We were standing in an Ace Hardware store up in California’s Sierra Nevada range. This was gold country long ago. Mark Twain once did a gig here back in 1868. One hundred-fifty years ago is ancient history to Americans, or at least to Californians.
But there I stood with Doss, though I never quite figured out how he stepped from the pages of The Grapes Of Wrath and into the hardware store.
“Hey, Doss, you grew up in Texas, didn’t you?”
“That’s right,” he said, and then he sang out in the West Texas town of El Paso. “That’s Marty Robbins. Beautiful music.”
“Weren’t you a trapper?”
He smiled. “That’s right. Every morning before school I’d go out and check my trap lines.”
“What would you do with the animals?”
“Well I’d skin them and sell the hides.”
“That was a lot of work for an eight year old, wasn’t it?”
“Oh it was fine, fine. I enjoyed it.”
I didn’t know him in his prime, but I’d seen the photos. Well into his fifties he was still as broad across the back as a bodybuilder. Now he shuffled, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Why’d your family leave Texas, Doss?”
“Oh, my whole family came out in a Model T pickup. We had to get out of the back on hills or the front wheels would come off the ground.” He laughed and demonstrated with his arm how the truck nose tipped upward.
We shuffled past a display of hand-built birdhouses. “Would you look at that?” He said, and he picked one up.
“You should bring some of your birdhouses up here, Doss. I bet you’d make a fortune.”
“No, I just make them because I enjoy it. These are very fine.”
“They’re not as good as yours.”
“Yes, sir, very fine. Somebody put a lot of hard work into these. Would you look at that?” he laughed. “There’s a little fella sitting on the perch with a fishing pole.”
He turned the birdhouse over in his swollen hands, ran his fingers along its seams. “I was leaning on the railing of the boat with another fella one morning. He pointed to a Japanese fisherman and said, ‘See him? He’s not fishing. He’s sounding the bottom.’ And sure enough we must have watched that fella for an hour and he never pulled his line out of the water. Just walked back and forth. That was a couple of days before the attack.”
“That must have been terrifying.”
“No, we didn’t know what was coming.”
Two days after spotting that Japanese fisherman, Doss was in the belly of the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship docked at Pearl Harbor, feeding belts of fifty caliber ammunition to his gunner on deck. “Once when I came up for air I saw a kamikaze coming straight at us. He got so close before the gunner killed him that I could see his face. But when he died his plane turned and hit the ship next to us.”
Because the Pyro was an ammunition ship it was targeted by the Japanese. A direct hit and the whole fleet may have gone up. Fortunately the Japanese had faulty information and they rained hell on the abandoned ship next to the Pyro. Sadly I can’t remember how long Doss told me he spent down in the hold handing up ammo. Twenty hours comes to mind, but I don’t want to lie to you.
But twenty minutes or twenty hours, his arms must have burned from the work, no matter how big of a man he was. His eyes and lungs must have burned from the thick black smoke. His nostrils surely burned from the death hovering in the air. His ears and mind surely burned from the explosions and guns, the droning engines and the screams. Doss, down in a dark hole, sitting on top of a powder keg, doing his work while the world burned.
When we got back to his trailer I cut him a slice of the pie I made. It wasn’t easy. Trans fats had just made the news, so this was my first shortening-free crust.
Doss sat there with his pie and his glass of milk, eyes closed while he chewed. He savored each bite — no matter what he was eating — a broad smile encroaching on his ruddy cheeks. I cringed each time his forearm trembled, trying to work his fork through the tough crust.
“Yes, sir,” he said, and he set his fork on the empty plate. “Thank you for that. I like a crust with a little fight to it.”
“Hey, Doss, weren’t you on another ship after the Pyro?”
“Oh yeah, a few of them.”
“But what was the other big one? Was it the Bunker Hill?”
“That’s right, that’s right.”
“An aircraft carrier, wasn’t it?
“What happened there?”
“That’s a terrible story. We were hit by a kamikaze. Those poor fellas were brainwashed. They thought their emperor was God, but there’s only one God.” He quoted a Bible passage, but I don’t recall which one. I’m a college graduate and “Jesus wept” is the only bit of scripture that I can accurately quote from memory. Doss had an eighth grade education but could pepper his conversation with Bible passages at will. His dog-eared, note-crammed Bible was always near his chair.
“That must have been horrible.”
“Oh, it was. So many men burned up. I had to go find the bodies.” We sat quietly. I wasn’t sure whether Doss was still in there, and if he was I didn’t want to push.
Finally he stood and shuffled across the living room. Out in the West Texas town of El Paso — he sang. He pulled an album from the shelf, worked his way back across the room and handed it to me.
“I want you to take that home with you. That’s Marty Robbins. Beautiful music.”
Doss Younger Thornton: trapper, sailor, Dust Bowl migrant. Gold panner, builder of humble birdhouses. Survivor of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the USS Bunker Hill. The kindest, most decent man I’ve ever known. D.Y. Thornton, I remember you.