Foghorn had served in the Asiatic Fleet, wore navy blue for more than twenty years and retired as a chief machinist mate about one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His voice accounted for his unique appellation because it had been carefully cultivated with whiskey. Even if he chose to sing Ave Maria, he would sound like a fog-enshrouded lighthouse desperately warning a misguided ship away from perilous rocks.
With the U.S. entry into World War II, like some other members of the Fleet Reserve, Foghorn was called to active duty and was assigned as the senior black-gang enlisted man in EAGLE 32, a World War I leftover that operated out of San Diego. When I reported on board as the Engineering Officer in March 1945, Foghorn, having three-years experience with amateur bosses that he felt obligated to train, was resigned to his fate. I seemed to be another wet-behind-the-ears kid that he had to keep from wrecking the engineering plant. But when it came to assessing engineers, he was like an older version of Richard McKenna’s Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles. During my first day on board I earned Foghorn’s respect.
Within minutes of my arrival I was told that I would stand deck watches as preparation to become qualified as an officer of the deck. I respectfully conveyed to the commanding officer that I would disobey no orders and that I seriously doubted that I could absorb that newfangled knowledge because I had not been to college and I had qualified for an officer’s commission only with my engineer’s license for the merchant marine. For dramatic effect I added, “I’m sure that when navigating at night I would get all those little green lights mixed up with all those little red lights.”
So as not to be outclassed in theatrics, a couple of weeks later the skipper ordered me off the ship minutes before it got underway. Since I had been ordered to the ship by higher authority, the frustrated skipper had to accept me on board when EAGLE 32 returned to San Diego a week later. Foghorn loved it. I had struck a blow, a la Jake Holman, for engineers everywhere.
Foghorn’s regard for me increased as he observed a few months of my performance as chief engineer. In terms of culture, with the consequences of all his boozing in Shanghai and our age difference aside, I was more like him than I was like any other officer he knew. So I was invited when he and his wife had a party at their half-acre ranch on the outskirts of San Diego.
At that time in that part of California, all such lots were referred to as ranches. While Foghorn didn’t know it, we had something else in common. By California standards, I came from a half-acre ranch in Brooklyn.
“Bring a girl friend,” Foghorn said, “there will be other young people at the party.”
The girl I invited didn’t have a car but her roommate did, so both went with me.
The party was unique. At one point Foghorn had all of his guests jammed into the bathroom in order to watch his cat perform. The mouser didn’t need a litter box because Foghorn had trained it to perch on the rim of the commode. The cat was oblivious to the audience and the laughter.
But it was Foghorn, not the cat nor any of the young bucks who attracted the sweet young things at the party. Most were from inland and had come to San Diego as a consequence of the war. There wasn’t anyone like him in their home towns.
Foghorn was overwhelmed. He responded, with the gracefulness of Gypsy Rose Lee by showing his collection of tattoos including the spider web designed around his navel, and, by deftly exposing just enough skin, the high-speed destroyer propeller that adorned each of his buttocks. Finally, without at all being obscene, he showed the girls the butterfly that seemed to appear from nowhere and was flying across his behind happily heading for daylight.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo