What's this about volunteering? Poor Sharkey!
Chief Petty Officer Francis Ethelbert Sharkey stood in front of the blue door as though it was a thing ready to snatch and swallow him. He was not a small man and yet the door seemed to be cavernous. He had been through combat situations and had weathered horrific events that might have caused a Congressional Medal of Honor winner to pause. And yet…. And yet this terrified him. He had waited until the last moment, when most of the crew had already gone ashore. The idea that any of them would guess what he was doing, what his present fear was scared him worse than admitting to the skipper. Flashes of a little boy, growing up in New York City, fists his only consolation to the taunts of other kids…. Sharkey pushed the memories out of the forefront of his consciousness. He could never totally shove them away, though.
The chief chided himself. This was the skipper! Sure the skipper had a short fuse at times, but the captain would understand, wouldn’t he? With a deep breath, Sharkey screwed up his courage and knocked on the door.
"Come in," Crane’s voice replied.
Sharkey’s hand hesitated on the knob only a second and then he opened the door and walked in.
Crane smiled and asked, "What can I do for you, Chief? I thought you’d be on shore already."
"No, sir. I would have been except…."
"The reports were in order," Crane said, his look puzzled. "And quickly turned in, too."
"Yes, sir and thank you, sir," Sharkey replied. He would have been pleased, except for the other matter that was eating him. "It’s not the report, Skipper."
"Sit down, Chief," the captain said with another smile. He looked a bit more relaxed than he had a day before when they had been under deadline to get back to the Institute. "We have time before we’re discovered and tossed overboard."
At that last remark, even Sharkey had to smile. The CMO had been adamant lately about the crew, especially the command crew, actually taking their leave off the boat. "Yes, sir." He did as asked, but hesitated again before speaking. Finally, "It’s about the admiral’s volunteer forms." The COB gazed at the two clipboards, the one stacked on top of the other.
"Oh, you haven’t signed yet, Chief. Which one did you want to try out?"
"No, sir. I haven’t…." He took a deep breath. "Skipper, I don’t think it would be a good thing for me to sign up at all."
Crane gazed at him, at first in surprise and then with what appeared to Sharkey to be some amount of understanding. "Would you mind telling me why?" the captain asked softly. "I would think you’d enjoy working with the kids at the high school. You are very good with the new rates that sign on. Have a good rapport with them."
"No, sir. I mean, well, Captain…."
Crane didn’t say a word, only continued to study the chief a moment. Then he reached over to a half filled coffee pot, pulled an empty mug from next to it and poured some coffee for Sharkey. He shoved it across the desk and waited.
Gratefully, Sharkey took the mug and sipped. It was only lukewarm, but it served to help him gather his thoughts. They weren’t pleasant thoughts, mostly those of hearing his father accuse him of being lazy after getting a note from his teacher in second grade, of Suzie Fletcher calling him stupid and himself struggling with the words in his reader as the kids all took turns reading the story. It didn’t help that he was also a chunky, klutzy kid and was teased on the playground, too. And his name! Of course, he had gotten even with a few of them when he had gone to high school, ended up being the center on the football team and had flattened some of his tormenters. Still, even over all the years it tore at him. Even now, after his dyslexia had been diagnosed and corrective steps taken, now that he had adjusted and adapted to the point of having done well in the Navy and was finally selected to serve on the grand Grey Lady. Even now, the pictures haunted him. "Skipper, I never was a good student," he admitted reluctantly, feeling weak for having done so. But it was true; he had barely passed his classes, especially in elementary school. For some reason, though, Sharkey had been really good at math, and found that he loved working with his hands. He had discovered pleasure in helping the kids even further behind than himself in shop class in high school, too.
"Your Navy test scores only served to prove that you are not a test taker," Crane said matter-of-factly, as he poured himself a cup of the tepid brew. "But your service, in the Navy as well as here on the Seaview, belies what went on before."
Sharkey cringed at the mention of the Naval exams. He had struggled to get all the information in his head, struggled to understand all the questions and answer them satisfactorily. His spelling still elicited chuckles from a few of the rates, although most of them, Ski and Pat especially, understood and made surreptitious corrections on reports. He knew the exec and skipper did, too. His main reading consisted of the service manuals and the newspaper, when they had access to one.
"No, sir. I, uh, I don’t think I would like to, uh, talk in front of kids who…." Kids who know more than I do, who are smarter than me, Sharkey finished mentally.
The skipper nodded and for some strange reason, the chief felt that Crane understood what he hadn’t said.
"What about the elementary school, Chief?" Crane asked coaxingly. "You would just basically be picking your favorite kid’s book and reading it. Your delivery would appeal to them."
"Delivery, sir?" Sharkey could understand the admiral and the Navy wanting them to occasionally go and talk to high school kids about career choices but whose bright idea had it been to go into elementary schools and read to little kids? Probably some librarian who had gotten the admiral’s ear. He said as much.
Lee laughed. "It is a rather novel idea, isn’t it, Chief. I keep trying to see the admiral reading Dick and Jane to a bunch of first graders and it doesn’t quite come across. However, it wasn’t the admiral’s ear, it was mine. My cousin is a school librarian and she was telling me about how they encourage parents and other adults to come to the elementary school where she works and let the kids interact with someone other than their teachers. She said it had really become quite an event." He shrugged. "I kind of thought that might be a good idea. The admiral approached the superintendent of schools in Santa Barbara and a school was picked to try it in. Good PR anyway."
"Oh," Sharkey said in a small voice. "I didn’t mean any disrespect, sir."
Again, the skipper laughed. "I know, Chief, but I think everyone’s consensus is about the same as yours." He handed Sharkey the clipboard. There was only one name. The captain’s. He knew that Captain Crane wasn’t forcing him to do this, but still….
"What was your favorite kid’s book, Chief?" Crane poured some more of the coffee into Sharkey’s cup, then the last into his own. He frowned. "We’re going to have to leave the boat soon. The only way to get some fresh coffee."
Sharkey smiled, even as he considered the captain’s question. What had been his favorite book? He didn’t read much unless he had to, so not much there insofar as what they called pleasure reading. Somehow, he didn’t think that the teacher would appreciate him reading an issue of Detective comics with Batman in it. He pictured several books and tried to remember their titles. "Curious George," he finally said, almost embarrassed to admit it.
"Yeah, I remember that one," Crane said fondly, setting his cup aside and leaning back in his chair.
"Yes, sir. I always felt sorry for the monkey getting caught. Kind of rooted for him when he snuck out of jail."
Smiling, Crane simply said. "McElligot’s Pool."
"Dr. Seuss," Crane replied.
Sharkey didn’t know what to say. The skipper had read Dr. Seuss?
The captain continued, "Yes, loved the imagination that populated that deep and mysterious waterway. I tried coming up with my own denizens of Dr. Seuss’ deep." He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "You know, Chief, I wasn’t born with a book in my hand like the admiral. Didn’t have dyslexia, but did have some problems to overcome. Shy, skinny kid who didn’t want to call attention to himself."
Sharkey didn’t say anything. Skipper, shy?
"And a brand new second grade teacher who seemed duty bound to make me overcome my shyness. Just made it worse." He leaned forward and scrutinized Sharkey. "I will go into the children’s section of the local library if you will. Who knows, maybe we’ll find some more of our favorites." Sharkey hesitated and Crane continued. "I’m not ordering you to do this, but asking you to, uh, be my backup."
"Well, sir. I guess I could try."
"Come on. We need a foray into someone else’s imagination for a change," the captain said, getting up and grabbing his cover off the bunk.
"You really think this will go okay, Skipper?"
"I think so, Chief. To be honest with you, the idea of going into that school alone kind of had me . . . worried."
"After all we’ve been through, sir?" But Sharkey knew exactly what the captain was talking about.
"Chief, let’s go get that cup of coffee and then head to the
Several days later, the captain watched as Sharkey read Curious George to a group of eager first grade students, adding the sound effects of the monkey getting caught, falling overboard, trying to get away from the angry firemen. They laughed and squealed with delight and the chief’s delight was no less effusive. Sharkey was really getting into this. Crane looked up and caught the teacher’s eye. She smiled and turned back to listen. So did he, reminding himself to thank his cousin for her idea.