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Welcome to Argentia

On land that was once peat and marsh, the Americans leave behind three asphalt highways into the sky.

They leave behind snazzy call signs, late-night radio banter, and flight paths to Europe over the icy North Atlantic. They leave behind their wharfs and dry docks, hangars and fuel tanks. They leave behind the gymnasium, mess halls, bowling alley, and barbershop, as well as the theater where Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers once performed for the troops. They leave behind the night clubs where sailors danced with fisherman’s daughters from nearby Placentia and the hospital where nurses tended to frightened young German prisoners of war.

They leave behind the cozy homes of family housing, where children of the Cold War raced circles around the flagpoles and whispered about abandoned graves in the forest.

They leave behind concrete bunkers in the hillsides that had once hoarded ammunition, canned rations, and hospital supplies. They leave behind the building where hydrophones listened all through the night for Mikhail Gorbachev’s diminishing submarine fleet. They leave behind the buried cinders of the officer’s barracks that burned down and killed the sleeping men inside. They leave behind microscopic ashes deep in the harbor mud, remnants of the cigars Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill smoked on a ship’s deck as they forged grim pacts of war.

Also left behind are seaplane ramps #1 and #2. The service shop for ZP-14, the blimp squadron. The immense black anchor at the front gate and the sign that says, “Welcome to Argentia.” VHF transmitters that still send and receive, but only in a realm unheard by the living.

The Americans leave behind ghosts that Argentia herself, wounded and in pain, refuses to give up. Villagers, sailors, pilots and prisoners haunt her shores and forests, ponds and bogs. The most visible is Anna Cleary, who sometimes appears under a full moon with her stillborn babe clutched tight. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot mother the dead. The angriest spirit is Petty Officer Mark Barron, who drowned deep in the icy currents and rattles tiny bits of rock and metal whenever the living draw near.

Neither Petty Officer Barron nor Argentia were by nature vengeful, but their fury comes honestly.

Please understand that you are part of a story that began long ago, and your fate is already out of your hands.

Imagine a bitter February evening along a coastline where the incoming tide crashes into ancient cliffs. Thick with black oil and broken wreckage, the ocean churns with the abating chaos of a storm that is slowly moving to the east. The water smashes and sucks at the hundred and twenty sailors huddled together on a rock shelf in the cliffside, trying to drag them back to the watery doom their shipmates have already succumbed to.

Freezing and injured, their bare skin and sodden clothes scoured by salt, wind and ice, the weak survivors of the U.S.S. Pollux are singing.

They sing not for rescue, because there is no reasonable hope of any coming. The Pollux and her destroyer escort Truxtun were running silent for fear of U-boats. Both have run aground in this foul, fatal weather along a coast mostly empty of people but for scattered outports and settlements.

They sing not to fortify themselves for the climb upward. The sheer rock face is impossible to attempt without ropes, of which they have none. They sing not because it is Ash Wednesday, the first day to begin the sacrifices of Lent, although certainly the day has been filled with prayers for the dear Lord or his Blessed Mother to deliver them from these long frigid hours and perilous fate.

They sing because all they have left are their hoarse, united voices. The bits of food carried from their sinking ship are long gone, and the flashlight batteries are fading in the gloom of snow, fog and night.

Their songs harken back to the Great War, which ended in victory. Between verses, they hear the siren calls of their mothers and girlfriends calling them to rest in the deep, sweet sea.

Given their predicament, would you jump in? Or would you cling to hope and rock, your freezing flesh already stunned by frostbite?

These are no idle questions.

A few hours after sunset, help comes. Volunteers from Lawn and St. Lawrence bring ropes, axes, blankets, and the miracle of fire. Some men, once rescued, succumb to the cold despite everyone’s best efforts to warm and comfort them. Others are sick from swallowing oil and die on the arduous journey to the hospital. The living go back to America and decades of guilt at having survived the ordeal. The dead are wrapped in canvas, loaded into coffins, and pulled by horses to the military cemetery at Argentia.

The Americans don’t leave them behind. After the war, the bodies are disinterred and sent home.

But Argentia keeps some souls anyway. She doesn’t forget or forgive.

The Basque bring their language, their courage, and their vast knowledge of sea and tide. They bring their boats, nets, and harpoons. They bring white statues of the Virgin Mary and superstitions about older gods and goddesses. They bring their experiences sailing with Columbus, and they name their fishing village Placentia after an old villa back home. They bring weapons to use against the indigenous Beothuk, Micmac and other tribes, but the land takes no notice. War is a human folly.

The French bring bigger boats. They bring cannons and colonial ambition. They bring priests who bless the wood and stone forts newly built above Placentia. They bring diseases that kill many Beothuk and Micmac. They bring their wives and household furniture and governors to rule the land. They bring the name Petit Plaisance to a nearby peninsula blessed with good timber, a deep harbor, and good beaches. The land pays no attention, for a name means nothing to deep rock and old awareness.

The English bring the largest boats of all. They bring stronger cannons. They bring a signed treaty that says they now own the land that the French hold dear. They bring King William, who summers in Placentia. They bring schools for boys and churches for everyone. They bring the Irish, who in turn bring their nuns. They bring a new name, Argentia, to mark the discovery of a silver mine that promises a prosperity which never comes. The land suffers the deep gouging of her veins as an irritation but not a grievous wound.

The postman brings newspapers that speak of war and the crown’s determination to stop Germany. He brings official notices that the villages of Argentia and Marquise are to be emptied and rebuilt as an American naval base. He brings the relocation checks, insultingly inadequate. The fisherman and farmers watch their homes torn down and their cemeteries of British and French settlers moved to Old Settlement Hill. The most recent of the dead, Anna Cleary and her stillborn son, are placed near a low stone wall with a lovely view.

But their souls have already been claimed by Argentia, who is screaming under the bulldozers stripping her open to the sky.

Picture this: Ten men on a P3 Orion bound for Argentia after spending the day hunting Russian submarines. The hungry, tired crew is looking forward to a hot meal, a stiff drink or two, and the comfort of their narrow beds. It is the week before Thanksgiving and they are all far from home. The plane rattles and shakes in the turbulence of an approaching storm while the dark, choppy waters of North Atlantic stretch endlessly below.

The plane and its crew are part of VP-45, a squadron based in Jacksonville, Florida. Most of the men don’t think much of Argentia, but who does? Its legacy as the Gibraltar of the North has faded. It belongs to Canada now, not Britain, as does the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador. Once the area supported twenty thousand personnel. Now only a quarter of that remain. Some of the sailors and their wives weren’t even born when Argentia and Marquise were demolished, or when the construction battalions began destroying the peat bogs to build the runways.

A man could go crazy in Argentia, faced with nearly ten months of snow and fog and only two good months of summer fishing. Nightly movies at the theater help, as do hours of playing pinochle or drinking beer, or even Catholic or Protestant church on Sunday. The wives have their luncheons and Ladies Auxiliary, and the children their school and sports, but Aviation Electrician’s Mate 3rd class Mark Barron thinks maybe he’s beginning to go stir-crazy. Last night, as he lay smoking in his bunk bed, he heard the whinny of horses and looked out his window to see dark horses pulling wooden coffins down the road. There are no horses on the station, and certainly no need for coffins. He made the mistake of asking around at breakfast, and since then everyone’s been needling him needling him about if he’s seen any pink elephants, too.

He knows what he saw. He remembers the steam rising from the horses’ nostrils, and the heavy turn of the cart wheels in the half-frozen mud. His grandmother back in Mississippi always told him that a thin veil separates this world from the next. Visions of the dead often come to those inching toward the divide.

Still, today’s flight has been uneventful and he’s not superstitious. If all goes well he’ll soon be hitching a ride over to Freshwater, where there’s a local girl he’s been seeing. He likes her very much, and her family, too, though he’s tired of the myriad ways Mrs. Pelletier cooks cod—

He never makes it Freshwater. Just before six p.m., the control tower and ground observers witness a bright flash of light on the horizon that quickly fades in the snowy darkness. Despite the quick dispatch of tugboats, crash boats and a C-130 Hercules aircraft, no survivors are found amid the scattered wreckage four miles from the end of the runway. The ocean has claimed her sacrifice.

Argentia, too, takes what she can. She is still reverberating from trauma, and a soul is a tiny balm for horrific pain.

Any soul will do, good sir. Any soul at all.

Vice Admiral Arthur Bristol dies in Argentia Harbor while the war is going badly. His last clear memory from his time alive is standing at the railing of his flag ship, the U.S.S. Prairie, gazing at the twin humps of rock in the harbor colloquially known as Mae West. He misses his wife back in Norfolk, and her own considerable breasts. He fears he will never see or touch them again. When agony rockets through his own chest, he realizes his heart has given way under the strain of overwork and exhaustion.

His ghost often lingers now around Mae West’s rocks and crevices, making mournful sounds a visitor might mistake for the wind.

The German prisoners of war who step ashore in Argentia don’t stay long. Rescued from bombed U-boats or sinking destroyers, they are quickly shipped out by train to prisons in New Hampshire or Connecticut or beyond. Some arrive already dying from cold, inhalation of water, ingestion of fuel, or debilitating injuries. Dozens are buried in a small cemetery under the evergreens in the forest. After the war the bodies remain untended in the ground. Hans and Fritz and so many others.

Their souls wander the coast at night, desperately searching for any way home.

The Angel of Death visits eight men when the Bachelor Officer Quarters burn to the ground. Six men hear the summons to the other side when their helicopter smashes into the hillside above the base. Eleven men leave the mortal realm when their radar surveillance plane crashes into the bay a thousand feet short of the runway. A military wife passes within the veil after swallowing too many little white pills. A daughter meets her tragic end when she’s struck by a car while picking berries along the road beside 1000 Housing Area.

Argentia clutches them all to soothe herself the way Anna Cleary holds her stillborn son.

The Americans bring bulldozers, trucks and excavators. The Newfies bring their shovels, strong backs, and propensity for hard work. An army of men bring their considerable force to bear on the helpless land and begin tearing from Argentia the deep layers of peat that pre-date the first footsteps of the Micmac and Beothuk. They rip and scour and ravage the peninsula until eight million cubic yards have been torn away from the rock and carried away to distant spots on the shoreline.

The thick, composted material was Argentia’s comfort against the snow and ice. It was the skin and flesh over her bones. Once the destroyers flay it from her, they gouge drainage ditches along the open wounds. They scoop up the exposed sand and gravel and feed it to the crushing plant to use as aggregate. They pour hot asphaltic concrete across her open belly and then top it with more boiling asphalt, sending noxious clouds toward the weak sky.

They are so proud of what they do to her. So very proud.

Only a few command are left when Lieutenant (j.g.) Sandra McDonald visits the runways for the first and only time. The arrival of spring has brought the semi-annual Physical Readiness Test, and the sailors in Lieutenant McDonald’s department must run a mile and a half in the allotted time in order to be considered fit.

Only some of them know anything about Argentia’s military glory, now fifty years past. Few of them ever visit the lone department store or solitary Chinese restaurant in Placentia, or could converse about Basques or Micmacs or visiting kings. None of them realize that the immense administrative and barracks building on Marquis Avenue, which some say is the tallest building in Newfoundland, stands where a village once thrived.

They do know that it’s a cold morning, as most mornings here are, with a brisk wind from the north and the promise of rain despite the clear sunrise. Only one of the three runways is in good enough shape to host dozens of runners. The other two have been cracked open by grass and ice and time. Lieutenant McDonald, whose grandparents hail from Harbour Grace and Pouch Cove, is not particularly fond of running. She spent all night on duty, listening for submarines to echo through hydrophones on the ocean floor, and would rather be in bed. But she is reasonably good at sprinting, and is first to the orange cones that mark the turn-around spot.

There she stops in surprise. A pilot in full flight gear is standing only a few feet beyond the cones. His outfit looks like something out of a WWII movie. With him is a young woman in a white dress with both arms wrapped around an infant. Behind those two are more pilots, and sailors drenched from the sea, and an admiral with his hand on his chest, and pale young men in foreign uniforms, and a girl with berries blood-red in her hand—

Their suffering eyes bore into her. Cold radiates out of them in icy waves. They make no sound, but their mouths are open as if screaming.

Hundreds of them stand assembled on the runway, the morning light streaking through them, and McDonald might faint but just then the runners behind her barrel into her and everyone goes down in a tangle of limbs and shouts.

By the time her head clears, the ghosts are gone. No one else admits to seeing them, and her XO says it must have been some trick of the light or hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. McDonald is given forty-eight hours of convalescence in quarters, during which she doesn’t sleep a single wink.

She puts in for a transfer and ends up in Key West, where the dead linger only because they like the music and sunsets. Three weeks later after arriving, she is killed by a drunk driver on Duval Street and passes quickly, seamlessly, into that unknown land beyond.

After the Americans leave, the Canadians bring big plans to Argentia. They bring demolition experts who knock down almost everything, using explosives as need be. They bring in scientists who test the soil for PCB’s and frown at the results. They bring business plans that do not work, profit forecasts that predict only gloom, and lease agreements that no one signs. They bring air cadets and hang gliders to the runways, but those stop after a tragic accident kills a teenage boy from Carbonear.

The Canadians bring in mini-golf, sewer hook ups and electrical service to build an RV park on the hill behind what was once 1000 Housing. Few tourists come, and those who do rarely spend more than one night.

Slowly the land is turning back to wilderness. Eagles have returned to the trees and moose roam freely on the overgrown roads. When the runways have finally disintegrated and the peat returns, Argentia will release her hold on the dead. It will take thousands of years, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, but patience is a virtue not lost on rock and dirt.

Meanwhile, Argentia watches and waits for her next soothing souls. They are coming now. Their ship has just left New Sydney.

Just as the Micmac and Beothuk came in their canoes, and the French and English aboard their sailing ships, travelers these days can cross from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland on a Marine Atlantic car ferry. The journey is just over five hundred kilometers and takes sixteen hours. The route takes the passengers and crew past the sites where the Truxtun and Pollux once foundered, but the captain never announces that detail. He doesn’t think anyone much remembers those names anymore, even at the hospital the grateful Americans donated to the rescuers and their communities.

The ferry port in Argentia has fine views of Mae West, the old cracked runways, and the seldom-used RV park. Curious passengers with keen eyes might spot half-buried foundations overgrown by grass, but of most military buildings there is no trace. The most prominent features here now are the ceaseless winds and timeless ocean. Up on Old Settlement Hill, a cemetery of faded stones keeps watch on the residents of Placentia.

The ferry that is traveling from New Sydney will founder tonight in a storm the forecasters are currently underestimating. Those passengers already queasy from the rough seas will find their discomfort a thousand times increased when unsecured cargo shifts the ship’s center of gravity and she begins to list to port. Courage and bravery matter not when your eternal reward comes calling. Crew and passengers alike will begin to panic, and some will claw their way to lifeboats and safety, but such a fate will not be yours.

I bring you sympathy, sir. I bring you an understanding, perhaps, of why I felt compelled to tell you this story. I bring you the small solace of knowing that your decision to buy ferry tickets and take your family on this summer vacation is only a small link on a much larger chain of cause and effect.

You wanted to spend heart-warming time with your wife and children. You hoped for a fine family adventure. All I can tell you is that we all had dreams, once, and there’s nothing you can do to forestall the inevitable.

The cold waters will fill your mouths and lungs. You will try to breathe it, all four of you, your bodies thrashing helplessly in a compulsive search for oxygen. You will feel searing pain. I’m sorry, but some mortal endings are more horrible than others. Take comfort in knowing that the physical agony will subside shortly, leaving behind only memory and regret.

My name is Anna Cleary. Welcome to Argentia.

About the Author

Sandra McDonald’s first collection of fiction was a Booklist Editor’s Choice, an American Library Association Over the Rainbow Book and winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Four of her stories have been awarded the James A. Tiptree Award Honor List for exploring gender stereotypes. She is the published author of several novels and more than sixty short stories and novels for adults and teens, including the award-winning Fisher Key Adventures. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine and teaches college in Florida.