Responsibility

by

Helen H.

 

 

 

It always started with a blank piece of paper. 

It was Lee Crane’s job as commanding officer to write to the next of kin of men who had died aboard ship.  Although it was never easy, he usually came up with something fairly quickly.  Not this time.

In keeping with military tradition, a representative of the Institute had already visited the family.  Even though Seaview was a civilian boat, most of the men aboard her had years of service in the U.S. Navy behind them, and they would expect nothing less from a retired admiral.  Nelson had not disappointed them.  Neither would Lee.  As a measure of respect he always wrote as soon as possible.  This letter, though, was proving difficult.  Besides vetting his application for the open engineering billet and an exploratory interview, Lee had spent only a few minutes with the new hire, welcoming Lieutenant Elliott when he’d reported aboard.  After that, it was up to the department head to pass along anything the captain needed to know.  Lee remembered thinking that Elliott seemed like a good man that would fit in quickly.  He'd never know now.  The lieutenant had died of a heart attack not a week after joining the crew. 

Lee had seen sudden death before.  While he wasn't inured to it, he had learned to set the horror and shock aside; to do otherwise was to invite personal destruction.  Why, then, was he having a hard time accepting the facts of Elliott’s passing?  Because somehow, it shouldn't have happened?  It was the belief that somehow, he was responsible for the man's death that was gnawing at Lee.

The hands of the clock were crawling towards midnight as he sat at his desk grappling for words that wouldn’t come.  They had left Hawaii and were headed back to Santa Barbara.  The body had already been flown to the mainland for a private funeral, but a memorial service was being held at the Institute.  He'd had to think of something for that, too. 

There was a soft knock at the door.  Startled, Lee took a couple of extra seconds before calling out, "Come in!"

The door opened and the familiar figure of the boat's X.O. appeared.  Chip Morton was the ideal executive officer, quick to take his captain's words and put them into action.  His usually calm demeanor was a perfect foil for his often-volatile C.O.  They had served several tours together and been friends even longer.  The men looked to Lee Crane for leadership and direction, and he amply supplied both.  They looked to Chip Morton for confirmation that all was right in the universe.

"Having trouble?"  Chip asked.

"How'd you know?"

Chip lowered himself into the cabin’s extra chair and crossed his feet on the edge of Lee's desk.  "Just did a last walk-around before turning in.  When you haven’t left an entry in the log that says you're leaving the driving to us, I know something’s up.  No message means you’re doing something other than sleeping."

Lee held up the empty sheet of stationary.  "It's Elliott's letter."

"Ah.  Whenever I think about getting my own command -- don't worry, I don't get those thoughts often," Chip added, seeing Lee's startled expression, "I remember that as C.O. I’d have this responsibility.  I don't envy you."

Throwing his pen down, Lee leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head, dark eyes staring up at the overheads.  "Sometimes the words come easily.  Other times, it’s harder than hell.  This is one of those times."

"You feel you should have prevented this somehow."

Lee's eyes met those of his old friend.  "What do I need to do to keep you from reading me like a book?"

Chip chuckled, and then his expression became serious.  "I know when something's worrying at you, that's for sure.  Lee, he was only 32 years old.  Nobody knew he had a problem with his heart."

"But he was playing volleyball with me at the time."

The feet came off the desk and Chip leaned forward.  "With eleven other guys, on a beach.  In Hawaii, where it gets really hot.  You worked on him for the whole ten minutes before the ambulance guys showed up.  There was nothing that anyone could have done in this particular case.  He was dead before he hit the ground, Lee."

"I guess."  Both men sat quietly for a moment, and then Lee brought his hand down on the desktop in a sharp slap.  "I just wish I knew more about him!  It's going to be a really short letter if I don't come up with something."

"Well, you've got about three more days."

Lee made a face.  "I need to concentrate on this now, not three days from now."

"Okay.  I'll help.  I know more about him than you do, anyway."

This was news to Lee.  Taken aback, he said, "How come?"

"There were a couple of things in his file jacket I wanted to check on.  Wanted to find out why he left the Navy."

"So what was in the file?” 

"The usual,” Chip said, shrugging his shoulders.  “Service record was clean, he had a couple of commendations, even a personal citation.  On his way to a career."  A resigned smile crinkled the skin around his blue eyes.  "So I asked him about it when he reported aboard.  He told me he figured the only way he'd ever make it onto Seaview was through a commission in the regular Navy."

"No kidding."

"He didn't think an engineering degree by itself was going to be good enough, so he went for OCS.  Ended up staying in for eight years, but when Geritty moved on his was the first application that came in."

Lee’s brows knit together.  "Elliott never said anything about this in our interview."

"He didn't want you to know, Lee.  Wanted to prove that he belonged here first."

"Wow.  Good grief, Chip."  Lee sighed heavily and ran a hand through his thick head of hair.  "Maybe I should have spent more time with him, talked to him about--"

Chip threw up his hands.  "Enough!  That’s not the way it works, and you know it.  Don't beat yourself up over this, Lee.  Elliott had a clean bill of health from his separation physical.  Doc said it would have been almost impossible to diagnose his congenital heart condition unless there'd been some recent symptoms, which he either had and ignored or didn’t have.  His CV was great, Admiral Nelson liked what he saw, and you did, too.  When he came aboard, he was where he wanted to be.”  His voice softened.  “Do you want me to write the letter?"

Lee shook his head.  "Nope.  Thanks for the offer, XO, but it's my job."

“Understood.”  Chip unfolded his tall, slim body from the chair and stood up.  “I’m hitting the rack.  But if you need any help, just let me know.”

“Thanks, Chip.  See you in the morning.”

Chip touched his fingers to his forehead in a friendly salute and left the cabin.

Lee stared at the closed door for a long while.  Whether he knew Elliott intimately or not, he could well understand what it meant to want to serve on the Seaview.  It had been a personal goal of his, long before he’d seen the First Lady smash the giant bottle of champagne against the boat’s bow at her launching.  Circumstances had conspired against it at the time.  Given the chance when Captain Phillips had been killed, he’d assumed command, and following a rocky start had won over the crew.  Later, after Admiral Nelson had requested his transfer from the regular Navy, Lee listened with delight and satisfaction as the admiral discussed the plans he had in store for him.  The dream was a dream no longer; the Seaview was his.  So for Elliott to want so badly to be a member of this crew -- Lee could identify with that.  It gave him a new appreciation of the personality of the lieutenant.  Best of all, it gave him a starting point.

He pulled the sheet of stationary towards him and began writing.

 

 

“...whether he is trapped by responsibility or made free by it; whether he is moved by other people

and outer forces or moves them -- this is of the essence of leadership.”  Theodore H. White

 

 

 

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