The Teak Wood Deck of the USS Indiana
I stabbed a man in Zulu. It had to do with a woman. I remember it was a pearled pen knife I'd got from a garage. I'd used it for whittling and the letters were wearing off. It broke off in his thigh and nicked the bone. It must have hurt like hell.
I did the time in Michigan City in the metal shop where I would brush on flux and other men would solder. Smoke would be going up all over the room. They made the denim clothes right there in the prison. The pants were as sharp as the sheet metal we were folding into dustpans and flour scoops. It was like I was a paper doll and they'd folded the jacket on me with the tabs creased over my shoulders. And the stuff never seemed to soften up but come back from the laundry shrunk and rumbled, just as stiff until the one time when all the starch would be gone and your clothes were rags and you got some new.
There was a man in there who was building a ship. When I first saw it, he had just laid down the keel and the hull looked like a shiny new coffin. This guy was in for life and he kept busy building a model of a battleship, the USS Indiana. He had hammered rejected license plates, flattened the numbers out. He'd fold and hammer. In the corner of the shop he'd pinned up the plans, a blue ship floated on the white paper. He had models made from balsa, the ribs showing through in parts. He had these molds of parts he would use to cast, jigs and dies. His tools were blades and snips. The needles he used to sew the tiny flags, he used in the model as antennae. The ship was 1/48th size of the real thing, as big as a canoe. The men who walked the deck had heads the size of peas. He painted each face differently, the ratings on their blue sleeves. He told me stories about each man frozen there on the bridge, here tucking into a turret, here popping out of a hatch way. He showed me letters from the same men. He had written to them sending samples of the paint he had mixed asking the men who had actually scraped and painted the real ship if this was anywhere near. He knew the hour, the minute, of the day his ship was sailing, the moment he was modeling.
But this was years later. At first I saw the hull. I saw the pile of rivets he collected from the temples of old eyeglasses. He collected spools for depth charges, straws for gun barrels, window screen for the radar. He collected scraps from the floor of the shop and stockpiled them near the ship. Toothpicks, thimbles, bars of soap, gum wrappers. Lifesavers that were lifesavers, caps from tubes for valves and knobs, pins for shell casings. Everything was something else.
At first he started building only the ship but knew soon enough he'd finish. So he went back and made each part more detailed, the guns and funnels, then stopped again and made even the parts of parts. The pistons in the engines, light bulbs in the sockets.
Some men do this kind of thing. I whittled but I took a stick down to nothing. I watched the black knots of the branches under the bark grow smaller with each smooth strip until they finally disappeared. Maybe I'd sharpen the stick but that got old. Finally it is the shavings thin like the evening paper at my feet. That was what I was after. Strip things so fine that suddenly there is nothing there but the edge of the knife and the first layer of skin over my knuckle.
One of the anchors of the real battleship is on the lawn of the Memorial Colisuem in Fort Wayne. The anchor is gray and as big as a house. I took my then wife to see it. We looked around that state for the other one. But only found deck guns on lawns of the VFW, a whole battery at the football stadium near the university. In other towns, scrap had been melted and turned into statues of sailors looking up and tiny ships plowing through lead waves.
The deck of the model was the only real thing. He said the wood was salvaged from the deck. A guard brought him a plank of it. He let me plane it, strip the varnish and splinter it into boards. A smell still rose from it of pitch, maybe the sea. And I didn't want to stop. I've seen other pieces of the deck since then in junior high schools made into plaques for good citizens. It is beautiful wood. The metal plates engraved with names and dates are bolted on and near the bottom there is another smaller one that says this wood is from the deck of the battleship. It is like a piece of the true cross. And that is why I came to the capitol in Indianapolis to see the governor's desk. I heard it was made from the teakwood deck of the USS Indiana.
So imagine my surprise when in the rotunda of the building I find the finished model of the ship in a glass case with a little legend about the prisoner in Michigan City. He'd finished it before he'd died. The porthole windows were cellophane cut from cigarette packs. The signal flags spelled out his name. It was painted that spooky gray, the color between the sea and sky, and the stern a blue airplane was actually taking off and had already climbed above the gleaming deck where a few seamen waved.
I felt sad for that con. He spent his life building this. He never got it right. It wasn't big enough or something.
I walked right into the governor's office. I'm a taxpayer. And the lady told me he wasn't there, but I told her I was more interested in the desk. So she let me in. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" she said opening the curtains for the light that skidded across the top cut to the shape of the state. One edge was pretty straight and the other, where the river ran, looked as if that end had melted like a piece of butter into toast. I ran my hand along the length of it, felt how smooth it was -- the grain runs north and south -- when the governor walked in with his state trooper.
"It's something," he said. He's a Republican. The trooper followed and stood behind him. "It has its own light."
The trooper wore a sea blue uniform with sky blue patches at the shoulders and the cuff. Belts hung all over him. Stripes and creases ran down his legs. Braids and chains. The pants were wool. He watched me. And I looked at him.
Jesus, you've got to love a man in uniform.
I stepped up to the desk and saw my face and the shadow of my body deep inside the swirling wood. I took my finger and pointed to the spot not far from Zulu where I knifed a man and said, "Right there." I pushed hard with my nail. "That's where I was born."