By Lewis Turco
Peter Ross Perkins and I met in 1953 in New York to serve aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, the eighth ship to bear that name. She’d been launched 10 months after the seventh Hornet was sunk in World War II, but she, too, had seen much action in the war. Now, recalled from retirement, she was ready to serve during and after the Korean War. She was to be launched in all her renewed glory from Brooklyn Naval Shipyard.
Peter, three years older and a native Mainer, had attended Deering High School in Portland, where he played for three years in the school band. He’d started at Bowdoin College but after three years had joined the Service the same year I did.
I was a yeoman clerk in the Hornet’s Gunnery Division. Peter was a member of the Division as well, but a Fire Control specialist (“fire” as in “ready, aim”). I don’t recall the particular day we got to know one another, but we were soon fast friends.
What we saw as fellow crewmembers is still vivid, in flashes. During a port stop in Cuba, we swarmed onto Guantanamo for liberty. I stared at the fish swimming off the pier: a thousand brilliant colors. It was as though I were gazing into a more brilliant version of the aquaria I used to maintain in the sun porch of my father’s parsonage on Windsor Avenue in Meriden, Connecticut.
In February, 1954, we visited Haiti, steaming into the harbor between vast, eroded hills and verdurous shoreside farmlands. In Port au Prince, I spent the day on Shore Patrol duty with Peter. Neither of us had any training for it, but our job was to wear SP armbands and wander around town checking into bars and other establishments frequented by sailors, to make sure there were no untoward incidents. Peter’s facility with French came in handy. The marketplace seemed like a page out of a pirate story. We were offered trinkets made of mahogany, teak, and alligator skin.
Much of Port au Prince had not changed a whole lot from the days of Henry Morgan–squalid and unspeakably filthy. This merely emphasized the gulf between the truly modern portion of the town where the foreign population lived and did business: tall buildings of progressive architecture, exotic nightclubs and hotels, and spic-and-span living districts. Peter and I spent another day wandering around Ciudad Trujillo on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic. It seemed a bit more civilized.
The Hornet’s Showcase World Cruise took us to Lisbon, Portugal. On liberty, a number of us, Peter included, walked down narrow cobblestoned alleys where lovers were making out in ancient doorways. We went into several fado houses, listened to fado songs, ate olives, and drank wine–the fado was the national music of Portugal, rather like our blues, but quite different rhythmically. It was a beautiful evening. We all swore to keep in touch with one another, exchanging addresses.
In May, we put into Naples harbor. We trained to Rome to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the Coliseum, and the Forum, buying gifts for the folks back home–I picked up a pipe carved in the shape of Romulus and Remus suckling the wolf; carved underneath was the legend “R-Roma.” I was surprised by the English pun.
Peter and I tried to walk to Mount Vesuvius, with small luck, for it never seemed to get closer. We finally managed to get to Pompeii by train. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the exhibits were closed, so we dropped into a trattoria and had a big spaghetti meal and half a gallon of chianti. By the time we got back to the ship we–especially I–were in rather rough shape.
Aboard the Hornet we passed Stromboli, Sicily, and Italy through the Straits of Messina, pressing on through the Suez. We saw the Pyramids in the distance, sand spreading to the horizon, and paused at Port Said before sailing to Colombo in what was then called Ceylon and now Sri Lanka. In the Red Sea, Peter and I saw an immense fish sunning beside our ship. The whale shark looked big even beside our carrier.
Touring Kandy, our bus stopped at a waterhole where a mahout was giving his charge a drink and letting it cool off by spraying water over its back. He offered us rides, but we were wearing whites, so Peter and I demurred. Other sailors accepted. With its trunk the elephant grasped them in a coil and lifted them to its back. Our friends continued the tour looking something like black-and-white barber poles.
The sun was bright when we dropped anchor in Singapore, the city a crescent off our port beam. This was the first time we’d seen junks. Their weather-beaten hulls and matt sails wove between Chinese freighters, Dutch liners, South American and island trading ships, and Yankee tankers.
Peter and I took the tour to Johore Bahru on the Malayan mainland. We passed native market places and modern department stores, mosques and a tremendous Church of England; blonde and auburn-haired Englishwomen and swarthy Asiatic girls, all of whom looked perfect to the eyes of sailors.
Johore Bahru connects to Singapore by a causeway. Passing from Singapore into its sister city, we left the Occident and entered the Orient. The Sultan’s palace looked huge and golden on our way to the Sultan’s Mosque. Small elephants and chickens seemed the sole inhabitants of its extensive gardens and woods.
Back in Singapore, we again sallied out into the streets and alleys. Night was falling. Around us the stone buildings and monuments took on the grey tinge of evening. In the harbor, lights were lit aboard the ships and varicolored flags were furled. The water grew dusky, and the ripples stirred up the ever-moving junks; bumboats glinted in the sunlight reflected from the clouds. Ship silhouettes became black and then indistinct, fading at last into the darkness. We heard the bells of our liberty launch.
Crossing the Pacific we ran into an immense typhoon. I don’t know about Peter, but I got seasick riding out this monster blow. When General Quarters sounded, I raced up the tower to my station at Gunnery Control. As I did so, the escalator stairs beneath my feet fell away and I was floating in mid-air. I kept my balance somehow and came out on the Gunnery Bridge. The great ship was poised on the lip of a simply gargantuan wave, heading down.
Our carrier’s hangar-deck doors were a wreck by the time we hit port in Oakland, California. Peter and I decided to build, with permission, a large hi-fidelity set in the ship’s carpentry shop; several of us went ashore to a lumber yard. Returning, we saluted the Officer-of-the-Deck with a 4-x-8-foot plywood rectangle balanced on our heads–all four of our sailor caps placed directly over our heads on the plywood…
We’d barely tuned our hi-fi in when I received orders to transfer to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, VA, while Peter stayed on for a year with the Hornet.
The next fall, he returned to Brunswick to finish his BA at Bowdoin. In 1966, he received an MA in French from Middlebury College where he was organist and carillonneur as a graduate student. Later he taught French for more than a decade at several New England schools.
I found my way to Maine because my wife’s family is from Dresden Mills, where we stay every summer. We saw Peter a number of times. At one point he opened a home decorations business in, as I recall, Yarmouth, which Jean and I visited one day.
Peter and Margaret had two children, Christina and Douglas. Jean and I had a daughter, Melora Ann, and a son, Christopher Cameron, but the two families never got together as a group. Peter dropped out of sight over the years, and not many moons ago a mutual friend, former Deering High alum Priscilla Riley Smith, and I talked about him and we tried to find him, but I couldn’t get him by phone, and we began to assume the worst. At last, Priscilla wrote me the second week of January, 2015:
“Although I could not make the picture in today’s paper look like Peter, I know it is he and I am saddened that I was never able to be in touch with him. I was also surprised that he was at Village Crossings in the Cape, where I regularly visit my sister-in-law. I expect you will be inspired to remember him in verse. May he rest in peace with lots of beautiful organ music. –Priscilla.”
>> View the full version of this essay at portlandmonthly.com/portmag/2015/2/hornet. World-renowned poet Lewis Turco’s latest book is The Familiar Stranger (Start Cloud Press, 2014; $14.95).