• Elephants

    Madison Smartt Bell

    Winter 2020

    Fresh out of basic training and a stint at a Norfolk radio school, Robert Stone boarded his first Navy vessel, the USS Muliphen, in September, 1956. The ship was an AKA (attack cargo ship) that looked like one of those ships off Normandy: big A frames and landing boats stacked up on the hull. The AKAs were World War II vintage vessels, armed with five-inch cannon and antiaircraft guns in some cases; “their form grimly followed function and they were as plain as dumpsters.” AKAs were the workhorses of what was then called the “Gator Navy,” after the amphibious functions of its fleet.

    Bob Stone boarded the Muliphen with the rank of a seaman first class. The personnel clerk who had given him his orders turned out to be a New Yorker himself, and confided in Bob that he was “going to a problem ship.”

    “‘They’re always falling off ladders,’ he said,” which must have been a coded message. “Certain ships were dominated, prison-style, by cliques of sailors—sometimes men from the same tough town—who enforced a code of their own below decks. . . . Such a ship’s officers might be only vaguely aware of the system that prevailed in the enlisted quarters. Masters at Arms and senior petty officers either looked the other way or, like crooked cops, made some political accommodation with the de facto leadership.”

    An older man, a third-class boatswain’s mate, soon marked Stone as “tender gear,” a term applied at the time “to sailors of youthful appearance, when imagined as passive partners in prison-style ‘facultative’ homosexuality or as the victims of rape,” as Bob wrote several decades later. A dollop of homophobia was standard equipment for the average young male psyche of the 1950s, and Bob had had an unpleasant experience shortly before leaving New York when a male friend had tried to trap him into a sexual encounter—unpleasant enough that he was still disturbed by it when talking to Ann Greif some twenty-five years later, though more by the element of entrapment than by the sexual overture per se: “He was . . . a manipulative person given to all sorts of intrigues, a game-player who set up all kinds of numbers. I think he was probably pretty sick. . . . I am still angry about that.” The intriguer had also managed to convince Bob’s then girlfriend that the two boys had “some kind of scene going on, which made me feel very bad indeed.”

    Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble; Waiting for the End of the World; Straight Cut; The Year of Silence; Soldier’s Joy; Doctor Sleep; Save Me, Joe Louis; Ten Indians; Master of the Crossroads; and The Stone That the Builder Refused and two collections of short stories: Zero db and Barking Man. His most recent novel is Behind the Moon. He is married to the poet Elizabeth Spires and teaches at Goucher College.

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