Archive for July, 2010


He was really no more than a boy grown tall when he left school to join the Navy, a broad-shouldered redheaded farm boy with a wide grin and the accent of one born and bred in the red clay knobs. Before he left he married his school sweetheart.

Now, on this day of joy for a world so long at war, his family had received one of the dreaded telegrams edged in black:

Regretfully we inform you. . .

He had been assigned to INDIANAPOLIS.


INDIANAPOLIS was not reported as overdue to her destination following the disaster. The men who had abandoned ship were left adrift for eighty-four hours before Navy pilots on routine patrol spotted them from the air.

In those eighty-four hours some of them died of wounds and burns sustained when the ship exploded in mighty fireballs. Others succumbed to exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn. They were the lucky ones.

Blood in the water attracted predators more deadly than the Japanese: sharks.

Sharks took many.


In his later years, the grownup nine-year-old could not recall whether the family ever knew the circumstances of their sailor’s death: if he died as the ship died, if he died of shock and wounds, if the merciless sun and lack of drinkable water dried his insides out beyond endurance, or if he was taken by a cold-eyed killer who spotted an easy meal in the water.

The tombstone bearing his name in the family plot is a cenotaph. It marks no actual grave.


A disaster like INDIANAPOLIS, coming at the very end of the war, with more men lost in a single incident than in any other involving an American warship, requires explanation. She was no ordinary ship, having once been the flagship of one of the Pacific theater’s legendary naval commanders, Admiral Raymond Spruance. Not to mention the role she had played in ending the war, with that top secret dangerous dash for Tinian with the components of the Hiroshima bomb.

As it transpired, there was more than enough blame to go around. To begin with, there were the three SOS signals sent out in the two minutes before the “abandon ship” order was given. One was ignored by a drunken commander ashore; a second by an officer who had, for whatever reason, given orders that he was not to be disturbed, for any reason short of the Apocalypse, during the crucial period; the third was dismissed as a Japanese prank.

On August 2nd, a pair of Navy pilots spotted the survivors of INDIANAPOLIS below them while on routine patrol. Most were kept afloat by lifejackets (the so-called “Mae Wests” of the era), although some were aboard the few life rafts that had been able to launch in the precious seconds after the explosion. The Navy pilots immediately summoned help from surface craft and air units alike, and over the next five days three hundred sixteen men were located and rescued, some having floated quite a distance from the wreck site.

As it happened, among the survivors was the man who would bear the blame for failures all up and down the chain of command: Captain Charles Butler McVay III, Annapolis graduate (class of 1920) and decorated naval hero. Wounded himself, McVay nevertheless raised hell over why it took so many days for rescue operations to commence for his men.

His answer came in the form of a court-martial, in November 1945. The Navy command, quite simply, lied about many things. They found McVay guilty of what amounted to dereliction of duty: he had failed to move his ship in the zigzag pattern designed to confound attempts by submarines to launch torpedoes. That he had never been notified of Japanese submarine activity in the area and in fact had orders to take evasive action at his discretion based on observation was waved aside. Moreover, the survivors and other personnel testified that visibility on July 30 was not good, poor conditions for spotting subs; yet the Navy claimed the exact opposite. The ship itself, with no anti-sub equipment, was denied the customary destroyer escort. Even the commander of the sub whose torpedoes sank INDIANAPOLIS testified on McVay’s behalf, giving the lie to the Navy’s contentions.

For the sins of others, McVay was convicted and reprimanded. Although he would eventually be promoted to rear admiral, his career was effectively ruined.

And worse was to come.

to be continued

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This is the first entry in a four-part series I wrote a couple of years ago. I was reminded of it today by a “this day in history” note in the NY TIMES.

After surviving a kamikaze attack on March 31, 1945, and spending some three months in drydock for repairs, the heavy cruiser USS INDIANAPOLIS was ready to return to the war in the Pacific.

And what a return it was. Unknown to most of the 1196 men aboard, INDIANAPOLIS carried, when she left San Francisco in July, the deadliest cargo any warship had ever carried: the main assembly of “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb that would lay waste to Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, changing the rules of war and one-upmanship forever.

Most of the crew of INDIANAPOLIS would never know what happened to Hiroshima. Their cargo was offloaded at its destination–Tinian, in the Marianas Islands–on July 26, and their orders called for them to return to operations in the Philippines. Unaccountably, the ship was not given the customary destroyer escort; nor was her captain warned of Japanese submarine activity in the area through which she would sail.

On July 30, INDIANAPOLIS was fatally wounded by Japanese torpedoes, fired by submarines. Some four hundred of her crew died with her; of the eight hundred who managed to abandon ship, only three hundred sixteen would be picked up alive.

The radio crew managed to send out three distress calls before they were forced to abandon ship. Not one was answered.


So say the the history books. But for me, the story of USS INDIANAPOLIS will forever begin in mid-August, with a nine-year-old boy dawdling on his way to school.

He was the only surviving child of a loveless second marriage, the baby of the family, more than a little spoiled, and he did not like school. This was not because he was unintelligent or even especially lazy; he would rather be in the woods with his dog, honing the skills that would one day make him an army sharpshooter. Moreover, he was not blessed with the most inspiring teacher in the world; the one at the little one-room country school he attended was the stereotypical old maid schoolmarm, unsuited by both temperament and education for the profession she had chosen.

August in the knobs is generally hot and dry and dusty. On some days, thunderheads will pile up seventy thousand feet in the air and produce awesome rumbles of thunder and lethal lightning, but never a drop of rain; on others, the sky will remain a cloudless, unsettlingly brassy blue, and the road in front of you will fool you with mirages of pools of water and heat rising in visible waves from dirt, gravel or asphalt.

He never said which kind of day this one was: only that he hoped that just maybe, in honor of the great news that had broken upon the world that morning, the teacher would dismiss school early. Word had come that at long last, the war that had begun, for the United States, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, was over, with the surrender of the Empire of Japan following a second atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki.

He got to school, finally, a little after eight thirty, expecting to hear a joyous hubbub. Instead, everything was deathly quiet, except for the muffled sobbing of some of the “big girls” up front.

He slipped into a seat at the back of the room and in a whisper asked a friend what was wrong. And that was when he learned that one of the older boys from the school, away in the war, was dead.

to be continued

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This song was a number four hit for the Wilburn Brothers in 1962–but I remember it best because they used the opening line uh-oh, trouble’s back in town to open both their TV show and Opry segments.

If you don’t see me around much the next few days, it’s because I’m out seeking inspiration; the spring has, for the moment, run dangerously near dry, and I need some time to refill it.

Please pretend you miss me– 😉

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I’ve mentioned in passing, I think, that around 1987 I went on a long musical odyssey and wound up listening to a whole lot of genres and performers I’d never listened to before: Odetta, Cisco Houston, Tommy Makem, Judy Collins, CSN&Y, the Three Tenors, Steve Earle–

and Dwight Yoakam. He’d been around awhile, but I’d never really paid attention to him. I got into his music the same way I did Steve Earle’s: when my sister began playing him on the cassette player in her car on trips to the mall.

Probably in common with a whole lot of other people, my favorite of all Dwight’s CDs is the triple platinum This Time, released in 1993. There simply is not a bad cut on that one. Oh, I have my favorites: “Pocket of a Clown”, “Fast as You”, and this melancholy rejection of a lover who’s worn out her welcome in his heart and bed.

A classic kiss-off, no? 😉

Sweet dreams–

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Chepita Rodriguez

San Patricio, Texas must be a quite haunted place. In his book Ghost Stories of Texas (1981), Ed Syers tells several stories set there, the best known of which is probably the one of John McMullen’s crisis apparition.

Then there’s the ghost of Chepita Rodriguez–a ghost with a mission.

Josepha (Chepita) Rodriguez was the daughter of a Mexican who fought alongside Sam Houston and others in the cause of Texas independence. Life was unkind to Chepita, though; a marriage turned sour, and her husband walked out one day, taking their son with him. She would not see the boy again for many years, and when she did, it would cost her her life.

By the 1860s, Chepita was living in poverty in San Patricio, barely making ends meet by providing food and shelter to travelers. One such was a man named John Savage, who showed up one night with six hundred dollars in gold in his saddlebags.

He did not live through the night. He was killed with an ax, and Chepita was accused of his murder.

Legend says that another man was at Chepita’s cabin that night; he was her long-lost son, and he killed John Savage, taking his gold and leaving his mother to face the dreadful music that followed.

Chepita made no statement in court, when she came to trial, that might have exonerated her. She said only that she was innocent. Although the jury, aware that the evidence was thin at best, recommended mercy, the judge, who had the final say, thought otherwise, and sentenced her to hang.

No gallows was built for Chepita Rodriguez. She was hanged from, and buried under, a mesquite tree by the Aransas River, on November 13,1863. The mesquite tree, it’s said, died shortly thereafter, struck by lightning, and the site of her grave has been lost to flooding since her death.

Chepita Rodriguez was the last woman executed in Texas until February 3, 1998, one hundred thirty-four years after her death.

Since the 1930s, there have been a number of reported sightings of a ghostly woman with a noose around her neck in a grove of trees near where tradition says Chepita Rodriguez was hanged. Over time, a legend has evolved to explain her appearances; she walks when a woman in Texas is unjustly accused of murder, or is facing execution.

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Other bloggers refer to the creative spirit that hides in our souls as “the Muse”. Mine, frankly, is a whiner. She demands pampering to get her in the mood to put anything on paper, let alone online, and the past few days, she’s been non-co-operative, no matter what I use to entice her: music, chocolate, crochet, a trip into her rich and occasionally eyebrow-raising fantasy world (^_^)–

So today, operating as I am on about three hours sleep, cranky, whiny, and tired of her brattiness, I’m forced to pull out my big gun. She was singing this song in our shared head, in three part harmony with two other people (I’m afraid to speculate on who they were, except to say that, since she was singing lead and in a lower key than my beloved Wilburn Brothers, it wasn’t them) during those long, painfully moon-bright, humid hours before dawn.

Teddy and Doyle recorded “Simon Crutchfield’s Grave”, written by Damon Black, in 1972. I first heard it, of all places, on the school bus; we had a driver then who played a country station, to the exasperation of all but me, my brother and sister, we being, after all, country from the cradle. It has since become a favorite of bluegrass bands worldwide, but Teddy and Doyle’s rendition is the one that still gives me chills–for the simple fact that, as any hillbilly/knobite will tell you, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that a man’s conscience could drive him–and his paramour–to a dreadful death.

Lord, I hope this makes her settle down and behave.

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This ballad–here in an arrangement by the great North Carolina folksinger Doc Watson and his father-in-law, fiddler Gaither Carlton–may date as far back as the sixteenth century, most likely to Scotland or the North of England, where the name of the protagonist may originally have been Geordie rather than Georgie. It has many elements common to very old folk songs: the “milk-white steed”, the girl’s “long yellow hair”, and “[the love] of a virtuous lady”, for example.

This version comes from Doc’s 1966 album Home Again!, and is one of several stunning traditional ballads from that recording.

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