"Strong for Service Still"

by

Helen H.

 

 

 

 

The officer entered the Mahan Hall theater and walked quickly to the front of the room.  Noise that had been the din of conversation before his arrival became a crescendo of shuffling feet as the students rose to attention.  Setting his briefcase and a coffee mug down on the table behind the podium, he turned and, hands on hips, uttered a simple command.

"Be seated, gentleman."

His firm, resonant voice filled the room, a voice that had become well known during the three years he'd taught in the Division of Mathematics and Science.  It was a voice that could be soft during a quiet conference with an under-achieving plebe then change to one filled with excitement as he illustrated a lesson point by assaulting the chalk board, a teaching style that engaged the imagination as well as the intelligence of his listeners.  He was Harriman Nelson, Captain, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy.

As his audience settled back into their seats Captain Nelson surveyed the room, seemingly capturing each pair of eyes in turn as his own eyes swept every row.  It was Service Selection time, that all-important occasion when First Classmen indicate their preference for service assignment.  Nelson was participating in a lecture series designed to provide the senior members of the Brigade with additional information about the various communities they could choose as the focus of their military careers.  His was the final speech today, and the gouge* was that Captain Nelson had saved the best for last.  Everyone, from the students who filled the rows of seats to the instructors lined up across the back of the room were eagerly awaiting what this man, possessed of one of the finest minds in the Navy, had to say. 

Everyone, that is, except two "Firsties*" sitting together on the extreme end of the last row, as far from the podium as they had been able to get.  It hadn’t been far enough.  Captain Nelson in his sweep of the room had specifically marked where the two were sitting.  A small smile formed on his lips.  They can run, but they can’t hide. 

Turning back to the table the captain pulled out his notes, placing them carefully on the center of the podium.  There they would stay, never to be looked at again.  He also took two quick sips from the mug of coffee he’d brought with him.  This was how he began all his lectures, and the quiet chuckles that filled the room indicated that his listeners were well aware of these little idiosyncrasies.  What they didn’t know was how important he considered this talk today, how he felt that the future, his future, would be shaped by what he was about to say.  If he reached the minds of the rest of the students listening to him, well and good, that was the point of this or any lecture.  But what he wanted to do, absolutely needed to do, was reach the hearts of the two young men, one dark haired, one blonde, sitting in that last row.

The dark haired Midshipman was Lee Crane, the blonde at his side Charles Philip Morton, familiarly known as Chip.  First roommates, now best friends, their four years at the Academy were almost over.  Nelson had become acquainted with Chip Morton even before he'd entered the Academy, knew the intellectual young man had the brains and the will to get through the rigorous academic and physical regimen at the school.  Lee Crane had been a surprise, but a welcome one.  Nelson had watched him evolve from a fun-loving carefree youth to a serious thinker who excelled at anything he undertook.  They complemented each other in their strengths, Lee more emotional, quick to lead, eager to "take charge and carry out the plan of the day," Chip calmer, yet just as determined, able to take any challenge and see it through to a successful conclusion.  Both had the intelligence and inherent understanding of command that was necessary for a successful officer.  For the Navy that he was envisioning, including dreams of a submarine the likes of which no one had ever seen, Captain Nelson was determined to ensure that these two young men understood that the undersea service was where their future lay.  He'd done some checking, knew they'd been interested in submarines almost from the beginning, but lately they had begun to listen more closely to those who were touting the benefits of serving aboard more conventional ships.  It was an ill-kept secret that attempts to get "the best and the brightest" to choose a particular service community were fierce and competitive.  Lee and Chip were under enormous pressure to make the "right" decision, one that would shape their naval careers.  It was no wonder that their early resolve might be weakening, not a surprise if they seemed less enthusiastic about serving aboard subs.  To reach these two he would have to give the recruiting lecture to end all recruiting lectures, and all in ten minutes.  He hoped he was up to the task. 

   
Clearing his throat, Nelson put his back to the podium and raised his voice. 

"Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present some thoughts on the importance of your commitment to serving your country.  As some of you can appreciate--" here he paused and made a point of looking up at the top row "--I have definite opinions on the subject, especially when it comes to submarines."  He waited for the laughter to subside before continuing.  "A
dmiral Arleigh Burke wrote in his farewell letter, 'To this beloved Navy I do commend your individual desire to excel, not for aggrandizement of self, but to increase the excellence of the Navy.'  As your years at Annapolis will attest, everyone that you have met teaches, trains and counsels towards that goal, increasing the chance of excellence by ensuring that those serving are in their proper place.  Nowhere is that more evident than with the great submariners of the past, men such as Richard O’Kane, Slade Cutter, Sam Dealey, among many others.  It is certain that their courage, drive and determination will be remembered forever in the annals of military history.  Perhaps you will find yourself one day numbered among them."

Beginning to walk from one side of the room to the other, Nelson continued.  "I won't bore you with a history lesson -- you have already received so many.  I'm also sure you have these words memorized:  'I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way.'  When John Paul Jones wrote those words, he could not have envisioned a Navy with a strike force that travels under the water.  Gentlemen, I submit to you that submarines are the epitome of the fast ships he was demanding.  You will be part of a ship's complement that can deliver the fight to the enemy at high speed, and virtually undetected.  Captain Jones would be amazed by the advancements if he were to return today -- but he would be excited at the possibilities.  Indulge me as I take a little time to bring you up to speed on submarine design and development."

As he spent a few minutes highlighting the current status of the Navy's submarine force Nelson’s lecture style began to manifest itself, and many of the midshipmen leaned forward to catch every word.  He was gratified to see Crane and Morton paying rapt attention, their eyes on his. 

He took another drink from the famous coffee mug.  He didn’t know it was famous, didn’t know that his students had decided there had to be “something in that coffee.”  An enterprising scholar had contrived to sample the drink once, when the captain had stepped out of his classroom.  To his obvious disappointment the Mid had proclaimed it "clean as a whistle."  

Nelson stopped pacing and moved back to stand once again in front of the podium, using the time to formulate his thoughts and make ready to drive home some final, important points.  "You want career development?  You will be at the forefront of engineering improvements that others will marvel at and envy.  You want excitement?  For those captivated by the implications of the old adage, you will indeed see the world from a unique vantage point. 

"There are some that will think I am advocating a complete change in battle strategy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Of course, submarines will never replace our present battle groups.  However, submarines are the fast ships that ensure the seas are kept clear for our forces to maneuver.  To the enemy, we are real threats.  Make no mistake about it.

"Now, the Navy can be a cruel mistress.  She will mock you, anger you, hurt you in inestimable ways and worse yet, embarrass you.  You will also find in her a seductive siren that will call you back to herself time after time.  You will find this to be especially true on a submarine, where vessel and crew are intimately connected.  Speaking of that crew, the enlisted men under your care are your most precious resource.  They will look to you for guidance and leadership.  You will have much at stake, and your decisions will be crucial.  Make them correctly, and you will live to fight another day.  

"Finally, lest you think that once aboard, you will never see blue sky again -- nothing will prepare you for the view from the bridge of a submarine.  Picture it, if you will.  You are only a few feet above the water, jacket collar turned up against the clean salt air, watching the bow of your boat as she cleaves her way through the waves.  Lookouts sweep the horizon, alert for contacts on the surface and above, while sonar operators listen and watch for threats from below.  Danger cannot be hidden from you.  You are truly master of all you survey."

He allowed that to sink in for a few seconds, and then said, "Thank you for your attention, gentlemen.  If anyone," and again, he stared at the top row, "has any questions, my door is always open.  Dismissed."

Someone in the back began applauding, and the rest of the audience soon joined in.  Captain Nelson acknowledged the applause with a little wave while putting his notes away. 

               

Crane and Morton remained in their seats as the other students filed out of the room.

"Lee, why do I get the feeling that was meant for us?"

"Probably because it was.  It's what we thought about in the beginning, and then kinda got away from.  Advanced engineering... and nuclear power!  Groton is sounding a lot more attractive than it did a few minutes ago.  It would be good to try it together, Chip, what d'you say?"

"I think we better have that talk with our advisors."

 

* * * * *

 

From the back door the Deputy Commandant emerged, arm extended, and the two officers shook hands.  "Well, Harry, mission accomplished?"

Captain Nelson looked up at the two young men deep in conversation with each other.  "Possibly, Gene, possibly.  I just hope I was able to pull it off."

"I wouldn’t put anything past you, Harry.  Tenacity is your middle name, after all." 

He chuckled at his little joke while Nelson tried to look amused.  It was a reputation that he admitted, was not wholly unwarranted.  Tenacity was required in his search for the best officers in the Navy to command his beloved pigboats.  If men like Crane and Morton choose the Silent Service, well, one couldn't argue with success. 

Turning aside, the captain picked up his mug and raised it to his lips, drinking deeply.  The coffee was tepid, but that didn't matter.  Talking made you thirsty.  He’d give it a couple of days, and then go down to the counseling offices.  If all was well, that bottle of fine bourbon he’d been saving for a special occasion would be broken out on Service Assignment Night.  It would be a good time for a toast to the future.

 

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* gouge - in Naval Academy speak, this is the real deal, the straight skinny, in other words, the whole truth and nothing but

* Firsties - slang for a First Class Midshipman, the equivalent of a Senior in their last year of college

 

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The title is from William Cowper's monumental work, The Task, Book II, The Timepiece, line 702.

 

 

 

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