William's Powder Keg
“No one grows up in straight lines,” said Elbert, patting William on the knee. “I can already see you walking stronger than when we set sail.”
William’s father sat on the opposite side of the circular dining room table. He was short with a thin frame, but not an Ethel. His dark blue suit and cheaters matched his milquetoast personality. He glanced at William, agitated, preferring him to sit in silence rather than speak to adults.
“Do you feel stronger?” Elbert continued.
“Yes, Mr. Hubbard. The doctors say that I might be able to walk without the braces some day if I keep trying my best,” William answered.
“From the looks of you, that day won’t be far away,” said Mrs. Hubbard, always her husband’s loyal echo.
William returned her smile and picked at the carrots and peas that remained on his dinner plate. He pulled at the tight shirt collar and dinner jacket his father forced him to wear. He tried to loosen the straps on his leg braces. The braces cut off the circulation in his upper thighs when he sat for too long.
“If Willy’s bothering you Mr. Hubbard, I can send him back to the cabin,” said Mr. Blankfield. William’s father had been beating his gums with Mr. Cheney for most of the evening. William heard something about the Freemason’s but it didn’t seem as though Mr. Cheney had intended anyone else to hear. William’s father had taken off his cheaters to listen more intently, something he rarely did with anyone.
“Oh, not at all Mr. Blankfield,” said Mrs. Hubbard, interlacing her arm inside her husbands. “He’s a charming young man.”
“Indeed,” agreed Mr. Hubbard. “We’re lucky to have such company on our voyage. Of all the dinner companions I’m going to miss from this trip, its going to be Willy.”
“Well, thank you sir. We’ve also enjoyed our time with you.”
“Don’t leave us out, Elbert,” Dr. Chambers hollered unnecessarily, from the other side of the table. He was half-seas over, hoisting a martini glass like a javelin. His doll wife looked around the dinning room hoping to catch a waiter for another drink.
“Yes, of course Dr. Chambers. We’ll miss your companionship as well,” said Mr. Hubbard. “You do be careful on that new assignment of yours.”
“Yes, careful,” chimed in Mrs. Hubbard. “You’re a very brave man volunteering to work on a hospital ship. Why with the u-boats terrorizing the seas and the war going on, that’s dangerous business.”
“And howl! But no concerns about Britannic. I’ve already survived the worst of it. I was on a quite famous ship’s last voyage three years ago you know. I’m well adapted to the cold waters of the North Atlantic.”
“You were on the Titanic?” asked William.
“Yes, he waaaas,” said Dr. Chamber’s wife. She rolled her eyes. “I’m a little surprised this is the first time it’s come up, after four days at sea.”
“Was it scary?” asked William. “Did you get on a lifeboat or did you have to jump in the water?” he continued without waiting for answers.
“Don’t torpedo the good doctor with questions Willy,” interrupted his father. “Dr. Chambers may not want to talk about it.”
“It’s quite alright Willy. I don’t mind talking about it but Snuggle Pup is bored. She’s already heard it about a thousand times.”
“Well, it’s not everyday that someone finds themselves on a sinking ship,” said Mrs. Hubbard.
“That’s true,” said Marie. “I’m just happy we made it across the Atlantic without incident. Those scare tactics from the German pikers before we set sail. Pretty low if you ask me.”
“Clearly they’re trying to protect their monopoly on the transatlantic passenger lines,” said Mr. Blankfield. “It’s unthinkable that they’d seriously consider attacking a passenger ship.”
“Yes, well what about the rumors that she may be carrying munitions?” asked Mr. Hubbard. “If that’s true, they’d be putting a thousand lives at risk.”
“More like two thousand lives,” said Mr. Cheney. “But the rumors are applesauce,” he continued. “Mr. Blankfield knows his onions. The German’s are merely trying to protect their trade routes. The caper rumors are like the newspaper ads…just put out there to ball up the public and scare away passengers.”
“Well, this whole war business doesn’t help matters,” said Marie. “There are real boys being killed in those trenches. And to think this whole thing was supposed to be over in a few months.”
William hoped not. If the war would just last a few years longer he could lie about his age and sign up with the English, or maybe even the French or Germans. His German was better than his French, but with a few years more study he could manage either one. He’d read the papers everyday since the war started. There were a few days he had been too sick to read but his mother had saved the old New York Times dailies so he could catch up. He even read about the Arch Duke’s assassination, the same day his sister Kelsie died.
Dieing seemed to be the first thing he and his twin sister didn’t do together. Before that they were always playing together, reading together, and getting sick together. She hadn’t survived this latest sickness, the doctor’s said was called Polio. He came out of the fever ok, but couldn’t feel his legs after that. If he tried really hard he could wiggle his toes, but needed the braces and crutches to walk. It was almost impossible at first, but Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard were right. He was getting better at it. After nearly a year he could walk pretty well without the crutches and hoped in another year he’d be hitting on all six without the braces.
“The war is likely to last a lot longer than that,” said Mr. Cheney. “President Wilson is a high-hat egg with a bluenose view of the world. He’s all wet if he thinks America can’t take a side in this.”
“Now, don’t you start talking about being all wet Mr. Cheney,” said Marie pointing a finger at him like a school teacher. “I can see my husband already getting excited.”
Mr. Cheney spilled his scotch glass and knocked over a couple of dead soldiers while reaching for a cookie on the dessert plate. Mrs. Hubbard and Marie swabbed the spill with napkins and right-sided the bottles. “Guess I better excuse myself before I get bent,” he said.
William watched as Mr. Cheney stood from the table. Cheney had a hip swagger about him, with a mustache that made him look like he spent his teen years riding with Teddy Roosevelt. He lit a fag, blew a smoke cloud and left for the night.
Mr. Blankfield had few friends and showed Mr. Cheney more reverence than he did to his own wife – William’s mother. Other than occasional discussions about his new banking assignment in England, he rarely shared anything personal with strangers. Yet, with Mr. Cheney, he seemed a different man.
“I think we should probably head back to the cabin too,” said Dr. Chambers cheerfully. “Wouldn’t want us to fall overboard in the night.”
“See you on the sundeck tomorrow?” asked Mrs. Hubbard, as the Chambers stood up from the table.
“Absolutely,” said Marie. “I don’t think there’ll be any sun, but we can always make our own.”
The dining hour was coming to an end and the dinner guests started walking out of the saloon. The night fog rolled around the ship like a grey cloak and wind swept spindrift onto the windows and dome of the great cabin, which glowed against the electric lights mounted on the walls and ceiling. The deck churned slightly and a vibration flowed through the floor and tables, chiming the glasses and rattling the plates, as table dishes skated across their clothed surfaces in a race for the floor, being caught by vigilant passengers or passing waiters.
William sat silently considering the war and the Arch Duke while his father packed tobacco into his pipe. A whole world at war because of one man. How amazing that must be to make history.
He had read about the rumor of munitions in the New York Times. He made friends with a boy traveling in steerage. His friend Drew was only a year older but was nearly a foot taller than William, with an air of street confidence and of course, no leg braces. They played war games together and snuck into the crew quarters sometimes. Drew had shown him a section of the engine room and its giant steam turbines. They walked through the maze of metal catwalks, looping through giant copper pipes and spools of cable. The noise was like the rush of a massive river combined with the thump and churn of a locomotive, banging mettle and bursting air louder than the ears could stand.
Mr. Cheney was always in the telegraph office. William had seen him go in or out of that office almost every day for the entire length of the voyage. He overheard him telling his father that he kept in touch with a broker in New York to trade stocks.
Drew told William that he’d seen a crate with Winchester rifles inside. The crates were marked “U.S. Army.” Drew swore it was for real, but William didn’t know if he was on the level. He’d known boys from school to tell fantastic lies. He’d caught his own mother in a few lies too. She would lie often to his father about going to the supermarket to buy milk, when William knew his mother drove the breezer toward the Baker farm – the opposite direction of the supermarket, where she’d be gone half the day. He was learning that just about anyone could be a liar.
William’s father had lied to his mother about taking her to see her aunt that day before they set sail. She didn’t know he was taking her to a hospital, or a sanitarium as they called it. She protested with a look of plea and panic when dark orderlies in white suits pulled her from them. William’s father told him that she wasn’t well since Kelsie died. He told him she needed to go to that hospital to get better. But she hadn’t seemed sick to William, just sad.
Drew also had a story about Mr. Cheney. William had pointed to the two men to tell Drew who his father was. “And that’s Mr. Cheney standing next to him.”
“I’ve seen that man before,” said Drew in a soft whisper. “He’s been around the lower decks and the engine room. I’ve seen him talking to the bell-bottoms, like he knows some of them….or is pretending to know them.”
“Why would he pretend to know people who work in the engine room?” asked William.
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s a smuggler or something,” said Drew.
“Or a dick? He could be the ship’s dick.”
“I don’t think he’s a dick or a bull,” said Drew. “One of the crew was ordering him to leave the area, and he just stammered that he’d gotten lost on his way to the telegraph office or something.”
William didn’t want to get into trouble so he usually went down to the third class decks to play with Drew. They played hide and seek and cops and robbers around the decks, using wooden hangers as make-shift guns. It was on one of these days, two days before they were do to dock in Liverpool, that William caught a glimpse of Mr. Cheney himself. He was walking into a door marked “Crew Only – Restricted Area.” He was carrying a large duffel bag. William considered following him, but lost his nerve.
On the last full sailing day, William excused himself from Drew with a flip of his gold watch. It was a pocket watch that his mother had passed on to him from her father. William pulled it out in front of Drew after a wrestling match. They were play-fighting and Drew had pinned him to the ground with his larger torso. William had to cry “I give in, I give in” before the stronger boy would release him. He brushed himself off and pulled out his expensive watch. It was all he could do to replace his dignity.
“It’s almost two o’clock. I’m supposed to meet my father on the sundeck at two,” he said. He hobbled down the hall to the aft section of the ship and took a lift to the first class decks.
The sky was clear with a few patched clouds and the rolling green hills of Ireland painted the horizon. Some small children were running about the deck playing tag while their mother tried to corral them. His father was chatting with Marie and Dr. Chambers. Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard were lounging on a reclining bench, sipping lemonade. Mr. Cheney wasn’t there.
“Willy!” said Marie, noticing him emerge under the blue sky. “Daddy and I were just sabotaging your father’s attempts to retire to his cabin for an afternoon nap. You must convince him to stay and talk with us.” Dr. Chambers picked up a sandwich from a tray full of hoagies attended to by a young deck steward. William smiled at Marie, glancing quickly to her perky bubs. She was the eel’s hips, he thought, and one day when he was a war hero he might have a pretty doll like her.
He had ignored all the horror stories in the press about mangled boys and cripples blown up by bombs. He was already wounded in his own personal war that had been going on just as long. He lost his legs and two family members over it. He was subjected to the rule of a tyrant, sent far from home.
“I’m afraid I might be a little sea sick,” said Mr. Blankfield. “I do beg your pardon, but I must be excused from your delightful company.” He shook Dr. Chambers hand, nodded to Marie, and waived at Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard who raised their lemonade glasses in salute.
“Willy, can I trust you up here on your own?” He scowled the warning submerged in his words.
William made a resolution to be brave right then and there, especially in front of his father. No cowardice or retreat in the face of enemy fire, he told himself.
“You can trust me, but can I trust you?” With all his will, he held his father’s stern gaze. He’d been slapped for less, like for crying too much when his sister died.
“Don’t be a bluenose Mr. Blankfield,” Marie interrupted, trying to sound light. “Willy’s the berries. He’ll be just fine with us.”
His father simply nodded curtly and walked toward the Saloon Class cabins. William looked at his watch one more time.