May 30, 1947 | Atlanta, Georgia

Photograph Packet #3, Serena’s Debut

My grandmother's front yard in Atlanta Sept. 1947.

Serena Blake slipped unnoticed into the world among the countless other infants born during the baby boom at the end of WW II. Despite her name, Serena’s debut was anything but serene. Her squalling seemed to condense into one agonizing wail all the gut-rending grief, the desolation and the bewilderment of the recent globular conflict.

When the intervention of her mother’s breast silenced her screams, the tiny body still quivered with unfamiliar raging emotion, and the sobs and sucking sounds mingled together expressed more resignation and exhaustion than contentment.

Resignation and exhaustion had their significant place among the emotions of the young men returning home after the war. Less visible than the joyous, reckless abandon of sailors throwing their hats into the air as they stepped onto American soil again, and soldiers kissing the first American girls they saw, and ticker-tape parades, was the cancer of disillusionment, the heartache of young men who had looked into the blackness of human depravity and come away crying inside. These young men came home to rebuild lives, to search for meaning among the ruins of their shattered beliefs. Such a man was Morgan Blake, Serena’s father.

Morgan Blake had quit high school during his senior year to join the Navy and thereby do his part to defend American freedom. He was seventeen; geographically he had seen as much of the world as one can see on a trip from Olivet, Illinois, to Atlanta in an A-model Ford when one is eight years old and as much as one can see hitch-hiking from Atlanta to New Jersey when one is running away from home at fifteen. Experientially, he had tasted as much of the forbidden as he could manage to slip behind the back of his evangelist father who was as austere and unbending as the God he preached about. Since the old tattletales in his father’s church relished a bit of gossip about the preacher’s kids above all else, Morgan’s excursions into sin hadn’t amounted to much. Nevertheless, he saw his transgressions—rolling and smoking his own cigarettes on the sly, getting too familiar with some of the congregation’s less inhibited young women, and spending Saturday nights playing “the devil’s music” with a ragtime band that showed up poker-faced to play Gospel music on Sundays—as the blackest of transgressions.

So Morgan Blake had gone off to defend his country, armed with fervent patriotism, gripped by a hunger to gobble up the kinds of experiences he’d only read about, and desperate to somehow free himself from oppressive guilt and fear. Added to this was the disillusionment he felt after his parents’ divorce during an era when people rarely divorced, a disillusionment exacerbated by his father’s consequent dismissal from the position as Superintendent of the Nazarene Church. Although he wasn’t pulled from the pulpit entirely, his father’s dismissal was a sad denouement to a lifetime of service to the church. His zealous father had established forty churches during the years when his energy and passion for evangelism were at their peak. He’d made a significant contribution to the revivalism movement of the 1920s.

If Morgan had expected to find release from his Angst in the Navy, he had been sadly mistaken. Basic training as well as the four years that followed seemed designed to assure him of his personal insignificance and of the emptiness and meaninglessness of life in general. One of his earliest experiences in the Navy was learning to swim. The Navy’s method of teaching swimming to an adolescent who had spent a land-locked childhood rarely near a large lake much less the ocean was to throw him in with all the other men, who could then tread water or sink. Strugglers were pulled out on the brink of drowning, but Morgan’s relationship with deep water began and remained a desperate, flailing fight to resist the relentless wet darkness trying to pull him under. He swam the way a housecat swims that has fallen or been flung into a vat or pond; he instinctively managed not to sink, but his stiff limbs struck at the water with a frantic, frenzied motion.

Nor did he feel safe from the dark depths once he was on board the Bon Homme Richard, the massive aircraft carrier on which he spent much of the next four years. He lay awake in the bunk at night, sweating or chilly in his skivvies, listening to the sinister waves lapping against the ship, lapping, lapping, as he lay frozen with fear, awaiting the inevitable, when he would be pulled under into the shadowy abyss. Even now a Japanese torpedo could be aimed at the part of the hull where he fought off the darkness, alone in the quiet. He had never known that you could be alone when so many other men shared the same quarters. He thought of the sharks that followed along behind the boat, waiting for the garbage to be flung over, or perhaps waiting for him and his compatriots? The sharks seemed in collusion with the waves and the dark spirit of the deep . . . waiting . . . waiting . . .waiting. The men themselves spent unbearable hours waiting . . .waiting . . . waiting.

The only relief from the darkness inside and out was the drinking. He preferred the drinking to the strange women, so he developed the habit of drinking himself into oblivion whenever he could. He hated everything about this life. Weekend shore leaves when the ship was in port were not much better than the extended periods at sea. It repulsed him to see men lined up for a block or more outside a house of prostitution. He understood their desperation, but the idea of paying to be touched disgusted him. More than disgust, it made him want to weep. The men lined up to refresh their spirits and relieve their bodies, but they left with their spirits diminished and their bodies relieved only temporarily. He remembered his father’s predilections against the sins of the flesh. Would these men go to Hell for trying to escape from Hell? But it wasn’t the fear of Hell that kept Morgan away from the women, although he feared Hell a great deal. It was repulsion at the sadness and sordidness of the arrangement.

Morgan’s role in combat was a gunner in the tail of a seaplane, but he escaped ever being involved in a battle at sea and he always seemed to arrive in port just after the land fighting had stopped. So his job was usually to spray the ground with ammunition after these skirmishes, perhaps to insure the safety of the men coming in from any pockets of resistance that might have remained after the battles. Officially, this peppering of the ground and sea was called a drill. But Morgan wondered whether he had inadvertently killed the enemy or some innocent bystander. He was shooting blind, after all. He was unable to see whether bullets from his gun had connected with anything living. It tormented him. But hadn’t he joined the Navy to kill the enemy? Now the Navy seemed to be the enemy, or maybe the war was the enemy.

But now the war was over, and he was a father. There was perhaps a meaning to the struggles. At least there was peace, and hope, and new life. The ground was firm beneath his feet. Sometimes he was still aware of the darkness lapping at the edges of the land. But now he could put a lot of distance between himself and the slippery slopes of uncertainty. Life and the land seemed vast, and the darkness that threatened to engulf him was far in the distance. He cradled his new baby girl in his arms and grinned for the camera.


 

Leave a Reply