I Klaxons hooted the call to battle stations. George Enos sprinted along the deck of the USS Ericsson toward the one-pounder gun near the stern. The destroyer was rolling and pitching in the heavy swells of an Atlantic winter storm. Freezing rain made the metal deck slick as a Boston Common ice-skating rink.
Enos ran as confidently as a mountain goat bounding from crag to crag. Ice and heavy seas were second nature to him. Before the war sucked him into the Navy, he’d put to sea in fishing boats from Boston’s T Wharf at every season of the year, and gone through worse weather in craft a lot smaller than this one. The thick peacoat was warmer than a civilian slicker, too.
Petty Officer Carl Sturtevant and most of his crew were already at the depth-charge launcher near the one-pounder. The other sailors came rushing up only moments after Enos took his place at the antiaircraft gun.
He stared every which way, though with the weather so bad he would have been hard pressed to spot an aeroplane before it crashed on the Ericsson’s deck. A frigid gust of wind tried to yank off his cap. He grabbed it and jammed it back in place. Navy barbers kept his brown hair trimmed too close for it to hold in any heat on its own.
“What’s up?” he shouted to Sturtevant through the wind. “Somebody spot a periscope, or think he did?” British, French, and Confederate submersibles all prowled the Atlantic. For that matter, so did U.S. and German boats. If a friendly skipper made a mistake and launched a spread of fish at the Ericsson, her crew would be in just as much trouble as if the Rebs or limeys had attacked.
“Don’tknow.” The petty officer scratched at his dark Kaiser Bill mustache. “Shit, you expect ’em to go and tell us stuff? All I know is, I heard the hooter and I ran like hell.” He scratched his mustache again. “Long as we’re standing next to each other, George, happy New Year.”
“Same to you,” Enos answered in surprised tones. “It is today, isn’t it? I hadn’t even thought about it, but you’re right. Back when this damn war started, who would have thought it’d last into 1917?”
“Not me, I’ll tell you that,” Sturtevant said.
“Me, neither,” George Enos said. “I sailed into Boston harbor with a hold full of haddock the day the Austrian grand duke got himself blown up in Sarajevo. I figured the fight would be short and sweet, same as everybody else.”
“Yeah, so did I,” Sturtevant said. “Didn’t quite work out that way, though. The Kaiser’s boys didn’t make it into Paris, we didn’t make it into Toronto, and the goddamn Rebs did make it into Washington, and almost into Philadelphia. Nothin’ comes easy, not in this fight.”
“Ain’t it the truth?” Enos agreed fervently. “I was in river monitors on the Mississippi and the Cumberland. I know how tough it’s been.”
“The snapping-turtle fleet,” Sturtevant said with the good- natured scorn sailors of the oceanic Navy reserved for their inland counterparts. Having served in both branches, George knew the scorn was unjustified. He also knew he had no chance of convincing anyone who hadn’t served in a river monitor that that was so.
Lieutenant Armstrong Crowder came toward the stern, a pocket watch in one hand, a clipboard with some increasingly soggy papers in the other. Seeing him thus made Enos relax inside, though he did not ease his vigilant posture. Lieutenant Crowder took notes or checked boxes or did whatever he was supposed to do with those papers.
After he was done writing, he said, “Men, you may stand easy. This was only an exercise. Had the forces of the Entente been foolish enough to try our mettle, I have no doubt we would have sunk them or driven them off.”
He set an affectionate hand on the depth-charge launcher. It was a new gadget; until a few months before, ashcans had been “launched” by rolling them off the stern. Crowder loved new gadgets, and depth charges from this one actually had crippled a Confederate submarine. With a fisherman’s ingrained pessimism, George Enos thought that going from one crippled boat to a sure sinking was a long leap of faith.
Eventually, Lieutenant Crowder shut up and went away. Carl Sturtevant rolled his eyes. He had even less faith in gadgets than Enos did. “If that first torpedo nails us,” he said, “odds are we’re nothing but a whole raft of ‘The Navy Department regrets’ telegrams waiting to happen.”
“Oh, yeah.” George nodded. The all-clear sounded. He didn’t leave the one-pounder right away even so. As long as he had reason to be here by the rail, he aimed to take a good long look at as much of the Atlantic as he could. Just because the call to battle stations had been a drill did not mean no enemy submarines lurked out there looking for a target.
Quite a few sailors lingered by the rail, despite the rain and sleet riding the wind. “Don’t know why I’m bothering,” Carl Sturtevant said. “Half the Royal Navy could sail by within a quarter-mile of us and we’d never be the wiser.”
“Yeah,” Enos said again. “Well, this makes it harder for the submersibles to spot us, too.”
“I keep telling myself that,” the petty officer answered. “Sometimes it makes me feel better, sometimes it doesn’t. What it puts me in mind of is playing blindman’s buff where everybody’s got a blindfold on and everybody’s carrying a six-shooter. A game like that gets scary in a hurry.”
“Can’t say you’re wrong,” Enos replied, riding the deck shifting under his feet with automatic ease. He was a good sailor with a strong stomach, which got him respect from his shipmates even though, unlike so many of them, he wasn’t a career Navy man. “Could be worse, though—we could be running guns into Ireland again, or playing hide-and-seek with the limeys around the icebergs way up north.”
“You’re right—both of those would be worse,” Sturtevant agreed. “Sooner or later, we will cut that sea bridge between England and Canada, and then the Canucks will be in the soup.”
“Sooner or later,” George echoed mournfully. Before the war, the plan had been for the German High Seas Fleet to break out of the North Sea and rendezvous with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, smashing the Royal Navy between them. But the Royal Navy had had plans of its own, and only the couple of squadrons of the High Seas Fleet actually on the high seas when war broke out were fighting alongside their American allies. “Sooner or later,” Enos went on, “I’ll get some leave and see my wife and kids again, too, but I’m not holding my breath there, either. Christ, George, Jr., turns seven this year.”
“It’s hard,” Sturtevant said with a sigh that made a young fogbank grow in front of his face. He peered out at the ocean again, then shook his head. “Hellfire, I’m only wasting my time and trying to fool myself into thinking I’ll be able to spot anything anyhow.”
That was probably true. George shook his head. No, that was almost certainly true. It didn’t keep him from staring at the sea till his eyelashes started icing up. If he saw a periscope—
At last, he concluded he wasn’t going to see a periscope, not even if a dozen of them were out there. Reluctantly, he headed back toward the bulkhead from which he’d been chipping paint. One big difference he’d discovered between the Navy and a fishing boat was that you had to look busy all the time in the Navy, regardless of whether you were.
Smoke poured from the Ericsson’s four stacks. No one had ever claimed beauty for the destroyer’s design. There were good and cogent reasons why no one had ever claimed beauty for it. Some people did claim she looked like a French warship, a claim that would have been vicious enough to start barroom brawls during shore leave if it hadn’t held such a large measure of truth.
Enos picked up the chisel he’d set down when the exercise began. He went back to work—chip, chip, chip. He spotted no rust under the paint he was removing, only bright metal. That meant his work was essentially wasted effort, but he’d had no way of knowing as much in advance. He went right on chipping. He couldn’t get in trouble for doing as he was told.
A chief petty officer swaggered by. He had less rank than any officer but more authority than most. For a moment, he beamed around his cigar at George’s diligence. Then, as if angry at letting himself be seen in a good mood, he growled, “You will police up those paint scraps from the deck, sailor.” His gravelly voice said he’d been smoking cigars for a lot of years.
“Oh, yes, Chief, of course,” Enos answered, his own voice dripping virtue. Since he really had intended to sweep up the paint chips, he wasn’t even acting. Propitiated, the petty officer went on his way. George thought about making a face behind his back, then thought better of it. Long tours aboard fishing boats even more cramped than the Ericsson had taught him he was always likely to be under somebody’s eyes, whether he thought so or not.
Another strip of gray paint curled against the blade of his chisel and fell to the deck. It crunched under his shoes as he took half a step down the corridor. His hands did their job with automatic competence, letting his mind wander where it would.
It wandered, inevitably, back to his family. He smiled at imagining his son seven years old. That was halfway to man-sized, by God. And Mary Jane would be turning four. He wondered what sort of fits she was giving Sylvia these days. She’d hardly been more than a toddler when he went into the Navy.
And, of course, he thought about Sylvia. Some of his thoughts about his wife were much more interesting than chipping paint. He’d been at sea a long time. But he didn’t just imagine her naked in the dark with him, making the mattress in their upstairs flat creak. She’d been different, distant, the last time he’d got leave in Boston. He knew he never should have got drunk enough to tell her about being on the point of going with that colored whore when his monitor got blown out of the water. But it wasn’t just that; Sylvia had been different ever since she’d got a job in the fish-packing plant: more on her own, less his wife.
He frowned as he tapped the chisel yet again. He wished she hadn’t had to go to work, but the allotment she took from his salary wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together, especially not with the Coal Board and the Ration Board and all the other government bureaus tightening the screws on civilians harder every day to support the war.
Then he frowned again, in a different way. The throb of the engines changed. He not only heard it, he felt it through his shoes. The Ericsson picked up speed and swung through a long, smooth turn.
A few minutes later, the chief petty officer came back down the corridor. “Why’d we change course?” Enos asked him. “Which way are we heading now?”
“Why? Damned if I know.” The chief sounded as if the admission pained him. “But I know which way we’re heading, by Jesus. We’re heading south.”
Private First Class Jefferson Pinkard sat in the muddy bottom of a trench east of Lubbock, Texas, staring longingly at the tin coffeepot above the little fire burning there. The wood that made the fire had been part of somebody’s fence or somebody’s house not so long before. Pinkard didn’t give a damn about that. He just wanted the coffee to boil so he could drink it.
A few hundred yards to the south, a couple of Yankee three-inch field guns opened up and started hitting the Confederate lines opposite them. “God damn those sons of bitches to hell and gone,” Pinkard said to anybody who would listen. “What the hell good do they think they’re going to do? They’ll just kill a few of us and maim a few more, and that’ll be that. They’re not going to break through. Shitfire, they’re not even trying to break through. Nothin’ but throwin’ a little death around for the fun of it, is all.”
The nearest soldier happened to be Hipolito Rodriguez. The stocky little farmer from the state of Sonora was darning socks, a useful soldierly skill not taught in basic training. He looked up from his work and said, “This whole war, it don’t make no sense to me. Why you think any one part of it is supposed to make sense when the whole thing don’t?”
“Damn good question, Hip,” Pinkard said. “Wish I had me a damn good answer.” He overtopped Rodriguez by nearly a head and could have broken him in half; he’d been a steelworker in Birmingham till conscription pulled him into the Army, and had the frame to prove it. Not only that, he was a white man, while Hip Rodriguez, like other Sonorans and Chihuahuans and Cubans, didn’t fit neatly into the Confederate States’ scheme of things. Rodriguez wasn’t quite black, but he wasn’t quite white, either—his skin was just about the color of his butternut uniform. What he was, Pinkard had discovered, was a fine soldier.
The coffee did boil then, and Jeff poured some into his tin cup. He drank. It was hotter than the devil’s front porch in July and strong enough to grow hair on a little old lady’s chest, but that suited him fine. Winter in Texas was worse than anything he’d known in Alabama, and he’d never tried passing an Alabama winter in a soggy trench, either.
Rodriguez came over and filled his cup, too. Sergeant Albert Cross paused on his way down the trench line. He squatted down by the fire and rolled himself a cigarette. “Don’t know where the dickens this war is getting to,” he remarked as he held the cigarette to the flames.