John Burns, teacher of English for more than half a century at Saugus High School, close to a dozen miles north of Boston, stood in the near silence of a splendid morning beside his home atop the high ledge, looking down on the pond he had helped save. That other morning from early in his career came back as crisp as a knock at the door. He could hear the door opening. Into yesteryear he stepped:
“How many ways can you say it?”
John Burns pointed out the words he had printed in block letters on the blackboard for his sophomore English class. Central and Winter Street traffic was light at the edge of hearing, the sun did a mote dance on the windowsill. Outside, Saugus breathed the deep breaths of spring.
“The stag had drunk his fill at eve.” The letters were graffiti size, sprawling.
His mind spilled all over itself. Morning had leaped over Vinegar Hill. Back he was where he dreamed he’d be, with his students, another whole day ahead of them. Another whole day! And Andrew’s words were but a few hours old; “I’ll be waiting at the library, in my favorite corner.”
God, he loved his students, the way their eyes lit up the morning, their cheeks ablaze, the energy pumping throughout the class. And him, young-old him, mere months from the deck of a destroyer, the USS Carlson. It was where the brittle sea around him, for the first time in four long years, had fallen stock still, silent as a torpedo might have been, or the end of an exceptional poem when you’re caught up in the whole of it. (Ah, “Let them say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches.”)
This class was different from his recent shipmates. The fatigue was not here, or the quiet review of immediate hysteria, or the known awareness of cataclysm, or the soulful realization that home was on the horizon, and one stray Japanese submarine, with its radio long out of order and not aware the war was over, might lurk as a predatory fish.
Flagler, of course, was the first to respond, from the back of the room, receptive, observant, bursting with an odd imagination. He was round-faced, eyes deeper than others, time being measured in the mill of his mind. Honest metaphors often hung at his mouth like parts of a leftover meal. And his brother Dawson was still listed as missing in action.
“Le male avait bu sa suffisance a la veille.”
“Le cerf avait bu remplis sa veille.”
John knew Flagler could have said it also twice in Spanish or Russian or high Italian. Probably could rip it off in Morse Code, dah-dit dah-dit dit-a-dit-dit-dit like a Sparks aboard ship or with the sounds of the telegrapher at the Cliftondale railroad station. How many Flaglers would he find in his career, now that he was back at it? There’d be more than this one, but they’d be years apart he figured. Flaglers, he admitted, you had to contend with, move to another dimension, excite. Perhaps there would be no secret to it.
“No, in English,” John said. “How many ways? What way would sound best. What way would hum best in your ears? Think about what I’m asking you.” For a moment he thought of folding his hands in prayer. Quickly he put the thought aside.
Eleven years earlier he’d been sitting where they were. Was his voice tinny, he wondered? Did it carry the way one of the Carlson bulkheads would carry it, sometimes hollow, reaching, the flush of the sea never far removed, now and then the anchor chain a storm against bow plates, Pacifica turmoil? Andrew, from his favorite corner at the library, would tell him without a doubt. Andrew knew everything. Around the classroom he looked, assessing, drawing, daring, setting his eyes on this pair, on that pair. It would not be Flagler’s response again, he was sure. Flagler had run his course on it. The French translation had been a carryall statement for him. It stood as representative of all the other languages he had crusaded through in his few years.
“At eve his fill the stag had drunk.”
The voice was feminine, firm, though faint. It was Elizabeth again, his own Emily leaning out of the sunny window all the way from Amherst. Bangs covered her brow now, dark bangs. He’d rather not see her wearing bangs. Her dress was simple, half sleeves, a wide collar. Her cheeks pale, without rouge.
“At eve the stag his fill had drunk.” “His fill at eve the stag had drunk.”
She smiled, almost stretching herself in her seat, holding back, not wanting to hold back, the light radiant about her head, Emily posturing from the other end of the state, there but almost not, wispy.
“Kind hart had wet his mouth.”
He could see her use of white space, how the form of it came from the white space, how it would arrange itself in his ear. White space has a sound of its own, he could hear her say.
She was teasing him, his Emily, this Elizabeth, her body language never curt or abrupt. She was his first poet back home. Would Andrew ever talk to her? Could she listen, or be ever lost in her own words? The sailor Connaughton’s face came out of the abridged Pacific, the poetic, topside Airedale; and his voice, his final voice, still in his ear: “My ship will sail this silent sea.” He’d never let go, that Connaughton. He’d gone with the single Kamikaze, a ricochet shot right off the deck, like the eight ball in the side pocket. Now he was an echo that sounded every day.
He wished Emily-Elizabeth could meet Andrew. They would revel in May-December conversations. But Andrew didn’t talk to a whole lot of people. In fact, to no others as far as John knew.
Flagler for the moment looked hurt. His pursed lips saying so, the compressed brow, the angel hair at his eyes. Nobody had heard a word about his brother in months. Nothing out of Japan. Nothing from of all those beaches and islands in the Pacific. Nothing from the sudden silence out there on that endless and watery plain. Every now and then, he remembered with vast clarity, a Marine fighter pilot had emptied his own sky; a Corsair curled smoky in the high blue, a gull, a suddenly flightless bird. And now nothing out of Flagler’s mouth about his brother, not a word. But that weight a stone he might carry forever.
Then a quick thought hit John. Had his Emily-Elizabeth said, “Kind heart had whet his mouth?” Andrew would have to tell him. He’d not ask her, that’s for sure. She was bright enough, that’s for sure. You don’t touch this kind of question with a ten-foot pole, not a wounded and discharged teacher just back from the atrocities, just back from Pacific leaves, just back from the whole wide world, God help us amen.
Then, at length, near the end of the class, they had agreed on all the possibilities, had selected one as best saying what had to be said. Music had been loosed for them, by them. He hoped it would carry to the next time they’d meet.
The bell rang. Flagler grabbed his briefcase and was first out of the room, surprisingly athletic. John wondered if there’d be news at the end of that dash. A quick prayer he provoked. Emily-Elizabeth, at the far side of the classroom, put her hand on the windowsill, knew the silky touch of the sun, and took it with her to her next class. John could feel the energy of a select metaphor loose itself at the back of her mind. Today, tonight, tomorrow, there’d be a new verse, an image, and a degree of temperature freshly new. On that he could count.
At the old library Andrew’s name was set in stone. John had seen it set in stone earlier in Ireland, and in South Hadley, in New York, in San Francisco when the fleet had come to rest at the vast silence out there. Nobody would have believed him, setting foot on terra firma USA for the first time in three years, the rush all around him, and the voice of Andrew saying, “Come with me, there are old friends waiting.”
The voice seemed to call at him from stone. It came from the library he was walking past.
“A gift of Andrew Carnegie,” read the small plaque set beside the door. He had been overpowered by the voice; behind him lay the once-violent sea, and Connaughton’s voice remaining, as if a tape had been set on replay. The war was gone. But not completely. And not forever. The ring of it ever sounding: the Kamikaze at Kwajalein, a sailor stunned and still; I keep hearing a voice, sir, I think not mine but is. Connaughton locked up in his small asides.
John subsequently had spent the whole day in the library. Andrew was right. All the old friends came back, the ones that never sailed with him, the ones that had not made it to the ship’s wardroom of books. He reveled in old friends, in newness.
Andrew’s voice had gone silent after that first summons. It did not come back until a late afternoon two years later. Planning a special class, John had retreated to his usual corner of the old Saugus Library, Andrew’s name was set high in stone above the front door.
“I am here, John,” he heard. “This is where I’ve always wanted to be. And with best friends.” John was not startled when he heard the known voice, but he looked around the room. Everybody else was intent on their own tastes, their own pleasures. No one looked up at him; no one looked for the speaker.
It was then he knew he alone heard Andrew’s voice, that for some reason he had been selected.
“It’s not for what you have done, John. It’s for what you are going to do. Your whole life will be given over to friends of ours. We will be the true philanthropists. You and I, as a pair, start from here. Remember, it’s not for what you have done, but for what you will do.” His voice had a finality to it, resonant, near biblical.
Now, on the high ledge by his house more than a half century later, the air crisp, the pond’s face as blue as a slate, he went back to the day a week later than the remembered classroom scene. Flagler’s seat was empty.
The half-flag misery had been lifted; Dawson Flagler, Marine fighter pilot, had been found on a small Pacific island less than a hundred yards long. Providence had put it the way of his long swim. For lone and long months he had survived. Harrison Flagler, in response, had never come back to school, inserting himself illegally into military service, a promise kept.
John had not seen or heard of him in all the intervening years.
Emily-Elizabeth had moved some months later when her father had been transferred to a new work assignment in Iowa.
In all the years between he had not seen or heard from her either.
Then, late in the year of 1999, he and other former students of his set out to compile a book about their town. It took two years of love and energy to retain much of what was being lost of their town. They put together a marvelous collection of nostalgia and recall, borrowed $60,000 to get the book printed, ten eager citizens and themselves signing the note for the loan. More than a hundred people contributed text and graphic materials. The 2,000 copies sold out in a matter of months. Copies went off to 47 states, seven countries, five continents, and three territories. The loan was paid off in short order.
Now, on this day, two pieces of the morning’s mail were in his hands. One was a thick letter with a bold return address: Lt. Gen. Harrison Flagler, USMC (retired), New South Wales. Shaking slightly, memories leaping again, nostalgia at an onslaught, John folded the thick letter carefully and tucked it into his back pocket. In the heated pool where his fish cavorted, one of the golden guppies broke water. From the high limb of a near tree a bird answered. His dog Danny barked a welcome. Connaughton, still at sea, came on a breath of air; I shall sail that September sea.
The other package of mail appeared to be a book container.
He ripped it open and brought up the title page, Dear Belle, with a handwritten inscription:
To John Burns, dear friend, dearest teacher, to whom this book is dedicated.
From a grateful student who left his graces too suddenly.
PS. Andrew told me about my name.
Header photograph: By U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons