I place my open palms on his bare chest. His skin is dry and flaking. What remains of red chest hair is nearly grey. Muscles that powered golf swings and lake swims have moved on. I begin rubbing his chest in slow circles, counterclockwise with the right, clockwise with the left. With each sweep, my hands brush each other over his heart.
After dousing his chest with baby lotion, I reverse, making clockwise circles with the right, counterclockwise with the left. The circles grow larger, going as high as his larynx, as low as his belly. I imagine mowing a cornfield after harvest.
To my left, my 10-year-old daughter, Emily, holds both of his hands in hers. Together, she and I sing, “One close your eyes, and two say your prayers, and three safe and happily, you’ll fall asleep, fall asleep, fall a-a-sleep.”
My left hand takes a rest while my right makes smaller circles centered over his heart and diaphragm. I know what these hands are telling him. They’re a directional signal, lyre, catapult, ferry. My right hand gains momentum as I press ever so slightly and feel the growing heat.
Some people called him “the Admiral.” Most people just called him “Red.” We met fifteen years ago when my then-girlfriend, now wife Ginger brought me home to “meet the parents.” I trembled at the prospect of meeting a national hero—a Medal of Honor recipient—because I protested against the Vietnam War for seven years. She assuaged my fears, “He spoke out against the war too, though for different reasons. McNamara got tired of hearing it. That’s why they retired him.” After dinner, Red and I were sitting together when he swept the table crumbs into his hand and popped them into his mouth. “Can’t let anything go to waste,” said the old submariner. I felt at ease.
Red was famous for Ramage’s Rampage, a Naval attack in the Pacific that defied the rulebooks. His submarine, the Parche, had penetrated the enemy’s convoy screen and was surrounded by hostile ships. The Parche had already discharged its torpedoes. Submerging to reload would have made them sitting ducks. Red had them reload on the surface, turned his sub into a destroyer, ordered his men below decks, and remained on the bridge to fight it out face-to-face with a disorganized and confused enemy. This blistering attack—which I have on good authority took 18 minutes, not the 46 recorded in the logbook—resulted in Red’s becoming the first submariner to receive the Medal of Honor other than posthumously. A photo of FDR shaking Red’s hand in the Oval Office sits above my desk. Not to be outdone, Walt Disney presented Red with his take on the Parche as a four-eyed fish with a red-headed mermaid riding its back. Disney’s Parche mermaid hangs on my wall.
What impressed me more happened the year before. After patrols in enemy-controlled waters, Red became convinced the magnetic torpedo exploders were defective. He took the evidence up the chain of command and was told to back off. Firmly convinced that the faulty exploders were costing the lives of submariners while impairing our military effectiveness, Red took the matter to his Commodore and together they went to the Admiral. This meeting didn’t result in an investigation. Instead, Red was relieved of his command, busted down a rank, placed on land duty, and told he should forget a Naval career because he’d never see duty at sea again.
Eventually, Navy brass realized Red was right. The magnetic torpedo exploders were redesigned. Faulty exploders were removed and replaced. Red’s rank was restored and he was placed in command of the Parche. The history books acknowledge the impact of Red’s speaking out. In an address called “The Example of Character,” then Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton, spoke with graduates of the Navy War College not about the daring exploits, but about the character and integrity Red demonstrated by risking career and personal advancement in insisting that the torpedo exploders be investigated. Similarly, former Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Charles Lawson, spoke of Red’s “uncompromising integrity.”
Red fell in love with the sea at age four when his father took him home to Scotland to meet the grandparents. Daily at dawn, Red sailed his half-walnut shells in the gutters as the deck hands swabbed the deck. He said, “The captain and officers made a great deal of me, giving me the opportunity to see all parts of the ship.” Red claimed that this trip “gave me my first taste of the sea and it grew to be quite a passion and a very important part of my life.” Red knew, from then on, he wanted to “go to sea.”
Red grew up mostly in upstate New York. He and his four brothers made rafts out of logs that came down the river. During summers in the nearby Thousand Islands, where a journey by boat was required to buy bread or mail a letter, he had his first exposure to steam and motor boats. When Red was nine, their mother died in the flu pandemic. Because his father worked long hours at the paper mill, Red helped raise his brothers. Eventually, an unwed cousin traveled from Scotland to help manage the household. However, she couldn’t provide a mother’s touch and wasn’t their father’s companion.
Red left a record of his career in the form of twelve interviews done for the Naval Institute. A thick blue book containing a transcript of those interviews arrived at the house shortly after I met Red. I borrowed it. As I finished a chapter, I talked with Red to confirm I understood what he’d said and get him to elaborate. What I heard Red tell me was, “Take calculated risks. Know when you have no recourse but to speak up. Nothing beats integrity.” We now have MP3 files, so we can listen to him regale his stories, as can the children and grandchildren.
He wrote letters home when he was on long sea voyages. His letters to his wife Barbara disappeared. We have his letters to Barbara’s mother, Ysabel, whom he called “Mother,” and the two-way correspondence between Red and Ysabel’s brother, Alfred, who was a POW for three years of Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Red describes life as a series of adventures that have to be managed. During his long undersea adventures, he longs to be home, to touch, and be touched. Being far from home, living in cramped quarters, often for six months at a stretch, strained the human need for touch.
Red had been too distracted to focus on fatherhood. Being a grandfather to our two kids had little to compete with. They had ample opportunity to sit on his lap as he talked over his ham radio Rooster Net. He taught them how to bait a hook, avoid a giant turtle named Uncle Venie when swimming, clean a catfish by pulling its skin off like a glove, row a boat into the wind, and cheat at mini-golf. Every day, they saw Granddad swim back and forth across the lake. You had the feeling he’d been born to be Granddad and the rest of his life was prelude.
When they sent him home from the hospital, the doctors said he’d be gone in 48 hours, but his spirit hung on, braced for battle. Worn-down Red shouted, “Turn off the electricity to this house so I can die.” He asked Barbara to tell the crew he’d soon be relieved of his command.
Knowing he’d eaten an open-faced peanut butter sandwich after every meal for 60 years, but could no longer handle solid food, I ground peanuts into a puree thinned with chicken broth, and fed Red, strawful after strawful. It reminded me of when I was Emily’s age and fed a baby bird with an eye-dropper. Red smiled, winked, asked for more.
Another day, seven-year-old Alex, standing at Red’s bedside, blurted out, “Granddad, I don’t think having three hookers is a good idea.” Red’s eyes lit up, “Why’s that?” Alex answered, “Because if one fish takes the bait, then the other two will think he’s got it, and they’ll swim away.” Red’s tearful laugh caused Alex to add, “I’m going fishing next week, Granddad. I wish you could come.” Red solemnly coughed, “I wish I could. I will, soon enough.”
Red asked for coins to pay the ferryman and stored them beneath his pillow.
During a break in Tender Shepherd, I say, “I release your spirit,” as I continue gently rubbing Red with my right hand, feeling his ribs beneath the skin. I imagine seeing a mandala, translucent, rising from Red’s chest. Sky blue stands out. “It’s okay. You can let go.”
Emily notices Red’s eyes are fixed and dilated. Releasing Red’s hands, she says, “You can let go.” She places her right hand over mine and lifts it from Red’s chest.
We call the others.
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in the past six years he’s published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and photography in over 150 journals on four continents. Publications include Barren, Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Litro, Lunch Ticket, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. A nonfiction piece led to a role in a highly-anticipated documentary limited series premiering in May, 2021. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals on the front lines and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.
© 2021, Jim Ross