By Lillian H.
The nervous young seaman wiped his damp palms along the sides of his pale blue, uniform jumpsuit, swallowed tensely, then raised his right hand and knocked firmly on the cabin door. For a moment the sound was echoed in the empty hallway and he thought that even the watch crew, on duty in the control room, must have heard it.
“Come.’’ Called the commanding voice from inside, he turned the door handle and entered.
Advancing to stand in front of the desk he stopped and stood to attention casting a furtive glance at the bowed head, as the officer finished signing his name to the report he had completed, with economic strokes, closed the folder and looked up, with a smile of welcome.
“At ease, Braden. Why don’t you sit down, so we can have a chat?”
Mike Braden was momentarily surprised but automatically did as he was told and lowered himself onto the chair that was obviously placed ready for him.
“Eh...thank you, sir.”
Lee Crane smiled and said casually. “Relax Sailor. I didn’t ask you here to make you uneasy. I thought it was about time we had an informal talk and you can tell me how you’ve found the first month of you tour with us.” He stood and asked the still apprehensive, Sailor, “Coffee?” as he moved to pour himself a cup.
“No…sir, thank you sir.”
Lee felt relaxed, as he returned to his seat and sipped at his favourite brew. He observed the young man opposite him with interest. At nearly twenty, Mike Braden was one of the younger crewmen aboard and he was here due to the concentrated attention of Admiral Harriman Nelson.
An old naval friend had alerted Nelson to the quick intelligence and flair of the new recruit and the admiral had wasted no time, securing the young man for his private submarine, Seaview. Lee knew Nelson had taken a personal interest in the development of the young Sailor and had progressed him rapidly through all the necessary training to bring him aboard as crew.
Lee smiled sympathetically as he noted the seaman’s nervousness. By the mere fact of his rank and position, new crewmen were often in trepidation of him but he always sought to put them at ease, he could just about remember what it felt like to be the new man aboard.
“So, tell me Mike, how are you settling in? Have you found your feet? I understand Mr. Morton assigned you to blue watch, a good team of men to work with. Have Kowalski and the others helped you adjust?” Lee encouraged softly.
Braden sat up straighter and replied breathlessly. “Yes sir. Ski…eh…Kowalski, has been great…I mean…he’s been very helpful, sir.” Mike Braden felt himself blush under the Captain’s friendly gaze.
“Good, Ski is a reliable friend to have. I know that I value his skills immensely.” Lee opened another file that was in front of him and glanced through the details.
“I see that you have an aptitude for nuclear engineering. How are you enjoying the work?”
“It was picked up in my basic training evaluation and I think I’m good at it, sir. I know I enjoy the challenges. I’ve certainly learnt a lot very quickly, working with Admiral Nelson in the Institute’s new engineering division and so much more since coming aboard….” Mike allowed his voice to fade. He didn’t want to sound to gauche, better to let the captain do the talking.
Lee looked at him and smiled. “I’m sure you have. Do you enjoy the submariner’s life? Many men don’t take to it easily, especially those without much seagoing experience.”
“Oh, yes sir, I like it very much. I know I don’t have much shipboard time, Captain …I guess Admiral Nelson got me assigned pretty quickly to the N.I.M.R. but I haven’t regretted it, I feel very privileged that I can work aboard the Seaview, sir.”
Lee knew that feeling well and was pleased with Braden’s reply. “I have a recommendation here, to enroll you onto the Institute’s own Engineer Training Programme.” Lee looked at the obviously surprised young man. “That’s if you think you want to try for it.”
“Oh, yes sir, I would, very much…” Mike blushed and felt embarrassed at his enthusiasm. “I mean…that is… if you think I can do it, sir.”
“The admiral obviously thinks so, or you wouldn’t be here and I don’t think I should disagree with Mr. Morton’s opinion, do you?” Lee smiled persuasively.
Now Mike Braden’s face flushed a full crimson. Nervously he cleared his throat. “Mr. Morton, sir?”
“Indeed. He’s written about your abilities in glowing terms. It seems you have impressed him very much.” Lee watched the myriad of expressions as they passed swiftly over the open face of Seaview’s newest crewman.
“Mr. Morton? Are you sure, sir? I thought… well….” Braden foundered as he assimilated this most surprising news.
Lee sat back and watched the young man. So, Chip hadn’t told him but Lee knew that wasn’t what had surprised Mike Braden. He studied the latest addition to the crew pensively, as he continued. “Why are you surprised? I know Mr. Morton has been monitoring your progress personally.”
Mike blushed an even deeper colour as he answered. “Ehh…Yes sir, he has. He’s been… very involved with my training….” Again he faltered, unsure how much he could say.
The captain frowned slightly. “You can speak freely, Mike, this is just between us. Nothing you say need go any further.” Lee leaned forward and asked quietly but thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you think Mr. Morton had recommended you?”
Mike Braden looked at his commanding officer and hesitated. He completely understood the admiration the rest of the crew dedicated to their captain. He had experienced the same pleasure as every other man aboard who basked in the glow of the Skipper’s attention as he walked the boat. He had also heard the legendary stories that surrounded the captain and exec, stories about their loyalty to each other, their long and deep friendship… how could he say what he really wanted.
Lee continued to watch him with careful scrutiny, then a gentle inclination of his head, silently encouraged Mike to speak.
Shifting nervously on the chair, Mike Braden cleared his throat and started timidly. “Well, sir… I have been working under Mr. Morton’s supervision; … I get the impression though, captain, that he doesn’t completely trust me. He’s always looking over my shoulder, checking up on me…watching how I do things and asking lots of questions. He’s even switched my duties sometimes, so that I’ve been working with him. Why’d he do that sir, if he thinks I can do it …why doesn’t he just let me get on with my job so that I can prove it to him, I know what I’m doing?” Now he felt some of the frustration he had experienced over the last few weeks taking hold of him. “I’m no dummy Captain, I know how important my work is. I worked hard with my training, sir ….I don’t screw up and if Mr. Morton thinks I’m such a risk, why doesn’t he just say so!” Braden finished heatedly.
Lee Crane narrowed his eyes and thought for a moment. “It’s part of Mr. Morton’s duty to ensure the safety of this boat and it’s crew. He takes that duty very seriously. You are working in vital areas of the boat; it is his job to see that you are able to perform your duties satisfactorily.” Lee paused as he considered Braden’s reaction, and then continued. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe he also recognised your potential and wanted to expand it? You said yourself you had learnt a lot since coming aboard…have you realised who it is, taught you what you know?”
Mike Braden opened his mouth to protest his captain’s suggestion but stopped as sudden clarity washed over him and he remembered an incident only two days ago.
“So you understand the reason for isolating this circuit before reinstating that one.”
“Yessir…I do.” I did, before you explained it again, sir! Thought the young seaman with ill concealed annoyance.
Calm blue eyes assessed the crewman before him and noted the impatience but chose to ignore it.
“I would expect that you did but it always pays to double check. Mistakes at 2,000 ft below aren’t so easy to rectify.”
“I know that, sir… that’s why I always double check. I do understand the importance of every man aboard doing his job correctly, Mr. Morton.” Again the annoyance showed.
“I’m sure you do, Braden.” The exec answered quietly, as he observed closely the young man’s irritation. “Okay, that’s all for now. Tomorrow I want to go over the schedules you wrote and check your predicted power level, performance charts.”
“Yes sir.” Braden answered with resignation.
The exec nodded made a notation on the chart attached to the clipboard he held, then turned on his heel and left.
As soon as he was through the door and gone, Mike Braden let out the pent up frustration he felt, in one long sigh and asked the only other occupant in the circuitry room. “What does that man want of me? He’s always watching me, always checking up on me, pushing all the time…I’ve done everything he wants and more… I don’t get it? Why me? What have I ever done to him?”
Kowalski turned and was grinning broadly. “Don’t you know?” Ski grinned. “You’ve become one of Mr. Morton’s ‘pet projects’. He don’t get them often but when he does….” Ski gave a short, low whistle, shook his head gently and laughed softly as he turned back to his work.
“Pet Projects? Ski what are you talking about? Do you mean…?” Mike hesitated. “Does he think I can’t take it? That I will screw up…is that it?
Ski turned back, still grinning. “Mike, believe me, if he thought for one minute, you could screw up, you’d be outta here so fast, it would make your head spin.”
“Then what is it? Why does he keep watching everything I do, making me work with him instead of you guys?”
Kowalski shook his head gently and said. “You’re a smart guy, work it out and when you do, you’ll see. The exec don’t waste his time on nothing!”
After that, nothing he could say would make Ski reveal any more and Mr. Morton had kept him too busy, to give him time to consider the comment properly.
As he sat quietly, enlightenment now replacing his doubts, he heard the captain ask.
“Have you worked it out yet?”
Mike looked at him and asked quietly. “Why didn’t he say something, sir? I thought he didn’t trust me… and all the time…if only he’d explained….”
Now Lee replied firmly. “Mr. Morton and I always demand the best from our crew, we shouldn’t need to explain, Sailor, it’s something you would have learned if you’d spent more time in the real Navy.” He smiled slightly, to soften the mild reprimand and continued confidently. “ Am I to assume you would still like to be considered for the extra training?”
“Yessir, I would.” Mike Braden answered positively.
“It will mean the curtailment of your leave allocation for quite a while and a lot of hard work.” Lee warned.
“That’s okay with me, Skipper. I want to do it, sir.” Mike Braden was now the most relaxed he had been, since entering the cabin.
“It might also mean working closely with the admiral and Mr. Morton when we overhaul the reactor and its circuitry next month.”
Smiling bashfully, the young man answered. “That’ll be alright, Captain. I’d appreciate the opportunity to work with them both, this time.”
Lee nodded. “Very well, I’ll forward this to the admiral and get things started. Was there anything else you wanted to discuss?”
“No sir. I’m very happy aboard the Seaview, thank you, sir.”
“Good.” He stood and crewman Braden recognised this as the signal to stand himself.
Lee held out his palm to the crewman and as they shook hands he said. “Welcome to the crew, Mike. I hope you find serving aboard Seaview rewarding.”
“I’m sure I will, sir… and thank you, sir.” Mike Braden assured him confidently.
He turned and left.
Lee sat down and reflected on the recent conversation… picking up his discarded pen, he signed the bottom of the document in front of him and made a quick notation, then closed the file. He sat thinking for a moment, checked his watch and standing, he picked up the file, left his cabin and walked a few paces along the corridor. He knocked on another cabin door and entered without waiting for the customary invitation.
He spied a blond head bent in concentration over the papers on his desk, industriously reading and checking reports.
“Hi, got a minute?” he enquired.
Shining blue eyes looked directly at him and lit up with welcome. “Sure, I could do with the excuse for a break.” Chip Morton stretched his cramped shoulder muscles and questioned. “What’s up?”
Lee came forward and relaxed into the vacant chair beside the desk. Putting the file down on the desktop. “I just had a talk with Mike Braden… told him about the recommendation to sign him up for the Institute’s Engineering Programme.”
Chip nodded. “Did he agree?”
“Of course, did you think he wouldn’t?” Lee asked wryly.
“Nope. He’s too intelligent to pass up the opportunity. He’s also confident and smart enough without being arrogant. He should do very well.” Chip narrowed his gaze as he saw Lee studying him. “What?”
Lee laughed. “Why didn’t you tell him, what you were doing? He thought you didn’t trust him, that you had him working with you because you believed he would screw up.”
Chip stood up and stretched. “Coffee?”
Lee shook his head and waited patiently….
As Morton poured himself a cup of the steaming hot brew, he considered Mike Braden. He had been impressed by the young man’s recently acquired knowledge but sometimes that wasn’t enough. Without practical application of his skills he would be useless and he had so little actual experience of crew life aboard a ship, let alone a submarine. With the admiral staying ashore this trip, Chip had decided to take a special interest in this new crewman. He knew the admiral had worked with him closely and was impressed but Chip wanted to find the potential in this young, inexperienced Sailor, for himself. His job, as XO, was to ensure the security of all aboard; he would see to it personally, that Braden was an appropriate addition to the crew. Turning, he answered his captain’s enquiry..
“I wanted to see for myself that he could do the work and whether he could do it under pressure… and short of sinking the sub, I knew I’d have to be the one to apply that pressure. If he couldn’t take it, we needed to find out now, not at 2,000 feet in a damaged submarine!” Morton shrugged and laughed cheerfully. “But when I turned the screws a bit tighter… he only flinched a little.”
“So he passed.” Crane grinned.
“That’s why he got the recommendation.”
“But why not tell him, after you had decided he was suitable?” Lee asked.
Chip sat down again. “That’s your job, Captain. To pass on good news and award brownie points. Mine’s to maintain discipline and order.” Chip openly grinned at his friend.
“So you let him think, I’m the good guy, while you’re the bad guy.”
“Of course. I have my reputation to think of…and I hope you didn’t do anything to change that!” Chip demanded with mock ferocity.
Lee laughed freely. “No Mr. Morton, You’re reputation for demanding the best, is still intact.”
“Good.” Chip replied with a smirk.
Lee stood and ambled to the door but as he opened it, he paused and turned to look at his friend. “ ButI don’t think the crew are quite as intimidated by you, as you might like to believe, Chip.” Lee Crane chuckled. “I happen to know you’re considered a “soft touch’’ if handled right.”
“Is that so? Well, maybe I need to have a crackdown around here for a while, can’t have indulgent thinking like that going on about this exec.” Chip said scornfully of himself, glaring without conviction.
Lee laughed generously and closed the door behind him.
Chip Morton, smiled to himself as he picked up the file Lee had left behind and flipped it open…inside there was the signed approval and a note from his friend….
Another Pet Project successfully completed, Mr. Morton!!