Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
Chapter 34: On the Conning Tower
Stella had heard the front door open and close, but paid no attention until she noticed a man standing next to her. “Oh, hello, Commander. I didn’t see you come in.”
“May I?’ The Commander held up one of the masks to the light. “Classy.” He looked over at Brooks, who was banging out a single annoying note three times running. “These are for him?” He spoke softly, not sure if Brooks could or should overhear.
“Don’t worry, Commander. Brooks is currently playing a duet with Self-Pity and is tucked away in his own little world. He can’t hear us because he doesn’t care what we have to say.”
That bad, the Commander thought. Too bad. Then he turned back to Stella. “You made these? I’ve got an old Chief Bosun’s mate on the boat with a puss ugly enough to scare away a school of hungry sharks. Could I talk you into making one or two for him?”
“Too bad about the poor sod at the piano. It must be rough. I couldn’t help but overhear your concern regarding Earl. Earl is a bright and talented guy. Maybe I can help.”
“Oh? How so?”
“In a submarine, we’re all in close quarters, where there is no room for childish behavior or jealous grudges. You might say we’re all in the same boat.
“I remember one cruise where I had two sonar men who were always on each other’s case. Their section chief wrote them both up on charges and brought them to me for disciplinary mast.
“One had served with me on three cruises; the other was on his first cruise. The more experienced man was one of the best sonar men I’ve ever had the pleasure to serve with. The other, okay, but just okay. The problem was that the more experienced man would never let the other forget he was inferior.”
Stella offered the Commander a cigarette, which he turned down. One thing she would miss about the war were the men in uniform: handsome, rugged, ready to test their mettle. She would never miss the wounded, though she could never forget them.
Submariners were one of a kind, with foolhardy bravery tucked neatly into a tin can. She studied the commander; he was wearing an air of confidence that intrigued her. “What did you do?” she asked, truly curious.
“What I wanted to do and what the Articles of War would allow me to do were two different things. I opted for the middle ground. I could have docked their pay or canceled their next liberty, but that seemed counterproductive. I had a boat to command, in wartime conditions. I needed a quick fix for bad behavior.
“I set my sights on my senior sonar man, who should have known better. Long story short, I surfaced and sent him to the top watch position on the conning tower.” He paused for effect. “Then I brought the boat down until his feet were treading water. The poor guy didn’t know if we were submerging under pending attack or if we had forgotten him.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that a sub had to leave a man topside in order to save the boat and the rest of the crew. Scared, you bet, but he learned real quick about the value of being one of the team. Out there you need to forget about personal agendas and petty differences. We all sink or swim together.”
“You are a hard man, Commander, but I get your point.”
“I lost one boat back in 1943. We were on the surface, and a Jap patrol plane came straight out of the sun. We should have seen it, but someone was not on the ball. One mistake cost fourteen men their lives in a matter of seconds.”
He cast his eyes up towards that blazing Pacific sun burned into his memory.
“They couldn’t get out in time. The boat went down like a rock.” He sucked in a breath as he made a silent whistle. “Every man is on duty every waking moment on a boat, and regardless of the tedium they’ve got to be one hundred percent focused.
“As the boat’s skipper I had to have a zero-tolerance policy. We were there to win the war, we were expendable; the rules were being written as we sailed.”
Stella could see the unspoken pain in his eyes.
“Sending the senior sonar man up to the conning tower was only part of the lesson. Once we brought him back on board, I had my section chief run him through the numbers: a tough life-or-death drill, the survival of the ship dependent on keen ears, good judgment, where the clock is ticking faster than you can think.
“He didn’t pass. He wasn’t meant to. He was good, very good, but not good enough. We drilled him again and again until he got better.
“Once he got it right, I tasked him with bringing the junior sonar man up to the next level. They became a team any skipper would be proud of.”
Henry returned with the car keys. “New?” he asked Stella, nodding toward the car to indicate the tuxedo.
“I borrowed it from a friend, but I’m thinking of making an offer.” Stella was lying; she had spent a little of Elroy’s money on the suit.
Her eyes flickered with sudden intensity. “Henry, after you get Brooks into his tux and ready for show and tell, would you bring out your clarinet? Brooks can whistle up a storm with lots of high notes that I doubt Earl can hit. Let’s give Earl a run for his money.”
Henry didn’t have to be asked twice. “Earl sings sweet and low but he does struggle a bit with high notes. I think Brooks and I can take him for a ride.”
“That’s the ticket,” the Commander said. “Maybe I can be of help?”
Stella took a second to ponder his offer. “No conning tower here, Commander, but as you can see” — her eyes directed his attention towards Earl in his yellow rain slicker — “our sonar man is currently a solo act, not exactly a team player.”
“At your service, ma’am,” the Commander said with a sly smile, followed by a slightly theatrical salute.
You go for it, Commander, Stella thought. “You won’t be too hard on him?” She wore her nurse’s heart on her sleeve. “Earl has amazing strength, but as you can see...”
The Commander gave her a reassuring smile. “He’ll be fine, just fine. If the man wants to play in the water, then play he shall.”
The Commander remembered that Earl had a voice like Frank Sinatra’s. Once you heard him sing, it stuck with you. Earl Crier was as pigheaded and stubborn as the day is long, but he was likable. The Commander did not have much respect for Sinatra; in fact, many in the service scorned him. They considered him a 4-F crooner who stayed home, screwing someone’s girlfriend or wife while they were risking or giving their lives a long way from home. They saw Sinatra as flaunting his philandering, which many men in uniform neither forgot nor forgave.
The Commander had to laugh at the first time he had met Earl. Earl had asked him not to sing, to honor the “silent service.” Well, blind or not, Earl was about to become the student, and he, the teacher. Under normal circumstances, he would start the lesson without warning, but Earl’s blindness required some accommodation.
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Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith