I WONDER WHAT HE THOUGHT as he walked onto that cold grey-washed battleship. The gangplank long and ominous from shore to dock to deck onboard with tiny windows evenly dotting each level. Smoke stacks tall and towering met rails with lined edges and rope cords hanging like jewelry.
The Pearl was an odd concrete brick block building in a town south of Seattle. I wondered how people would know to come to this ramshackle space for an 8 pm show. We hadn’t played what I would call a real gig yet, one at a venue – mostly school shows, camps, and churches. Inside, the stage recently repainted black, was laced with sound chords, veins that ran from bass cabs and monitors down off the stage to the heart of the room, a sound booth mid-floor.
In his heart, he knew there was never any other choice for him but the navy. He knew boats, loved them. Grandpa was an adventurer, a go-getter, a wild one. He lied to get into the Navy, though that wasn’t all that shocking then. Then there was a war going on, and Grandpa used to say that “This is it” mentality kept fighters enlisting and draftees at bay. Some went ahead, before their numbers came up, so they could choose. He said because choice was one of the rights worth fighting for.
We called our first album “To the Fighters.” A week before our big show we sat like the “Oneders” from That Thing You Do in a booth in a coffee shop throwing out band names. Brainstorming to dreaming to taking shout outs from passersby, we ended up with quite a list. Some had been taken: U2, Switchfoot. We kept coming back to “The Fighters” but the Foo Fighters had prior dibs on most of that name. Somehow we landed on “The Moon.”
Lights out at night all across the ship, there were just long ropes to follow on the edges and the ever-ebbing Pacific scooping gently up the shipsides as they traveled quickly past small islands backlit by moonlight. His story went that the boys were having a little fun dropping fellas with low rank off the edge tied to the rigging. Basically safe, but it scared the stuffing out of them, especially at night.
I was afraid. Not sure of what exactly. Failing I guess. But I wasn’t alone. I remember stepping up onto that first stage from the loading dock as we carried in the gear and a box with copies of our first EP with pictures from the Pike Place Market as the cover art. The stage would soon to be littered with our gear but we were slotted to play third so we hid our guitars and cymbals and amps in the back. Wandering behind stage and through the cold back room, I noticed a high black wall covered in signed photographs from bands that had come through to play that stage. The green room boasted a tattered long couch by a swash of shag carpet, a Target dorm-style mirror, and a smallish plastic table sporting a few packages of powdered donut holes and a some water bottles. I’d never seen anything so cool. I took a water and downed it wondering if it was actually a thing to bring it onstage. Kyle at the kit brought his own symbols. Dan had a pedal board for his electric. Steve, on bass, Andrew on acoustic. My mic wrapped up a boom stand waiting.
He was waiting too. The ship deck was spotless – so many men lingering for so many days. Surrounded by deep blue, he would have loved going for a swim, but most days he just sat in the gunnery chair watching the horizon. Now and then an officer told them to use a few rounds for practice, but it tended to put people on edge and they mostly knew that amo was not a luxury. What did he miss? What did he keep in his small bunk? Other than the standard olive blanket, white sheet, and pillow. Was he allowed comfort items? Maybe a photograph of he and his brothers, maybe a Bible barely read until the last few weeks, maybe a movie ticket stub from the last furlough where the pretty Polynesian girl sat two rows up. He never told me what it was truly like in the theater of the Pacific, as it was called. Oh he talked about the war plenty, mixing his own memories with John Wayne movies. He’d tell of draftees pulling knives, of some hazing rituals, of post-war antics on a boat he later built, of barrack camaraderie. But he didn’t talk about the war, of bodies in the ocean. Three years in the gunnery chair. Of dread and sleepless summer nights listening for airplanes, praying for peace.
Waiting in the wings, an odd inner calm-before-the-storm settles on guys holding picks in their teeth, twiddling drum sticks. I felt the excited fear zinging up my spine, a sour sweet zing like pop rocks on my tongue. Ten minutes til sound check and play. So as soon as the band before us evacuated the stage, we carried gear on and set it precariously around looking for optimal placement. While the two bands had played, the fam was in full force selling merch to friends and fans. We had designed simple shirts with our name and a rocket. Who doesn’t love rockets, we thought.
We were both eighteen and looking to the sky. Grandpa as he lived order by order in the War to End All and I as I began trekking brick block to brick block singing songs my brother wrote. As I finished the set looking over teen heads with braces flashing in the spotlights, at the mix of strangers and friends, I saw his balding head lean in through the back doorway. I should have connected these dots then, but I didn’t. Didn’t recognize then what he and so many others had done for me. He fought so I could live and breathe and play and sing, be eighteen and on a stage. At eighteen, he floated down through Guadalcanal, and I was here because of him and so many thousands like him. An odd looming mix of pain and gratitude should have settled in as he sidestepped toward the stage, but instead it was just nice to see him. He drove out to see us play. It was too loud during the show, drums, he simply said, so he had to step out. But as crowds dispersed, he looked up at me beaming at my accomplishment and then winked as if I was the one who had won a war.