• The Looking Glass Sea
  • The Looking Glass Sea
  • The Looking Glass Sea
  • The Looking Glass Sea

The Looking Glass Sea

A Rescue Most Ironic

On the light cruiser USS Oklahoma City, we were crossing the Java Sea. We were bound south for Jakarta that morning. The equatorial waters were so warm and still that we seemed to be on some quiet pond rather than the furthest reaches of the Pacific. Only our ship disturbed the glassy water. In the distance, clouds rose and formed, and metamorphosed and puffed and spread with startling rapidity. They were mottled with pink and the color fell shining on the sea. The blue of the water, in turn, reached up to the clouds where the colors mixed and mingled and unraveled the horizon, confusing the distinction between sea and sky, making the world a billowy sphere of pink and blue and white for us to glide through.

The sphere was composed of two perfectly matched opposing hemispheres, each reflecting into the other. The sky and clouds shone from the sea, and the sea was visible in the sky. The ship’s ripply counterpart shimmered upside down, an undulating alter ego. The ship’s eye hung forward and above the prow, where the water was yet undisturbed. To stand there and look down was to see the sky in the sea and the sea in the sky, and yet both still in their proper places, too One’s own face started up at one looking down and yet still looking up, each into the other, into the other, into the other, “stretching out to the crack of doom,” as Macbeth said. To fall in at that place might be to fall into infinity, or the looking glass, or one’s self. We sailed in a cosmic house of mirrors, where, after a time, the real and the shade are indistinguishable. The perfect calm had made this dizzy, delirious thing possible. Only a sudden gale, or other rough weather, could have spun this tangled scene apart, and torn the real from the tendrils of illusion.


Joseph Conrad called this the “Shallow Sea” because of its submarine mountains and plateaus, rising up within an anchor chain of the surface. Our captain had said that if we found a shallow enough spot we would drop anchor for a few hours and have a swim in the sea and a barbecue on the fantail. And that would be fine. The ship’s cooks would bring out their best. The ship’s band would play jazz and show tunes. We’d sun ourselves and swim and eat and talk about all the beer we’d drink in Jakarta. And the whores. Beautiful Java whores lolling beneath their big umbrellas or beside their little shepherd’s tents scattered along the beaches like starfish. “Venus’s little starfish,” we called them.

“I’m gonna fuck a ton o’whores!” bantam Sammy Seabright crowed.

“How many whores in a ton?” I demanded, as ritual prescribed.

“Two thousand, unless they’re small, ha ha!”

“Then I’m gonna fuck two tons of whores, yo ho!”

“Yo ho!” a chorus answered.

The ship’s sonar fathometer was in working order, but still a bosun’s mate stood on the fo’c’sle taking soundings with a lead line. Standing above the prow, like David about to slay Goliath, his watery reflection mimicking him, he swung the weighted end of his line into a blur, then sent it flying from his hand. The little stone arced through the air and raced ahead of the ship, trailing its slender line. Then, like a fisher bird, it dove to the surface and sought the bottom. As the ship made way the bosun hauled in the line till it hung vertical and called out to the navigator, “By the mark…five!” Five fathoms, thirty feet, from the keel to the bottom. Should we have two fathoms he would call, “By the mark…twain!”

Sam “Malibu” Johnson and I were standing at the lifeline, drinking mugs of the bad and ubiquitous navy “Joe.” Coffee to a landsman. Black as night, bitter as death, and hot as hell, despite its deservedly rotten reputation it seems at times that the U.S. Navy is fueled on this terrible, biting brew. Anyone can tell you that aboard ship no man is ever more than sixty seconds away from an urn full of it. I have heard people joke that it’s made from what the coffee dealers sweep up off the floor. Joke or not, I believe it happens sometimes. It really is bad stuff, but American sailors drink gallons of it.

Sam and I were drinking our mugs of mud, making our obligatory complaints about it, and trying to look through the sea for the bottom when we heard Seaman Simms holler from aloft, “Go fuck yourself! Eat shit, you motherfucker, eat shit and die! Eat a mile of shit and die!” He bounded down to the main deck and continued his argument with another seaman. I couldn’t tell what the argument was about, but it didn’t matter, Simms argued about anything. He was always arguing. He was always right and the whole goddamn world was wrong and it could all eat shit and die.

“You know, I hate that sonofabitch,” I said to Sam. “I really hate his fuckin’ guts.”

“You and me and a hundred other guys. If he was in our division we’d have to give him a little ‘extra military instruction.’ ”

“I wish something bad would happen to him,” I said, still hearing him bitching at his shipmate. “I hope he gets injured. No, no, I hope he fuckin’ drowns today. I hope the bastard goes swimming and drowns!” And I meant it.

Simms finished his tirade and stomped past us. He was twenty years old with blond beach-boy good looks and a muscular frame. His face was red and had a look of angry disgust. His eyes bore an injured expression, as if to say, “What’s the matter with these assholes? Why don’t they shut up and get off my case?”

He stopped near the lifeline and quivered a little. Simms didn’t enjoy being angry; he just was angry. And he always wanted to do things his own way. Whatever he did he would do a good enough job and he didn’t want anybody telling how to do it, when to do it, or who to do it with. Simms was uncooperative. And that’s a maritime and military sin. On shore, individualism is often valued. On a ship, you need cooperation. A ship’s company is a family business.

Simms went back aloft to the cable winch he’d been working on and glared at it. That’s how he always started a job, he got mad at it. A slow, sustained, internal rage, that was his style. “Bitter as navy Joe” is how a bunkmate described it. He stripped off his shirt with determined speed, picked up his tools, and began again on the offending winch. His lower lip pouted and the muscles of his arms bulged as he forced the machine to submit to his will. He stripped off its protective plates and ripped at its insides. When he found the guilty piece he was looking for he tore it out and flung it on the deck. Then, still bare-chested, snorting, he paced deliberately back and forth in front of his quarry. He nudged it with his toe. Satisfied that he was alive and it was dead, he picked up the corpse and tossed it overboard.


About midday the bottom came to the mark three. The engines reversed, sending a shudder through the cruiser, and then stopped and the ship glided to a slow halt. Chief Bosun’s Mate Daniels directed the anchor crew as they dropped the massive hook and the chain thundered through the chute.

I changed into swimwear and met Sam and three others on the main deck. Sam was dressed in his Malibu jams, Sammy Seabright was buck naked, and the rest of us were in Government Issue. As cooks set up barbecue grills on the fantail and the ship’s band prepared to play, about twenty-five men gathered on deck in a holiday mood and were waiting for the lifeboat to be lowered before we went into the water. Hearty, beer-bellied Chief Petty Officers made jokes and slapped each other on the back. A couple of shy junior officers on their first cruise wondered if they should act decorously in front of “the men” or let their hair down and enjoy themselves. Seamen and apprentices were skylarking and playing grab-ass. And we Petty Officers admired the scene and told ourselves that it was “us who operate this goddamn ship, ain’t it?”

A gunner’s mate, sitting on one of the long gun barrels of the forward turret hollered up to the flying bridge, “Captain, captain, fly the Jolly Roger!” Captain Butcher leaned over the rail and beamed and gave the high sign. He liked playing pirate, too. He gestured to his yeoman. Seconds later the skull and crossbones flew up the signal mast and caught an upper level breeze.

“Hurray!” we all shouted. “Shiver me timbers! Hurray!”

Another flag ran up alongside the Roger and snapped open. It was Captain Butcher’s personal standard: Popeye with cutlass in hand and an eye patch, and the motto, “Press On Regardless.”

“Yahoo!” we cheered and applauded.

“Press on, press on regardless! Yeah!”

“Haze gray and underweigh, this mother fucker is A-OK!” we chanted.

“She’s the Gray Ghost of the Nam coast!”

“Fuckin-ay right!”

Senior Chief Howard, oldest man on board, veteran of the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon, and a score of duels on the Tonkin Gulf’s Yankee Station spilled over with delight and danced a hornpipe. Others jumped up and down, laughing, cheering, exulting.

The lifeboat was in the water now. It was manned by a cox’n in the stern and a swimmer amidships. And in the bow, armed with an M-14 rifle and watching for sharks, was Bosun’s Mate Al Trevino, who had a Purple Heart, and whose uncle is Lee Trevino the golfer. Waving his rifle and shouting he signaled all safe and secure. Several men leaped in and made a great splashing.

“Let’s play abandon ship!” Sam yelled.

“Yeah!” the five of us shouted in unison. We raced to the prow to stand above the ship’s eye and ran through the navy drill.

“All hands stand by to abandon ship!”

“Ship’s position is …”

“Nearest land is …”

“Your mother’s name is …”

“Steady men. Go in feet first in case you hit some flotsam.”

“Cross your legs to protect your family jewels.”

“Arms crossed in front and elbows up to protect your handsome face.”

“Eyes on the horizon to keep you vertical all the way down.”

“Now, leap through the flaming oil and swim under it to safety, just like it says in the book. Away!”

The sea rushed up and swallowed us with a gulp. Breaking the surface in froth, we swam aft to the stern. Treading water there, we could see through the ocean’s perfect clarity to the ship’s huge screws. Sammy took a great breath and dove down to the ships keel where he “tickled her belly.” We went forward again to investigate the anchor chain.


Equatorial seas are delicate and changeable. The reflecting half-domes of the Java are as fragile as the mirrors they imitate. They can shatter and take new form suddenly, from placid calm to churning torment without warning. I felt the sea change before I was consciously aware of it. Then I saw the ship swing on her anchor as she would do in harbor when the tide shifts. A swell of water, from nowhere, rose up under me, lifting me with it, then dropped me back down into a trough. The next swell rolled heavily over my head, forcing brine into my mouth. I heard some shouts of the other men but I could see no one among the sudden hillocks of water. The current was carrying me toward the starboard quarter of the ship so I went with it, rising and falling with the sea, till I was alongside the hull. There I found I had to swim hard against the growing mountains of water just to stay put. “Hey,” I hollered to the main deck, trying to sound calm. “Somebody throw me a line.”

“Hey, hey someone on deck. Somebody, help!” A swell came from behind. It lifted me up. With the sound of the surf it rushed toward the ship and bashed my body against the steel hull. The flowing water pressed me against the ship, forcing air out of my lungs until the wave was spent. As it receded it took me back with it. Salt burned my eyes. I tried to lift my head to breathe but the next wave fell on me, tumbling me over and throwing me against the ship again. As the steel hull came at me I held my arms out to cushion the blow but several tons of rushing water bent them like sticks. My lip split against the shock of steel. I drank blood and brine and vomited underwater. A throbbing, spinning buzz filled my head. I clawed the air to rise to it. I could hear the shouting of others as the ocean swirled around them too, but I could now see only shapes and swirls of light and dark.

The ship continued to swing on her anchor till she was nose into the sea. Then the swells dragged me along the side of the hull. They rolled me, scraped me against sharp little barnacles that lacerated my body and cut to the knee bone. I tried to swim against it. I swear I tried with all my might. But I just couldn’t swim up those hills of water.

They took me beyond the ship. My body ached from blows and fatigue and blood seeped out of my scraped arms and legs. The swells wouldn’t let me have any air. When I tried to breathe they forced brine down my throat and I vomited and my mouth and nose burned. They hurled their monstrous weight on me and beat me down into the troughs. I couldn’t move. My strength was gone. I was sleepy. I always thought that in a matter of life or death I could huff and puff and gather the strength to do whatever was needed. But I couldn’t even open my eyes.

To me the world became quiet. The thunder of the sea was muffled and distant. I heard no more shouts. The hammering of the waves became a gentle undulation. I became aware that I could see the depths. I saw where the clear blue water near the surface began to darken and then turn black and become void. “I’m dying,” I thought with bemused disappointment. “I’m only twenty-two, and I’ve never loved a woman and I’m dying … I’ve never loved…” With my soul’s eye I looked down upon a white sand beach. It was perfectly clean. No driftwood washed up on it. No fire rings dotted it. No sculpted sandcastles, and no footprints betold my passing. I slid sadly, gently, painlessly down toward death. The sea rolled easily over me now.

I began to feel cold. It started at my feet and moved slowly up. But it was an easy cold. It didn’t make me shiver.

Suddenly, I heard a splashing sound, like a hooked fish fighting for life at the end of a line. Someone pulled my head up out of the water and I began to hear the sea again. “O.K.?… O.K.?” I heard him say above the roar. My body wouldn’t move, it still belonged to death, but my eyes half opened of their own accord. I recognized Seaman Simms. He had me about the waist in a bear hug. My head leaned against his and we rose and fell with the waves. “We’re gonna swim together back to the ship. O.K.?” he shouted.

“No,” I murmured. To murmur “no” was all I had the strength to do. If he would cheat Death of me, if he would rescue me, he would do it alone. He hesitated. Maybe he thought of leaving me. He looked past me, through the hostile sea to the ship. A hue of melancholy softened the ever-represent anger in his eyes as he judged the task ahead of him. I can’t tell you exactly how  a man reaches down to the bottom of his soul for strength. But I can tell you that at that moment Simms did. The muscles of his face set and I know, I can swear to it, that he had prepared himself to keep me afloat even if it had to before the rest of his life. He hugged me very tight and began to swim against the murderous swells. He swam for 200 yards.

He swam without the use of his hands, pushing my dead weight before him. He was wearing fins, but they were speed fins, giving him little advantage. He swam mainly on faith and commitment.

I slipped back into darkness on the way home but I came to as we reached the starboard quarter. Crewmen had hung a cargo net over the side for men to climb up, but I still had no strength. Simms grabbed a line that somebody had thrown down and tied it around me. Then he slipped, exhausted, under the water. Trevino came by in his boat and caught him by the hair and pulled him aboard. A man on deck began to pull me up out of the water. I don’t know who he was. All I could see were his arms, big, muscular, tattooed black arms. I decided that’s what angels look like.

I rose from the water by those arm’s lengths and they laid me on the old-fashioned, teakwood-covered deck. I lay there motionless until two men picked me up and carried me below to sick bay. They put me in a bunk in a dark, quiet corner, covered me, and left. I lay there between sleep and waking, between death and life, hearing, feeling, thinking nothing. No sound, no smell, no sensation penetrated my senses; no time elapsed. I floated in oblivion or infinity. After a long time an old, familiar sensation ran through me. I heard and felt the comforting, caressing thrum of the ship’s engines as they came back to life. Then the grinding windlasses lifted the anchor from the bottom and pulled it snug into its socket. The vessel shivered slightly as she gathered way and pitched easily, shaping her course southward, away from the maelstrom. Then I slept.

When I awoke I smelled coffee. Not the coffee you smell in the morning at home, or in restaurants. It was the heavy smell of navy coffee, sharp and burned and bitter. The U.S. Navy’s favorite saying is that “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the navy way” to do anything. That goes for coffee as well as anything else. I opened my eyes to see a hospital corpsman departing, having just given Seaman Simms a mug of Joe. Simms was in the bunk across from me.

I wriggled my toes and it hurt. I wriggled my fingers and it hurt. Anything I moved hurt. Every muscle in my body ached, and the now bandaged barnacle cuts burned. I felt empty, as if the sea had torn the kernel out of me and thrown back the useless chaff. I gave a little groan and Simms looked over at me. His usual suspicious, hostile expression was back on his face. I took a little comfort in that, thinking that at least I’d be dealing with the devil I knew. He looked away and took a slurp of his coffee. He rolled it around in his month and swallowed, smacked his lips and sniffed. He looked back at me.

He didn’t say anything, but he got up and came over to me like he had something to say. He stood there for a moment, suddenly confused or unresolved. He looked like a man standing naked and not knowing what to do with his hands. He sat down on the edge of my bunk, then stared into his coffee for a moment. He looked up at me and, still saying nothing, offered me the big, navy standard, blue-trimmed white china mug.

I struggled to sit up and took the mug from him. I could see and smell that the coffee was made to the usual strength: strong enough to wake the dead and scare the living. Some people would call it cowboy coffee because it’s said that you could float a horseshoe in it. The aroma was powerful, almost stingingly bitter and burnt. This was not coffee a man would offer to his wife. But I could feel that the smell alone was bringing my senses back to life. I took a cautious sip. It was hot and thick and strong and it warmed my gut, sending out life-giving rays of heat. Its bitterness almost made me shiver and I caught my breath. I heaved in a huge gulp of air. The burned-black coffee taste clung to my tongue and my taste buds resonated, sang like vibrating harp strings with the old familiar flavor. The powerful potency of the brew was softened ever so slightly by traditional navy cook’s method of preparation. He had added a tablespoon of clean seawater to the five-gallon urn. There is some debate as to whether the seawater should be added before or after brewing, but either approach will take some of the snarl out of the coffee. It’s not enough seawater to taste salt, only enough to alter the flavor.

I continued to sip the coffee and with each swallow the empty feeling inside me filled up a little more. I marveled at the irony of something so bad that could be so good. I drained the cup and finally Simms spoke. “You want some more?” he asked. I nodded. He took the mug and returned with it filled. “I put a little sugar in it,” he reported. “Cook said it would give you strength.” With that Simms left. I wrapped my hands around the hot mug and hugged it to me. I breathed in the bittersweet vapors. And pondered again, and pondered long, how the bad could be so good.