The Assignment

By R. L. Keller



Midshipman 3rd Class Charles P. Morton was suffering a serious case of nerves.  And it wasn’t helping at all that his closest buddies at the US Naval Academy had been harassing their normally totally under control friend unmercifully for the last week.  Since the day he’d been assigned to sing his first solo with the Academy Glee Club.


Chip, as he was known to family and friends, had grown up with no more musical inclination than to sing in church on Sundays.  But his first year at Annapolis, after a couple of beers at the local hangout on a Saturday night, he found himself singing along with the jukebox.  His friends liked what they heard and encouraged him to try out for the Glee Club.  The life of a 4th Classman being hectic enough already, Chip just shrugged off the suggestion and forgot all about it.


But his friends didn’t forget and as the next year started, once again began needling him to audition.  Chip took it good-naturedly – mostly because he was the undisputed champion of doing the same thing to them anytime conditions were reversed, and could easily handle the payback.  With thoughts of nothing more than shutting them up, since out of all four classes at the Academy only 60 men were chosen for the choir, Chip presented himself for the audition.


To his total amazement – and his friends’ delightful amusement – he was chosen.  And even more amazing, at least to him, was that he really, really enjoyed the extracurricular activity.  Never one to enjoy ‘standing out in a crowd’, so to speak, he could relax and enjoy being art of the delicate balance of harmonies; part of a choir that could stir souls to a wide range of emotions.  Since the group performed before many different audiences, their repertoire ranged from sea shanties and folk songs to classics; from modern pop tunes to hymns and patriotic tunes.  


The group had their personal favorites, of course.  Among Chip’s there was the rollicking “A-Roving” and the quirky “The Rhyme of the Chivalrous Shark.”  Those and others, like the definite irreverence – for a navy man – of “We Saw the Sea”, were fun to sing as well as being audience favorites.  His strong sense of order and balance made him really appreciate the intricacies – and his sense of humor totally enjoyed the slight impudence – of “Old Man Noah.”


But there was, in the patriotic and old Navy songs, a sense of pride, of fulfillment, of duty, that could come through the voices and touch a person down to their toenails – even those who were singing them.  Hearing “Eternal Father,” usually referred to by all sailors as the Navy Hymn, sung in the incredible acoustics of the chapel at Annapolis, could send shivers down a man’s spine.


Unfortunately, the shivers now running down Chip’s spine were accompanied by a cold sweat.  One of his favorite pieces to perform was the very solemn “Navy Blue & Gold.”  It was a fairly short piece – only two stanzas, but it carried very special meaning to every Annapolis Midshipman and graduate.  The song’s normal presentation was for the whole choir to perform the first stanza.  Half a dozen or so men sang the first three lines of the second stanza while the rest provided soft background, and then all joined up again for the final line.


For whatever reason the Glee Club’s director, Capt. Alstott, decided that, for the upcoming performance in honor of several visiting dignitaries, only one voice would sing those first three lines of the second verse.  And for some perverse reason ‘Cap’n Stodgy’, as he was known behind his back, had decided that that voice would belong to Midshipman Morton.  So far, his singular solo had been to supply the “hic” during the last line of  “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor.”  The mere thought of performing three whole lines, by himself, had him practically quaking in his shoes.  However, you didn’t exactly just turn down the assignment.  Not and continue to be a member of the Glee Club.  When Chip had been notified of the assignment by Capt. Alstott the previous week he had given a surprisingly steady, “Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir,” and returned to his room in Bancroft Hall to panic in private.


His roommate, Midshipman 3rd Class Lee B. Crane, had finally realized the abject terror with which Chip was facing what was actually a high honor, and had switched from his snickered needling to supplying steady encouragement.  Chip was not going to forget the words, his voice was not going to crack half-way through, he was going to hit all the notes with the utter perfection he used to write computer programs…  Chip wasn’t buying any of it.  He was having a perfectly legitimate panic attack, and no one was going to keep him from having it!


All of these dire predictions were running through Chip’s mind as he hurried toward the final choir practice before the next day’s performance.  Cap’n Stodgy allowed him an extra five minutes only because he had to walk all the way across campus from the computer labs, but he was still running late.  Of course, if I really tick him off, maybe he’ll give the part to someone else, ran briefly through Chip’s mind.  But he quickly shook off the thought.  He had too much integrity to even consider such a cowardly way out of his dilemma.  Not only that, but Chip had a feeling that the assignment could have something to do with having been overheard by Capt. Alstott making some slightly disparaging remarks, while the group was practicing “Down, Down, Underneath the Ocean,” about anybody who would be stupid enough to actually want to serve in a submarine.  He’d found out – rather loudly and embarrassingly – that Alstott was a former submariner, and figured that this was the director’s way of assigning punishment for the remarks. 


Because of the time Chip was pretty much the only one around, and quietly sang the first verse to himself as he strode along.  An extra-strong shiver nearly stopped Chip’s forward motion but he squared his shoulders and continued on, his voice a little stronger as he sang the solo part.  The first word of the last line was just coming out of his mouth when a soft baritone joined in.  Chip didn’t immediately see who was supplying the harmony, but he smiled as they completed the last line.  Then he stopped dead as, at the last word, the singer stepped into view.  Panic turned to stark horror as Capt. Harriman Nelson stepped into view from around a corner of the shrub-lined walkway.  While Lee may talk about what a great teacher Nelson was, a future-thinking mariner, great strategist and masterful logician, Chip knew him only as battle-seasoned and hardened, and a demanding instructor.  The only thing that kept Chip’s knees from knocking was his total focus on maintaining his ‘At Attention’ stance.  He mechanically returned Nelson’s easy salute, only peripherally seeing the slight smile on the older man’s face.


“You have a good voice for that song, Midshipman Morton.  Smooth and rich.  Just what’s called for.”


“Thank you, sir,” Chip barely squeaked out.


“I understand that you’re the soloist for that song tomorrow.”


He knows that?  Chip couldn’t stop the thought, and struggled to keep his confusion from showing.  “Yes, sir,” he finally managed out loud.


“I look forward to hearing it.  As nice as it sounded out here, it should be wonderful in Alumni Hall.”  When Chip couldn’t even come up with a coherent response, Nelson’s grin broadened further.  “Well, I’d better not keep you any longer.  Ol’ Stodgy will be shaving your tail for sure.”


A snort bubbled out at the very correct Capt. Nelson’s use of Capt. Alstott’s nickname, and he worked hard to cover it with a quick cough.  “Yes, sir,” he managed to get out, returned the quick salute, and practically ran away, not just because he was late.


Chip didn’t sleep at all that night, so wound up was he over the coming performance.  Lee knew that ‘something’ had happened between the time they’d last seen each other and Chip’s return to the dorm room in Mother B. after practice, just from Chip’s worsening agitation, but Chip refused to disclose his run-in with Nelson.  Lee would just razz him about letting the encounter rattle him further.  Chip knew that Lee had a very special respect for and relationship with Capt. Nelson, nurtured during a trip the previous year when Nelson had driven Lee to his home in Newport, R.I. after Lee’s mother was injured in a car accident.  He somehow managed to get through the morning, returned to the room and dressed extra carefully, and headed for the performance, all the while sending up a silent prayer.  Please, just don’t let me totally make a fool of myself, was his sincere request.


The first part of the performance was the usual combination of sea shanties and ballads.  As they finished the last song before his big moment, Chip managed to move down the riser to the soloist’s position without falling on his face.  Capt. Alstott gave the choir their notes for the a cappella performance, and they began to sing the so-meaningful song.


Now colleges from sea to sea may sing of colors true,

But who has better right than we to hoist a symbol hue;

For sailors brave in battle fair since fighting days of old

Have proved the sailor’s right to wear the Navy Blue & Gold.


Even while focusing on Cap’n Stodgy, Chip snuck a peek out into the audience.  Sitting right behind the special guests was Capt. Nelson.  As the last couple of words were echoing, Chip took a deep breath.  For whatever reason he sent a glance Nelson’s way, and caught the wink and grin that Nelson sent him.  Butterflies threatening to destroy his sanity, he began his solo.


Four years together by the Bay, where Severn joins the tide,

Then by the Service called away, we’re scattered far and wide;

But still when two or three shall meet, and old tales be retold,


Somehow he made it through.  His voice stayed strong and clear, but he was still struggling to control the huge sigh of relief as the full choir joined him once again on the last line.


From low to highest in the Fleet, we’ll pledge the Blue & Gold.


With knees still quaking he returned to his place, and managed to finish the performance without collapsing.


He was standing around with the rest of the members of the choir, visiting with the guests and accepting his share of congratulations from both them and the other choir members, when a hand landed on his shoulder from behind.  He turned with a grin, expecting it to belong to one of his buddies, and was amazed when the hand turned out to belong to Capt. Nelson.


“Well, done, lad,” he said with a grin.


“Thank you, sir,” Chip managed to get out.


“Never a doubt in my mind.  Task assigned, and carried out with excellence.  You’re going to make a fine officer.”


He turned and walked away before Chip could even start to reply.  Music have anything to do with officer training? he muttered to himself.  Man, I gotta have a long talk with Lee about where this guy got his reputation.  He’s cracked.