I was moved to share this short piece inspired by my dad's sharing of his experience of his first day on shipboard in the World War II navy.
Of course I have taken creative license in my description of the fight, but all else is pretty much as my father related it.
“Awright, you men, fall out, grab a wire brush and a scraper and bear a hand here.”
Ray stood looking as the other men obeyed the chief petty officer’s orders. Small, dark and wiry, with dark brooding eyes, Ray was not used to obeying orders, and chipping paint didn’t look like a lot of fun to him. His eyes flickered as he cast his glance about for a likely escape route.
“Taylor! I said bear a hand here. Whatsamatter, boy, you deef?”
“I don’t think I really want to chip paint, chief.”
Chin jutting and chest puffed out like a bantam rooster, the short, stocky man stepped over to Ray. There wasn’t ten pounds difference between them, though the scars on the chief’s weatherworn face attested to the fact that he had been in this situation before.
Without warning, he launched a roundhouse right at Ray’s head. Ray’s head was not there to receive the punch as he had ducked and delivered a short vicious jab to the other man’s ribcage.
Caught off balance by his wild swing, the chief managed to partially catch Ray’s blow on his elbow. Ray stepped back, shaking his right hand. The knuckles were already starting to swell.
The chief’s ribs ached and he drew air sharply to replace the wind that had been expelled from his lungs by the force of the blow. The paint-chipping detail stopped work and gathered round to watch as the two circled. The chief hoped to maneuver Ray toward a pile of loose pipe which lay on the deck. Ray stepped back and pretended to stumble. The chief charged in low and Ray caught him with a short chopping left to the cheekbone. Rocked to the soles of his shoes, the chief continued his charge unabated and before Ray could land another punch, buried his head in Ray’s chest, locking his arms in a tackle. This kid could punch like a kicking mule. Time to take this fight to the deck.
As they fell onto the pipe, Ray managed to twist so that most of their combined weight fell on the chief as they landed. Pain shot through his knees and elbows. The steel pipe was unyielding. Jolts of lightning flashed through his vision as his forehead slammed the steel deck of the ship.
The chief landed on his back with Ray on top of him and his lungs were again deflated. He clawed at Ray’s eyes and brought his knee up with as much strength as he could muster into Ray’s groin. Ray grunted in surprise and pain and rolled off him. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and fought the churning nausea in the pit of his gut. There was a swelling goose-egg on his forehead and blood trickled from a slight cut above his left eye.
The chief’s backed ached as though someone had taken a lead pipe to it, which was, in effect, what had happened. Blood flowed from the wicked gash on his right cheek where Ray had twisted his fist as it landed, grinding it into the chief’s face and tearing the skin. He struggled to stand and struggled even harder to breathe. He was pretty sure at least one of his ribs was broken. A sharp pain lanced through his side when he moved. Ray stood at the same time. Both men were badly battered and looked even worse from sweat, paint chips and rust from the pipes.
“What’s going on here, Chief?”
He and Ray turned blearily to face the starched, pressed uniform of a lieutenant, j.g. The combatants and the chipping crew stood to attention.
“Uh, Taylor here stepped on these here pipes and fell, sir. When I went to help him up, the things rolled out from under me and I fell too. I was about to take him to infirmary to get him checked out.”
“That right, Taylor?”
“I see.” The young officer eyed both men. “Looks like you might need to get yourself checked out, too, Chief.”
The men held their salutes as the officer turned and strode toward the bridge. None of them grinned until he was out of sight.
“At ease, you bums. Back to work, all of you. Come on, Taylor, let’s get you over to infirmary.”