The Tower Journal

Kimball Johnson

 The Whiteness of the Whale


      It was at Hatteras, in the spring of ’91. I’d just driven in from Delaware because my sister was throwing a party for her friends to celebrate the new house she and her husband had just bought on the beach. It was large and stately, even if they weren’t, and the views, I’ve got to admit, were pretty fantastic.

     I remember that because there was a great big pool overlooking the sand and the ocean, and it was rippling in the moonlight. And I was thinking that was how I was feeling that night, kind of ripply.

     I’d been sitting on some overstuffed chair in one of the too numerous rooms, trying to relax, my eyes closed and my hands jittery. They’d been that way for days now. And I could smell the seafood, piled high on platters on tables around the house. There were hard-shelled mussels and clams, limp flounder and pink salmon. And there were mounds of red crabs, whole crabs, in piles on either end of the tables, and the people, her friends, were piling them on. What really drove me crazy was, I just kept hearing them cracking the shells; kind of like a predatory snap, crackle and pop, if you know what I mean. Even if you don’t, it made me sick to my stomach for some reason.

     Like I said, I was sitting there, my eyes closed, hands tight but still a bit fluttery and I was trying to control my breathing, just like I do when I’m on my guns. But for some reason, maybe it was the smell, or maybe the noise, I couldn’t get things under control. That’s when they all started asking me questions. Questions like, wow, did we see you on tv? What was it like where you were at? Things like that. And they had those plates of seafood on their laps and they were just breaking those crabs’ shells and legs the whole time.

     Like you know, I’d just gotten back from the Gulf War. Flown into Dover Air Base, rented a car and driven all the way to North Carolina, just to clear my head, that’s what I’d told myself, and here it was getting all fogged again, in this milling, lingering atmosphere.

     “Uhm, it wasn’t all that bad”

     “That was something else. Seeing those flares and bullets and explosions all day and all night on tv. It must have been pretty intense being in the middle of it.”

     “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t around Baghdad that much.” I shouldn’t have even said that, I realized, after it was out of my mouth.

     “Oh? Where were you then?”

     “Oh, here and there.” I opened my eyes and looked at her plate and the oval oysters in their white shells were looking back at me. I excused myself before I lost something on my sister’s clean carpets.

     When I finally stopped moving through the rooms, I looked down and I was standing by one of those piles of crabs I mentioned before. Their tops were burnt a scarlet color and underneath, they were mottled with a bile-like yellow and I saw the Chief’s burnt hands again, a whole pile of his hands lying on this silver platter, in my sister’s house and my head began to throb. I couldn’t quit staring at it, so someone must have noticed and told my sister.

     She came over and stood by me and I remember feeling her hand on my shoulder. She whispered, “It’s alright Kevin. It’s alright.” I was shaking really hard by that time. I remember the shaking because I remember seeing some movement to match my own at the bottom of this pile of crabs and then thinking that it was moving because I was shaking.

     “I know, I know, “ I told her. “I’ll be ok. I just need to breathe in and out.” As a gunner I knew the importance of breath control under pressure. Granted, the gattling-guns on Puff the Magic Dragon are precision controlled and most of the time all I did was feed them their belts of ammo and let them do their job, but I’d gotten my marksmanship ribbon, and I’d taken the guns off of automatic control on more than one mission; seen the damage done in all its glorious detail, NVG’s on, phosphor-green tracers flaring in arcs, incandescent shell cases flying like sparks out of the side of the “Dragon” and drifting to the ground. It was, in a word my Chief used to use, “Inconceivable”.   

     But there was that movement again, under the pile of steamed crabs. It caught my attention and it stopped me from thinking about the Chief and how I had just stood there, looking out the hatch, watching that one slow arc coming up from the ground and striking his plane as we headed back over some little valley in Northern Iraq.

     We were returning to Incirlik Air Base, in Turkey. CNN had been there the first day, but they’d been kicked out after showing the friendly fire of one of our own Patriot missiles exploding just above our own C-130s as they came in on final approach. They’d reported that it was a software glitch in the missile’s system, the automatic control failing to detect our own planes. I knew better. It was only human error, just like the war that had us fighting for oil in a part of the world we never should have been in.

     Anyway, we were flying in formation, off and behind the left wing of the other gun ship. I was on lookout in the tail section, scanning for streams of gunfire from the ground. It had been pretty quiet up until we crested the ridge at the mouth of that valley. I remember it so clearly because the pilot had just pulled up and started his climb to altitude when I saw what looked like this candle flicker ignite on the ground. The flicker began to curl slowly upwards, so fascinatingly slow, until it finally struck the belly of the Chief’s gunship, ahead of us.

     It actually happened very quickly in reality, yet so slowly in my mind’s eye.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but when Chief’s plane exploded, it burned the sensors out of my night vision goggles and my sight didn’t return for three days.

     With that thought, I was back at the party and I couldn’t take anymore, even though I knew, yes, I knew quite clearly, that my sister would be embarrassed and probably never speak to me again. I didn’t care. I turned from her heavy hand and her flat words and I started throwing crabs off of that platter, trying to find what was moving among the pile of dead white meat and boiled shells.

     She tried to stop me and everyone else was too afraid to help her, or too embarrassed; I don’t know which. She started screaming for Tom then (that’s her husband) but I kept throwing them on the ground until I found it. It lay there, burning like a phosphor flare, all white in its glory. The color had been boiled out of it and I could tell it was almost gone, but every few seconds its back legs would shake and extend, like it was trying to swim and get away from everything around and on top of it.

     I scooped it up, cupped it in my hands, and lifted it gently from the interlocking claws and stink of the other crabs around it. Karen backed away when she saw me turn with it and I walked passed her and out the sliding glass doors that led to the pool and the moon and the sea.

     By now, I think, Tom had come up beside me. Normally he was a regular jerk, but he didn’t touch me, just looked at what I was carrying: a large crab, all recognizable color drained from its shell, its claws dangling, its antennae or eyes or whatever they were rolling around in dizziness.

     I kept walking until I got to the water and as a slow wave rolled onshore, I lowered him down. Don’t ask me how I knew at that moment it was a him, I just did. I let the foam and salt of the water flow up and over him. It didn’t seem to make a difference though. He just lay there in my hands, unresponsive.  

     I stood up then and walked deeper into the ocean. The next wave came up to my waist and I lowered the pale creature into the water again, hoping this time it might revive him. But he still lay weak in my insufficient fingers. It was like the life-giving waters were hurting him now, not healing him like they should be.

     When the third wave came towards us, I felt the crab shiver and its two claws curled inward as if it were trying to protect itself. That’s when I let the wave carry him away. I could see his white shell leading a phosphor trail through the green belly of the swell, as he floated off with the rush of water. I lost sight of him in the reflection of moonlight on the face of the final and largest wave of the set as it climbed upward and came towards me to sink me in its awful power.

Copyright © 2015 Kimball Johnson

Kimball Johnson served in the Air Force as a Russian Linguist and a photographer from 1980-2004. He is currently working on his MFA in Creative Writing while managing the mortgage department of a small credit union in Independence, MO. (What do you want? Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent). His most recent work is a paper detailing the shared characteristics of Ahab in Moby Dick and Beowulf. You can reach him at

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2015