He sat alone in a breakfast joint. He was old, wearing wrinkled clothes, with white stubble on his chin, like he forgot to shave. He was doing a crossword puzzle.
When I am old, I will forget to shave and do crosswords.
He wore a Navy ball cap with scrambled-egg embellishments on the bill, his reading glasses on his nose.
Buck Owens was overhead singing “Together Again.”
I pulled up a stool beside him. Socially distanced, of course. We micro-smiled at each other. The waitress handed me a menu, I gave it back and replied, “Three eggs, sunny, and bacon, please.”
The old guy and I exchanged another formal grin. Minutes went by. He broke the ice first. “Where’s home, fella?”
When I am old, I will call strangers fella.
I jerked a thumb behind me. “About three hours that way. You?”
He laughed. “Nineteen hours in the other direction. On vacation with my kids in Crawfordville this week.” He looked at me over his readers. “Had to get outta the condo, my granddaughters were driving me insane.”
The waitress refilled his mug. The man used six packets of sugar in his coffee.
I will someday use six packets of sugar.
The inscription on his ballcap caught my eyes, it read: “Navy Chaplain Corps.”
I pointed to his hat. “Bet I can guess what you did for a living.”
The man smiled. “Yep. I’m an inactive chaplain—there’s no such thing as a retired chaplain.”
“So, how’d you get into the business of saving Navy souls?”
He laughed again. “Well, I didn’t save’em. I just listened to a lot of’em talk.”
He added, “My daddy was a preacher. But that ain’t what made me wanna be a Holy Joe.”
“Oh, lotta things.” He looked at me with eyes of slate blue, the color of dungarees. “You ever hear of the SS Dorchester?”
I shook my head. “Was that your ship?”
“No way. The Dorchester was back during the War Against Hitler, in ‘43. I was busy filling diapers in ‘43. You weren’t even a glint in your grandfather’s eye.”
I will also tell youngsters they weren’t glints in their grandfathers’ eyes.
“The Dorchester was a troop transporter, carrying 904 passengers. They were in a three-ship convoy in the North Atlantic when they sank.”
“Sank.” He nudged his cap backward and acknowledged a young waitress who had joined our little conversational soirée. I got the feeling the old preacher didn’t get captive audiences like this anymore.
“How’d it sink?” asked the waitress.
“Torpedoed.” He clapped once. “The Dorchester got attacked by a German sub, middle of the night, just off Newfoundland. Enemy fire knocked out the electrical system, left 904 folks in the pitch dark.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice for effect.
The waitress leaned in too.
“You wanna talk fear, fella? Try being stuck in the North Atlantic in the dark.”
He let the melodrama breathe for a few moments, then pretended to work on his puzzle again. He was probably waiting for us to beg him to keep talking.
“So what happened?”
The Holy Joe shrugged. “Panic. Suddenly, the crew was going ape, screaming. The ship was going down. Crewmen were trapped below deck. Game over. No hope.”
By now, another young waitress had joined storytime circle.
“So,” the old man went on, “guess who helps organize an orderly evacuation, guess who calms everyone down and keeps 900 people from losing it?” He thumped his hat. “Chaplains. There were four of’em on the Dorchester.”
He placed four fingers on the bartop. “George Fox, Alex Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling—a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and two old-school preachers.”
The waitress interjected. “I’m Methodist.”
Everyone paused to look at the young woman with confused but polite smiles.
“Well, I am,” she said quietly.
I attempted to bring us back on track. “So they sank?”
“I’m getting to that part. See, these four chaplains were in charge of getting the panicked and wounded to safety, but first they had to pass out life jackets to everyone—in the dark, mind you—and that’s when it all hit the fan.”
He froze to add more tension. This guy was a showman.
“So what happened?” said the professed Methodist.
“What happened is they ran outta life jackets, and without those, you’re dead. Lotta men died.
“Survivors said the only thing you could hear that night were prayers in Hebrew, English, and Latin, filling the air—it was the voices of the chaplains. The chaplains never quit praying. There were 674 lives lost at sea.”
“Wow,” muttered the waitress.
I looked downward at my coffee and thought about brave men I never knew.
The old man’s voice hushed. “Survivors were swimming away from the wreckage, dog paddling through 34-degree water. Some said they looked at the ship behind them, in the glow of the emergency flares, and you know what they saw?”
“The four chaplains were removing their own life jackets and giving their jackets away to save others, while the ship was going down.”
The old man had glazed eyes now. “Last thing anyone remembers seeing was one priest, one rabbi, and two preachers, holding hands, linking arms with crewmen, and singing hymns. The waves crashed in, swallowed everyone whole, killed’em. And those four chaplains went down singing.”
He turned back to his crossword. “That’s what made me wanna be a chaplain.”