Shutout

It was 1994 and Verasalt Beach was teeming with activity. Leo Palminsky, the beach’s metal detective, stood midway between the boardwalk and the shoreline with his forearm resting over the handle of his detector. He closed his eyes and basked in the sounds around him – the crashing of the waves, the laughter of kids playing in the water, the squawking of seagulls, the bell of an ice-cream bicycle making its way down the boardwalk. The sputtering of a Cessna engine approaching from the distance broke Leo’s reverie; he looked up and read the banner trailing behind the small plane: “FRESH SHRIMP: 50% OFF / MAIN & 2ND.”

Being the passive participant at the beach was the best part of Leo’s job, which he took after a string of short-lived ones following his service in World War II. Leo had served as an explosives specialist; he was nicknamed “Shutout” for his track record for disarming some 500 explosives without a hitch.

Although it paid little and logging only twenty hours a week, sweeping sand for metal served as therapy from the horrors of the war, in particular, June 6, 1944 — D-Day— when he took two bullets and witnessed the death of three of his friends as their platoon charged enemy lines on Omaha Beach.

From the small pocket of his utility belt Leo extracted a brittle piece of paper no bigger than a business card. Heavily oxidized and stained almost entirely yellow, the paper was torn from a larger map of northern France.

Scrawled on the back of it: “Hard right 25° N.”

Leo gazed blankly at the handwriting. His lips quivered and he grew misty-eyed. Memories of that day slowly crept into his mind, until a sharp tug of his right pant leg snapped him back to reality. He looked down to find a stout, bare-chested boy no older than four or five with sparkling blond hair holding up a cigarette casing. It was one of the nicest objects Leo didn’t find. The sleekly designed metal casing didn’t have a scratch on it. Its interior was lined with fine burgundy velvet, which Leo couldn’t resist rubbing with the pad of his index finger.

Leo nodded thankfully to the boy and quipped, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” He took the casing and stored his map inside.

Leo’s routine of looking at the map was his way of staying connected to the war. He needed to acknowledge this sordid part of his past without retelling any aspect of it to anyone, including his wife. At Memorial Day and VA banquet dinners, war stories were never shared among his peers; vague references to them, yes, but that’s as far as it went.

The alarm on Leo’s watch sounded off to remind him to take his daily medication for  PTSD. The tablet was in a plastic container tucked in his right pocket, but Leo had no more water in his Thermos mug. He shook it to make sure. Not a drop.

Leo began making his way to the nearest water fountain some 200 feet away. About halfway into his trek, Leo felt a pang of dizziness from the scorching sun.

As he slowed his pace to conserve energy, Leo heard another high-pitched alarm, this time coming from his metal detector. Leo pulled a pocket shovel from his utility belt and and started digging at the spot that triggered the signal. The signal was weak — it emitted every three seconds, the lowest interval his detector was configured for. Leo scooped up a generous chunk of the dampened sand only to come up empty.

After ten scoops, Leo paused and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He got up and waved the detector over the hole; the signal was now emitting every two seconds. He was getting close, he thought.

Leo dug and dug, but the object eluded him. Ten minutes had elapsed since detection, his dizziness intensifying with every scoop. From his knees, he tumbled onto his rear. Looking at his watch, he decided he was going to resume in the evening. He was not going to let this one get by him.

* * *

Leo and Gale, his wife of thirty years and five years his junior, had moved into their two-story bungalow on this quiet cul-de-sac after Leo returned from service. Gale was working as a nursing intern when she met her to-be husband in a makeshift hospital after the war. Gale had retired from nursing at age 55 and joined the public library where she worked six months out of the year as an archivist in the children’s department. The low-stress atmosphere was what she needed after serving nearly three decades as a Registered Nurse in the trauma units of three different hospitals.

Gale quickly embraced her sedentary lifestyle in this sleepy coastal town. As much as Leo enjoyed his work at the beach, she enjoyed hearing his stories at his day job. Last week, he told her about a sand castle contest and how it reminded him of the snow forts he used to build as a child in his hometown of Gary, Minnesota. The week before that, he told her about the copper locket he found by the pier, which reminded him of the time he worked at his grandfather’s jewelry shop at fifteen. Leo had picked up the trade rather quickly — the production aspect, that is — for he was able to deconstruct finished jewelry items quite easily. His grandfather had been so impressed by his grandson’s skill that he recommended Leo enroll in mechanical engineering after the war, which he did. However, his studies were short-lived as he battled another war, this one in his mind. Like many of the things Leo wanted to accomplish after the war, his PTSD got in the way.

With her arms crossed holding the fringes of her shawl, Gale looked wistfully past the screen door. A warm breeze rustled her wispy salt-and-pepper hair as she waited for Leo.

She spotted her husband’s gangly figure emerge from the distance. As Leo made his way to the entrance, she noticed a look of sorrow on his face, one she hadn’t seen since tending to his wounds that frantic day in the tented hospital 50 years ago.

Gale opened the door and asked, her voice cracking with worry, “Leo, is everything alright?”

“Yes, hun. I quit on a dig today. Forgot my bloody cap. I’m drained. I’ll be heading back later tonight to finish what I started,” he said with calm determination.

After dinner, Leo headed to the basement where a collection of metal discards rested on six wall-mounted shelves:  a tin flask, some silverware, jewelry, bracelets, and the lid of a lunchbox,  most of which were rusted, severely blemished or mangled, some beyond recognition. It was literally a junkyard on a wall.

Leo reached for his baseball cap from under the bottom shelf on which sat the first landmine he had ever diffused — a clunky disc the size of a grapefruit, its black paint peeled off.

“You’ll soon have a new neighbor, my friend,” he said while adjusting the cap on his thinly-haired head.

* * *

Leo arrived at the beach a little past 21:00 with his metal detector in one hand, shovel in the other. He made his way to the excavation spot he had started earlier, approximately 10 feet south of the tented parasol stand. The clouds were quickly gathering and the wind was gaining momentum — rainfall was imminent.

Leo waved his detector over the hole. “Beep, Beep.” Leo dropped to his knees, dug a shovelful of the cold, damp sand and, after discarding it, meticulously rummaged through the small pile with the tip of his shovel like a seasoned archaeologist — nothing. He repeated the process a dozen times, but to no avail.

A faint rumbling in the sky followed by a deafening bang of thunder jolted Leo.

Unfazed, he dug  feverishly only to have his efforts thwarted by a deluge of rain. His hole was filling up fast, its walls collapsing before him. Leo banged his fists on the wet sand and bellowed a frenzied scream. With his stiff, sinewy hands, he dug with a maniacal obsession, but the rain nullified his progress. Exhausted, he rolled onto his back and shut his eyes tight against the battering of the rain.

The sound of the crashing waves was fading into explosions, the howling of the wind into wails and moaning cries of dying soldiers. The rain bouncing off the tent’s roof behind him was replaced by the relentless spattering of bullets hitting walls of sandbags and concrete.

Leo grabbed his metal detector and pointed it at the raging sky, at approximately 25 degrees north in front of him. As the sound of gunfire and explosions waned, he rolled onto his stomach and began crawling towards the parasol stand, but the weight of his heavily soaked cargo pants coupled with sheer exhaustion didn’t get him far. After a few feet, his knees buckled, landing flat-faced on the muddied sand.

As he propped himself onto his forearms, readying for another go at his target destination, he heard someone shrieking his name from the distance, “Leo!!” The muffled voice was vaguely familiar to him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw someone in a hooded raincoat sprinting towards him.

“Hard right, 25 degrees! Hard right, 25 degrees!” Leo yelled in an attempt to warn the incoming soldier of the enemy’s firing position.

Before he sounded off the warning call again, he was grabbed by his arms and dragged to the parasol stand.

“Hard right, 25 degrees!!” Leo hollered in panic.

“It’s me Leo, it’s me! It’s Gale, your wife. It’s going to be alright. You’re here, at Verasalt.”  Gale grazed his cheek with her silky soft hand, breaking him from his past. The rain had subsided to a drizzle. The sounds of the beach came back to him…as did his sanity.

* * *

At 11:00 a.m. the next day, Leo checked in at the depot by the main entrance of the beach to have his detector inspected, which he was required to do every time he began his shift.

The dingy depot reeked of sea salt and macaroni-and-cheese. The cigar-chomping custodian, Harold, a husky man donning a polo shirt one size too small for him, sat behind a disheveled desk.

After his brief inspection of Leo’s detector, or “rod” as Harold liked to call it, the custodian grimaced at him and said, “In the twenty or so years that you’ve checked in here, this is the first time you’ve left the power switch of your rod to OFF. Good for you. The batteries could use a break once in a while.”

Had Leo forgotten to activate his detector prior to starting his shift yesterday?

As Leo exited the depot he peeked inside the lunch bag Gale had prepared him. Pinned to his foil-wrapped sandwich was a sticky note that read in beautiful cursive handwriting: “ Meds + Water + hat & happy thoughts. That’s an order!! – Gale.”

Leo unzipped the sleeve of his utility belt, pulled out and opened the casing the little boy had given him yesterday and stuck Gail’s note on the back side of the map…. where Leo would never see the handwriting again.

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