From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Morse Code

Davey and I bent over our task with the earnest concentration of twelve-year-old boys, nailing kitchen towels to two old broomsticks. Davey was trying to earn his Boy Scout merit badge in communications and had asked me to help him learn Morse code. I found the project so interesting that I was able to squelch my feelings of disappointment that were mingled with just a bit of jealousy. My family was poor, and we couldn’t afford the twelve-dollar uniform I needed to join the Boy Scouts. There would be no merit badges for me, no need for me to learn Morse code at all. But that wasn’t Davey’s fault, and Davey was my friend.

Davey lived two blocks away from me in Philadelphia, and each day after school, we would run home from school, grab our broomstick flags and stand in the middle of Osage Avenue, learning to send messages to each other. Dot on the right. Dash on the left. Be careful not to foul the flag. We were soon so good at reading each other’s messages over the two-block span that I pretended we were in the line of battle, skillfully communicating crucial, lifesaving messages.

Our efforts paid off. Davey earned his merit badge, and I . . . well, I knew Morse code. And even if it hadn’t earned me anything, I figured I was the better for it. I kept up my knowledge of it during my teen years, occasionally interpreting coded messages that came over my shortwave radio.

Years passed, and I finally had a uniform—one belonging to the United States Army. Memories of Davey and my old neighborhood in Philadelphia had faded into nostalgia, but for some reason, the Morse code had stuck with me, though I had no more use for it than I did back then.

Until the typhoon hit. My company was stationed at Dulag on the island of Leyte in the Philippines when a tremendous storm blew onto us, wiping out visibility and drowning us in a whipping torrent of rain and wind. Into this churning chaos, a landing ship tank (LST), loaded with equipment, dangerously approached the beach where we were encamped. The ship’s officer was clearly lost.

Shrugging on my rain gear, I slipped out into the storm with my lieutenant and stood at the shore beside him. The officer on the LST was shouting through the storm to us, but all we could hear was the howling wind and downpour. Communication was futile. I stood there helplessly watching the officer’s dim form as he gestured frantically from a distance. It reminded me of something, something from long ago. Suddenly, I ran back to my tent, grabbed my flashlight and aimed it at the officer on the bridge. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” I flashed out in Morse code.

The officer, no doubt surprised to find an Army man who knew Morse code, jumped at his signal lamp, a twelve-inch spotlight, and signaled back: “WHERE IS TARRAGONA?”

Topography was my company’s specialty: I made maps of the area. Without hesitation, I skillfully dotted and dashed: “TARRAGONA IS FIVE MILES SOUTH OF HERE.”

The officer quickly turned away to reroute his ship to the south and deliver the much-needed equipment. As the LST retreated into the dark storm, one final message flashed to the shore: “- -. -..-(“TNX”).”

Thanks. I grinned like a little boy. I had just earned my merit badge.

Bernard Belasco

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