There were sacks of mail stacked on the pier when the Absecon returned from Ocean Station patrol. I had several letters from Carol. I whipped through the highlights, and then went back, not to the first one, but the last one: “Well, the mailman came today–so I guess we’re officially engaged now.” I hadn’t seen her in more than two months.
I eased my ‘57 Mercury onto the end of the car line. The loadmaster bellowed and waved furiously, moving us into position to for the next Little Creek–Kiptopeke ferry. The Del MarVa had pulled out just as I arrived. The terminal agent changed the red arrow on the clock-sign on the overhead archway: Next Ferry at 2:00p.m. I had to wait an hour.
I rolled down the window and tamped a fresh bowl of London Dock pipe tobacco into my favorite straight stemmed briar. I sucked at the Zippo flame, staring down my nose at the growing circle of embers. The rising cloud of smoke encircled my head, spreading its soothing aroma of freshly lit tobacco. With my pipe clinched in my teeth, I surrendered my body to the plush white leather seat, leaned my head back, and thought about Carol’s letter.
She had written that she had rushed home from work every day, and rifled through the mail until she found the orange postal notice for an insured box. “Mom,” she whooped, “The package came. I’m going right back out to the post office. See you in a bit.” Her mailman was still out on the route.
She backtracked what she knew was George’s route. She had known him for years; she babysat for his children. She spotted him, bag over his shoulder, on Henry Street. She tooted the horn and slid her old Dodge coupe alongside the curb. She popped out, waving, “Hey George. Do you have my package?”
“Just this little box from Herf-Jones,” George said, giving her the prize with a smile.
Carol ran home, tore into the box, and yelled, “Mom, it’s here! It’s here! My engagement ring!”
We had missed the traditional moment when many cadets got engaged—the ring dance. Amid the strains of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and Unchained Melody, beautiful women in colorful gowns, and handsome cadets in dress whites, swirled by, whispering quietly to each other. Flickering lights, reflected from a rotating crystal ball followed the dancers like flitting moths.
When an engaged couple strolled up the ramp to stand beneath the crown of a giant plaster replica of our class ring, nearby dancers paused to share the moment. The cadet presented his miniature, a traditional engagement ring for all service academy graduates, and kissed his fiancée while they accepted the smiles and quiet applause from the dance floor. Carol missed the moment. She got her ring by proxy, from the mailman, while I was at sea.
The sounds of revving engines, and the staccato thumps of car doors jolted me back to reality; parents were herding their kids back into their cars.
In a practiced routine, big trucks were stacked inboard to outboard on either side of the centerline engine room cowling. The cars followed in rhythmic double bumps over the steel ramp, all according to a weight and balance plan orchestrated by the loadmaster.
The Princess Anne, pulled out, and headed north toward the Kiptopeke terminal on Cape Charles. I knew the crossing would take an hour and a half, so I squeezed out of my Mercury and made my way topside for a ham sandwich and some fresh air.
The sea was calm. The bright blue sky sported a narrow band of wispy clouds on the horizon. People had migrated to the open topside deck to enjoy the beautiful October day. A few couples strolled hand in hand, glancing at those who were snuggled on the rows of benches. A handful of obnoxious kids circled the perimeter in imaginary chase. A growing flock of seagulls swooped and squawked at each other, fighting for the best position over the wake to snatch bread crumbs tossed into the air by giggling teenagers. Sailors were clustered in random groups, noisily sharing their plans for their liberty weekend.
A few remained aloof, retreating to remote benches, their necks crunched deep into upturned P-coat collars, like turtles, deep in private thoughts.
We pulled into Kiptopeke on time, 3:30p.m.
A wolf-pack formation of cars headed north on U.S. 13. One by one, drivers broke off while the big-rigs blew by us like we were out for a Sunday drive. Seven hours to go. With one short stop for a snack, I could probably make it to Roosevelt, NY before midnight.
Finally, a welcome sign alerted me that the Delaware Memorial Bridge was ahead. I had been on the road for four hours. I crossed the bridge, and within a short time merged into heavier traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hunger pulled me into the first Howard Johnson’s Plaza. There were no other choices. They had an exclusive contract. If you were going to eat on the Jersey Turnpike, it was going to be at Howard Johnson’s.
At some point, I became aware of a faint odor that triggered thoughts of home. I cracked the window. Oil! Through the latticed power-line towers, I could see the distant silhouette of tanks: flat, short, tall, thin, and onion domed. They formed a dark base that sprouted tall chimneys. Clouds of billowing smoke rose from some while others stood as silent sentries with red blinking aircraft warning lights. A few flickered candle-like flames.
In the darkening twilight, thousands of white lights built their Etch-a-Sketch profile of tangled pipes, and cracking towers. These huge refineries stood unaware that they owed their birth to the oldest refinery in the world, the Kendall Refinery, back home in Bradford, Pa. I felt a little smug.
My exit to Staten Island was coming up. I crossed the island to the 69th street ferry, and then checked the cheat sheet I had taped to the dashboard. Follow the Belt Parkway to Southern State, then Exit 21 to Nassau Rd. I pulled into the Berlinghoff driveway at 65 West Roosevelt Avenue a few minutes after 11:00p.m. It had been a long day.
I perked up when I saw Carol running to the door to greet me. Her mom, in her bathrobe, stood behind her. She chatted with us amicably: “How was the trip? Are you enjoying the ship? I’m excited for Carol. I’ll see you at breakfast.” Then, in a polite move, she said goodnight and went off to bed. I was so tired that within a few minutes I was headed to the small bed in the attic, and Carol to her bedroom. It wasn’t even midnight.
Oh yeah–she was wearing her ring. So, I had missed the bended-knee-slip-it-on-her-finger moment too. But, although the seahorse tails and eagle wings of her miniature have rounded to smooth gold over fifty-eight years, the magic of the ring still works for us.