A Tangled Web

 

 

By Helen

 

 

 

 

 

It was SOP that officers and chiefs of the nuclear submarine Seaview took themselves to Admiral Nelson’s home following a mission, the large conference room inside well suited for this purpose.  Not all of these get-togethers were easy; some had been somber, depressing affairs with official debriefings and repercussions that lasted long after the event.  This was one of the informal ones, discussing a quick supply run to Sealab Four. For this one the cocktail flag was raised and there was ample food from the NIMR kitchens. 

 

The evening had gone well, the men relaxed, eventually drifting away to home.  Finally only the command team was left; this was the normal turn of events.  They now sat, glasses in hand, talking about what they’d heard.

 

“You’re going to tell Sanders to make sure his inventory ideas are in his last sitrep, correct, Chip?”

 

“Yes, Lee.  Bob has proposed some really good improvements.  I’ll be sorry to lose him back to the Navy.”  Chip Morton was the XO of the submarine, responsible for ensuring successful operation of the giant vessel.

 

Lee Crane, Seaview’s captain, picked up a sandwich quarter and bit into it.  “At least he’s got someone replacing him that’ll keep up the good work.”

 

Morton nodded.  “Jurgensen will make a great Chop.  We won’t have to worry that we’ll find two gross of Brussel Sprouts and no ice cream aboard any time soon,” he responded, the others laughing at the memory.

 

“I don’t think Bob Sanderson will ever live down transposing those item numbers,” Nelson said, rubbing his ear, his blue eyes sparkling.  “Luckily we’ve had no problems since.”  He reached for the decanter of superior whiskey and raised it in the direction of his young friends.  “Gentlemen?”  Receiving two affirmative nods, he poured a generous splash into each glass and refilled his own.  “I have an interesting tale that may amuse you, something from my past that at the time caused me not inconsiderable embarrassment.  It was certainly nothing they prepare you for at Annapolis,” he added, grinning and shaking his head.

 

Chip and Lee looked at each other.  Admiral Harriman Nelson did not often speak of his earlier life, at least not to them so this would be an interesting glimpse at the early career of their boss.  The three men who ran Seaview had a comfortable working relationship, but no one was likely to ignore the subtle and not so subtle command structure that governed their past, their present and most likely, their future.

The men settled back in their oversized chairs, three of the dozen that surrounded the large teak wood conference table.  The raised blinds over the windows revealed the last orange and pink streaks of a California sunset.  From outside came the raucous cries of screeching gulls and the muffled roar of the Pacific breaking on the beach, a hundred yards or so away.

 

Nelson took a satisfying mouthful of the mellow amber fluid he’d poured for himself and savored it slowly before starting to reminisce.  “It began with a woman, well, a young woman I shall call Della Cooper.  She was the daughter of a high ranking officer at 7th Air Force headquarters.  I met her while I was attached to COMSUBPAC.”  He took another sip of his whiskey.   “It was Hawaii, the war was over, and there was always some reason to hold dinner parties and social gatherings.  They still find plenty of reasons today.  That’s where the real work is conducted.”  He looked up at them and his wind-damaged, ruddy face displayed a look they both knew well. 

 

Lee shifted his tall frame deeper into the leather chair cushions and removed the tie he’d loosened earlier.  Chip’s tie had come off long before. Reaching forward he picked up another sliver of ham sandwich.  There were only a few sandwiches left; the men of Seaview were hearty eaters.

 

“Being single, it was often my ‘duty’ to attend these parties as a seat-filler, to put it bluntly.  No hostess liked to see odd numbers at dinner, it just wasn’t done.  As it so happened, I was assigned a place next to this young lady, who, may I say, was stunningly beautiful.  And free from the clutches of very protective parents that had just left for a new assignment in Washington.  Their lovely daughter was going to follow in due course and this particular dinner was one of the last things she’d planned to do in Hawaii.  In any event, Miss Cooper, taking a little Dutch courage from whatever she’d been imbibing for a great part of the evening, decided that I was just the person she should be confiding a deep, dark secret to, and sounded me out in hushed and breathless tones.  Apparently I reacted in just the right way to make her believe me to be a kindred soul and possible rescuer, for she showed up in my office the very next day.”

 

He was staring over their heads now, eyes focused on a place almost twenty years in the past, twirling the remnants of the whiskey in his glass.  Remembering.  It was a good minute before he spoke again.

 

“As you can appreciate, her appearance caused quite the sensation.  I was told later, and I could well believe it, that Della Cooper was quite the southern belle and enjoyed all the male attention bestowed on her.  Della, as she quickly asked me to call her, was the kind of beautiful woman to stop a man in his tracks and leave him stunned into submission.   Yes, Della Cooper was … something rather special.”

 

Chip’s head had moved slightly toward Lee, and Lee did the same towards Chip.  Not a sound escaped from either mouth, they definitely wanted to hear more.

 

Nelson shook his shoulders.  “Hmm, where was I?”

 

“Err, Miss Cooper has just come to your office, sir.”

 

“Right, right.  Well, as I said, Della Cooper decided that she could confide in me.  Bursting to tell me about her little indiscretion, as she titled it, she proceeded to unburden her secret.”  He took a drink.  “Seems that dear Della had exchanged a series of reckless letters with a matinee idol by the name of Enrico Bartoli.  You may remember the name.”  Nelson looked questioningly at the two of them but on seeing only furrowed brows, relented.  “Or maybe not.  Well, it has been a few years since his heyday.   The man had some minor success, with most of the big Hollywood stars involved in the war effort.  The dark, smoldering type, as he was described to me by Della.  A real Latin lover.  However, the closest he’d ever gotten to Italy was Rome, New York.  This information became public knowledge much later. The man was a complete fraud.  That was long after my particular escapade, however.”  He sat up in his chair and rubbed a finger over an eyebrow.  “As she began to tell it, she had met Bartoli at a couple of studio functions in California, and had gushed to him about some movie she’d just seen him in.  The gushing had led to a correspondence.  She hadn’t expected a reply, but to her great joy, Signore Bartoli began to write back.  Several missives were exchanged, each one increasingly intimate and sufficiently detailed enough to curl up the notepaper.  Eventually, there was a meeting, a lunch, then a few cozy tête–à–tête dinners.  Miss Cooper was in college at the time, conveniently absent from the watchful eyes of Colonel and Mrs. Cooper.  To make a long story short, the dutiful daughter was expected to return home to the family’s quarters on Hickam at the end of the school year, and did so, after a final meeting with Bartoli.  According to her it was a scene worthy of Scarlett O’Hara, with much gnashing of teeth, quivering lips and heavy sighs.  And a demand to the man to return her letters. The young lady may have been a little flighty, but she wasn’t a complete fool.  The letters were the result of an overwrought imagination, nothing more but if they should become public, the embarrassment caused to herself and her family would be highly detrimental. You might be able to guess the next scene in this little drama.”

“Blackmail?” Lee suggested.  

 

“Just that.  And quite the tidy sum of money requested.  The young lady was quite indignant, as you can appreciate.  Actually, she confessed to me she was a lot more outraged than that.  Della Cooper may have grown up surrounded by magnolias and showing a suitably demure appearance, but along the way she’d picked up the vocabulary of a drunken sailor.”  The grin was bigger this time.  “In any event, she could not tell her parents what a silly goose she had been, now, could she?

 

“I suspect the answer to that is no, sir,” Chip answered dryly.

 

“You see her dilemma, Commander Morton.  One that she wanted to have rapidly become my dilemma.”

 

“Why you, sir?”

 

Nelson picked up his glass and gazed into the inch or so of amber liquid that lay at the bottom.  “My luck to be sitting next to her at the dinner.  That, and the fact that she had gotten it into her head somehow that I was a lawyer. A misunderstanding possibly brought about due to the amount of alcohol consumed, for sitting across from us was an Army JAG officer.   Just as likely, her mistake may have been because of the, uh, personal problem that the young lady had, one that I’ll mention in due course. In any event, I didn’t have the heart nor the inclination to disabuse her of the notion.  It was bad enough that the whole office watched her procession to my door; to have her turn around and scurry out in great haste would have been humiliating at the very least.  To us both.”

 

“So what did you do, sir?”

 

“I was thinking furiously how best to approach the matter while she explained everything, until at the very end she dropped her bombshell.  Bartoli was in Hawaii on a USO tour. Della pleaded with me to make a call on him and demand he return her letters and be damned – her exact words, in fact.”

 

Harry took a deep breath and continued.  “So, I went to see him the very next day in his dressing room.  I presented the case in my most professional manner, citing legal chapter and verse, which I’d looked up in the base library after Della had left.  Had him believing it, too,” he added, chuckling.

 

“One actor to another, Admiral?” Lee quipped, and immediately regretted it as Nelson’s eyes narrowed warningly.

 

“Well, I had my say, folded my arms and waited for his response.  It came very quickly.  Bartoli looked at me as if I was a mad man and told me in no uncertain terms that he had absolutely no idea what I was going on about.  And if I didn’t get out of his dressing room, he was going to call either the police, his lawyer, or the head of Paramount Studios, he wasn’t sure which.”

 

Chip said quietly, “You did say you were dealing with an actor, sir.  Methinks he doth protest too much?”

 

Nelson joined in the laughter that followed.  “I did think that, at the beginning. But as he continued to protest his innocence, I slowly became convinced that his outrage and complete denial of the circumstances were completely genuine.

 

“Still,” Lee said, “he was certainly someone used to playing a part, Admiral.”

 

“Indeed, and I kept that thought very much in mind.”

 

Chip sat up, his features animated.  “Speaking of playing a part -- what about the girl?  Had the guy given her the cold shoulder and she decided to take revenge by setting him up like that?”

 

“I considered that possibility almost immediately,  but dismissed it.  Her distress was very real. Coming from an Army family, Della was quite aware of the social implications of military life.  She knew that I would understand the mortification this incident would cause for her parents as much as for herself, and would deal with it as unobtrusively as possible. Therefore, I concluded that she was definitely not a woman scorned.”  He took a moment to wet his lips with the rest of the delicious whiskey.  “She could be deceived, however.  As I told you gentlemen, Della Cooper was very attractive, and a young woman that took great pains with her appearance.  Nothing could be allowed to mar that beauty.  Especially bad eyesight.  Simply put, lads, Della Cooper was as blind as a bat without her glasses.  I suspected later that she latched onto me because she could at least see me,” Nelson said, chuckling again.

 

“Sir?  But, sir, you said she had written these letters.  Gotten responses.  She knew who she was dealing with.  She’d met the guy.”

 

“She knew who she had written to, definitely, Lee.  And there was no doubt she’d met somebody.  However, after some further discussion, I discovered that Bartoli’s letters were always opened first by his secretary, an unsavory character named Switzer, who was his dresser -- and movie stand-in.”

 

Both mouths across the table dropped open.  Lee recovered first.  “You’re not going to tell me --”

 

“Exactly.  A very smart crook, was Mr. Switzer.  He had spotted the squinting young lady when she first visited the studio in California.  It wasn’t difficult to emerge from the stage door at the appointed time and sweep little Della off her feet, and with her none the wiser.  Bartoli summoned the man immediately, and I can tell you that the resemblance between them was remarkable.  Threats of the police quickly got Switzer to own up to the truth.  It emerged that he had understudied Bartoli on numerous occasions before the real actor got the call to come to Hollywood, bringing Switzer along as general factotum and stand-in, as I mentioned. For Switzer, it was the opportunity for an Academy Award-winning performance.  So he pretended to be his employer, compromised the situation, and expected to make a tidy sum of dirty money when Miss Cooper came up with the cash -- as he fully expected her to do.”

 

“And with your help, it ended happily?”

 

“A few words were exchanged and the letters returned.  I later found out that he did not accompany his boss when the USO troupe returned to California.  All’s well that ends well, as the maxim goes.

 

“And little Miss Cooper went on her merry way, suitably grateful, vowing to stop writing letters to actors, right, Admiral?”  Lee eyed his boss thoughtfully.  “Was she suitably grateful, sir?”

 

Nelson smiled.  “That would be telling, Commander.”

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

When first we practise to deceive!

Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto VI, XVII

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:  “Chop” is Navy slang for supply officer, so named for the shape of their insignia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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