The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories

BOOK: The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories


For MH & LL


“Good morning,” said Emily politely.

“Smells like an earthquake,” said Margaret, and dressed.

Richard Hughes,
A High Wind in Jamaica

“And the flowers are

Dr. Peter Venkman

the peripatetic coffin

he sound of iron walls adjusting to the underwater pressure around you was like the sound of improbability announcing itself: a broad, deep, awake-you-from-your-stupor kind of salvo. The first time we heard it, we thought we were dead; the second time we heard it, we realized we were. The third time wiped clean away any concern we had regarding our well-being and we whooped like madmen in our sealed iron tub, hands at the crank, hunched at our stations like crippled industrial workers. Frank yelled like a siren without taking a breath. Augustus hooted like a screech owl. The walls pinged and groaned, but held their seams. We screamed for more.

My name is Ward Lumpkin, and I man the second crank station aboard the “fish boat”
H. L. Hunley,
the first underwater vessel commissioned for combat by the Confederate States of America. There are seven of us aboard, not including our captain, Lieutenant Dixon, and in navigating the submarine murk of Charleston Harbor we make up the third volunteer crew in as many months. Mechanical failure; flooding ballast tanks; human error; bad luck: conventional wisdom around Battery Marshall has the survival rate aboard the
hovering near zero, and that’s without ever having engaged an enemy ship. Cannon probability, Augustus calls it, as in, stuff yourself inside a cannon and see what happens. But there’s probability, and there’s certainty. Antietam was a washout. Gettysburg was worse. Crescent City folded like the house of cards it was and we lost the Mississippi.

And now? In Richmond, war widows have begun rioting over bread. Railways in our control are being blown at such a rate you’d think it was some kind of competition.

One thing, at least, is clear to everyone: the Union naval blockade encircling Charleston must be broken if we are to continue aggression with the North, and if things are ever going to roll our way it’ll be by doing the unexpected. General to germ-soaker we fold our hats and stand in awe before the ingenuity of this machine: a cylindrical steam boiler, lengthened and tapered at the ends, outfitted with conning towers, a propeller, and diving fins. Affixed to our bow is a seventeen-foot-long iron spar torpedo that carries 135 pounds of gunpowder, which Frank has taken to calling the Demoralizer. We are the unheard of: an instrument of destruction that maneuvers
the waves. If we survive our test dives, if we make it past Breach Inlet without rolling in the tide, if we crank undetected the three miles from the mouth of Charleston Harbor, it’s enough ordnance to send any ship we happen to greet to the bottom of the ocean.

“Desperation breeds invention,” Arnold has begun saying each time he seals the hatch.

“May wonders never cease,” Frank says back.

rnold Becker, Carleton F. Carlsen, Frank Collins, James Wicks, Augustus Miller, Joseph Ridgaway. Before the
arrived in Charleston, before we volunteered our way underwater, all of us were stationed aboard the receiving ship
Indian Chief
off of Battery Marshall. The
Sloop of Invalids,
we called it
The C.S.S.
Not Much to Report
. Everyone aboard had either been shot, trampled, maimed, heavily shelled, amputated, or otherwise shellacked on various campaigns. We suffered from swamp foot, dysentery, low morale, and general incompetence. Our commander, Lieutenant Joosten, enjoyed telling us that he woke each morning wondering about the talents of his crew, and passed each night trying to forget. To a man, we were considered unreliable in combat. Frank had been at Manassas, seen his best friend ribboned by shrapnel, and had dreams like you wouldn’t believe. Augustus had stepped on his bayonet while cleaning his rifle and severed a tendon. I was born with a hip irregularity and moved so herky-jerky it made
people wince. “Well, I guess we all know why
here,” Frank had said when I introduced myself. In response I told a joke about a three-legged plow horse, which either no one heard, or no one got.

On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.

Damage reports read like the end of the world. Houses, churches, and hotels were demolished. Everything south of Calhoun Street was rubble. Stray dogs ran in packs down the boulevard and looked at whoever was sifting through the wreckage like,
What are
doing here?

On our receiving ship, we sat back, dumbfounded, and familiarized ourselves with new definitions of inadequacy. Supplies were running low. Reinforcements, always coming, never showed. Larger attempts at mobilization had been catastrophic. We practiced knots and evacuation drills, memorized flag signals, and wondered how much longer the city would hold. We’d stand watch, scan the horizon for runners, and return below with a tally of the gulls we’d counted. Downtime was spent staring at cleats.

“I can’t say I’m proud of our efforts,” Augustus said one day as hundreds of pounds of artillery whistled into Charleston.

“I’ve addressed the firmament,” Frank said back, watching the bombardment with his head in his hands. “And it remains uninterested in your evaluation.”

Half our guns had been off-loaded and sent to the front. Those that remained sported the dust of the museum pieces they were. Our defense seemed to consist of getting—and staying—out of range. “If we’re not going to actually be
anything, couldn’t we be of more use somewhere else?” Frank said one day to Lieutenant Joosten when he was topside checking inventory.

“Your enthusiasm,” Lieutenant Joosten said, looking around as if seeing us for the first time, “is admirable.”

After he’d left, Augustus kicked at the rail and broke his toe. Frank counted the picket ships just outside Battery Marshall’s cannon line and cursed all fourteen vessels, then our ship, then himself with pleasurable combinations of colorful language. “We’re just going to sit here in the pluff mud, watching, until they destroy everything?” Arnold said. “That a rhetorical question?” someone said back.

Two weeks later, on August 12, 1863, the
was brought in over rail on a flatcar, transferred to dry dock, and, with the help of thirty-five men and an elaborate pulley system, lowered into the water. We crowded the gunwales. We jostled for a view. The afternoon heat shimmered the air above her like a mirage.

“Cure for what ails you,” someone said. “Our secret weapon’s an iron pecker.”

“For the record,” Lieutenant Joosten said, clearing his throat, “that’s an underwater iron pecker.”

The crowd that had gathered by the dock parted to make room for a group of six nonuniformed men, carrying a long boom with a charge and spar at one end. Even from where I was standing I could see they were less than comfortable handling the load. They attached it gingerly to the bow of the vessel, and backed away.

There were no speeches, no explanations. But who needed one? Just by looking at the thing you knew what it was built for. “You getting emotional?” Frank said.

“I believe I might be,” Augustus said. “I believe it may be so.”

ow unfamiliar are we with what we are capable of? As a child I was Gimpy the Lump Foot, One-Legged Ward, Vomit the Hobbler. The one-room schoolhouse I attended in Columbia was an exercise in controlled explosions. Before school, groups of kids would taunt me until I chased them, then laugh at the shit-show. During school, balled pieces of paper were bounced off the back of my head with Swiss-clock regularity. After school came the fights. My sisters were no help. My father shrugged at my bloody noses and torn shirts and said I had to learn how to stand up for myself sometime. I pointed to my leg. “You know what I mean,” he said.

My mother was more sympathetic, taking me, on occasion, in her arms to muffle my sobs. “You have to know your strengths,” she said.

As far as I could tell my only strength consisted of taking heroic portions of abuse and folding them into broods so unyielding that no one in my family would approach me for days. I was accused of being inconsolable. I was chastised for my inability to see beyond myself. Sunday sermons exhorted us to forgive and forget, but even then I knew forgiveness was the province of the healthy, of the unbeaten, and that no help was coming. My parents were treated with sympathy for their blessing in disguise. “Pretty good disguise,” my father was fond of saying in response.

’s first crew was gathered from an elite corps of older seamen none of us, until the moment they filed down the dock, had seen before. They threaded through the assembled crowd, accepting slaps on the back from enlisted men. There was a speech at the water by her captain, Lieutenant Payne, of which only fragments of intoned heroism drifted to my ears. Once everyone was below, Lieutenant Payne waved, then saluted and turned to board. After the hatches were sealed we watched the boat for movement and saw no movement. No one cast off. We waited twenty minutes. Finally, the forward hatch opened, and Lieutenant Payne said that while he appreciated our audience, we should return to our duties: the crew was only becoming familiar with instrument placement, and there would be no dive. Eventually they did dive, but the triumph was short-lived. On August 29, as the
was out on the water running short surface maneuvers, Lieutenant Payne inadvertently stepped on the lever controlling the diving plane and our fish boat, with her hatches still open, dove, filled with water, and sank. The rescue skiff found Lieutenant Payne treading water amidst a soup of roiling air bubbles, wearing a look so far beyond stricken it resembled paralysis. He was relieved of his command and the
was fished from the bottom of the harbor. Five men drowned. She hadn’t traveled more than fifty feet from the wharf.

A second crew volunteered, and the boat’s inventor, Horace Hunley himself, was brought in from Mobile to assume command. We lined the shore as dive after successful dive was completed. Mud and silt, occasionally churned to the surface by her propeller, marked the vessel’s underwater progress. It was like watching a monster patrol a pond. Fifteen minutes; twenty-three minutes; an hour. We bet rations on how long she’d stay down. One day, she ventured only into the shoals, and remained submerged for eighteen minutes. The next, she explored the deepest part of the harbor, stayed under for fifty-seven minutes, and surfaced to applause.

After three weeks of successful practice dives, we waited one afternoon as an excruciating ninety-two submerged minutes ticked by. Augustus paced the gangway. Carleton tied line in and out of Turk’s head knots. I scanned the harbor for churn and saw none. We upped our times and doubled our bets in a show of solidarity until finally even we had to concede it was a lost cause. Lieutenant Joosten let us know that word would be sent to General Beauregard: the crew had drowned and a salvage operation would begin in the morning.

Half an hour later, a yell from the harbor sent us topside. “What’s the time on that one?” Hunley shouted. He stood half out of the hatch, his clothing soaked, his voice quavering.

It had been two hours and fifteen minutes. The
bobbed fifteen feet from the dock like a fishing buoy. We cheered as though we’d won the war.

Augustus had had the highest guess when we stopped betting. “What am I going to do with all this hardtack?” he said, looking at the pile in front of him.

“Rebuild Fort Sumter?” Frank, fanning the heat off his face, said. “Shove it up your ass? Be grateful?”

On October 15, two days before she was scheduled to engage the picket ships, the
failed to surface. Three days later, she was found nine fathoms down, her bow augered into the mud, her ballast tanks open and her cabin flooded. The salvage operation confirmed what we already knew: that all eight men, including Horace Hunley, had been trapped aboard, and drowned. The service was brief. We stood at attention, approximated composure, and returned to our ship.

The blockade, as if relieved to have dodged this particular assault, sank two of our runners and shelled a cathedral in celebration.

hat kind of person signs up for duty aboard a self-sabotaging vessel that has failed—spectacularly—almost every meaningful test it’s been given? Who willingly mans the underwater equivalent of a bicycle strapped to a bomb with the intention of pedaling it four miles through hostile waters to engage an infinitely better equipped enemy? After a two-week hiatus, the
was returned to active duty, and her new skipper, Lieutenant Dixon, asked for volunteers. We stepped forward. He was visibly touched. We were touched ourselves. He wondered why, out of over four hundred people, only seven had signed up. We shrugged. He asked if we knew how unlikely a successful mission would be. We nodded. And might he ask why we volunteered.

” Frank said, and offered nothing else.

is thirty-nine feet long with a beam of three feet, ten inches. The entry hatches that cap the conning towers are fourteen by fifteen and a half inches; we swivel our hips diagonally, and even then it’s like threading a cannonball through a needle. Below boasts a cabin height of four feet; there is no standing, only sitting. Discomfort, muscle cramps, an iron-smelling darkness; it gets so hot we make jokes about various sins catching up to us in
lifetime. Augustus, generally the first below, has taken to greeting us as we crawl past. “The C.S.S.
Steam Boiler
welcomes you aboard,” he says.

The seven of us sit on the starboard side, shoulders chafing, hands on the propeller crank. Our legs, if extended, span the beam and come up short on the hull. Lieutenant Dixon perches in the bow, head in the conning tower, levers at the ready. On his signal we turn the propeller. He lights a candle, checks the manometer mounted above his head, and floods the ballast tanks. As we dive, the iron hull sweats and groans like old wood. The air goes from stale to rank. “Yo-ho-ho,” someone says.

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