The Incident

By R. L. Keller


Master Chief Andrew “Bull” Bullock cringed slightly when he heard the call to report to the Captain’s cabin.  While he didn’t think that he wasn’t in any trouble himself – at least any that he knew about – he was not looking forward to the imminent meeting.  He was sure that the Skipper wanted a first hand report on why one of his junior officers was now sporting a cast on his left hand.  Bull knew the answer; he was one of only five men aboard the submarine Nautilus who did.  At least, he was pretty sure that no one else knew.


As Bull hung up the mic from answering the call, he gave thought to why he was reluctant to answer the questions he knew were coming.  It wasn’t like it was about any of his ‘boys’.  Bull had built a good reputation over his long and storied career in the Navy.  He was known as a hard worker, a man who ran a tight boat, and who took care of the seamen under his command.  While he tried to keep a respectful relationship with the officers, he did everything in his not inconsiderable power – especially now that he was COB – to see that none of them ran roughshod over either himself or his crew.  He particularly had little patience for ‘wet behind the ears’ pups barely out of Annapolis.  Most of them were hot-set to turn the world on fire, and yet didn’t have a clue as to how the ‘real’ world worked.  So, why was he trying so hard to protect Nautilus’ newest junior, Lt. Lee Crane?


Walking forward toward Officers’ Country he let his mind wander back across the three months since Crane had come aboard.  They’d been interesting, that’s for sure, and he caught himself smiling.  Crane had been a pleasant surprise for the COB.  Not only wasn’t he cocky, he showed a real caring for the seamen under his immediate command, and tried to get to know as many of the others aboard as he could.  While he expected his team to work hard and competently, he was also usually right in the middle of things helping, not just standing back and issuing orders like so many officers.  Afraid to get their hands or uniforms even slightly smudged, Bull muttered to himself.  That in itself went a long way to earning the respect of the crew as well as the Master Chief. 


Then there had been that incident with the Skipper.*  The whole boat knew that Capt. Nelson wasn’t feeling well after a slight diving accident.  But in usual Nelson fashion he’d blown off the corpsman and no one, not even XO Mains, had had the nerve to call him on it.  Then there had been some kind of scene right after Nautilus docked at Pearl Harbor.  Bull had gotten it third hand as it made the rounds of the boat, and wasn’t too sure he believed what he heard.  But whatever had happened, Lt. Crane was in the middle of it, and Nelson had ended up in the base hospital.  Further scuttlebutt had Nelson order the young lieutenant pick him up from there a few days later, and ream the kid out all the way back to the boat.  Bull unconsciously shuddered.  Knowing Nelson’s temper, he was surprised that the kid was still aboard.  And yet, not only was he still here, there was never another word spoken about the incident.  Bull shrugged.  Go figure.


But Bull admitted that Crane’s stock on the boat had risen decidedly after that, whether or not anyone said anything.  And without Crane even acknowledging it.  In fact, the young man seemed genuinely embarrassed by the whole thing.  He just buried himself that much deeper into his work and apparently tried to forget that it even happened.  He’d already gotten into a bit of trouble with Lt. Worth for doing extra chores when he was supposed to be taking what little down time JOs were allowed.  After they left Pearl, Bull took it upon himself to have a quiet word with the men under Crane’s direct supervision.  Nothing was done overtly.  But not one of them had any problems keeping an extra eye on the lieutenant, doing what they could to keep him from getting into any more trouble.


While the crew aboard Nautilus, seamen and officers alike, got along fairly well, there were still those occasional flairs of temper between men cooped up together in tight quarters for months at a time.  Still, Bull had been surprised one day to see Lt. Crane get so frustrated with a stubborn bolt on a piece of equipment that he was ‘helping’ his men fix that he bashed it with the wrench.  Of course, then he’d gotten totally embarrassed when the hit had apparently loosened the nut and it came off practically in his hand.  But he’d taken his men’s chuckles good-naturedly and simply gotten on with the job.  What had happened earlier today, however, was still a bit of a surprise.


The day had started like so many others; ‘day’ being determined only by the clock, as Nautilus cruised submerged a dozen or so nautical miles north of Taiwan in the East China Sea.  Several Taiwanese merchant ships had mysteriously sunk recently, the incidents blamed on a Chinese sub.  So far those reports were unsubstantiated.  Capt. Nelson and Nautilus had been given the task of trying to determine the truth.


Lt. Crane was more and more being assigned duties all over the boat, including the Conn, but his main station continued to be Engineering.  He had a decided knack for ‘feeling’ when something wasn’t running just exactly right.  Bull had scoffed at the first crewman who mentioned it.  He’d admonished the man to pay more attention to his own duties and not be waiting for the lieutenant to point out a problem that the crewman should have already caught.  But he got a firsthand lesson one morning not long after they’d left Pearl and headed west.  Lt. Crane was now assigned “A” watch – from 0600 to 1200 hours.  Bullock was making a quick walkthrough of the boat, as was his habit first thing in the morning.  When he walked into Engineering he caught the tail end of a conversation.  Crane was explaining to one of the technicians, McAllister – who’d joined the boat at Pearl – to check the screw bearings; that they didn’t sound right.  It would mean stopping the submarine momentarily, and the tech was trying to explain that everything sounded right to him.  He just knew that XO Mains wouldn’t be pleased to have the cruise interrupted for no good reason.  Everything sounded right to Bull as well, and he was about to come to the defense of his crewman when Crane picked up the mic, called the Conn, and told XO Mains that he needed to call a halt so that the bearings could be checked.  Mains told Crane that he’d be down to check the problem for himself, and Bullock hung around to hopefully keep Mains from having the young lieutenant’s head.


Instead, no sooner had the XO set foot through the hatch than they all heard the unmistakable sound of a bearing breaking.  The engines were immediately shut down.  Mains called to have the reactor backed down, and then called the Conn to explain.  McAllister just stood there staring at Crane.  Bullock had to send a glare around the room to wipe the smirks off all of the other seamen’s faces. 


This morning, as the boat skulked around keeping an eye out for other submarines doing the same thing between Taiwan and Japan, the COB had again been wandering around, just checking up on things.  Stepping into the Engine Room he was immediately hit with the air of tension.  Noticeably absent was the usual calm that prevailed on Crane’s watches.  Crane was checking a clipboard and barely acknowledged the COB’s entrance.  Bullock noticed that he seemed to be gripping the pen extremely tightly, and taking very deep breaths.


“All okay down here?” Bull asked, as was his habit.  He’d been tempted lately to skip checking wherever Lt. Crane was stationed, as the young man had such a knack for keeping things running smoothly.  He was glad this morning that he hadn’t given in to that temptation.


Crane took a particularly deep breath and finally looked up.  “All’s well, Master Chief,” he answered, almost – but not quite – in his usual calm voice touched with a quick smile.


“At least it is now,” came sotto voce from an undetermined source.


Crane frowned.  “As you were, men,” he ordered.  But Bull recognized, even in the order, that there was the lieutenant’s usual respect for his crew, so he was pretty sure that what had obviously ticked off the normally imperturbable lieutenant hadn’t been something any of them had done.


“Shall I take your status report forward, sir?” Bullock offered.  He’d done it occasionally, when Crane was in the middle of something.


Crane, who had returned to writing on the clipboard, took another deep breath.  “Thank you, Master Chief, but I’m still working on it.  Don’t want to hold you up on your rounds.”  He finally sent the COB a genuine smile.


Bullock returned it.  “No problem, sir.  I’ll just go check the Reactor Room.  Be back this way in about fifteen minutes.”


Crane gave him a short nod and continued writing.  When Bullock returned he was still writing, but looked up when the COB entered the hatch, unclipped several sheets of paper from the clipboard, and handed them to the Master Chief.  Bullock took note of the fact that there was much less tension in the air so he was totally unprepared when, as he turned to leave, Crane suddenly reached out and smacked his left fist into the bulkhead.  An abbreviated yelp escaped and Bull immediately turned back.  “Sir?”


Crane tried to wave off his momentary temper tantrum, but Bull could see the pain written all too plainly on his young face.  Not wanting to take any chances, Bull reached for the nearest mic.  He got a glare from the lieutenant but it quickly turned sheepish, making him look even younger than Bullock knew him to be.  He went along quietly when the corpsman decided that an x-ray was needed to determine if anything was broken.  But when Lt. Worth, who’d also been notified, appeared and asked how the injury had happened, all Lt. Crane would admit to was “My own fault, sir.  I just slipped when the boat shifted slightly.  It won’t happen again.”  A quick look tossed at the seamen present sent all of them back to their instruments.  Bull stayed long enough after Crane left with the corpsman to hear Worth query the men for his incident report.  To a man, they all said that they’d had their backs to the lieutenant and hadn’t actually seen what happened.  Worth then looked at Bullock.


“Sorry, sir.  I was just leaving and didn’t see it either.”  While he knew that it was wrong, he had no wish to cause trouble after Crane had correctly taken responsibility for the mishap.  Thankfully Worth had just nodded, taken over the watch, and dismissed the COB.


It was while he was walking forward to deliver the status report to XO Mains that he discovered what had triggered the display of anger.  And it took some interpreting of Crane’s normally extremely neat handwriting to figure it out.  Apparently during the final hour of ‘Dog’ watch there had been a slight deviation from norm in one of the electrical switches.  Lt. White had duly noted it, and that he’d assigned Seaman McAllister to check it.  He’d then noted that McAllister had said that it was fine, and at that point ‘Alpha’ watch had taken over.


Within minutes, the switch had again created problems.  Lt. Crane had immediately had it checked again – Bullock suspected that he’d not only done it himself but also probably fixed it.  Crane’s report laid no blame for the mishap.  Those things sometimes happened.  Unfortunately, if they had happened at the wrong time, Nautilus could have been in serious trouble.  Especially on their current assignment.


Bullock, from his own perspective on the crew, translated the report slightly differently from the written words.  Lt. White was lowest in seniority on the boat only to Crane.  He was laid back, easy going, and not a little naïve.  Bullock sometimes wondered how he’d managed to graduate Annapolis.  But his men liked him – probably because White let them do their jobs and didn’t interfere.  McAllister, while a good seaman, needed a firm hand on his back or he tended to cut corners.  And Bullock was pretty sure that sharp-eyed Lt. Crane had rapidly figured that out.  It wasn’t Crane’s style to say anything against either White or McAllister, especially since he hadn’t been present and couldn’t know for sure what had transpired on ‘Dog’ watch.  Bullock, however, was fairly sure of what Crane would have thought about the incident, coupled with the seriousness of the mission.  He had a pretty good idea of why the young lieutenant would be sporting a cast for a few weeks.


Unfortunately, it now appeared that Crane’s explanation of the accident wasn’t good enough for Capt. Nelson.  It was the only logical reason Bullock could think of for being called to the Skipper’s cabin.  No way was he going to outright lie to Capt. Nelson – that was the fastest way Bull knew of to find yourself a landlubber!  He also couldn’t say much against either White or McAllister, except that they might not be best suited to work with each other.  What it boiled down to was, he had only his own suppositions as to what had ticked Lt. Crane off.  And the Master Chief had been around for too long to let scuttlebutt like that disrupt an otherwise smooth-running boat.  Squaring his shoulders, he knocked on the Skipper’s cabin door.


“Come,” came the order.  Bullock entered, closed the hatch behind him, and stood quietly in the small cabin.  Nelson had his nose in a fist full of papers, but looked up fairly quickly.  “I just have a question or two.”  He sent a look the COB’s way that held a quality Bullock hadn’t often seen from Nelson – one of badly disguised amusement.  It was not what the COB was expecting at all, and unnerved him even more.  “I understand that you were present when Lt. Crane was injured,” Nelson continued lightly.  “Just wanted your take on it.”  He sent Bullock a benign look.


“Not sure that I can add anything to Lt. Worth’s report,” Bullock hedged.  Chain of command dictated that Worth would have reported what Crane had told him to XO Mains, and from there it would be passed on to Nelson.  Bullock couldn’t see any of the crew on ‘Alpha’ watch contradicting what Crane had said.  And if they had, it wouldn’t be Bullock called to clarify; it would be Crane! 


Nelson studied his COB for a moment, and Bull wasn’t made any easier by the look.  He got along with Capt. Nelson just fine but, as COB, most of his contact was with XO Mains.  This kind of conversation was unusual.  And Nelson’s next question didn’t help.


“What do you think of our newest JO, Master Chief?”


Bull figured that falling back into old patterns was safest.  “What I think of any of the young pups, sir,” he responded with a slightly derogatory sniff.  “He’ll be okay once he grows up.”  He watched as Nelson worked hard to bury a chuckle.


“Do you think him klutzy, Master Chief?”


“No, sir.” Bull answered immediately with conviction.


“And yet he seemingly slipped – when, by the way, according to all reports from the Conn, we were moving smooth and straight – and hit a bulkhead hard enough to break three bones in his hand.”


“I haven’t seen the corpsman’s report, sir,” Bull responded, trying to keep from answering the obviously asked question.


“Humm,” Nelson replied, and dropped his eyes once more to the sheets of paper.  “And you would have no idea, I suppose, if Lt. Crane had any particular animosity toward that section of bulkhead.”  He didn’t look up, but Bull could still see his eyes sparkling.


“No, sir,” he answered carefully.  “Not that I know of, anyway.”


“Of course not, Master Chief.”  Nelson coughed into his hand.  Not unusual for a smoker like Nelson.  But Bull got the distinct impression that it was more to bury a laugh than anything.  Once Nelson got himself back under control he looked at Bullock.  “So you would see no point in questioning Lt. Crane further on the subject.  Just one of those little accidents that sometimes happen despite our best efforts to see that they don’t.”


“Yes, sir,” Bull readily agreed.  “Just one of those things.”


“And we don’t need to think about maybe putting down better footing in that area, so no one would slip again.”  Bullock heard the heavy accent on ‘slip’, and this time had to council his own face.


“No, sir.  Don’t think it would do any good,” he answered, dead sober.


Nelson looked at him again for a few seconds.  “Sort of what I thought, Master Chief.”  He tossed the papers on his desk.  “I appreciate your input.  I believe that we’ve cleared up the couple of loose ends that XO Mains had, and I’ll see that the reports get filed.  Carry on.”


“Aye, aye, sir,” Bullock answered, spun on his heel, and left.  Man, he muttered to himself as he hurried off to finish what Nelson’s call had interrupted, the old man cracking jokes about one of the juniors?  What’s this boat coming to?  He shook his head.   I’d better be keeping an even closer eye on the kid.  If he’s got the knack of keeping the lid on the pressure cooker named Nelson, he’s definitely worth keeping around.





*see First Duty by R. L. Keller