The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Berthing 02-31-2

The following is an excerpt from Berthing, a 130-page unpublished nonfiction autobiographical novella on the editor's experience living aboard a US Navy battleship. 

Chapter 1
The airport terminal was a vortex of noise, the very core of our civilization’s deafening racket.  Loudmouthed people expressed themselves proudly, resounding cacophonously.  They stood immobile with cellphones, gesturing with arms and faces like wound-up mannequins.  “LIGHT!” repeated loudly, over and over, the man sitting next to me on the plane to his baby on the other side of the aisle.  Sporadically, I was forced to listen to the sound-bite jolts:  “LIGHT!”  “LIGHT!”  “LIGHT!” Americans had become islands of egocentrism.  All that mattered was our own offspring and restricted network of friends.  “OH, LOOK AT MY TREASURE!” bellowed the woman five rows behind me, reading from a children’s book to a child.  “IT’S A SAND DOLLAR!”  The assault on the natural human mind began at an early age by parents reading stupid books to children, which ineluctably lowered the intellect of the parents themselves.  Cacophony had but one focal point:  the dulling of the human mind by constant onslaught of inanity.  Humans had managed to cover the planet with noise of great variety.  Some seemed able to tune it out.  For me, however, it overwhelmed and overpowered.   “WHY DON’T YOU READ IT LOUDER, LADY?”  I hollered down the aisle.  “WE’RE ALL SO INTERESTED!”  But the voice of individualism always stood out as oddity, eccentricity, and downright wrong to the conforming mass.  Why did people feel compelled to speak to children as idiots, as in ‘blankie’, here’s your ‘blankie’? 
Everything down below in the vast humanscape was money-oriented, in one form or another.  Boats equaled money,
houses equaled money, roads equaled money, signs equaled money, and even yellow divider lines equaled money.  Everything
human equaled money.  Most of us were disinterested in state corruption.  We were more interested in fornicating as
often as possible. 
            “We are having a cold plate tonight of chicken strips,” said the stewardess.  “Would you like that?”                                                                      
            “Sure?” I responded. 
            “What would you like to drink with that?” she asked.  “Another Heineken?  How about wine?  We have a Merlot.”
            “The Merlot sounds good,” I said.  Thus, it would be cloudscape and Merlot, I mused observing the salmon strip of
light in the distant horizon of omnipresent white puffs, mountain realizations and nubial glaciers of mist.  Below I could see
in dream a polar bear scurrying, then a lone Arctic walker.  Further north was the universe.  Oh to walk on cloudscape in
solitudinous realm of white purity while drinking a bottle of red, then freezing to death in the universe, entirely melded. 
That walker was I. 
Alas, still the sound of my trudging
Like heavy brush against wall,
Stillness, though echoing crow call
From the forest,
And civilization not far away with
Drone of traffic,
But here peaceful, near pristine,
No footsteps in the middle of the vast
Expanse of whiteness,
Dazzling bright sparkles invading balance,
Feux follets dancing, numbing being
And sense of separation;
Nonetheless that dark question:
How can so many not feel, not live
With evident on-rushing demise?
In fifty years, all of us well forgotten,
Five decades and we gone into eternity!
How can insignificance not be felt,
Walking round upon the pond?
And yes, I decry this human condition,
Grappling with it frequently. 
Why simply accept it?
To become personality-void, societal cog
Without connection to death and the universe, 
Hide your face in veil of acceptability,
Conceal your thoughts in shroud of group gullibility?
O civilization, enemy of reason, crime of proponents,
Let purpose be to simply ponder the lack of purpose!
Society has become the enemy of humanity
For within its context wars and
Great sacrifice of mental purity,
Entailing unconscious level of transformation.
I walk past feathers ubiquitously strewn
Upon white tableau,
Black of crow, ripped to shreds,
Jammed into snow upright as if
Bizarre native burial ground in miniature.
Who might grieve death of crow
This new day of profitmaking and money exchanging
From pocket to pocket to pocket?
Would it be pretentious for a simple poet
To raise himself
Upwards to the dignity of obliterated corbeau?
Perhaps it would or perhaps not…
            I’d walked so many unemployed days around that field.  It seemed implanted, whirling in my mind.  It was there after a dead-end interview in South Carolina, then another in Pennsylvania, where I’d decided to send my CV to:  “Teach English, Business Communication or Psychology on US Navy ships for two-month assignments in the Caribbean.”  With that thought I walked routine not far behind the white mail truck stopping in front of me at each house, the ground white.  There had to be a better way had written a subscriber.  And I was sure there was, but it was just not mine.  It was the seed of thought that subtracted humans from the rest of life, from the universe.  Harbor that seed and good luck to you!  Let the water touch it, but best never let it grow; rather nip it in the blood, the schools and universities.  Drive a mail truck in thoughtless bliss, teach university classes in thoughtless bliss and fit in!  Crunch, crunch, crunch in the snow, while others toiling for money.  I’d created a body of writing, of coinage not.  Mine was simply the record of seed overwatered, nothing more nothing less.  Seek in the fin fond of the mind! 
My brain was bogged down with tediosities, day-to-day life struggle in America, bogged way down.  “Bas en terre,” had written Villon.  I passed by a house lot with a big hole and tractors, where only yesterday a quaint small dwelling.  They were knocking them down right and left to replace them with glorious bigness.  Funny how Eric Fromm was so popular in the 50s, while today alienation was rarely if ever discussed, as if it had simply ceased to exist.  Had we reached the point of non-alienation, supreme alienation?  Had technology succeeded in engulfing an entire generation, dehumanizing?  Successful insertion of an entire generation into a system so supremely alienating in its very fiber was an achievement of the nation’s finest minds, purchased and installed in mansions and yachts, their children placed in private schools and university indoctrination camps.  Fromm was dead.  I perceived the red cardinal in snow-covered bush, then an old conformist driving by in car, chuckling at my hat, Russian made of bear.  Anything unusual was to be mocked here in Concord, cradle of the American Revolution… and Thoreau!  A week later after my CV tossed in the mailbox, Joan had wanted me to replace the peanut butter I’d been using. 
“And all that I’d done for you,” she’d also said, “talking to that guy on the phone, telling him good things about you and your teaching!” 
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I’d replied, “I told you it didn’t matter.  None of it matters much to me anymore.”  And the crows caw, cawed, basking, black feathers, black heads, black eyes and sunshine alone with me again on the vast field of hardened ground, flight in the air, crow flight, landings and wing flutterings.  I could walk fine, and I could talk and write and my arms were whole, my heart still pumping, and I owned a car.  Those things were positive.  And I’d managed to put away a little cash in the bank.  Now, all I needed was a little zest to upheave myself. 
Walking the fur of the ground, the grass fluffy, I had sniffle in the nose, but bird calls in the ears, my shoelaces untied.  Walking fleeting thoughts of voluntary exile in Montreal, thoughts of hope, always elsewhere, I could fit in and be quasi-normal as an inconsistency.  Un ricain, moé, mais qu’est-ce que c’est qu’un ricain ?  The crows seemed to perceive with greater clarity than most of my fellow compatriots.  They could see me, they looked at me, they responded to me.  Black crows.  Black crows’ feet in the snows!  Crippling, consuming feeling, keep away from me today; keep your distance at bay!  The crows were smart and ran away with brief wing jumps, hopping astray on tan deadened field of wintry day.  Ah, and Verlaine in the courtyard of Vouziers prison, traipsing round and round, centrifugally in huis clos… 
               I was hired on the phone.  It was quite sudden and unexpected.  I’d be on a ship for a two-month stint as adjunct
English instructor at $1300 per course, teaching two English Composition courses and one Business Communication
course.  I had no idea what Business Communication was, except that it must have been an art of sorts, not unlike the
art of deception or bullshit.  No health insurance, of course, but I was used to that.  I had to get a physical exam down at
the local hospital, reimbursed up to $500.  The doctor ended up charging $546!  Whatever happened to the $50 physical? 
I’d reminded him and his secretary twice about the $500 limit.  Sonofabitch!  The extra lab work cost $51.  He’d said it would
cost only $20.  Were doctors simply out of touch with lab costs or did they simply lie?  The sonofabitch charged me $70 for
paperwork!  Hell, I’d done most of the filling in myself.  He’d asked me to.  I was in good health—I’d been unemployed for
five years.  He asked how my family members were doing.  Hell, I hadn’t seen any of them in years.  He put me on the
scale, drew blood, checked my prostate, and that was it.  What was the $500 for?  Sonofabitch!  I ended up sending
a check for $500.  Then he called the house.  He wanted the $46! 
               “Well, Henry, you know the plumber’s expensive, the carpenter’s expensive, and well, I’m expensive too, I guess,
everything’s expensive today,” he explained. 
               “Well, Dr. Reichman,” I said, “I don’t agree.  Hell, I come pretty damn cheap, rock bottom, in fact $18 an hour
as night Spanish instructor at the local adult ed.”  What was I supposed to say?  I never did pay him the rest.
            For my last supper, Joan had fed me an old piece of pork.  It was dry.  But I liked dry food, until she told me she was going to throw the carcass into the garbage because it was a week old.  Well, it tasted all right.  Then she fed me a salad with mushy tomatoes and dry leaves.  I looked up at the kitchen ceiling.  Little white caterpillar worms were crawling around all over.  They didn’t seem to bother Joan at all.  I didn’t like eating with them hanging down on top of my head and plate, so dropped the fork, brought up the vacuum from the basement, plugged it in, and sucked them all in, one by one. 
 “THIS IS THE WORST COUCH I’VE EVER SLEPT ON!” I hollered upstairs to Joan.  It was morning and time for departure.  It’s too short. The blankets are in a ball, my feet hang out and it’s cold and my shoulder’s killing me and the arthritis in my left heel.”  Joan didn’t responded.  “How the hell did I ever end up like this?” I mumbled to myself.  “It was your own fault, they’d say.  My glasses were dirty, cheap, fogged and I could hardly see through them.  I was tired of looking for work.  Well, at least now, I’d have a two-month reprieve.  I was tired of filling out those six-page community-college applications to nowhere.  The light was too dim in the livingroom.  Giant pines hovered over the house.  We didn’t have any more 60 watters, only 25s.  The kid had left a big green wad of phlegm in the sink, too damn lazy to turn the water on and wash it down.  I had to shave over it and perhaps got a cold from it.  I closed my eyes for a few seconds.  Inside my eyeballs, bleeding sockets of electricity like fireworks popping, lightening flashed and silvery waves of turmoil wriggled.  Better than Prozac:  solitude!  Better than Ritalin:  nature without humankind!  What was the price of human interaction?  We were legions, many of us in jails, many more on the outside on the fringes, but not united.  We lived in a divided and conquered ambiance—two million of us had been placed in isolation cells.  We were legions who had failed and could testify to the failings of indoctrination. 
Norfolk, Virginia had the largest naval base in the world, and a small airport too.  I sat in the terminal waiting for the new boss, Mark Houston, by the Military Information desk.  I’d cut my hair a bit for the job, but not militarily.  He’d said it wasn’t necessary.  Well, I was present for duty and in state of numbness, for I’d never been in the military.  How did I ever end up so desperate at age 52 to take such a job?  I was once a hippie, but above and beyond everything, I was now a poet… at heart and in soul.  Was that not the reason?  Evidently, I was not your ordinary American poet with chapbooks of flaccid verse in each pocket, invited to perform at soporific readings on the college and public library circuits in front of canned applauders, but a poète maudit with a tendency to speak my mind openly.  The job would be a welcome hiatus from that, or maybe.  I needed the rest.  Constant combat left one weary.  Rubbing elbows with corruption had rendered me a hardcore critic.  With no marketable skills I was at the end of the line.  All I had was a PhD in Canadian Studies, and who gave a damn about Canada?  Having taught French for a number of years, I also had a certain expertise in teaching direct and indirect object pronouns.  But what the hell to do with that?  My career as professor was dead or almost. 
In the airport, a guy kept looking over at me.  I must not have quite looked the part.  But he sure looked the part with military crew cut.  I stood up, walked over and introduced myself.
“You’re not Mark Houston, are you?” I asked.
“Yes, and you’re Henry Cromby?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. 
“So how was your flight?” he asked.
“Good, good, thanks,” I said.
“Just save all your receipts,” he said.  “We’ll take care of everything.”  We had to wait around for a couple of other deadbeat college professors.  Who else would take such a job with no health insurance and rock-bottom pay?  Houston didn’t have much to say, and neither did I.  When the two others finally arrived, they seemed to have plenty to say, both veteran ship instructors, and notably older than I.  Money, money, money was the immediate rap.  One of them was exuberant because he was going to hawk his new textbook.  Poor sailors, I thought.  Both of them stressed how they were going to push as hard as they could… courses upon the sailors, who got free tuition and could escape from their laborious duties. 
“Hell, it’s no sweat off their backs since they’re not paying for it!” said the author. 
“Well, the books, they got to foot out of their own pockets,” said the boss. 
That first afternoon, we spent filling out tonnage of papers, signing our names over and over and over.  We did that in the small branch office of the College that employed us.  We were contract workers.  We had our pictures taken and ID cards made.  We had to count our textbooks, one by one, then sign them out, and if we lost any, it would come out of our pay.  We were also forced to sign a paper stating that if ever we wrote anything about the experience, we’d have to get it approved by the Navy. 
“This is just a formality,” explained Houston.  “We had a previous instructor who published a little essay in the newspaper.  The Navy didn’t like it at all.  So that’s why we’re doing this now.”  In other words, anything one wrote had to go through Navy censors, and they could delay ad infinitum approval no doubt.  Well, I signed.  They wouldn’t have hired me otherwise.  I needed the job.  Was the Navy violating the First Amendment?  Wasn’t the Navy supposed to be protecting it, rather than helping squelch it? 
That night I had the worst meal in ages at a greasy conglomerate Kentucky Fried, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut on the base FOOD COURT.  I’d chosen the lesser of the greases.  Back in my $15 per night Navy hotel room, I opened the waxpaper wrapper encasing the blob of sausage meats, pastrami and cheese.  I couldn’t eat it, yet I could almost eat anything.  I enjoyed the bed and watched the little color TV.  The next morning, Houston’s helper arrived with our cartons of textbooks and drove us a couple of blocks down to the pier where the giant ships.  There he dropped two of us off with the cartons and our luggage. 
Albert Whalen and I stood for a moment slightly disoriented in front of the USS Occire, where we’d be living together for the next couple of months.  Whalen knew the ropes.  I just followed in a daze.  Whalen was a bizarre character, ex-cop, 68-years old, nonstop talker, hard of hearing, and vociferous as hell itself.  He had a cough and cold acquired, as he’d end up telling me, during his previous ship assignment in the Caribbean.  He’d never cover his mouth, so I expected soon I too would be deathly sick.  Whalen had also been an ex-bartender, was a professed and unabashed meat eater, 267 pounds of jutting beer belly though solid, muscular frame, just over six-feet tall with short white hair and short white beard, voracious reader of near and not-so-near bestsellers and player of word puzzles and games.  Later, I’d discover he possessed a distinct Jekyl and Hyde personality and had been on over 25 ships during 20 years of adjunct professorial gypsy employment with the College, teaching anything and everything from Criminal Justice, English Composition, Psychology, Sociology, Management, and Business Communication.  He’d prove to be ever confident and master supreme of cutting corners even where no corners to cut.  Cutting corners of course put one closer to the bone of life, while further from that of teaching. 
Indeed, for Whalen, teaching was not really a passion at all, just pocket money and a means of keeping his meager policeman’s pension intact and in the bank.  Steadfast loner, he could not stand living with anyone, not even his own mother with whom he shared a home in the state of Washington.  Nevertheless, he’d put himself voluntarily in that position, stint after stint, year after year, and sometimes in the tightest of quarters imaginable, sardine-like with a half-dozen other greasy, sweaty, and flatulent men.  What especially would get him going, I’d discover, was conflict with “nay-sayers,” as he called them.  Say no to Whalen, and he’d apply his full, brute force into transforming that into a reluctant yes.  He was ever snorting like a bullock, hacking and clearing his throat, and digging away voraciously into his nostrils, full fingering unabashedly in front of anyone and everyone.  If not for his size and potential ignorance and meanness, he would probably have had a nickname like stinky, snotty, or bougers.  I’d discover that he possessed a doctorate in the field of Education, which, he was first to admit, was “nothing short of bullshit!” 
“Well, I think I’ll forget the shower today,” declared Whalen getting up out of his rack.  “Fuck it!  I’m gonna do some puzzles instead.” 
“Yeah, well, I’m going to check my email in the wardroom,” I said.  The wardroom was just around the corner from our berthing.  I walked out of the room and into the corridor, turned right, walked, opened and closed a hatch door, opened and closed another hatch door, then entered the wardroom.  Nobody was present.  It had a large color television, usually always on, four couches, half-dozen chairs, a single bookshelf with all the type of books Whalen liked to read, a microwave, and computer.  I logged in, then read the headlines in El País, Le Devoir, The New York Times and The Boston Herald.  Then I wrote an email:   
Dear Professor Jane Biltmore, Director of the Writing Program:  Your ad description for an Assistant Professor of Writing struck me as absolutely astounding.  I will reprint it in the next issue of The American Dissident, which I edit.  Has writing and English really become so utterly, if not irrevocably, perverted at Andrews University?  Can there really be PhD writers out there in America specializing in "digital rhetorics and pedagogies" with interests in "computer-rich Writing pedagogies, electronic communication across the curriculum, theory or history of digital authorship, multiple literacies, or humanities computing?"  When will your department place an ad for hardcore critical, engaged writers, writers who will not cower at the thought of criticizing the hand that feeds, that is the university?  What Andrews needs are writers like that, writers who don't have Orwellian writer's taboos.  It does not need any more techno-corporate kowtow writers.  Academe in America is in dire straits!  Have you noticed, or is your head pitifully buried deeply into the sand, that is, into educationist jargon and theoretical crap?  By the way, please consider subscribing to my literary journal, for it is precisely what Academe and Writing programs need.
Sincerely, Henry Cromby, Ed., The American Dissident
It was hot in the berthing, which was located in OFFICERS COUNTRY, as the sign indicated.  In the beginning, finding my new home constituted a dizzying, labyrinthine voyage, at least to me, of up and down steep metal ladder stairways through narrow hatchways, around bulkhead corners and down passageways, or p-ways in Navy lingo. Our berthing contained two double bunkbeds and was built for four officers.  It was a cubicle about the size of a 10-foot by 10-foot jail cell, metal-walled and metal-furnished, light olive-green and navy gray, and without portholes. 
“THIS ONE!” shouted Whalen to himself.  “This one isn’t as hard as that one.  And this one here isn’t, well, fuck it!  Let’s see.”  He’d dug out from one of his sports bags three or four more comic-book-like magazines, then lay back down on his bottom rack, and attempted to decide which puzzle to tackle.  He seemed unable to think to himself.  All of his thoughts, no matter how banal, had to be verbalized.  “I’ve already done that and that and that.  I don’t like the look of this one.  Yeah, I’ve started this one.  I think I’ll continue.  Let’s see.  Hmm.  Duffle-bag.  SNARE!  I’ve got it covered…  I’m gonna win this shit!” 
The ship proved to be so large and factory-like that it was as if one were not on a ship at all.  Nearly each and every aspect of it reminded of a prison:  the metal, the uniforms, the lack of windows, the bathrooms, or heads, in Navy lingo, the mess halls, and sporadic intercom blasts.  Ventilation was piped in and made a 24-hour-round-the-clock, constant leaf-blower machine-like noise, while flush pipes made an incessant gurgling sound, sometimes quite loudly.  Artificial, fluorescent ambient lighting flooded the maze of passageways.  Late at night, though, past midnight, the fluorescents transformed into red lights like those in photo labs. 
Whalen and I, the ships two professor-instructors, occupied the bottom racks of the two bunks.  We’d end up storing books and clothes on the two top racks, since it appeared we wouldn’t be sharing the room with officers, which, however, was always a possibility according to Whalen.  We’d end up spending interminable hours flat on our backs, in and out of naps, day and night.  The ambiance of no sunlight and constant whirring and gurgling noises seemed to provoke somnolence, though something about college teaching itself provoked somnolence.  I’d known many professors over the years that experienced difficulty simply moving their carcasses from office to classroom and back again, let alone up a flight or two of stairway.  
“Its’ been a tough type of puzzle,” Whalen continued.  “Thirteen…  There it is!  Spiral goes right out there.  S- P- I- R- A- L.  SPIIII- RALLLL!  Too many of these.  I don’t get…  I like to rip ‘em up and throw ‘em in the wastebasket.  But this one I’m gonna win.  Let’s see:  snare.  S- N- A- R- E!  SNARRRRE!  So, P- R- prize goes here and then P- E- pellet…  Four though.  H- E- herdsman.  Yep, HERRR- DSMAN!  Yep.  Works!  And then, a sea.  Hurricane!  Hurrrrr- i- cane.  God, I’m so sharp!  I don’t even believe it today.  Now what goes here?  Trust.  ‘Trust’ goes up here and ‘time’ then goes down here.  No, there it is:  T- I- M- E.  Oh, oh, it might go the other way.  Better hold on ‘time’.”