The Duffel Bag

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Down in the basement, back in the darkest corner where the cobwebs hung and children were afraid to look, far from the safety of the bottom step, lay “the duffel bag.” It was dark blue, presumably wool of some type, as the fabric was itchy when small hands bravely brushed its side. We knew it belonged to our father, we knew it was from his days in the Navy, and we knew it was from “the War.”

Other than that, it was a mystery that was never discussed.

When we moved from our small home in a small town to our larger home in the suburbs, the duffel moved with us and went to an equally scary spot in the new basement, next to the water heater, air conditioner and all manner of other noisemaking, creaking and groaning equipment. We were not going to get a better opportunity to look at the contents in this new home; speculation ran wild.

My father served in the South Pacific during World War II on a multitude of ships. A gunner’s mate, he lost his left eardrum near Okinawa, a result of explosions going off so near his head. He did not talk about the war, and I was not of an age yet when I cared much to ask him about it. Later, while writing his biography, I asked countless questions and recorded his reluctant answers on tape for posterity. Dad lost a lot of friends in that war, and he did not like to re-think each bomb that fell or torpedo that came toward the ship. Living it once was enough.

However, long before I developed my historical interest, the neighborhood children would speculate on the duffel bag’s contents. One boy suggested it was filled with gold and silver and that’s how we could afford the big house we were living in. Yet another suggested that it held a skeleton or a shrunken head. We would occasionally sneak into the basement in small groups and gather around the groaning water heater and poke the duffel bag around with a broomstick, half hoping something would fall out – and hoping with equal fervor that absolutely nothing would happen.

Before long, I began having nightmares from all the speculation and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. My mother or father would come into the room to find me bug eyed, in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf, staring out into space at something – who knows what potential demon had popped out of the bag in my dreams that night.

I finally decided, at the tender age of 11, that it was time to just ask Daddy to show us what was in the bag. Or at least tell us what wasn’t in it.

When my brother and I told him about all the interest in his duffel bag, he thought it was the funniest thing ever. Daddy took each of us by the hand, and together we walked down into the basement.

The bag clearly hadn’t been opened in a very long time. The leather straps binding the top were tightly closed. Nevertheless, he got it open. Expecting nightmarish horrors to emerge, I shrunk back. The first item was the wool blanket he had been issued after enlisting- it dutifully followed him from post to post, ship to ship, and finally here. It had kept him warm on cold nights, kept him off the ground on wet ones, the thickness kept the bugs out and the rain off. It had protected him like a very good, if itchy, friend.

Next, Dad retrieved a beautiful conch shell from the bag and had us lift it to our ears. “You can hear the ocean in this shell,” he said, assuring us that it was magic. And listening intently, we heard the ocean … and then a rustle.

Daddy laughed as he pulled the long strands of grass out of the bag. “Kathy, try this on,” he said. “This is a genuine hula skirt.” He wrapped the skirt around and around me until the ends met properly, and I was a hula dancer. Daddy took my hands and tried to show me how to do the dance.

He reached yet again into his duffel, and this time came out with three canning jars filled with sand. Each jar was marked with the location from which the sand was taken: Oahu, Okinawa, Leyte. Daddy gingerly fingered each jar as though it held gold. You could almost see the memories flashing past his eyes as he looked at the label for each location.

But we weren’t done, more treasures were in store. Next, a club-shaped piece of wood with designs carved around the edges in the shapes of animals, diamonds, circles and lightning bolts emerged from the duffel. He had traded some tobacco and candy bars for a ceremonial Polynesian club. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and I have it today in my living room, both as a conversation piece and as part of my father’s legacy.

By this time, we felt fairly certain that nothing scary or evil was likely to pop out of Dad’s duffel and were disappointed that we were almost to the end of the treasure hunt. But to me, the last items were the most amazing – my dad’s Navy uniform. I think he called them his “whites.” He let me wear his cap, or “cover” as he called it. I felt so important.

So, there we had it. No gold bullion or bones, just a brave man’s memories. He went to war to find justice, and when he came home after his tour, he closed all the memories up in the dark, itchy duffel bag and tried to get on with the business of living. I feel privileged that Daddy chose that day to open up and share his memories. The duffel is now safe from any further prying eyes, the mystery long since solved.

Kathleen Lawler recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, from West Palm Beach, Florida, where she is a litigation paralegal by day and a photographer and writer by night. Her interests include her two dogs, her daughter and all things Southern.

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