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CIRQUE

Kathleen Witkowska Tarr

The Merciful Sea I have a favorite photograph of my father. It’s a small black and white snapshot that came tucked inside his personal effects box the Merchant Marines eventually forwarded. His death was explained as a mysterious accident in Honolulu. Maybe he struck his head on the bar’s hard floor or maybe somebody slammed him into the wall. I’ll never know. His comatose body was transported “stateside” to a military hospital in San Francisco, his favorite port city. My father died at age 46 on January 14, 1973 without a friend or family member by his side. Most of his personal belongings, including his clothes, had either been disposed of or stolen from his ship’s locker upon news of his death. Among his few possessions were a couple of letters I had scribbled to him as a child when he was out in the Pacific, some souvenir foreign coins, miscellaneous government documents, and a few snapshots of my father’s many “Geisha girlfriends,” as my younger brother, Richy, described them: blackhaired women gathered around a table, clinking glasses and puffing cigarettes, their eyes mostly hidden under smudges of thick, dark liner. Weeks had passed before Aunt Sylvia finally tracked us down with the news. My parents had divorced when I was in first grade and we were basically estranged from that side of the family. When the telegram arrived from Pittsburgh, I was a senior in high school living in a crowded apartment above a Laundromat in Redington Beach, Florida with my mother, her third husband, and four siblings. The apartment we were squeezed into was adjacent to a tacky, tourist trap—Tiki Gardens. Tiki Gardens attracted groups of silver-haired men in polyester leisure suits, white belts, and white loafers, and bluehaired women who carried straw tote bags embroidered in parrots and tropical fish. Peacocks often wandered through our parking lot and we could hear recordings of scratchy steel drum music being piped through the palm trees. But in this photograph I like so much—I’m guessing it was taken in 1968-69 somewhere in the Pacific—my father stands on the deck of his latest merchant marine vessel dressed in wide-cut dungarees. A rag hangs from his belt. He’s leaned in close with his fellow seaman, their arms resting around each other. A

cigarette barely touches his lips and dangles from the side of his mouth like a toothpick, the way Dean Martin used to smoke. He wears dog tags, a plain, light-colored, cotton shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a baseball cap with some kind of military insignia. His face is full of that shit-eating grin—words my mother would use. All through my Pittsburgh childhood, she complained about his cocky attitude, how, one day, his mouth and hot temper would land him in big trouble. Were the other sailors in the photo men like him? Men who didn’t quite fit in—men who knew what they knew not from abstract book knowledge or from acquiring fancy college degrees, but from everyday life, from the direct experience and power of doing. Men who weren’t quite sure what they were cut out for in regular society once World War Two, and the Korean War, where he had also served, were over. The ones who didn’t shove off to college on the G.I. Bill, marry well, and raise their kids in a one-story tract house on a square of solid green grass in suburban utopia. Men, who, like my father, dropped out of high school. Men in desperate need of this second chance in the Merchant Marines, who had packed their duffle bags, left their families and painful past behind, and escaped to the sea. It must have been liberating for him to be in the midst of his fellow seamen, enjoying their camaraderie, as it had been in his younger days in the U.S. Navy, before he was tied down by the drabness of domestic life and the strains of fatherhood. As his merchant ship plied through the waters of Honolulu, Pusan, and Manila in the 1960s, Pittsburgh’s metal skyline, with its steel mills and sludge-filled rivers, faded from view, until it—and we—disappeared from my father’s life altogether. I first saw the Pacific Ocean not from California’s foggy northern coast, or from some trendy Hawaiian resort, but from the isolated beaches of Yakutat, a remote Tlingit Indian village on the North Pacific coast, population 300 in 1978, no roads in or out, then or now, and the place I came to settle shortly after I got to Alaska. I wonder whether we possess some kind of ancestral memories about landscapes we’re linked to through time? Geographic likes and dislikes may be more than an acquired taste. The Tlingits of Yakutat had deep ties to the land that enspirited them: the Tongass National Rain Forest, the island-studded Yakutat Bay, and the fanfare of high coastal mountains with glaciers that

Profile for Michael Burwell

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Profile for burwellm
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