By R. L. Keller
Chip Morton glanced up as the door to BZ’s,
He had originally offered to
accompany Lee on the quick visit – Lee had left that morning about 1030 hours
and it was now only 1820 hours. But Lee
had just smiled, thanked Chip for the expression of friendship, and told him
not to waste his only free day in four weeks.
Seaview had returned the previous day from a charting mission, and
tomorrow both men would have to begin preparations for the next cruise, scheduled
to leave in five days. They tried not to
schedule such short turn-around times, but it had proven necessary. Their boss, and head of the Nelson Institute
of Marine Research, Admiral (Ret.) Harriman Nelson, had been asked to assist in
the recovery of a recently discovered WW2 submarine approximately 200 nautical
miles south-southeast of
The COB of his first command, the fast attack submarine Sea Horse, had passed away at the base hospital following a battle with cancer. His two daughters both lived in the area with their families, and Master Chief Oliver Gardner was to be buried there next to his late wife. When Lee had shown the telegram to Chip and Nelson he’d expressed sorrow that a man who had served such a long and storied career in the Navy should have been felled so soon after retirement. His friends knew how deeply Lee could feel such loss, and both offered to accompany him to the services. Lee had just smiled, and declined both offers. Neither had known the Master Chief personally, and would just be going to bolster Lee. He’d given them a smile and assured them that it wasn’t necessary. He’d sent a grin Chip’s way when BZ’s was mentioned. It was the favorite watering hole for tackling any and all personal matters, from a traffic ticket to a marriage proposal.
Chip still took a carefully hidden deep breath. It would have been all too easy for Lee to have taken his heavy heart straight home and mourn in private. Apparently Lee had come directly from the airport as he hadn’t even bothered to change out of his dress uniform. As he caught Chip’s welcome and headed in the blond’s direction at the booth that was their normal ‘spot’ when available because of its partial seclusion, tucked back in the corner, he started to shed his jacket. He slid into the seat, dropping the jacket across the end, and reached to loosen his tie.
“Rough?” Chip asked solicitously, pushing the pitcher of beer he’d ordered and the extra mug in Lee’s direction.
Lee ignored the question for the moment it took him to eye the large pitcher. “Sure that I’d come?”
Chip shrugged. “Or I’d be taking a taxi home,” he said with another grin.
Lee half-chuckled as he poured a mug full of the beckoning brew. “That would make doing requisitions interesting in the morning,” he observed dryly.
Chip’s grin spread. “That’s what I have a secretary for,” he assured his CO.
“Oh, she’d do them, for sure,” Lee agreed. “But the haranguing you’d get the whole time she did would be worse than the hangover.”
“Humm – point taken,” Chip nodded.
Lee chuckled, took a long
draught from his mug, and let out a sigh that seemed to come all the way from
his toenails as he slouched back in the seat.
“Actually,” he said softly, “it was pretty okay. Oh, it was hard to say goodbye.
Lee nodded. “He’d made a lot of friends over the years.” Lee sighed again and took another swallow of the beer. “I’m really, really, glad that we got home in time for me to attend.”
“That was good luck,” Chip agreed. “A lot of familiar faces for you, too, I’m sure.”
Lee nodded. “Capt. Roche was there, for one.” Chip knew the name, although he’d never met the man. Roche had been Lee’s XO on board the Sea Horse. “He was one of the pallbearers. Afterward he drove me back to the airport, and he and I stopped for a drink and to reminisce.”
“Ah, started without me,” Chip teased, as he caught the fact that Lee’s voice was getting lower and more sad.
Lee sent him a faux glare and nodded toward the pitcher. “That wasn’t nearly full when I got here.”
Chip laughed. “Bet you’re hungry,” he changed the subject. Lee just shrugged, but Chip knew his friend far too well. Food was never a major item on Lee’s daily agenda. But at least he didn’t argue when Chip signaled one of the floating waitresses and ordered a large double-meat pepperoni, sausage and green pepper pizza. “So,” Chip then continued, “what utter chaos did you cause your COB on the Sea Horse that you and Capt. Roche kicked around?”
“Me?” Lee blustered, but he still grinned.
“Yeah, you,” Chip insisted. But he didn’t push when the smile stayed on Lee’s face as he drained his mug and refilled it.
After taking another sip, Lee started talking again. Chip happily noted more fondness and less sadness in his voice. “Oliver was a lot like Curley Jones, really. Don’t think that I thought much about it at the time, but it went a long way toward making my transition to Seaview easier.” Chip nodded. Seaview’s first COB had been special – in a lot of ways. Lee had never talked much about his time aboard the Sea Horse – before he’d been pulled to command Seaview after Capt. Phillips’ untimely death, and what had led to Lee’s taking over permanent captaincy of the vessel. There was a time or two when Lee had referred to those eight months in general terms, saying that it had been a major learning curve in his career.
When Lee remained silent for longer than Chip thought healthy, he reached out a foot and tapped one of Lee’s. “Give,” he ordered, and relaxed a bit when Lee’s smile spread.
“I took command of the Sea
“What did you do?” Chip growled, knowing his long-time friend only too well. He knew that he’d struck pay dirt when Lee’s grin turned decidedly sheepish.
Through slightly lowered eyes, Lee continued. “There was only an anchor watch on duty – the Sea Horse wasn’t scheduled to leave port for over a week. Thought I’d just go aboard and walk through her.”
Chip rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like you’d be allowed, not having even checked in yet.”
“Well…” Lee admitted. “But sometimes, if you act like you know what you’re doing, the seamen just assume that you do.” His expression got even more sheepish as Chip snorted.
There was a short pause as the pizza was delivered. Both men grabbed a slice and took a bite before Chip once more nudged Lee’s foot with one of his own. “Didn’t quite go as planned?” he asked.
Lee shook his head and swallowed the bite. “The ensign on duty took one look at my oak leaves and didn’t question what I was doing.” He sent Chip a small grin. “Not so the Master Chief.”
“A little protective of his boat, was he?”
“Mmm,” Lee mumbled around another bite of pizza, and paused long enough to swallow it. “I’d barely taken two steps and he popped out of the boarding hatch. Have no idea how he knew.” He and Chip both nodded and grinned. COB’s – good ones, anyway – you tended to not try to figure out how they knew anything. It was decidedly safer!
“First, he demanded to see my papers. I was actually just going to admit defeat and head up to Admin. But he wouldn’t budge so I dug them out. He kept glaring at my insignia, then at the papers, then at my face, then back to the oak leaves…” Lee sighed. “It only made matters worse when I tried to explain that I’d been assigned to take command of the sub.”
Chip’s grin grew. Not only had Lee entered
“He just crossed his arms
over his chest, and got that sort of patronizing look on his face. Look,
son.” Lee did his best to imitate
what he remembered of
At that Chip did actually giggle. “And you the hotshot ONI agent.” While Chip kept the grin on his face there was an ever so tiny sharpness to his voice. He never for an instant let Lee forget what he thought of Lee’s continued activities for the Navy’s Intelligence agency.
A brief nod acknowledged Lee’s understanding of Chip’s remark. “Yeah, well…” He let the explanation hang as Chip chuckled again. “Anyway, as the SP’s arrived, he finally let me take my wallet out – never did ask him what he thought I was reaching for.”
“Your daddy’s service revolver?” Chip asked with a grin, and took another bite of pizza.
Lee just shrugged, and took another bite himself before continuing. “To make a long story a little shorter, the SP’s called Admin, and someone there tracked down that I was, actually, supposed to be there. Well,” he admitted at Chip’s glare, “on base, anyway. One of the SP’s was about to escort me to Admin when Capt. – he was Lt. Cdr. Roche at the time – showed up. We’d met at a training seminar several months before. The Master Chief still looked a little skeptical when Jim told him I was really Sea Horse’s new skipper. Just sort of shook his head, rolled his eyes, and walked back inside the sub muttering to himself.”
Chip laughed, and refilled Lee’s almost empty beer mug. “Bet he wondered what the Navy was coming to, letting a baby like you have command of a fast attack sub.” Lee nodded. “And I know you far too well to think that’s all you did to the poor man,” Chip goaded him.
“Once we got that sorted out, it was a piece of cake,” Lee tried to assure Chip. He should have known better.
“Yeah, riiiiiiiight,” Chip drawled. “Give!” he ordered again. As Lee sent him one of his better command stares Chip just chuckled, and Lee surrendered.
“Officially took command the following day. Like I said, we weren’t scheduled to leave for a bit yet so I had time to settle in. Acquainted myself with all the crew as they checked back in from leave, or reported in if they were new to the boat.”
Chip nodded. He was very familiar with Lee’s leadership style. While he outwardly remained laid back, almost casual, he was constantly evaluating people’s strengths and weaknesses. Lee didn’t like surprises when it came to crew performance. He was willing to cut a man some slack if it was just a matter of needing further training or experience at a position, and made sure that the crewman received whatever he needed to succeed. But if there was a problem brewing simply from poor work ethics, he wanted to know about it before it created trouble.
“Along about the fourth day, Jim caught me in the Wardroom…”
“You mean, someone didn’t actually have to drag you kicking and screaming there to eat something?” Chip cut him off.
Lee tried the glare again, but surrendered even faster, and sent Chip a particularly sheepish grin. “Having coffee,” he admitted. Chip just shook his head. “Jim grabbed a cup and sat down opposite me,” Lee continued. “I was running down a list of minor maintenance repairs, checking off which were done and which still needed doing…”
“Which was his job,” Chip again cut him off. This time with a grin.
“Yeah, well…” Lee sent Chip the ‘small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar’ look that Chip was also all too familiar with. “I had things under control and was just helping out,” Lee defended himself – softly, because he knew there was no way Chip was going to believe him anyway; Chip knew him way too well for that. “Whatever,” Lee half-grumbled, which only caused Chip’s grin to expand. “Jim and I sat for a bit going over the list. As we were about finished, he said that he’d just had a complaint from the Master Chief. About me,” Lee admitted.
“What had you done this time?” Chip asked, using the ‘put-upon’ inflection in his voice that he was all too good at.
“Nothing,” Lee answered indignantly. “At least,” he fudged, “I didn’t think so.”
“You never do,” Chip quipped, the grin back on his face.
It was Lee’s turn to lightly kick his XO. “All I’d done was help a couple of the guys repair a circuit box,” he muttered. “I didn’t take over the job like I didn’t trust them to do it right – just stood around, kibitzing and handing them tools. One of the men was married. His daughter had celebrated her third birthday while he was home. He was teasing the other guy, was he ever going to marry his girlfriend. Like I said, just kibitzing.”
Chip rolled his eyes, and emptied the pitcher of beer between his and Lee’s mugs before picking up another slice of pizza. “And?” he asked. Lee raised an eyebrow. “Don’t give me that,” Chip muttered. “I know you far too well. What else?”
Lee looked down at the slice of pizza he was working on. “Well…” he started. Chip didn’t say anything, just sent him a grin. “Did sort of work with one of the maintenance men the night before, to unstuck a valve in one of the hydraulics lines,” he admitted.
“Nothing,” Lee muttered. Chip just grunted. Lee concentrated on his pizza, not saying anything. When he looked up again Chip was still glaring at him. “Give me a break here,” Lee complained. “I was on a new boat, taking command for the first time – I mean, on my own. I really needed to have things in order in my own head. It was just easier to stay aboard at night than stay in the BOQ.”
Chip burst out laughing. “Oh, no,” he finally got out. “Don’t tell me. The COB discovered you crawling through the ventilation shafts at 0-dark-thirty.” He used the slang term that translated into the middle of the night.
“I wasn’t in the ventilation shaft,” Lee growled. Chip just continued to look at him, until Lee dropped his eyes and mumbled, “I was in one of the ballast tanks.”
Chip laughed so hard that he had to put down the beer mug he’d just picked up. “Please,” he said, holding up the other hand, “I don’t even want to hear what you were doing in there,” he got out between the bubbles of laughter.
“Just checking a couple of things,” Lee muttered anyway, which only caused Chip to laugh harder. There was also a chuckle heard from the booth at Chip’s back. They couldn’t see who was sitting there because the dividers were so tall.
Chip finally got himself somewhat back under control, and nodded toward the divider before lowering his voice as he continued. “So, I gather that your new COB didn’t take kindly to some skinny, underage, baby-faced *officer* wandering unsupervised around his boat, and complained to the XO?”
Lee nodded, and finished swallowing a bite of pizza. “Jim didn’t say much then. While we got along fine, I was still his CO.” Chip nodded. “When we got to talking about it this afternoon…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Chip quickly filled the silence as a shadow of sadness once more crossed his friend’s face. He was relieved when the shadow was replaced by another sheepish grin.
“Jim had already been working with the Master Chief for about six months – they knew each other pretty well by then.”
Chip nodded. On a surface vessel, where there were anywhere from a few hundred to five thousand crewmembers on board, sometimes it took awhile to familiarize yourself with the people around you. Not so on a submarine, where the smaller numbers and tight quarters got you up close and personal in a hurry. “Pretty much tell his XO what he thought of you, did he?” Chip teased with a grin, and waved his hand at the waitress for another pitcher of beer.
Ignoring the crack, Lee sent his own XO a glare. “You keep that up and we’ll both need a cab home,” he growled.
Chip shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Lee nodded acceptance of that statement, drained his glass, and had it almost immediately refilled as the waitress brought a new pitcher and took away the old one, with a grin to both men. They grinned back but it was all friendly. She knew them well from their patronage at the bar, and they knew that she was very happily married, with two young sons.
“So?” Chip brought the conversation back to business.
“So, what?” Lee tried to feign innocence of what Chip wanted to hear.
“Don’t play stupid,” Chip growled, but was secretly pleased when Lee laughed out loud.
“Okay, okay,” Lee surrendered. “Yeah, Jim said that he got an earful from the Master Chief. Said he tried to explain that the Navy wasn’t stupid enough to give command of a fast attack sub to someone they thought wasn’t up to the challenge.” Lee gave Chip a sheepish grin. “I thought at the time, I wasn’t so sure that I had as much confidence in my own skills as he seemed to.”
Chip chuckled gently and shook his head. Lee had always had a problem acknowledging his own abilities. He never thought of himself as anyone special, despite all the signs around him – how others thought of his skills. “So, Roche got the Master Chief calmed down?”
“Ah…” Lee gave him the through-the-lashes look that always told his friends he was uncomfortable about discussing whatever was going on at the time.
“Yes?” Chip refused to let him off the hook.
“Not quite that fast,” Lee admitted, and stuffed another bite of pizza in his mouth.
“Huh uh,” Chip growled again. Lee raised an eyebrow as he chewed. “You don’t get off the hook that easy, junior,” Chip threatened, but his expression relaxed as Lee’s once more turned sheepish.
Lee took his time chewing, and washing the food down with a long draught of beer, all the time giving Chip little sideways looks. Chip didn’t push. So far Lee was letting himself be drawn out to talk about both today’s happenings and those that happened years ago – something that he so rarely did no matter how cathartic to his psyche such conversations could be to the very private man. “Took a little longer for the Master Chief to calm down,” Lee finally admitted softly.
“And why was that?” Chip asked in kind, trying to keep the conversation on a relaxed, friendly basis.
“You know my habit of walking through the boat in the evenings.”
Chip frowned. “Or any time you can’t sleep.” He sent Lee a firm look.
“Then, too,” Lee agreed softly. “Never considered it a problem. I get keyed up; I need to walk it off.” Chip nodded. “I mean, I was 31 years old, placed in command of the Sea Horse, and given orders to…” He hesitated and looked at Chip through lowered eyes.
“Classified,” Chip translated.
“Big time,” Lee agreed. “But critical.” Chip nodded. “And…” Lee hesitated again.
“And you let it dwell on your mind and couldn’t rest.” Lee nodded at Chip’s understanding. “How many nights in a row?” Lee looked down at his slice of pizza, neither taking a bite nor reaching for his beer mug, until Chip kicked him lightly. Chip sent him a supportive grin as Lee finally looked up.
“A few too many,” Lee finally admitted.
“Oops.” Chip tried to put a teasing quality in his voice. While he could harass his old friend without mercy on occasion, right now didn’t seem like the correct tactic.
“We’d been at sea almost two weeks. I was settling into the command. Running drills, or having XO Roche do them and the two of us evaluating the results. Getting into a routine. Well,” he hedged, “trying to.” Chip nodded again and refilled Lee’s half-empty mug. Lee frowned at him but it didn’t last. He gave Chip a subtle nod, took a swallow, and continued. “The crew didn’t seem bothered by my walk-throughs. I thought that I was getting along with almost everyone. Oh,” he admitted, “there were a couple men I wasn’t too thrilled with – and who were probably not overly thrilled with me.”
“You take what you get in the Navy,” Chip agreed. “Not like now when we can easily weed out the slackers and troublemakers.”
Lee nodded. “But I’d put those few on ‘A’ watch, where they were easier to keep an eye on. They wouldn’t have had an issue with me wandering around during the sub’s night.” On a submarine, ‘night’ was a relative term designated only by the clock since it was always dark.
“But it ticked off the COB?” Lee nodded as he took another bite of pizza. Chip was pleased that Lee was actually eating as much as he was. “I seem to remember Curley Jones having something of the same problem.” He paused, and then added. “And Sharkey.”
“COB thing,” Lee mumbled around the mouthful of food. Chip sent him a grin. “XO Roche just ‘happened’ to run into me one night…”
Chip’s grin spread. “XO thing,” he told his friend. Lee mumbled something slightly rude, and sent Chip a soft kick. But he still grinned. “And?” Chip continued to prod gently.
to explain to Roche – or tried to, anyway.”
Lee sent Chip another sheepish look, and Chip nodded. “Roche said that he’d pretty much already
“But what new ones did the Master Chief then come up with?” Lee sent him a hard look, but Chip just grinned. “Know you too well to think that was the end of it.” He laughed openly at the disgruntlement on Lee’s face, and reached to refill Lee’s mug.
“This is good pizza,” Lee nonetheless tried to sidetrack his old friend.
“You’re changing the subject,” Chip grumbled. Lee sent him an innocent look, which only made Chip’s go that much harder. Lee took a deep breath, and another bite of pizza, before continuing.
“Among the new crew who had come aboard at the same time as me was a new cook.”
“Oh, no,” Chip groaned dramatically.
“His food was really good,” Lee quickly defended the man.
“How would you know? You never eat.”
Lee thought about kicking Chip again, but suddenly didn’t feel like expending the energy. Finally realizing that he’d had too much to drink, normally he would have clammed up. But… He was in a familiar place, with an old friend, old memories, and no reason not to totally relax. “Too keyed up over the command and the mission,” he admitted softly. “I did eat, just…” He sent Chip one of his patented through-the-lashes looks.
“Juice for breakfast, half a sandwich for lunch, four bites of whatever for dinner, and forty-nine cups of coffee in between,” Chip translated.
“Something like that,” Lee admitted.
Chip just shook his head and reached for the last slice of pizza. He’d caught the slight lack of focus that was starting to appear in Lee’s eyes. He was a bit surprised that Lee was still talking. Normally any little loss of control would cause Lee to totally shut down. But he, too, recognized the relative safety that Lee should be feeling in these familiar surroundings. That’s one reason Chip had suggested meeting here. He sat back and sent Lee an easy grin, encouraging his long-time friend to continue.
“I was finally getting on better with Master Chief Gardner,” Lee said softy. “Oh, he was still a little stiff and formal around me, but…” He hesitated and sent Chip a small grin.
“You do have a way of getting people over to your way of thinking,” Chip admitted. He was never too sure how Lee managed it. Lee never seemed to make any special attempt, just tried to be friendly with everyone. But Chip had seen it happen far too many times over the years to discount Lee’s abilities in that department.
“Yeah, well…” Lee gave Chip another little grin. “One day Jim and I had a meeting to evaluate some performance drills he’d run. Normally we’d meet in my cabin, but that day we met in the Wardroom. I wanted to include the lieutenants in charge of those two departments, to compliment them on how well they had their men trained even though both had several new ones.”
Chip nodded and smiled. That was so *Lee*. “And you wanted to make a few little suggestions, in a non-threatening atmosphere.”
It was Lee’s turn to smile. “Once we dismissed them, Jim and I stayed to cover a couple other little things.” He sent Chip a sheepish grin. “Seems Master Chief Gardner had had another ‘conversation’ with him.”
Chip couldn’t help himself – he just laughed. He decided that he really needed to meet now Capt. James Roche and have a little talk, XO to former XO, and let Roche know that in no way had he been unique in having to deal with a certain dark-haired commander!
Lee held up a hand – not really unsteadily, but definitely not his normally quick movement. “Nothing like what you’re thinking,” he growled.
“You have no idea what I’m thinking,” Chip told him firmly. Lee sent him a raised eyebrow but, when Chip didn’t say anything further, continued.
“Seems the Master Chief had been taking a little informal survey about the new cook.”
“One of his first duties when a new cook comes aboard. If the food isn’t good, the crew gets cranky. And if the crew is cranky…” He didn’t finish the thought as Lee nodded.
“Been there,” Lee agreed.
“Me, too. Just something else you can’t totally control in the regular Navy.”
Lee nodded. “Jim said that he didn’t know where the COB was headed with the conversation because, as far as he could see, everything was okay.”
Chip momentarily looked skyward – or, in this case, ceilingward. “Here it comes,” he muttered, mostly to himself but still loud enough that Lee could hear.
frowned briefly, but he also nodded. “
Chip’s response was momentarily sidetracked by a snorted cough coming from the booth behind him, but only for a second. “And what lies did you tell your XO that time?” he asked with a brief glare.
Lee sent him one right back, before they both grinned. “Didn’t lie,” Lee told him. His grin broadened. “Rule number one – never lie to your XO. They have nasty methods of retaliation.”
Chip’s look hardened. “I’ll remind you of that line the next time you say ‘I’m fine’, when I know perfectly well that you’re not.” But he ended up chuckling.
“Like I said,” Lee sniped back, “nasty retaliation,” before he, too, smiled. Chip just shook his head. “Anyway, I told Jim that, while I never ate much…”
“Gotta be the understatement of the century,” Chip muttered softly.
Lee frowned but continued. “That what I did eat was terrific.” Lee looked down, then only partially back up, so that he could just barely see Chip’s face. “Dawned on me that, while I’d been evaluating and interacting with the rest of the crew, I’d been totally ignoring the galley.”
Chip snorted. “Dawned on you, or Roche pointed it out?”
Lee’s grin went more sheepish. “Little of both,” he admitted.
Chip nodded. “Sounds about right. While I have to admit that you’re one of the best at looking at the total picture, you always did need someone to point out the little details.” Lee sent him a dark look, but Chip just laughed it off and emptied the second pitcher of beer between his and Lee’s mugs – mostly into Lee’s.
Lee’s glare went briefly to the mugs before returning to Chip’s face. “You did that on purpose,” he muttered. “Made me drink most of the beer.”
“Nobody makes you do anything,” Chip corrected, but he sent Lee a grin. “Other than that, guilty as charged. You seemed to need it.” His look to his old friend was open and honest.
Lee continued to glare, but only for a brief moment before he closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “Did,” he admitted, once more looking at Chip. “Thanks.”
Chip grinned. “Just doing what any good XO does – look after my CO.” He almost couldn’t get the old, familiar line out without a chuckle.
Lee groaned over-dramatically at what had become almost a pun between the two. But he also nodded, acknowledging the friendship that existed between the two to have allowed it to become the old, familiar line that it was.
“You about ready to call it a night, junior?” Lee nodded. They both took a last swallow of beer, left their half-full mugs next to the empty pizza plate, and started to slide out of the booth, Lee grabbing his jacket in the process. But he looked up sharply when Chip caught his foot on the table brace and half stumbled as he stood.
“Keys,” Lee demanded, holding out his hand.
Chip sent him a glare. “And I’m going to let you drive, after what you just drank? When pigs fly,” he growled.
“I think I can solve the problem,” a new voice was heard, and Admiral Nelson slid off the bench at Chip’s back.
“Sir?” both younger men practically stuttered to get out.
Nelson just smiled, held out his hand, and waited until Chip meekly dropped his keys into it. He took a step and did the same to Lee, who gave his boss a quick grin as he complied with the unstated order. “Thank you,” Nelson told them with a broadening smile.
“If I may ask, sir…” Lee started, but didn’t finish.
“What am I doing here?” Both younger men nodded. “I’m not allowed to kick back, relax, and have a beer now and then?” His voice was filled with gentle humor.
Chip and Lee sent each other a raised eyebrow, shrugged, and quietly followed as Nelson headed for the door. Sometimes it was better not to totally know what motivated their boss – to do anything!