I spent a fair amount of time in the Gulf of Oman back in 1988. My shipmates and I were escorting Saddam Hussein’s oil tankers through the Straights of Hormuz, where the Iranians liked to take shots at them with their Silk Worms. We got there about a month after the
Halabja Massacre, where Hussein gassed between three and five thousand civilians, and a little more than a year before the ship was sent back to attack Saddam.
I’d never seen anything like the Oman. Bloated sheep bobbed around among the chunks of tar that leaked from the oil rigs. Livestock transports dumped the dead and sick ones, presumably because they wouldn’t have helped sales if they’d made it to market. There were snakes and sharks everywhere. The sharks weren’t always visible, but I could watch tangled knots of snakes floated by any time I wanted. At night it was pitch black, no stars or moon. Between the smoke and clouds the Oman was always overcast, and flat. Lakes of oil floated over the face of the water, stilling the waves. But even beyond the filth and violence, there was just something hellish about the Oman. It has remained dark and breathless in my mind for thirty years, maybe because it spoke one night, the kind of truth that only hell can tell, though I couldn’t hear it then.
That night I came out on deck for the mid-watch. Stepping outside at night in the Gulf of Oman was like stepping into a vast but claustrophobic room. Like some subterranean dungeon, it housed a dense and humid darkness. I groped my way to the port handrail, stared down at the water, and waited. There is light everywhere at sea. Phosphorescent algae punctuate the waves at night. They sparkle by the thousands in the wakes of ships, like fireflies on waterskis. But the Oman was different. The phosphorescence there clumps, sinks, and rises in a continuous loop. I could see them as they gathered, so deep and faint it could have been my imagination. They wavered as they rose, slow at first, like formless blobs in a lava lamp. As they climbed they got faster and brighter. In the end they always took the shape of limbless torsos, racing head first to the surface. The strove, like the souls of the dead, for some terminal velocity that would crack the roof and shoot them back into the world. But when they hit the surface they shattered and slowly rained back down in a hundred parts, like fireworks into the dark.
After watching until the watch started, wondering what any of us had done to deserve being there, I stepped into the bridge. Warships use dim, red lights on the bridge at night. They’re supposed to be dark, but not as dark as it was that night. The chart table, which usually shed the only light bright enough to see by, was out. I froze, held the hatch for balance, and listened hard. Soon a distant burst of anti-aircraft fire silhouetted the men gathered around the chart table, blocking the light. They were silent and still, so I joined them. Someone from the last watch had carefully scribed the letter W at the head of the chart’s title. We all just stared for awhile, reading “WOMAN,” until, as if on cue, we all crept back to the dark corners of our watch stations.
At sea deprivation does funny things. A piece of sausage becomes worth fighting over. The lack of sleep and booze and land wears you down. But the lack of women was the worst. And that night, standing speechless before the word, it looked like the answer to all our hungers.
But we were wrong. When we got to land, women didn’t fix us. We could bask for a few days, the lucky ones, in the glow of whatever women we had access to. We could feel like women were the promised land. But soon most of us were no better men than we had been.
That night on the bridge I saw the marriage of heaven and hell, though I don’t know if it has anything to do with what Blake meant. That night I heard the Great Question and its mate, the Great Lie. The Question is whether or not there is something that can make life’s suffering worth it. The Lie is any answer that says “yes,” because any answer, women or whatever else catches the eye, fades. Hell’s job is to manufacture answers for us. And we ride them until we break our heads on the surface, fall back into the pit, and look for the next one. Truth has a half-life.
I once saw an interview with a man named Huwe Burton, who was falsely convicted of killing his mother when he was sixteen. Nineteen years later he was freed after being proved innocent. The interviewer commented that Burton looked strangely at peace and asked him how that could be. Burton said, “when you identify with your whys in life, you can be at peace. All of this that happened to me can’t not be for a reason. My mother wasn’t just a woman who worked and was murdered in her home. That can’t be the end of the narrative. So for me, that’s why I’m here. That’s my why.” He reminded me of something my youngest son used to say when he was little. Instead of saying, “for some reason” when talking about something he didn’t know the purpose or cause of, he would say, “for some why.” I never corrected him. Reasons and whys are not the same. Whys are broader. It isn’t true, but I love that phrase, because no one ever wanted a why more than me.