Lightning Strikes Twice
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner – Randell Jarrell
From my mother's I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Deep runs the inevitable time – a time of modern war, the first, we hoped the last – though it seemed not. Heard of the firestorm over Dresden – clearances made us aware of events that were not in the newspaper, newsreels, or on the radio bulletins. There was some paper or other that we had to sign for this, but I do not know which one. The horror was palpable through every minute at work for at least a month – but no one talked about it, because we did not know who was cleared and who was not because you had to whisper in case someone who was not cleared walked in on the hushed manner which was the default tone. The default tone for things that cannot be talked about. There was also the strange sense that someone was listening – we did not know who, but there was – just around the corner of one's vision – a spy, Russian or German. Think of Japanese, because all of the people were either white. There was still a struggle to get even black people, know eventually that would in fact be.
Floor of the shop was Enormous, both in length and height – but not breath. It was 14 feet tall, and had rickety old machines every 6 feet – with 2 men working on them. There were barrel rollers, and stock frames – and each one turned out just one part which would be dropped into a slot on the machine. Every so often a man would come up take the finished product out of the long roller, and deposit it where it was to be going – but the 2 men in baggie white shirts which were rolled up to the elbow and extremely loose on each machine did not notice is coming and going. Every moment of their time was spent drilling or smoothing or notching their particular piece of the weapon – which was the M1 carbine. The only acknowledgment that they did anything for anyone was the slicked back here that each one of them wore – as if it were part of the uniform.
They were busy rolling out one more part, against the rollers which were attached to a pulley that ran through the top of the hooklift ceiling, with a wrapped around drum, and strapped to iron beams running through the overhead – where it was aligned with another hoist. Sometimes it would be done several times, to produce mechanical advantage. Even if you closed your eyes you would know that men worked here by the sweat. Not perspiration, sweat. Which ran from ceiling to drum on the machine, this Ran in what seemed like an endless succession – because the work floor was a quarter mile long, and every 18 feet had a new machine.
Can remember this when a photograph of the shop floor – from 1941. Somehow it is the site of a wheel with several groups in it for different types of barrel cylinder. Particular sense that the men were cutting things, occasionally adjusting them on large wheels attached to the machine. Remembering the grease and dust in the air, which would only clear out between shifts – and then begin to clog everything up when the new shift got down to business.
When the wheels became running, the wheels became running, wheels became running, wheels running - machined by a touch until smooth. And one could no longer see a stopped wheel anyplace.
All of the management turned away from this, it was there living – there life's blood. But they did not want to see it in action with real people doing real work. Men worked, engineers adjusted, physicists measured, management made money.
One time when I turned away, MaryLou came up to me on the veranda which separated working from observing. This was unusual, she was the only woman on the floor in any capacity – and she knew this because her face was determined, it had a bit of a scowl on it as well.
“I need to talk to you.” This was like hello to any other person. Succinct, abrupt, matter of fact. In that low tone of voice that she had mastered extremely well.
“All ears.” Trying my best to put at least a bit of levity, it was a habit which I held from Missouri.
“It cannot be discussed here. Call me when we are out of the complex.” a complex which was an entire block in itself, made real by brick and mortar. Normally, she did not come down here – preferring instead to remain at the shooting range, which was above. Though one could hear it from the fast parking lot.
“When will that be?” Neither of us worked 8 hours at any time.
Delicately a fragile watch was displayed upon her wrist, and she looked down at it, and then up to me. “I will be finished with today's work in 12 hours.”
She left, leaving me to think about what she was going to say.
Up in the parking lot, it was already night – and the summer stars were overhead. The sense of openness came closed around us, all of the traffic had gone – everyone was at home, at play, or on the night shift. There came the eternal smell of gasoline engines – even if the cars were gone. We were standing in front of my car – and feeling the wind from the north. From the South it would be a warm wind, and from the north in summer – it had a tinge of woods, and forest, and lakes from just over the horizon. I waited for her to announce what she had to say:
“Normally I do not pry into other people's business.” This was a warning shot.
“That is rather nice of you - or rather good of you.” My lips hesitated, just a little bit open, because I knew that there was another clause.
“Which is why I must be the one who will tell you this: I saw your wife with another man – and they were far too close for comfort. I am sure – very sure – that they are having an affair.” She never blinks as she this.
With anyone else, I would have objected. But with Mary Lou, it was like a commandment from God – in fact more so, because I do not believe in God - except as the creator of Newton's laws of physics and the theory of gravity.
“What do you suggest I do?”
“Who and which and what, are not my province. That is your problem – I am just the one - who will tell you when no one else will.”
Waylaid, by leaning against my car - and thought for at least 2 hours.
West was my compass.
The stone faces of the gods pointed there.