Cry Havoc and Let Fly . . .
By Nancy Maack
It was a dark and stormy night. Out of her natural element, the gallant submarine braved the angry billows on the surface of an outraged sea like a hapless toy in some fell child's bath. Rain lashed in sinister torrents against the cold metal of her proud sail -- and against the lonely figure who there kept watch.
A second figure appeared and called to the watcher. His blond head and broad shoulders were visible only in inky silhouette. As a distant flash of lightning eerily transfixed the scene, the valiant captain had lowered his binoculars and turned toward the dimly lit hatch in mute inquiry.
This time the blond officer's booming voice sounded clearly through a momentary lull in the fury of the storm. But the response was negative, and the dull glow from the hatch reflected a consuming anxiety etched on the captain's furrowed brow.
Driving rain quickly turned the blond's freshly starched uniform into a clammy, clinging shroud, and now rain-darkened hair was plastered in streaks to his forehead. The bedraggled appearance was well suited to his grim thoughts. However, as he beckoned an eager young officer past him up the ladder, his resolute determination was evident in the powerful voice which prevailed once more over the howling whirlwind.
The captain made no reply. Turning away, he silently resumed the solitary vigil.
The new arrival saluted smartly, despite layers of foul-weather gear. Their brief exchange was all but lost in the tumult of the gale.
The dark captain shot a darker look toward the retreating form of the of his first officer. Then, grief and reluctance clearly evident in the set of his jaw, he handed over the binoculars and slowly descended into the sanctuary of his vessel.
"What are you writing now? Aren't you ever going to let go of these delusions of grandeur and face reality?"
She scowled as she read the first page of my manuscript. "This is so dumb. I can't believe you really think anyone will read this. If you want my advice, you'll start acting . . . normal. People are beginning to talk, you know. And I don't like it one bit."
What could I say? I leaned over and kissed her nose.
Running for her life before the sudden, terrifying storm, a damaged sea-plane was driven forward on nothing more than a wing and a prayer. Radio-deaf and instrument-blind, the pilot fought the raging tempest, grasping at the slenderest straw of hope in his desperate search for a safe haven. Jolted and tossed about like so much unsecured cargo, his helpless passengers were prepared for the worst. One -- a crusty naval veteran for whom life-or-death situations were all too commonplace -- attempted to reassure those in his charge. However, as he stared outward into the black maelstrom, his own thoughts turned toward the only home he now knew. His concerns, rather than for himself, were for the brave officers and men he hoped and prayed were still alive - safe and sound - and awaiting his return.
Meanwhile, each of those officers and men were equally concerned for the welfare of their missing comrade -- and for their handsome young captain, whose broad but care-worn shoulders struggled under a burden of responsibilities heavier than anyone should have to carry.
The first officer had no encouragement to offer the exhausted captain. The lightning-damaged communications system was still dead, and no news was not good news. His clear blue eyes darkened with anxious concern at his friend's haggard features.
Another figure appeared. This one, stars on his collar, was a presence which, for all its lack of imposing stature, exuded quiet confidence and commanded respect. But respect and confidence could resolve this crisis.
Suddenly the oppressive silence was split by a peremptory sound: the excruciating shriek of a chalkboard being clawed by a cat. Or of the grudging resurrection of a lifeless radio. Painful as it was, the ungodly noise carried the promise of good news.
An empty promise, as it turned out. What little news there was came in halting, mournful sputters: . . . lost radio . . . radar . . . change in direction . . . heading for . . . territory . . . condition of . . . and . . . unknown.
Resigning themselves to their inability to aid their missing member, the crew dived the submarine below the treacherous tumult of the relentless storm. A pall of nameless dread closed over them in depraved imitation of the tranquil waters below the surface which now embraced the proud vessel and her denizens. Having no course to follow, no task to undertake, no other alternative, they simply waited. Waited through seeming endless eternities. Waited . . . waited . . . and knew nothing.
Not knowing was the hardest part.
Another friend dropping in for a visit. Another interruption.
Perched on the edge of my desk, the little guy chattered and chirped like a cricket about the high points of his recent southern vacation. Soon, however, his pleasant -- if incessant -- prattle evolved into something more like squawking as he broached the subject of his scout troop's disastrous camping expedition.
I nodded at all the right places, and made appropriately sympathetic and encouraging noises until -- after having said his piece -- he left me in peace.
It's always darkest before the dawn. Yet dawn had come, and spirits remained dark as midnight. There were no silver linings to the clouded features of the waiting men. Still waiting. They'd heard that all good things come to those who wait. So they waited on.
More screeches. More cryptic morsels of tantalizing non-information: . . . no further radio . . . two . . . planes . . . light . . . radar . . . might . . . fighters . . . dogfight . . . Navy search planes . . . area . . .
Dismay turned to disbelief in face of the mountain of enigmatic data. As pieces of an insane jigsaw puzzle materialized, only one of the three central figures appeared able to put those pieces into any kind of order. However, the picture he saw was less artistic than diabolical, leaving him mystified rather than enlightened. Massaging his stiff neck, a bemused concentration wreathing his countenance, the admiral detached himself from the small group. He took away with him any illusion of confidence, leaving behind only the unsolved puzzle.
Nevertheless, in response to the patchwork of information, the grave captain acted -- knowing it had to be now or never. Taking the only course open to him, he turned his noble vessel toward the scene of their comrade's struggle, hoping against hope to arrive in time.
Of course I wanted supper, but when the creative juices are flowing . . .
On the other hand, creative genius needs sustenance, too.
I smiled plaintively at my long-suffering benefactor. I knew it. A fetching smile works every time.
Heaving a profound sigh, he brought my supper and managed to balance it next to the typewriter on the precarious shelf which served as my desk.
After expressing my stomach-felt appreciation, I shooed him away.
He rubbed his weary eyes. It was impossible for these antique airplanes to be here, now, in this place, at this time. He shook his head and looked again, refusing to accept the evidence his traitorous eyes were presenting. Neither did he give credence to the savage sputter of machine-gun fire that seemed to assault his ears and his safety. No. He adamantly refused to admit any of it. He continued in his dogged disbelief until -- ZING!-- the bullet ripped through the thin hull beside him, keened past his skull -- a mere breath from taking a portion of his left ear with it -- and smashed brazenly into the useless instrument console in the cockpit ahead.
In the meantime, the valiant submarine drew ever closer to her rendezvous with destiny. Fully spent, the cruelly capricious storm had at long last abandoned her erstwhile toy to clear skies and leaden prospects. The sporadically operative communications equipment continued to spit out chilling implausibilities. . . . search craft . . . visual . . . bright red tri- . . . heading south . . . insignia . . . damages . . . extent unreported . . . no contact . . . bi-plane escorting . . . markings . . . approaching . . . carrier . . . sea-plane . . . unclear . . . no sign . . . rendezvous submarine . . . lost . . .
With no outgoing messages yet possible, they were but impotent eavesdroppers on a surreal monologue of which they -- and their lost comrade -- were the central topics.
After a time, the captain and his first officer were once more joined by their admiral. He smiled a dry, thin, mirthless smile, then silently placed before them a slip of paper on which was neatly recorded the following information: red tri-plane: Fokker DR-1 ~~ 1916-1918 ~~ Baron Manfred Von Richthofen.
As soon as the identity of the bearer of that title was dredged from the recesses of his memory -- The Red Baron? -- and implications of the date sank in -- World War I ! -- the worthy captain's already grim countenance transformed in a heartbeat from wary apprehension to pallid horror. His companions easily read the one terrifying word echoing and reverberating through his mind: Kreuger!
As the two friends sensed the haunting turmoil within the captain's tortured soul, each reached out to him in his own way. Gaining strength from their unspoken communion, he raised dark, somber eyes to the heartening reassurance of their blue, and gritted a smile of stoic determination.
As the philosopher-in-residence read over my shoulder, I could feel his thoughts going deeper and deeper. Barely suppressing a snicker I thought, I wonder if they need more philosophers in China?
"She didn't like it, did she?"
Silly question.I shook my head. And I thought philosophers were so smart.
"Commonplace minds condemn everything which is beyond their comprehension," he recited. "François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld."
Well, of course it's La Rochefoucauld. Does he think I'm illiterate?
"It's true that her criticism can be trying, but King Solomon says in his Proverbs: 'Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.'"
I nodded sagely -- and in complete bafflement -- as he worried the misshapen lump of cloth in his hands. Suddenly I was struck with an almost irresistible urge to snatch it for a tug-of-war. No. I have more important work to do. Come to think of it, so does he. But someday I'm going to get that dustrag away from him.
There was the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the long tunnel. The stately and heroic carrier was waiting with open arms, ready to receive both bullet-riddled seaplane and bi-plane. Her perfect tranquility was marred, however, by the knowledge that there still had been no word from the submarine; it was feared that in selfless diligence to recover her lost comrade, she had lost her last battle with the stormy, unforgiving sea.
But at that very moment the prematurely doomed vessel was running headlong -- perilously close to critical speed -- toward a reunion, be it joyful or tragic, with the stricken aircraft. More precisely, a reunion with her passengers: both the known friend and guardian, and his thus-far nameless charges.
But the waiting was too much to bear. There were too many questions, too few answers, and far too much time to simply watch and wait any longer. The decision to outrun the now-ponderous progress of the huge submarine was made. Both captain and admiral departed, perfectly confident of the continued safety and well-being of their vessel and her stalwart crew in the strong and capable hands of her steadfast and true first officer.
Their arrival upon the wind-swept deck of the massive carrier followed the precarious landing of the seaplane by mere minutes. But neither the pilot nor any passengers of that craft were in sight.
There was an initial, bi-lateral explosion of pent-up anxiety turned to relief: plane and submarine alike were intact. But in the general confusion and ship-wide excitement generated by the imminent arrival of the mysterious antique bi-plane, both captain and admiral were soon rendered invisible. Frustrated in his attempt to see the vessel's commanding officer, refused entrance to the interior of the vessel by distracted and over-zealous guards, and denied the satisfaction of so much as a straight answer, the captain paced the small corner of the flight deck not overrun by the frenetic activities of rainbow-shirted crewmen. Choosing not to exercise the privileges of his rank, and abandoning all hope of calming his younger friend with the wisdom gleaned from years of experience in such matters, the admiral simply kept him silent company.
Suddenly, their attention was riveted by the spectacle of a tiny, battle-scarred Sopwith Camel approaching the vast flight deck. Its fragile, ancient wings fluttered in fickle crosswinds, and it bucked and wove dangerously on and off target before finally bouncing and skidding to a graceless halt in the dispassionate embrace of the safety netting.
The two mesmerized figures were joined by a third. And with his addition, attention of the trio turned joyously friend-ward, mutual fears and unshed tears evaporating as naturally as morning mist in the face of the rising sun. As the new arrival spoke, the expressions of his rapt audience reflected a quick succession of relief, question, incredulity, wonder, and finally simple, unmitigated joy.
Thus they remained -- admiral, captain, and chief -- in grateful and contented comradery until the latter's charges were brought forward for introduction. Another series of transformations ensued, as the easy laughter turned to confusion, confusion became disbelief, disbelief shifted to shock, shock begat anger, and anger . . . dissipated into more laughter as the officers read the name tags on the small, furry beasts: Olaf and Spike.
"Dogs! You wrote this whole stupid story about stupid dogs? Of all the stupid, blockhead ideas you've ever had, this is the stupidest!"
Time stood still as the pilot of the battered Sopwith Camel -- bloodied but unbowed -- climbed down from his venerable aircraft. The World War I flying ace, his dashing figure only further enhanced by the white aviator scarf thrown rakishly over one shoulder, slowly scanned the southern horizon. As he shook his gloved fist, his words were lost in the fresh ocean breeze, but those nearest later reported hearing what sounded like, Curse you, Red Baron!
With that the handsome beagle turned toward those whose lives he had delivered from certain death. The reunion was as brief as it was touching, and soon the three were quaffing root beers, mournfully regretting lost opportunities, and howling sentimental songs in sympathetic harmony . . . utterly oblivious to the incredulous stares of the men who had risked so much to allow them this moment.
. . . It's a long way to Tipperary . . .
"This is too dumb! I can't read any more! You can't really expect people to buy this!"
Fist raised in defiant crabbiness, she marched back and forth in front of me. And her mouth . . . for a moment I lost track of her words as I pondered depths of the Grand Canyon.
" . . . and if nobody buys it, you'll never make any money. And if you don't make any money, what good will you be? I'll tell you: You'll be no good at all!"
Maybe she was right. Maybe the world wasn't ready for "A Barkin' Stormy Night."
Besides, I don't know how to get them all back to Daisy Hill in that little Sopwith Camel, anyway. Not to mention the fact that I have saddle-sores from sitting up here all day.
As I hopped down from the roof of my doghouse I thought, I know, maybe I'll try selling insurance. It pays.
*Author's Note: Peanuts characters are copyright Charles Shultz. No infringement is implied.