Iowa Writes

MARK A. WERKEMA
Nile (Part 1)


        The old man sat alone at the table, nestled against the red brick wall at the back of Starbucks, a modern establishment in a classic building, on the corner of Clinton and Burlington Streets in downtown Iowa City.  He was quietly drinking coffee, reading The Gazette Sports Section amid the busy throng of people wandering in and out.  Few, if any, even recognized his presence.  He was just another old man reading the morning newspaper.  The gentleman's tan, weathered face adorned above by white, neatly cropped, slicked back hair, held a stare as he looked down past his horned-rimmed, eggshell glasses.  He was well dressed in khakis and a finely pressed, light blue Oxford shirt; his penny loafers shined immaculately.
        The clock on the wall showed 8:30 a.m.
        It was early June in Iowa City.  Off duty football players roamed the campus ahead of two-a-day summer workouts.  Student backpacks and laptops on chairs and tables were strategically positioned alongside "skinny" lattes, cappuccinos, and espressos.  The morning newspapers were spread about as people read, listened to iPods, and waited in line.  CNN was on the television overhead; the war in Afghanistan dragged on.
        I take up a table next to him.  I ask him in a casual manner, "How are the I-Cubs doing?"  I unfold my newspaper and take a sip of coffee.
        He smiles.  "They beat Memphis last night 7 to 5 in Des Moines."
        "Good."  I sit and read my Sports Page.
        "They have a good team this year . . . couple of prospects . . . some Japanese kid who's a real flamethrower and can really bring the heat."
        "Shunketsu?"  I ask.  "I think he will be in The Show by September."
        "Yes, the kid is only 22, he has great control . . . touches 100, 102 on the gun occasionally."
        I return again to my coffee.  My cell phone has logged a few voicemails and texts.  I page through them quickly and avoid distraction.
        "Are you from around here?"  I ask.
        "Yes, well, yes . . . you could say I am."

        The old man sat alone at the table, nestled against the red brick wall at the back of Starbucks, a modern establishment in a classic building, on the corner of Clinton and Burlington Streets in downtown Iowa City.  He was quietly drinking coffee, reading The Gazette Sports Section amid the busy throng of people wandering in and out.  Few, if any, even recognized his presence.  He was just another old man reading the morning newspaper.  The gentleman's tan, weathered face adorned above by white, neatly cropped, slicked back hair, held a stare as he looked down past his horned-rimmed, eggshell glasses.  He was well dressed in khakis and a finely pressed, light blue Oxford shirt; his penny loafers shined immaculately.
        The clock on the wall showed 8:30 a.m.
        It was early June in Iowa City.  Off duty football players roamed the campus ahead of two-a-day summer workouts.  Student backpacks and laptops on chairs and tables were strategically positioned alongside "skinny" lattes, cappuccinos, and espressos.  The morning newspapers were spread about as people read, listened to iPods, and waited in line.  CNN was on the television overhead; the war in Afghanistan dragged on.
        I take up a table next to him.  I ask him in a casual manner, "How are the I-Cubs doing?"  I unfold my newspaper and take a sip of coffee.
        He smiles.  "They beat Memphis last night 7 to 5 in Des Moines."
        "Good."  I sit and read my Sports Page.
        "They have a good team this year . . . couple of prospects . . . some Japanese kid who's a real flamethrower and can really bring the heat."
        "Shunketsu?"  I ask.  "I think he will be in The Show by September."
        "Yes, the kid is only 22, he has great control . . . touches 100, 102 on the gun occasionally."
        I return again to my coffee.  My cell phone has logged a few voicemails and texts.  I page through them quickly and avoid distraction.
        "Are you from around here?"  I ask.
        "Yes, well, yes . . . you could say I am."
        He paused, and courteously motioned me to join him at the table.
        "I played football here many years ago."
        "Interesting, I am a big college football fan."
        "What are you in town for?" he asks.
        "I'm here for a writing class at the University.  I make my living writing for the Sports Page of the South Bend Tribune.  Cover baseball, college and pro.  Here to learn how to write a novel.  I'm working on a draft . . . a baseball story about the minor leagues."
        "That's interesting," he concedes.
        "When did you play for the Hawkeyes?"
        "1936 to 1939 . . . right before the War."  He laughs a little, "It was a very different game way back then, the speed and size of the college football game has come a long way over the years.  These kids today are quite amazing athletes."
        He continues with his story . . .
        "Best years of my life, back then.  Graduated from the University in 1940, did pretty good in school.  Phi Betta Kappa, a 3.4 GPA, cum laude . . . hey I loved school.  I had some offers to play professional football, but instead I went to law school here. But . . . well, I finished my first year . . . then the War broke out and I answered the call."
        He pulls out a tattered black and white photograph of a World War II fighter plane from his leather wallet and shows me it.  "I volunteered.  I wanted to fly.  I joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 . . . first officer's training, then flight school.  I was assigned to a squadron of F4F Wildcats on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington."
        "VF-16."
        I examine the picture closer.  It is him many years ago in front of a Wildcat.  He is smiling; wearing tan flight suit with harness and a parachute, scarf, and cloth helmet.
        "My Dad flew B-17's out of England for the Mighty Eighth in the War," I inject.  "I always appreciate hearing the stories of the veterans of World War II."
        "I served for a couple of years . . . based out of Norfolk, Virginia.  I am an old man now . . . just turned 92.  I loved to fly, some of my best memories . . ."
        He continues: "Know what a Wildcat is?"
        I listen to his story and wonder.
        "World War II fighter plane?"
        "Yes, it was a big, single-engine Navy fighter . . . huge Pratt and Whitney radial motor that swung a massive, three-bladed propeller.  We carried bombs, rockets, and had a machine gun mounted in the wing root.  I was based on a carrier and we patrolled the open seas."
        He wants to tell me more about the War.  I want to listen.  His story continued with an almost mystical quality to it.
        "I'll never forget one day in particular.  We were on a training mission in the southern Caribbean Sea . . . off the coast of Venezuela.  I got separated from the formation.  I just couldn't find my other three wingmen . . . my ship was nowhere in sight.  I had been flying for about an hour, far from the land, when my plane developed a big oil leak.  I knew I was in trouble and couldn't make it back to the carrier.  I was going down, forced to ditch at sea.  Not very good odds . . . and that was it.  That is all I remember.  It was kind of hazy, you know, the details I just cannot recall . . . after all these years it is now and I am here."
        At that moment, my memory begins to stir.
        Then . . .

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MARK A. WERKEMA

Mark A. Werkema is a writer and international airline pilot, and former military aviator from Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is at work on a novel of Amelia Earhart and a non-fiction historical narrative of two plane crashes.  His writing focuses on aviation and sports themes, and the human spirit and experience found in both.  He came up with the idea for this story while, on a morning run, he passed Kinnick Stadium.




Nile will appear on the Daily Palette in three parts.  Be sure to check back tomorrow and Thursday for Parts 2 and 3.

This page was first displayed
on December 29, 2015

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