A Chapter from Sail Away by Jack Beritzhoff
It was a U.S. Army Hospital far up north on the northeastern Australian coast, near the outskirts of a small town called Townsville. It was a medical facility receiving many casualties from New Guinea and the islands. It was here where l was sent as a patient early in 1944.
Summer down under was hot!
The hospital was spread out in Quonset-hut fashion. Many times our sleep would be interrupted by the sound of men in severe pain. It seemed the war demanded to be continued even in this haven of mercy.
l had been serving aboard the U.S.A.T. Colorado as the ship’s clerk—or what we called the purser. We had come to Townsville on a voyage to the islands and had anchored in the harbor to take on stores. This task belonged to the chief steward and me.
The day was gray and windy with a heavy swell running when the tug came out to pick us up. The chief steward and I started to climb down the Jacob’s ladder to board the tug. The smaller ship rose high on the swell and smashed my leg and foot.
That tug did more than crush my leg that day—it changed my young life. I became a captive of the Army hospital’s orthopedic ward for many months. My leg required a series of operations, and months of slow healing—all of the time spent in G.l. pajamas and on crutches.
One day I could hear hearty laughter coming from the far end of our ward. The center of attention seemed to be a lanky GI singing and deftly maneuvering a tap-dance sequence with very talented feet. He was singing “Buckle Down, Winsocki.” Once he had finished his routine, I shouted out “Best Foot Forward,” the movie that had featured that number.
“Right you are!” he called back, and proceeded to come down to my end of the ward. “Hi, I’m Sebastian,” he said and again fired off a tap or two.
I introduced myself and we got down to some serious conversation. He had been brought to the hospital after suffering wounds to his shoulder and arm. He had been there only about two weeks and was quartered in the next ward. An Army second lieutenant, he came from Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was about my age.
I told him about my sea-going career and he kidded me about being the only merchant seaman among all the military troops. When I inquired about his battle injuries, he told me the about a Japanese surprise attack on his squad, and of his luck at his survival.
When I looked at Sebastian, the thought crossed my mind that all of his good-natured frivolity could be a charade. Maybe he was all facade. Under all of that cheer, he might very well be a bit despondent for home or about leaving his outfit in New Guinea.
Even so, I was glad he was the way he was.
We talked about show business—something that neither of us knew very much about. I told him that he was lucky: I had been reduced to G.I. hospital slippers, while he sported leather-bottomed loafers which he had charmed a sympathetic nurse into procuring for him in Townsville.
As for myself, I certainly needed a little change of scene. There were times when I would look at my cast and crutches and wonder if I would ever again tread the light fantastic as lightly as before. After feeling sorry for myself, I would guiltily observe all the real, heroic military patients. So what if I never won any dance contests?
In the weeks that followed, Sebastian told me that, as he had lived close to New York, he had seen quite a few Broadway shows. He liked the musicals best of all. His mother had seen to it that he took tap-dancing lessons when he was quite young. He hated it at first, but as he grew older he started to enjoy it—and besides, it came in handy at parties and was a great way to meet girls.
Dancing seemed to liven Sebastian’s personality. Whenever he got depressed, he would put a record on the phonograph, fire off a few taps, sing out a note or two, and all was well.
At the hospital the Army played many popular records in the recreation room. We never got tired of hearing the likes of Crosby, Sinatra, Harry James, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Whenever Sebastian appeared there, he was always called upon for a few steps and a chorus or two. He would get the same reception upon visiting our ward. He would announce his arrival by singing a couple of lines from a song:
She loves the theatre but never comes late.
She never bothers with people she hates.
That’s why the lady is a tramp.
He would deliver a similar routine whenever he visited his old Army buddies who were hospitalized in other wards.
Throughout the long, hot days of our confinement, we would stroll out around the jungle-like hospital grounds. Actually, he would stroll; my action was a bit more abbreviated because of the crutches. Sebastian spoke respectfully and lovingly about his parents and sister—but only briefly.
Although Sebastian was very agile, he honestly confessed that his athletic prowess was rather poor. In college he had specialized in school plays, drama, and speech. He was a big fan of New York’s baseball Giants, and had attended a few games at the Polo Grounds.
He was tall and slim, with dark good looks and a smile that conquered all. As for personality, he had it! In truth, he was not as accomplished a dancer as he was stylish, and his singing voice was more casual than cultivated, but when he presented them together, he was a winner!
We liked a lot of the same things. I too was attracted to one of his big interests. While it is true I knew nothing obout show business, I knew enough to know that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were just about the greatest act to come down the pike in years. I remembered so well watching them do their thing.” Whenever I saw a large, secluded mirror, I would execute a few fake steps and gestures. Oh! Those elegant black-and-white dance floors in those swanky hotel settings, when for so many of us seeing a five-dollar bill was a major event!
Sebastian remarked once that we should hang on to our friendship and not lose track of each other. He suggested that, after the war—after we had returned home—we should go off to New York and give the Broadway scene a try. I had to laugh when he said, “You might surprise yourself. You could work behind the scenes, become an agent, write scripts, or even turn into on actor. We could seek out part-time jobs to pay the rent. Let’s get all of this done before we get saddled with responsibility.”
When the time came for Sebastian to ship home, our ward gave him a party. He graciously took ail of the kidding thrust upon him for his many fun performances. We envied him going home before any of us, but felt he deserved it.
He had been our Pied Piper.
After he had gone, I had a strong feeling of emptiness. His time with us at the hospital had blotted out for me the heavy-hearted sadness I felt after leaving my ship behind and losing the free and easy life of a young sailor.
Our plans for New York had raised a question in my mind. I wondered if we really would have gone off together to seek our fortunes on the Great White Way. It reminded me of passengers on a cruise ship who enjoy a fun time together and then, when disembarking the ship, vow to keep in touch… though of course they never do.
Sebastian had been gone two months or so when a letter arrived. It was postmarked Elizabeth, N.J. His sister had addressed it to me. In it she wrote of her brother’s friendship with all of us and of his plans with me. She expressed her sorrow at having to tell us the sad news of Sebastian’s death. He had been home only about ten days when he was killed in a highway occident.
I wrote back expressing our shock at hearing her news and attempted to tell her of our great fondness for her brother. I told her how much his jovial ways and personality had added to our humdrum life at the hospital.
In the years that have passed since my wartime Australian accident, my life has encompassed a happy family with a dear wife and children, a fine home, a rewarding career, and memories that have endured and lingered over time. One memory, however, has tarried longer than many others. It belongs to Sebastian.
In my home in the small, village-like town in California where I had lived for many years on a hill high among the trees, on certain winter nights when the wind brushed rain against the windows, I could hear the sound of water tapping against the glass. It seemed like a call to me as the one to Heathcliff from over the dark moors of Emily Brönte’s Yorkshire.
I could almost swear it was Sebastian tapping his happy way through life.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain:
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.