In the crush of fishing boats tied up at the Casablanca dock, my vision goes through an ethereal transformation. It is not a seaside mist I see through, rather it is through the curtain of seventy years. Do I see my father on his only trip to Africa?
Erase the modern Moroccan naval base. There is the Vichy battleship Jean Bart, sunk in its berth. There are American transport ships, fresh from Hampton Roads, Virginia, pulled up to makeshift docks built atop the half-submerged hulls of listing French freighters.
I see a GI—shorter than the others, eyes blue-grey beneath the olive drab helmet—treading the gangway. He face has a cautious, grateful look. Cautious because smoke still hangs in the air. Grateful because he is among the last of the 19,000 men of the Casablanca invasion force to touch land.
Can I smell the smoke in the air? No, my nose is full of fishing boats unloading their Atlantic catch, not the acrid soot of exploded artillery. His image fades.
We are at a café in the center of town—in the shadows of colonial French architecture—when I see his ghost again. Not in battle dress this time, but in fatigues. He is sitting two tables down, sharing his cigarettes with a colonial, practicing the French he started by reading a grammar on the slow sailing from North America.
His hair is brown, a color it never had during my lifetime. I can see better how small he is, and how charming. He drinks his coffee the French way, inky black espresso poured into a measure of hot milk and sweetened with a lump of sugar.
He will keep that habit of cigarettes for another ten years, until my sister is about six. He will keep that habit of sugar in his coffee for 35 more years, until I am about ten.
I see his ghost only once more, when we are at the border of the medina and dusk is falling. He is at the outside of a tight band of Moroccans gathered to tell the day’s stories to each other. It’s shadowy, his back is to me, but I know it’s him. He has appreciated stories, and tellers of tales, but until President Roosevelt landed him in North Africa, he knew only tales in his native tongue. He is trying to skulk about in obscurity, to be even smaller than his actual size, to listen in unnoticed.
There was no mystery he did not want to explore.
Dead now ten years, I explore his mysteries,
Some photo credits are due:
The picture of sunken freighters came from:
The photo Moroccans handing supplies came from: