Dangling Y, 1953
By late winter of '53,
Able Seaman Ted Boggs and me,
had served our tour honorably,
and waited discharge to set us free
at the Navy's Lighter-than-Air HQ,
from the Jersey shore a lob or two,
a vast and storied wind-swept base,
a sullen, frozen, flatland place,
barbwired around and guarded well,
a seaworthy swabbie's perfect hell.
As "casual" gobs on our way out
we had no duties, just laid about
until a blimp came in to land
and they told us to lend a hand,
as happened on a morning gray
one snowy February day.
Been out all night, just hit the sack,
when a Call to Quarters came at the crack
of dawn. "Got no choice," someone said,
so we dragged our bodies out of bed
and sixty others did so too—
to form a makeshift landing crew.
The barracks emptied out at last,
and on the tarmac we stood fast
like chunks of ice on a skating rink,
too cold to bitch or even think,
when returning from an all-night trip
there slid in low a bloated ship
dropping lines from bow to stern
for reasons that we soon would learn.
"Your country needs these blimps to spy
upon those Commie subs that ply
our hallowed nation's harrowed shores,"
the fucking Duty Officer roars,
then orders us each to grab a rope
and grip it tight with every hope
the February gale would stay
becalmed for ten more minutes, say,
or for a seven-count at least
so we could heel this bulging beast
a football field and more in length,
a thousand-six horsepower strength,
and get it shackled to a crane
and parked till it could fly again.
While its towlines teased our grasps,
its roaring, shrieking twin-prop blasts
sent forth a swirl of sound and snow
assaulting all who stood below.
Imagine: wind that shreds your skin,
corrosive, bitter, harsh as sin;
engine screams that split your ears,
evoking dreams of your worst fears;
propeller blades as sharp as spite;
the loss of sense of smell and sight.
Imagine all of this and more
assaulting our beleaguered corps.
I stood my post just next to Ted,
whose eyes from booze still blazed blood red.
"Watch out!" I shouted, "Take good care!
Don't let it yank you in the air!"
And Ted? He laughed and spit and hissed
and wrapped his tow rope round his wrist.
The rest of us, we did the same,
and more than one invoked God's name.
"Heave ho!" the D.O.'s voice rang strong.
Don't let it drag you boys along!"
But when the blimp sunk, leapt and loomed,
I knew our task was surely doomed.
And up, up, up the blimp's nose reared,
affirming everything I feared,
yanking its bulk away and free,
and tearing both my gloves off me.
I watched my tow rope flip away
first wiggling like a snake at play,
then reaching toward my outstretched hand
like a lover lost in a strange, cold land.
Then through this raging tumult came
the D.O. wailing Ted Boggs's name.
"Let go your rope you drunken dregs!
Christ! Someone grab that sailor's legs!"
But Ted held fast to his tow line
as though he thought the blimp benign,
and he a favorite of the gods,
and we a bunch of sniveling sods.
He hung ten feet above my head.
"Look! Look!" he hooted. "Super Ted!"
And then the wind wondrously ended,
and to the turf Ted descended.
"Yeah! What a high..." Ted started to say,
when a gust yanked Ted up and away.
Two feet. Four feet. Six feet! Eleven!
"It's lifting me straight up to Heav..."
His words were swallowed by the gloom,
his body sucked up in a plume
of ugly, bruised and swirling space,
tracing an arc from place to place
above our upraised eyes, and there
he swung as though without a care,
aloft so high my squint could scry
no more of Ted than a dangling Y.
The blimp again lurched up and bucked.
And someone shouted, "Look! Ted's fucked!"
His line had snapped like a bull whip.
Ted's Y detached. He'd lost his grip.
Then gravity put on a show
more awful than you'll ever know,
with Ted its hapless superstar
as we watched, helpless, from afar.
Ted's flailing Y took many shapes:
a worm, a ball, a jack-a-napes,
a clown beseeching empty air
for ladder rungs that were not there.
He hit the tarmac in free fall,
bounced twice like some discarded doll,
then came to rest: a twisted knot
bereft of hope, fear, sense and thought.
From that day since, Ted's Y, it seems,
appears somewhere in all my dreams.
And I am he. The line is mine.
I'm sure my grip will hold just fine.
As was Ted Boggs, who didn't see
that life that day would set him free.