In the Nets
by Jay Wilburn
A bit of metal pinged off a pole near Frank’s head in the dark. It could have been a scrap left in the parking lot that had been annexed by this part of the Navy Shipyard. With rationing, it was probably a forgotten cap off something from the days between wars when people parked to walk to clubs even in this part of Brooklyn.
“You nearly won a purple heart there, Frank,” one of the boys said.
The dozen or so others laughed. One of the fellas flicked a rock into the can a few feet away that was the actual intended target. A light cheer went up among the guys sitting on the crates waiting.
“If Lenny was a Kraut, we wouldn’t have to be packing these torpedo nets at all. He can’t hit nothing.”
The voice Frank assumed went with Lenny spoke up out of the dark. “How do you know I wasn’t aiming at Frank? He’s got a Kraut name, you know.”
“You know any Krauts named Frank?”
“No,” Lenny said, “Doberman.”
“Daubendeck,” Frank corrected.
“See,” Lenny said, “let’s get the FBI out to keep an eye on him. Something’s fishy here.”
The others laughed. Frank swallowed twice and kept the back of his head against the pole. The FBI was already investigating his grandfather for just that reason – that and the things he said in public in Jefferson, Iowa – things that sounded a lot like outright rooting for the Germans.
Frank didn’t know Lenny and with the blackout orders keeping the city dark as pitch at ten o’clock at night, he couldn’t picture the boy’s face either. His name sounded like local New York the way Frank’s sounded like he might be rooting for the wrong side with his grandfather. Even with a lilt that sounded like a put on Brooklyn accent, Frank thought Lenny sounded like Midwest, just like him. He could have been straight out of an Iowa high school into the Merchant Marine’s net mending yard just like Frank – maybe Ohio or Michigan with that accent.
Frank didn’t know Lenny and Lenny didn’t know about Frank’s family. As he kept his head to the pole in the dark, Frank was happy to keep it that way. Instead of sending a jab back at Lenny and his put on Brooklyn mouth as was expected, Frank decided to stay still and quiet like a ship lurking along behind the wire squares of the torpedo nets they finished packing up hours ago.
Now they sat on them while throwing trash at a can in the dark.
“See if the FBI can find me a beer instead. This is our top case now, boys.”
A grumble traveled through the group.
“By the time they get the word up, it will be time for coffee.”
“War will be over and they’ll forget we were ever here. Just a bunch of skeletons sitting on nets like old pirates.”
“Someone go check.”
“Like they’ll forget to stop paying us?”
Frank used the pole to balance himself as he stood up. The cardboard and tarpaper cover above raddled with the motion. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t get lost, Frank, this is a rough neighborhood,” Lenny said.
“Yeah,” Frank said as he rounded the storage building, “nothing but deadbeats all around.”
The guys laughed as he left.
Frank paused beside the building and felt the folded page in his pocket. The edges of the magazine clipping frayed and chewed at the folds. He was worried his sweat was fading the words too. It was too dark or he would check again. Frank didn’t have it memorized, but his eyes recognized the lines when there was enough light to review them.
The article had been written like a warning about tankers and even private sailors being sunk in the waters right off the East Coast even back before America was in the war. Frank had taken it as an invitation.
“You trust these things?”
Frank startled and started to turn around.
Someone else answered. “You mean the nets? What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, the nets. You want to be in a ship and try to catch a torpedo with one of these.”
“That’s not how they work, dummy. The nets deflect the torpedoes.”
“Most of it anyway,” someone corrected.
Lenny jumped back in. “So you only get a little bit exploded?”
A rock toppled the can and Frank heard it roll across the lot. The boys jeered and groaned.
He picked back up walking and rounded the building. Frank saw a figure like a shadow crouched on the steps. He couldn’t remember the name of the supervisor for this shift.
The ember off the end of the cigarette flared and lit up the man’s lips in a flicker. The supervisor cupped his hand and blocked out the light. Frank wasn’t sure if that was for his benefit or if the guy was that big a stickler for blackout regulations. Frank couldn’t picture German planes crossing the Atlantic and then desperately looking for the lit end of a smoke to help them find where to drop on Brooklyn, but what did he know?
“If you got one, I’ll light it, but this is my last one, so that’s as friendly as I can get,” the man said. He had what sounded like an English accent. Frank couldn’t tell with the man’s teeth clinched as he spoke and smoked. It could have been put on, but the British did run this section of the yard. “Your name’s Lenny, right?”
Frank bristled. “No, I’m Frank.”
He didn’t offer his last name. The supervisor didn’t offer his name at all.
The man laughed. “You’re all named Frank. Either Frank or Joe, right?”
The cigarette was between his fingers now and his accent sounded slightly less British. It could have been a touch of the gutter British left over from common folk that wouldn’t have been supervising anyone back when Dickens was writing Christmas stories. Frank was tempted to ask, but decided against it. Gutter English and put on gutter Brooklyn were close enough not to matter to a boy from Jefferson.
“Just wondering if anyone had heard anything.”
The man snorted. “That’s a vague wondering. You bored, Frank?”
“I’ve been working here nearly four months,” Frank said, “I know how it works. We were just checking.”
“Now it’s ‘we,’ huh? Okay, well, Wee Frank, if you’ve been here four months, you know that I have to wait for the American Command to tell my British bosses to tell me it is okay to shutdown this vital base for the night no matter how done we’ve been for how long.”
The ember lit up again, but the supervisor didn’t shield it with his fingers this time. Bombs away, Frank thought.
“Yeah, just seeing if you heard anything,” Frank said.
“No, I can have you all unpack and repack the nets if you’re still bored. That could occupy you from eleven to midnight while we wait.”
Frank sighed. “Is it already eleven?”
The man laughed and snuffed out the nub of his cigarette. He took out another and struck a match on the edge of the steps to light it. Frank considered congratulating the “maybe Brit” on finding a second “last” smoke, but decided against it. He decided to call the guy Liam in his mind until the fellow saw fit to provide a name of his own.
Liam asked, “What would you be doing right now, if we weren’t paying you to defend your country by waiting around here, Frank?”
Frank sighed again and leaned on the brick backing of the structure next to the steps. “Sleeping, I guess.”
“Sorry we’re ruining the excitement for you, Wee Frank.”
“I’d be doing it passed out drunk in a bathtub at my place in Queens though, if that makes a difference … sir.”
Frank almost called him Liam.
Liam laughed out smoke off the end of his cigarette and coughed. He said, “Brilliant. Is this not what you thought you’d be signing up for then?”
“No, I read an article in Collier Magazine that talking about danger and adventure. I was looking for that kind of action, really.”
“It’s like the Saturday Evening Post.”
“Well, then,” Liam said, “This is about the most dangerous part of Brooklyn, so you still have the action of walking back to your apartment to look forward to. You still carry that Collier-like-the-Saturday-Evening-Post article around in your pocket as you dream of the high seas?”
Frank’s hand twitched over his pocket. “No, I’m not just some kid.”
“Okay then,” Liam said.
A bell rang inside the structure. Frank heard a cheer rise up from around the wall. It could have been the can game or from hearing the phone.
Liam stood and walked up the steps. “You may be free to seek adventure now. I’ll let you call the editor of the Collier and your folks to tell them the good news once I hang up.”
Liam closed the flimsy door behind him before he answered the phone.
Frank muttered. “I’m not sure the phones are back up in Jefferson.”
Frank’s father was out of jail and probably drunk in a bathtub himself. His father had shutdown the phone system when he felt the government wasn’t rationing him enough gas to keep up the service. He had stood his ground right up to getting arrested for six months for it. Between his father and his grandfather, Frank expected men in suits to show up any moment to snatch him away.
The door opened and Liam sat back on the steps holding his smoke between his lips.
Finally, Frank said, “Well?”
“Right number, but wrong message,” Liam said, “They called just to tell me they hadn’t heard anything yet. Very nice of them, right, Wee Frank?”
Frank stared at his feet in the darkness and said, “I’m going to quit.”
Liam turned his shadowy head toward Frank. “Are you serious? Because I called you Wee?”
“No,” Frank said, “not quit the Merchant Marine, I mean, quit this. There’s a voyage shipping out toward north Russia. I’m going to get hired on.”
“You really are out of your head,” Liam said, “You heard what happened two convoys ago out that way?”
“Eighty percent went under,” Liam added.
“Yes, I heard.”
“You don’t have to do that, Frank. Making torpedo nets is just as honorable a service in the Merchant Marine and as important as being on the water. They’re stretching a submarine net clear from Brooklyn to Staten Island. This stuff protects the homeland same as the guns at sea. Be smart, kid.”
“I don’t have to go. I want to,” Frank shrugged. “I’ll go tell everyone we’re still waiting.”
“I’m not supposed to let you leave until we get word,” Liam said. “Don’t tell the others you’re quitting. I don’t need a mutiny on my hands.”
“I’ll wait until daylight. Don’t worry,” Frank said.
As he reached the corner, Liam threw out. “What does your family say about all that?”
Frank felt a sting in the back of his throat. He closed his hand over his pocket until he heard the frayed paper crinkle.
Frank swallowed and said, “They say lots of things.”
Liam didn’t call or stop him again as Frank went to see if the spot by the pole was still open.