A Change of Heart
Somewhere in the South Atlantic ……………
It was 3:00 a.m. Admiral Harriman Nelson stood solitary watch on the bridge of the Seaview, waiting, hoping for the return of his friend. Captain Lee Crane was four days overdue from a diplomatic mission with the Office of Naval Intelligence. For those four days, Seaview had maintained her position at the rendezvous point.
Suddenly, Nelson became aware of someone else on the bridge. “Is there anything I can do for you, Sir?” asked Chip Morton softly, respectfully.
Nelson shook his head wearily. “Thank you Chip – but no. Damn,” he fumed, “there’s nothing any of us can do – we’re helpless!”
Then, after a few quiet moments, unexpectedly, Nelson confessed, “Lee and I had a terrible argument the night he left.”
“May I ask about what, Sir?”
“What else? – ONI.”
“Admiral, Lee understands why you’re angry. He knows it’s because you’re afraid for him ….. that you care about him.”
Nelson nodded absently. “You know Chip, before every mission, Lee drops by my cabin to say goodbye …………… and to reassure me that he’ll be all right.” Softly, “This time he didn’t. Maybe that’s why I’ve felt such dread since he left. Damn fools!” he hissed. “We were so angry with each other that we couldn’t ….. ”
“Admiral!” It was Sparks in the radio shack. “Encrypted message coming in from ONI!”
Nelson stood at the plot table and addressed the crew. “Gentlemen, Captain Crane has been captured by anti-government forces in Columbia. The Office of Naval Intelligence has tracked his transponder signal to a small island off the coast. ONI believes that the insurgents have abandoned the island, joined mainland forces in preparation for a major offensive …………… and left Lee behind.” Nelson paused to steady his voice. “If Lee is no longer of use to them, I must assume he is badly injured …………… or dead.”
“Admiral, it will take us more than 24 hours to ……………”
“…………… I know, Chip,” Nelson interrupted. “That’s why you and I are leaving immediately on the Flying Sub. We can be there in less than two.”
A chorus of voices sang out, “Admiral, request permission to ……………” Nelson silenced the crew by simply shaking his head. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he said warmly, proudly. “Your desire to help the Captain would mean a great deal to him. As it does to me. But, I won’t risk more lives. Mr. Morton and I will bring the Captain home.”
Then, briskly, “Mr. O’Brien, best speed to Columbia. Chief, prepare the Flying Sub for immediate launch. Sickbay …………… Doc?”
“Yes, Admiral. I’ve been listening on the intercom. We’ll be ready.”
“All right, Chip, let’s go.”
“We’ll keep a light in the window for you, Admiral.”
“I know you will, Chief. I know you will.”
“Satellite photos show a sizeable compound on the west side of the island,” said Nelson. “That’s our target.”
The Flying Sub approached the island at top speed. There was no time for stealth, no time for caution. If Lee was alive, they had to find him quickly.
“There it is!” cried Chip. He steered FS1 toward the clearing, reduced speed, hovered, shifted the engines to vertical descent mode and gently guided the ship to the ground. The instant the Flying Sub touched down, Nelson jumped out the rear hatch, worked his way through the cloud of dirt and debris kicked up by the ship’s descent – and froze. For not 30 feet in front of him was a terrible vision, a moment in time he would never forget.
A man hung limply, spread-eagled between two vertical poles, his wrists lashed cruelly to the top of the poles with course, heavy rope. His naked torso was streaked with dirt, sweat and blood, his shirt lying in shreds at his feet. His khaki pants, beltless and torn, had slipped precariously low on his hips, providing no protection from the searing sun. His head hung lifelessly on his chest, his bare feet dragging on the scorched earth.
It was Lee.
Harry choked back a sob. “Dear God no ...............” Nelson took a few tentative steps forward then rushed to his friend. He embraced Lee gently, lifting him to a standing position, easing the strain on Lee’s arms and shoulders. Suddenly, Chip was there. He worked in stunned silence, eyes filled with tears, as he gingerly untied Lee’s wrists. Once freed, Lee’s seemingly lifeless body collapsed into Harry, his head falling to Nelson’s shoulder. They carefully lowered Lee to a portable stretcher brought from the Flying Sub. Only then did they fully realize the horror of his captivity.
Lee had been brutalized - flogged and beaten. His back was crisscrossed with dozens of deep gashes, some still oozing, others masses of clotted blood and dirt. His face, abdomen, belly and pelvis were mottled with dark, angry bruises from vicious kicks and punches, blows meant to break bones as well as the spirit.
Harry put his flattened palm against Lee’s bare chest, directly over his heart. “He’s alive!” he gasped. He put his other hand on Lee’s forehead, hoping Lee would respond to gentle contact. “Lee …………… Lee!”
“Admiral, we’ve got to get out of here,” insisted Chip. “We can’t take care of Lee right now. We were tracked on radar coming in – we only have a few minutes.”
Harry nodded vacantly, numbed and overwhelmed by Lee’s injuries. “Harry, we’ve got to go NOW!” Chip demanded, grabbing Nelson’s shoulder.
This time, Nelson responded and together, they carried Lee back to the Flying Sub. Once aboard, they lifted Lee’s unconscious body onto the lower bunk recessed in the back of the ship. Chip quickly secured the rear hatch and jumped to the pilot seat, while Harry remained aft to care for Lee. Within minutes, the Flying Sub was in the air, enroute to Seaview.
Lee was in deep shock. Though badly sunburned and severely dehydrated, Lee’s skin was cool and clammy, his breathing shallow and he was totally unresponsive to Harry’s touch and voice. Per radio instructions from Sickbay, Harry stripped off the remains of Lee’s tattered clothing and sponged off the worst of the dried blood and dirt. He administered potent painkillers and antibiotics, covered Lee’s tortured back with a medicated sheath and wrapped him in soft blankets. Every few minutes, Nelson coaxed a teaspoon or two of cool water past Lee’s parched lips. This was all he could do until they reached Seaview.
Nelson sat slumped on the end of the bunk, emotionally and physically exhausted, Lee stretched out beside him. Lying on his side, Lee’s head and shoulders were cradled in Harry’s lap, his back resting against Nelson’s chest. Except for the steady hum of the ship’s engines and Chip’s intermittent contact with Seaview, the ship was eerily quiet. Then, Harry felt Lee stir in his arms. And out of the stillness, a small voice, barely a whisper ……………
“Ad … mir … al ……………”
“Shh, shh, don’t try to talk,” said Harry gently. “Just rest.”
Lee moaned in pain, struggling to stay conscious, fighting for every word. “You ………. found me …………… you ….. came back for me.”
Harry leaned forward, resting his cheek against Lee’s matted curls. “Of course we found you …………… and I will always come back for you.”
Lee was too exhausted, his body too depleted to continue. But within his embrace, Harry felt Lee shaking with silent sobs. “Don’t be afraid, “ he said soothingly. “It’s all over now – you’re safe. You are very sick. But you’re going to be all right. We found you in time – you’re going to be all right!”
Lee sagged against Nelson, unable to stay awake, comforted by the warmth of Harry’s body. Nelson looked forward, through the glass nose of the Flying Sub, as Chip made the final approach to Seaview.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, tears flowing freely now. “We’re home.”
Several months later ….
A quarter mile or so down the beach from his home, Lee leaned against an old, rustic, log fence, looking out to sea, his long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed, his bare feet luxuriating in the cool sand. He wore a pale yellow shirt, long sleeves rolled up, and well-worn, comfortable jeans. The light breeze played with his curly hair and his golden-brown skin seemed to glow in the fading light. His slim, elegant body was completely relaxed, his face serene.
“Thought I’d find you here,” a voice said cheerfully. It was the Admiral. Lee looked up at him and smiled warmly as Nelson propped himself against the fence next to Lee.
Lee nodded. Then, turning back to the sea, he said, “Admiral, I feel …………… whole again …………… I feel ……………”
“Tell me.” Their voices were low and intimate.
Tapping his fingertips lightly on his chest, Lee said, “I feel ……………quiet inside …………… peaceful …………… and so grateful to be alive. I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been searching ….. waiting a long time to feel this way.” Nelson put his arm around Lee’s shoulders and rocked him gently.
“Yes, Lee,” Nelson replied, delighted at the use of his first name.
Lee turned to Nelson, his eyes large, bright and liquid, transformed by the setting sun into a luminous green.
“I love Seaview and my work …………… and I desperately love my life: my friends and family ….. my home by the sea ….. evenings like this. I cannot continue to jeopardize these …………… extraordinary gifts.”
Lee rarely spoke so openly about himself or his feelings. In an instant, Harry knew why Lee was revealing so much.
“Lee ….. are you ….. resigning ….. from ONI?” Nelson asked cautiously.
Lee simply nodded.
Pausing a few seconds for effect, Lee inhaled deeply, looked at Nelson out of the corner of his eye and said mischievously, “O ………. yesterday.”
Harry’s hearty laughter filled the night air as he pulled Lee into a fierce embrace. “This is wonderful!” Lee laughed with him and returned his affection. After a few comfortable moments, Nelson reluctantly released his hold on Lee and stepped back. Both men’s eyes with filled with emotion. Breaking the moment with playfully ruffling Lee’s hair and declaring, “I’m starving – let’s go eat,” Harry took Lee’s arm and gently steered him back up the beach toward Lee’s cottage.
“Eat? Admiral, have you checked my refrigerator lately? If you can make a meal out of a six-pack of beer, a quart of milk and a jar of mustard – oh – and let’s not forget that can of tomato soup in the cabinet – then you are more of a genius than I thought!”
Harry chuckled and squeezed Lee’s arm affectionately. “Never fear, Lee. Right now, as we speak, on your deck ….. the steaks are on, the corn is husked, the salad tossed. And that six-pack of beer? ….. is getting colder by the minute.”
“You’re kidding! Chip?”
This is how Harry would always think of Lee: warm, affectionate, self-effacing, funny and confident. Not that frightened, battered soul, abandoned and left to die on an island far from home.