New - 21 April 2006
Paint Out the Numbers
A biting, but nevertheless, relatively dry wind blew across the calm sea. It was at the end of my watch on our last evening at sea; we expected to make port tomorrow morning around eight. Consequently, it being my last watch, it had passed particularly slow and I was in my usual frozen state.
But the failure of the mission kept snatching at me. I couldn't have cared less beforehand, but now I felt that our little bickering and hoping the Captain would fall on his face might have hurt others a great deal more than our own petty complaints. What was really amazing was that apparently it hadn't affected the Captain's status, at least in his eyes.
We'd had no contact with the outside world, with the exception of reporting into the Movement Report System, and so the Flotilla would know nothing until the Captain gave them his report.
And what a report! He had already tried it on every officer in the wardroom except Bill, and had shed all the blame. None of the officers had bought his defense, of course, since we all were aware of the truth. But he had made a good show of it and every rehearsal had convinced him that he was not to be blamed.
I was depressed from picturing his gaiety when I heard Jim's voice, "Permission to come up to the bridge, sir."
The prospect of being relieved revived my spirits until I glanced at my watch - two minutes late! As Jim stepped off the top ladder, I chided, "Late again. Why is it that you're always late?"
It's because I think so much of your ability to conn the ship, it seems a waste to put someone of my meager ability…”
"Never mind. The weather is just a bit cold and my exceptional ability became encased in ice two hours ago.”
"Well, don't worry, we'll be in the land of the rising... warm... sun tomorrow morning.”
"Yeah, and we'll have a doctor for Bill. How's he doing?"
Oh he's alright, I guess. I know that our first class Corpsman is anxious as hell to get him to a real doctor. He figures he's been lucky to keep him alive up to now.”
"Doc does have his good points,"
“He certainly stood up to the old man, even if it didn't accomplish a damn thing.”
"That's one man I can't figure. Why, as a Commanding Officer, does he do the things he does?”
"It beats the hell out of me. Right now he's down there smiling and bragging how we escaped from the clutches of the Destroyer. How the great diversionary effort had failed and we escaped anyway. He has hardly mentioned the Exec's minor part in it.”
"Doesn't he know that we're all on to him? Doesn't it bother him to know that we all hate his guts for his deceit and idiocy; that we all think of him as the village idiot?”
"I doubt it. After all, he's got his Flotilla Commander to keep him warm. All his bosses think of him as pretty much the hard charger. He's got their support.”
"Phenomenal how stupid they are not to see what a complete fake he is. I just can't understand how they haven't caught on to him yet.”
"Well I don't know, he's consistent within his own standards.”
"What do you mean?"
“Let's face it: His goal in life is to impress others, but primarily those who write his fitness reports. As long as there's any of them around to congratulate him, to tell him what a good job he's done, he can bloody well ignore the screams of disapproval from the likes of you and me. As long as he's got the Flotilla's vote, his crew and officers' opinions can all be wrong and consequently, of no value whatsoever.”
“Oh sure, but what about this farce of a mission?"
"Bad luck, that's all?"
"Certainly. Check the facts; flip through the log. I did earlier and it vindicates him completely. For example, it never mentions that he definitely suspected along with everyone else that we would lose Number three engine. But it does show Number three crapped out and, most importantly, that it didn't hurt us. Even more importantly the log shows a particularly brilliant escape from the Destroyer, but fails to mention who really had the conn. Whoever was writing the log, didn't pick up on who was giving orders. Accordingly, the log vindicates the Captain, if not making him look good. He's completely in the clear."
“What about the officer's smooth log?”
"That can be changed and requires his approval before it leaves the ship. Any attempt to slip something in would be a trifle futile."
"And I've been sure he was on his last legs.”
“Oh no. The Captain is still the excellent Commanding Officer in the eyes of the Flotilla Commander. And as long as he's got the Commodore's approval and backing, he can live with our hate and disgust,"
"And if he were to lose the Commodore's approval?”
"Then he's lost and his little world will crumble all about him. Say, you're not thinking of blowing the whistle on him, are you? The Navy really hates whistleblowers."
"No, not really. As you've so cleverly pointed out, the record makes him look golden.”
"Well, then, I'm afraid there's nothing to break their faith in him. Our Captain is due for a brilliant career.”
“You're starting to make me ill. How about relieving me?"
When I reached the conn to write my log, I spent a few extra moments flipping through the Quartermaster's log. Jim had been right - it was the Captain's alibi. The diversion a failure, our good efforts despite the problem of Number 3 engine and, the fouled plant release mechanism; none could be blamed on the Commanding Officer of the Gildafish.
It was a painful realization for me. I've always hated to see the boot lickers of the world always come out on top. And certainly the Captain had no better recommendation.
Just a bit disgusted, I went down to report my relief to the Captain and eat. The Captain was in the wardroom with Hal, and seemed very happy with himself, making innumerable comments about anything that popped into his mind.
"Well, Hal, we'll be home tomorrow."
"Yes sir, Captain."
"Let's see, today's the fourth of June. We'll be in on the morning of the fifth. Say, we made damn good time." I could see Hal didn't think so, and for a moment, it looked as if Hal might object. But the Captain was on a roll, "That means we made it in six days. That's one less than on our way out.”
"Uh, no sir, Captain. It's been seven days. It was seven days both ways, and one day in the area of the plant."
"No, no, Hal,” the Captain replied, almost jovially, “We made the plant on the 29th of May. Tomorrow's the fifth. Therefore six days transit home."
"Excuse me, Skipper. But we planted on the 28th."
"What? Oh no, that's not right. I'm sure it was the 29th."
"Oh, I remember sir. It was Thursday, the 28th . It's my son's birthday.”
“Really?” the Captain replied. Then he simply smiled, albeit a trifle more weakly. There followed a long pause, and the conversation appeared ended.
Captain Brawner was thinking intently. Suddenly unsure of something, he abruptly got up and moved to his stateroom.
‘It has to be the 29th,' he thought. Once inside his stateroom with his curtain closed, he went to his safe and, sitting down, dialed the combination with one hand. The safe opened easily, although beads of sweat were making his hand moist. Opening the safe's door, he reached in and pulled out a manila envelope. Carefully he opened the envelope and took out a pink colored document. Flipping through its pages, he found a supplement page labeled, "Schedule of Events.” His finger moving down the page, he found, "Plant Day - 29 May". Next to it was “Diversionary Effort - 29 May".
‘But Hal said we planted on the 28th! If that's true, then the diversionary effort was a day late. That's why the Destroyer was there - there had been no diversion by that time!'
For a moment the Captain remained still. Then his mind begin to argue against itself. ‘Oh no, this can't be right. We must have planted on the 29th. I couldn't have made such a senseless mistake. It has to be the 29th.'
For a moment, his logical mind remembered something. ‘I have to check it out. The Quartermaster's log will have the correct date. Hal must be wrong.'
His hand now shaking, the Captain reached for his phone and buzzed the conning tower. He ordered the man who picked up the phone to send the Quartermaster's log to his stateroom. Then the act done, he sat on his bunk.
‘Hal must be wrong. Even if his kid's birthday is the 28th, I'm sure we made the plant on the 29th. I couldn't have made such a simple mistake.'
Another thought kept clutching at his conscience but the Captain kept forcing it back. Still, the though persisted: He had never allowed any other officer to see the Top Secret Operation Publication. He had orally briefed each of them as he thought necessary. Hal had never seen the actual plant date nor the X.O. The burden was solely on the shoulders of the Captain!'
A knock at the door.
Ford swept aside the curtain and stepped with one foot just inside the stateroom. "Here's the Quartermaster's log you asked for, sir."
"Okay. Just a second, I'll give it back to you."
It took only a few moments to determine that Lieutenant Commander Charles Brawner, Commanding Officer of the USS Gildafish, had attempted to make a top secret, intelligence plant on the 28th day of May, one day ahead of schedule and a day before a diversionary effort specifically intended to assist him in his mission.
The complete truth did not realize itself on the Captain until Ford had taken his log and left.
‘The 28th. One day too soon. The diversion was not until the next day. It of course accomplished nothing,' he thought.
Then his defenses began to cave in. ‘Oh stupid, stupid, stupid! That damn Destroyer wouldn't have been there if there had been a diversion! The attention would have been away from me. But no, I had to plant a day early! Oh my God, I've ruined everything!'
Then an even more foreboding thought reached the Captain. Shuddering, he thought, 'What will I tell the Commodore? He won't believe me. He'll think I'm joking. But then, when he does believe me… My God! What will I do?'
Reaching for any defense, he began grasping for straws. ‘The officers. It's their fault. I couldn't trust them to do anything right. I couldn't let them in on the date, because they're not to be trusted. I've had too much on my mind. I have to worry about the whole boat because of incompetent officers. They never do anything on their own. I have to tell them everything. I've got too much to think about. It's the officers...'
“Captain, we'll be in at 0800 tomorrow morning. Do you want a trim dive for compensation readings before we go in?"
"Trim dive? Oh, yes. Sure. Standard procedure. Fine, Hal."
“What time, Captain?"
“What time do you want the dive?”
“Oh, five o'clock is okay. Isn't it?"
"Yes sir. O five hundred. Shall I write your night orders?"
"Yes, do that. Wake me at... 0430.”
"Aye aye, Captain."
The curtains closed.
The diversion has worked, at least for just a moment. But then the thoughts returned.
‘What am I going to tell the Commodore? What will he do? What will he say?'
But the possibilities of the Commodore's questions were all too clear: "You planted when?" "Don't you read orders?" "I know top secret material is to be disseminated on a need-toknow basis, but don't any of your officers qualify” "For God's sake, why go through the straits submerged? Didn't it occur to you that the equipment could be damaged by running ground?"
‘Stupid, stupid mistake. Damn! What rotten luck!'
‘Why me? I've tried so hard. So many years to make my own Command. My very own Command. The hell I've gone through for it. And now! Ruined!'
Sweat cascaded off his face. His hands came up to hold his head and break up the beads of perspiration. Then they tried hold the sides of his head to contain the battle within from breaking out. Slowly a complete depression set in and he laid back on his bunk; unthinking, uncomprehending. Occasionally a curse of "stupid" would escape his lips. But he only laid there, moving no more than to drag his arm across his eyes, destroying the pools of sweat settled there.
At 0430, a messenger arrived to wake him. He heard the Captain stir and answer. His job seemingly complete, he left.
Slowly Captain Brawner dragged himself up from his bunk. Instinct, accustomed by years of duty, forced him to his feet. After fifteen minutes of delay, the messenger returned to check on him.
“Huh. Oh, go ahead. Tell Mr. Lawrence to dive whenever he's ready. I'll be up later.”
The Captain stooped down to his open basin and splashed water on his face. It seemed to do little good. Then, discovering he had never undressed, he realized he was ready to go up. He moved slowly through the forward battery, through control, silent at his passage, and on up to the conning tower. When he arrived the helmsman was hunting for something in a locker, with his back to the Captain. Hal and the Quartermaster, the only others in the conn, were getting a final navigational fix. The Captain went on up the ladder and on through the hatch.
As he stood on the first level, he looked at the sail door. Bill had gone out the door trusting his Captain and had come back despite his Captain's failure. ‘Would even Bill, that most trusting of souls, now hate his Captain?'
As the Captain started up the first ladder, he could hear that the engines had suddenly slowed down. They had been running at full, but were easing off now, preparing to dive.
Reaching the first level, and just prior to starting up the second ladder, the Captain abruptly noitced the moonlight splashing through the plastic portholes by the Quartermaster's underway bridge table, forward of the ladders. He moved to the light source to look out. But the scarred plexiglass afforded only light's passage and very little definition to pass through.
Leaning against the table, his mind began to think of his mistake, the bad luck, the miscalculation, the stupidity. ‘Why me? Why did it have to happen to…?'
"Clear the Bridge. Clear the Bridge.”
The order had come from Ed on the bridge. The Captain turned as the first lookout hit the second level. The seaman went quickly to the lower ladder, too quickly for the Captain to recognize him in the darkness.
‘I wonder what he thinks of me… his Captain?'
The second lookout hit the second level as the two blasts of the klaxon found their way up from the conning tower. Ed hit the level just as quickly and went on to the lower ladder.
‘Ed! The captain thought, ‘My friend, Ed. He'll help... But no sounds passed the Captain's lips. With a detached smile on his face, the Captain silently watched Ed reach the hatch. ‘There goes a good friend,' the Captain thought. ‘A man who never condemned me. He always supported me. He won't desert me when I need him.'
Then Ed, his body inside the Conning Tower and reaching back up with his arms, grabbed the hatch and slammed it shut behind him, while the helmsman, stationed just below him, reached up to spin the hand wheel on the hatch in order to secure it.
A violent shaking grabbed the Captain as he saw the sudden blackness where light from the Conning Tower had been. Then the vents opened. Air screamed out of the tanks, making spray wherever water stood in its way.
The noise drowned out the panic in the Captain's mind. Slowly he moved to the ladder leading to the bridge, and then went up it. He was on the bridge as the deck slipped under the waves. His hand went to the diving alarm. Three blasts of the klaxon would mean an emergency surface. The boat would not be able to stop its downward momentum and he would probably be washed overboard, but they would be back up quickly, searching for him. He could stay afloat that long, even in the cold water. They might even remember to raise the masts, to give him something to grab.
‘But, then again,' he thought, ‘Maybe they wouldn't surface. Maybe they'd ignore me; like I had thought of ignoring Bill Balence. Maybe they would know I was on the bridge and wouldn't care. Do I dare test them?'
Spray lapped at the bridge, leaping the railing and falling at his feet, then draining from the bridge. When it could find no place to drain, the water on the bridge rose.
Soon Lieutenant Commander Charles C. Brawner's tears were indistinguishable from the salt water.
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