May 25, 2020

Memorial Day Poem: A Goodbye in New London

Earlier this weekend I posted my annual Memorial Day tribute. As I explained there, I post that tribute every year. It is my experience and my way of honoring the fallen, especially the men of the U.S.S. Scorpion. That submarine went down May 22, 1968 with 99 men on board.

But I first wrote about the submariner that I knew as Dennis, who was like a big brother to me,  many years before I wrote that tribute. It was, possibly, the first time I ever wrote a poem, for my creative writing class in college.

Growing up in The Salvation Army, I had an unusual childhood as it was. In the first nine years of my life, I lived in Utica, NY, New Bedford, MA, and Buffalo, NY. But then, for one year, when I was ten years old, my father, Major Walter Hooper, (ordained ministers in The Salvation Army are officers) was the director of the Red Shield Club for Service Men on the top of a street in New London, Connecticut that ended at the ocean. 

That was a year I never forgot. I can still the Red Shield Club in every detail: glass store front windows to provide a welcoming view to sailors, Coast Guards, and others who were opting for something other than the usual bars. There was a reception desk on the front and a cozy nook on the right. There were desks for writing letters home and big red leather chairs in the narrow but deep room with a big (for that time!) television. Color! Something we didn’t have at home for many years after that. And all along the walls were bookcases. I think I read every volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that year.

Downstairs were the billiard and ping-pong tables, shuffleboard, and dart boards. There were tables for Sunday dinner and a lunch counter for the rest of the meals and snacks. It was there I learned to play ping-pong — my dad was quite good, putting his “English” spin on the ball. And Dennis and some of the others also taught me how to play pool — a game about which my father could have done his best Harold Hill impression, if he had seen The Music Man.

A GOODBYE IN NEW LONDON – by Faith J. H. McDonnell

We understood each other well:

You, moving from base to base and

me, moving from PS#84 to Lomond to Nameaug.

We both knew the anxiety of picking up

and starting over in some strange place.

We both knew the sadness of leaving the last

starting over, that was no longer strange, now familiar.

Silently, we both knew the

finality of a goodbye,

although we never said it.

Your last deployment came a few months before I left,

although neither of us knew it.

To you, it meant a routine operation.

To me, not yet comprehending war,

it meant a week or two – a month at most – of playing eight ball

by myself, practicing so I could finally win a game without you letting me

when you came back

in your funny, long, shroud of a coat.

It was 1967

and you had games other than billiards you had to play –

you and the hundreds of others

who came to talk to my Father, and get a hug from my Mother,

when you were at liberty to do so.

You even let him pray with you because,

well, because it was 1967, and your submarine

was a teardrop.

When the smell of smoke and death got to be too much for my Father

we left New London.

Wish to God we had left before you.

Then I might never have found out how

You were stung by a Scorpion, how

the cruel, black ocean swallowed you.

(For Dennis and all those of USS Scorpion, lost May 22, 1968)

 


One Response to Memorial Day Poem: A Goodbye in New London

  1. Joyce Hill says:

    Faith, this is simply beautiful and poignant and highlights the incredible bonds that you and your family shared with Dennis. After all these years, the pain and sadness remain as a permanent reminder of this special man and his shipmates. May God give you extraordinary grace and peace today!

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