The Signalman

by John McDonnell

Copyright© 2014 by John McDonnell

Fiction Story: A story about an uncle who fought in WWII, and what happened to him afterward, how his mind snapped. It's told from the point of view of his nephew. It's a story that's happened in many families.

Tags: Fiction   Tear Jerker  

My Uncle George grew up in South Philadelphia, in a tiny house with two brothers and one sister, and it was on a crowded, noisy, street that had hundreds of people living in each block of little brick houses. His whole world was made of brick and cement, asphalt and glass. It was a closed, crowded world with no privacy. You walked out your front door and in two steps you were on the street. There was no air-conditioning, and in the sweltering heat of summer people kept their windows open, so it was never quiet.

When he was 17 George enlisted in the Navy at the start of World War II. He had never been on a ship before, and only seen the ocean a couple of times when his family went to the beach.

And now he was on a ship that was like a speck in the Pacific ocean, with nothing but sea all the way to the horizon in every direction. The vast spaces must have been jarring to him. He didn't see any combat, but he lived under constant threat of attack for three years. There was no way to call home, and letters came infrequently.

Then the war ended and he came back to the little house in South Philadelphia.

The Navy years were the most vivid ones of his life. When I was a kid in the 1950s I used to love visiting my grandparents' house because George would keep everyone laughing with his impressions of Navy life. He was a gifted mimic, and he could do voices and accents with dead-on accuracy. His impressions of movie stars like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were great, but the officers and sailors he did were even better.

George had been a signalman, which meant he knew how to send messages with the big flashing signal lamps that ships used at sea. He also knew semaphore, which was another form of signaling, where you'd wave brightly colored flags in a pattern from the deck to signal ships that were in the area. There was a whole language to these systems, and George would stand there in the kitchen and demonstrate, waving his arms in different patterns for different messages, explaining what it all meant.

He was a fascinating man back then, full of interesting information. He read constantly, and was taking a correspondence course to get his law degree. He would talk to me about words, how I should build up my vocabulary. "You need a good vocabulary to study law," he said. He'd tell me the meaning of legal terms like "malfeasance" and "misfeasance".

I thought it was a little strange for someone to go to law school by mail, but I respected his intellect and I made sure to keep my voice down whenever George went upstairs to his bedroom to study. "George's studying," my grandmother would say, with a tone of reverence. "He needs us to be very quiet."

My father would say, "George should be on the stage," and it was true. He could make you laugh so hard your insides hurt. I couldn't believe someone could be that quick-witted. All he had to do was make one of his silly faces, clear his throat, and say something in one of his voices, like the one he did of self-important Navy officers, and I'd start laughing before he even got to the punchline.

He never dated anyone when I knew him, although I got the idea that he'd had girlfriends before I was born. He had a crowd of friends that he went out with, but gradually they got married off and he had to start going out to his familiar watering holes with his sister Lucy, who was three years younger.

It was sometime around 1960 when things went bad for George. We moved that year, and I was busy navigating the complicated world of fifth grade in a new school, so I didn't want to spend much time at my grandparents' house anymore. I didn't see George as much, so I wasn't aware of a change in him.

My Dad told me years later that George had started telling the family in 1960 that people were following him. My Dad said he was visiting my grandparents one time when George suddenly pointed to a car that drove down the street in front of the house. "See that car?" he said. "That's the one. That's the car that's been tailing me."

My Dad said he jumped up and ran outside to take down the license plate number. "I believed him," he said. "He had never said anything crazy before, so I believed someone was really following him, and I wanted to get the license plate number."

Before long, though, George's behavior got more odd, and the family realized he was getting sick. They didn't know what to do -- these were simple people who lived in a row house in the city, and nobody had any experience with someone whose mind had snapped. At first, the family tried to reason with George when he started talking about how the government was watching him. My grandfather would argue with him, trying to be logical about it. It never worked.

I still don't know all the details, because they never wanted to talk about it, but somehow George had a breakdown and they ended up admitting him to an inpatient mental health center. This was around 1962 and it was easier to do back then than now, although my Aunt Lucy told me years later with tears in her eyes that they had to trick him into signing the admission papers. He thought he was just going in for a week, but it turned out to be much longer.

The doctors at the center did shock treatments on him. They were in vogue during that time, as a way to jolt the mind into sanity, but it was horrifying to contemplate being hooked up to a machine that would send an electric current through the brain. My Dad said that it was sad to visit George after a treatment, because he seemed in another world, unmoored and drifting, for days afterward.

He eventually got out of the treatment center, and in time he even got a job again, through the political connections of a relative. He worked for 30 years at a desk job for the City of Philadelphia, and retired on a pension.

He was not the same old Uncle George, though. He took medicine for his condition, and it made him much quieter, more distant. His sense of humor was diminished, and he rarely did his impressions or told his funny stories about the Navy anymore. He sat in the living room and watched a lot of TV, or he stayed upstairs in his bedroom. He wasn't studying up there anymore; he never completed his correspondence law school course.

He lost touch with all his friends, and when he went out it was just to get a beer and a meal on a Friday night with his sister. They'd go to the same restaurant every week at the same time, and order the same thing. George liked routines now.

After he retired he decided that he didn't need his medicine anymore. It didn't take long before he started to behave in increasingly odd ways. He wouldn't buy new clothes, and he wore the same pants and jackets till they got holes in them. He had arguments with voices only he heard, and he carried a black satchel briefcase, the kind that lawyers carried, whenever he went out of the house. "It has all my important papers in it," he said. When you could engage him in conversation he talked of nothing but conspiracies. The Navy was after him, he said, because of things he knew, things that happened during the war. He'd said too much and they wanted to silence him. It was all top secret stuff, and he would ramble on about secret codes and listening devices implanted in his teeth, and people following him.

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