Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

by Helen H.

 

 

 

“You all set?”

“Yeah,” Lee said, tugging on his collar and adjusting his tie for the tenth time. 

Chip looked him up and down.  Lee’s dress blues were immaculate.  “What’s wrong?  You’re as nervous as a cat hiding underneath a rocking chair.”  

“It’s just kind of awkward going back to the boat.  My leaving it was rather... precipitous to say the least.”

“A big word.  I’m impressed,” his XO said, chuckling.  Then his face grew serious as he realized that Lee might not be in the mood.

“I’ve opened a dictionary a time or two,” Lee replied, knowing Chip’s words weren’t meant to sting.  Chip was just trying to cheer him up.  Little did he know.  It’s just that, one day I’m aboard on her shakedown cruise, we’re in the middle of some heavy duty maneuvering in the Med when boom, we get a message to report up top where we find a helicopter waiting to rush me out of there.  In a couple of hours I’m on a plane heading for Santa Barbara and the Seaview,” he looked up with a weak grin, “and we all know how that worked out.  I've never been back, not even to get my sea bag; somebody from HQ picked it up for me.  If I was a sub captain getting her ready for commissioning and one of my chief observers disappeared on me, and nobody told me what was going on... I’d be very unhappy.” 

Chip thought about that for a moment.  “So instead of a welcome, you’re expecting a deep six.”  

“Something like that,” Lee answered as he gathered up his cover and tucked it under his arm. 

There was a loud knock on the door.  Chip opened it to a young officer, who drew himself up and saluted smartly.  

“Ensign Saunders reporting, sir!  I’m your driver.”  

Chip grinned.  “Sending junior officers instead of a rating!  He turned to look at his friend.  “Maybe going back won’t be as bad as you think, Commander Crane.”

Lee seriously doubted this courtesy was anything more than a general service supplied to all invited visitors, but he readily agreed for Chip’s sake.  “It’s all for your benefit I'm sure, Lieutenant Commander Morton.  He turned to acknowledge the waiting officer.  We’ll be out in a minute, Ensign.  Stand by.”

“Sir!”  The young man executed a smart about face and disappeared down the sidewalk in front of the BOQ at Naval Station Norfolk.  

Lee and Chip were in Norfolk to visit the USS Thomas A. Edison while she took part in special Christmas week festivities.  A few months back Lee had been aboard the Edison as an observer as she conducted her early sea trials.  Such observers were expected to fulfill their obligations, and his would have been one of the final reports.  It was an important position; without his input the examination would have had to begin again with new observers, playing havoc with the commissioning timetable and upsetting any number of senior officers who had more important things to worry about.  That he had departed the boat with only an hour’s notice and no replacement in sight was not the way it was done -- never mind that the choice had not been his own to make.  He could hardly have disobeyed an order from the Secretary of the Navy.

Chip knew Lee too well to miss his preoccupied look while he settled his cover on his head.  Chip understood what was bugging his best friend and senior officer, now captain of the Seaview.  Following unwritten but cast in stone rules was a cornerstone of naval life.  The Navy may be full of thousands of sailors but is in reality a small fraternity, connected by dint of unquestioning service.  The scuttlebutt about Lee’s flamboyant exit from the Edison and equally flamboyant introduction to the new submarine had probably spread like an oil leak among sailors on all vessels in port or at sea.  He had been assigned to take over a mission after the murder of Seaview's first captain and almost succeeded in sneaking aboard the top-secret sub in a dubiously clandestine manner to test the mettle of its men.  His highly irregular introduction to his new command had not made him many friends initially; it was only recently that the men of the Seaview had come to accept him as their commanding officer.  Chip didn’t think the story would help Lee in his quest to return to the Edison quietly and unobtrusively, either.

Chip sighed inwardly; his friend of many years never did things the easy way.  Then an idle thought intrigued him.  What was the point in inviting him along?  He had no ties to the Edison himself.  He had not seen the invitation but privately concluded that his captain was given the option to bring a guest and had chosen Chip for moral support.  Lee obviously felt he was about to be met with a certain amount of animosity.  Maybe the idea wasn’t so farfetched, given Lee’s grim expression.

“Last chance, buddy.  We can probably catch a Space “A” flight if we hurry.  My family would be happy to see us a day early.”

Lee settled his cover on his head.  “Nope.  No backing out now.  I can do this.”

“Okay, don’t say I didn’t give you a chance.  Time to hit the beach.”  Chip held the door open.  “Age before beauty.”  

Lee tried a bleak smile.  “Just what I need, lame jokes.”  

“You got better ones?  The chance of that happening is the same as the number of ‘Rs’ in fat chance.”

“Very funny, Mr. Morton.  Okay, I’ll play along.”

Lee stepped towards the door and then deftly moved sideways just as Chip started forward, forcing Chip to go through first.   

“I think you said something about age before beauty,” Lee said, trying to keep from laughing and failing.  

Chip walked off smartly down the sidewalk.  Lee’s sense of humor was still mostly intact, at least.

 

* * * * *

 

The closer they got to the seawall, the more evident it became this was going to be a big evening, judging by the number of people milling about.  The Edison was tied up at the furthest end of the pier.  Forward of her was a destroyer, its deck swarming with visitors.  On the other side and starboard from the submarine a LPD floated in all her amphibious glory.  Along the seawall itself was a Coast Guard cutter, its brightly painted sides a beacon in the rapidly darkening night.  Each ship had Christmas lights strung fore and aft.  Holiday revelers filled the food tents lining the pier.  The night was cool, of course, it being December in Virginia, so the women were dressed in fur coats and long dresses, the men in heavy suits or dress uniforms.  

Their car inched forward in a long line of vehicles; they hadn’t been the only ones chauffeured to the event as Chip had earlier surmised.  He half expected to see the admiral emerging from one of the cars, and then remembered he was being wined and dined by old friends at the Officer’s Club.  That was a good thing; he would not take kindly to any slight or rudeness shown to the Seaview’s captain.  The explosion would have been heard all the way to Washington. 

Soon enough their driver was at their car door, and Lee and Chip slid across the seat and emerged.  They had only walked a few yards towards the check-in desk when they were stopped by a young boy.  He pulled on Lee’s sleeve and pointed toward the pier.  

“Sir, I’m supposed to do a Show and Tell for my school about the party.  My daddy’s in the Coast Guard, so I know what that one is,” he said, pointing to the brightly painted, white vessel with USCGC Taney painted on the brow.  “And I can see the submarine.  But can you tell me what the other ones are?” 

Lee squatted down so he was face to face with the boy.  “Son, in my Navy, we call them targets.”

Once the young boy had run back to his mother with this amazing bit of information, and Chip had stopped laughing, he turned to Lee.  “You can get in plenty of trouble for saying something like that around here, you know!”  

“Hey, was I wrong?  I don’t think so.”  Lee grinned innocently. 

Chip laughed again.  He could tell that Lee was relaxing slightly and making the effort to be as friendly as he could. 

They had joined the line at the desk, where names were being vetted against the invitation list.  Their invitations were quickly accepted and directions given politely.  

C’mon, let’s get this over with.”  Lee cleared his throat.  “I’m ready for anything at this point.” 

And who should be the person greeting them as they came aboard, saluted the ensign and faced the quarterdeck?   

“Nice to see you again, Commander Crane.”  

“And you, Captain Young.”  

The two men shook hands.  If there was any tension, it wasn’t evident on Captain Young’s frank and open face, now split by a huge smile.  

“I take it you’re all settled aboard the Seaview now? the captain asked solicitously. 

 “Yes, sir.”  Lee indicated Chip at his side.  “Please meet my executive officer, Chip Morton.”

Captain Young extended his hand.  “Nice to meet you, Morton.  I expect that Crane here is keeping you hopping.  He certainly did enough of that to us on our commissioning cruise.  I was looking forward to his report.  Unfortunately, SECNAV had other plans.  Admiral Nelson knew what he was doing, though; he always had an eye for talent.  Just wish his timing had been better because we were stuck out at sea another two weeks…no, don’t apologize, Lee,” Young said, grinning again.  He turned and faced Chip, a twinkling look in his eyes.  So glad you were free to join us this evening, Mr. Morton.  We've been looking forward to your visit.”

You have, Sir?”  Chip raised a questioning eyebrow.  He had been thinking that Captain Young didn’t seem quite as angry as Lee had made out he was going to be but why was he singling him out for a special welcome?  

“Something that Commander Crane mentioned about Seaview's talented XO.”  

Normally a junior didn’t scowl at a superior officer, but a questioning scowl was forming on Chip’s face.  “Just what did he tell you, Captain?”  

“That we’d be happy to have you aboard.” Captain Young looked confidently at Chip.  I take it you were surprised to receive an invitation?”  

“The thought did cross my mind, Captain,” Chip replied cautiously with a grudging smile and a shrug.  “I figured I was here to save my commanding officer from a watery bath, the way he told it.”  

“He certainly can tell a story.  About that other business; we settled that a long time ago,” Captain Young said, chuckling.  “And I can tell by his face that he’s managed to keep our big surprise secret from you.”  He indicated forward.  “Go below, gentleman.  And let Lee show you the only full-sized piano on a nuclear submarine, Mr. Morton.”  

As Lee and Chip went through the hatch Chip murmured in a sotto voice.   “So -- all that hang dog, ‘kill me now’ stuff was just an act to get me here.”  

“Of course,” Lee said, laughing.  “I just wanted this to be a surprise for you.”  

“The surprise will be if I can keep myself from throwing you over the side.  You’re a dead man, you know.

“Careful, Chip, murder is a capital offence in Virginia.  Besides, the Navy takes a very dim view of its captains being attacked by their XO's.” Lee laughed confidently.

“Not in cases of justifiable homicide, I’ll bet.”

“You’ll have to catch me first.  Chief Bellows!  Nice to see you again!  Let me introduce my XO to you, part of the promised entertainment for the evening.”

Lee led the way to the crew’s mess, plainly eager now to accomplish his mission, slowing down only long enough to greet a few of the crewmembers he recognized and introducing Chip to them all.  By the looks on their faces, they had all known he was coming.  Chip followed in bemused silence, wondering if what he had heard about this piano could possibly be true and if true, could he live up to everyone’s obvious expectations.  How did Lee manage to get him into these situations?  He knew the answer to that one.  Lee lived for the unexpected, the chance to do something differently.  It was one of the things that made him a superb submarine commander.  And a top ONI operative.  The former Chip could live with.  The latter... better to think about something else.  Like how this had turned into one very interesting evening!

Once in the space Lee indicated their destination with a flourish.  “Mr. Morton, the Edison’s piano.”

“I’d...heard about this.  But I thought it was a myth.” Chip surveyed the instrument with an experienced eye.  It was a full sized Steinway Upright, brand new or near new, if its scratch-less surface was any indication.  Tucked into the forward bulkhead, fitting snugly under the lockers, the mahogany surface was gleaming.   

Lee pointed at it invitingly.

“Captain Young’s folly, it’s called.  Anyone with a modicum of talent that visits the boat has to try it at least once, standing orders.   You’ve got more than a little talent, so please, sit down.”

Chip realised that any attempt on his part at refusal would be fruitless.  Not that he really wanted to; Lee’s plan to have him actually play the piano was sounding better and better.  He handed his cover and uniform jacket to Lee, who accepted them with alacrity.  Chip sat down on the piano stool, made a comical point of flexing his fingers, and then began playing Anchors Aweigh.  

The next few minutes were magical, a time that Chip would remember for the rest of his life.  If someone had told him the day before that he would soon be playing Christmas music on a piano aboard a “boomer” he would have called them crazy, including himself in the assessment.  In between cups of eggnog and encouragement from his audience, the boat’s crewmembers and their guests, his fingers flew over the keyboard, playing familiar carols while everyone sung along.  The piano was in perfect tune.  Even being bolted to the bulkhead hadn’t caused any damage.  

Finally, he yielded the stage to the 10-year-old daughter of the COB.  The young girl immediately launched into a version of “Blueberry Hill” that would have made Fats Domino proud.  As the party started up again Chip’s attention was diverted by a young female officer in an Army uniform, and by the time he’d turned around, Lee was gone.

A few minutes later Chip found Lee in the sail, a bottle of Natty Boh in his hand and his eyes sweeping over the ships moored around the Edison, the docks at the naval station filled with a large portion of the Atlantic Fleet.

“Do you miss it -- regular Navy service and all that goes with it?”  Chip asked, thinking he knew the answer, but it never hurt to be sure. 

“Not any more.  One cruise aboard the Seaview and I was set for life.  I hope,” Lee added, grinning.  “As long as I keep the admiral happy, I’ll probably have a job.” 

Lee’s smile was beguiling, but was there something behind his eyes?  Chip’s fear was that one day, the pull of ONI operations would get the better of Lee.  He didn’t want to see that happen.  Lately the admiral had been making loud noises, grumbling more and more about Lee’s “other” profession.  He’d have to deal with that, too when the next call came.  How to pacify their boss and keep his own fears in check would be a challenge he didn't look forward to, but where his best friend was concerned all bets were off.  Besides, this had turned out to be a happy occasion, a grand send-off for the holidays.  He’d find a way to get back at Lee later. 

“You tricked me again, you know.  You’d think I’d have you figured out by now.”

“I shouldn’t be in ONI if I can’t pull the wool over somebody’s eyes.  Especially you.  I consider it a personal mission,” Lee said, the grin in his words and in his eyes.

Chip stuck out his hand.  “Merry Christmas, Skipper.”  

Lee did the same, and they shook hands.  “Same to you, XO.  Let’s go below and have some more eggnog.  And I think you need one more turn on the piano.  It’s probably the last time we’ll see it.”

Big as Seaview is, Lee, I don't think there's room for two pianos in a submarine fleet!  Chip laughed confidently.

“No, probably not.  How would we ever get it aboard for a start?”  Lee agreed thoughtfully.  “But as an idea... it's a thought not to be completely dismissed as impossible, Mr. Morton.  Although to make it easier for you to practice we’d put it in the wardroom.  Mmmm, I might mention it to the admiral.  After all, it is Christmas, you know.  Special things can happen at Christmas.”  

Lee kept his grin hidden as a sudden look of abject horror crossed his exec's face.  He knew Chip was thinking of a dozen ways to dissuade his captain from even attempting such a foolish mission.  Lee started back to the party.  It would take his friend a little while to realize he was just pulling his chain again…  

... or was he? 

 

 

 “Through the years 
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” 

Music by Ralph Blaine, Lyrics by Harry Martin

 

 

Author’s Note:  Yes, there really was a Steinway piano aboard the Thomas A. Edison.  Read about it here:  http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=8039

 

 

 

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