Where the Heart Is

 

 

 

 

 

The rate across the desk from him sported a black eye, cut cheek and lips tightly pressed together, indicating something was wrong, but unwilling to divulge what it was.   Captain Lee Crane sighed.  “What happened, Mark?” he asked gently.  He figured he knew what was behind these recent bursts of anger and frustration, but would prefer Seaman Holmes to open up about it.  Mark Holmes was a first-rate sonar man, radioman, and computer man.  He was one of those people who could pick up anything electronic and make it better.  Admiral Nelson had recruited him from the Navy even before Holmes’ six years was up; that was how badly he wanted him.  Lee had found him personable with everyone on board and saw him as great officer material. 

So what had happened?  Lee suspected that Holmes’ wife had been after him again.  She had never been happy about Mark’s career inside a ‘tin can,’ as she had termed it.  He knew even before they were married a little over a year ago, she had broached the subject of Mark quitting the Seaview and doing something “safe” on land.   Crane mentally cringed.  He had some small idea what the seaman was going through and there were no easy answers.  Holmes’ wife refused to mingle with the other crewmen’s wives and relatives at the various parties and get-togethers; she only wanted Mark to quit.  Again, Lee wanted to cringe.  Unless he was sadly mistaken, he could count on one hand the number of people on board Seaview who loved the sea and service on the Gray Lady more than Holmes did.   Crane counted himself as one of those, so it tore at him to see how Mark’s love for his wife and his love for his job were forced to do battle. 

Holmes shrugged.  “I hit Patterson, sir.” 

Pure, simple and unwilling to say more.  Crane sighed.   He tried a different track.  “How are Lorie and the baby?”

Mark looked at him sharply, but didn’t say anything for a moment.  “They’re fine, sir.”

This is going well, Lee thought sourly.   “What did you name her again?”   Crane knew perfectly well what the baby’s name was.  Maybeth, after the two grandmothers. 

Holmes told him and then asked,  “Sir, when are we going to be back in port?”

Seemed both of them were fishing in known waters.  It was common knowledge when the Seaview would arrive back at the base.  Two days after Christmas.  At the onset of the mission, it had been planned to be back just before Christmas, but as in missions past, circumstances had led to their delay getting back to the Institute at the preset time. 

Lee told him, knowing at the same time that Mark was dying to ask if the Flying Sub was making a run today, maybe to Santa Barbara.  Undoubtedly Lorie had been giving Mark hell about missing the baby’s first Christmas.   Lee knew he couldn’t even imagine how it might be to miss a child’s first Christmas, but still, the other married men had learned to adjust.  He briefly thought back to his own childhood, but resisted in wallowing in his own Christmas pasts.  “Holmes, I can do nothing else but put this on your report.  Can you give me any reason why I shouldn’t?”

Holmes looked at the desktop.  “No, sir.  But I figure it won’t matter that much.  I’ll be resigning after the first of the year.”

“What?  Are you sure you want to do that?”

Mark looked him in the eye.  No, Lee thought, he wasn’t sure at all.  The captain could see how much such a decision was eating at him.  “Yes, sir.  I’m sure.”

“So then, our previous discussion of advanced training for officer status is on hold?”

“Yes, sir.”

Again, Lee sighed.  “That’s all, Holmes.  You are confined to quarters until your next watch.” 

Holmes looked at him expectantly for a brief second and then nodded, got up and left his cabin.  Crane sat at his desk and absently drummed his fingers, anger at the unfairness of the situation warring with abject sympathy.  Finally, he got up, went to the small locker built into the bulkhead and pulled out several old letters.  Glancing over them, for he knew their contents by heart, he slipped them in his pocket and walked back to his desk, picking up the mike.  “Ops?”

“Yes, Skipper?”  It was Riley. 

“Bring one of the portable vid-phones up to my cabin, please.  Give me about ten minutes before you deliver it.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

With resolve, he made his way to the radio shack.  “Sparks, get Linda for me.”   Within a minute, the radioman was handing him the phone.  “Linda?  Oh, yes, Merry Christmas to you, too.  How are you holding up as chairman of this year’s NIMR Christmas party?”   He laughed as she related the tales of the Admiral’s sister trying to commandeer the refreshment committee and Sharkey’s mother having six litters of kittens deciding which decorations would be most appropriate.  The party, like many in the past was going to be held the night of Seaview’s arrival back at Santa Barbara.   Then he got down to the heart of the matter.  “Linda, who has given you a negative RSVP?”  He listened carefully.  It was a short list, but as he expected, Lorie Holmes’ name was among those few.  “Okay, would you do me a favor?  I know you’re busy, but….”   He smiled as he listened to Linda’s assurances that she was never too busy to do him a favor.   “Okay.  Would you contact Lorie Holmes and ask her to come to your office so I can talk to her.  Don’t make it sound like an emergency.  I don’t want to scare her, but I do feel it’s imperative to talk to her via vid-phone.”  Linda snorted and made a sarcastic comment.  “Yeah, I’m going to be the ghost of Christmas present.  Just get her to call me.  It will be private, in my cabin.  Thanks, Linda.”

Sparks, as always, kept a poker face.  Crane knew that nothing that had been said would be repeated, especially to his fellow radioman, Mark Holmes.  That, more than anything else, made Sparks the best radioman around.  “Thanks.  Let me know when something comes in for me.”  At Sparks’ affirmative, Lee left the control room area and returned to his cabin.  Just as he got there, Riley came down the corridor with a vid-phone in his arms.  He opened the door and helped the younger man hook it up.  The admiral had told him he needed to have one permanently installed but Crane had resisted, feeling that the few moments of the day he actually spent in his cabin, he had not wanted to be bothered by calls from the outside.

Knowing it would be a couple of hours at least before he heard back from Linda, he sauntered to the wardroom for a cup of coffee and a look at what the men had done most recently to get in the holiday spirit.  On the small space above the coffee pot, someone had added a quite well done drawing of Santa Claus and his reindeer on top of an outhouse.  There was no need for a caption; every one of the hundred plus men on board knew the punch line.  Looking up, Lee saw that the Rudolph above the galley window still blinked, but apparently the men had run out of red bulbs; the nose blinked bright green.  Paper garlands twined and draped all around the room and a string of lights on one wall shaped in the form of a Christmas tree blinked hypnotically.  Lee felt comfortable in the room.  The men did the decorations, each one adding his tiny, special touch and Lee had only made two rules for the holiday decorating.  They couldn’t be erotic and they couldn’t be a danger in case the boat ran into turbulent waters.   The closest anyone had come to the former, and for that matter the latter as well, was the famous beach poster of Bo Derek, cunningly re-wardrobed in a bikini-like Santa suit that someone had put up above the hatch leading to the control room.  Someone had taped a sprig of fake mistletoe above the poster and two of the crewmen had strained muscles trying to kiss her.

But while the men liked their fun, they were also quite sentimental about their beliefs, too.  The same artist who had done the outhouse, had also done a cardboard crèche for the ‘front porch’ that was quite beautiful.  Several of the men lit candles in a menorah each night of Hanukkah as well. 

The intercom came to life.  “Captain Crane, you have an incoming vid-phone call from the Institute.” 

Lee looked at his watch and marveled at how quickly it had come.  Slightly less than an hour.  He wondered briefly if Linda had made it sound desperate.  He got up and reached for the mike.  “I’ll take it in my cabin.”  As he walked forward, he hoped he would say the right words that might help both of these young people resolve their problems. 

He sat down in front of the vid-phone, and then reached for the mike.  “Begin transmission.”   He leaned forward and turned on the vid-phone.   Lorie Holmes’ anxious face gazed back at him.  He could see the baby in her arms.  At only one month, Maybeth looked downright angelic. 

“Mark . . . is he all right, Captain?” she asked without preamble. 

“Yes and no, Mrs. Holmes.  He’s all right physically.  Just a few bruises and cuts, but it’s his emotional health I’m most worried about right now.”

“What happened?  Was there an accident?”

Lee shook his head.  “No accident.  He was in a fight.  In fact he’s been in several fights lately.  I am worried about him.”

Her face darkened.  “You mean your secretary called me here because Mark was in a couple of fights?  She told me it was important!  I thought something dreadful had happened to him on that . . . that tin coffin.”

Crane frowned.  “It is important, Mrs. Holmes.  I wouldn’t pull you away from your busy schedule if it hadn’t been.”  He sat back and sucked in a deep breath.  “And how usual is it for Mark to pick fights with his co-workers?  Did he seem volatile to you when you were dating or right after you two were married?”

Lee could see her visibly calm down.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to belittle your concern, Captain,” she finally said. 

Lorie Holmes seemed to mean it and Lee began to feel a bit of hope.  “May I read something, Mrs. Holmes?”  She nodded.   He skipped the preamble of the letter in his hand.   “ ‘You can’t imagine how I wish I could be there with you this Christmas.  To think that this is our baby’s first Christmas and I will be hundreds of miles away seems unthinkable.  However, your descriptions have made the miles disappear.  I can almost smell the baby powder and hear the soft cries and feel the tender cheek.  My darling, we will be together before you know it and there will be so many, many things we will do together.  Celebrating Christmas when I get home will be so much more precious, so much more memorable.  I can’t wait to hold you in my arms, to feel your warm lips….”   Lee stopped.  The rest was very intimate. 

“How dare he show you that!  How dare you pull me in here to read it!”  Her eyes were snapping and her face flushed.  The baby began to fuss in her arms.

“It’s dated December 10th, 1945, Mrs. Holmes,” Crane said softly.  “It’s addressed to Mrs. Benjamin Crane.  My mother.  At the time my father was stationed in the Philippines.  He was there to help secure the naval base after the devastating invasion of the Japanese during the war.”

She paused, uncomfortable.  “I don’t understand.  I . . . It sounds like what Mark sent to me.”  She gazed into his eyes.  It seemed that she was finally understanding what he had said at the outset.  “Is he really all right?  You said you were worried about his emotional health.”

“I am worried about him.  When Mark came on board a little over a year ago, he told me that this wasn’t a job.  Instead it was a dream come true.  He loves this job, Mrs. Holmes, and he’s very good at it.”

“Why did you read that letter to me?” Her voice, her eyes suddenly seemed suspicious.

Lee realized that he had to tread very, very carefully here.  Lorie Holmes was not the typical military wife and if not handled properly, this entire situation, not to mention Mark’s job and perhaps, even his marriage could blow sky high.  “What was your response to Mark’s, apparently, similar letter?” Lee asked softly. 

“He didn’t tell you?  I mean if you were aware of what Mark was telling me….”  Her voice sounded defensive again and bordered on belligerence.

“No, he didn’t tell me.  He didn’t have to.  It was almost like reliving my father’s life.”  Lee paused.  “What was your response, Mrs. Holmes?  Did you tell him that if he loved you he would leave Seaview, get a safe land job?”

“Captain, how many holidays, birthdays, special events do you spend away from the Institute and your loved ones?”

“If you mean loved ones in the sense of biological family members, pretty much all of them.  All of my close family members are dead now, Mrs. Holmes.”

She paused and brief sadness crossed her face.  “I’m sorry, Captain for your loss.  It must be terrible to spend holidays alone.  So you see, you can’t understand how I feel for that very reason.”

“Oh, but I think I can a little bit, Mrs. Holmes.  Because the message that my mother gave to my father, the message that she gave me when the sea beckoned me, the message that I believe you gave to your husband are most likely all the same.  ‘If you love me, you will give up this foolish notion, this dangerous job.’”

She gasped, her eyes glinting with sudden anger.  “But it is dangerous.  I want my child to have her daddy, not just memories.” 

“So did my mother.  As it is, I have had the memories for over twenty-five years.  My father acquiesced to my mother’s wishes.  He left the Navy when his enlistment was up and became a fireman.”

“He traded one dangerous job for another,” she said bitterly.

“Walking across the street can be dangerous, Mrs. Holmes.”  Lee took a deep breath to calm his own irritation.  “But I could tell that he dearly missed the sea.  He missed his job.  I could tell when he took me fishing on the Outer Banks and told stories of his Navy days.”  Another pause.  “My father died out in his pleasure boat, fishing,” he said tersely, then he sighed.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I didn’t mean to sound so argumentative.  What I am saying is that any job, be it submariner, truck driver, postal worker or accountant comes with it’s own set of risks.  Yes, I admit that some have larger risks than others, but still….”  He rubbed his hand over his eyes.   “Still, when do you tell someone that they have to stop doing a job that they love?   Do you think Mark loves you less because he relishes his job here on the Seaview?”  She appeared ready to say something so he quickly continued.   “I can tell you that your husband loves you more than you can imagine.  And he loves that beautiful baby you’re holding in your arms.”  Another pause.  “How much do you love him?”   She bristled.  “Do you love him enough to let him do the job he enjoys?  Do you respect him enough to counsel with him about his career instead of pressuring him ‘for his own good’?”  She looked ready to cry and he stopped talking.

“Captain, I . . . I do love him.  But I am so afraid for him.”

“And that’s all right, Mrs. Holmes.   My family is here on this boat.   I fear for them every mission we set out on, the dangerous and the mundane.  Every injury, every claxon fills me with . . . ”  He stopped, unable to go on for a moment.

“Fear?” she asked gently.  Her hands lovingly moved the baby from one arm to the other, but her eyes remained on his.

“Yes.”  He could say nothing else.  

“But it’s so hard to be alone on a holiday and also think that it could be a permanent solitude, Captain Crane.”

“I know….”

“I can’t promise anything.”

“How about starting with trying to understand.  Give him the Christmas present of him knowing that you don’t equate his love for you for anything other than simple love.  Try to separate your fears of his job from the way you two feel about each other.”  He smiled softly.   “It’s my understanding that the love between a husband and wife is supposed to be unconditional and enduring despite any obstacles and crises.”

The baby began fussing in her arms.  “Yes, it is.”  She sucked in a deep breath.  “I will think about what you have said, Captain.  No promises, but I will think about it.” 

He nodded.  “That’s all I am asking.”

She looked down at the baby.  “I’m sorry, but I have to take care of Maybeth.”

He smiled.  “She’s beautiful.  I can see why he adores you both.”

She blushed even as she reached for the switch to cut the transmission.  He did the same and then sat back.  Lee thought that trying to manually shut down a runaway reactor was simple beside what he had just done.  He only hoped that he had not stoked this fire, but rather had dampened it a bit. 

===========

 

Seaview docked three days later, several hours after the sun had risen over the hills.  Lee was one of the last to leave and didn’t even take the time to go to his apartment.  He simply changed in his cabin and left for the party.  When he got there, he found that Linda had coordinated the best Institute party he’d ever seen.  *Meeka rushed up to him, grabbed him in a bear hug and then told him in five minutes all the things that had happened while he had been gone.  Lee understood only half of it.  Later he would take her out and get the whole story.  She pointed toward the kids gaming area with pinball machines and other entertainments, hugged him again and rushed off.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the belated holiday.   Music was playing and some of the couples were dancing in a cleared area near the dining tables.  Morton motioned him over to the drink table and handed him a cup of eggnog and then steered him toward the huge Christmas tree.  “I was about to send a posse out for you, Lee.”

“Just some paperwork to finish.  I preferred to finish it before I left the boat rather than have to go back tomorrow.”

Chip laughed and then sobered.  “Uh oh.  Here comes trouble.”  He pointed toward the door. 

Lee saw Mark Holmes coming through the door with his wife in tow.   To Lee’s immense relief, they began dancing.  Then she saw him, said something to her husband and made her way through the crowd toward him. 

“Uh, Lee, you want me to get a security detail?   I heard some scuttlebutt that you had a talk with her and she might have fire in her eyes.”

Crane shook his head.  “No, I’ll take my lumps if there are any.”  He wondered how the scuttlebutt got started. 

“Captain Crane, may I have this dance?” she asked.  

A new song was beginning—something conducive to slow dancing.  He sighed inaudibly.  “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.   He took her in his arms a bit trepiditiously.  “Mark doesn’t mind?”

She smiled softly as she settled into his arms and the rhythm of the dance.  “No.  I needed to talk to you anyway.”  They danced in silence for a moment.  Lee noticed several of the crewmen gaping at him.  “Captain, if you ever get tired of being in charge of a submarine, you could get a job as a counselor,” she said as they continued. 

Lee almost laughed, but refrained.  “Thanks, but I guess my so-called counseling skills only exist on the Gray Lady and have been learned from excellent teachers—like Admiral Nelson.” 

“I will have to meet him.  Mark talks about him a great deal.”   The mellow notes of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas continued.   “Captain, I hope this doesn’t embarrass you, but I can’t help but wonder why someone hasn’t latched on to you.”

It did indeed cause some discomfort, because at times, Lee wondered the same thing.  Before he could think too deeply about that issue again, he said wryly, “I suppose it’s because I have a mistress.”  Lorie paused in mid-step and gazed up at him.  “My Gray Lady,” Lee explained simply.   “She’s a very demanding woman.”  They continued dancing. 

“Oh, you’re talking about Seaview.  He nodded.  “I guess she is, especially for the man in charge,” Lorie said softly, almost sadly. 

“Mark is very lucky,” he began.  “That he has someone who loves him like you do.”

“As you know, Captain, I do love Mark very much, but I have not been very understanding of that job.  I am still struggling to figure out why he is so dedicated to such a dangerous job.  Why he loves it so much.  I did promise him that I would try harder to understand.”  She paused a moment before continuing.  “I also told him how afraid I am for him every time he goes out on a mission.  I don’t think that will ever change.”

Lee nodded.  “I appreciate that, Mrs. Holmes.  On both counts.”

“He insisted I come to the party to meet others in the same boat.”  She realized what she had said and then laughed.   “I guess the pun is intended.”  She sobered.  “He said that knowing other wives would help me cope better with the fear.  I hope so.”  She looked away and then back into his eyes.  “It’s not solved, but I . . . I think….   Well, we’re going to try.  Thank you, Captain.”  Suddenly she got up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.  Then she whispered.  “Please continue to take care of him.”

“I will.”  Crane felt someone tap on his shoulder. 

“Skipper, do you think I could get a dance with my wife in edgewise?” Mark asked, his eyes filled with happiness. 

“Of course!”  Lee pulled back as Mark took Lorie in his arms. 

As they swung away, she said, “Merry Christmas, Captain Crane.”

Mark echoed, “Merry Christmas, Skipper!”

“Merry Christmas,” he replied, before turning to join Chip, who clapped him on the back and handed him a fresh eggnog.  He suspected that this time it was more than plain eggnog, but that was all right, too.   He smiled as he took a sip and watched the happy couples on the dance floor.

 

 

(Author’s note….  This is based on several things.  I do indeed have letters that my dad sent to my mother when he was stationed in the Philippines after the war.  He missed most of my oldest brother’s first year.  But while my mother wasn’t happy to have him away for that first Christmas, she was first and foremost a military wife and simply sent him the descriptions and love letters she knew he craved.  (In fact, I think she begged him to stay in the service longer than he ultimately wanted to.  She was lost when he finally retired.)  However, I do remember hearing about military wives (sorry, but in those days it was mostly wives who were left behind) who did raise hell about their husbands’ jobs.  I wondered just how in the world they condescended to marry an Army man.  I guess that understanding has come more clearly with having my own children. 

Anyway, as you have noticed, I have hurt no one in the making of this little story….  :  )

 

*Meeka is one of the orphans whom Lee co-fostered from the story "The Little Army" .

 

 

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