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On the dock at Toulon, 1986
On the dock at Toulon, 1986
Here is a story based on something poignant I witnessed in France, when I was in the Navy. It should probably be classified as non-fiction, but I wrote it as fiction.
In the summer of 1986, after a series of problems between the U.S. and Libya, the USS Enterprise has deployed out of her normal area of operations in the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, where the crew has had the unexpected chance to make a five-day portcall in France. Now, during the late afternoon of a sunny day in the port of Toulon, the last of the crew is boarding the boats hired to ferry them back to the ship anchored a few miles out. As the sun begins to glide behind the hills to the west and casts a golden glow over the harbor, the second class petty officers are crowding onto the last boat slated for them, a deep-sea fishing charter turned ferry.
Though as strong and tough as any other servicemen in their early twenties, they are worn after several hard months away from home and from partying hard over the last few days. Many step silently, heads bowed and flowered shirts wrinkled and stained, from the wharf onto the ship’s gunwale, and then down to the deck with a thud to jar their hangovers and to sober them up just a little more. Some carry aboard a few souvenirs. A few chatter and laugh, rested, and look forward to the next port wherever it may be. But for the sole sailor on the docks with his arms wrapped around a young French girl as his buddies brush past eyeing him enviously, the well-worn cliché “fortunes of war” is taking on new meaning.
He is no more than twenty-two, muscular, neat, with a trim moustache. She is French and may be nineteen with sad, blue eyes and a pink ribbon binding the long, beautifully kept blonde tresses flowing onto her shoulders and down the back of her knee length dress. She has tears in her eyes and roses in her hands as they clasp his back. Their eyes are locked onto each other. For them, the world long ago faded out of existence.
No one on the boat can hear his promises to her as they watch, but his lips move tenderly, softly as she nods, wiping away the tears. Her trembling lips, in a poignant half-smile, whisper an occasional “Oui.”
“C’mon, man, let’s go!” someone shouts from the stern. “C’mon, hurry up. You don’t have much longer. Kiss her good-bye and let’s go. Hustle!”
They cling tighter through the ribbings and taunts. He kisses her quickly, then once again but more passionately. Her hand reaches up to caress the back of his head.
More sailors raise their voices. A burly sailor with a thin beard joins in: “C’mon, man, let’s go! Let’s go! You can’t afford to miss this boat. Last chance! You’ll be in deep shit. Come on, man.”
The sailor takes half a step back from the girl, still clinging onto her soft hands, then reaches forward and quickly kisses her on the lips, then again. He backs up a step, and then steps up to her as they embrace. His face buried in her hair, she stands on tiptoe to rest her chin on his shoulder and turn her wet eyes to the sky.
The boat’s engine is revving; the last sailors have boarded. He is the only one left on the dock. His shipmates shout louder; the burly sailor’s voice booms above them all. “Come on, man, get your ass in gear. We’re going to cast off and you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Come on, let’s go! Move! Hustle!”
The dockhands are casting off the bow and stern lines as the boat’s engine revs higher. The lover takes a step back, taking a last look at the girl as their fingertips part. Turning he takes a couple of steps and crosses from the dock to the gunwale, where he balances on one foot and holds onto the railing to the upper deck as he looks back to the lady clutching roses to her chin, weeping, and uttering a tearful “Bye-bye” as she waves.
“God damn it, man, what’s with you?” someone says. “There’ll be others. Hell, man, we’re going to Australia and then we’ve got the Philippines. What’s the problem with this one chick? You could have been standing tall in front of the captain again, man. I know you. It’s not like you to let one chick get to you like this. She can turn into some bad juju for you, man.”
“Bye-bye,” says the girl, weeping. Her make-up is beginning to run.
“Man,” says the burly sailor, “what’s the matter with you? The captain would have had your ass. All you need is one more captain’s mast and you are in a world of shit. The captain’s got a hard on for you, I’m telling you. Your luck has almost run out with him. This chick ain’t worth it. Your career would have been over. There’ll be other chicks.”
“Bye-bye,” whispers the girl, petals dropping from her roses.
The sailor is silent, but the down turned corners of his mouth and a single tear betray the feelings he does not want his shipmates to see. His right foot hovers precariously over the water as the engines rev higher and higher and the boat, now free of its moorings, starts drifting slowly from the dock. The ship is a foot away. Now two. The girl is waving as her tears drop onto her roses. He watches. He cannot take his eyes from her. The boat is three feet from the dock
Together, all the sailors sense something is about to happen. “No, man, don’t do it! Don’t do it, man! No, man, don’t!”
The sailor leaps from the boat back onto the dock, runs, and clutches the girl. As they embrace and the boat pulls out too far for a safe jump back, the burly sailor rushes up onto the gunwale, where he grasps the railing, leans out toward the dock, and, waving good-bye wildly with his free hand, laughs, and says, “Bye-bye! Bye-bye! See you at captain’s mast! Bye-bye.” He laughs again.
Then all the sailors on the deck wave to the couple as the engines reach full power and the boat begins speeding to the ship as they laugh and call out, “bye-bye, bye-bye.” But as the boat speeds out to sea and the couple fades into the distance, almost every man on board wishes that he too had found a woman that could have kept him on the docks.