Through the Smoke, Into the Breeze
On a bright, clear morning in April, 1942, 16 bombers took off into the breeze from the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier dispatched deep into the Pacific Ocean with a message for Imperial Japan: We can reach you, too.
After dropping their bombs on Japanese cities, each of the bombers, all low on fuel, either ditched along the Chinese coast or crash-landed in mainland China. A few of the crew members, captured by the Japanese, were later executed.
On board the Hornet was a young man, a boy really, named Joe Iritsky. Joe had joined the U.S. Navy, against his mother’s tearful objections, soon after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Just one of thousands of Navy deck hands, Joe played no special role in what became known as the Doolittle Raid. Once the war was over, he returned home, no longer a boy, now a young man prematurely aged by the experience of war.
Eventually, like thousands of other veterans, Joe went to work in a factory, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and stayed there until his retirement many years later.
Joe was a heavy drinker. He was also a sports fan, a gambler, and he had a chronic skin condition that made his skin turn red and blotchy. He would peel the dead skin off his arm while he drank his whiskey, neat.
He was also a chain-smoker. I vividly remember the constant cloud of smoke, a gray haze fogging the kitchen like a burnt offering to the souls of the dead, silent sailors of his youth.
Joe was my dad’s mom’s third husband, whom she married after dad was already a young adult. I never called Joe grandpa or pop, or anything remotely endearing. In fact, I don’t think I called him anything at all. Usually, I just stood quietly in their kitchen in Black Rock, scuffed linoleum under my sneakers, wondering why my wheelchair bound paternal grandmother was drinking whiskey at one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.
Joe would give my younger brother and I flat Dr. Pepper in glass tumblers, fingerprints of prior users prominent and clear through the warm, amber liquid.
No one ever offered us a chair; children in those days weren’t allowed to pester adults. But while my brother and I stood there, uncomfortable in our surroundings, Joe would talk sports, the one subject he must have felt he might possibly have in common with two young boys.
Specifically, he would talk about the Mets, the (football) Giants, and horse-racing. Eventually, upon subsequent visits, he narrowed it down to the Mets and the Giants. Both teams stood at the very pinnacle of mediocrity in those days, just one false step away from a steep fall into a dark, bottomless chasm.
I hadn’t yet settled upon a favorite baseball team. When I played ball in the streets and abandoned lots of Bridgeport, I was just as likely to imagine I was Freddy Lynn or Steve Garvey as Tom Seaver or Rusty Staub. I had recently read, “The Boys of Summer,” the first grownup book I’d ever read, so I was leaning towards becoming a Dodgers fan. But I lived about 3,000 miles away from L.A., and only about an hour away from New York City.
Then one sweltering, humid August afternoon in 1974, my dad and Joe took my brother and I to Shea Stadium in Queens, across from the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair. It was our first trip to a real, live baseball game. I was eleven years old.
As we walked down the concourse towards our mezzanine seats, I caught my first glimpse of the green outfield grass, and of the grounds crew dragging what appeared to be long rakes over a toffee-colored infield.
Once we had settled into our seats, Joe lit a cigarette and headed for the concession stand to purchase his first of many beers that afternoon. His cigarette ash, lagging behind, wafted around me for a moment, clinging to my hair and my eyelashes like burnt snowflakes.
Mercifully, in the middle innings, a late afternoon breeze picked up and cooled us off just a bit as Jimmy Wynn and the boys in Dodger blue succumbed to my New York Mets. It was at that moment that I realized to my surprise that I had become a Mets fan. It was not a conscious decision. I simply recognized an inner loyalty that I had not previously discovered.
As Joe came down the aisle and sat next to me, beer in hand, he asked me what I thought of the game. I have no idea what my answer was, only that he appeared satisfied with my response. It was the only moment that ever passed between us that would not disappear forever in an instant.
He drank his beer and watched the game, which eventually ended in a Mets victory. But even as an eleven-year old boy, I could see in his eyes that his thoughts were elsewhere, a place I’d never been and could never hope to go.
Our memories of the moments that define us are random, yet vivid. Like an unspoken series of emotional transactions, those that care for us unconsciously embed their hopes, hurts and fears deep within us. These reemerge as scar tissue on our souls.
Yet, most vividly, I recall the unexpected breeze that carried the cigarette smoke away, perhaps out to sea, thousands of miles and many decades away, to a place where the dead rest, allowing the living to live, love, and remember.
- The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders (ohmsweetohmdotme.wordpress.com)
- New York Mets: 10 Things We Miss About Shea Stadium (bleacherreport.com)