Birthday parties were a common enough occurrence aboard Seaview, and everyone was enjoying the cake and ice cream in the Crew’s Mess. But there was an undertone of concern that had nothing to do with it.
“You sure that message the Skipper got was from ComSubPac?” Pat asked Ski.
“Overheard O’Brien myself. ”
“Well it could be good news, I guess,” Cookie sat down, taking a break from his galley duties, “maybe somebody’s gotten a promotion or something.”
“More likely old battle britches Starke wants us to go save the world from giant jellyfishes again,” Patterson joked.
“Well, I’m sure tired of being overlooked and underrated,” Ski said.
“If anyone’s overlooked and underrated it’s Morton.”
“Nah, it’s the Skipper. It’s about time he got that fourth stripe,” Cookie piped up.
“Kind of doubtful,” Sharkey helped himself to another piece of cake, “especially since he turned it down oh, since well before Seaview.”
“Yeah,”the Chief chuckled, “he really pissed the Board off. Used some kind of some kind of technicality to prevent them from forcing it on him.”
“Like, why’d he turn it down?”Riley
asked. “It’s not normal.”
“Who says this Skipper’s ever normal?”
“Now you wait just a damn minute!” Ski voiced.
“Look,kid, all I meant was that anyone in command of Seaview has to be crazy.”
“If he ticked them off so bad, why’d they give him the Celeste? That was his last boat wasn’t it? She’s still pretty much the top of the line in the Navy!”
“Shhhh,” Cookie warned, “somebody’s coming…”
Morton appeared at the door with Lt. O’Brien, “Chief, we thought we’d pop by to offer our congratulations. Many happy returns.”
“Thank you, sirs.”
“By the way, there’s no more cake in the Wardroom.”
“And it was sooo good,” O’Brien added, trying very hard to look young and innocent.
“By a happy chance there’s just enough left for both of you,” Cookie cut them the last two slices,“I saved a piece for the Skipper but…I guess he mighta’ forgot about it. Have it in the galley for safekeeping.”
“With Morton’s stomach you’d have too,” Ski whispered.
“I heard that, Ski,” Morton said with a grin from where he was standing against the wall.
“Er, Mr. Morton, sir,” Riley braved, “what was in that message the Skipper got from ComSubPac? Are we goin’ to war? Or maybe the Skipper’s gotten his fourth stripe? Is it true he got the Navy, like, all riled when he turned it down before?”
“That’s what the Chief said.”
Morton raised an inquiring eyebrow,the slice of cake on his paper plate temporarily forgotten.
“It’s true!. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth…er…from a reliable source. A real reliable source.”
“Which just happens to be?”
“Er…Admiral Nelson, sir.”
“Well,” the XO finally broke the stunned silence, “if the Skipper turned it down, that’s his own business. Frank, if you’re finished, go tell the Captain if he doesn’t get his butt down here soon, that saved piece of cake is liable to be hijacked. Er…you might want to rephrase that .”
“Don’t bother sir, I was planning to take it to him if he didn’t show by now…you supposed he’s all done with that message by now? If it’s not top secret or something like that?”
“Stop fishing Cookie. If the Captain wants us to know what was in the message, he’ll tell us. Again, Happy Birthday Chief,” Morton said before he and O’Brien departed, still eating his cake.
The officers were checking the charts at the plot table when Cookie approached from the spiral ladder in the Observation Nose
Chip almost drooled over the huge slice of cake, probably worth three of what he’d had.
“Can I talk to you Mr. Morton?”
“In private, sir?”
Morton nodded and herded them man toward the view ports and away from prying ears in Control.
“Well?” Morton prodded as the man hesitated to speak.
“Something’s wrong with the Skipper. That’s why I couldn’t deliver this to him.”
“What do you mean something’s wrong with him?”
“Er…you’re not going to believe it, and maybe I got it all wrong, his door being closed, but …er…well, sir…I coulda’ sworn the Skip was…that he was…well, crying or something.”
“The Admiral’s okay isn’t he? I mean that message…”
“Don’t say anything to anyone!” Morton raced up the ladder.
“Lee?” Morton knocked.
“Lee?” he opened the door slowly.
Crane’s back was to Morton as he tossed some clothes into his duffel. A clear plastic garment bag hung on the bunk frame, his dress whites sparkling from inside, along with cover.
“Lee, what’s wrong… Lee?” Chip grabbed his arm, turning the man to face him. His eyes were red. So Cookie hadn’t gotten it wrong.
“The Admiral?” Morton barely managed.
“The Admiral! What happened?”
“What are you talking about?”
“ Cookie said he heard you in here…” Chip paused, “upset about the communique from ComSubPac. What else could it be but about Admiral Nelson?”
“No,” Lee sighed, “it’s not Nelson…. Chip, I need the Flying Sub. Asap.”
“You’re in no shape to fly! You’re trembling. What is it?”
“See for yourself, ” Crane motioned to the printouts on his desk, “… a friend of mine’s… died. And all Starke can think of is clearing out his office!” Lee took a deep breath then continued, “Admiral Starke’s aide. Joe. Lt. Cmdr. Joe Jackson. We…go back…went back a long way,” Cane corrected himself, and began to ramble. “’Clean out his office, Crane, help me interview replacements! Serve as my aide in the interim’ … I swear that man was born without a heart! Not a thought about Joe, just his damn schedule…I hate him…I…”Lee gulped. “It was an accident..Joe’s car…it…it careened off the road, rolled over and over and over, right down a cliff, and…and…exploded.”
“Oh God, Lee.”
“They couldn’t get any DNA from……what was left, ” Lee whispered, his voice breaking, “no tags, it was a weekend, but it was his car, the ones with those new ID chips…” Crane’s eyes were haunted, agonized. “I…I love…loved him like a brother, Chip, and now…now… he’s gone…gone…Give me a few minutes alone, will you…”Lee was at the breaking point.
“It’s okay to cry, Lee,” Chip put an arm around his shoulder, but was unsure Lee would welcome a more supportive embrace.
He wished Nelson was here. It had become pretty apparent over the last year that the two had bonded beyond normal, the great differences in their ranks notwithstanding.
“Please, Chip,”Lee pulled away gently, “thanks, but …I need to be alone.…let me know when the Flying Sub’s ready.”
“Chief?” Morton returned to the Control Room, the new watch at the ready, “Get me a volunteer to co-pilot the Skipper to Pearl Harbor. Right away.”
“Kowalski? You’re drafted.,” then took the XO aside as Ron relieved Ski, “what’s up sir?”
“There’s been a death that the Captain has to attend to. Admiral Starke’s involved. We could also loose the Captain to ComSubPac awhile. Sparks? Try to get through to the Admiral at the White House.”
“Chief?”Morton furrowed his brows, thinking, “I’ve changed my mind. Have Ski pilot instead of second seat, and have him pack a bag, just in case.”
“But Kowalski’s never, I mean, er… he’s never….er…yes sir,” Sharkey furrowed his brows, surprised. Ski was, like he and only a handful of men, certified to fly the damn thing, but to his knowledge, nobody but the Captain, Admiral and Morton had any real experience as the contraption’s ‘captain’.
“Take the stick? By myself? This some kind of test,” Chief?” Ski strapped himself into the pilot’s seat after stowing his hastily packed duffel.
“You got your quals don’t you?”Sharkey quit his musing.“ Just do your job, understood?”
“Oh that’s just swell! What if I fall into an uncontrolled dive, or blast us up into the stratosphere, or maybe,” he gulped, “scratch the paint..”
“You won’t scratch the paint, but if you do, just think how nice the Skipper’s baby will look like red…”
Ski cringed. It was an ongoing battle between Nelson and Crane as to what color the little craft should be.
“Okay okay, but don’t blame me if we have an accident.”
“You won’t have an accident. He’s gonna’ be right there next to you if there’s any trouble. There ain’t no better pilot for her than the Skip.”
“Then why am I stuck with it?”
“Cause Mr. Morton said so. Wanna’ complain to him about it?”
“Er, no, Chief, no…I’ll do it. I won’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
Patterson walked into the Control Room from the aft hatch a little while later, with Crane’s duffel and garment bag in hand.
A couple of men whistled at the dress whites inside the clear plastic as he passed by. “Very well, Pat,” Morton said, “ go ahead and stow his stuff below.”
Just then Lee appeared at the aft hatch, freshly shaved, hair combed, and looked almost presentable. Except for those tell tale dark circles under the reddened eyes.
“Lee,” Morton said gently as Crane joined him near the flying sub’s hatch, “I just wanted you know how very sorry I am. If you need anything… anything, I’m here for you.”
“I know you are… I’ll send Ski back right away.”
“Actually, he could give you a helping hand…”
“Well, I’ll think about it,”Crane took one last look back at the Control Room, then, “you have command Mr. Morton.”
“I have command, aye sir,” he said as Patterson and the Chief emerged from the access hatch.
“Flying sub all checked out and ready to launch,” Sharkey said smartly.
For a moment Lee stood still, immobile, as if he were lost, almost like a little boy trying to find his way home. Then he nodded, rather sadly and climbed down the ladder into the Flying Sub’s belly.
“Ski, what are you doing there?” Crane asked, surprised, as soon as he saw the crewman in his normal seat.
“Mr. Morton said I was supposed to pilot…but if you’d rather…”he added hopefully, unsure if the Captain was angry or had a nervous tick.
“Very well,” Crane said at last, to Ski’s surprise, “I am a bit tired. Thanks.”
“I’m sorry sir,” Sparks relayed to Morton a short time later, “they won’t interrupt the President’s dinner party unless it’s an emergency…I’m sure the Admiral will contact us as soon as he gets the message that ComSubPac stole the Skipper….”
“It wasn’t official, Sparks, only implied.”
“Let’s hope so. I don’t like the idea of of him stuck behind some desk.”
“Me neither Sparks, me neither.”
“Looks like we have visitors, Skipper, ” Ski pointed through the view ports. Base Ops had arranged the secure hangar slip and marine guards stood pointing as they waited for the men to emerge from the still top secret craft in the early morning light.
“Well, make sure you give them a proper show when you leave, Ski.”
“Uh…”the crewman’s protective instincts took over. He’d seen the Skipper’s eyes. “There’s always a bunch of stuff to go through when somebody dies…and what about Admiral Starke? I mean…you’re a sub skipper not a ‘go-fer’ I can help.”
“You know the saying about volunteering don’t you?”
“Of course sir, er…” Ski said.
“Consider yourself drafted. By the way, you did a good job as pilot.”
“You did. I suggest, however, you make sure we’re wearing space suits the next time you decide to take us into orbit.”
“Uh, yeah, that was kinda…awkward. Even if it did only last a couple a minutes before you got us back down…”
“You go on ahead to Admiral Starke’s office. He’s sure to have something from the motor pool here waiting to take us there, but I have my own transportation I keep parked at the base marina. I want to check on Joe’s dog, I don’t know if Admiral Starke’s arranged anything for her yet. Then I need to see the base lawyers. I’ll meet you at the Admiral’s later.”
“What do you mean he’s not with you?” Starke complained as the crewman reported to Starke’s office. “He’ll be here soon enough I guess. Over there, that’s Jackson’s office. Start removing and sort through his personal things. You can use the mail crates until you get some boxes. Ignore the file cabinets, they’re official. By the way, know any shorthand?”
“Never mind. Get to work. I’ll be at a meeting for the next hour or so. I hope Crane’s here by then. Answer the phone calls and take any messages.”
Starke still hadn’t returned from his meeting when a god awful noise shook the windows. It was Crane, Ski noticed, but he’d pulled up in a motorcycle of questionable vintage complete with sidecar. But what was most unusual was that the sidecar was occupied by a Golden Retriever. A Golden retriever wearing matching goggles and helmet identical to Crane’s.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Chip,” Nelson spoke from the videophone in Morton’s cabin.
“He'd been crying, I'm sure of it, tried to hide it, though.”
“Yes, I suppose he would… I've only met Jackson a few times. Mostly years ago. In fact the stories I could tell you about Ensigns Crane and Jackson.... they're very close, Chip. And Jackson was a part time spook, sometimes his partner in crime. So they have a much stronger bond than we mere mortals.”
“I wish you could have been here, sir. I tried to help but..he wanted to be left alone. ”
“He's going to need time. To accept his loss, to grieve. Going to be difficult for him, I don't think Jackson had any living family...”
“So Lee’s all he had...to change the subject, what about Starke drafting him for aide duty?”
“I really rather doubt that Lee has any intention of wearing a gold braid on his shoulder. But to be on the safe side, I'll handle Jiggs, even if I have to do it by phone. These blasted meetings are taking longer than I'd like.”
“Yes, I think that’s about it, except for the desk, ” Lee said as he used a key around his neck to unlock it, then saw his crewman's confused look, “it's an ONI thing. Stark knows about it. Even if he gave Joe hell about our 'extracurricular activities,”he chuckled at first then furrowed his brows. “For a few minutes after I got the message I checked with them to see if it was some kind of assignment...but,” he paused. “As soon as we're done here, I need to go to the base hospital. ”
“I’m hoping maybe I can identify something from…his body…without DNA, it's not official.”
“Incorrect, Commander!” Admiral Starke intruded, entering his office, “It was his car, the coroner said he estimated the same height, same broken finger...you remember when you brought him back to me like that...well, the Navy wants to get this thing over with and has authorized the Death Certificate... there's too much unresolved paperwork clogging the system. ”
“I still want to see him.”
“You’ll only puke if you look at it.. There’s no other way to say this, I know you two were friends, but there’s very little left…not even all of his…er…parts. Miss me already girl?” he patted the dog who was wagging her tail furiously.
“You’ve been the one taking care of her?”
“What do you find so strange about that? Of course I have. At least I can keep her fed and watered before turning her into the Animal Shelter for adoption.”
“I’m taking her back to Santa Barbara with me.”
“I don’t see you as the dog type, Crane. Besides you can’t exactly keep her aboard Seaview.”
“I’ve no doubt someone at NIMR will be glad to take her in.If not, I’ll take her home to my mother.”
“Seems like you’ve got it all figured out…Kolowski? Get me some coffee. This stuff's cold.”
“His name's Ko-wal-ski,” Lee corrected. “And he’s under no obligation to fetch and carry for you whatsoever.”
“Well, you are, Commander smarty pants, as a Reserve junior officer. I might be forced to keep my grubby hands off of you as an interim aide, as Harriman so succinctly put it, but I'll be damned if an underling is going to argue about a cup of coffee! Had enough problems with Jackson lecturing me on his job description. Speaking of Jackson, you do realize don't you that a military funeral is out of the question. Budget cuts. So hurry up and decide what you want to do with him. Hope you won't plan anything too elaborate. I have a lot of pressing matters to attend to and my calendar's pretty booked.”
“You're excused. I…I guess I’ll be scattering his ashes on Kauai. We used to go hiking there, near the lighthouse...I'll do it tomorrow. Ski, you can leave these files. I'll have an agent from ONI collect them. I'm going to the morgue.”
“I wouldn't recommend it Crane, but if you're that determined,” Starke sighed, “ I'll order up a car.”
The morgue smelled of antiseptic. The medical examiner’s assistant pulled the remains of the accident victim out from the wall of refrigerated cubicles, and removed the sheet.
Lee almost swooned as he took in the charred, almost skeletal remains of what was left of his brother in all but name. Starke’s warnings had done little to prepare Lee for this. He felt quite ill. Then convincing himself he had to do this, Lee took the remnant of Joe’s right hand, and felt along the little finger.
“Oh gawd, it is him…it is him…” his last lingering hope that it was all some terrible mistake vanished, taunting him with the finality of it all.
“Here,” the assistant half pulled half dragged Crane to the wastebasket as he began to gag then throw up.
“I warned you,” Starke stood well back leaning against the door.
“I…I had to be sure…”he vomited again.
Kowalski couldn't blame the Skipper his illness, as he saw the burnt skull, and severed bones of what had once been a man. And the Skipper’s friend. Finding an inner strength he didn’t know was there, the crewman approached Crane, who had stopped vomiting but was still groaning.
“I’ll take care of him now,” Ski pre-empted Starke,“C’mon Skip. Let’s go back and take Sandy home..”
“Wait…I…want…I need to talk to him…alone…”
“Are you daft man?” Starke demanded. “Take your crewman's advice. You’ll just puke all over again.”
“Get out!” Lee roared, “Leave me alone!”
“I'll be right outside Skipper,” Ski said gently to which Crane nodded.
“Hmph, order me around will you Crane, Harry will hear of this!”
“He didn't mean anything by it sir,” Ski ushered Starke toward the door, “Just needs a little time for...uh...”he looked at the assistant inquiringly.
“Yeah, closure,” Starke and the assistant preceded him out of the door, but not before Ski took a backward glance and saw Crane speaking to the body, calmly at first, but then leaning against the tray, his eyes moist, and brushing his fingers gently against the skull’s forehead.
“I see,” Morton said as Ski used the pay phone outside of the lounge to reach Seaview and inform the XO about everything, “Scatter his ashes? On Kauai? Tomorrow?” Morton asked from the radio shack, “Do you think he can handle it? I see. No, no word on when the Admiral can leave Washington. I see…damn…do your best to keep an eye on him…by the way, scanners had FS1 nearly in orbit....Look, Ski, see that he has some dinner and goes to bed…You’ll be staying there with the Captain overnight. If he complains tell him the order's from me. Golden Retriever? Well, I’m not sure…I’ll check around… Yes Ski, thanks for calling…keep me posted…Seaview out.”
For a moment after the call ended and Chip returned the private line phone to Sparks, Chip said nothing, then whispered morosely to himself, “Oh Lee, Lee, Lee…”
“Is the Skipper okay?” Sharkey gulped.
“No, Chief. Not by a long shot…”Morton pursed his lips and made a decision. “Frank? We're aborting the mission. Lay in a course for Kauai. Flank speed. We’re not going to let the Skipper suffer like this all by himself, not if I have anything to say about it. Sparks, get me the White House. Tell them…it’s an emergency.”
“Skipper, you really should eat something,” Ski poured out some kibble for the dog.
“I don't care what Morton told you, enough of the mother henning” Crane headed to the liquor cabinet.
“Sorry sir...uh, that's whiskey.”
“So, I need to get drunk, okay?” Lee was about to open the pristine bottle.
“But Skipper,” Ski’s mind was in overdrive. The Captain was not in the habit of imbibing. And his job was to look after him. “What would Commander Jackson think if you were all well, hungover when you say goodbye to him tomorrow? That’s what you planned isn’t it? Way up to the top of that sea cliff? Kind of a long hike you said...only the park services have the little golf carts....”
Crane had told him of one of his favorite places on Kauai. The clifftop view was spectacular and the almost constant breeze an ideal setting for scattering someone’s ashes…especially since there wouldn’t be a funeral and Starke was persona non grata.
Damn if the man didn’t look like he was expecting to be keel hauled at dawn.
“Okay okay…you win,” he put the bottle back. “I’m going to bed.”
“It's only 1600 and we got hot dogs...You’ll need all your strength tomorrow.”
“Are you going to pester me the whole time we’re here? I...oh hell, I'm sorry, Ski,” he plopped down on the sofa, and stared at the boxes stuffed to the gills with personal items. “Okay, make mine with ketchup, maybe some butter on the buns...”
As Ski microwaved the franks, Crane related small tidbits about this picture and that of the both of them as he retrieved them from the boxes, and even shared a particularity ribald story from their early years as the crewman joined him for the meal, all the while listening raptly to Crane reminisce.
It was getting stormy. Picking up the urn from the hastily arranged crematorium, Lee placed it gently in the sidecar of his motorcycle and headed to the motor ferry to take him to the island of Kauai, after convincing Ski that he wanted to do this alone.
But Ski knew and Crane knew Ski knew, he just didn't want to risk tears in public.
In stark contrast to his antiquated rust bucket, he was resplendent in dress whites, causing more than a few heads on the ferry to turn. If anyone wanted begin a conversation, they were pretty much dissuaded when they saw ‘McInty's Crematorium’ stamped on the urn. Leaving the man in peace, it wasn’t long before the ferry docked and folks dispersed to the various attractions, by vehicle and by foot.
He didn't have to hike the trail as expected; some rangers, spotting the Naval officer and his urn, easily figuring out yet another person that wanted his ashes spilled out atop the cliff, offered him a lift on their golf cart to the outcrop.
Giving him their sympathies then leaving, he stood in deep contemplation, the breeze ruffling his hair, the sounds of gulls in air and the sea below. The two had often spoken about what they wanted when the Grim Reaper claimed their lives. Ashes were simply ashes after all. But despite what he'd told himself, it was going to be hard to just ‘throw him away.”
Suddenly the sound of golf carts and shuffling feet behind him, alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone.
“Atten-shun!” Morton’s voice shouted as he saw almost the entire compliment of the Seaview, including Kowalski. They must have moored her on the other side of the island.
Maybe Joe couldn’t have an official military send off, but it was 'close enough for government work' as he’d have joked himself, had he been there.
Chip moved toward Lee and stood beside him, waiting for Lee to make the first move. He could see a myriad of emotions in Lee's eyes. Gratitude and pride in his men coupled with the sadness in what he had to do.
Lee bowed his head, then with a nod to Chip who ordered all hands to salute, Lee scattered the last vestige of what had been his friend up into the air and over the cliff to the sea below.
“Chip…I…I don’t know what to say, how to thank you…” Lee finally managed after a few minutes.
“A good submarine officer uses his initiative when warranted.”
“But…ohmygod…you aborted the mission? Does Nelson know?”
“He does now,” Nelson surprised them, thanking another batch of rangers for the lift, “Saw Seaview on final approach to Honolulu. Had a whale of time getting a ferry from Honolulu over here. Had to use my influence and call in a favor from 5-O for a police boat. Will be expecting two dinner guests in a couple of days. As for Morton's change of my charting mission, well, considering the circumstances, we’ll let it slide…how are you Lee?”
Morton took the unspoken hint from Nelson,dismissed and herded the crew back down the trail in the waiting golf carts and on foot, down to the dock and Seaview's waiting zodiacs.
“I wish I could have been here for you Lee,”Nelson began, knowing his words wouldn’t help.
Lee’s eyes were only on the empty urn, reminding him of his loss.
“I…I…”Crane fought a loosing battle against the tears that began to flow and he collapsed to his knees in anguish.
Nelson was on the ground beside him immediately, pulling Lee against his shoulder, and held him there, letting him sob against his chest, and rocking him gently.
It may have been a private moment, but not far enough way for more than a few faces to witness the two, like a father and son, in a moment of compassion and surrender.
“The coffee’ll be ready soon,” Ski said.
“Thanks,” Crane took off his shoes and socks and placed them in the adjoining laundry/mud room off the kitchen, the cloudburst having drenched he and Nelson before they could return to the ferry's dock.
Just then the doorbell rang.
“I'll get it Ski...Admiral Starke? What are you doing here?”
“Seaview’s offshore of Kauai. I thought you said she was off on a charting mission! At least that’s the excuse Harriman gave me when I asked for her services. Good God man, you’re soaking wet. Go dry off those curls; you look like a girl. Kowlowski, is that coffee I smell? Well, what’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? Can't I at least ask for some here? Please?”
“Heavens, is that you?” Starke picked up an open scrapbook on the littered coffee table.“Busting regs when it suited you? Even middies on leave have rules,” Starke snorted just look at that hair!”
“It was High School,” Lee sighed.
“You and Jackson go back that far?”
“No; it must be something my mother shared with him when he visited,” Lee took the scrapbook out of his hands and rather pointedly closed it and took it back to the coffee table.
“Now, if you don’t mind, just what was it you wanted, sir?”
“I thought it was obvious. I want Seaview. There’s a war game in a few days, and I’d like her to be my observation platform…”
“Sorry Jiggs,” Nelson appeared, showered and changed. “She’s unavailable.”
“Whatever you're doing, it can wait, surely!”
“Then at least change your mind about Crane for a few weeks. I need someone with a bit more sense than the file clerks that I’m left with…”
“Honestly Jiggs, using the Captain of the Seaview as an aide? Besides, he’s on leave. The whole crew is.”
“We are?” Ski whispered.
“You are are now, apparently,” Lee replied.
“Ski, I called a cab for you, should be here soon. I'll take care of him now,” he whispered.”
“I heard that!”
“Then you won't mind that he should be enjoying shore leave with his friends, not babysitting you. Now for the first order of business, “you’ll catch your death in this air conditioning wet like that. Go ahead and clean up, the water’s probably hot again by now. I’ll entertain our guest.”
Kowalski glanced at Crane nervously.
“It's okay Ski,” Crane acquiesced. “Have a good time...and thanks.”
“I'll get my stuff,” he hurried to the guest room.
“What are you waiting for Crane,” Starke said, “you’re making puddles on the carpet. Not a good impression for the dog. ”
“If you need anything…” Ski returned.
“Your cab's here,” Starke held the window curtains open by the door.
“You heard him,” Nelson said, “Scram, have a good time. You,” he pointed to Lee, the bathroom's that way.”
“Pick pick pick,” Lee grinned, nodded to the retreating Ski and headed down the hallway.
“Jiggs,” Nelson fumed, “what are you doing?”
“Well, I don't see anything labeled Top Secret, do you?” he lifted out scrapbook after scrapbook, picture after picture...then, “Harriman, look at this…”
“More than one...Jackson never told me.”
“And you never delved deeper into his service record either I suppose.”
Starke began to laugh, picking out a small yellowed photograph of a baby.“Well, it’s certainly not Joe,” Starke snorted and handed it to Nelson.
It was the proverbial photo of a nude baby on a bear skin rug, well, actually a white fluffy towel, his soft baby behind for all to see. It was stamped 'Sate Orphanage', and handwritten, 'male,#777, hazel eyes.'
“The Captain of the Seaview in his birthday suit on a bear skin rug, “Starke mused, “but why on earth would Jackson have it?”
“I suppose because it’s the sort of stuff brothers keep, Jiggs. But knowing those two it was probably held in reserve for blackmail purposes.”
“Here’s a couple of letters…”
“Wait…I don’t think we should be going through any more of this…”
“It’s from Crane….”
I have a couple of minutes so I’m writing (actually using Spark's typewriter, typos and all) to ask if you’re still having nightmares. I can’t get rid of mine. Almost woke up the whole boat. Sure wish I could tell someone, anyone, about what really happened when we ‘went missing’ on that shore leave.
But by the time my watch began, I was hardly trembling anymore except for spilling my coffee on some charts. Not the kind of thing to win friends and influence the XO.I chalked it up to a tennis injury, but the Chief knew, the XO knew, the crew knew and I knew something was up.
That wouldn’t have been so bad if the Skipper hadn’t gotten a wire from ONI and ordered not to let anyone ask any questions if I started to act ‘strange.’
Otherwise I’m enjoying myself aboard this boat, I enjoy all subs, and while I always knew I had a knack for submarines, I feel pretty vindicated now that I have my dolphins.
How is your life now as a full time field agent? You know, part of me is a envious. I'm little more than a 'echo machine' and ‘go fer. Still, I had my choice to opt out to be a full time agent too. But I can’t help feeling I’m destined for something a bit more-well-traditional n the Navy.
By the way, Mom would love to have you come out for Christmas again if we can both get leave, that is. She keeps pestering me about how I should try to be like you. Little does she know the ‘office’ you work at isn’t pushing pencils but playing James Bond. God help us if she ever finds out I do too, even on a part time basis.
Well, my watch begins soon, and this typewriter ribbon is about gone.
All for now bro,
Just then Sandy perked up and the men quickly shoved the items back into the box. By the time Crane emerged in some rather ancient Academy sweats he was none the wiser.
“You sure this stuff is for real, Ski?”Cookie asked over the pulled pork and poi in one of Pearl Harbor’s seedier joints.
“You’ve had eats in Pearl before. I’m telling you, my brother Stan said you couldn’t do better than if you had a real luau back in the days of King Kamehameha at this place....”then he went pale
“Hey what's the matter kid?” Sharkey
asked, “Food poisoning?”
“Oh gawd...no..no...no...”he shook his head and pointed.
“So? It's just a hula dancer.”
“Next to her…,” Ski rose, “C'mon.”
“Tell me about him, Lee,” Nelson said as he sat next to Crane on the sofa. Starke had already left, and Lee was looking maudlin, staring at one of the old photos taken of he and Joe on their motorcycles.
“He…what I ever did to deserve his friendship? Even my Mom treated him like my long lost brother…”Lee’s eyes began to moisten.
“He hated me at first sight, did you know that? And I couldn’t stand him,” Lee chuckled, “He took his hazing duties toward us plebes seriously.”
“I'm confused, Lee. I thought you both were in the same class at the Academy. Roommates even.”
“That didn’t happen until a bad water pipe made one of the wings unlivable for awhile. So some of the ‘Youngster’s were drafted to accommodate us soaked swabbies, even if it meant us using sleeping bags on their nice clean floors. Believe me, my toothbrush spent far more time on his ‘nice clean deck’ than in the head. Of course, by then I knew to purchase my toothbrushes by the gross…” Lee’s face softened as the memories began to come spilling out.
“Mr. Morton?” the deck watch called down, “Mr. O’Brien’s back.”
“Right there,” Chip checked his wallet, not sure if he should go for some eats on his own, to pick up some take out for Lee. Nelson was sure to have things well in hand with Lee now but still...
Lee, he mused with pride. There was no doubting his look of appreciation toward Chip and the crew as they'd stood to attention behind him on the outcrop. But he'd wanted more. More like what Lee had had with Jackson. And with Nelson, well, maybe not quite that close, theirs' was more of a father/son relationship, but he still felt a bit cheated. No, that wasn’t right. Lee was always friendly with him…it was more like being…left out at times… unless Lee just wasn’t the demonstrative type…
Brought back to the present by Lt. O’Brien’s snappy salute, Morton turned the conn over to him and headed to one of the more well known Chinese take outs.
“So you ‘demanded satisfaction’ since he hazed you about your looks?” Nelson asked, aghast, leaning back in the sofa.
“I was young and stupid, okay? I was just so darn tired of always having been judged by my face. All my life! I thought my shaved head would have stopped it outright, or afterwards the buzz cut, but he when he called me a ‘pretty boy’ for the nth time I snapped. Don’t get me wrong; I expected and understood the whys and wherefores of hazing. If it was needed to point out something not polished, something not remembered, etc, that was fine. But just because I was cursed with girly eyelashes? Just didn’t seem fair to me. Since pistols at dawn was out of the question, the boxing ring was the only way to battle it out. And I wanted an apology. The stakes were that if he won, I wouldn’t say another word about it. But if I won, he’d not only apologize publicly, he'd quit referring to my looks in a derogatory way….”
“We reserved the ring and by the time the match began, word was out so practically everyone was there, even some instructors, the coach too...”
“Well, go on.”
“I came away from our little makeshift match with a couple of black eyes, two cracked ribs and a super deflated ego. I was just going to have to put up with being referred to as the ‘pretty boy' for my entire remaining 4 years. But you know,” Lee's eyes softened, “he never called me that again.”
“Is that about when you got interested in boxing?”
“Hell no. Wasn’t interested in it at all. Actually I hate the sport. But I was determined not to land on my arse again. So I pestered the coach to try out for the boxing team. He was aghast to say the least, I wasn't even a lightweight. But he said he'd give me 6 weeks to add a few pounds and to get into shape before the next tryouts. So when he asked for volunteers to be my practice sparring partners, well, there was only one...and I think you know the rest of the story…”
“It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. Too bad neither of us knew it at the time,” he chuckled, “ but we got along tolerably well even if he bugged me to death with second servings of potatoes and ice cream. We really didn’t hit if off until we both ended up in the wrong place and the wrong time and,” he paused, “learned all about how not to be James Bond, even if we did catch the attention of ONI. Anyway, that's another story...”he sighed, “Those were the days.…sir, if you don’t mind I think I’ll head on over to Seaview, check a few things,” and was out the door before even Sandy could wag her tail goodbye.
Lee climbed down into Seaview after having been piped aboard by Lt. O’Brien. Refusing the conn, Crane was observed by the few men on boat sitting duty absently run his hands over some of the consoles on the way to the Observation Nose. They had to grin. It was as habitual to him as brushing his teeth.
The lights from the dock cast an almost festive glow through the view ports. Even his friend had joked about Lee’s delay in bringing him over to see ‘the wife’. Even with the best of intentions and invitations, it had never happened. Life and duty just always got in the way. And now, it was gone.
Sighing, he scrounged around Nelson’s liquor cabinet for a little sustenance and recognized a dusty bottle of Tahitian 'Brandy' that Nelson had had aboard Nautilus. He’d said it wasn’t really brandy, but a fermented ‘frog juice’ that would put hair on his chest but that neither he nor Nelson had been brave or stupid enough to put it to the test.
Nelson had given him carte blanch to the cabinet almost since the day Lee had snuck aboard for his top secret and soon not to be just temporary assignment. Good as time as any to take him up on it.
“Chip, good to see you!” Nelson welcomed him at the door, the cab driving off. “Mmm. That smells good.”
“I know Lee likes Chinese so...I thought I'd ask you to join me.”
“You just missed him. He's gone down to Seaview. He’s okay but he’s been a bit maudlin. It’s okay Sandy, we’re just taking your uncle his dinner,” Nelson ushered Morton back out the door, “Can you ride a motorcycle? There's a spare in the garage.”
“Well, I watched Lee as he drove that monstrosity of his...can't be all that difficult. Even if this one doesn't have a sidecar.”
“That was quick sirs,” O’Brien, topside, welcomed the XO and Admiral back aboard, despite their ride in the patrol car, Jackson's motorcycle lashed to the back.
“And next time remember,” the patrolman warned, “you need a license as a motorcycle operator,” then ripped up the ticket he was going to have given Nelson as the other officer removed the bike and handed the handlebar to him. “Okay, you’ve been warned.”
“Yes officer. Thanks for the lift.”
Morton took the vehicle and motioned the Jr. Officer to take charge of it as he waved goody to the fleeing car.
“What the heck's that racket?”Nelson asked as he approached the hatch, the musical drumming from the belly of the sub.
“The Beach Boys Music Festival. It's on all the radio stations.”
“It's loud enough to burst the eardrums! Turn it off.”
“Uh, that might be difficult.”
“Why?” Morton asked, “Why's it difficult?”
“You'll have to ask the Skipper. He turned it on.”
Nelson raised an eyebrow. To his knowledge only Riley like surfer music. He quickly climbed down the ladder, followed by Morton.
Lee had indeed enjoyed the Tahitian Brandy, the empty bottle rolling on the deck and what looked like a nearly empty bottle of whiskey in his hand as he crooned along, twirling around and around in the swivel lounger.
Just then O'Brien summoned Nelson back topside to handle a 'situation'.
“Oh, there you are Chipee!” Crane finally noticed his presence.
Chipee? Morton raised a surprised eyebrow. He’d never heard that before. Chipper, yes, on occasion…
“Was going to have Joe over...” Lee slurred, “now’s too late…please don’t die on me too Chippee! Please don’t you an’ Harry die on me…”he grabbed Morton’s arm. “Promise me...Promise meee....”
“All right Lee, all right, I promise.”
“Chip,” Nelson approached, ,interrupting, “We have a… haven't you turned that damn noise off yet?”
“Shhh! Here comes the best part!” Lee shouted, “And she’ll have fun fun fun when her daddy takes the T-bird awayaayyyy….”he sang, twirling around again.
“Heavens,” Nelson muttered and motioned Morton to join him in the Control Room.
Kowalski was down the ladder first, Cookie and their pals pushing and grabbing a man, in Hawaiian shirt and Bermudas down with them.
“Chip,”Nelson said, bemused, “I don’t believe you’ve met Lt. Cmdr. Joe Jackson.”
“What’s the meaning of this, Admiral Nelson?” Jackson complained. “I was practically kidnapped by your men and dragged here! Don’t get me wrong, while I’d like to see Lee’s boat, I surely would, this is not the way I want to be piped aboard! When he finds out how badly you’ve mishandled me….is that Lee??” he added as Lee wailed about the T-Bird.
“Lee’s not quite.... himself,” Chip said.
“Not himself, he’s sloshed! What the hell have you done to him?” Jackson was about to hurry toward the nose, but was waylaid by Nelson as he pressed the button to close the accordion pleats.
“No. You’d better let Chip speak to him first…you’re bound to be a shock. And I'd like some answers Mister. And right now.”
“Chippeeee,” Lee raised another drink, “you missed the best part!”
“I’m sorry Lee…uh…I need to tell you something…”
“Did I get it wrong? And how’d she have fun when her daddy took the T-bird away?”
“Lee, about Joe…”
“Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann,” Lee sang with the radio. “Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann…”
Morton sighed and pushed the button to open the pleats, to face a sour faced Jackson and a concerned Nelson.
“It’s no good, he’s too sloshed.”
“Not for me,” Jackson headed to Crane.
“No!” Lee nearly screamed at the sight of his friend, cringing, “We’re not at the 16th parallel! We’re not at the 16th parallel! Are we?” he asked in a confused stupor.
“Lee, it’s all right,” Morton knelt beside him, ‘he’s no ghost. He's your friend. He’d never possess you. ”
“But…I ….I saw him at the morgue…all burnt up, in pieces. He’s dead,” Lee furrowed his eyebrows, and looked Jackson square in the face, “Why aren’t you in Heaven?”he whined.
“Lee,”it was Joe’s turn to kneel beside him, “Listen to me buddy. It’s me, truly it is. I loaned my apartment and car to Kyle for a few days, you remember him. He must've already packed up his things before the accident. I didn’t know anything about it till Nelson told me a few minutes ago..I was out ..partying before heading home...”
“No…'mposter…trick…go away. Chippee, make him go awayyyy.”
“Chipee?” Nelson muttered, raising a bemused eyebrow while the embarrassed Morton simply patted Lee's arm.
“Lee, Look at me!” Joe demanded, “Touch me! Feel me! I’m flesh and blood…”
“Go ahead lad, Lad,”Nelson urged, “It'll be all right.”
“We promise,” Chip added.
Lee hesitated but began to prod Joe’s face and when convinced his hand wouldn’t go through it, began to try to pull Jackson's shirt off one shoulder.
“What’s he doing?” Nelson whispered.
“Wants to see this,” Joe removed his shirt far enough down his arm to reveal a garish tattoo.
“J…Joe? It’s really you?”
“Yeah, bro it’s me…”
“Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t dead?” Lee whined gleefully, embracing him.
“I didn’t know I was …I told you all about Kyle in my letter. Don’t you remember it?”
“Wha...Letter?” Lee furrowed his brows.
“I gave it to Starke to mail.”
“Or Lee didn’t remember it,” Jackson said.
“I doubt that,” Nelson said.
“Oh gawd,” Jackson rose, “either it’s in the dead letter office …gotten lost in the US Mail...or Starke forgot and …oh hell, Lee, I’m so sorry you had to go through all this…”
“You’re not kidding,” Morton huffed, angry.
“Look, Chippee…”Jackson said.
“That’s Chip to you. Or Commander. And if you’re as good a friend as Lee seems to think, I’d have thought you would have spoken to him about your plans long before now…”
“Don’t you patronize me! Do you have any idea what you put him through?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be dead! And don’t you tell me I’m not his friend. His best friend. Even if all I ever hear from him is 'Morton this' and 'Nelson that'. I swear he even has delusions of the Admiral's godhood!”
“That’s enough!” Nelson interrupted, “good grief, this is Lee you're arguing over! He’s certainly allowed to have more than one friend, even multiple best friends, and certainly more than one brother!”
Now that he knew his friend was alive, Lee was happily ignoring their raised voices, his own wailing at the top of his voice, “She’s my little deuce coupe! You don’t know what I got…“So happy….” he slurred, flashing them one of his special grins, and hiccuped.
“Gentlemen,” Nelson said, “ I believe it’s time we put Lee to bed.”
If the few crew aboard noticed their inebriated Captain being half dragged, half carried to his cabin by Jackson and Morton while Nelson called Starke, they tried their damnedest not to give any indication. Even if Seaview was beginning to smell like a cheap bar in his wake.
“So happy, Chipee,” Lee allowed Morton to push him down on the bunk and remove his shoes.
“Yes Lee, now close your eyes and go to sleep.”
“Not seeeepy,” he yawned.
“Do it anyway.”
“Lee,” Jackson began, fluffing the pillow, even if Lee's eyes were obediently closed, “I really am sorry about the mix up.”
“Hmph!” Morton snorted.
Just as Jackson’s hand was about tousle Lee's hair, Morton's beat him to it.
“So,” Jackson said, “you do that too, do you Morton?”
“No,” Chip said, surprised by his actions, “I never have. It just seemed…like the right thing to do.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff like that with Lee in your life. He…needs looking after sometimes,” Jackson paused, “you know, you'd better make sure nothing ever happens to you and Nelson. He'd be devastated. In fact, I'm not sure he'd be able to go on, even if he may not know how much he loves you both.”
“He was pretty devastated thinking you were dead…”
“Kowalski told me about what you did, bringing Seaview here for a military send off…”
“You deserved a military funeral.”
“That’s not why you did it. You love him too,” Jackson pulled up a chair to sit next to the bunk.
“Yeah,” Chip pulled up the other and sat staring at Lee’s sleeping face.
“Looks like a cherub doesn’t he?”
“Oh hell, tell him that and he’ll stuff you out a torpedo tube.”
“Yeah…or demand satisfaction…”
“It was a long time ago…”
“Harriman,” Starke huffed “is this necessary?” as Nelson escorted him toward the Captain’s cabin, “It was an honest mistake. I'm used to delegating...”
“Tell that to Lee. He’s probably still awake,” he opened the semi closed door.
But alas, Crane was sound asleep. Morton was stretched out in one of the chairs, snoring, and Jackson in another, equally somnolent.
“I suppose we'll have to wait until tomorrow and leave the Brother’s Crane to their dreams.”
But startled, Joe awoke, the chair toppling as he rose, “Uh…sir?”
“Admiral?” Chip stood, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.
“Admiral Starke has something he wants to say to you both.”
“I believe this is Crane’s,” Starke returned Joe’s unmailed letter to it's owner.
“Where was it?” Morton asked.
“It...er... got lost in all the paperwork in my attache case...sorry. Won't happen again. Well, not that that's settled, how about a midnight snack? Especially since your cook’s back aboard,”Starke said as he led Nelson out.
“Sounds good to me,” Chip said as Jackson pulled up the askew blanket up back over Lee.
“Me too, Chippee. By the way, don't let the nickname get to you. You should hear what he calls Nelson. Tell you later... ”
Just outside in the corridor, the Admiral’s having overheard, Nelson spread his arms akimbo with a grin to Starke’s questioning eyebrow.
After a couple of helpings of ice cream, Jackson and Starke were finally taking their leave of Seaview, Morton already having said good night.
“So,” Starke asked Jackson, before they climbed the ladder topside, “just what does Crane call Harriman?”
“Sorry sir, that's privileged information,” he winked at Nelson and departed.
“Oh, let the boys have their sibling secrets, Jiggs.”
“You know Harry, if those three are brothers what does that make you?”
“I think you know.”
“Yeah, you lucky dog. My son's not half the man Crane is.”
“Drive carefully Jiggs. We'll talk tomorrow...maybe arrange something for that war game of yours.”
“Change of heart?”
“No..it's just the 'friend' thing to do.”
Later, when Nelson meandered down to the Captain's cabin to check on Lee, he found Morton already there. Chip, in his PJ’s and robe, was parked next to Lee' s bunk and equally sound asleep. He had to wonder if this was a first, Morton finally freed from his XO/Captain relationship, to that of almost the kind Nelson enjoyed with his ‘son’.
Before pulling the other chair opposite Lee's feet, he gently ran his own hand through Lee's curls, “Sleep well son...it's all better now...your brother...your brothers, he corrected, aren't ‘gone’ any longer.”