This domkirke, sturdy, forbearing, the most ancient, filled him more with a Viking spirit—a spirit he had always assumed possessed him whenever underway and in one of his romantic, seafaring moods—than it did a Christian spirit for which it stood. St. Olaf’s, though, in all its gothic overbearance and more than subtle trumpeting of its role in the spiritual conquest over the pagan soul, had filled him only with melancholy. He flipped through the brochure and found an English translation in the back. “This domkirke,” it read, “had a long, important history of….” He lost the brochure’s dry words within his own fluid imagination’s translation. He saw a domkirke with an history dripping with the tears of sacrifice and the blood of salvation; he saw a domkirke of condemnation and of resurrection; he saw a domkirke that was nearly destroyed again and again by both the corrosive nature of the elements and the corrosive nature of man and his elemental desires, only to be saved, rebuilt, again and again by the benevolent nature of man and his metaphysical desires.
He stood before the facade’s elaborate wooden door, contemplating its design, being impressed by its presence. It was constructed just as it should be: ostentatious enough for kings, eloquent enough for high-ranking clergy and others of the vested class, and intimidating enough for everyone else, which included him. He returned the brochure to its stack found within an elaborate wooden box setting atop a polished, wooden stand inside the doorway.
A man spoke to him. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly in response.
“Ah. An American,” the man said in English.
Yes, he said.
“Of the ships?” the foreign man said as he held the heavy door open and made way for him.
Yes, he said again, and then waved off the opened door.
Sightseeing, with all its unknown or misaligned or reshaped histories, or its profound comparatives of this or its intriguing parallels to that, always exhausted him. Fortunately, especially for his knee, the walk back to the harbor was down a slight hill. He reached the end of the pathway and stepped onto the narrow, cobblestoned street that had led him to the cathedral. Now that he had completed his one, obligatory stint as a tourist (a self-imposed, self-regulated obligation), he was free to spend the rest of his time in port as a sailor (the hitch in his knee caught and he had to stop to stretch it out), albeit an old and tired sailor.
Sailors, he always said, were like athletes, minus the opportunity for the riches and the fame, of course: they both became old and outdated at a relatively young age. As he slowly made his way down the street, it took a sharp turn and the North Sea with all its distant oil platforms broke into view. He stopped. Another analogy came to mind: the sailor as a carbon-based fuel source. He envisioned the sailor as an infinite flow of a crude, highly combustible fuel; a fuel extracted with reckless abandon through the use of slick advertising and the promising, over-promising, of unascertainable adventures and rewards; a fuel used, over-used, by the navy to empower its insatiable, ever-expanding mission; a fuel that, when ignited, burned with such intensity and immediacy that it burned out nearly as quickly as it was supplied. He shook his head as if he had just walked into a spider web. That was a ridiculous exercise in self-pity, he thought. He had been part of the machinery, dependent upon it, for far too long to start questioning its purpose and method now. Regardless, he was old. He was an old, salty sailor, aged well beyond the perishability date of his professional shelf life. Another ridiculous analogy, he thought as he looked out upon the sea.
Clouds drew themselves over the winter sun, though it still shone faintly white through the cold, gray shroud. A steely wind wound its way up the quiet street, bringing with it the smell of Scandinavian snow. He flipped up the collar of his coat and then slid his hands deep into its warm pockets. From where he stood, the oil platforms looked as if they were stalking the waters like giant sea creatures. From a distance, all oil platforms looked like that to him, especially those of the Persian Gulf. There, among all the supertankers and warships and skiffs and oriental-looking dhows and floating balls of entwined, writhing sea snakes, the hulking platforms shimmered and swayed within the mirage of heat rays radiating relentlessly off the volatile gulf’s oil-slicked waters. He shivered and resumed his decent down the hill, thinking fondly of that unbearable Persian Gulf heat.
Just as the harbor appeared from beneath the hill, an old man tucked within an old coat, sitting in an old chair outside of an old book store, spoke to him. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly in response.
The old man smiled. “Ah, American,” he said in English.
Yes, he said.
“A sailor of the ships,” the smiling old man said as he pointed a notched, chapped finger down toward two massive warships overwhelming the small harbor.
Yes, he said.
The smiling old man flung the woolen blanket from his knees and fitfully rose from his chair. He hooked the sailor by the arm and led him inside the store. Musty, heated air greeted them as they entered. The dark, aged shop was lined with dark wooden shelves filled with dark leather books. In the back, over the cash register, hung a picture; it was a black-and-white of the smiling old man, presumably, as a smiling young man down at the harbor standing with two sailors, American, presumably, in front of a warship from a bygone era. The sailor unconsciously shoved his camera deeper into his coat’s pocket.
Down at the harbor, he stood before the massive warships, one of which he belonged to, and watched the tourists–or the locals, probably both, definitely not sailors–with their marveled mouths hanging slack as they pointed and gesticulated in wonderment at the two, presently friendly, gray-hazed maritime behemoths moored safely and securely to their respective piers, silently and surely projected an uncontainable national power. Postcard perfect multi-colored fairy tale buildings lined the harbor on either side of the ships. Cameras were everywhere. His remained deep within its pocket.
He strolled around the square and studied the crowd. One of the first things he noticed was that everyone seemed to be smoking. And it was not just your casual, stop-off-at-the-convenience-store-and-pick-up-a-pack-of-smokes smoking; it was a completely involved smoking, a bohemian, roll-your-own-cigarette smoking, a smoking-as-an-art-form smoking. Everywhere he went tobacco was being rolled with precision and cigarette joints were being dragged upon with seriousness—teenagers straddling public sculptures, mothers carrying recyclable bags full of groceries, fathers pedaling bicycles, grandmas and grandpas sitting on park benches, smoking connoisseurs, all. Here within this smoker’s haven, he craved for the nicotine and yearned for his Zippo.
He walked over to where the square met the water. It seemed as if he could reach out and touch the ships they were that big, that close. He watched the water, black from the blanketed, dusky sky, lap rhythmically against the bow of his ship. Its mooring lines creaked from the imperceptible strain the water placed upon it. It wasn’t long before he began to feel his sea legs again, but still he watched.
Of all his years in the navy (What, twenty-seven now? Twenty-eight? Doesn’t matter, it was his final tour. He’ll know exactly how long he’s been in in a couple of years when he reaches thirty and mandatory retirement kicks in.), this was his first Atlantic cruise. It was so strange. Until this tour, he had always been a Pacific sailor, a Pac Man, so to speak. After graduating from boot camp, he was detailed to Vietnam—a river patrol boat just like in the movies, but different in many, many ways—by the choice of the navy. But for each successive tours of duty after the war, or at least until this, his final tour, he was detailed to the Pacific by his own choice, and mostly to ships homeported out of Japan—Yokosuka and Sasebo, mostly Yokosuka. Whenever he was forced to take a shore assignment, he would take whatever opening was available, just as long it was somewhere in the Pac; again, mostly naval stations in Japan (he was grateful for Japan—it was Pac enough to make him feel at home, but westernized enough, industrialized enough, to provide him with just enough of a sense of what he had left behind). However, once he got lucky and received a choice shore assignment in the Philippines. He was detailed there to work long hard hours at its humid hot Subic Bay shipyard.
That was one memorable celebration of a tour. Lungsod ng Olongapo, with its Magsaysay Drive and its Gordon Avenue and its unmentionable after unmentionable after unmentionable and, especially, its One For The Road, that shadowy cool home-away-from-home languorous relief from the dusty hot sawed-off-shotgunned streets, where iced and dew-dripping-cold magical San Miguel beer was always at the ready. Ever since the end of that idyllic Subic Bay tour (idyllic in a seductive Dionysian Third World tropical paradise sense) and he was detailed to other, less than idyllic places in the Pac, though places still true to his ideals, he had always assumed that for his final duty station he would return to the Philippines so that he could retire there and hoist his flag over some cozy bungalow castle on some cozy beach domain with a couple of cozy young maidens who would spoil him like a king. But the Filipino’s burning impatience with the American military presence and Mount Pinatubo’s burning eruption over all of Luzon spoiled that burning fantasy. When his last tour ended, a carrier out of Yokosuka, the navy told him it was time for him to come home, and detailed him back to the States for his final tour.
Home. What was home to a sailor like him? It certainly wasn’t Norfolk, Virginia.
He didn’t notice the man and the woman as they walked up and stood next to him. The man said something. Startled, he nearly lost his balance as he turned to see who had just spoken. The man grabbed him by the elbow to steady him. When he had regained his composure and was standing firm-footed again, he took measure of the couple. As were just about everyone else he had seen, they were tall–the woman nearly as tall as the man, the man nearly as tall as he. He nodded to the man and said thank you.
“Ah, you are an American,” the man said in English as he warmly slapped the sailor on the shoulder. “Welcome to our beautiful city, my friend. Which ship is yours?”
The man’s eyes followed his finger out to the identified ship and said, “Amazing they can fit into our small harbor, no?” He then went on to describe at length all the various classes of navy ships from the various nations all over the world that have called upon his city’s port throughout his lifetime.
The woman said, “Edvard, let us not forget about our dinner engagement.” She looked at the sailor and smiled apologetically. The man, still foggy with warships, seemed not to understand what she had said.
“Though,” she continued, “since you seem to have so much in common with our new friend, with all your ships and your stories of the sea, why don’t we invite him to join us?” She again looked at the sailor and smiled, this time without any apology. “That is, if he doesn’t already have plans.”
In the Pac, he always had been thankful for his differences–his light hair, his light skin, his height, his inability to speak the languages, for they always had seemed to be to his advantage. And he had fancied himself, in some regards, as a sort of harmless, curious and carefree, wandering Gulliver; in other regards, he fancied himself as a sort of raving and rampaging Western-styled Godzilla, stalking among the not so innocent and timid natives in a frenzied search for all that which it took to fulfill him. In both regards, he strategically, and often tactically, evaded any attempts to be tied down or subdued. The Japanese had referred to the first westerners to discover their island–the Portuguese, maybe?–as Southern Barbarians, as hairy, smelly, canting, barbarous invaders. Yes. He certainly could accept that.
But Norfolk could not. Norfolk, or anywhere else in the States, with all of its industrialized standards and supercilious, non Pac-like pretensions, could not accept behavior like that, nor could it accept him as who he really was, or at least, who he had become thanks to the navy. After living overseas for so long, he had forgotten what culture shock felt like. After twenty-eight or so years of living out his life as a foreigner, he had never felt so foreign until he had been detailed back to the States. Its rapidity, its aggressiveness, its hugeness, literally scared him. Rarely did he leave the confines of his ship, his new home. Even rarer was it for him to venture off base.
As an American, or, more specifically, as a white American (essentially the same thing in the Pac) growing up, he always had envied those with the good fortune to have had a colorful ethnic bloodline or an exotic Mother Land to longingly pine for. In his whiteness, what did he have to anchor himself to, or to draw his past from, other than a stripped out, strip-malled hometown, or trumped up high school glory days (he never went to college), or professional sports teams? As for sustenance, the melting pot from which his bland nourishment was drawn could only be flavored by the ethnicity of other spicy cultures, without which he would have become anemic and possibly even may have starved.
But here, here in this most foreign of foreign countries that he had ever visited, he had to admit to himself that he kind of felt something special. He felt, not just that seafaring, Viking spirit he always had assumed for himself, even before ever having arrived here, but a feeling of belonging, a feeling of having a People, a feeling of finally having found his Mother Land. Everyone looked like him, and many had assumed he was of them.
He sat with the man and the woman, with Edvard and Nikolina, as their guest in a cozy, smoky pub, a pub looking just as it should: somewhat medieval with dark-wooded, raftered ceilings, where everyone ate fish or beefsteaks and rolled tobacco and drank pints of beer, dark, potent, warm and magical beer. Yes, he surely felt it. He felt it here, in this city, in a place just about as far away from the Pacific as he could possibly be, among people, his People, who, with all their oil-laden riches and sophisticated, clean, liberal standards, were just about as different from the people of the Pacific as they possibly could be. Here, it was his similarities that were most advantageous for him.
After their meal, Edvard smoked and drank and discussed the various delectable fishes that were caught throughout the North Sea, and which were served by his city’s finest pubs and restaurants. As he spoke, the sailor, belly-filled and comfortable, leaned back in his chair, and, while sipping a rare pint, watched Nikolina as she carefully rolled a cigarette. Like everyone else, she seemed to take the task very seriously, as if it were a secret, sacred process that had been refined to perfection over the ages and handed down to her from generations past. It seemed a process to which only those of her kind were privileged to learn. Yes, he understood it–not the process, but the need for the process. When she finished, she offered the balanced and tightly rolled cigarette to him. He wasn’t surprised that he took it; he just naturally leaned toward her and she placed the cigarette between his lips. She then struck a match and held out the fire for him to light it. He did and then he leaned back in his chair, smoked, and continued to watch her as she proceeded to roll another one. When she finished rolling the cigarette and had it lighted, she leaned back in her chair, smoked, and smiled at him with her eyes, her spectacularly blue, and round, and welcoming, Western eyes.