The Oscillation of the Waves

The Oscillation of the Waves

to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67)

1. In the Void

A ledger somewhere said an officer
Plus two enlisted men would be cheaper

Than a single shipyard worker. Down in a Void
I sat with bosun mates Randolph and Elwood,

Waiting to see if water filling up
The dry dock would find some flaw in the ship:

A crack or loose plate that would give this space
Between the hull and the bulkhead of the crew’s mess

Back to the sea. If that happened, I thought
First I’d hear—at the bottom of the pit

We’d been thrown in—a sound like hissing snakes,
And then the water would coil around our necks.

Our orders were to sound off if we found
A breach—and scramble out before we drowned.

But the cold water I felt when they told us
To end our watch was the sweat that itched my face.
2. Something So Small

I didn’t think the ship would try to kill
Me while I dreamed of literary laurels

I might wear. I’d left the fueling rig,
And general quarters ended; the captain’s log

Recorded the routine. Down in the wardroom
Slurping up spaghetti, I felt something jam

In my throat. No matter how I’d cough
Or swallow, it wouldn’t budge. I tried to laugh

When my friend Oscar said: Are you all right?
But no sound came out. He jumped up and brought

The doctor. Telling me just to relax, he
Grabbed me in a bear hug. This had to be

A joke. And—it was a joke—he squeezed the life
Into me by forcing out a bay leaf.
3. The Blue They Use

The blue they use on posters to recruit
The farmer’s son and the high school dropout

Lies calm and still, as though it’s only there
To support the real star: the mariner.

Steaming home from a month at sea, the ship
Surged through the raining dark. I wanted to sleep;

I’d stood the midwatch, working in light that shone
Red as if in honor of the dawn

We headed toward. I climbed down from the bridge,
Leaving its small island for the large

One of the ship itself, waiting for the call
Of the bosun’s pipe for Sea and Anchor Detail.

But what I heard was: Man overboard!
Man overboard, port side! Freezing, I stared

At the grill of the speaker box, then ran
Across the hangar deck to my lifeboat station.

Donning my hardhat and Mae West, I grabbed the ratline.
We climbed into the boat, the five crewmen

And I, straining to hear a rescue chopper lift off.
As the boat was lowered, we couldn’t tell how rough

The seas were—from overhead, they seemed
To throb in spasms of green and black, and boomed

Against the hull. No one told us the swells
Were eight feet high: the bow and stern falls

That held the cables of our craft would have
To be let go at the same time. When a wave

Lifted us on its crest, the engineman
Released the stern fall. But the marine

In the bow couldn’t release his. Our boat
Dropped as the water did, and the bow leapt

Into the air like a porpoise breaching.
One second I sprawled on my back, then swung

By the ratline over the craft, then flat
On my back, then yanked up again. I thought

Of a yoyo. Pushing out to drop
Away from the boat, I let go of the rope.

The cold brine shocked me, but I was too mad
To feel it long. Grabbing the gunwale, I tried

To pull myself aboard. The Mae West
Kept me from lifting my leg up past

That wooden lip. I yelled, Help me, man!
To the engineman; he snatched and dragged me in.

Over the storm, we couldn’t hear the yells
Of the sailors above us, but saw them signal

Something was wrong. They pointed to the dark
Out beyond the ship—bobbing like a cork,

The small light on a Mae West, as if a star
Were drowning. I only counted four

Crewmen: the coxswain had been thrown out.
We headed for him, the swells making the boat

Loop around him in a Möbius strip.
The man yelled, Keep away!—he feared the prop

Would strike him. But the engineman knew his job
And angled near enough till we could grab

Those waving arms. We couldn’t find a sign
Of anyone else out there; where was the man

We’d been dropped in the ocean for? Heading
Back to the boat davits, we wondered: What’s wrong

With the chopper? Why doesn’t it lift off?
When we reached the ship, every swell a cliff

Of heaving jade, it was hopeless. A bullhorn
Shouted down: Go around the stern

To L-3! Over to the starboard side
Our boat pounded; moaning, the wind sprayed

Rain at us like needles. A Jacob’s ladder
Dangled from a huge slab—the elevator

That lifted jets and bombs to the flight deck.
We’d have to tie up to it, and keep the peaks

Of water from shoving us underneath.
We got a line fastened but, like a moth

In a gale, we were being driven too close—
Caught under that platform, the seas would crush us.

The giant hook of the B & A crane,
Massive enough to lift an F-14,

Would have to pluck us from the water as quick
As an angler snapping a trout from a lake.

We hurried to rig a cable with a ring
In its center while the arm of the crane swung

Slowly out, and the hook started to lower.
From it came a keening that filled my ears—

The wind clawing steel. Like a pendulum
The hook began to sway. As if in Poe’s dream

Of the pit, I watched the arcs it carved sweep
Longer and closer. Somehow we’d have to slap

The cable hoop over the hook: I imagined
A weird carousel where the brass ring strained

To reach a finger. The hook rose and fell
Around our craft like a wrecking ball,

The signalman and I trying to dodge it
And still attach the ring. Cursing, I thought:

This must be how the prizes feel inside
A claw machine. Then the hook with a thud

Hit the gunwale, for an instant pinning
My hand. I yanked free as the block sprang

Into the air. Somehow by scheme or luck,
The ring clanked into place. I felt the shock

Of the cable when it jerked taut: the boat
Lurched to one side as we all clung tight.

But a swell shoved up from below as if
The ocean hadn’t battered us enough.

The hook crashed to the boat’s deck, then jumped
Toward the sky when the water dropped. I clamped

My jaws as the cable wrenched us again—
I was sure we’d be torn apart. Come on,

We yelled to the man on the crane: Faster!
I don’t remember how long the tug of war

Went on, how many times a sudden crest
Caught and dragged us back like tar. The hook at last

Pulled us loose—I stared down at an abyss
Gleaming strangely as though made of a darkness

Cold as outer space. I wondered when
The cable would snap, or the arm of the crane

Stop its swing, leaving us to hang like bait
For some kind of eel black and huge as this night.

As though staring at aliens descending from
A star that had exploded, sailors came

Out onto the elevator. A small
Thump was all I heard at first when our keel

Touched down; then it seemed the wind cried
Like something cheated of its prey. Led

Down to sickbay, I stayed there till the sun
Put borders back in a world I thought I’d known.

We learned later we’d risked our necks to save
No one: some sailor had decided to heave

A life ring over the side for a joke—
Like yelling Fire! in a theater. Break

His neck, the coxswain swore, if I find him!
We never did. To forget the whole damn

Thing was what I wanted. Down the chain of command
The word rattled its way: I was assigned

To write out what happened; a report
Turning us to heroes. I couldn’t start—

I was as grounded by this fog as that chopper
Stuck on the flight deck: we had done no more

Than try to stay alive. Since we survived
The attempt to drown us, the ship believed

I’d let it paper over its mistakes.
Like ribbons, medals, all the bric-a-brac

The navy gives to men whose life and limb
It can’t replace, a letter was the sum

Of an apology and thanks we’d get:
Condensing what we risked to one thin sheet.

In that single night I learned the ocean
Is a blue no poster can contain.

It had washed away my thoughts of making it
My life. When the time came, I would climb out

Of the sea—like any new, rough creature
Seeking to evolve—and find a path on shore.