What Were Their Names?
By Terry Finley
Blood dribbling down his chin, Uncle Mickey mumbled, “Pecker checker.”
Aunt Margaret supposed the medical staff paid no attention to her dear husband.
“What did he say,” asked one of the nurses.
Another replied, “Something about checkers.”
Trying to suppress a smile the doctor, ex navy, knew precisely what Mickey Downing said and meant.
“Peter, Peter!” Uncle Mickey bellowed out, “Stretch; take my hand. No, Peter, don’t sink again. Peter, come back. Peter, not you, too, it’s more than I can bear.”
After sitting up Uncle Mickey vomited bright crimson foam and collapsed on the ER table. He convulsed and stopped breathing. The nurses rushed Aunt Margaret and Michael out into the waiting area, and the staff tried to revive Uncle Mickey.
Wiping balmy sweat from his forehead and wearing an apologetic but hopelessly blank expression on his face, forty-five minutes later the doctor appeared in the waiting room. Aunt Margaret saw the death message in his eyes and also saw the doctor shake a ‘no’ with his head.
Aunt Margaret slumped in the waiting room chair, despair flowing through her body. Her nephew Michael knelt down and embraced her.
Dr. Frank Melody felt her sorrow. “Should I call the hospital chaplain?”
“I wish you would.”
Dr. Melody escorted Aunt Margaret and Michael to a conference room by the chapel. Soon Chaplain Ben O’Hara knocked and entered. Dr. Melody and Chaplain O’Hara exchanged glances, indicating to the chaplain a death in the ER.
Before Chaplain O’Hara responded, Michael needed to understand why Uncle Mickey screamed in the ER and what it meant. The son of Mickey’s older sister, Michael lost his father in a car wreck; his mother died of cancer when he was seven years old. Thirteen months later Uncle Mickey and Aunt Margaret adopted him and raised him.
The expression ‘pecker checker’ had always humiliated Aunt Margaret, and she glanced over for Dr. Melody to clarify the title.
“Your uncle was a navy hospital corpsman. The old sailors referred to them in special graphic terms.” He pointed down to his pants zipper, “pecker, pecker.”
Embarrassed even more, that explanation didn’t sit well with Aunt Margaret.
Even Chaplain O’Hara felt uncomfortable and turned a slight shade of white.
The explanation worked. Michael shook his head. “I see.” He pointed to his pants zipper, the doctor’s pants zipper, and the chaplain’s pants zipper. “Pecker, pecker, pecker,” he said. “A hospital corpsman is a pecker checker. Makes sense to me.”
The conversation lacked progression, Aunt Margaret thought.
Michael helped her. “Why did Uncle Mickey yell at somebody named Peter?”
Aunt Margaret cried. “Your uncle was a special man. Few understood what he suffered in World War II.”
“Did he burst out often?” asked Dr. Melody.
“Not often. When he first returned home, he could hardly sleep. He talked in his sleep and cried out almost every night. Over the years he began to sleep better; he got better with age. He only talked to me twice about the war, and both times he broke down.
“How about in the last few months?” the chaplain asked.
“He got worse. He cried more. He screamed out at night. He seemed to be afraid of something but never talked about it.”
“What happened to Uncle Mickey in the war?” Michael asked, genuinely fascinated.
“Do you mind sharing?” the doctor asked.
“It might help to talk about it,” the chaplain encouraged.
Aunt Margaret tossed wet tissues in the trash can, retrieved a dry handkerchief from her purse, pulled out a small photo album, and showed them a picture of her husband in his sailor’s uniform aboard a large naval ship.
“This was taken before the war started. Mickey had been in the navy five years. He was stationed on the USS Reuben James. Have you heard of that ship?”
Nobody but Aunt Margaret ever heard of the USS Reuben James. She sat there, staring into space, perplexed and perturbed. Regaining her poise, she continued, “Before I tell you Mickey’s story, let me tell you what he used to say.”
“What?” Michael asked, his interest especially spiked by now.
“His favorite saying: ‘I often wonder why the worst of men must fight and why the best of men must die.’ He quoted that before he went to sleep and after he woke up. It was as if the idea dominated him.”
“Aunt Margaret, tell us more about Uncle Mickey. Why did he cry out?”
The doctor and the chaplain approved and anticipated the rest of the story.
Aunt Margaret pulled out an old postcard, ragged and discolored, from deep in her purse. With help from a pair of wire framed glasses gently placed on her nose and ears, she read from the back of the postcard.
“On October 31, 1941, the United States Destroyer Reuben James sailing west of Iceland was attacked, torpedoed, and sunk without warning. Ninety-five sailors died on this first US warship to go down in the Second World War.”
Aunt Margaret took a deep breath and continued: “Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, she sailed from Naval Station Argentia, Newfoundland on October 23, 1941, with four other destroyers to escort convoy HX-156. While escorting that convoy at 0525 October 31, 1941, the Reuben James was torpedoed by the German submarine U-552 commanded by Kapitainleutnant Erich Topp near Iceland. Reuben James positioned herself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a ‘wolfpack.’ She was hit forward by a torpedo and her entire bow was blown off when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft section floated for five minutes before it went down. Of the crew only forty-four survived.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that, Aunt Margaret,” Michael said.
“Was your husband on that ship?” Chaplain O’Hara asked.
Dr. Melody answered, “Her husband was a hospital corpsman in the navy.”
“Yes, my Mickey was one of the forty-four who lived. During all the years we were married, he spoke to me about the war just two times.”
“Who was Peter, Aunt Margaret?”
“Peter Bettger was your Uncle Mickey’s best friend aboard the Reuben James.”
Chaplain O’Hara asked, “What happened to him?”
Aunt Margaret continued,” Early that morning after his watch, Peter tripped over a rope stretched across the deck and cut open his forehead. He reported to sickbay. Mickey was on duty and was suturing Peter when the first blast exploded. It ripped a hole in sickbay, and water gushed in. The force of the water jostled Mickey and Peter out into the ocean.
“Mickey realized he gave Peter too much anesthetic. He was woozy and could not keep his head above water. Mickey pulled Peter to some kind of a plank, but Peter could not hold on. Another sailor floated by. Mickey tried but could not reach him. When Mickey turned to Peter, Peter sank in the water. Mickey yelled at him. Peter let go of the plank and sank a second time. It was too late; Mickey never saw Peter again.”
“Is there more?” Dr. Melody suspected.
“Yes,” Aunt Margaret said. “Mickey served on two more ships before the war ended. He never got over the death of Peter; he continued to blame himself for injecting too much anesthetic and causing Peter’s death.”
“How did your husband act after the war?” Dr. Melody asked.
“He was angry because he lived and so many died. He felt guilty and unworthy to live. I remember him shouting out at night and then waking up saying: ‘I had many good friends aboard the Reuben James, but I can’t remember their names. What were their names?’”
Michael stood up and said, “Aunt Margaret, you look so tired. You need to go home. There is nothing more we can do here. Uncle Mickey is in good hands.”
The chaplain asked her which funeral home she would use. He would call and make the preliminary arrangements, and she could contact them later to finalize the arrangements. That was a good idea, Aunt Margaret agreed.
Dr. Melody and Chaplain O’Hara escorted Michael and Aunt Margaret to the ER exit. They expressed their condolences. Michael drove Aunt Margaret to their house, and he prepared two strong cups of hot tea. They spoke few words.
At five-thirty that morning Aunt Margaret woke with a startle and screamed out. Michael rushed into her bedroom.
“Aunt Margaret, are you okay? What happened?”
Aunt Margaret stared toward the dresser at a picture of Mickey in his uniform on the USS Reuben James.
“I dreamed about Uncle Mickey and his best friend Peter Bettger.” Lonely and nursing fading memories, she shook with a chill. “Your Uncle Mickey had many friends aboard the good Reuben James. I don’t know. What were their names? I need to know all their names.”
[ Editor's note: Terry Finley is a wonderful friend and fellow short story writer. You may wish to visit his Web site at http://theterryfinleysite.blogspot.com/ to thank him for this moving story.]