The Legacy of Able Seaman Pickett

J. W. DICKSON is an Illinois businessman in his early forties for whom writing has been a persistent hobby. Now he has turned seriously to the short story form. The following sketch is based on a true anecdote.

THERE was a clack, and then a pause; a clack, a clack, a pause, a clack, a pause — pause — pause. Those were the sounds and silences Retired Seaman H. Pickett made as he sat on the edge of his hospital bed typing out in stilted sentences the time-tarnished highlights of his long, long life. Each clack was bold, almost violent, each pause tense and insistent, for there was much to be said, many memories to be dredged from the murky recesses of his mind, wiped clean of their oblivionating mire, held up to the light for inspection, and then stretched out to dry on the clean white typewriter paper. Each pause was a torture, for there was so little time; and sitting in that cramped position on the edge of the bed was a torture, a diabolical, self-imposed torture that sent jolts of pain charging through the old bones of his legs and back and arms and fingers. He had always held a great contempt for pain, so he just kept on typing, clack, pause, clack, clack, pause, clack.

“Hey, for the Lord’s sake, Pickett,” yelled a salty voice from three beds down the line. “Haven’t ye had enough of it for one day, man, sittin’ there pounding away and blinkin’ like a crusty old rooster? If ye had any sort of rhythm to yer noisemakin’ it would be another thing, but the way you’re goin’ at it it’s worse than the old Chinese water torture.”

“Ah, to hell with you, Scott,” said Mr. Pickett, and he went on with his typing. “The mouth to Manila Bay was a wide strait called Boca Grande, and we entered under heavy fire from both sides. Having passed this obstacle safely, we came upon the Spanish fleet lined up just waiting for our guns like so many ducks.”

After that, there was a pause that lasted a long time. How to tell of the wonder of it all, there on the other side of the world, how the commander told the captain to fire when he was ready, and how they went up and down the line five times shelling the Spanish fleet, and then, after a short rest, returned to destroy it completely.

From outside his hospital window now came the roar of three silver jets as they streaked across the base, over the mess hall, the chapel, the hospital grounds, the endless rows of barracks, and off toward the ocean. And then there was the scuffling of a platoon of recruits, wearing their uniforms for the first time as they left the supply depot and drifted down K Street. They carried their civilian clothes under their arms, and their newly issued rifles rested awkwardly on their shoulders,

“Nurse!” yelled Mr. Pickett. “Nurse! Bring me some more paper, hear me? Call them sailors? I’ll tell you what sailors used to be like. Where’s that paper, you damn chippy?”

“Oh, that Pickett!” said the nurse. “Any hour of the day or night. ‘Nurse! Nurse!’ You’d think he was the only one in the ward. You’d think when a man gets to be ninety-two he’d slow down a little bit. How much longer do I have to put up with him, anyway?”

“Well, you know what I told you,” said the ensign. “Old Pickett’s got a leather heart and rubber veins. Indestructible. The only chart in the bunch that goes straight sideways.”

AT NIGHT he would sleep with his mouth open, they told him, and sometimes he would snore so loudly that some desperate convalescent would hobble through the dark and prod him until the snoring stopped. Once someone stuffed a sock in his mouth and he almost died.

Invariably he would dream, and invariably his dreaming would be of words he would put into his book. Sometimes he would dream of the time he was a boy, or of the later years of endless sky and water. And there was the dream of a hot night in Vera Cruz when he was just a young bucko full of tequila and the devil. The sky was still blue and full of bloody-red clouds while he and Georgie went weaving down the streets arm in arm, singing Old Angie at the top of their voices, but the clouds had turned black in the still blue sky when they met Carmella and her friend. Black as the ashes of gay bunting, the clouds had been then. He knew when he caught sight of Carmella that everything had suddenly grown serious, and he could see that she knew it, too. They spent the night in a place where the neighbors were noisy and loud. Mexican voices laughed or fought or cursed. The wistful, almost drowned-out notes of a guitar mingled strangely with the other sounds. But all this confusion was only food for the memories of their time together, and they were content with it, for theirs was a relationship that transcended annoyances, fusing them with a contentment that lent magic to the commonplace. Later, it was all quiet except for the sound of distant waves, and the stars seemed so bright and large that it was almost like being halfway out in the universe somewhere. Carmella had brown skin and black hair and dark, smoldering eyes, and a sort of gracefulness of face and body that made his heart melt many a time afterward just from remembering. In the morning she cried when he had to leave and said in a pleading tone of voice, “You come back, Hugh,” and he said, “I will, Carmella. Don’t cry.” And he had come back, each time he laid over in Vera Cruz, and they relived that night each time, and each time the memories he took with him were more tender and heart-rending than the ones before.

This was his dream as he lay on his back sleeping, open-mouthed and loudly snoring. The moonlight through the window shone on his white hair and dark, leathery face. He looked terribly old, and from time to time his body would twitch with pain without interrupting his sleep. Surely the very convolutions of his brain must have been as tough and gnarled as the rest of his body, but, still, it was there that those tender dreams of Carmella were stored.

In the morning, when he resumed work on his book, he wrote: “In such ports as Vera Cruz, where the climate was hot and sultry, some of the men sought diversion in the waterfront saloons or in visiting some of their civilian acquaintances.”

“Mr. Pickett, it’s time for your shot,” said the neatly starched nurse.

“Ah, to hell with you and your shot. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“I’ve got some mail for you, Mr. Pickett.”

“Well, give it to me, then.”

“Not until you take your shot. It’s orders.”

“Ah, you little bitch! Here,” and he rolled up his sleeve.

“Now, you see,” she said, withdrawing the needle from the flabby fold of his thin arm, “that wasn’t so bad now, was it? Aren’t you going to open your mail?”

“No. I know what it is. Put it in the box under the bed and be doing some good for a change.”

He lay back on the pillow, made weary by the shot and the rejection by that magazine of his Chapter Nine. Ah, to hell with it. How could they tell from one chapter, anyway? When they saw the whole book it would be something else. They would be screaming for it then. He looked at Garcia on the bed next to him, practicing card tricks. All he did from morning until night was practice card tricks. And in the next bed was Castrovinci with his damn leatherwork, and then there was Scott, who just lived in his crusty old way, cursing and berating. Beyond Scott were beds of nondescript patients who joked all day or walked back and forth in their dark-blue bathrobes. They spent most of their time on the outside porch talking or playing cards. Now and then, one of them died.

“Why are ye so harsh with the young nursy, Pickett?” asked Scott. “Be nice to the ladies, man, an’ they’ll be nice to you.”

“Ha! You old coot,” said Pickett. “You and your women! At your age it’s like whipping a dead horse.”

He turned his back on the old invalid and went on with his work. Clack, clack, pause, clack, pause, clack; putting down ever so slowly and precisely the full account of the time he received that gash in his leg, when he and some others posed as insurgents and, making their way through the green Philippine jungle, finally came upon Aguinaldo’s mountain retreat and captured him alive. That act alone just about wound up the whole campaign. He recalled the remark Georgie once made. “Pickett,” he said, “the man who lives the longest will be the greatest hero, for there’ll be no one left to dispute him.”

He was aware of a white linen sleeve moving near his head.

“Well, what in the saint’s name do you want of me now?” he rasped.

“Time for temperatures, Mr. Pickett,” said the nurse as she slipped a little glass thermometer into his mouth.

Mr. Pickett snatched it out and dashed it to the floor.

“Temperature be damned, girl. Are you so rude that you stick things in a man’s mouth while he’s talking? Now get on with you and don’t come back.”

“I don’t know what to do with him, sir,” said the nurse to the lieutenant, who had walked casually down the aisle to investigate the rumpus. “He won’t let me take his temperature or his pulse any more. Won’t even take his pills half the time, and never has his back rubbed like the others. What do you do with a man like that?”

“Just do what you can,” said the lieutenant, “and let nature take its course. These old ones are tough customers.”

Mr. Pickett spent the days and weeks on the edge of his bed typing laboriously. The names of a score of ships and a hundred places and a thousand people were roaring about in his dried-up old head. He seemed to be always on board ship, walking the tilted deck, clinging to hempen ropes, and looking out at the spray-capped waves that stretched to the horizon where the sky began, and his nostrils could clearly detect the scent of oakum and tar and fresh sea air and gas and oil and overcooked food. And, always, he was on a ship that was making its way on an uncharted course, through fair weather when the sea was green and the sky deep blue and large white clouds banked on either side, or through lashing gales when men were whipped overboard by the furious wind and the ship was tossed about like a chip of wood. But, on all the long voyage, there was never a port.

ONE night the nurse returned to her office after making the rounds and picked up the phone on her desk. Later two men came and lifted Mr. Pickett onto a stretcher and carried him out of the room. One of the patients, from his bed in the dark, strained to see who it was, but a sheet had been pulled up over Mr. Pickett’s face. In the morning everyone mentioned that he had died, but the subject was dropped long before lunchtime and they never brought it up again.

“You mean there is no next of kin to be notified?” asked the lieutenant.

“None,” said the nurse.

“And his belongings?”

“All here in this box.”

“What do they amount to?”

“Pages and pages of writing — his book, he called it — a few campaign ribbons, and a last will and testament.”

“Well,” said the lieutenant, “you can burn it all except the will. What does it say?”

“He requests to be buried at sea, sir.”

“Buried at sea? Incredible. No one is buried at sea. Are you sure it says buried at sea?”

“Yes, sir. Buried at sea.”

“My God!” said the lieutenant. “Give me that,” and he arose to leave.


“Yes, nurse.”

“Would it be all right if I kept Mr. Pickett’s book?”

“Oh, I don’t care. Suit yourself. Imagine, buried at sea.”

At headquarters, the lieutenant commander was nonplused. “Buried at sea?” he cracked. “No one is buried at sea.”

“Very true, sir,” said the legal officer, “but this will is valid paper and may not be transcended. In fact, we are bound to carry it out to the letter.”

“But the fleet is in the Mediterranean. I won’t have a ship available for two months, and that will be in the middle of January.”

“Then January it will have to be, sir.”

“And what do we do with this Pickett in the meantime? Keep him on ice?”

“If no other facilities are available, sir. Yes, I might suggest keeping him on ice.”

No one went in the basement of the administration building very often. The old X-ray file was kept there, large bottles of alcohol and paregoric and the more common medicines were kept there, unused wheel chairs, cots, and mattresses were kept there, some odd-sized artificial limbs and crutches were kept there, and Mr, H. Pickett was kept there, in an old deep-freeze unit the lieutenant had borrowed from the mess hall. From time to time one of the nurses would come back up the stairs from there and say, “It’s bad enough having to go down in that dirty place without having that old dead body there besides. Oogh!”

But that is where the remains of Mr. Pickett lay, throughout the months of October, November, and December. As still as a stone he lay, waiting for a ship. As still as the crutches and artificial limbs. A wisp of moisture had frozen into a little cloud of frost and hung over his lip like a spider web. Nothing moved and there was no life, but it was obvious that here was a ship that had sailed a long, long way and could go no farther, that here was a man who could not forsake his ship, for it had too great a hold on him.

It was not until the latter part of January that accommodations were finally available for the burial at sea of Mr. H. Pickett. His body, wrapped and bound in sailcloth and properly weighted, was laid on a stretcher, draped with a flag, and carried off by two ward boys for transportation to the battleship. The lieutenant, the ensign, and the nurses were greatly relieved to be able to scratch him off their inventory sheet and see him leave at last, but no one really relaxed until it could be seen from the office window that the battleship had shoved off and was heading toward the mouth of the bay.

The air was bitter cold, some thirty miles out, there in the North Atlantic. All hands had been called out on deck and were standing at rigid attention. To a man, their teeth were chattering and their hands and feet were numb with cold. Spray from windward had begun to settle on their clothing in an icy glaze. The captain was redfaced and puffing great clouds of breath from his nose and mouth. Seaman H. Pickett lay quietly beneath the flag.

“All the world is nothing if the soul must be given for it,” read the chaplain. “Preserve, therefore, my soul, O Lord, because it belongs to Thee. Thou alone didst steer my boat through all its voyage, but hast a more especial care of it when it comes to a narrow current or to a dangerous fall of waters.”

The captain, his irritation thinly veiled, stepped to one side and whispered hoarsely to the chaplain. “For God’s sake, cut it short, sir. My men are damn near frozen stiff.”

The services ended shortly thereafter.

Two sailors stepped up to tilt the stretcher over the rail and the canvas-wrapped body of Seaman H. Pickett slipped out from under the flag. The cold Atlantic was so rough and wavy that one of the sailors, looking down at the water, could not tell which splash Mr. Pickett had made. The men returned to their quarters, the battleship steamed back to port, and that was the end of Mr. Pickett.

Or almost the end. That night, the young nurse took a large sheaf of paper out of an old box and resumed her reading:

“On March 16 of that same year (1889) we were lined up in the harbor of Apia with the decks cleared for action, but before a shot could be fired by either side, one of the worst typhoons in the history of Samoa struck with such terrific force that all the ships of both navies were either capsized or dashed on the beach and the coral reefs. Thus it happened that, instead of fighting the Germans, we were busy saving them from the turbulent water, and they us, and by nightfall men of either side shared the same campfires, and since their navies were destroyed, the political dispute had to be resolved at the conference table.”

The nurse lay the manuscript aside and gazed out the window at the night and the vast, dark ocean.