swabbing their barracks floors. Then there was an enormous siren, mounted atop a water tower. It was this machine, like an intransigent apocalyptic voice, which seemed to dominate the island and the proceedings of each day. Like an archangel’s horn, too, it was apt to blow at any hour. It had the impact of a smack across the mouth, and at its shocking, pitiless wail the prisoners fled galloping across the island like panicked sheep, egged on by the ma?rines’ rowdy cries. Shortly then, in front of their barracks (because always perhaps this morning one of them, in grief and desperation, had climbed down off the seawall), they were checked and counted one by one, standing in desolate ranks beneath the wide unbounded sky and the outrageous brick battlements and towers.
But if it was the enlisted marines who so mortified the prisoners, it was the officers on the island (there were twenty-five of them, seven marine officers in charge of the guard and the rest naval men: legal experts and administrative officers, doctors and dentists, chaplains to attend to the prisoners’ unmanned spirits, and a psychiatrist or two to adjust their often chaotic heads) who enjoyed sovereign and unchallengeable power, and to whom the prisoners accorded a cowering respect. At their approach the prisoners scrambled erect, removed their caps (being forbidden to salute), and stood in alarmed and rigid silence. Such were the rules, and thus even the meanest lieutenant might feel that same spinal thrill and hot flush of privilege that a cardinal must feel, or a general at parade, and sense chill little ecstasies of dominion. Yet of all these officers—including the marine colonel in charge of the island, and the ranks of brass beneath him—none was treated by the prisoners with such craven and flustered diffidence as a certain marine warrant officer named Charles R. Blankenship. This in a way was remarkable, for he was not a cruel or angry man.
Blankenship was in charge of the blockhouse, where the more violent and wicked prisoners were kept behind foot-thick doors and in ugly little cells. He was not a large man—indeed, he was of only average height—but there was a quality he had (perhaps the erect military carriage or the suppleness of his well-knit body, which was outlined always so cleanly because of the tailored cut of his uniform) that gave the impression of cool coordinated strength. Nor did he display this strength with any of the swagger or parade which sets off the toy soldier from the sober professional. His bearing, rather, was that of a man who has long ago outgrown any callow tendency to strut (had he ever possessed any at all) and wears pride in his uniform with an offhand confidence and conviction, like the suave self-assurance with which often some very beautiful woman, so long accustomed to stares and admiration, wears her beauty.
At this time Blankenship was a little over thirty years old. In the Marine Corps this is young for a warrant officer, who is usually a grizzled, fat old man who has struggled upward through the ranks to find himself, in his declining years, a kind of serene and crusty androgyne—no longer a member of the common mob yet not really an officer—who putters about in his flower beds or, slouched in potbellied salute at some twilight parade, is referred to with misty affection as “the old Gunner,” and in general receives the legendary and universal respect shown to wise old codgers. It was this fact more than anything—that even in a time of war (it was then 1944), when promotions were many, he could attain at thirty what for most marines took nearly a lifetime—that reinforced Blankenship’s pride in his rank and his achievement, and lent to his manner such solid assurance. It was not a swollen or presumptuous pride. It was simply the pride of one who is aware of his abilities and who feels respectably fulfilled upon having those abilities recognized, no matter how luckily expedited by the accident of war. Blankenship asked for little else. For, like many regular marines, he had never had any particular desire to become a commissioned officer—a captain or a colonel. For him it was enough to remain a good marine, no matter what the rank. He knew, too, that forced to revert, as would assuredly happen when the war ended, to his old rank, he would become a sergeant again—a good marine—without shirk or complaint or demur.
Now it developed that at dawn of a gray, blustery morning in November—almost five months to the day after his arrival on the island (and following two years of combat duty in the Pacific)—an event occurred which for the first time disrupted the orderly pattern of Blankenship’s daily routine. An escape, or what appeared to be one—the first in nearly a year—had been discovered by one of the guards as he made his regular rounds through the chill and misty light. As he told it later (he was a burly young marine from Kentucky with an adolescent voice which cracked excitedly, and the highly informed, solemn air of one who knows he is a partici-pant, maybe even the key figure, in something momentous), the asphalt parapets along the seawall were shrouded in fog, so thick in fact that he had had to walk, as he put it, “right cautious” in order to keep from falling into the sea and even his dog, a great vicious Doberman with milk-white tusks which could crush through a man’s wrist or calf bone like so much soft clay, had lost his footing once and had stopped to sniff the murk and raise his head to whimper. Had it not been for the wind, the escape might have gone unnoticed until the morning count, much later. As it was, the marine said, it was the wind that had tipped him off, that bore to his ears through the impenetrable, somber dawn a faint flap- flap-flapping, a steady sound like that of a loose tin signboard, or of metal banging against brick. Which in fact it was, just that: a heavy window section forced open, bars, rivets, and all, from the washroom of a barracks not twenty feet away, and left dangling against the wall. It was a deft clean job, done with a crowbar or a pipe; yet how, everyone speculated later, it had been accomplished without arousing the slumbering prison was more than a mystery, for it should have made a noise like the shrieks of the damned—prying loose from reinforced concrete nearly a quarter ton of steel. At any rate, the marine called the corporal of the guard, and the corporal hustled up to the officers’ wardroom and woke Blankenship, who happened to be officer of the day.
“So it was just your misfortune to have the duty, wasn’t it, Gunner?” said Colonel Wilhoite, with a wide smile, later on in the morning.
“Yes sir,” Blankenship said, “it’s tough. But somebody’s got to have the duty. Five of us stand it, plus those seven officers. We all figure we’ve got one chance in twelve for an escape to land on our day. My number just came up wrong, that’s all. Tough.”
“Sit down, Gunner. Have a cigarette.” This was the colonel’s office, one of those arid military chambers, bare save for desk and chairs, a single filing cabinet, and two framed photographs of the commandant and a youthful, sprightlier Franklin D. Roosevelt. Past the windows was the Sound, blue and glossy now with oblong shapes of sunlight. A tugboat hooted lugubriously in its passage seaward. The colonel sighed.
“Remarkable, simply remarkable,” he whispered. “A boat. You say they built a boat.”
Blankenship lowered himself into a chair and lit a cigarette. “They certainly did, sir. There was this shed near the carpenter’s shop. It was what you call a hobby project. There were just these two guys. The chief who runs the place thought they were building birdhouses or something. Anyway, they were making birdhouses whenever he looked in. Then we found it broken into this morning—the shed, that is. They had sawhorses rigged up. They even had made templates for the thing. Then we saw this track across the ground to the seawall, just the sort of a track a seven- or eight-foot skiff would make being dragged across the ground.”
“Remarkable,” said the colonel again, “simply ingenious. Imagine, building a boat. How perfectly remarkable.”
“Our boats were out since six, also the harbor police. They found no trace, so they must be ashore.”
“Ransacking some house in Great Neck, no doubt.” The colonel paused, inspecting the tips of his fingers, then looked up to contemplate, with dreamy, moist eyes, the far reaches of the Sound. “I must say it was most remarkable.” Wilhoite was a round man of about fifty with thinning gray hair and a florid elastic face upon which an exceedingly stunted and inconsequential nose had been implanted, like a pittance or an afterthought. It was a feature which detracted from a face that otherwise might have been formi?dable and strong, and may have been a factor which had helped to prevent him from becoming a general. He had distinguished himself in action at Belleau Wood, but a touch of asthma and other things had kept him from seeing combat in this war.