First Impressions

 

 

 

A Pre-Voyage story

 

 

Lieutenant Commander Lee B. Crane sat in contented silence in a small, dimly lit booth of a cozy tavern, nursing a beer. The official party would begin in an hour when his captain, his fellow officers and most of the crewmen of his present boat showed up for the grand send-off. He pulled out the two papers. The one had been expected. Captain Turner had all but assured him that the promotion had gone through. The other had not been expected. Command of his own boat. He felt the twin thrills of elation and fear rush up and down his spine as he re-read the official papers once again.

A middle-aged, petite auburn-haired waitress walked by and then stopped and backed up. "Another beer?" she asked. "That one surely has lost itís chill by now."

He shook his head and then smiled his reassurance. "No, I havenít really been paying much attention to it anyway." She frowned slightly and Lee realized just what her concern might be. This was a busy port oí call for Navy men on leave and he was taking up a good paying booth just at the time when things started getting busy. "I tell you what, though. Bring me another one just for the halibut," he said with a grin, using his grandmotherís favorite euphemism. "And a bowl of chips and salsa."

The woman raised an eyebrow and then understood what he was saying. She gave a short, friendly laugh. "Youíre in a good mood, sailor, or should I say skipper?" she asked, returning his joke with one of her own.

"I guess skipper would be closer to the truth."

"Which ship, Skipper?" she asked, reaching over for his warm, barely touched bottle.

"Devilfish. Sheís due to dock day after tomorrow," Lee answered, handing her a ten dollar bill. "Keep the change."

"That would mean you just got her then?" It was half statement, half question. "And isnít Devilfish a submarine?"

He nodded. "Just got her, maíam. Her present skipperís handing her over in three days." And the usually tight-lipped exec wondered at his revelation to a perfect stranger. Then he mentally shrugged. Why not? She probably got customers celebrating promotions in here all the time.

"Well," she peered a bit closer at his insignia, "Ö.Commander, congratulations." She inspected the bill she had just picked up. "And there must have been a promotion to go with the change in assignment, too," she added with a laugh.

He laughed with her. "You might say that."

"Surely youíre not celebrating alone, are you?"

"I have gotten in the habit of just taking a bit of time and thinking about . . . my good fortune alone. My friends will be along in about an hour. Then youíll wish I had stayed alone." He smiled.

"No, if they are as big a tipper as you are, all your submariner friends can come."

She had been here a while to know what the different insignia stood for. He chuckled along with her. "Thanks, and Iíll be sure to tell them to give you all their tips."

"Thanks! But Mitch might like a few, too." A voice called from the bar. She waved her hand in dismissal without looking at who was beckoning to her. "Honey, I am happy for you, but I canít help but think that they are making you boat jockeys younger all the time. You make me feel downright old."

Lee shook his head. "No, maíam. Iím just very, very lucky."

This time she shook her head. "Uh, uh. No, young man, most of the time, it isnít luck. But again, I congratulate you on your new assignment." She finally turned toward the bar. "Mitch is getting a bit hot under the collar. Iíll be back with your beer and chips as soon as I find out what he wants."

Crane nodded his thanks and leaned back into the corner of the booth with a grin. He folded the papers and tucked them inside his inner pocket. He listened to a group of men being led to the booth next to him and Lee knew instantly that his moment of quiet sanctity was forever shattered. One of the voices was boisterous and strident, probably augmented by a couple of whiskeys from another bar. He got the impression that the others werenít that far behind their buddy in consumption.

"Smitty, let me tell you about my sweet new assignment," loud voice announced.

"You already have, Bish, three times already," another voice replied.

"Nah, I just told you a little bit. Man, this subís going to be so sweet. Smooth as silk and with windows! Did I tell you about the windows?"

"Yeah, big picture windows, Bish. Come on, you can do better than that."

"Uh, uh, not better than Admiral Nelsonís big new submarine."

"I will believe that Nelson can get his boat off paper when I see it floating out here in the harbor," another voice retorted.

"Nelson wouldnít be hiring his officers if he didnít have the go ahead. I hear itís being built even as we speak," Bish said in a lower, almost conspiratorial voice. "He has his captain, exec, COB and half of the crew already picked. Me, included."

"But where, Bish?"

There was a satisfied smirk and then a chuckle. "Classified, gents. But let me tell you that Nelson has built a boat that is impregnable. No one will be able to get aboard her without the old manís permission."

"No boat is that secure," the voice that Crane assumed was Smittyís said.

Lee had to agree with him. There was no ship, no boat that didnít have an Achillesí heel somewhere. As much as he admired Admiral Nelson, respected his talents and abilities, even he wasnít omniscient.

"Nelson is putting in every safeguard for his new subóon board and at the special sub pen."

"Bish, next youíll be telling me youíve seen mermaids," another man said. "Look, Iíll give you that Harriman Nelson is a genius and that heís got a boat, but to say itís going to be impregnable? Nope. Thatís what they said about Titanic."

"Nah, they said that was unsinkable. But with Eagle Eye Phillips as skipper? You tell me it wonít be secure."

There was a hushed silence. Lee was impressed, too. Phillips had the reputation for running a tight ship. Not only that, anyone under him spoke of him in almost reverential terms. Nelson had chosen a good man. He only wished that he could serve aboard Seaview. He wondered who the new exec was and felt a pang of jealously which he quickly squelched. Hell, what right did he have to gripe? He had his own boat, for crying out loud! The waitress brought him another beer and the bowl of chips and salsa. He nodded his thanks. She didnít even try to talk this time. The boisterous boasting next to him precluded that. Lee shook his head in disgust. If for no other reason, the new submarine was going to be vulnerable because of loose-lipped sailors like the bag of hot air next to him.

"And the security safe-guards are going to be state of the art. Hear weíre going to have a computer thatís years ahead of its time. You just wait. No one, not even a mouse will be able to get aboard without the security system knowing it."

There was more talk, most of it mingling together into a loud cacophony, so Crane just turned it off and concentrated on his beer. He pulled the cap off and took a swig. Then he tried the salsa. Not bad. Bit his palate a bit, but not too hard. Suddenly the light from the bar was blocked off. Crane looked up and studied the man standing in front of his booth. The man stood like a flagpole in the wind, swaying gently back and forth. "You need something, Lieutenant?" Lee asked quietly.

"Yeah, we need this booth. Too many of us for just the one." It was the one called Bish.

Out of the corner of his eye, Lee noticed a couple of faces peering above the seat between their two booths. He also noticed the waitress and the bartender standing at attention, seeing possible altercation looming.

"Move to a smaller booth, junior," Bish growled. He almost lost his balance and put one hand on Leeís table to steady himself.

"Jeez, Bish, shut up," one of the others hissed. "The man has a cluster, not bars. Heís a lieutenant commander."

"Canít be. Just out of the academy," Bish spat out. "Boy wonder."

The man had stomped on one of Leeís few sensitive nerves and he slowly slid out of his seat. He stood right in front of the drunken lieutenant. His hand balled into a fist and he wanted so much to send this guy to the floor, but he forced himself to relax. Captain Turner and his fellow submariners would be here soon. He intended on having a good time and wasnít going to let this jackass spoil it before it began. Besides there were rules about striking fellow officers just as there were rules about striking rates. Wouldnít look good on his service record just after a promotion and a new assignment. "I have served under Admiral Nelson and know that he only expects the best," Lee began in a low but authoritative voice. "So I know he didnít personally hire you for Seaview." Someone at the other table snickered and the man in front of him began to turn red, his eyes snapping in anger.

Lee started to walk away, not bothering to take his beer or chips. Then he stopped and turned back to the drunken officer. "However, if there ever is a breach of security aboard Nelsonís sub, it will be because of people like you, Lieutenant." He looked at the rest of the men in the neighboring booth, who sat gazing at him in wide-eyed wonder. "Carry on, gentlemen." With that, Lee moved to the bar where the bartender and the waitress looked as though they had taken their first breath in an hour. He pulled out another bill, a five this time. "Third timeís the charm, another beer, please."

The bartender smiled. "Keep your five. Kelly says you have some buddies coming to celebrate a promotion or something."

Lee nodded.

"Yeah, well, weíll get our profit and your handling of those characters certainly helps make our evening a good one, too. I appreciate it."

Lee murmured a return. About that time, Captain Michael Turner walked in with a large contingent of the boatís officers. CPO Braxton and a large group of rates followed. "Kelly, is there a room where we can celebrate in peace?" Lee asked the waitress softly. She nodded.

Hey, Skipper!" Braxton called out at something a bit less than a bellow. Then he lowered his voice a half a decibel and asked, "How does it feel to be called skipper?"

Lee grinned. "Youíre the second one to call me that, but I think I might live up to it someday, Chief." There was dead silence from the area he had just vacated.

"Ah, hell, Mr. Crane, youíll do fine," the COB said.

"I believe I have to agree with him, Lee," Turner added. They followed the waitress to a small, but secluded room on one side of the establishment. He was ready to enjoy the company of friends and their party lasted for some time, long after the other drunks had slunk out of the bar.

 

 

Epilogueó

Lee Crane, temporary captain of Seaview stood quietly in front of a very angry Admiral Nelson. Even as Nelson had his brief, heated outburst, Lee wondered at his own action when he came aboard and the reason behind it. He had never forgotten that encounter in the bar two years ago. Consequently, that and his knowledge that most of the men on board Seaview were reservists or former Navy personnel; he had wondered at the boast that this sub had the best security of anything afloat. After his entrance, he was beginning to believe it. Still, there was always room for improvement. With the air cleared, he followed the admiral to his quarters and read the secret orders. And understood that this crew would have to give not only 100% but much, much more. There wouldnít even be time to get to know these men. After he left the admiralís cabin, Lee headed forward toward the conn, pondering. He turned the corner and almost ran into an officer.

The man stopped short, gaped and backed up a step. "Uh, Captain?"

Crane knew immediately just who this man was. Bish, the man in the bar. Lee was a bit surprised, figuring that someone that loose-lipped would have been released from the Seaview by the end of the shakedown cruise. Perhaps he had changed his attitude a bit. "Yes. Lieutenant Bishop, right?"

"Uh, yes, sir." The man almost seemed to squirm under Leeís scrutiny.

"When is your watch, Lieutenant?"

"Iím reporting right now, sir," came the quick reply.

Crane looked at his watch. "Youíre going to be one minute late, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, by the way, Bishop, I do run a tight ship," Lee added, his eyes boring into the other manís.

"Yes, sir," the other man gulped. "Is that all, sir?"

"Yes, carry on." As the man scurried on his way, Crane followed at a slightly more leisurely rate, his mind returning to the mission ahead. It would not be easy for any of them.

 

 

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