My great uncle Oliver was killed August 15, 1942, eight days shy of his 41st birthday. He was a merchant seaman during WW2 when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the North Atlantic. His body was never recovered. He left behind a wife and twelve-year-old son.
I have always felt his presence, like he was watching over me. As a kid I heard all the stories of his exploits. An immigrant from Jamaica, he came to New York City with the clothes on his back and the hopes of a better life in America.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to meet for coffee and just talk. I’d have so many questions to ask. Here is one such imagined encounter. Me, as my 40-year-old self, going through mid-life crisis. Uncle Oliver, visiting from the afterlife. We meet in his old Harlem neighborhood.
“Uncle Oliver, it is so incredibly amazing to see you. You look just like I imagined. I have so much to ask you but don’t know where to start?”
“Good to see you too, young fella, I’ve had my eye on you for a long time. Man, what happened to the old neighborhood? Lot more white folk… So, fire away young man, we don’t have all day.”
“Well, do you regret serving as a merchant seaman during the war? The job killed you and you never got to see your son grow up. Your older brother was almost killed at sea a month earlier, wasn’t he? Weren’t you at least scared?”
“That’s a lot of questions, young fella. Yes, I was scared, who wouldn’t be? I lost a lot of friends during the war. But times were tough, especially for a black man. I had to do what I had to do to support my family.”
“But certainly there were other jobs.”
“I suppose, but let me tell you why I became a seaman. I followed my big brother Fred to this country in 1913 when I was eleven years old. I was pretty streetwise already coming from Kingston, but New York City was another ballgame. Your Uncle Fred took me under his wing and taught me how to survive. He became a seaman in 1918 and I just followed.”
“Wow, what was the life like?”
“Like nothing you could imagine. I was eighteen years old on my first tour. Worked as an assistant cook, which was good work back then for a poor black boy like me.”
“Yes, but what was it that kept you at sea for 22 years and ultimately took your life?”
“Well young fella, that’s the secret to life. The truth is I loved the sea and loved the life. Yes, I knew the risks, but at sea I always felt like I was home… Remember this young man, we are born, we get a script to follow, and we are guaranteed a check-out time. The lucky few get to live while they are here.”