New York, 1939
He saw him for the first time looking up from the ship’s hold. His brother. Filling up almost the entire hatchway of the Saint George, a tall man in a good gray coat and matching fedora. Broad-shouldered and big-chested, standing wide-legged against the Manhattan skyline, smiling and confident as he bellowed out his name.
“Tom O’Kane! Seaman Thomas O’Kane!”
His eyes blinked and watered in the darkness. Blurred now after his five days in the hold, the fourteen before that zigzagging their way all over the North Atlantic, trying to give the slip to the U-boats. It was a month after the Athenia went down, just sixty miles past Rockall, and they were crazy with worry for the submarines. Any available hands scanning the rough gray waves of the Atlantic all day long, trying to spot the telltale periscope.
A madman’s task—and what would they have done if they did see one? A single freighter, ten thousand tons, out on the ocean alone in those days before the convoys. Say a Hail Mary, and kiss your ass goodbye. Keeping radio silence, trying to run outside the usual sea lanes, maneuvering this way and that like a staggered pig, trying to fool the torpedoes. Running with their lights off at night, the men sweating in their hammocks. Listening to the engines rumble, each silently asking himself did they have to make so goddamned much noise.
He loved every minute of it. His first big adventure, not five months out of Trinity. Setting forth from Lismirrane with the spalpeens, off to reap and bind the oats, and take in the harvest for the Cotswolds farmers. The lot of them walking thirty miles to Kilfree, just to catch the train for the coast. The poorest men in all Bohola: wiry and earth-hardened, bent in obeisance to the ground, from so many years of pushing some other man’s dirt about. Their traveling clothes already half in tatters, patched coats and threadbare shirts, boot soles flapping on the road. Carrying all the belongings they would need wrapped in a neckerchief or a flour sack. Lowly even compared to the sailor’s duffel he had made so sure to buy used from the gombeen-man in Dublin, knowing he would be traveling with them.
All his life he had seen them come and go. Men too poor to own any noticeable land of their own, and too proud to work the fields of their neighbors. Gone for the harvest at the end of each summer, to work the fields of Somerset and Devon, Gloucestershire and Hereford. Back with the first frost, thinner and browner than ever, to lie with the wife and sow another mouth they couldn’t feed with, then off again in spring for the planting.
He’d always wondered what it was like, where they went and how they lived. Thinking of them years later when he heard something that a remorseless killer his brother sent to the chair liked to say, a man called Dasher Abbandando, who journeyed to cities all over America to murder other men for the money.
“Hey, Dasher, where you been?”
“Hey, Dasher, where’d you get all the cash?”
They had no cash, these men of his village, had spent their whole lives laboring for the smell of a pound. They walked half the distance to Kilfree that first night, then made camp on the side of the road. He feared at first they did it for his sake. It had been many years since he’d walked fifteen miles in a day and never in shoes, wobbling openly from the blisters by the time they stopped. But no, he was relieved to see, they laid their burdens down by a familiar copse, the stumps and the circle of charred earth from old fires there like a faerie ring. He realized this was part of the adventure, too—camping out on the road like tinkers, and the wind rustling in the trees over their heads, telling themselves for a night that they were free men
The talk and laughter around the fire seemed constrained at first, in the presence of the schoolmaster’s son. He was frantic to make sure it wasn’t, giving out with the two whole bottles of the White Bush his old man had made sure to slip into his duffel for just this purpose, fixing him with his hard look: “This is for making friends, not for you. Nobody likes a drunken man.”
He passed them both around liberally that night, though he had intended to save one for the boat. They wondered at its smoothness, their own small flasks filled with the raw poteen made out in the bogs behind the school, all they had ever had in their lives: “Ah, you can feel how that goes down!”
And as the night went on their reserve fell away, sharing their food around the fire. The talk gayer and the voices rising, men at the start of journey. Telling stories and singing the old songs, “Travelling Doctor’s Shop” and “Kilkelly,” and assuring him of the high regard they had for his father, a Cork man they couldn’t see fitting at first, until he married Pat-Peggy’s daughter and built his own house right among them, and helped out each year with the mehil. Talk he didn’t want, and was embarrassed by, but was pleased to hear anyway in the soft October night, so much the way he had always pictured it.
The next day they made the train at Kilfree—a wooden toy of a train, he understood later, laboring like the devil up and down the low hills. Taking six hours to get them to the coast, where they caught the boat for Liverpool. A ragged excitement running through the travelers even there, so soon after the Athenia—Do ya think we’ll be torpedoed, then? Ah, no, never, the Jerries want us on their side. “Us,” is it? You think we matter to them more than a flea on a pig’s backside?—all of it spoken with the confidence unique to those absolutely ignorant of a situation.
There were lifeboat drills, and on deck a soldier in full gear, with bayonet and washbasin helmet, much to the sniggering delight of the spalpeens. Grim gray destroyers knifing through the seas off both sides, signal flags bristling in the stiff wind—a startling change to the ageless world he had just left. He walked the deck the whole time, taking it all in, delighted to find that he kept his stomach even on the choppy crossing. Then they were over, the men from home chirping their goodbyes as they went to catch their train to the south. Whistling as they went, cheerful about the war, sure they would get a good wage with all the English lads off to play soldier boy.
It was easy enough for him to get a ship for much the same reason, the tramps all desperate for hands. Hired on without so much as a question about his experience, though he knew he must have looked as out of place as a bishop in a brothel. He was indeed the worst sailor alive, something Charlie twitted him about ever after. He set his hand at most everything, like the rest of their ragbag crew, and was good at none of it. The work more exhausting than he could have possibly imagined. Stoking the boilers for a watch, proud to be doing it because he knew that Charlie had once done the same all the way from New York down to Rio de Janeiro and back—his father reading his letter about it to them all, over the kitchen table.
“A crew like that, it’s no wonder you missed the torpedoes,” Charlie liked to tease him later. ...