Father to the Man
“Lee, I wish I could just understand why you do it.” Chip was angry and frustrated and didn’t try to hide either emotion from his friend. They were on what should have been a great vacation on the south coast of Spain, a vacation the two of them had planned for months. Except now, as they moved through the narrow back roads of the town, Lee could hardly walk, stumbling along with his cane, his face still bruised and haggard from yet another ONI mission gone wrong.
Lee said nothing, truthfully not sure he could. He was short of breath and his leg hurt and he didn't want to have this argument with Chip, yet again. He had pushed Jamie hard to be here, to have this dream vacation. Jamie knew they had tickets and plans for this trip and had relented and let Lee out of Med Bay the previous morning to catch their flight from Santa Barbara. He felt worn out from his injuries and the jet lag and the two weeks preceding Jamie's brief ministrations. Now this from Chip, was the whole trip going to be a long recrimination?
"I see you come back chewed up and spit out. You’re only human. You’re going to get a hurt you can't recover from or worse yet, killed. Can you just tell me why?" Chip stopped walking and looked at Lee. "I'm your friend. I'm the one who sits waiting to see if you come back. Don't I deserve to know why?" Lost in his outrage and worry Chip only now noticed how beat Lee looked.
"I'm sorry, Lee, let’s sit down and get a coffee." Chip gently touched his friend's arm nodding toward the small café they were standing near with outside tables under an awning.
"Not here, Chip; across the plaza." Lee continued to walk along the cobble-stoned plaza until he came to another identical café 100 feet further along.
With a nearly inaudible sigh Lee lowered himself into one of the small chairs under the awning. Turning carefully and hooking his cane on the back of his chair he used both hands to reposition his leg to a more comfortable angle. "The long flight made it a bit stiff." He smiled crookedly at Chip's look of concern.
"Yeah, not helped by a bullet wound and half an hour of walking." Chip blew out a loud sigh and slammed his chair down hard when he pulled it away from the table. After the waiter had taken their order, given by Lee in his quick, vernacular Spanish, Chip returned to his earlier anger. "Do you even know why you do it?"
Lee didn't have any trouble knowing to what he'd referred; this was a conversation Chip had tried to have with him many times before. He'd always fobbed him off with a grin and a "because I can" sort of explanation. Lee knew this particular mission had been hard on Chip. He'd been out of contact for over a week, Chip not knowing where he was or what had happened. When he'd finally made his last possible rendezvous time with the Seaview he'd been in less then stellar condition.
Chip had spent two days at his side in sickbay, never voicing any recrimination then, being his friend, keeping him company, a bulwark when the dark things in the night threatened to overcome Jamie's sedatives. If anyone deserved some sort of honest answer Lee thought it was certainly Chip, he just wasn't sure he could give him what he wanted. It was a complicated question and the answer revealed more then he was comfortable saying to anyone. Still this was Chip and he was right, there might come a time when he didn't come back. When Chip would need to know why he'd gone.
This sigh was more audible as Lee said, "The reason I didn't want to sit at the other café is because there is some sort of a meeting going on in there and it could get ugly."
"What?" Chip glared at this apparent non sequitur.
"See the kid sitting on the ground in front of the fountain with the shoeshine box?" Lee carefully didn't look in that direction as he spoke, knowing Chip would look and not wanting their interest to be obvious.
Chip scanned the plaza and saw the eight or nine year-old kid, ragged pants and a dirty white shirt, sitting on the cobbles leaning back against the base of the ubiquitous central fountain.
"Yeah , I see him."
"Well, he's a lookout. The other lookout is the guy leaning against the corner of the alley next to the café. Don't look now; wait a few minutes." Lee touched Chip's wrist as the other man started to turn.
"I don't want them to think we're what they're on the lookout for," he smiled at his friend. "I'm pretty sure that they're lookouts for two different … call them factions, I guess. They've been very careful to never look at each other, the whole time we've been here. If they were working together they'd occasionally glance at each other, to make sure the other hadn't seen something they should know about. Instead each is keeping his own watch."
Lee stopped speaking as the waiter brought their wine to the table. Once he'd wandered back inside the café Lee took a small swallow and smiled at Chip. It felt good to sit down and the cool, rough red wine seemed such a perfect accompaniment to the bright Spanish sun. "The man in the alley is local. I know this because the lady who owns the shop whose wall he's leaning on has just swept her whole section of walk but was careful to not go near where he's leaning. She knows what he's doing there and is at least respectful of him and perhaps frightened."
Chip looked now and noticed the clean sidewalk; the clean section ending five feet from where the man stood smoking a cigarette, leaning against the alley wall. The watcher's feet surrounded by the blown detritus the shop owner had not swept away.
"How do you know the kid is a lookout?" Chip believed Lee about the smoker but could see nothing unusual about the kid. He was sitting on his shoeshine box leaning back against the fountain seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.
"It's 17:30; the ferry from Morocco is due in ten minutes. It’s the only significant influx of tourists to town all afternoon. Any shoeshine kid worth his salt is going to be there looking for work." Lee stopped speaking as the waiter came back over to their table and dropped their check, no doubt anxious to encourage the tourists to drink their wine and go back to the tourist section of town and leave the locals alone.
"None of the other kids have looked at him or spoken to him," he continued as if there had been no interruption after the waiter moved away. "It’s not the sort of falling out that kids have. If it were, they would look at him to see if he noticed that he was being ignored. These kids are very careful not to see him. He doesn't belong here; it's their park and they know he doesn't belong."
Lee allowed himself to casually scan the plaza as he spoke to Chip. There was something else he didn't like about this whole set up. Just then an older, heavyset man came out of the café they had earlier avoided and stood for a moment looking across the plaza while he lit a cigarette. Then he turned and walked away from the café where Lee and Chip sat and disappeared down one of the many alleys that led into the area. A few moments later the shoeshine boy stood up and also walked away in the opposite direction.
"Looks like your meeting is over," Chip took another sip of his wine and leaned his head back and closed his eyes to enjoy the warm Spanish sun on his face. The only part of serving on the Seaview that he didn't love was the lack of sunshine. He missed the feeling of the sun on his face, the extra warmth that only a bright sun could give. When he turned his head back to Lee and opened his eyes his friend was gone.
What the hell? If this wasn't typical Lee Crane; one minute he's so tired and lame he can hardly walk--the next minute he disappears in broad daylight! Chip stood and scanned the area around them. Lee was already fifty feet away walking, well, limping to be honest, with more speed then Chip had seen him show in days, toward where the boy had been sitting. Chip jumped to his feet and reached in his pocket to drop some coins on the table. Now what?
When Chip looked up from the dropped coins Lee was already at the fountain. He watched bemused as Lee picked up the shoeshine box the boy had left and threw it into the middle of the big fountain before turning and hurrying back across the uneven paving stones toward Chip.
Lee had taken ten or twelve limping steps from the fountain before he was knocked off his feet by an explosion. The water from the fountain blew up into the air with a deafening roar. Chip ran toward his friend who was already picking himself up from the cobblestones apparently, miraculously for Lee, unharmed by the blast.
The tranquility of the plaza disappeared in that instant. Doors slammed. People ran. Everyone seemed to be screaming or calling or yelling.
Chip reached Lee quickly, grabbing him by his upper arm and steadying him. "What the hell?" Chip said or thought he said. He realized he was having a hard time hearing himself amid the yelling and the sudden sound of car alarms. "What happened?"
"Grab my cane for me will you please, Chip," Lee said. "I'd like to get out of here before we have to spend the whole day at some police station."
This wasn't Chip's first trip to the circus either. He quickly ran back to the café and grabbed Lee's cane and easily caught up to his friend as he stepped into the nearest alley. Coming up behind Lee, Chip reached across to him and brushed the worst of the stone chips off his friend's wet back while Lee dusted his hands against each other, never missing a step.
"Was that as close as I think it was?" Chip asked, a few moments later as they stepped into yet another plaza and continued to travel away from the blast site.
"Yeah," Lee smiled at him. "I'm not sure if I set it off or if it was on a timer. I thought I would have more time. Figured the kid would want to make sure he had a clean get away."
"You knew it was a bomb?" Chip didn't try to keep the tone of recrimination out of his voice. Of course he knew it was a bomb Chip thought. Of course, and knowing it was a bomb Lee would go toward it and not away. Hence the cane, hence the busted ribs, hence the concussions, hence the who knew how many injuries over the years.
"I wasn't sure. Was a bit suspicious
though about the timing. His boss comes out of the café and gives him
the nod and the kid high tails it out of there without his kit. Slow down,
Chip. We're moving too fast and besides I can't keep up," Lee smiled at
Chip stopped and waited for Lee to catch up, feeling guilty. Lee was breathing hard and there was sheen of perspiration on his face.
"Yeah, running across the plaza without your cane; good thing we're on vacation and there’s no Jamie." Ignoring for a moment what would have happened if Lee had taken time to grab his cane, or if he had been a bit slower across the plaza. Yeah, this could have been yet another 'Lee and Chip special shore leave'. The kind of leave that made the Admiral say they should be required to take Jamie with them when vacationing.
Lee ignored Chip's mild recrimination recognizing it for the release of anxiety that it was. This plaza was almost empty--no doubt a reaction to the explosion--and Lee moved into the second alley they came to on their left. Chip followed him, knowing that Lee would already have a destination in mind and know the best route to speed their arrival. The two men continued to walk for another ten minutes, their pace slowing with Lee's increasing limp.
Finally, coming out of the dark alleys into the bright, late afternoon sun of the Mediterranean, Lee's stride slowed to a slow amble as the two men walked along the ocean front sidewalk. "I thought it might be a bomb. There've been a couple of blasts in town in the past week." Catching Chip's look of incredulity at this apparent omniscience Lee explained, "It was in the local paper this morning." And at Chip's raised eyebrows, "at breakfast."
"The blasts have all been small ones, but I was afraid in the plaza with all the kids around..." Lee shrugged his shoulders knowing no further explanation was required and that Chip would have done the same thing. "Just thought I would have a bit more time is all."
Lee finally stopped at yet another café. This one overlooking the Mediterranean was obviously for the tourists unlike their earlier stop. The postcard stands and trolleys of t-shirts and scarves were interspersed with small shops selling the local lemon liquor and pottery all along the walkway.
"Let's try for that glass of wine again," Lee suggested, obviously needing to sit down, the pain line between his brows a clear indication that his leg was hurting him and his shallow breathing a warning to Chip that he needed to get Lee stopped and rested.
No Spanish was required at this café and Chip ordered two glasses of the local red wine and a plate of calamari in English. The two men sat silently while they waited for their order.
Chip pulled out the small bottle of ibuprofen Jamie had pressed on him at their departure and handed Lee two of the tablets to go with his wine. Lee gave him a quick, half smile and took the pills readily.
"Thanks, Chip," he said simply and swallowed the pills with his first taste of the wine; telling Chip with that simple gesture that Lee had pushed too hard and was now paying the price.
The two men sat sipping their wine and watching the sea and the tourists in silence for ten minutes, enjoying each other's company and life. The seagulls were the nosiest things along the waterfront, this part of the town being closed to car traffic. Two children ran along the beach trailing a kite, chased by a man, obviously their father. A boy stopped at their table and asked in English if they would like to have their shoes shined.
"Guess the meeting in the café didn't go too well?" Chip watched the departing shoe shine boy.
"Yeah. Guess so," Lee glanced over at Chip. "Didn't really see that coming."
"Well, you saw it a lot sooner then anyone else," Chip smiled at him.
Lee didn't say anything and a few more minutes passed in companionable silence. Chip again enjoying the sun. There was something special about the southern Mediterranean sun; it had a different color then anywhere else in the world he thought.
"You know I didn't have a really ideal sort of upbringing," Lee spoke quietly, not looking at Chip.
Chip glanced away from the water where he had been watching the sunlight on the breaking waves and looked at Lee. His friend never talked much about his childhood. Chip knew from passing references that it'd mostly consisted of a lot of foster homes and group homes in Brooklyn until his unfortunate adoption by the Cranes.
"Yeah, it never sounded that great to me."
"It was tough. I had two really good friends, we watched out for each other, did kid stuff together." Lee paused so long Chip wondered if he was done. This was as much as Chip could ever remember Lee volunteering at one time about his youth. What Chip knew about his friend's upbringing was pasted together from fifteen years of occasional remarks and observations, most of those during their first year together when Chip had actually asked questions of his then new friend. Questions that were usually either carefully not heard or answered with cryptic one-liners.
Just when Chip figured this was another of those cryptic glimpses of his friend's past Lee began speaking again. "By the time I was eleven one of them was dead and the other was in prison," Lee continued to look out at the passing tourists while Chip turned his full attention to his friend.
"I knew that kid was a lookout because that was me. Julio and I, we used to stand lookout for Julio's brother, we used to run dope for him some too. Run the dope out to the customer, run the money back to Julio's brother; the sort of thing that a nine or ten year old kid thinks is real smart," Lee met Chip's look now, as he continued speaking, "was just luck that Julio ended up dead and I didn't."
Lee took another sip of his wine and chewed thoughtfully on a piece of the calamari. "Chico, Julio's brother, robbed a liquor store. He passed the gun off to us and we were supposed to run and pass it back to him later. I was nine; Julio was eleven so if we had been caught with the gun no big deal. Chico was eighteen, if he'd been caught holding the gun with his record, he'd have been in trouble. Storeowner came out shooting. Killed Julio."
Lee's absent-minded twisting of his Annapolis class ring was the only indication that the two weren't discussing the weather. His face was closed and expressionless. His eyes were looking at Chip but clearly not seeing him. "Was a long time ago but one of those things I can still see as clearly as if it happened ten minutes ago," he sounded almost nostalgic, "it was a long time ago."
The two men were silent again; Chip knew there was nothing he could say. His childhood in suburban Chicago had been almost idyllic. Two parents who loved each other and him. Two siblings, who if he had occasionally wanted to kill them, had been a family and still were. He had nothing to say to Lee. He certainly could understand how almost getting killed and having your best friend gunned down in front of you might stick in your head. Anything he could say would sound inane and might stop Lee's reminiscences. Chip remembered when he was nine, his first year in Little League.
"I have a way I see the world because of the way I grew up, I notice things around me because of those years," Lee continued after a while, thinking of the look Mrs. Gomez's boyfriend used to get in his face before he started whaling on one of the kids. The look they all learned was a warning to hit the streets for the night.
And then there was keeping out of Mr. Ornesco's way when he'd been drinking. All the boys at the group home soon learned to watch out for Mr. Ornesco. Funny, Lee thought, he hadn't remembered Mr. Ornesco in twenty years, must have been because the guy at the café looked so much like him, the big belly and the self-satisfied smirk. Yeah, Ornesco and Mrs. Gomez's boyfriend were an education all by themselves--and Jamie thought he got beat up on ONI missions. How about a Saturday night with Mr. Lesky, yeah, that was his name, wonder how Mrs. Gomez ever met someone named Lesky.
Lee thought about Mrs. Gomez for a moment. She'd been a nice lady. Poor chooser of boyfriends, but a nice lady, always tried to get the kids out of the house when he started drinking. Social services finally wised up to Lesky and took the three of them out of her house but it'd been a good place to be for a while. Better then Mr. Ornesco and the group home at any rate; at least she left the door unlocked so they could get away. Lee found himself fingering the scar on the back of his forearm from when Mr. Lesky caught him one Saturday night and looked over at Chip self consciously, only to find his friend studying him with a strange expression on his face. He wondered how long he'd been sitting there watching the waves and smiled at Chip before he began speaking again.
"It’s a funny skill set. Not so good for parties or for making new friends." Lee gave Chip a quick smile reminding them both of Chip's frustration with Lee during their first year at Annapolis when Lee just couldn't seem to get the hang of the easy sociability of the other plebes.
"But it turns out to be great for what I'm sometimes asked to do for ONI."
Again the two men sat in silence while Chip thought about what Lee had said. He could see what Lee meant. Yup, just great, spend your childhood in training to be a spy. Leave it to ONI to latch on to that, to latch on to Lee's particular vulnerability that made it impossible for him to say no. Then he wondered how ONI had seen this skill set that went with that vulnerability?
Lee again looked up from his concentration on his class ring and met Chip's eyes. "You asked why before, so the answer would be because I can. Because all that….," Lee turned his gaze from Chip and looked out over the sidewalk toward the Mediterranean, toward the man and two boys with the kite, "because all those unfortunate lessons in self preservation were for a reason. All those," Lee smiled slightly meeting Chip's eyes now. "All those formative lessons…" He stopped speaking again for a long moment and then continued softly, almost to himself. "The price paid had a value," he cleared his throat and looked down at his ring again and then back up at Chip almost apologetically. "If I can use what I learned for a purpose. It must have been for some reason… all of it. And that's the only reason I've ever been able to figure. Not me at my most articulate," he gave a small laugh and looked away.
"Yeah," Chip said, not feeling particularly articulate either.
The two men sat in silence finishing the calamari and enjoying the strong red wine that seemed to go so well with the sound of the waves and the bright sunshine.
"Thanks," Chip said, after a while, clearing his throat before he spoke.
Lee glanced over at him out of the corner of his eye, "It was a long time between friends, between Julio and you."
My heart leaps up when
I behold a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.