The Corker at Yankee Station

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A warrior/humorist in Vietnam.

Submitted: November 14, 2011

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Submitted: November 14, 2011

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The Corker at Yankee Station

Attack aircraft carrier USS Vengeance, Yankee Station, Gulf of Tonkin, 94 nautical miles east north-east of North Vietnam coast, 24 April 1966.

Deck log: At 1236 VENGEANCE changed course into wind preparing to recover aircraft. Approximate course 115° T, approximate speed 31 knots. At 1239 first plane landed. At 1322 last plane landed. At 1335 changed course to 123° T, 20 knots.

“Hey, buddy, let’s scoot over to Hanoi and get a cup of pie and a piece of coffee—or whatever they serve over there.” It was the Cork again, sticking his head in my office door as he passed by. “Move along guys [to my key-punchers in the outer office] nothing to see.” They scarcely raised their heads—everyone knew Lieutenant Herbert Corker.

Usually the Air Wing’s personnel and ship’s personnel traveled in different circles, but Herb was a notable exception: he appeared to know about half of the four-thousand or so men onboard. He had a head of bowl-cut, straight, light-brown hair, and a face full of freckles—he looked like a teenager. And he had been known to act like a teenager.

Corker was a perfect name for him. He was a lively and notorious jokester. Among his buddies he was known as “The Cork” or just “Cork.”

It was uplifting to be around Herb. He could turn just about everything into humor; laughter surrounded him. Herb was a pilot in the Air Wing. I had first met him in the Officer’s Club at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines. We were sitting on barstools next to each other and started talking. I saw the Naval Aviator wings on his chest and asked what kind of plane he flew.

“I fly a Spad [Douglas A-1J, the last remaining propeller-driven attack aircraft in the Navy]. She’s old, has a ton of flight-hours, and not a thing of beauty, but she can take a lot of punishment and still keep ticking. Saved my damn butt once or twice.”

As Herb and I drank beers and chatted, we discovered that we both had the same favorite bar in San Francisco, the Shadow Box.

I said, “I like it because it’s nice and quiet and no one ever hassles you.”

“Yeah, and the food’s not bad. If you go in there around five-thirty or so—happy hour starts then—and all these good-looking young chicks from the financial district pile off the streetcar—hungry. That will stir your soup. It’s great around Christmas too—the pianist plays and everyone sings carols. Fun place.”

I said that I’d never been in the Box at Christmas but it must’ve been like the celebrations on cable-cars around that time—or New Year’s Eve.

After a pause Herb said, “Believe it or not, I once got my ass thrown out of the Box.”

“How the hell did you get yourself thrown out?”

“Oh, they didn’t throw me out—just my ass. The rest of me stayed and had two beers.”

“Ouch, I guess I walked into that one.”

“Sorry about that.”

It didn’t take long to find out that Herb loved to drop pun-bombs on innocents like me. He was never to be taken very seriously. He had also been infected with sophomoric frat-humor (University of Iowa) and might pounce unexpectedly on the unwary.

I should have expected something when a squadron mate of his came in the bar, clapped his hand on Herb’s shoulder from behind and said, “Behave our damn self, Cork! I hear there’s polite company in here tonight.” Then he laughed—and took a seat at the opposite end of the bar.

In a few minutes I knew what he might have meant.

Herb often carried a small “woopee cushion” in his pocket. He furtively reached for the cushion as he motioned for the bartender.

“Yes, Sir?” His nametag said Larry.

Herb said, “Say, Larry, I would like—ppptt—a San Miguel in a tall glass, with a shot— PPPTTTT!—of crème de mint, a shot of sloe gin, some Bacardi, a little melted butter on top—and let’s make it flambé. Can you— ptt—do that?”

Trying to keep a straight face, the mystified bartender answered, “Yes, Sir…but are you sure that you really—”

Herb threw back his head, gave a loud laugh, and slapped the guy on the arm. Larry got the joke—and looked relieved.

“Well, you had me going there, Sir!”

Herb kept laughing, pulled the device out of his pocket, and dangled it in front of the bartender. Larry guffawed—and shook his finger at Herb.

Cork’s pal down the bar shook his head.

I understood the kind of guy I was dealing with.

That was pretty typical tomfoolery from Herb. He was unmarried and like me did not have any siblings. His parents lived in Iowa and owned the Just Right Pie Shop, so Herb did know his pies. He was born there, and told me that his hometown (Winterset) was “famous for two things: me and John Wayne [one…two]—but I’m the only one who amounted to anything.”

He loved Winterset and planned to return there once his Navy hitch ended and “maybe try for a piloting job with a regional tree-topper.”

I wondered for awhile how a seemingly irresponsible jokester like the Cork had become a pilot. Herb was full of jokes out of the cockpit, but never when he was in the cockpit. He had a solid reputation as a highly focused and excellent pilot. Once he had come back from a mission with a bunch of 50-calibre bullet holes in his Spad’s right wing and rudder. Herb told me, “She was as much trouble as the Devil with spurs, yawing around and hard to control, and I thought about bailing out near one of our tin cans [destroyers] and letting them pick me up. But I didn’t want to lose her so I kept wrestling with her and had to sort of crab in for the landing.”

I said, “Sounds difficult.”

“It wasn’t easy. They had the barrier up, but the right landing gear collapsed as I hit the deck, there were a lot of sparks, and she spun a little—but I kept dry!”

I heard from other guys that Herb’s landing was actually a remarkable feat of flying, and it had become a quasi-legend around the ship.

Herb and I often ate dinner together in the Wardroom; we both liked the first seating. Most guys in the Wardroom were wise to Herb, so he had to forego the cushion and settle for a few wise-cracks.

Herb came down to my office late one afternoon after he had flown a sortie earlier in the day. He said, “Well, I’ll tell ya’what. It was a real firefight. All buckaroos and bandits out there. I’m startin’ to feel downright unwelcome.”

“More than usual?”

“Yep!”

We walked through the hanger bay toward the Wardroom and stopped briefly at a starboard elevator port. Vinney had just left Manila Bay after a visit to Manila. I pointed to an island in the distance and said, “Bill Mac [MacIntosh, my roommate] and I hired at Cessna at the airport and flew out there yesterday, Cork—that’s Corregidor.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I added, “Quite a place. We walked through the ruins of MacArthur’s office. Nothing but a bombed-out ruin, big trees growing up through it now.”

He didn’t respond, but pointed over to the left at a mountainous stretch of the Philippine mainland. “My dad was there.”

“He was? Bataan?

“Yeah.”

He didn’t say anymore, and I didn’t ask. Everyone knew about the infamous Bataan Death March.

After dinner in the Wardroom, the stewards delivered slices of peach pie to our table.

I cracked, “Hey, this looks good enough to eat.”

Herb took a bite. “Not bad”—high praise from him. “Damn! If it keeps up like this, I might start to enjoy it out here and decide to stick around awhile.”

We finished our pie. A steward was pouring after-dinner cups of coffee at our table. Herb waved away the cream and sugar. So did I.

He took a sip of coffee and was quiet awhile. “Yeah, my dad was in that march. He never talked about it, except to say he was there. I didn’t even know that much until I was maybe fourteen or fifteen.”

I said, “I only know it was Hell-on-earth…”

Herb continued, “After I got out of flight school and knew I would be coming out here, Dad told me he would like me to read something he’d written. He’d done it years before—the VA got him to. I don’t know if he’s even let Mom see it. It was a hard read. He remembered all the details. His friend from high school, Dick Folkmann—‘Manny’—was with him in Bataan. They tried to stay together. Manny got weaker. Dad had to more-or-less carry him.”

It was difficult for me to look at Herb. Seeing his private, painful side for the first time was uncomfortable.

“Dad lost his grip and Manny slid to the ground. Before he could get him up again, a Japanese soldier shoved him away and stabbed Manny in the gut with a bayonet, ripped his abdomen open—had to jerk the bayonet a couple of times to get it through.”

Other talk had stopped at our end of the table—two or three other officers listened.

“A prisoner grabbed Dad’s arm, wouldn’t let him stay. The last thing he saw was another soldier come up, raise his rifle butt, and smash Manny’s teeth down his throat. He probably was just left by the trail to rot with all the others...”

Silence.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Herb looked thoughtful for a few seconds, and then went on. “When I learned about the March in high school, I had asked him something about it. He only said, ‘If you think about some things too much it’ll break your damned heart.’ I believe after Bataan, he knew he needed to try to see humor and to joke around at things…”

Herb lifted his head, and showed a toothy smile.

“Yeah, we’re dangerous together—but I caught it from him!

The Cork was quickly back on his game again.

After dinner, Cork and I walked toward his stateroom, and he started down the ladder. I said, “Be careful, guy... And good hunting.”

He glanced up, laughed, and said, “You know me—I always fly looowww and slooowww—like Mama said!”

I didn’t see Herb the next day at early dinner. Not unusual. He could be out on a mission, might not get back in time for the six o’clock seating, and would need to catch the eight o’clock. Occasionally, at some late hour, he would even work one or another of his connections to the Wardroom and acquire something special from the officers’ galley.

He had once told me, “The Cork knows all the angles.”

* * *

The head of the Supply Department sent me on the COD into the Subic Bay Naval Supply Depot to check on some computer equipment that had not arrived on an UNREP. I spent three days there in the BOQ, figured out that the equipment was still stateside at the Oakland depot, and caught a USO performance by a singing group I’d never heard of at the Cubi Officer’s Club. A welcome break in routine.

On the way back to Vinney, the COD stopped at the Da Nang Air Base to refuel. It was my first time in Vietnam. The base was surrounded by green hills, camouflaged aircraft were in sandbag revetments, and the air was heavy with the smell of jet fuel, as well something I didn’t recognize—Agent Orange, maybe.

As the COD was getting ready to take off from the base, the pilot warned us that we might be the target of sniper fire. (We passengers looked at each other, trying to figure out if we would have wanted to know that.) The pilot made some evasive maneuvers on the way out, but no bullets came our way.

We thumped down on the carrier just before early dinner. I dropped off my travel bag in my stateroom, and went to the wardroom hoping to see Cork. He wasn’t there. The same was true the next evening.

When I left the wardroom that evening, I met a Lieutenant from the Air Wing in the passageway. I had seen him pal around with Cork. We nodded at each other, and I said, “You know, I haven’t seen Cork lately—did you guys throw him overboard again?”

I expected some wisecrack in return, but he stopped and his face became serious. “Well… I guess word hasn’t got much outside the Air Wing yet. Cork was shot down a couple of days ago—he didn’t make it.”

My first impulse was to think it was a bad joke—but his face told me it wasn’t. I was stunned. I only got out, “Whathow—”

He continued in a low, even voice, “It was a SAM-2... He spun into the jungle inverted. No chance. You knew him?”

I nodded.

“Well, I’m sorry to bring the news. A goddamned rotten business.”

“Yeah, it is…”

I mumbled something in the way of thanks, and went back to my stateroom.

Is Cork really gone? He can’t be…

The night was interminable and comfortless. In the claustrophobic darkness, I saw mangled bodies, and I heard the explosions and screams of war. Herb’s teenaged-looking face melted into the distance—and became increasingly dim and unfamiliar.

* * *

The next morning, I woke up with a start. I felt shaken and chilled.

At early breakfast, someone pointed out Cork’s wingman Roy Dodd. I approached him and asked for details. Roy told me that he and Cork had been part of a group supporting a downed-pilot rescue operation near Dong Hoi.

He said, “I made a quick low pass back to where Herb went down—no parachute. Only black smoke rolling up out of the thick jungle canopy. No way survivable. The area was hot, so I couldn’t hang around—and there wasn’t any point anyway.”

He paused, shook his head, and added, “No one can believe that the Cork could go—just..like..that.” He snapped his fingers.

I said I knew what he meant.

For some time, I would find myself looking around the wardroom for Cork, or think I heard him laugh.

When I looked out over the darkness of the Gulf of Tonkin at night, there was only emptiness and silence, and I imagined the pain and desolation of those who died in those waters or on the invisible lands to the west. Some would be returned home under flags, but others would remain in some lost place, far from all they had known. Back across the Pacific, war was an abstract thing to be shown on TV and debated.

Out here, it is real and personal—and it maims and destroys.

* * *

When they packed up Cork’s things to send home to Iowa, they came across his cushion. It was debated whether they should include it.

No one would care (and likely not even know) if they didn’t.

On the other hand, Navy regulations required that all personal effects be included. It was definitely Herb’s property. It was him in important ways.

His parents would understand.

They folded it, carefully wrapped it in plastic, and sent it.


© Copyright 2017 BDLS. All rights reserved.

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