Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Back Again

    Danny Petrowski didn’t cry anymore. He had fallen beyond depression, and into something deeper and darker. He had failed with friendships, failed at work, failed at life. Somehow, he still had a relationship with his girlfriend, Diana, but that was failing too.
The one thing he could do was sleep. In his dreams, he escaped. In his dreams, he was all of the things he wasn’t when he was awake. He was smart. He was successful. He was courageous. He was… happy.


He never had bad dreams. Well, not bad dreams about his life. He was always somewhere else. He liked history, and had read hundreds of books about the Second World War. Once, he dreamed he was on an island somewhere in the Pacific. A banzai charge had broken through, but he had refused to give ground.  He was fighting alone from a foxhole, and he woke just after he had run out of ammunition… just before a Japanese officer skewered him with a samurai sword.


He might have died once in his dreams, but he wasn’t sure. They say that shouldn’t happen. Dying in your dreams. Not if you’re normal. 


In his dreams he had bulled his way up the bluffs of Omaha Beach, and manned an anti-tank gun against German armor attacks during the Battle of the Bulge. In his dreams he had stomped ashore with General MacArthur upon his return to the Philippines. He was there when the Marines raised the flag on Iwo Jima.


“Danny? Danny… We’re out of milk. Can you run to the store?”


Diana was in the kitchen. Every day, after work, she made dinner, and the two of them would sit on the couch, pushing piles of food around their plates, waiting for whatever it was that came on the TV.


He knew she didn’t love him anymore.  Well… she wasn’t in love with him anymore. She still cared for him, he was pretty sure. She fed him and let him live with her out of loyalty. Or maybe it was just out of habit. He didn’t make things any easier. When he was awake, Danny wasn’t really interested in anything. Including Diana.


“Sure. I’ll go, sweetheart. Where’s the keys?”


As he idled at a red light, he looked to his right and saw movement reflected on the front passenger window. Some odd combination of colors and shadows created a series of images. Like a movie projected on a transparent screen.


It was an action sequence from the point of view of an Oerlikon gunner. And, somehow, he was in his own hallucination. He was the gunner. He could feel his torso pushing against the shoulder supports, and the waist belt wrapped around him, holding him in place. He sensed his adrenaline surging. He could feel the rhythmic pounding as the rapid-fire cannon recoiled against his body. The noise was unbelievable. Overwhelming. He could barely think. And then there was shouting. Someone was shouting.


“Wake up, moron.”


A reminder from the driver behind him that the light had turned green.


When he got home, he told Diana what had happened.


“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “In my dreams. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, actually. But not like that. Not so… real.”


She never expressed any doubt that he had seen… something, she just said, “Maybe you should stop reading all those books. Try reading some want ads. You know, for people who want a job?”


After dinner, he did some reading about Oerlikons, the 20 millimeter cannons originally produced by a Swiss company of the same name. During World War II, they became a standard part of the anti-aircraft defenses aboard U.S. Navy vessels. Usually, they were on a rotating mount atop a fixed pedestal. And they had a flat armored shield meant to protect the gunner.


At first, these weapons seemed ideal. They had a high rate of fire, and could swivel and elevate quickly. Heavier guns had difficulty tracking speedy fighters and torpedo planes. When the decision was made to rely on these guns, nobody anticipated the tactic the Japanese would use with such great effect in the latter stages of the war – the kamikaze.


That night, the scene returned in Danny’s dreams. Longer, and more vivid. He felt himself in the gunner position. He could see everything as it happened. He was on a catwalk just below the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Part of an eight-gun battery of Oerlikons. He slipped when he tried to follow the path of a Japanese plane diving toward the ship, but the waist belt kept him from falling. As he steadied his footing, he squeezed the firing lever and felt the gun kick. He turned to continue tracking the plane and felt something hit his shoulder.


“Danny. Danny. Jesus Christ.” Diana was shaking him. “How can I sleep with you rolling around like that?”


“Oh… Sorry." It took a few seconds to realize where he was. “I was back there again. The thing I saw earlier tonight. I was there. It was intense.”


“Well, I have to get up early for work. Try dreaming about something peaceful, okay?”


The next night, he was back again. Almost as soon as he closed his eyes. Noise... So loud he could feel it. The sound of gunfire and explosions all around him. The sound of screaming motors as enemy planes flashed in front of him or streaked overhead. The sound of men shouting. And smells… The smell of the ocean a hundred feet below. The smell of burnt cordite as dozens of guns fired at targets in the sky, and the targets fired back. The smell of engine exhaust and burning wood from the smashed carrier deck behind him.


He looked down to see the name above his shirt pocket.




 And he saw the name of the ship stenciled on the orange life vest he was wearing.


U.S.S. Bunker Hill.


He was Bickle. He looked around. No one else was standing. As he turned to track an enemy plane, he slipped. The same scene, repeated. Only this time, he realized why. Blood. He looked down. There was blood everywhere. And bodies. Bloody heaps scattered along the catwalk. Some of them still. Some of them shouting in fear and agony.


This time, he woke up on his own. But Diana was laying on her side, looking at him more out of concern than anger.




“Oh God. Diana… I’ve read about this stuff. All this World War Two stuff. But it’s worse than you can imagine. Muchworse.”


“These dreams,” she said. “What’s the deal? Why do they keep coming back?”


“I don’t know.” He was confused, still a little bleary-eyed. “I’m sorry. Get some sleep. I’ll go out into the living room.”


He sat at the computer and started searching. It didn’t take long to find information. Lots of it. He stayed up all night reading.


In the morning, as Diana was leaving for work, she said, “You’re freaking me out with this thing. It’s not normal.”


“Diana, I found out about this guy. The guy in my dreams. His name is Bickle. I mean… It was Bickle. Walter Bickle. He was on the Bunker Hill, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He was a hero. He won the Medal of Honor.”


“You can tell me when I get home,” she said. “Try to do something useful today. Why not go for a walk, get some exercise? Maybe that will help you sleep. And help me sleep.”


“I’ll try,” he said as she left, knowing he wouldn’t.


He read everything he could find online about the Bunker Hill. And about Bickle. The Bunker Hill had 32 Oerlikons divided among four separate catwalks, one on each side of the bow, one on each side of the stern. Each gun was served by several men: the gunner, spotters, ammunition runners. They went through thousands of rounds of ammo when under attack. He found pictures of the ship, and descriptions of desperate battles. As the war went on, the 40 millimeter Bofors anti-aircraft gun gained favor over the Oerlikon, which, despite its high rate of fire, didn’t have the stopping power to deter a Japanese plane on a suicide mission.


When Diana came home, Danny couldn’t stop talking about it.


“This guy Bickle was amazing, Diana. The ship was under heavy attack off of Okinawa. May 11, 1945. Bickle stayed at his post and manned his gun pretty much alone as planes buzzed all around.”


“Uh huh,” Diana humored him as she heated some leftover meatloaf and macaroni and cheese.


“Two kamikazes dropped bombs onto the deck and then crashed into it within 30 seconds. Everyone around Bickle was killed or injured, but he stood and blazed away at another incoming plane. Diana, he just… stood there. Firing. With this plane diving right at him. And it finally exploded. The debris that rained down and hit the ship wasn’t enough to do much damage. But it killed Bickle.”


“Mmhmm. You want ketchup?”


“He saved the ship from a third direct hit. There were more than 600 casualties, Diana. It was… It’s awful.”


“It sounds awful, Danny. Let’s not talk about it while we eat, okay?”


Later, as she flicked the buttons on the remote and scanned the channels looking for something worth watching, he tried to tell her what it felt like.


“I’m me, but I become him. It’s hard to explain. I’m aware that I’m me, okay. I mean, I know I was me, but I become him. It’s like we trade places. Do you understand?”


“No. Not really.”


Danny drew a deep breath as he searched for the right words.


“I can see from his point of view. We’re… Like we’re soulmates, but on a molecular level. I don’t know… There’s, like, a mail slot in time where I can slip through and become him for a while.”


“Does he become you?”


It was an absent-minded question. She was only half listening. But it took Danny by surprise.


“I… I don’t know. I never thought about it.”


“What would happen if you stayed in the dream until he died?”


Danny thought for a minute.


“I don’t know that either.”


It was a smart question. That was one of the things he liked about Diana. She was sharp. She understood things. Even when she was barely paying attention.


That night, and every night for the next few weeks, Danny went back again. Each time, he stayed longer. He re-lived it over and over. He learned to control the points at which he entered the dream and left. He always stopped as the last plane turned toward him.


He, or Walter, was the only uninjured man on the catwalk after the first kamikaze succeeded in dropping its bomb and then crashing on the deck. After the initial shock, he shuffled along the catwalk, dragging heavy ammunition canisters to his gun, stumbling over the dead and injured, slipping in puddles of blood. Then the second kamikaze hit. He felt noise and heat. Concussion from the explosion knocked him down. The chaos was so overwhelming he couldn’t even process it.  Surrounded by piles of ammunition, he strapped himself back into his gun and started firing.


Diana was touching him. “I have to get up for work, Danny. Want to take a shower?”


She hadn’t asked him that in months. A shower usually meant­­­­ she had gotten up a little early and they would end up fooling around. He had noticed that Diana’s behavior had changed. She touched him more. The tone of her voice was softer. She smiled at him.


Danny wasn’t sure how to answer. “Not today, sweetheart. I’m still a little tired.”


“Suit yourself,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow. I’ll set the alarm a little earlier.”


She was teasing him. Having fun. She stepped into the bathroom, and then stuck her head out the door to speak.


“I don’t know what’s happened, but this dream thing seems to be waking up the old you. I missed you. The real you. Just touching me when you roll over in your sleep. Kissing my ear sometimes.”


She smiled and disappeared. He heard her turn on the water and step into the shower. Danny was confused. He had no idea what she was talking about. That night, after dinner, she snuggled next to him on the couch in front of the TV, and put her head on his shoulder.


Soon after Danny went in the bedroom to lay down, he was floating in the central Pacific off the coast of Okinawa. Japanese Zeroes were zooming across the sky like giant killer bees. He stayed in the dream through the two kamikaze strikes, and right up until the moment when the third plane was heading straight toward him. Then he woke himself up.


Diana was lying next to him. Looking at him.  “Danny, you haven’t made love to me like that in a while. It was so nice.”


“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I don’t remember anything.”


“Oh, Danny. Don’t be silly.”


She laughed as she went to the bathroom to wash. But the look on his face had surprised her. She was pretty sure he didn’tremember anything. All day at work she thought about that conversation and about the one they had when the dream first started taking over.


That next night, in bed, after Danny had kissed and caressed her, and rolled on top of her, she put her hands on his shoulders, and asked, “Walter, is that you?”


He froze for a moment, then said, “Yes.”


He pulled back and began to move away.


“No,” she said. “I don’t want you to stop. I just want to know.”


When she went to the kitchen to get a glass of water, she asked him about that day… his last day.


“That third Zero,” he said. “The pilot must have seen there was nobody left on those guns. He thought it was a weak spot. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. But I knew as soon as he turned toward me I was a dead man. All I could do was keep firing and hope I could save some of my shipmates. I just aimed at the propeller, pulled the firing lever and closed my eyes.”


As he spoke, he looked out the bedroom door at Diana, standing naked at the sink, listening.


“And I’m thinking ‘Why me? Why me? I don’t wanna die.’ I screamed and I cried so hard I thought my head would explode.  And then there were these pictures in my head, like a movie. I just kept my eyes closed. I could see my father and mother standing on the porch back home, holding hands and smiling. And then I saw something I had seen so many times…  A woman standing in front of the kitchen sink with her head turned to look at me. There was such love in her eyes. She was beautiful.”


He tilted his head back on the pillow, took a deep breath and exhaled before he continued.


“It was you. It is you. It must have been something Danny saw at some point. I had seen it often when I was below deck at night, trying to sleep in that hot, noisy ship. It just came to me. A few times, at first. Then… every night.”


He looked at her again. Standing at the kitchen sink. Her face. Her eyes.


“This is it,” he said. “You. Here. This is what kept me alive. Even when I died.”


He closed his eyes for a moment, coughed and shook as if a sudden chill had come over him. When he opened his eyes again, he was annoyed.


“Diana, what the hell are you doing up in the middle of the night? Turn off that light, will ya?”




“Of course it’s me, who else….?”


He saw that she was crying.


“Walter’s been here...” It wasn’t really a question, but it seemed like one.


“Yes,” said Diana. “I mean, it’s your body. It’s you. But… It’s Walter.”


She put her hands on the sides of her head and squeezed, trying to contain everything she was thinking.


Through her sobs, she said, “This is so confusing.”


“Really?” he said. “I don’t think so. Now it all makes sense.”


For two days, Danny didn’t eat or sleep. Walter couldn’t visit if he stayed awake. He spent lots of time thinking, pacing in the living room or outside on the sidewalk. Then, on Saturday, he walked into the kitchen as Diana was figuring out what to make for dinner.


“Let’s get some steaks, Diana. Some nice filets. And asparagus. And red wine.”


Diana was surprised. “Are we celebrating something?”


“Not really, “he said. “I just thought it would be a nice treat. How about baked potatoes? Can we do baked potatoes?”




He made a quick trip to the grocery store to buy everything they needed. He even bought two candles for the dinner table. A nice touch, he thought.


When Diana had put the potatoes in the oven, Danny said, “I’ve been thinking. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. But am I the best thing that ever happened to you?”


“What are you talking about, Danny? How can I answer that?”


“I think you just did. And now Walter is everything I used to be, right?”


“It’s not that simple,” she said. “You… You’ve changed.”


“I know,” he said. “I just… I always wanted to dosomething. Something that made a difference. And I could never figure out what that was.”


“You will,” she said.


“Yes. I will.”


He smiled, but it was a strange smile.


Danny unscrewed the cork on the wine, poured a bit into a glass and took a sip.


“Mmm. This is good.”


He poured two fresh glasses and put them on the dinner table.


“You don’t get too many chances to be a hero, you know? I mean… How often does that opportunity come along?”


Diana was puzzled, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”


Danny grabbed a lighter and went out to the patio to light the grill. When he came back in, he lit the candles on the dinner table.


“Would you mind doing the steaks, sweetheart? I like the way you cook them. I’m gonna lay down for a few minutes before we eat.”


“Okay, Danny.”


Diana grabbed the plate and the big cooking fork and walked out the sliding glass door to put the steaks on the grill Then she came back in to start the asparagus.


She stood in front of the kitchen sink.


Danny went into the bedroom to lay down. He was exhausted. He closed his eyes and was asleep in no time. In his dreams, Danny was back again. At the gun. The last Zero banked and turned toward him. Danny aimed at the propeller, pulled the firing lever and closed his eyes.  He was screaming and crying. Even through all the noise, he could hear the plane get closer and closer. And then there were pictures in his head, like a movie. He could see his father and mother standing on the porch back home, holding hands and smiling. He saw a woman standing in the kitchen looking at him.


There was a loud noise and light and heat.


And then the movie stopped.


The man in the bed woke up screaming. He was crying and breathing so hard his chest hurt, his heart pounding like a sledgehammer. It took him a few seconds to realize where he was. He sat up and looked out the bedroom door at Diana standing frozen in the kitchen.


“Danny?” Diana whispered. “Is that you?”


“No, sweetheart. It’s Walter.”



A battery of Oerlikon 20 mm cannons on the USS Hornet
(Photo via Wikipedia)