2017-08-10 / Arts & Entertainment News

Startling tales of America’s Cold War sailors revealed


I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that’s given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clear-sighted and despairing, Jeffery Hess’ book — a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War — takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe — and even prosperous.

Given today’s concerns about America’s conflicts and rivalries with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, these stories take on an added dimension of relevance. In addition, they are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery and presented through unmistakably authentic first- or third-person voices (with perhaps a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices).

HESS HESS The lives of shipboard sailors on patrol in potentially dangerous parts of the world are lives of confinement and compression. Their tasks as communications experts, engineers or electricians are tedious and tense. They perform maintenance, make repairs when necessary and prepare to meet emergencies.

A ship is a dangerous place even when not under fire; so many things can go disastrously wrong. Such things happen in the stories of “The Cold Water Canoe Club.”

These sailors are confined spatially, socially and often spiritually. They depend on one another and yet can learn to both love and hate their workmates. The compression demands release: port days with a bit of time off, prostitutes and all the drugs and alcohol one can manage or mismanage.

Mr. Hess begins with an early marker of the background history, a story set in 1949 near the outset of the Cold War, and then moves us forward through the following decades, beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and up to the Reagan presidency’s achievement. He takes us to Lebanon, Turkey, Manila, Naples, Guam and other places where a U.S. fighting ship might go — or stop.

¦ “Cold Water Canoe Club” by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback, $16.95. ¦ “Cold Water Canoe Club” by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback, $16.95. Through flashbacks and other devices, the author sets these mostly young men into their larger lives: the kind of towns and families they come from, the marriages they have entered and exited, their relationships with the officer class they serve under, race relationships, the ambitions they’ve put on hold, the children they hardly know, the injuries and other physical hardships that have aged them, and the inertia — or is it momentum? — that keeps them going.

He offers enough telling scenes of his characters’ stateside domestic lives so that readers can feel the interweaving, often chilling, cause-and-effect vibration between ship life and home life.

The language Mr. Hess’ creations use is filled with political incorrectness. Offenses against bourgeois propriety reign. We might be embarrassed to find ourselves in their company, yet Mr. Hess allows us to come close them, to empathize, respect and even admire them. Of course, not all of them.

Even though the characters’ circumstances have so much in common, Mr. Hess manages to individualize them skillfully and knowingly. Though male characters dominate, the several important female characters are given the same care, the same verisimilitude and distinctiveness and pitch perfect voices.

“Cold Water Canoe Club” is an unusual adventure, at once rough-hewn, raw, sophisticated and lyrical. Be prepared.

About the author

Jeffery Hess is the author of the novel “Beachhead” as well as the editor of the award-winning anthologies “Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform” and “Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand.” Prior to earning a master’s in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte, N.C., and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of South Florida, he served aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships. He has published numerous short stories that recall this period of his life.

Mr. Hess has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company and a university based research center. He lives in Tampa, where he writes and leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

Return to top