Let Men Know

by Helen H.

 

 

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it. 

There they were, Kowalski thought to himself.  All of them.  Admiral Nelson supervising, the old Chief manipulating the big wrench, Captain Crane and Mr. Morton helping to put the finishing touches to the bolts on the floor.  A sea of khakis.  And not an enlisted man in sight.       

A moment later Chief Jones straightened up.  His eyes disappearing behind apple-sized cheeks as he grinned, he stepped back, saying, “Damn, that's some of the best work I've ever done.  She'll hold together for sure now, Admiral.”

“Thanks, Chief.”  Admiral Nelson reached for the carafe on the comm desk and filled a cup of coffee for Jones, who accepted it gratefully, swiping the wrist of the hand holding the wrench across a sweat-stained brow.  Pouring himself a cup, Nelson spoke again.

“Kowalski, since you’ve been so interested in this project, lay down to Sick Bay and let Dr. Jamieson know he can bring his patient forward.”

Kowalski started and came to attention, aware that every eye in the observation nose was on him now.  Although seated at the comm station doing a calibration check he had made no attempt to hide what he was doing -- or not doing, which was more correct, so intent was he at watching his bosses hard at work.  Caught goofing off, all he could do was issue a faint “aye, sir,” execute a smart about face and climb the stairway, quickly going out of sight. 

His CO and XO exchanged amused glances and Lee caught Admiral Nelson’s eye, who smiled back and shook his head.  “Admiral, we’re going back to the control room.  We’ll join you later.”

“Alright, Lee.”

Chief “Curley” Jones gulped down a mouthful of coffee and pointed at the deck.  “Bit of work there, sir.  We'll have to do some patchin' when those bolts come up, but it's a small price to pay to give Admiral Knight a smooth ride.”

Nelson surveyed the new piece of gear that the Chief and his crew had installed on the deck in the nose.  It was a full sized hospital bed, sheets and blankets trimmed to crisp Navy standards.  He glanced over at Jones, who was busy smoothing the coverlet, carefully wiping away any trace of a wrinkle.

“Wasn't this a job for one of the men, Curley?”

“Yessir.  And normally I would have grabbed one of these slackers to get it done.  But...” and here he whipped his handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly, “it's for Admiral Knight, sir.  It's the least I could do for him, Admiral.”

“I understand, Chief.” 

Nelson waited, letting the man get a grip on himself.  He knew the devotion the old chief had for those he had served with, officers and enlisted alike.  It had been one of the reasons he’d called Jones from retirement to become a part of the first crew on Seaview.  “We all go back a lot of years, don't we?”

“Sure do, sir.” 

Both men grew silent, filled with their own thoughts.  Nelson was thinking about a friendship born at the Academy, of two young men excited at the prospect of serving their country and worried about whether either of them would ever see any real action.  December 7, 1941 would quickly disabuse them of that notion.  Life had been hard for Carlton Knight, the son of a career enlisted Navy man, his appointment to Annapolis possible only because his father had lost his life aboard the old S-51 when she was rammed by the merchant ship City of Rome off Block Island.  It had been a struggle for him to make it through the arduous curriculum.  He had been lucky to graduate somewhere in the middle.  Harriman Nelson, on the other hand came from a rich New England banking family.  Groomed for an Ivy League college, Harry had had something else in mind; reviving a sea-going tradition that could only be satisfied by graduation from the Naval Academy.  He had finished at the top of his class.  They had both come a long way, two disparate individuals drawn together in the pursuit of mutual interests.  The years that followed defined their relationship and outlined a career path for each man.  Admiral Knight found his greatest success as a submarine captain and fleet commander.  Admiral Nelson's scientific genius and quest for knowledge had seen him concentrate on research and technology.  Experiencing together years of long service, flag rank and numerous honors only deepened their friendship.  

Nelson rallied back to the present and surveyed the bed.  A mischievous grin came over his features. 

“You're guaranteeing I could bounce a quarter off the blanket, Chief?”

“Absolutely, sir!”

Nelson cocked his head, brows furrowed in thought.  Should he put the chief's confidence to the test?  Beside him, the old salt fidgeted, fingers working at his side in nervous anticipation.  Suppressing the tiny smile that was stealing over his features, Nelson said, “I believe you, Chief.  So I’ll take your word for it that we’re shipshape and Bristol fashion for our guest.”

Jones visibly relaxed, his screwed up eyes opening to full as he saw the admiral's widening grin.  “I don’t know who this Bristol guy is, sir, but you ought not to tease me, Admiral!”

“I ought not?”

“No, sir!  Not where Admiral Knight is concerned!”  

Nelson grasped the chief's shoulder in a show of the familiarity they felt for each other.  “I stand corrected, Chief Jones!”

While the chief walked away with a satisfied smile on his face, Nelson sat down at the comm console, running a hand over his hair.  Never in a million years would he have anticipated Seaview being used as a hospital ship.  But it was the least he could do for an old and dear friend, one he'd called a brother since long before Pearl Harbor.  The thought brought back a rush of shared memories, and he sat quietly for a few minutes, formulating a plan.  He'd help Carl remember as many of them as he could, and maybe, just maybe, it would make this trip easier for his friend.  Nelson stood up and drained his coffee cup.  It would make it easier for them all. 

 

* * * * *

 

Running swiftly thorough a quiet, open sea, Seaview was bound for Norfolk, a day’s sailing away.  Admiral Nelson and Lee were arranged around the newly installed bed, talking to a fragile, blanket-clad figure propped up on a host of pillows.  Even lying in the bed he could be seen to be a tall man, now of thinning frame, the light blue pajamas he had on covering but not concealing the wasting away of his body and limbs, a frame that had been fit and fuller in the past.  Fine blond hair had gone thin on the top.  Deep lines divided his forehead and ran down the sides of his nose.  His skin was parchment pale, the texture and color of someone who had suffered illness for a long time.  But the disease that was killing Rear Admiral Carleton Knight, USN, ret., could not conceal the alertness still evident in the dark grey eyes, eyes that had seen more than 25 years of naval service.  He had taken life as good as it came and given it back in the same way.  That he didn't have much of that life left didn’t faze him in the least.  It was his body that was failing him, not his good nature or his natural gift of humanity.   So he had made a fuss when he’d been settled in the bed and the ship’s doctor cautioned him not to get overly excited, declaring “fiddlesticks” and waving Jamie off with a blue-veined hand. 

“Dr. Jamieson, I will be just fine!  Now skedaddle back to your desk in sick bay.  I don’t need you hovering over me like a mother hen!”

Jamie wisely took himself off, but not until he threw Admiral Nelson an exasperated look.  Life as the medico aboard Seaview was never easy.

Whatever Admiral Nelson was saying was causing the other two men to laugh heartedly together while they all stared out the windows at the giant waves generated by the nose of the submarine.  It was a glorious morning, the light from a bright blue sky filling the upper window tops while underneath the frothy green ocean waters peeled away to fall past the bow.  Occasionally a bigger wave would break, and Seaview would shudder slightly.  But only slightly.  Overhead, towering white clouds tore past, like sailing ships driven before a gale. 

Admiral Nelson turned and picked up the mic.  “Control Room, this is Admiral Nelson.  Can we have half speed, please.”

Chip Morton’s voice came over the mic.  Half speed, sir?”

“Correct.  We're not in any hurry, are we, Carl?”  

“You couldn't prove it by me, Harry.”

“Half speed, aye.”

The change in forward movement came swiftly.  Soon Seaview was almost gliding through the water, bow wave subdued.  Admiral Knight nodded approvingly. 

“If we’d had one of these before the war, Harry, there never woulda been a Pearl Harbor.  And we wouldn’t have had that dust-up with the torpedoes.  Talkin’ about the top brass brings me back to how pig-headed so many of ‘em were at the start of the war.”  Admiral Knight had always had a plain way of speaking, his southern roots showing in the tone and texture of his speech and especially in his accent, the syllables rounding as only a Virginian could muster.  Took almost two years before BUORD believed us about those damned fish and their defective exploders.  We could have shortened the war by months, probably saved a lot of those 52 subs we eventually lost.  More than 3,700 men.  Sometimes -- a lot of times now -- I think about them, Harry, and wonder why I survived when they didn't have the same luck.”

“I know what you mean, Carl.”  Nelson was keeping his voice conversational, deliberately light.  He would pretend, they would all pretend, that nothing out of the ordinary was happening here.  “At least they finally listened to us.  There were other hard lessons we learned from back then.  Gather your facts, gain all the knowledge you can, and then hit ‘em and hit ‘em hard.  And never back down from a fight.”

The pillows bent under his head as Admiral Knight took up the narrative.  “The second lesson -- never get involved in a fight you’re sure to lose.  Bide your time, get strong and then bring all the forces you can to bear.”  He drew a shallow breath and reflected on the lessons learned through much hardship.  “Speakin’ of strong -- that first year of the war, seemed like most everybody was so damn down in the dumps most of the time.  Think of the skippers that requested to be relieved of duty.  How did we manage to get through?”

“No imagination.  It was the guys with vivid imaginations that had troubles,” Harry murmured softly.  He had known a few of these men, captains who had cracked up under the pressure of combat patrols, who had hesitated or refused to fight when the time came.  The war had fought them early and won.

Admiral Knight threw back his head and looked askance at his old friend, grey eyes twinkling.  “No imagination?  That's true for me maybe, but you?  I figured I’d spend my time on subs and hopefully get a command someday -- if I lived long enough.  Didn’t plan on doing anything else.  But you -- last time I looked you were the big-time scientist that people read about.  That takes a lot of imagination.  I think the proof is all around us.”

Nelson took another sip of his coffee just as Chip Morton came down the stairway.  He waited to speak until Chip had joined them beside the bed.  “The war changed everything, of course.  Three months of training instead of six, but we still needed to qualify knowing the boat forwards and backwards and how to work on everything in between.”  Perching himself on the edge of the console, he continued.  “Carl and I went our separate ways after graduation, straight to battleships like so many of our classmates did.  I had my eye on submarines even then, but that wasn’t the way that “old Navy” considered newly commissioned ensigns should begin.  We were supposed to get our feet wet, so to speak, on board a big ship.  Thankfully that’s not the case anymore.”  

“Which you had a lot to do with, changing the way that billets were decided.  I know I would have gone straight to submarines if I'd had the chance,” Admiral Knight added.

Nelson acknowledged that with a nod.  “So the next time we met you were on board the Pennsylvania and I was on the Nevada.  I had come over bearing dispatches from the Commodore for Captain -- what was his name….”  Nelson snapped his fingers.  “Cooke.  That’s it.  Captain Cooke.  You were OOD.  Found out we’d both gotten orders for submarines.  I knew a kindred soul when I saw one.”

Admiral Knight patted the coverlet, hands working the fabric.  “The old Pennsylvania!  What a grand battlewagon she was!  However, I had my heart set on submarines, and made enough fuss for BUPERS to take me seriously.”  He looked up at Chip and Lee and said, “Harry and I were destined to keep meeting, I guess.  The day he came aboard was my last duty watch.  I was leaving the next day on the Pan Am Clipper for the Philippines to take up service on Sealion, but the plane had mechanical trouble and didn’t take off.  Lucky for me, because I sure dodged a bullet there when she was bombed at Cavite.  Missed getting killed, or at any rate, ending up a POW -- that would've sure ended my war fast!  There’s a story in that.  We’ve got lots of stories, haven't we Harry?  You gentlemen want to hear some of ‘em?”  He grinned mischievously.  

“Of course, Admiral,” Lee answered while Chip nodded encouragingly.  

“Harry here is going to have to help me out.  I’m afraid I may have forgotten the best parts of most.”  

“Probably only the parts where you ended up in hot water, Carl.”  Nelson’s eyes warmed.  This was what he had hoped would distract his friend from his pain-filled existence.

“Aww, you wound me, Admiral Nelson.  I usually managed to find my way out of any scrape I was in.  Not always, though, I’ll admit.  Remember when I tried to slip off the Swordfish right after I made JG?  No way was I going to get my uniform messed up, with my shiny new stripes on the sleeves!  Just because every man jack on the boat had been thrown over the side after a promotion, well, that wasn’t going to happen to me!  I figgered I'd fooled the crew after showing up in those old oil-stained khakis at that morning's MOO.  Little did I know they'd be waiting for me to go on liberty call.  I should have remembered that sailors never give up on a chance to have a little fun.  And me bein’ an officer was just icing on the cake!  'Course, if I hadn't slipped heading for the brow....  Over the side I went, in my new dress blues.  Lost my class ring in the water.  Had to wait until after the war to get a replacement.”

Nelson looked down at his left hand.  “I never wear mine.  Just don't think about it anymore, I guess.”  The ring, scarred and scraped, rested in a box in his office safe.  As involved in lab work as he was, something so heavy was best left off his finger.

“Another thing that I’ll always remember, Lieutenant Nelson -- the morning you were in your rack sleeping off another 20 hour day when a fish accidentally went off in the forward torpedo room.  And how buck naked, you opened the hatches on the escape trunk.  Then got shot out of said escape trunk when the torpedo room gang decided to lend a hand with their hatch, and the pressure blew the lid open and you went flying across the deck.  You looked mighty fine sitting topside holding that sledgehammer between your legs.  When you saw where that sledgehammer was your face was as red as your beard, Harry!  And mooning the bridge!  I'll never forget the look on Captain Canforth's face or his wry comment.  'I see you came well equipped, Lieutenant.'  That man had a dry sense of humor and no mistake."

Nelson's face was turning crimson now, aided by the cackles of laughter coming from Admiral Knight.  Lee and Chip were having a tough time keeping themselves from bursting out.  This was a side of their stern boss they rarely saw.

Nelson worked his ear, a bemused look on his face.  “I've never been able to forget it, nor have I been allowed to.  That's the first story that's brought up at reunions.  It’ll probably be talked about at my memorial service.  Omnia post obitum fingit majora vetustas.

“You and your Latin poets!”  Carl grinned indulgently.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“’Time magnifies everything after death’; the rest of the quote goes on to say how a man's fame is increased after he dies.”

“That’s happened to better men than me.”

“And others not so good.  I would ask that you gentlemen” -- he stared at Lee and Chip with a severe look on his face, but his eyes betrayed his humor -- “remember that memories can be embellished.  Like fishermen talking about ‘the one that got away.’  Don’t believe everything you hear.”  

“Is that an order, Admiral?”  Lee asked.

“Humph” was all that Nelson said.  “Never mind that.  I’m changing the subject.  That same patrol… how many hours did we track that rain squall?  Captain gave you hell for that one.  I didn't tell you at the time that it sure looked like a fleet of Japanese merchant ships to me, too.” 

“I swear I could see masts in amongst that rain, once the captain gave the go-ahead to raise the 'scope.  Rain squalls were always slippery devils.  Never could trust 'em,” Admiral Knight said, as his face lit up again.  “Speakin' of changing the subject....”  Suddenly serious, Carl looked directly at his friend.  “Harry, if something should happen before we get to Norfolk, forget about that Arlington thing.  Just perform a burial at sea.”

“Can't do it, chum,” Nelson said softly.

“But Harry--”  

“Don't “but Harry” me, Rear Admiral Knight.  I outrank you.  Funerals are for the living, not the dead.  There are a hell of a lot of people that will want to be there.  Deep sixing you over the side of this boat won't allow that.  And you won't want to deprive Bonnie of wearing that beautiful new outfit she will have bought just for the occasion!”

“You're right -- she was always a snappy dresser.  That was what caught my eye the first time I saw her.”  Carl sobered as he thought of his beautiful wife.  Still as young as the day they met to his eyes and waiting patiently dockside for him to make this final journey home.  “Dearest Bonnie….”  Admiral Knight's eyes softened and glowed with fond memories.  “Funny how life can throw you a curve ball when you least expect it, gentlemen.”  He glanced at the two younger men and saw their piqued interest.  “It was on one of our refits in Freemantle.  How wonderful it was to see people and smell fresh air!  God, we couldn’t get enough of it.  The Australian people welcomed us with open arms.  Especially the women.”  His eyes seemed to brighten at the thought.  “There was this one girl… schoolteacher.”  His voice dropped thoughtfully as he turned his head to the ocean view and continued.  “The boat was undergoing repairs, and the officers had a lot of time to kill, so we were happy to go to as many social events as we could.  Harry and I attended this particular party together.  I walk in, and there she is.  She was standing across the room talking to a friend, all dolled up in a bright yellow dress and sun hat.  She looked like spring and summer all rolled into one, and the smile that she gave me as we were introduced promised that better times were coming as soon as this crazy war was over.  Made up my mind to marry that little Aussie girl from that moment.  Pretty reckless decision considerin’ the times we lived in.”  He turned back to the room and smiled again.  “A couple of weeks later I told Harry about it and he just clapped me on the shoulder and told me not to wait.  He knew just how I was feeling.  He’d met his girl at the same party.”

Lee and Chip’s head swiveled in unison.  “Sir?”  They were learning things about their boss that neither had ever heard.  Admiral Nelson kept his privacy well in hand.  Hasty and emotional he certainly was; they had seen enough evidence of that.  This was something new. 

Momentarily disquieted, Nelson drew a deep breath.  “Uh… it was a party given by the head of the base hospital.  He’d invited all his staff to mingle with the naval personnel.  We came by to visit with one of the Australian Army attachés we’d met on our last trip to Freemantle.  He brought his two sisters.  One was the schoolteacher that Carl’s talking about, and one was a nurse.  The young lady and I began talking.  If Carl thinks he fell in love at first sight, I wasn’t far behind.”  His face had grown taut, as if what he was saying still had the power to upset him, even after all these years.  “Two young people in wartime.  Ripe for disaster.  Didn’t matter.  We were going to get married anyway.”

Admiral Knight had not achieved his rank without a sharp and shrewd mind, one that caught every detail of a situation.  Nelson’s face was changing, there was no doubt about it.  He knew that look, had seen it on the face of fellow officers, at “toiling of the bell” ceremonies, and especially on the faces of the widows drawn to these painful occasions.  Sadness and loss that cut like a knife to the very heart.  He was immediately regretful.

“I’m sorry, Harry.  I’m dredging up old memories you’d prefer to keep to yourself.”

Nelson shook his head and allowed his expression to lighten.  “That’s alright, Carl.  It’s just been a long time since I thought about Vicky.  Quite a long time….”  He shook himself from his reverie and continued with the story.  “Her name was Victoria Tierney, a native of Freemantle, and a new Army nurse assigned to the base hospital.  Born to be a nurse, with the face of an angel combined with a kind and gentle soul.  Just what a war-weary lieutenant needed.  We started spending every spare moment together, seeing the sights, filling our minds with what we’d do after the war was over.  I’d seen other men do it -- marry a local girl, that is -- and never had a doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t work out.  Proposed after just a month.  Her parents cautioned her about marrying so quickly, but we thought we could handle anything.  And I think we would have.”

His mind went back to an Australian summer and fall that he had never wanted to end.  It was true; he hadn’t thought about Vicky in a very long time.  Now he conjured up her face, the heart-shaped face with the bright, laughing eyes, the dark brown hair that caught the sun and shined like a million stars during the day, the lovely red mouth that was always turned up in a smile, even when she was covering his with soft kisses.  He almost raised a hand to his lips, the memory of those kisses as fresh in his thoughts as if they had come yesterday.  The beautiful girl had opened her arms and her heart to him, realizing that what he hid so well on the outside was a dark and dangerous mass inside.  How many hours, how many days he had spent in her company, pushing the thoughts of war far away.  Her willingness to help when the nightmares and doubt had come, to comfort him when it seemed the world was going to hell -- it had been an easy thing to go from friendship to love in the blink of an eye. 

“Eventually of course I had to get back to the Swordfish, and Vicky to her duties.  For some reason I remember how proud she was of her new uniform, the grey dress and short red cape.  She felt that she was really a “sister” now, and was determined to make the most of it.  We last saw each other on April 25, 1943.  It was Easter Day.  A beautiful day divined for young people in love.  We had Christ’s resurrection to celebrate, and we had each other.  The night before I’d given her a little emerald ring that I’d managed to find in one of the Freemantle jewelry stores.  Think it was the last one they had in the place; there’d been a run-on of engagement rings, apparently.  Happened every time one of the boats pulled in.”  He had tried to smile while making this statement, but it was a melancholy smile.  The boat left the next morning for another patrol, and Vicky went off to a new duty station on board the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur.  This particular patrol was cut short when we had a shaft bearing start to go bad.  We got back into port on the 30th of May, and I immediately got a ride to Vicky’s parents’ house.  The look on her mother’s face when she opened the door....”

He stopped talking and stared into the coffee cup he still held in his hand, the contents cold by now.  Then the muted clearing of a throat brought him back to the present and his story.  “Sorry.  Getting ahead of myself.”  With a businesslike air he continued, the words firm but with an undercurrent of emotion underneath them.  Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese sub and sunk on May 14, 1943.  There were twelve Australian nurses on board, and only one survived.  It wasn’t my fiancé.  After the war I found out that the Japanese submarine that did the sinking had herself been sunk a few months later.  It was small consolation.”   

With a pang of regret he recalled the fingerlings of guilt he’d acquired from the moment that Vicky’s mother had opened that door.  She had screamed out the scant details of the hospital ship’s sinking, taking out on him the anger and despair she’d felt.  Mrs. Tierney had alternatively cursed him for loving Vicky and railed against the war that had caused her daughter’s death, as if Harry could have somehow stopped that from happening.  The dark thoughts kept him awake at night for a long while.  They were faded now, just as memories of Vicky had faded.   

Very deliberately, Admiral Nelson reached for the carafe and poured out another cup of coffee.  Vicky’s death had reinforced his resolve to avoid any wartime relationships, lest they end in tragedy.  He had carried that resolution inside him beyond the war years.  It seemed easier that way.  “Married to the Navy,” he had jokingly said when prodded by some senior officer’s wife who had a daughter or later, an unmarried sister or single friend.  The passion that would have swept him into a marriage was channeled into his work.  He did not think he could redirect it any longer.  Too set in his ways, too determined to make a success of Seaview.

The silence in the room became both painful and compassionate.  Quietly, Lee said, “I'm sorry, Sir.”

“Thank you, Lee.”  Nelson raised a hand and ran it through his hair.  “Been a while since I thought about how young and invincible we thought we were.  Old memories.  Carl, here,” he turned the hand in the other man's direction, “decided in the end to give it a bit more time before saying anything.  We went out on another patrol, and when we got back the little schoolteacher had an engagement ring on her finger from another man.”  He roused himself to grin.  “Smart girl.”

“And I went back to my high school sweetheart just as soon as I got back to the States, after the war.  Never regretted it.  Unfortunately Bonnie and I were never blessed with children, but we've had a great marriage.”  His voice broke a bit on the last words.  Admiral Knight cleared his throat, looking down at the deck as he tried to disguise his discomfort.  The other men studiously avoided staring at him.

“Some water, Carl?”

“Ye-yes, that would be good, Harry.”  He drank deeply from the glass Nelson handed him. 

“Go on, Carl.  More stories, please.”

Revitalized somewhat, Admiral Knight went on with his stories.  “So, we're out on patrol again.  Our luck's held so far.  Until this one attack, off New Britain.  Got the tanker, but the destroyer escort knew what she was doing.  We were getting our brains beaten out by depth charges.  The boat sure seemed like it was coming apart that time.  Everything falling down, instrument covers breaking off, broken steam lines, the whole nine yards.  I'll never forget the cockroaches, falling by the hundreds out of the cork on the overheads.  That always gave me the willies.  You'd be playing a hot game of acey-deucy, and plop!  One would come flying out of the ceiling.”  He surveyed the horrified look on the faces of the junior officers.  “Luckily most of you boys haven’t experienced that little bit of life aboard a submarine.  We served on less pristine designs back then.  Anyway, we're under depth charge attack, a heavy attack.  Thought I'd do everyone a favor and keep out of the way so sat down on a bosun's chair in the control room.  Now, you have to remember that the emergency lights were on and it was smoky.  Sat on that chair for hours before I realized it was full of broken glass.  Never felt a thing.  Captain wanted to put me in for a Purple Heart, but I wasn't about to show off those battle scars.  Besides, how would they have worded the citation!”

There were more members of the crew in the nose now, and everyone laughed with amusement and a smiling grimace, recognizing the location of those same battle scars.  They had appeared on the excuse of making a report, or checking the damage control board, or deciding it was time to do field day work, cleaning and polishing until every surface was gleaming.  Chief Jones had come along too, and for once he hadn’t accused any of them of goofing off. 

Admiral Knight’s stories were coming fast and furious.  “Remember that electronics ensign that came on board after the refit, Harry?  Never been to sub school, and sicker than a dog in rough seas.  He would watch that weather chart with positive fear when bad weather threatened.  Whatever happened to him?” 

“Retired a few years ago as COMSUBPAC,” Admiral Nelson said gently.

“That was him?  Doggone it, it was.  Memory's shot, too,” Admiral Knight said dispiritedly, and then another story came to mind.

“Okay, I’m at Saipan with the Skate, and it’s time for everybody to turn to and scrape and paint the boat's bottom.  I personally figured the barnacles were keeping the hull together, but also knew they were slowing us down by a couple of knots, and that was never a good thing.  The ol’ girl needed all the help she could get.  Anyway, we're in drydock, and it's time to get to work.  Well, what a howling that set up!  Had to personally collar half a dozen men and have them join in the fun.  I always led as an example, and so it wasn't a problem for me.  Plus,” and here his voice lowered a bit, as if he was imparting a secret, “I never minded getting my hands dirty.  I wasn't one of “those” officers,” he said, chuckling.  “But man, the bellyaching!  That tapered off after a while.  Of course, breaking out the beer might have had something to do with it.” 

After another bout of laughter, Admiral Knight spoke again, really getting into his stride now.  “Do you remember the birthday cake that ol’ Timmy the Irishman cooked up for me on that trip out of Brisbane?  What a stew burner he was!  Best food I've ever had.  And the cinnamon rolls!  You’d catch a whiff first in the conn and then your stomach would start to growl…a four hour midwatch wasn’t half bad when he was night baker.”  He patted the bed covers and said with a scowl, “Damn doctors wanted me to give up sweet stuff.  I told them they could take an arm or a leg, but I wasn’t giving up cakes or sweet rolls, pie or ice cream -- a man's got to have some pleasures left to him before he finally meets his maker.” 

The simple statement filled everyone's mind again to the purpose of this voyage and an air of sadness fell over the room.  Lee could see this concerned the admiral and he decided to pick up on the theme of the day.

“Can I add one story of my own at this point, sirs?”

“Of course, Lee!  Please join us.  You, too, Chip,” Nelson encouraged gratefully.

Lee caught Chip’s eye and swallowed a laugh.  “Mister Morton will back me up on this one, I'm sure.  He’s the only one that knows all the details.  I haven’t passed it along to anyone else.”

“Then I feel honored, Crane,” Admiral Knight said.

“Maybe not after I’ve related this story, sir,” Lee said, not bothering to keep the laughter in this time.  “The boat and the captain shall remain nameless -- more for my benefit than theirs.  As the gentlemen present know, junior officers are the lowest of the low, as far as their captains are concerned--”

“Now, I wouldn’t say that, Lee,” Nelson interjected.  “Admiral Knight and I were JOs ourselves once.  We were treated with great respect by every senior officer we came in contact with.”  He caught Admiral Knight’s eye and both turned away, lips clenched together and faces flushing as they tried and failed to keep the laughter bottled inside.

“Right, sir.  Of course.”  Lee’s big hazel eyes reflected how much he believed that statement.  “I had only been aboard the boat a few days when we had a change of command.  It was soon apparent from the scuttlebutt that this new captain had a reputation; he was a martinet who delighted in grilling his “rookies” on the maneuvering capabilities of “his” submarine when leaving a mooring.  And it was going to be my turn this particular morning.  I could tell by everyone’s faces that I was in for it.  Well, I steeled myself and went up to take my station -- hoping, of course, that lightening would strike and put me out of my impending misery.  Oh, did I mention we were at Pearl at the time?”

Simultaneously both admirals groaned.  Pearl Harbor has always been an especially tricky port to maneuver in and out of.  They knew what was coming.

“Exactly, sirs.  I was in for it.  I was going to get the crap kicked out of me by my CO.  And my next assignment would be some desk somewhere, if he had anything to do with it.  I can remember how I felt -- a “failure to qualify” chit and on the beach before I knew it, never to see the inside of a submarine again.  And there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it.”

Lee was into the story now, moving about the bed and using his hands to emphasize the action.  The men around him were caught up in his words, ears flapping open for the rest of the story.  Although he hadn’t been aboard very long, this crew had accepted Lee Crane.  He was no martinet, sucking the life out of each one of them.  Coming not so quietly into their midst at the beginning he had soon assumed a calm and steady persona.  To see him so animated was new to them all.

“Anyway, the bridge JA phone talker on this particular watch was a Quartermaster Second Class named Briggs.  I understood from the other officers that he was an old hand on the boat, and that if I needed anything, I could go to him.  Actually, he came to me.  Right before I had to go topside he stopped me and said that whatever questions the CO asked he’d give me the answer.”  

“Captain Crane!”  Admiral Knight exclaimed in fake astonishment.  “I presume you declined the offer?”

“No, sir, I did not.  I knew that I’d eventually know anything the captain was to ask me -- but not on this first watch.  So if I could speed the process up a little bit, I was fully prepared to take advantage of any help offered.”

Nelson and Knight looked at each other, trying very hard not to laugh.  Nelson answered for both of them.  “Carry on, Captain.”

“Aye, sir.  Well, Briggs pulled me aside and said that the CO was going to ask me questions about how the boat reacted in the water, how long it took her to answer bells, how long it required to swing the bow ‘x’ number of degrees, that sort of thing.  Now, imagine my panic as all this set in.  But Briggs assured me that as he had been aboard for so long, he knew her like the back of his hand.  I swallowed and told him that if this was what I was in for, I'd be grateful for his advice.

“So -- here we are.  The captain takes up station on the starboard side of the bridge.  I'm on the port side with Briggs and the OOW.  One Mr. Charles Phillip Morton, as I recall.” 

Chip held up his hands as if to fend off a blow.  “How many times have I apologized for this?  I knew I couldn’t say a word, with the captain standing there breathing down my neck.  He’d have had my hide, too.”

Lee waved that off.  “Yeah, yeah.  Okay, the last line has been cast off.  Not thirty seconds later the captain leans over and addresses me.

“So, Mr. Crane, how soon before we mark the turn?”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Come, come, Crane.  It’s a simple question.  At our current speed, how long before we mark the turn?”

I know I looked like a deer in the headlights.  To kill time I turned and looked aft, pretending that I was gauging some kind of distance.  I didn’t know what the hell to tell him, of course.  So, I decided I’d just face the music and get it over with.  Then I heard a noise and looked back to Briggs, who was wedged up to one side of the bridge behind me.  He’s holding up two fingers and breathing the word ‘minutes.’  Figuring that I didn’t have anything to lose, I faced the captain and said, very loudly, ‘Two minutes, sir!

“It was obvious the captain was just about to break out with some long chewing out session when I blurted this out.  His face just collapsed, and he started getting red as a beet.  This went on for the 30 minutes it took to get us out of there.  Captain would ask me a question, I’d find a way to sidle over to Briggs, and he’d tell me the answer.  And it was right, every time.  I couldn’t believe it.  Neither could the captain, of course.  He was getting madder and madder.  Finally, he throws up his hands and says, ‘It's your boat, Mr. Crane.  I’m going below.’

“I managed a grave ‘yes, sir’ and waited until I was sure he was off the bridge before I grabbed Briggs and asked him how the hell he knew all this stuff.  Come to find out, it was easy.  As the JA talker for his watches Briggs always kept to himself on this particular side of the bridge.  And as he demonstrated, if he leaned against the bridge no one could see his hand on the key for the mic.  All he was doing when the CO asked me questions was to very quietly call down to Control on the JA for the answer.  He did it for every junior officer the captain decided to focus his wrath on, until finally the CO gave up.  And every one of us kept the secret.”

Carl and Harry laughed in unison and nodded approvingly.  They admired loyalty.

Lee folded his arms and grinned, eyes flashing at their pleasure.  “Now, it's time we had one from the XO.  He’s skated long enough.”

Chip started, alarm stealing over his features.  “Me?  But I don't have anything half as good as these stories--”

Lee wasn't about to be thwarted.  “You know the one, Chip.  The Sennet.”

Chip glared at his friend in mock annoyance.  “Ah.  You would remember that one,” Chip said solemnly, but the smile on his face belied the sentiment. 

“Okay, we're a month out on the old Sennet, my last diesel-powered boat.  I'm the refueling officer.  I wanted to make sure that everything was in order for our refueling in Norway, so I’d taken the precaution of confirming the arrangements with our embassy personnel in Oslo.  Was told to contact the fueling depot in Bergen, and everything was good to go.  Had copies of the message in triplicate, just to be safe.”

Here there was a snickering of laughter.  Everyone on Seaview knew Mr. Morton's reputation for meticulous attention to detail.  Chip ignored all that and went on.

“We tied up, brought the hoses over, and everything's going just fine.  I go below to touch up my uniform and get ready to go ashore.  Then all of a sudden there's a frantic call from topside to come up and talk to one of the locals.

“I go up.  There's a little cluster of men surrounding the Norwegian director of the bunker.  He's yelling and waving a piece of paper.  Luckily the guy knows a little English, since I didn't know a word of Norwegian.  I make out that he's talking about the 99,800 gallons of diesel that we'd just taken aboard.  He's pointing at the piece of paper.  It finally dawns on me that he wants to be paid for the fuel!

“I send one of the guys below for the logbook, where I'd put the paperwork that I'd gotten from the attaché in Oslo.  Now, it shows -- in English, of course -- that all of this fuel has already been paid for.  I show it to this guy.  He doesn't even look at it.  Just keeps pointing at his piece of paper.  Then he folds his arms and plants his feet.  It's apparent he's not going anywhere.

“Well, by then I'm desperate.  Captain Dotson has stuck his head outside, told me to deal with it then promptly disappeared.  It's up to me now.  Thinking quickly, I decide to pull out my wallet and flash the few dollar bills I have, and he'll get the picture and give up.  I walk over and open it up.  But I never get to where the money is.  Instead, his face lights up and he starts pointing at my American Express card.  So I pull out the card, he copies down the numbers on his paper, hands me the pen and is indicating he wants me to sign it.  Well, I figure this will all be straightened out in the wash, so I signed.  He departs the boat, apparently satisfied.

“We finished up the cruise and the boat pulls back into Oslo.  Everything’s fine, so I think.  Well, I always made it a point to call my parents every time I got back from a cruise, wherever I was, so I made the phone call.  First thing my mother says to me, ‘your father wants to talk to you.’  Dad gets on the phone and gets right to the point. 

“Son, do you have some sort of account with American Express?”

“Yes, Dad, it’s called a credit card.  You know, buy now and pay later.  It’s a brand new idea, got it right before I left on this cruise.”

“Well, son, seems like a recipe for disaster to me.  Especially since you need to get hold of those folks.  They've made a big mistake.  I guess you went and bought some gas some place over there in Europe, and they added some extra figures to the number.  Don't see how you managed to get 98,000 gallons of fuel in any car, much less one of those European ones.” 

“Dad was laughing at this point, but I sure wasn't.  The gas station guy had actually managed to put the charge through!  I was able to get it straightened out with help from the American Embassy, but for a while there I thought I might have to work into my dotage to pay for the snafu!  Now I don't officially sign for anything that could personally cost me a pay check!”

That brought forth another round of laughter and sniggers.  “I'll have to remember that the next time we play poker,” Lee joked.

“That’s a good one, Morton,” Admiral Knight added.  In his short time on the Seaview he had watched these two men in Harry's company and had seen similar examples of his own long friendship with Harry.  He saw what his friend admired in them and mildly envied them their youth.  He was also intelligent enough to realize that this was only the weakness of an old sick man getting the better of him.  He also knew his old friend Harriman Nelson well enough to know that this bull session had been an attempt to lighten up the atmosphere and take his mind off his illness.  He had thanked him for that in his mind already.  Time again to forget the deficits of old age.

“Care for a few more stories, gentlemen?”  Receiving affirmative nods the admiral launched into another resurrected memory.

“Being aboard this boat and how big she is -- what I wouldn't have given for some of this room on the old diesel eaters we sailed on.  For instance, the fresh water showers, what luxury!  That was one thing you could always count on for men aboard submarines -- you could smell 'em before you saw 'em.  An odor all of our own, doggone it!  They weren’t called pigboats for nothin.’  I can't say we were proud of it, but man, it was something we all shared.  Took me years to get the smell of that and diesel fuel, cigarettes and paint out of my nose. 

“Speaking of sharing – Seaview may be big, but she’s not a battleship or a carrier.  Quarters are still close.  And I’ll bet you’ve got some characters aboard.”

(Out on the fringe of the group gathered in the observation nose Seaman Patterson jabbed his friend Kowalski in the side.)

Admiral Knight continued.  “As you know, every man, enlisted and officer, has to work together on a submarine, and you have to be able to communicate.  Sometimes some of us communicated too -- colorfully, shall we say."

“This took place on the Blenny, on my PCO cruise.  One night we’re running the fresh water stills in the forward engine room.  You can appreciate that the dungeons of Hell come nowhere close to how hot the engine rooms got back then when the batteries were making fresh water.  I'm handling the dive, the skipper’s standing in the control room taking it easy and checking everything out.  Just to show off to the captain that I'm paying attention, I hit the mic button and call down and inquire, in my best and most courteous manner, how conditions are in the forward engine room.  The answer, in a thick Texas accent, comes back loud and clear:

 

“Sir, it's hotter'n two mice having sex in a wool sock.”

 

“I almost swallowed the mic.  The captain shakes his head and without a word, disappears aft.  Everyone in the control room waited for a few extra seconds and then exploded.”

 

Carl Knight laughed along with the rest and then grew mildly sentimental.  All these memories had stirred within him a longing that could never be fulfilled again.  He looked out at the mighty ocean before him and pointed forward. 

 

“But maybe the best things in all my years in the Navy were the nights standing watch on the bridge.  Summertime was always the best, especially around Australia or the Hawaiian Islands.  The boat would knife along and sea water would rise up along the tank tops and cascade off, leaving millions of twinkling phosphorescent stars winking back at you in the wake.  And every now and then porpoises would play in the bow wave.  Coffee always tasted better on those nights.  I guess all of us can remember cruises like that.  What I wouldn't give to see that again....”

 

His voice trailed away.  Each man in the space was remembering nights when the ocean was a magical place, when the cares of the world were very far away.   

 

The last story seemed to have taken a lot out of Admiral Knight.  He was visibly tiring.  Chief Jones stepped up to the bed and stuck out a hand, his smile splitting his face.

 

“Always a pleasure being on board with you, Admiral.”  The look on his face began to change, and he blurted out the rest while his eyes filled with tears.  “It’s been a g-grand ride, sir.” 

 

Admiral Knight took the hand and grasped it firmly.  “It sure has, Curley.  Think I’ll take a little nap now, get my energy back.”

 

The chief rubbed his eyes.  “Dang, must be dusty in here.  I’ll leave you to it, Admiral.  You need anythin’, you let me know.” 

 

He went up the stairway -- but not before his eyes glared out at the men who were still standing idly by.  They took the hint and began drifting away, followed closely by Lee and Chip, who also excused themselves to head topside.  Soon only the two admirals were left in the space.  Nelson stepped around the bed and its inhabitant. 

 

“Carl, I'll go to my cabin and look for that picture I was telling you about,” Admiral Nelson announced. 

Admiral Knight’s mind was far away as he answered his friend.  “Take your time.  I'll just rest here a while and enjoy the view.”

 

Nelson was back in a very short time, a thick file in his hands.  “Here, Carl, these are those pictures I wanted to show you, from the Academy.  You're here, right in the mid--”

 

The words disappeared in his throat.  With a small movement he rested his hand on the wrist of his friend.  Taking a steadying breath, Admiral Nelson's strong baritone began a familiar refrain.

 

“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh to thee.” *

 

Lee was just coming down the stairway, clipboard in hand, trailed by two crewmen.  Startled, he almost automatically found himself mouthing the words, words that he had heard many times during services at the Academy.   

“Admiral?  Is everything okay?  Does Admiral Knight need something?”

Nelson didn’t answer.  Instead, he leaned over the figure on the bed and made some adjustments on the covers, and then straightened up and turned towards Lee, scratching his ear and staring over the younger man's shoulder, to some place far away and in the past.  When he did speak, his voice had an odd catch in it. 

“No, Captain.  Admiral Knight needs nothing from us now.”

Lee's eyes widened.  He walked forward to stand by the side of the bed and looked down. 

The admiral was lying peacefully, his face calm and serene, hands straightened out at his sides.  Lee's eyes went to Admiral Nelson, and he immediately felt a pang in his heart.  Nelson’s face was drawn and gray, the loss of an old friend plainly evident in his expression.  Lee knew how keenly the admiral felt about everything, in good times and bad.  It was what made him exceptional. 

“I'm very sorry, sir.  I'll arrange for an honor guard to come forward immediately and move Admiral Knight to sickbay.  And I'll take care of the arrangements when we dock, sir.  It'll be my privilege.”

“Thank you Captain.  And thank you for the rest of it, lad.”  Nelson turned around and touched the hair on Admiral Knight's brow, straightening the short bangs.  “I'm going to my cabin.  Send Chief Jones to me, won't you?  He’s known Carlton Knight almost as long as I have.”  He drew one hand down on his face, attempting but failing to rub away the feelings as he walked away.  “I...I'll leave everything in your very competent hands.”

“Aye, aye, sir.  And, sir?”

Nelson stopped and looked back.  Lee hesitated a moment.  Maybe it wasn't a good time.  Then again, it never was in these situations.

“I just wanted to say that Chip and I appreciated all the stories you and Admiral Knight were swapping, sir.  Maybe you'll share a few more with us and the crew some time.”

“I'll remember that.”  His eyes roamed over Lee and the crew members who stood respectfully to one side.  His crew.  Lee and Chip.  His friends.  “Gentlemen, thank you all.”

Lee came to attention as the admiral went up the ladder and disappeared.  He spoke to the men behind him.

“Henderson, find Chief Jones and send him to the Admiral’s cabin.  Loretti, you’ve got your boatswain’s call?”

The second crewman pulled the shiny instrument out of his pocket while Henderson bolted up the stairway.  “I always carry it, sir.”

Lee picked up the mic.  “We’ll give Henderson a couple of minutes and then you’ll pipe a still.  I need to make an announcement to the crew.”

“Aye, aye, skipper.”

 

Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, the Tenth Book

 

* * * * *references and other notes* * * * *

MOO - Morning Officers Orders.  PCO – Prospective Commanding Officer.

The prayer -- Psalm 91, verses 5-7 (King James Version).

The complete text of the Latin quote is:  Omnia post obitum fingit majora vetustas; majus ab exsequiis nomen in ora venit:  “Time magnifies everything after death; a man's fame is increased as it passes from mouth to mouth after his burial.”  Sextus Aurelius Properetius, Elegioe (III, 1, 23)

JA – Captain’s Battle Circuit (sound-powered telephones).

Boatswain’s (pronounced Bosun’s) call -- the small pipe used aboard ship (even today) to give commands to the crew.  Pipe a still – to call the crew to attention.

 

Several of the stories were inspired and adapted from Submarine Diary, by Corwin Mendenhall.

Other stories courtesy of The After Battery and the “Bubbleheads” Blog, wonderful websites full of submarine lore.

 

 

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