Incendiary Reunion – By David Siegel Bernstein and Susanne Shay

June 28, 2009

The explosion lit up the Philadelphia night sky for blocks.

“Oh shit!” I yelled, not because of any fear of injury, (we’d gotten everybody off the boat at the first sign of flame below-deck, and Philly’s finest firemen were en route), but because my security deposit for the boat had just gone up in smoke.

A couple of weeks ago, it had seemed like such a good idea-at least to my brothers. That makes it their fault. Right?

Now before you answer, remember I’m the cute, naïve little sister (even if I do earn more than all of them put together. Corporate lawyer, you know). But still, cute, naïve, I’m sure there are a few more adjectives I could add. You get the idea. Now let me tell you what happened.

They said, let’s rent a boat for dad’s 60th birthday party.

I said sure.

They said, let’s fly in his service buddies for a reunion.

I said sure.

They said, where’s your checkbook?

I said, huh? But I paid. That was my first mistake.

When my brother Jack (he’s the oldest, but not wisest of us) found the boat at the Delaware Avenue boat rental slips, he had called us, all excited. But you’d expect that from him, wouldn’t you? He’s an obsessive-compulsive caffeine junky and probably didn’t get any rest (or sleep) until he’d finished his duty. That’s why we usually give him the easy stuff to do.

Anyway, he showed us a picture of what he’d found and, for once, he did something right. Perfect. The boat was a dead-on replica of the Wilson, the vessel Dad had been stationed on in the Mekong Delta. All of us kids had grown up seeing pictures of the damned thing. They hung in nearly every room of our row house in South Philadelphia. I say nearly, because Daddy thought it would be disrespectful to have one in the bathroom. Lucky us.

That boat, and his service in ‘Nam, had been the biggest, most important thing in his life. Nothing before, or since, including me, my brothers or any of our mothers or stepmothers had meant as much to him.

We’d grown up hearing all the stories about Daddy’s boat and, as he affectionately called his buddies, the Wrecking Crew: Tigger, Moose, Lemon and Ferret. We knew the guys better than we knew some of our mothers. Daddy was proudly known as Skinflint.

A truer name didn’t exist.

The Wrecking Crew had all survived the war, but had since mostly gone their separate ways. And we knew, because he told us over and over again, that Daddy’s proudest accomplishment in life had been serving with them. Tigger: the optimist who’d pulled them through some of their darkest moments with his sunny assurance that everything would be all right. Moose: the strong man who’d been their protector from the Cong and, from the officers. Lemon: the rich man’s son who could have gone the National Guard route and avoided the whole stinking mess, if he hadn’t been so proud and patriotic. And, his favorite, Ferret: who’d managed to keep them supplied with booze and officer’s-quality grub (and probably more, although Daddy never talked about that. It was part of the family’s “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy).

Daddy always said the Wrecking Crew were the finest men he’d ever known, and his voice always got really deep and broke just a little when he said it. For almost 30 years he’d kept them in his mind and heart as the best that people could be. And, of course, they’d all grown a little taller, a little braver, a little smarter, at least in the stories.

So, you can see how I was convinced to pay for the event. Bringing them all back together for Daddy’s birthday was a brilliant idea, everybody thought. And, even after everything that happened during the big reunion, the drinking … the lies … the drinking (how can people drink that much and survive, I want to know), Daddy still thought they hung the moon. He was happier all weekend than we’d ever seen him, so I guess the whole thing has to be considered a success. At least from Daddy’s perspective. To him, they were still the magnificent young heroes they’d always been. And, you could tell, they thought he was king of the world. Somehow, I’d never realized that he’d been the very center of the crew. But he was. They adored him. It was nice to see.

But, from my point of view, the phrase “shattered illusions” doesn’t begin to express my disappointment. The ‘Wrecking Crew’ didn’t match their thirty-plus years of star-billing.

The Wrecking Crew was wrecked.

Tigger seemed to have grown into Eeyore; the optimism had turned to fatalism. He’d just seemed to drift through civilian life after the war, with no plan or rudder, and had a permanent brow furrow you could hang a mourning wreath from. Moose, who’d hoped to play pro ball after ‘Nam, still had the broad shoulders and the bring-it-on attitude, but he had a desperate comb-over and was working for Lemon in his plumbing supply business. Lemon was rich as Croesus, but fresh out of six months in Allenwood Minimum Security for accounting fraud.

But, in the end, it was all Ferret’s fault. He’s the one that cost me. He wasn’t ready to concede his title as ‘The Organizer.’ He’d called me an amateur.

It was his drunken idea to have that damned midnight barbecue.

On the deck.

Just above the engine room.

And, let me tell you, no matter how much aluminum foil you use, eventually it burns through.

Oh, well, Daddy never claimed Ferret was smart.

 

About the Author

Susanne Shay and David Siegel Bernstein

Dr. Susanne Shay is a social psychologist, editor and senior consultant specializing in survey research at an international consulting company.

Dr. David Siegel Bernstein consults as a forensic statistician. He has been published in numerous print and online magazines. He also serves on the board of directors for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.

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