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The Water of the Pearl

by Carole Bellacera

Gayle hadn't really expected to receive a lei upon her arrival at Honolulu's International Airport, but when she stepped into the terminal and there was no smiling Hawaiian there to greet them, she was unreasonably disappointed.

Her father didn't notice. He stood stiffly as the escalator carried them down to the baggage terminal, his blue eyes scanning the crowd as if searching for a familiar face. His right hand moved up and down his left arm as if he were in pain. A tiny shiver of fear swept over Gayle.

It had been only three months since the triple bypass. Too soon to take a trip across the ocean to Hawaii, in her opinion. But Dad had been adamant. At age seventy-one, there was only one thing he wanted out of life. To go back to Pearl Harbor to pay his last respects to his fellow sailors who'd gone down with the Arizona.

As the taxi drove toward Waikiki, Gayle noticed the faraway expression in her father's eyes as he gazed at the turquoise ocean on the right.

Suddenly, he spoke, "I want to go as soon as we check in."

Gayle tried to control the irritation in her voice, "Oh, Dad. Can't we just relax for the rest of the afternoon and go tomorrow? We just got off an eight-hour flight!"

He turned to her, his face earnest. "It's really important to me that I go today."

"Okay." Gayle stared out the window. Up ahead and to the right, Diamond Head loomed behind the glittering city of Honolulu. It was a landmark she should've seen for the first time back in 1967, and would have if Chris had lived long enough to meet her in Hawaii for his R & R. They'd been married less than two years when his F-14 went down in the Vietnamese jungle and he officially became listed as an MIA. Missing In Action.

The taxi slowed to a crawl as it merged with the traffic heading into the heart of Waikiki. On the right, they passed by the Hilton Hawaiian Village with its famous sign, "Home of Don Ho."

What was she doing here anyway? It should be Dennis here baby-sitting their father on this sentimental journey. Baby brother Dennis was the one Dad really wanted to be with, after all. Not his liberal daughter who'd managed to almost single-handedly put enough heat on the military about the MIA issue that the American Association for MIA Families had been formed, an organization designed to give support to families of MIAs. She'd been its president for the last three years. Dennis, the high-ranking CIA officer, was much too busy in his Langley, Virginia office to come to Hawaii with his ailing father. Let Gayle do it, his attitude had suggested. Gayle could be spared from her "do-nothing" career.

Gayle wished she could've said no. But that was one thing she'd never been able to say to her father. Throughout most of her life, she'd been trying to be the kind of daughter he'd be proud of. But her actions after Chris' disappearance had left a lasting impression on him. As a WWII veteran and survivor of the Arizona sinking, he'd been horrified at her anger at the Vietnam War. The first time she'd made a speech accusing the government of withholding information about MIAs, he'd become almost apoplectic in his fury. Anti-American, he called her.

It wasn't true! She loved her country. But she hated the war that had taken away her husband and the system that refused to give her answers about his death.

***

Gayle stood on the balcony and gazed out at Diamond Head and the sprawl of Waikiki Beach. At last. Hawaii! After all these years, she'd made it here, and under what bizarre circumstances. So Dad could say goodbye to a sunken ship and a bunch of ghosts.

She resented it. She'd vowed to never come to the fiftieth state. It was to have held such lovely memories for her, but instead, it was a constant reminder of Chris' death.

The details had been sketchy. With the help of the A.A.M.A., Gayle finally received a more detailed report. They'd told her his plane had gone down in enemy territory somewhere along the Demilitarized Zone. Another pilot had established contact with him moments after he'd bailed out and landed apparently uninjured. Chris had identified himself and reported his position. Then his radio contact had been interrupted by what sounded like machine gun fire. His body was never found. Captain Christopher McFarland had been listed as an MIA, but no one had held out any hope that he was still alive.

"Gayle?"

Her father had entered through the connecting door and was standing uncertainly in the middle of her room.

Gayle stepped inside. "I was just admiring the view."

"Can we go now?" His expression was hopeful, yet, cautious, as if afraid his question would set off some kind of explosion.

Gayle felt a pang in her chest. Had she really been behaving so terribly?

Yes, of course she had.

She nodded briefly and grabbed her purse. "Let's go."

***

The taxi dropped them off just in front of the Arizona Visitor Center. There was no line for tickets, but the National Park representative at the gate told Gayle there would be a twenty-minute wait before the next group would board the shuttle boat to the memorial.

Gayle nodded and led her father out to a grassy area that overlooked the harbor and in the distance, the sleek white structure of the Memorial. To pass the time, she suggested they look through the museum, but was relieved when he shook his head.

"Maybe afterward."

They sat down on a stone wall near the water and allowed the warm tradewinds to caress their winter-chilled skin. With faraway eyes, Dad gazed past her left shoulder at the memorial. She knew he was thinking about that December morning fifty years ago.

Gayle fingered the flower lei around her neck. Thanks to the staff at the hotel, she'd received one, after all. Plumeria, they'd called it. It had a lovely perfumed scent that came and went with the breeze.

"That night in Waikiki had really been something," Dad said. "The Arizona Band played back-up at the Battle of Music Contest. The U.S.S. Pennsylvania Band ended up winning it."

Gayle nodded, wondering how many times she'd heard this story. One hundred? Or perhaps two? Now, he'd talk about the partying in Waikiki.

"After the competition, we hit the town. I was having so much fun, I didn't know if I was coming or going. Nearly left my trumpet in one of those nightclubs. My bunkmate, Corky, took me out to this Thai restaurant about one-thirty in the morning and I ate until I thought I was going to pop." Restlessly, he rubbed his hand down his left arm, his eyes fixed on the memorial. "We didn't get back to the ship until almost three."

To her surprise, Gayle found she was really listening. For the first time in all the years she'd heard the story, it was taking shape in her mind. Coming alive. Why now? Because it had happened only a few football fields away?

He'd fallen silent.

"Go on," she said. "What happened then?"

He looked at her, a light of surprise in his weathered blue eyes. "The admiral had given the band permission to sleep late the next morning. But I guess that Thai food did something to my insides. I tossed and turned and was in the worst kind of pain for hours. Finally, about seven-fifteen, I gave it up. I got dressed and went up on deck, hoping some of that fresh sea air would make me feel better."

"And that's where you were when the Japanese planes came over?"

He nodded. "Who would've thought some bad Thai food would've saved my life?"

"But your friend, Corky...he had some, too. Why didn't he get sick?"

Dad gave a short laugh. "Old Cork could eat anything! He grew up poor down in Mississippi, never had enough to eat, I guess. He even liked chow hall food!" His hand trembled as he reached into his shirt pocket for his pack of cigarettes. "Corky was sleeping like a hibernating bear when I left him."

Gayle had to bite her lip to stop herself from lecturing him about the smoking. If he wouldn't listen to his doctor, why would he listen to her? "What happened to you during the attack? I know you've told me before, but..."

He lit the cigarette and took a short draw on it. "It happened so fast. Almost as soon as I realized we were under attack, I saw the planes and then the explosion from one of the other ships. Before I could decide what to do, we were hit. The explosion knocked me off my feet. It was just chaos. I hit my head on something and the next thing I knew, I was in the water and being pulled onto a rescue boat."

"You were really lucky, weren't you?" Gayle said. "Being thrown clear and then rescued so quickly."

"Someone was watching out for me that day," he agreed. "I had some burns and a big gash in my head, but I more or less walked away intact."

A shrill whistle split the air, and a voice spoke from the P.A. system. "If you're holding a ticket for Group # Seventeen, please make your way to the theater entrance to the left. There'll be a short film presented before boarding the shuttle boat to the memorial."

During the movie, Gayle found herself wanting to reach over and take her father's hand, but she couldn't make herself do it. They'd never been close. It would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise now.

When the movie ended, Gayle stood up to join the crowd at the door waiting to embark onto the shuttle boat. Outside, the sun glinted down on the aquamarine waters of the harbor in mirrored daggers of light. Off to her right, the Arizona Memorial waited.

Suddenly, Gayle wished she didn't have to go. Something was happening inside her. It was like the first cracks in an ice-encased lake during the thaw of spring. Her emotions had been frozen a long time; she wasn't sure she wanted it to be any other way.

Of course, it was too late to turn back now. She'd promised Dad.

On board the shuttle boat, Gayle allowed her father to sit on the outside so he could get a clear view of the memorial. She pinned her eyes on the guide as the launch pulled away from the dock and began its nine-minute trip to the Arizona.

"Wai Momi," the guide was saying. "The Hawaiian words for Pearl Harbor, meaning 'water of the pearl.' Before December 7, 1941, very few people on the mainland had ever heard of Pearl Harbor. Before the day was through, those two words would be on the lips of every American."

Just as the guide fell silent, the engines were cut off and for a few moments, the launch floated in the gentle swells of the harbor. Every pair of eyes on board turned to the elegant white lines of the Arizona Memorial off the starboard side. Gayle felt an inexplicable tightening in her throat and attributed it to the monument's simplistic beauty. On one end of it, a carving depicted the Biblical "tree of life." A symbol of peace and humanity, the guide had said. Gayle shook her head. How ironic to have a symbol of peace in a place where war had wrought inconceivable destruction upon humanity.

The boat silently slid up to the small dock of the memorial. Her father nudged her, and Gayle realized everyone was already standing up to disembark. As they made their way off, her father moved ahead of her in his haste to confront his ghosts. He stumbled as he reached the end of the gangplank. Instinctively, Gayle extended a hand to steady him. He turned and gave her one of his rare sweet smiles, the kind of smile that thirty years ago, she would've done handsprings to earn. Even now, it thrilled her and sent her heart singing.

She followed him into the first of the memorial's three chambers, the Bell Room. There, enshrined in a roped-off area was one of the Arizona's bells that had been blown off by the force of the blast. Her father stared at it a moment and then turned to the open-air main assembly area that spanned the sunken ship. Gayle went to one of the open windows overlooking the stern. A moment later, she felt her father's presence at her side. At first, she couldn't see much in the blue depths. Something was down there, but she couldn't make out quite what it was. Life, in the form of colorful hues of tropical fish, was abundant, and somehow, appropriate.

She'd been prepared for a place of deep sorrow, a funereal atmosphere, yet, it wasn't like that, at all. It was beautiful. And solemnly moving.

Her father pointed his finger toward a spot in the water and said softly, "See that streak of color there? It's oil still leaking from the ruptured tanks."

Gayle nodded, but couldn't speak. Her throat had closed up again. After a long moment, her father turned and shuffled toward the third chamber, the Shrine Room. There, on a wall of marble, were etched the names of the 1,177 sailors and marines who'd gone down with the Arizona. Gayle moved up to stand beside her father and the others who'd gathered to pay respects to the victims. Her eyes scanned the names of the dead.

Thousands of miles away, on another marble wall, a black one, the name of Christopher Theodore McFarland was etched.

His wife had never seen it.

Tears filled Gayle's eyes. She turned to tell her father she would wait for him on the boat, but froze when she saw the tears streaking down his weathered face. His eyes were fastened on one of the names on the wall. Corky's.

She slipped away from him and returned to the open area, this time to the bow side of the ship. A rusted circular structure reared above the water line. Gun Turret # Three. Then, as a cloud moved across the sky, the sun speared down at an angle, and Gayle clearly saw the outline of the Arizona under the water. It made everything more real and infinitely more heartbreaking.

As she began to turn away, her eyes were caught by something colorful just below one of the open windows in a rusted tubular structure rising from the submerged ship. Fresh flowers! On a closer look, Gayle realized it wasn't just flowers, but a lei. It had been tossed into the broken flagstaff of the wrecked ship.

It was such a simple thing, a token dedication to the remains of the American men below the calm waters, yet, the sight of it was Gayle's undoing. The floe of ice that had encased her heart for the last two decades splintered into fragments. She didn't try to stop the tears streaking down her face. They weren't just for her father's shipmates or even for her lost Chris, but for herself, who'd been just as lost. The tears were for Dad, too. For all the time they'd lost in not getting to know each other, and for the little time they had left.

"Gayle?"

A tentative hand touched her shoulder. She turned and looked into the swollen eyes of her father. He didn't speak, but drew her into his arms. For a moment, it was almost like being six-years-old again when Daddy's hug could fix anything. Finally, she was able to speak, "You know what's the worst thing? Not being able to say goodbye to him."

"I know," he said, his voice gruff with his own tears. "Don't you see? That's why I had to come here."

They were silent for a long moment, holding each other. Finally, Gayle pulled away and looked into his eyes. "Dad, do you think you could come to Washington D.C. with me?"

He nodded, and Gayle's heart twinged at the sight of his Adam's apple bobbing in his scrawny neck.

A shrill whistle pierced the air.

"Ladies and gentlemen, would you please board the shuttle boat for the return to the visitor's center."

Slowly, her father released her, but kept one hand fastened to hers. He took a step toward the entrance of the memorial.

"Wait, Dad."

He looked back at her.

Gayle touched the plumeria lei around her neck, and then slowly took it off and dropped it over the side of the Arizona Memorial. As the National Park Service guide requested again that they reboard the boat, Gayle took a final glance at the delicate flower lei floating in the blue depths of Wai Momi. The water of the pearl.

 


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