by Thomas Belton
Two rows of weeping willows lined the river road like sentinels before Pharaoh’s tomb, the hanging branches sweeping back and forth in the morning breeze as we pedaled our bikes into their cool shadowed tunnel and out of the scorching August sun. Mike, as usual, drove his bike through a mud puddle; sending rooster tails of green slime up the back of his cut-off jeans and sleeveless T-shirt. Joe carefully skirted the puddle and, looking up into the dense canopy, said, “Feels like we just passed into another dimension, don’t it? You know, like an episode of the Twilight Zone TV show, where everything gets turned upside down.”
“Yeah, remember the one where that guy flips a coin and it stands on end, then everybody in the world freezes like statues, except him,” I said as the bike bounced through a pothole.
“Yeah, or what about that bookworm guy who thinks the world’s gonna end in a nuclear war so he builds a bomb shelter and fills it with all these books then when he comes out of the shelter and everybody’s fried to a crisp, he breaks his glasses and can’t read a damn thing,” Mike joined in.
“Yeah, like that,” Joe said. “What if, when we ride outta this tunnel of trees the world’s all topsy-turvy, like the river’s flowing backwards or there’s a pirate ship in the cove.”
“Or Mike’s mom don’t know who he is?” I added laughing.
“Mike’s mom acts like that all the time,” Joe said as I pedaled quickly away and ducked under the missed punch, which sent Mike sprawling in a cloud of dust and twanging spokes.
“Shit,” he said, pulling himself up from his fallen bike with the front wheel twisted sideways. “Now look what you made me do, Bill.”
Joe and I straddled our bikes laughing as Mike dusted himself off and pulled his front wheel back into shape.
“Oh, cut the crap,” I said. “We’re just fooling. Let’s go. I hear there’s blue crabs climbing the pilings down at the old Black Toms depot.”
“Alright,” Joe said, as we started down the lane again. “My mom could sure use some crabmeat with dad being out on strike at the Ford plant and no money for groceries.”
“Yeah, but you gotta watch it,” Mike said. “Them Blues’ll snap your fingers good if you ain’t careful picking ‘em off the pilings.”
It was sweltering in the city and we were heading down to Black Toms on the Hudson River to swim off the pier. Black Toms was an abandoned World War I Army Depot that was blown up by the Kaiser’s saboteurs in 1916; or at least that’s what my Aunt Mary told me. She was old enough at the time to remember the explosions that broke windows for five miles around.
We rode out of the trees and into the sun. We followed a pair of rusted rails that led through a wall of towering reeds blowing in the morning wind that grew out of the swamp bottom. We finally came to the river and the Depot that was on an island in New York Harbor, maybe a hundred yards offshore, and only accessible by a long railroad bridge. And at the end of the bridge was a series of finger piers sticking out into the Hudson River. Two-story tall warehouses extending almost a football field long on each one, supported on wooden pilings that barely held the rotting piers above the racing tide. Looking out onto the New York harbor and Brooklyn across the water, I could see the towering Verrazano Bridge above the narrows leading to the Atlantic Ocean a half mile to the east. It took us a few bumpy minutes to ride our bikes over the tracks and into the first massive doorway, wide enough to let in two rows of boxcars side-by-side, like a black maw it was and terrifying, but we drove our bikes in anyway and headed down through the center of the abandoned pier. High overhead, twin rows of tinted windows flooded the interior with wavy green antediluvian light. The air was moist and sticky with exhaled putrefaction from the decades old barrels and pallets that were strewn about. The sour smell of sulfur and spores, of decaying rubber, and of gunpowder and saltpeter overwhelmed us.
“Look at that,” Joe said, pointing at the pile of debris made up of collapsed pallets that extended up the entire inside wall reaching almost to the roof. It looked like someone had picked up the building and dropped it, busting all the crates open to release their contents in a crazy quilt of indecipherable objects. We carefully rode around an avalanche of spilled C-ration cans and then past a mound of tar that exuded from a broken barrel. The latter had solidified into a grotesque claw whose black fingers reached across the floor. Crumbling burlap sacks filled with gas masks glinted in the half-light, their empty eyepieces glaring at us as we silently pedaled past. We could hear the sounds of the waves beneath our feet slapping against the pilings, sending eerie sunlit squiggles up through the floorboards to dance on the walls. Finally, exiting another huge doorway at the river-end of the building we dropped our bikes and peered back into the cavernous space.
“Damn, I don’t think I’m going back through there again,” Mike said. “Spookier than hell.”
“Yeah!” I agreed. “Gave me the creeps. I had this funny feeling on the back of my neck like there was someone watching us the whole time we rode through.”
“I think I’ll swim back,” Joe said.
“Hah, what!” Mike cried out laughing, “And leave your bike here, you doofus? Or were you planning on swimming back with it clutched between your teeth like a pirate?”
“Oh, shut up,” he said looking back inside. “Couldn’t we at least go along the outside wall, Bill?”
“Yeah, OK,” I said. “Let’s go back that way.”
“Hey, what’s that?” Mike said pointing out at the water.
There was a half-sunken barge in the slip, its lower hull covered with seaweed that swayed in the current, its exposed planking baked gray by decades of salt and sun. On the sloping deck of the barge was an ancient, rusted Army tank, its back-end half-submerged in the channel and its rounded turret and protruding cannon sticking out of the water like a giant sea monster sunning itself.
“Man, look at that thing!” Joe shrieked. “I’m going to jump off that cannon.”
“Last one in’s a cruddy bastard,” yelled Mike as he peeled off his shorts then tripped and fell. We ran past him laughing and dove into a long bow wave coming off a red tugboat passing just outside the Black Toms channel in front of the Statue of Liberty.
We didn’t know an awful lot about the First World War but we sure did about the Second. All our parents had survived it in one way or another and every single day on TV there was at least one combat movie from the forties and fifties that we reenacted in the lots behind our houses. Black Toms had never been salvaged after the explosion in 1916 but was abandoned, and even though all of the major stuff had been hauled away, the land and the water surrounding the Depot were still littered with what my dad called ordnance or unexploded shells. He’d warned me a dozen times to stay away from the piers and not to pick up anything that looked like a shell. One kid in my grammar school lost four fingers when he unwisely pounded a smoke grenade on a rock. Another kid got stuck in the currents beneath the pier and drowned.
Looking up at the warehouse as I backstroked towards the barge, I could see how dilapidated the building was; covered with peeling green paint and rusted with spots that looked like monstrous bloodstains. At low tide, jagged pilings surrounded it that looked like busted teeth. Carefully swimming through them, we got to the sunken barge and Mike yelled, “Over here!” The barge had gone down by the stern, but the bow stuck out of the water like a jutting wooden chin with the ancient, rusted tank chained to the deck. Only the tank’s turtle-like turret on top and its long cannon could be seen sticking out of the green water. The turret had a ladder built into it, a few rusted rungs running right up out of the water. We went up the side of the rusting hulk then onto the tank and straddled the cannon like a pony; the three of us sitting there in a row, soaking in the sun.
“Man, ain’t this the bomb,” Joe said. “Beats swimming in that slimy YMCA pool with all them assholes trying to cannonball your head.”
“Yeah,” Mike replied, “speaking of which, I betcha we could do some hellacious butt-busters from the end of this cannon,” and without waiting for an answer, he shimmied up the long barrel to the end where he carefully raised himself up, stood swaying for a moment, then yelled ‘Geronimo’ and launched himself into space.
We cheered as Mike turned in the water and shouted, “You go,” as Joe pulled himself up and sailed off the end of the cannon.
As I stood to take my turn, my eyes were drawn to a movement in the shadows beneath the Depot pier. Something was peeking out from behind the pilings but then disappeared as I saw it, sudden and quick, like the way a frog is surprised at a pond then jumps. All I could see was a widening circle of water; that’s the way the darkness swallowed the thing under the pier.
“Hey,” I yelled pointing but lost my balance and fell sideways with a loud smack, inhaling a mouthful of water. I surfaced coughing, struggling to clear my lungs as I looked into the laughing faces of the guys but couldn’t get a word out.
“Hey Bill, do that again,” Mike yelled. “I don’t believe it. What a belly-flop.”
Then, finally gulping in enough air, I rasped out, “Hey, there’s somebody under the pier watching us.”
“Where?” Mike shouted spinning in the water and looking around, “I don’t see anyone.”
“He’s hiding,” I cried. “He ducked back into the shadows when I saw him.”
“Go on,” Joe said, “You’re just saying that to scare us. I don’t see nobody,” but then he added, “Hey Bill, come on, say you’re making it up,” as he swam over to the ladder and pulled himself out of the water. “My dad told me about bums hanging out down here looking for kids to pork.”
“Man,” Mike said from the water, “Who’d want to pork you anyway?” but he swam over and clambered up the ladder too.
“I think I saw someone right there,” I said pulling myself up onto the turret and pointing at a black space just beneath some broken windows. But there wasn’t anything to see anymore and, after a minute of waiting, I doubted whether I’d actually seen anything at all; maybe it was just a trick of the sun reflecting under the pier so, we went back to swimming.
Then after a while, Joe found a hatch on the side of the tank, which he pulled open and called us over to take a look. Peering into the black hole, it took us a minute to separate out details from the shadows, but the floor of the tank seemed to be swaying back and forth like a clothesline in the wind.
“What the hell,” I said. It was filled with crabs – hundreds of blue crabs were lunging back and forth in the flooded turret.
“I bet you they got trapped on the outgoing tide,” Mike said.
“Mr. Jackson at the grocery store sells ‘em for a nickel a crab,” Joe said. “If we could catch them, we could make a bundle.”
“Yeah, but how are we gonna get them home. This hole’ll be filling up in another hour and then they’ll get out,” I said.
“Yeah, and besides,” Mike said, “We don’t have anything to carry them in.”
“Wait,” I said. “Back at the warehouse, I saw a bunch of burlap sacks. You know, the ones with the gas masks falling out? What say we get one bag each, fill them with crabs and then off to Jackson’s grocery.”
Agreeing to this plan, we quickly swam across and then ran inside the warehouse where we emptied the sacks and returned to the tank. However, when huddled around the opening again, we realized that only one of us could fit inside at a time, and then only by standing on top of a metal seat that protruded from the swirling water.
After a quick finger game of rock-paper-scissors, I was chosen to go in and grab the crabs. Slowly dropping down, legs first, I slid into the cool chamber and carefully placed my bare feet on the narrow back of the tank’s driver’s chair. Balancing with one arm against the side of the tank, I motioned for the first sack to be handed down. Putting it between my teeth and holding on with one hand, I awkwardly started grabbing crabs with the other, swaying back and forth on the seat. I grabbed them the way my dad taught me, blindside and away from the claws, grabbing them fast, flipping them upside down and into the bag which I quickly filled and passed up to Joe.
Looking around while I waited for the next sack to come down, I noticed a dark patch in the far corner of the turret. It wasn’t very big, a small shadowy area, but I soon realized it was a creature. As it moved, I began to make out its rubbery skin and big frog goggle-eyes; it was looking at me intently clinging to the walls above the waterline like a spider.
I gasped and shouted, “What the …” and lost my balance, falling into the water and smashing my head into the side of the metal chair on the way down. Panicking as I went under, I thrust my arms out trying to grab onto something and pull myself up but the crabs were frenzied, swirling everywhere; pinching my fingers, bumping my face underwater, making a thousand tiny scratches where their hard shells rubbed against me; but then I saw a hole open above, like a yellow circle at the end of a tunnel and I shouted “Help” but swallowed some more water.
The darkness was wet and clammy. A small memory crept out of the side of my head like a swollen river that got larger and larger till it opened into a flooding sluiceway. I saw dead animals sweeping past on a stream evanescing red from night flares above that rode the sky on swaying little parachutes. I remembered. I was on the Sambre Canal outside Ors, France manning a Bren Gun on ambush. The swaying flares created a halo vision on No Man’s Land, repeatedly shadowing and lighting the twisted trees and blasted craters left from the previous day’s battle.
“Come on you bastards,” I whispered, willing the Krauts into my killing box as I reassuringly squeezed the handle of the Colt pistol attached to my wrist by a lanyard. Beside me, Joe waited in a self-imposed calm, nervously fingering the ammunition belt he’d feed into the machine gun. Mike lay on his belly, his feet angled down the sloping levee, aiming his machine gun into the darkness, listening as voices grew louder on the other side of the canal.
I had learned long ago to let the fear go through me and out the other side, to give up caring about what was going to happen next. On the inky depths of the swamp surrounding the canal I was still alive. That was the best I could do. The mud shifted imperceptibly beneath my feet, moving in a soothing rhythm, the canal waters beyond the levee signaling me with distant messages of shark tongue and sturgeon heart; a million creatures sweeping upwards from the silence beneath my legs, the faces of all the Doughboys I’d come to France with. Many sewn into body bags for the final trip home or else pieces of them were buried in the trench walls around us like so many mummy parts on a shelf.
‘And here we go again,’ I thought, aware of the gathering ghosts that hovered above me, once again summoned. “You hear that,” Mike said, as low whispers reached us from across the twenty yards of the canal. In the silence we heard the shush of paddles and guttural German; quiet orders being given, then a splash and the unmistakable clicking of weapons and gear. A squad of men was coming across.
I looked over at Joe and Mike who both nodded in agreement at the thing understood. I quietly ratcheted the action on my pistol as Mike set the first shell in his gun and Joe slid the ammo belt higher for a fast feed. I snatched a grenade from my web belt and pulled the pin but held the bolt in readiness for the throw, sliding down the embankment a little to gain a pitcher’s stance just below the lip of the canal.
Then out of the night, a strange voice called from across the water, ….
“Bill. Where are you, Bill? Help us out will you? It’s too dark to see down here.”
I looked over at Joe who was kneeling beside the Bren Gun and saw him slowly fade, become unsubstantial, a quizzical look spending across his face as he disappeared from sight.
“Who in the hell is that?” I heard Mike hiss as he looked over the rim of the levy.
Suddenly, a blast of bright light exploded from across the canal and Mike’s head disappeared in a crimson spray. His body crumbled down the embankment as I fell backwards, gaping at his twitching, headless torso and watched the rest of him fade away. Through his disappearing body I saw the grenade I’d dropped, its fuse still lit and glowing yellow at my feet. A terrible explosion lifted me in the air, surrounding me with a mushroom cloud of white smoke as the canal face collapsed, sending a flood of muddy water to sweep beneath my tumbling body. I saw a small boat flash by filled with terrified, screaming Germans wearing gray uniforms, holding on for dear life as they rocketed off the breached berm and out onto the swamp surface behind me and under the guns of the American Brigade behind me. A brief firefight followed with more red flares and then artillery fire, which rode across the sky in arcs of white phosphorous. The exploding artillery ripped the air from my lungs as I fell into the canal, a bubble of blue water effervescing around me as a rumbling pain grew in my head unbearable beyond belief. Opening my eyes I saw the frog creature underwater, bug-eyed, swimming deeper into the gloom yet reaching back for me as if he wanted me to follow. But my head hurt from someone tearing my hair out by the roots as I heard Joe scream, “Got him!” and was pulled from beneath the water and dragged onto the turret of the tank in the blinding morning sun.
The guys flipped me over and started pounding my back, forcing me to breathe until I coughed out a stream of water. Lying there, looking down along the canted deck of the barge, I noticed that the burlap sack had opened and the blue crabs were escaping, edging out sideways, tentatively creeping to the water’s edge where they dropped with plops into the river. Confused and not sure whether I was dreaming or awake, I struggled to get up but fell back awkwardly because there was something in my hand. Looking down I saw a rusted pistol with a lanyard tied around my wrist.
“Man, is that what you dove into that goop for,” Joe asked.
“What a piece,” Mike added, pulling it from my fingers.
The Black Toms warehouse loomed above us as we swam ashore, Joe and Mike pulling me, supporting my aching head like a wet towel on their shoulders, and when we got onto the pier we walked back along the outside, as agreed. I kept starting, staring at the water’s edge, expecting to see the creature again, coming for me from under the pier where I’d first seen it. I still wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it or not, uncertain of anything after I went into the water.
We drove back up the river road, Joe clutching the remaining crabs in his burlap sack as Mike looked at me strangely, and I just rode along one-handed, looking at the rusted gun that had stained my fingers red. I tried to pull the trigger but it wouldn’t budge, the wooden grips were mushy from being underwater for so long. And as the shadows from the willow trees arched over us again, dropping the boiler room heat to a light 90 degrees, I heard Joe sing out: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man; it is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity; it is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge; this is the dimension of the imagination; it is the area we call the Twilight Zone.” As we drove out of the trees and into the blistering sun, I felt a chill go up my spine and pitched the pistol as far as I could into the tall reeds that lined the roadway.
Whatever I felt about the glory of war before that moment, I’d lost inside the Tank; or on the Sambre Canal; or whatever it was that I remembered. Who was to say where I’d been? That goggle-eyed monster I saw; maybe it was real, like those old gremlins my dad used to talk about from his war days. Crazy creatures who’d make equipment break down in a battle for no good reason. Maybe the thing was waiting all these years to sabotage that one tank but somehow got trapped, imprisoned like a poisonous gas, only escaping at low tide when the water allowed it to roam free and infect passersby with memories of wartime mayhem. Then afterwards it returned to its armored trap on smothering high water where it slept in secret silence with the crabs, nature’s natural armored tanks, creatures of tough shells and crushing claws, natural companions for the thing outside of time that waited in the dark.