NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 11

The following summer or , more precisely , the middle of August of that same chaotic war-haunted year , and together with over a hundred or so cocky and secretly scared Negro horse cavalry troopers of what remained of our by now decimated horse cavalry detachment , and after a numbing stop and go journey across the American hinterland on an overcrowded troop train that lingered long hours in almost every freight yard it passed through , I found myself off to war aboard an aging but once fashionable ocean liner , The Cordelia , newly commissioned as a troop transport and now embarked on its maiden voyage as part of a convoy of mostly Liberty ships spread like toys across a glassy picture-book sea , the tranquil beauty of which had after the first two uneventful weeks lulled us into imagining we were on a leisurely summer cruise —
Instead , only four days out of Hampton Roads , our port of embarkation , we ran smack into a freak summer hurricane that kept us confined below deck strapped to our bunks , praying and vomiting and cursing our fate , as the creaking and aging former luxury liner tossed and pitched its way through mountainous seas and hideously shrieking headwinds toward a now delayed rendezvous , somewhere northwest of Nova Scotia , with what was rumored to be the largest troop convoy to cross the Atlantic , since the war began —
On our fifth day at sea , about an hour before dawn , we were violently awakened and tumbled from our bunks by an enormous explosion that churned the sea around us and filled the waves with froth and seemed to seize our ship , as if it were a toy and in one final gesture of contempt stand it on end .
Then — as in a desperate chaos I hope never to experience again , the lights went out and alarms began to sound and in the hellish din and in a collective orgy of fear , we began to fight each other for the few rapidly disappearing life jackets remaining on their racks , all the while screaming names of buddies and obscenities while knocking each other over in a wild stampede for the exits —
When eventually the frightened babble and confusing orders began to subside , and little by little , we realized we were safe — that it wasn ’ t our ship that had hit a mine or been struck by a torpedo but the Liberty ship just in front of us in the convoy , and we were now allowed to grope our way through the darkness to the top deck where , in the eerie light of that arctic dawn , and as terrified and religiously chastened troopers began to mumble prayers ( even today I remember the Negro farm boys from a cooperative farm in Southern Kansas who somehow had managed to form an impromptu quartet and were crooning a lugubrious version of “ Swing Low Sweet Chariot , Coming for to Carry Me Home —” in a pathetic and misguided effort to raise our spirits and take our minds off death ), we looked out over the heaving stretch of angry sea and could see what looked like a vast abandoned picnic ground littered with rubbish and debris with here and there a dignified corpse afloat face down or , more rarely , given the cosmic violence of the explosion , a wildly gesticulating survivor —
By the time our mostly green merchant marine crew finally managed to turn The Cordelia around in a cumbersome U-turn maneuver and then return to the scene of the disaster , stop its engines and come to a silent halt , the torpedoed Liberty ship , its bow askew and almost close enough to touch , slowly began to sink beneath the surface leaving less than a hundred or so survivors bobbing up and down in the oily slick , all of them screaming up at us , as we leaned over the rail to gape , “ Please , please , for Christ ’ s sake , pull us out of this fucking shit —”
Incredibly one of the survivors was Tillman , who I had assumed had remained behind at the Army cook school —
But , no , there he was standing on a huge pneumatic life raft with two other survivors , floating , oil and grease all over him like a tall skinny tar baby with a stocking cap on his head and a dull red slash running the length of his right arm where apparently the impact of the explosion had torn off the back of his fatigue jacket , as well as the sleeve —