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PARKIE, TANKER, TIGER OF TOBRUK

reprinted from Thomas Sheehan's A COLLECTION OF FRIENDS



Hardly with a hop, skip and jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, and World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. From practically every vantage point thereafter we never saw, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh or major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor’s faulty hand or to the enemy’s angry fragmentation. It was if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.

But he was different, it was easy to see, by a long shot.

Parkie. Tanker. Tiger of Tobruk.

And it was at the end of some trying times for him when I realized, one afternoon as we sat looking over the sun-lit Lily Pond, a redness on the pond’s face as bright as my pal’s smile, the pond face we had skated on for almost twenty years, where we had whipped the long hand-held whip line of us and our friends screaming and wind-blown toward the frosted shore on countless coffee and cider evenings, that he had come home to die.

The September sun was on for a short stay, and we had bagged a dozen bottles of beer and laid them easily down in the pond, watching the flotilla of pickerel poking slowly about when the sediment settled, their shadowy thinness pointing, like inert submarines or torpedoes, at the bags.

Our differences were obvious, though we did not speak of them. The sands of North Africa had clutched at him and almost taken him. Off a mountain in Italy I had come with my feet nearly frozen, graceless pieces of marble under skin, thinking they might have been blown off the same quarry in which Michelangelo had once farmed torsos. Searching for the grace that might have been in them, I found none. I kept no souvenirs, especially none of Italy and its craggy mountains, and had seen nothing of his memento scenery. But once I saw a pair of tanker goggles hanging like an outsize Rosary on the post of Parkie’s bed at Dutch Siciliano’s garage where he roomed on the second floor. In each of his three small rooms, like the residue of a convoy’s passing still hanging in the air, telling of itself at the nostrils with sharp reminders, you could smell the oil and grease and, sometimes you’d swear, perhaps the acid-like cosmoline and spent gunpowder, rising right through the floorboards.

We left the war behind us, as much as we could. But with Parkie it was different … pieces of it hung on as if they were on for the long ride. I don’t mean that he was a flag waver or mufti hero, now that he was out of uniform, but the whole war kept coming back to him in ways in which he had no control. There are people to whom such things befall. They don’t choose them, but it’s as if they somehow get appointed for all the attendant crap that comes with life.

Furthermore, Parkie had no control over the visitations.

I don’t know how many times we have been sitting in the Angels’ Club, hanging out, the big booms long gone, when someone from Parkie’s old outfit would show up out of the blue. It was like Lamont Cranston appearing from the shadows; there’d be a guy standing at the door looking in and we’d all notice him, and then his eyes and Parkie’s eyes would lock. Recognition was instant; reaction was slower, as if neither believed what he was seeing. There would be a quiet acceptance of the other’s presence; they’d draw their heads together and have a beer in a corner. Parkie, as sort of an announcement, would speak to no one in particular and the whole room in general, “This guy was with me in North Africa.”

He never gave a name. All of them were odd lots, all of them; thin like Parkie, drawn in the face, little shoulders and long arms, nervous, itchy, wearing that same darkness in the eyes, a sum of darkness you’d think was too much for one man to carry. They'd hang on for days at a time, holing up some place, sometimes at Parkie’s and sometimes elsewhere, drinking up a storm, carousing, and one morning would be gone and never seen again, as if a ritual had taken place - a solemn ritual. Apparitions almost from slippery darkness! Dark-eyed. The nameless out of North Africa and whatever other place they had been to and come from. Noble wanderers, it seemed, but nameless, placeless, itinerants from who knows what!