First published in 'Seaview Sextant #4' December 1985
Captain Lee Crane heard the raucous voices echoing off the high steel walls of the catchment tanks as he approached the hatch. Randy Miller had wasted little time getting the ritual under way.
Lee smiled wickedly. Morton thought he was wanted in the Engine Room, he wouldn't know what hit him until he hit the water. Happy birthday, Chip!
It had been Chip's idea to do it for Randy's birthday, and after that, each of the senior officers had been lured down in turn. Lee could turn a blind eye to their shenanigans, but he preferred not to be a part of them. Crane had made sure he was off the boat on his birthday this year.
There was a wild cheer, followed by a tremendous splash on the other side of the bulkhead. Lee reached for the hatch wheel. He'd better calm things down before they drowned his Exec. He spun the wheel, pulled open the door, and stepped inside.
There were twenty officers and crew splashing around in the tank. Everyone was soaking wet, except Miller. Chip was climbing back up onto the catwalk, his wolfish grin guaranteeing Randy was about to get his. Miller backed away, as the Exec shoved his blond hair back out of his eyes, and moved toward him.
"Look here! A live one!" Lee felt his arms suddenly seized by several pairs of wet hands. "On three! One!" More wet hands grabbed his legs, lifting him off his feet.
"Hey ..." Lee started to protest.
Crane's pendulum motion increased and he subsided, knowing it was too late.
He barely heard the last cry as they let go at the height of their swing. Lee went flying over the rail, tucking instinctively as the water came rushing up. He felt the smack of impact, then the cold water enveloped him. Should have told Randy to put in a heater, he thought wryly, uncurling, stretching out with his feet for the bottom. Lee touched, and pushed off, heading back to the surface.
He came up into a suddenly quiet chamber. Swimming easily over to the catwalk, he hooked an arm around one of the rail stanchions, waiting for someone to say something.
No one wanted to look at him. Kowalski and Patterson were by the door, looking guilty. Randy looked chagrined as he gripped the catwalk farther down, while Chip wore an 'I hate to tell you this' look. Lee was suddenly conscious of his own grim expression. He felt the water dripping off his hair. Then he realized how ridiculous he must look, and he began to laugh, leaning into the rail. He had asked for it, coming in here. Anyone in a dry uniform was an automatic target. They grabbed and looked a second too late.
Something akin to relief rippled around the room, and they began to laugh, too. Kowalski shoved Patterson. Patterson tripped, and fell off the catwalk into the water. Lee ducked as water splashed all over him. He shoved his hair back out of his eyes, as Kowalski flew over his head, landing with a tremendous splash behind him.
"Having a good bath?" An arm dangled down in front of his face, and he glanced up to find Chip grinning down at him.
"Hell of a way to greet your captain," Lee growled good-naturedly. "Is this what happens the minute my back is turned?"
"You knew what Randy was doing when he asked me to leave the Control Room. 'Give him a hand'." Morton mimicked his inflection perfectly.
Lee laughed. "It is your birthday, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Chip made a face, then cocked his head, wiggling his fingers. "You want a hand up or not?"
Crane took the proffered hand, letting Morton pull for a moment, then he fell backwards.
Chip's surprised yelp as he was yanked off the catwalk was cut off as they went under. Crane grinned. That would teach him.
Lee righted himself, kicking out to push off the bottom, but found himself gripped by the belt. Twisting, he found Chip on top of him. Kicking, he flipped, breaking the grip. Morton swam after him again, and they tussled for a few moments. Then Lee broke the hold again and gave his friend a shove toward the surface, following him up.
"That was dirty."
"You asked for it," Lee replied, grabbing the catwalk rail.
"You wait until your birthday."
"Worse than that,"
Crane laughed, remembering. "Nothing is worse than finding a live squid in your sink when you're only half awake and looking for the soap."
Morton smiled. "That did turn out well. Your yell brought everyone in Officer's country out of their rack, and the old man thought... "
"You boys having fun?" The droll voice came from the catwalk above them, and they both looked up, startled. Nelson was leaning on the rail, grinning.
"Yes, sir." Lee found his voice first, as Chip nodded. He wondered how long the admiral had been standing there. He grabbed the edge of the catwalk, and boosted himself out of the water.
"They tell me it's your birthday," Nelson observed, amused at their bedraggled state.
A chagrined smile crossed Morton's face. "It's the one day I let them get even."
"Looks like they're doing a good job." The Admiral eyed Lee's uniform as he stood up on the catwalk. "What's your excuse?"
"They forgot to look before they grabbed."
Chip joined him on the catwalk.
"Oh. I guess they looked first in my case."
"Apparently so, sir." Lee glanced at Chip as the idea hit him. Morton grinned delightedly, moving closer. Lee nodded, seizing Nelson's arm.
"Hey--- " Nelson was already flying over the rail.
"We shouldn't have done that." Chip said, laughing, as they waited for Nelson to resurface.
"He knows house rules, and what it means to come in here with a dry uniform."
"You two don't have to follow house rules."
"Maybe I should change that," Lee replied.
Morton looked uncertain. "Do you think that's wise?"
"I didn't say all the rules."
"Oh. You'd think after 20 years I'd know when you're teasing."
Morton's eyes widened momentarily, then a disgusted look crossed his face, and he laughed. "You're worse than the old man some times."
"'The old man' should discipline both of you." Nelson reached up for a stanchion. "Only it wouldn't help." He glared up at them. "Well?"
Lee quickly bent down and helped him back onto the catwalk. Nelson ducked under the rail and straightened, giving them a glower that he could not hold. He looked more ridiculous soaking wet than they did.
"You two are about to bust a gut. Go ahead, have your laugh. I'll have plenty of chances later tonight for mine."
"Want to bet I beat him this year."
"And keep command?" Nelson answered. "Lee would never allow that."
"Only one way to find out. C'mon, end of the tank." Chip ducked under the rail, diving into the tank.
"Get moving, son."
Lee quickly followed with a flat racing dive. He could dimly hear cries of encouragement from the crew as he cut through the water with swift strokes. His SEAL training gave him an unfair advantage, he should let Chip win once. Maybe next year.
Crane rapidly closed the distance, touching metal a stroke before Morton.
He stood upright in the water, grinning at his friend. "Next year, Chip."
"You've been saying that ever since you took command." If you want my honest opinion, Skipper -- you'll never give her up."
They swam leisurely back to the catwalk, rejoining the admiral on it. Nelson was watching a lively game of water polo that had started on the other side.
"When's the party?" he asked.
Nelson glanced up at Morton. "If you don't want a bottle of 12 year old Scotch, say so."
"We were hoping you'd join us in the Wardroom after evening watch change," Lee answered.
"Fine. Don't tap dance on the conference table."
Lee felt the flush rising to his cheeks. Would the old man ever forget that incident? Vodka he could handle, but scotch... He should have never told Chip about those lessons as a child.
Kowalski swam over to the catwalk. "You 'officers' want to join us? Or would one of you rather referee?"
"I'll referee," Nelson said quickly. "Get these two out of my hair."
"Come on." Morton kicked off his sodden oxfords, and removed his tie.
Lee reached down and unlaced his shoes, laying them on the catwalk. "I'm ready."
"Then let's show these clowns how it's done."