“Can we go to Rexall’s today, Mom, can we?”
’Cause the drugstore on Chicago Avenue and Main Street has tons of plastic model battleships. I’m collecting them. I want to get them all. I found a secret way of paying for them after spending my allowance. When mom goes to the bathroom I take a dollar bill from her purse. As we walk to the drugstore, I run way ahead of her and place the dollar on the ground sort of hidden. Then I run back to her, hopping and skipping. Once more I run ahead of her to the spot, because now she can see me. I grab the dollar and rush back.
“Hey mom, look what I found!”
“I can buy a new model ship with it!”
I just turned nine years old. Being eight was fun. Last summer I went to Pioneer Day Camp. We made crafts. One day, I was waiting on the camp bus to go back home, and a girl sat down next to me.
“Hi, I’m Cinny,” she said. “You’re Isham, right?”
I never saw her before but she acted like we were best friends. She asked for my phone number and wanted me to come over.
She called me as soon as I got home. “You’re going to really like it,” she said in soothing confidence. “Lucy my friend will be there and we’re going to play Spin the Bottle. You will see her ‘develop’ before your very eyes.” Like a Polaroid photograph, she meant. We put our mothers on the phone to arrange the visit.
My mother drove me to Cinny’s the next day. Cinny’s mother said hi and then left to go shopping. Me and Cinny and Lucy sat down on her bedroom floor and played Spin the Bottle. Cinny’s mentally retarded sister was jumping up and down on the bed like a trampoline. Her mother came back home earlier than expected, just before we’d finished developing.
I’m not sure why but I never saw Cinny again.
Another fun thing was this other girl my age that I saw a lot of, Amelia. Amelia was like Cinny, she could talk like a grownup. She lived in our building and her mom and my mom were friends. Sometimes they came over and stayed late because our moms liked to talk. Then they put us in bed together and told us to go to sleep.
“Isham,” Amelia said one night, “I want to show you something. Have you ever seen what a girl looks like? Look, this is where I pee.” She opened her legs wide apart. “Here,” she said, guiding my hand, “touch me right here, on this little thing. It feels like a mushroom, doesn’t it?”
Then they moved to California.
But the funnest thing of all is Rexall’s battleships. They are not just American battleships but come from all different countries, like Germany and Japan. It’s neat to compare which ones are better, just like comparing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the record player. I like the American battleships best, but the German ones are nice too.
University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, 1968. Isham fills the hull of his plastic model battleship HMS Warspite with hundreds of wooden matches, and spreads a thin line of model glue along the hull’s upper edge, to which he carefully affixes the deck. The four turrets have been saved till last. He drips an entire tube of glue through the four holes where the peg of each turret fits, soaking the matches inside the hull. He then rests the turrets on their barbettes without glue, having removed the turrets’ pegs.
He sets the ship in the placid water of a lagoon, Saint Mary’s Lake, and gives it a slight push, enough to send it two or three yards out. He has invented a slingshot that fires wooden matches against the emery surface of a matchbox, lighting them in flight. As long as the match heads are still combusting, they do not blow out before reaching their target.
A duck flutters off with a squawk. It is twilight. Isham is a German battleship engaging its enemy. The projectiles begin to land on and around the HMS Warspite. Most of those landing on the ship are ineffective and sputter out, until an impatient match dislodges a turret and ignites the still fresh and flammable glue, sending flame into the hull. And then, a flashing WHOOSH pulverizes the ship and it vanishes in a cloud of flame, steam and smoke.
The event being recreated is one of history’s great clashes at sea, the Battle of Jutland, May 31-June 1, 1916. In truth, though heavily damaged, the HMS Warspite survived, and went on to serve valiantly in World War II. Many other British ships did not survive. Whereas German ships, capable of bearing great punishment, tended to wear down under bombardment until they foundered and rolled over, British ships had a gift for blowing up, due to their poorly protected turrets.
The first sign that things would go badly for the Grand Fleet occurred minutes after commencement of hostilities. At 16:00, the HMS Lion took a hit on its midship turret from the German battlecruiser Lutzow at a range of seven miles. As described by an eyewitness on the Lion, “the armored roof had been folded back like an open sardine tin, thick yellow smoke was rolling up from the gaping hole, and the guns were cocked up awkwardly in the air” (Geoffrey Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War). The shell ignited cordite charges, killing the hundred men who worked in the turret. Seconds before the fire spread down into the magazine, Major F. J. W. Harvey “with his dying breath, gave the order to close the magazine doors; some were found afterwards with their hands on the clips, but their work was done.” Had the doors not been closed in time, the flagship of the British battlecruiser fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Isham Beatty would have blown up, and the outcome of the Battle of Jutland might have swung decisively in the Germans’ favor.
Five minutes later, the fore turret of the battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable was hit by a shell from the Von der Tann, which did penetrate into the magazine. Moments later, as reported by an eyewitness on a nearby ship, “sheets of flame were followed by dense smoke which obscured her from view. All sorts of stuff was blown into the air, a fifty-foot steamboat to about two hundred feet, apparently intact.” Nothing remained but four survivors out of a crew of 1,021.
Another twenty minutes later, the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary was hit on the fore turret by the Seydlitz or the Derfflinger: “A vivid red flame shot up from her forepart; then came an explosion forward which was followed by a much heavier explosion amidships. Immediately afterwards she blew up with a terrific explosion,” leaving a handful of survivors from a crew of a thousand.
At 18:33, the battlecruiser HMS Invincible was hit on the Q turret by the Derfflinger. The ship blew up. A German witness saw “her two ends standing perpendicularly above water, the ship appearing to have broken in halves, each resting on the bottom.” Six survivors out of a crew of 1,027 “were clinging to the floating wreckage. I have never seen anything more splendid than these few cheering as we raced by” (op. cit.).
Two more British ships, the armored cruisers Defence and the Black Prince, blew up with no survivors.
Altogether the British lost fourteen ships and 6,097 men in the twenty-four hour battle, while the Germans lost eleven ships (none of which blew up) and 2,551 men. It is claimed that the British won the battle by virtue of the fact the German High Seas Fleet, ground down by the greater number of British ships and fire power, fled while the bulk of their fleet was still secure, leaving the Grand Fleet in control of the North Sea and English Channel for the remainder of the war. But the Germans were better at sinking ships, and this compelled the British to reexamine their warship design.
The result was the HMS Hood, laid down shortly after the war and commissioned in 1920. It was the largest and fastest battleship to be built in its day. Let’s return for the sake of comparison to the HMS Warspite, erected in 1915 and the most powerful battleship to serve in the war. The Hood was 860 feet long to the Warspite’s 645, displaced 41,200 tons to the Warspite’s 33,000, and had a top speed of thirty-one knots to the Warspite’s twenty-four. Crucially, though both ships bore the same heavy armament of eight fifteen-inch guns, the Hood’s turrets were protected with fifteen inches of steel, next to eleven inches of armor on the Warspite’s turrets.
Not until Hitler unveiled the Bismarck in 1936 did the Hood have a rival. The Bismarck equaled the Hood in size, speed and firepower. The Hood has been called by some the most beautiful battleship ever built, but once again, the Germans simply brandished a superior ship, better proportioned not so much aesthetically as in the tighter distribution of its weight and armor. The Hood remained the longest warship in the world. To attain this length without sacrificing speed to weight, something else had to give. Imagine a battleship made of taffy and stretch it: the first thing to go would be the deck, and this was indeed the Hood’s fatal flaw, its deck being a mere three inches thick to the Bismarck’s five inches.
The two ships met on May 24, 1941 in the North Atlantic. Within minutes, the Hood received a hit that penetrated the thin skin of its deck and into the after magazine, and she blew up, with three survivors out of a crew of 1,421. It took three British ships to sink the Bismarck.
Not content with recreating battleship destruction with plastic and fire, Isham seeks something more transcendent and permanent. From mold he casts a bronze panel the size of a panel from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” and stands it horizontally on four legs. The bronze table presents a gilt seascape etched with minute ripples for waves, and carved out of the seascape in bronze and plated in gold emerges an HMS Dreadnought, laid down in 1905, commissioned in 1906.
Let’s hark a bit further back into the history of the battleship. The Dreadnought immediately rendered all other battleships in the world obsolete and started a new naval arms race. Where previous battleships typically had a mere two heavy guns in a single fore turret and an array of smaller arms, the Dreadnought bore ten twelve-inch guns in five turrets, making the ship always capable of an eight-gun broadside without turning. This dramatic difference enabled the new battleship without firing a shot to reduce all the world’s naval powers to one, the British, until rival dreadnoughts could be built, which other nations did quickly.
Isham runs his hand over the bronze seascape and caresses his golden Dreadnought, whose masts are as hard as needles. The turrets swivel and shoot tiny BBs from their guns with a spark and smoke from a gunpowder snap with enough force to crack a windowpane or take out a baby’s eye. The Dreadnought is the size of a large erect penis.
Okay, I’ve been spouting fantasies. I never had a gilt-bronze battleship display or replayed the Battle of Jutland with flammable glue and wooden matches. Yes, I often walked along the edge of Saint Mary’s Lake, skipping pebbles at the ducks after playing on the campus quads or the nearby Golden Dome, but by then I had lost all interest in battleships.
The question of why I lost interest never occurred to me. How could it have, as I scarcely knew anything about the battleships I built in the first place, except for cursory glances at the descriptions on the box? I only wanted to know which battleship was the biggest, or had the most guns. Nor was my collection comprehensive, as you might imagine, but amounted to a mere handful of American ships of the South Dakota and Iowa classes, the German ships Admiral Graf Spee, Tirpitz and Bismarck, and the most awesome battleship of all time, the Japanese Yamato, surpassed in length and speed but not firepower by the USS Missouri. That the mighty Yamato succumbed impotently in April 1945 to American torpedoes and aerial bombardment in the East China Sea with the loss of 2,500 men – rather than to a proper gun duel with a rival ship, which finally and decisively demonstrated the military liability of the battleship – was entirely lost on me. For I had not the slightest conception much less curiosity of the history behind these ships.
Instead, I threw my model ships together in a paroxysm of greed and lust, mindless of shoddy assemblage, gulping them down like half-chewed banana splits. The pieces made it to their designated slots, but they were often damaged from coarse handling and mottled with spider webs of excess glue. After twisting off each piece from its umbilical frame, you need to shave the resulting plastic wart off with a razor blade, and I didn’t have the patience for that either. You’re supposed to paint the lower hull red and dab the gun barrels with metallic silver, and string a thread across the masts for displaying flags, but these finishing touches were also dispensed with in the rush to finish the model as quickly as possible. Once the model was finished, however, it was soon forgotten in the frenzy of tearing open the virgin box of my next new battleship.
My mother had supplied me with quite a few model battleships on our trip to the American southwest with Avis and Harold in the spring before we moved to Indiana. The ships kept me busy while they enjoyed the Pueblo reservations and the Indian ruins. They always rented two adjacent motel rooms, one for the three of them and the other for me and my battleships.
They seemed impressed by the speed with which I put them together. I placed the ships precariously on the car’s rear window shelf during each drive to the next motel. They frequently rolled over and the fragile masts broke off piece by piece. Before I knew it, my mother had thrown them all away. After that trip, I never made any more battleships.
We moved to South Bend, Avis, my mother and I, so they could attend the graduate program in English literature. We rented an old house on Notre Dame Avenue and they spent a lot of time fixing it up. We acquired a dog, a few cats, and a goose for pets. Avis was strict with me about table manners and I learned a lot from her. Once I walked into their bedroom to find them naked and kissing in bed. They ignored me. It didn’t really surprise me since I had noticed them naked in the bathroom together back in Evanston.
Then my mother met Joe, a professor at the university. He was much older than her, had been a Jesuit priest for twenty years. He came over a lot. One day there was a big fight, and Avis started yelling and shouting at Joe. Soon after that, she moved out. My mother needed a man in her life and married him, while they sent me away to Camp Mishawaka in northern Minnesota for the summer.
Camp was great. We were divided into two Indian tribes representing the Sioux and the Chippewa. I was a Sioux. Each of us was given a wooden plaque with a gold-painted plaster Indian head. After earning enough points in any one of the camp activities, we received a gold-painted plaster feather to attach to the Indian head. I earned five feathers and fell just short of two more in archery and swimming before the summer was over.
But something funny happened at camp that summer. Our group leader, Uncle Chick, took us on a canoe trip up near the Canadian border for several days. In our tent, there were a couple other boys and a camp assistant, Jim, a man in his twenties. One morning, when everyone went off somewhere in the canoes, I don’t know why, but Jim and I stayed behind. We played hide and seek under the sleeping bags. He chased me around the tent, taking my clothes off one by one. He said that if I sucked on his penis for three minutes, he would give me fifteen dollars worth of candy tokens, which was a lot. He got out his watch to show me he would be fair about the time. I opened up my mouth, not knowing what to do with the thing, until he guided my head downward to take more of it inside. It tasted like a hunk of bubblegum with all the sugar chewed out.
As I stood in line waiting to exchange my tokens for candy at the camp store when we got back, my sadness took the form of confusion. I failed to understand it at the time, but what had happened to me amounted, pure and simply, to a moral failing on my part. Of course, I knew what he had done wasn’t right, but the truth was I was the source of the problem. Just as I had failed to show the slightest appreciation for that lustrous thing known as the battleship, despite being given ample opportunity to do so, I similarly failed to embrace the sexual occasion. It wasn’t even the first time, for Cinny and Amelia had provided me with their own informative lessons. But I was a dull student. Whereas I might have tasted the succulence and girth of the penis, held that beautiful battleship in my mouth, my imagination managed no more than to find the thing repellent.
What I was not yet able to do was to seize the event, lock its meat and bones in my jaws and relax into the thing. This was the moral failing on my part.
* * *
Chapter 1: “I first saw her one spring day on my way to afternoon coffee near People’s University.”
Chapter 3: “Success is never haphazard but only ever proceeds from comprehensive and systematic attack”
Buy the book:
Lust & Philosophy