The Skeptical Squarehead
|Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd - Voltaire|
Group 4 - The Teaser
Prior to the ascendancy of transcontinental air flight, the great passenger ships of the mid-twentieth century offered transatlantic travelers unparalleled safety, luxury, and service. This opulence and security was not, however, shared by the merchant seamen who dwelt "below decks". Their milieu was far darker, and far less secure. Group 4 is the story of a bright and likable seventeen-year-old who has spent his boyhood in Manhattan watching the great ships parade past his window and dreaming of exotic ports of call. Against his mother’s wishes, he foregoes college to follow his heart to an adventure at sea. Little does he know the qualities that held him in good stead back at home could well mark him for death in this often brutal new world.
June 7, 1965
Jay arrived at the corner of Twelfth Street and Sixth Avenue slightly out of breath. He stopped to refill his lungs and calm his beating heart. The decision to walk and not take the bus had been dictated less by impatience than his need to burn off some of the nervous energy that consumed him. He had beaten the bus by ten minutes. Normally, such a feat would have triggered a small sense of accomplishment. Today, however, his mind was crowded with other thoughts. He stole the moment to survey his surroundings.
The bright, early summer sun had stirred the morning gods of convection, creating a strong yet welcome breeze that wound aimlessly through the canyons of lower Manhattan. The warm winds had extinguished the normally sour smell of the street, but their insistence had also heightened his growing nervousness. His desire for adventure, however, far outweighed the nagging fear that tugged at his soul.
Jay scratched at his collar. He was dressed in a freshly starched white shirt his mother had ironed for him before breakfast, the black pants his Grandmother had given him for Christmas, and a new seersucker jacket his Aunt Gladys had dropped off last week in preparation for this day. Even though he did not sport the tie his mother had insisted he wear, his outfit still seemed a bit too snug even for his slight frame. He checked to make sure his shirt was properly tucked in and then tugged on his cuffs to insure that they were evenly matched. His mother had taught him the importance of first impressions, and, at least on this point, he was a believer. He worried about his hair, tousled by the wind, but knew there was little that he could do until he was safe inside.
Jay squinted at the squat, two story, cylindrical building with the glass block front that loomed before him across the street. Its twentieth century architecture seemed out of place with the taller, nineteenth century office buildings and row houses that lined the rest of the block. He wished he could see it more clearly, but pride prevented better observation. He did not have his glasses with him. He refused to wear them because he was ashamed of the frames. They had been his mother’s choice, not his. He thought they made him look foolish so, as usual; they remained at home in his desk drawer. Even though everything was a bit fuzzy, he noticed that the outside of the building appeared to be clean and well kept. There were only a few men quietly talking to each other on the sidewalk adjacent to it.
This apparent serenity, however, brought little reassurance, and he felt his heart beat faster in his chest. He was becoming more anxious about crossing the street, knowing he would be crossing a line between the relatively safe streets of New York, with which his childhood allowed him some familiarity, and into a world that he could only imagine. His palms began to sweat, and he rubbed them on his new jacket to dry.
Jay reached into his front pant’s pocket, and probed its depths to reassure himself that the little card was still there. By any standard, the small certificate wasn’t all that impressive, but its capture had been the first hurdle in his journey. Called a Z-card, it was issued by the United States Coast Guard and entitled the bearer to join the National Maritime Union and to work in the American Merchant Marine. It was simply a small laminated license that contained Jay’s picture and some cryptic writing. But its benign appearance gave no indication as to the difficulty required to obtain it. First, Jay needed to prove that an American steamship company was willing to hire him, but in order to persuade a steamship company to issue a letter to that effect; the companies had wanted him to already have a Z-card. After what seemed an eternity of knocking on strange doors, one kind soul working at American Export Lines had taken pity on his plight, ignored the rules, and jotted off a simple letter that allowed the process to continue. After a few more weeks of standing in endless lines and filling out seemingly infinite forms, the Coast Guard finally relented and issued him their permission. It had been his personal Catch-22, yet he had prevailed, and he was proud of himself.
Jay pulled out his trophy and looked at it as he had done many times since its capture. He held it tightly, hoping this small, rectangular object could, through some form of osmosis, reinvigorate his courage. He glanced at the picture of himself prominently displayed in the upper left corner and the words “Valid for Emergency Service” that were splashed across the front of the card in red. He hated his picture but liked the sound of the phrase. Although its exact meaning escaped him, it made him feel important, needed and worthy. He read the bold print at the top of the document “Issued to: Jay Johnsen. Date of issue: 2 June 1965.”
As it had done in the past, the small card worked its magic. He looked up feeling far more relaxed. His heart rate began to return to normal, and a new sense of pride filled him with the resolve he needed to complete his immediate challenge. Returning the card to its sanctuary, he crossed the street with renewed confidence.
It took but seconds to reach the building and even less time for his world to collapse. As Jay reached for the handles on the large doors that would provide entrance, a sudden explosion of men surged against him, forcing Jay back toward the street. Immediately flanking him were more than twenty men. They began to form a ring around two fighters who were grappling with each other for possession of a large switch knife that miraculously loomed on the ground beside their rolling bodies. He tried to extricate himself from the circle but discovered his jostling only managed to push him closer to the fight. He was forced to brace himself against the crowd to prevent becoming a participant in the violence. The gleeful growl of the swarm directed his attention toward the combatants.
“Chiga tú Madre,” yelled one of the fighters, a very large Puerto Rican, who held his skinny, white opponent firmly attached to the sidewalk with one hand. His other hand deliberately and deftly reached for the knife.
“Fuck you, Ochoa,” answered his antagonist flailing his arms and legs about like a newly landed fish.
“No. Chiga tú,” Ochoa hissed as he grasped the knife and plunged it deep into his opponent’s throat.
Blood spurted from around the Puerto Rican’s knife hand as if he had found oil instead of the end of the argument. A glimmering stream of bright red arched from the defeated man’s body speckling Jay’s new pants with the thin man’s life force. It lasted only seconds, but to Jay the horror played out in slow motion. Before his third breath, the thin, gray man lay limp, dying in the brilliant Manhattan summer sun. The throng immediately released its hold on Jay and all signs of the struggle, save a pool of viscous red, vanished as swiftly as they appeared. Within seconds, the only movement around the dying man came from the small pool of blood that oozed unceasingly from the jagged wound.
Before Jay regained his ability to move, a thin, aged black man with short cropped, snow white hair gently touched him on the shoulder and flashed him bright smile.
“Cheaters never win,” the man said with a calm practice that sent a chill down Jay’s spine. The old man glanced up and down the street. “Come on, kid. Best be goin’ inside before the Man arrives and starts askin’ questions.”
With the whine of distant sirens in his ear and a gentle push on his back from a surprisingly strong, black hand, Jay’s wide eyes were guided off the body and through the two large glass doors that provided access to the National Maritime Union’s Hiring Hall.