Aloha Oe

by Michael Ryerson

Once in the days when I was young, my innocence still intact, our troop ship ghosted silently along Oahu’s south shore toward the seaward opening to Pearl Harbor. Having drawn late duty, I was below decks asleep when someone shook me awake and said, “We’re coming into the harbor.”

I swung my feet over the edge of my rack, pulled on my boots and headed up the ladder. As I clear the transom and step out onto a catwalk into the sunshine I am struck immediately with a profound sense of familiarity, de ja vu perhaps, the deep, unsettling sense of having been here before. This exact view of Diamond Head, so familiar and breathtaking in real life and floating quietly in my preconscious mind, an image so detailed and accurate that I am overwhelmed with a sense of belonging.

I turn slowly and take in Honolulu, gleaming white against a deep, green drape of mountains and an electric blue sky. The mountain pass through which the planes had come. The old Ala Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, Fort de Russy, the clock tower at Hickam Field, where my mother had lost two cousins, all move slowly by until we swing into the channel.

We climb a short ladder to the flight deck and cross to the port railing and someone says, “There’s the Arizona.”

In the windswept channel, hard by Ford Island, a stark white alabaster bridge stands astride the lurking, broken hull of the Arizona. I glance down the rail, three hundred Marines and sailors are suddenly silent. This too, we have all experienced before, have seen ourselves in this very place somehow; we all carry this image, this moment.

In the blue-green water, her outline is clearly visible, a tiny oil slick still rises from the hull and the flag stands permanently at half-staff. No one speaks a word. Behind me and to my left, I can hear the ship’s own ensign snapping in the breeze, below us and off the port bow, the flag at the monument answers with its own ruffles and cracks. Except for these two flags and the water lapping faintly against the ship, there is not a sound and no movement.

And then comes some faint music, ebbing on the wind, at first I think it’s my imagination but then louder, more persistent. We start to straggle across to the starboard side and just ahead, marching up the dock, in tight formation comes a Navy band playing a welcome for us. A short Sousa medley, all drumbeat and driving cadence, then sliding magically into the lilting, sensuous Aloha Oe, with its melancholy promise of gentle breezes, of going away and coming back again, and then the band pays its respects to the ship with a rousing Anchors Aweigh and the sailors start to smile, I turn to the guy next to me and almost laugh out loud at the incredible lightness of the moment and then they stop abruptly and there is only silence, the wind pressing against my chest, we watch but the instruments remain up, at the ready, and I realize what they’re about to play and I swallow and they strike the first notes of our quirky, magnificent hymn and every Marine is suddenly rooted to the deck.

After the Ogden is secure and most everyone is below fighting for shower time, I stroll back over and look at the Arizona monument. I try to hear the planes. I try to imagine the burning oil and the men in the water.

Behind me someone says, “It gets me every time.” I turn and find our First Sergeant quietly squinting into the sun, he turns and looks at me and says, “Yeah…every single time.”

In ten days, we will be in Southeast Asia.

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