Now We Are No Longer StrangersbySir Galahad©
The Chief Engineer, the Chief Machinery Repairman, the Executive Officer, and the project manager of the Jacksonville Shipyard assigned to assist the USS Isaac Hull with her bobtail refit at Naval Station Mayport looked glumly at the remains of the starboard steering engine control system. A fire had damaged the hydraulic lines and the hydraulic pump, and fried the switchboard and electric motor that drove the steering engine. Without that steering engine, the destroyer couldn't leave port.
"Don't look at us for replacement parts," the project manager finally said. "That gear was 20 years old, and the design is older than that. You're probably going to have to rob a ship in the reserve fleet over at Beaumont to get 'em."
The ChEng heard his chief cough in much the same way Jeeves did to get Bertie Wooster's attention. He raised an eyebrow to the XO.
"There's only one man for this job, sir," the Chief Engineer said quietly.
"You're right," the XO agreed. He stepped to the sound-powered phone, turned a switch to call the quarterdeck where the Officer of the Deck stood watch in port, and cranked. "Call the First Lieutenant to the steering engine room," he ordered.
"I'll leave you to it," said the project manager as he climbed the ladder to the main deck. He had a feeling there was about to be fireworks, and wanted no part of it.
Although there had been no announcement on the ship's PA system, a minute later a tall, lean, blonde-haired officer slid down the handrails into the steering engine flat dressed in non-regulation khaki coveralls with railroad tracks on the collar points and a Surface Warfare Officer's badge over the left pocket, and an equally non-regulation weather-bleached khaki baseball cap with a Navy officer's cap insignia pinned to the front on his head.
"You rang, sir?" he asked.
"Good morning, Mr. Michaels," said the Chief Engineer as the "pit boss," senior member of the enlisted engineers, winced. The ChEng was a fan of Mission: Impossible and had the habit of conducting briefings for a difficult task as if he was the voice on the tape recorder Jim Phelps would find in odd places that sent him on his assignments. "You see before you a dead control system and hydraulic pump for the starboard steering engine. We are scheduled to take the Hull out in three days for speed trials, and we can't leave the dock until the steering engine is operational. The shipyard says they have no spares available.
"Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to locate, obtain, and return with the necessary parts to get the steering repaired before that deadline. Should you be caught or arrested, the Captain will of course disavow all knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Wally."
"You're a funny, funny man, sir," said Michaels.
"Seriously, Wally: are you doing anything that won't wait?" asked the XO.
"No." He thought a minute. "Can I pick my own men?"
"Take whoever you need," the Executive Officer said. "Just keep me in the loop so I can account for you -- or bail you out, if it comes to that."
Wally shot a look at the Chief, who had watched all this silently. "Chief, let's you and me take a walk. By your leave, sir?" Without waiting for a reply, he and the Pit Boss left the space. The ChEng and XO looked after them.
"Sending those two to find spares is like telling Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake to walk into the King of Spain's treasury and help themselves," the engineer finally said.
"Think of it as watching a female diver doing a one-and-a-half inward back layout off the 10 meter platform. Don't ask how she does it -- just appreciate the artistry involved. If anyone can get the parts so we don't miss our test date, Michaels and Chief Flores will."
Walking forward, the Chief ducked into the ship's office and came out with two cups of coffee, handing one to the lieutenant. They leaned over the rail below the bridge and looked at the water, sipping the strong brew.
"How bad is it really?" Michaels asked.
"It would be easier to build a whole new system than try to fix this one."
"Patch, you were stationed here back when we still had oil-fired carriers, weren't you?"
"Yeah. I was in the old O'Brien, her last cruise before she was decommissioned. We had a whole squadron of Spruances here to escort Jack the Tin Can Killer back then. Why, Wally?"
"You snipes did a lot of your own maintenance ..."
"... And the loggies never clean out the warehouses. Let's go take a look."
Stopping just long enough to have the ship's yeoman print out the necessary paperwork after instructing him to add "or equal" to the parts requisition form, the two took the truck assigned to the Hull and drove to the supply depot. They walked into the office to talk to the storekeepers. Lt. Michaels stopped to see the Officer in Charge to pay his respects. He could hear raised voices through the closed door, which suddenly opened.
A long-legged, auburn-haired woman in a miniskirt and heels, with a wasp waist and high-set boobs that looked bigger than they were as a result swept past him, two spots of color on her high cheekbones. She had green, flashing eyes and that shade of white skin one only sees with genuine redheads; and apparently the temper that went with the hair. She swept an appraising eye over him, pausing for an instant, raising an eyebrow and giving him a quick wink before she walked through the outside door and slammed it behind her. The OIC was standing in the doorway, storm clouds on his face.
"Bad time?" Wally asked.
"No ... no, not really," grumbled the lieutenant with the "pork chop" of the Supply Corps on his left collar point, waving him into the office. "What can the Supply Corps do for the Hull today, Michaels?"
"We've had a steering engine breakdown and the yardbirds tell me they don't have the parts to fix it. I thought I'd talk to you. My Chief recalled the depot used to keep engineering spares for the Spruances once upon a time, and I wonder if they might still be in storage."
"I doubt it, being they have all been scrapped; but stranger things have happened. Take one of my strikers as a native guide. You might get lucky." He took a copy of the requisition the yeoman had made up just in case.
They came out of the building with a wide-eyed farm boy on his first assignment, not long out of boot camp. The sailor guided them to a warehouse that looked as if no one had been inside for awhile. The lights sputtered to life and shone down on pallets of greasy parts for various ship engineering systems. Half an hour later, the Chief located what he was looking for.
"This will do," he muttered. "The control system is intact, so is the electric motor, and I can rebuild the pump if I have to, Wally. As a matter of fact, there are two of them here, complete. The tags say they came out of the old Moosbrugger on a DX."
"Take both of them, Patch," ordered Michaels. "No such thing as too many spares. Mix and match, and when we have time we'll replace the port set too. Less trouble that way. Is there a forklift in here?" he asked the seaman.
"I saw one by the big doors, sir, but I don't know how to drive it."
"Fortunately, I do. You bring the truck here, I'll get the hyster."
Shortly, the two pallets were aboard the truck and Michaels drove the forklift back to its parking place while the Chief and the kid slowly followed.
"Sir, can I ask you something?" asked the sailor timidly.
" 'Chief,' not 'sir.' You're out of boot camp now, lad. Wally's 'sir,' not me. What's on your mind?"
"Isn't it unusual for an officer to drive a forklift and call you by a nickname, si -- Chief?"
"Yes, but Mr. Michaels isn't your typical officer. I was his engineer when he was running an old Stenka-class patrol boat down in Brazil, helping the Brazilian Navy with a little problem they had in the Amazon a couple years back. When you've been shot at together, it makes a difference. He calls me 'Patch' because I'm pretty good at putting things back together with nonstandard parts so they work better than new. He does what needs doing and pays attention to regulations only when it suits him; that's the way of things in the Brown Water Navy where he's spent most of his career."
"Stenka sounds like a Russian name."
"I didn't know the Navy had any Russian ships?"
"Lots of things you don't know about the Navy yet, kid. But I'll tell you this: when the bullets start flying, you'll feel real good if you have an officer like Wally Gator in command."
Back alongside the ship, Flores asked, "Well, we have the parts. What now?"
"I'll have a deck plate torched loose and use the shoreside crane to drop the pallets into the flat. After that, you have to get it up and running. I'll tell your boss you're going to be busy for the next day or two. Have fun, Patch!"
Michaels found the ChEng and the XO having afternoon coffee in the wardroom and informed them that the dead steering engine was in the process of being reanimated. Both were pleased. The Messenger of the Watch knocked on the door and was waved in. He addressed his message to the somewhat rumpled lieutenant.
"Cap'n's compliments, Mr. Michaels, and he'd like to see you at 1600 hours in his cabin."
"My respects to the captain, and I will be there as soon as I have changed."
"Who's been a naughty boy? Who's been a naughty boy?" teased the XO.
"Oh, knock it off, XO. You know as well as I do it's FitRep time. It's just Wally's turn. But if I may make a suggestion, Michaels, put your fruit salad on. Can't hurt."
Freshly if hastily showered, shaved and in starched service khakis, Wally knocked on the Old Man's port cabin door as eight bells struck. Captain Daniel Vincent opened the door and waved him to a seat.
"My, aren't we spiffy?" he said, referring to the multiple rows of ribbons, the Surface Warfare Officer, and Small Craft Officer in Charge badges adorning Wally's left chest. "And while we are on the subject, I've put you in for a Commendation Medal for putting the fire in the steering engine flat out single-handed last night. If you hadn't caught it, it could have been bad. Does the Chief Engineer know what caused it?"
"His best guess is hydraulic fluid from a hairline crack in the line sprayed into the drive motor, causing a short and igniting the leak. We already have the parts to replace the system and it ought to be operational in a day or so, sir."
"That's good news. Well, onward. You needn't read the whole thing, but you might want to read this." Wally took the proffered personnel file and read.
"Wallace Michaels is a tall, erect, blonde officer with a gymnast's build. He is blunt-spoken and outstanding in navigation, shiphandling, and all shipboard operations, with a commendable concern for his men and his fellow officers.
"His mind prowls. What matters to him is accomplishing his mission, whatever that mission may be. It is the opinion of the evaluating officer that assignments for Michaels be made with the needs of the Navy of the future in mind against the day he becomes a senior officer, rather than the more immediate needs of the service. He is unhesitatingly recommended for both promotion and command.
"In view of his experience, past accomplishments and outstanding qualifications, I recommend he be given command of the first available Cyclone-class patrol ship. It is my opinion that any crew would be fortunate to have him as their captain."
Wally looked up. "Sir, I don't know what to say."
Captain Vincent grinned. "Try 'Thank you.' I've had an email from an Academy buddy who's doing time in the Bureau of Personnel. It won't be official until it's published later this week, but you've been deep-dipped. Very shortly you will be a Lieutenant Commander. Congratulations!"
Michaels absorbed this in silence. The Captain cocked an eye at him. At last he said, "I didn't expect this. It's kind of taken me by surprise."
Vincent chuckled. "I don't see why. Look at all those pretty ribbons of yours.
"You've been in for seven years and you have more medals than I do, including a Legion of Merit with Combat V for Valor, which device is awarded with the Legion of Merit very seldom. You were awarded the Brazilian Navy Medal for Distinguished Services for your work with their riverine forces. You have a Bronze Star with Combat V that you got in the Philippines, plus their Wound Medal to go with it; two Purple Hearts for times when you forgot to duck; and the Philippines Legion of Honor that makes you look like something out of The Prisoner of Zenda when you're in service dress white with medals and it's hanging around your neck. And that doesn't take your commendations, campaign medals and such into account. I've seen officers who retired after 20 years who didn't have as much fruit salad as you do.
"I expect you're thinking of the fact that you're not a graduate of the Canoe College, and of the Navy's bias against reservists in general and Merchant Mariners in particular, even ones with dual licenses like you. What you ought to be thinking about is that you earned your promotions and your medals with superior performance when the chips are down. You have a service reputation as a go-to guy who gets it done no matter what it takes; someone who reads wind and water and enemy intentions like most people read a book, and acts correctly on what he sees. That counts with promotion boards whose members include combat veterans, and with selection for assignments. How long have you held a Merchant Marine master's license, anyway?"
"I got my 100-ton license at 18, and my 200-ton license while I was still at Mass Maritime, Skipper. I was the only cadet in the place who could take out the two Ashevilles they have without a deck officer aboard. Limited tonnage licenses aren't the same as deep ocean licenses, Skipper. I don't have an Unlimited Master's license, just Third Mate Any Gross Tons on Oceans and Third Assistant Engineer, Steam and Diesel."
"And you have two commands under your belt. The gunboat you had in the Philippines, and that ex-ComBloc Stenka in Brazil; plus your unofficial command of the river flotilla in the Amazon for five months. How did you end up with so much brown water time?"
"I volunteered for it. My favorite instructor at Maritime was one of Zumwalt's river rats during Vietnam. When he heard I was thinking about putting in for extended active duty after I graduated, he sat down with me and pointed out the only way for a Merchant Marine-trained officer to have a real Navy career was to volunteer for assignments the Trade School Boys think are beneath their dignity. He and I saw littoral and riverine combat as the next big thing and something the blue water Navy wasn't really trained or equipped for. So I put in for patrol craft duty and got it; then fought to stay there, which mostly I have."
"Which is why your 'sea daddy,' Admiral Fulton, arranged your assignment to me. If you are going to make it to flag rank, something I don't say to many junior officers, you need to have broad experience as well as frightful competence in one area. With that in mind, I'm going to see if my classmate can get you a berth with Sea Systems Command when you leave us. I hear the Naval Surface Warfare Center has set up a team to build the successor to the Cyclones. You served in the Hurricane, you were part of Project Sword, and you have a great deal of brown water combat experience in small craft that almost no one else on active duty has. Play your cards right, and you could be the commanding officer of the class leader.
"But enough of that. I see by the duty roster you volunteered as Command Duty Officer this weekend when we throw the big picnic for the families out in the boonies past the airfield. Your request is denied."
"Aye aye, sir. May I ask why?"
"Because the crew have chipped in to borrow the Janus II from the base boat pool, and I'd like you to take them out on their fishing trip. If you run in luck, we may be able to have a fish fry."
"Yes, sir. How many will be going, and does it include wives and kids?"
"The boat is rated for 30 people, and 22 are signed up, including a few wives and kids. That's enough to cover the operating costs plus supplies. Chief Flores is taking care of provisions, bait and fuel."
"If Patch is doing all that, all I have to do is figure out where the fish are, and check out the boat. I'll post the word about our departure time when I've done the research. By your leave, Captain, I'll get started on that." The Old Man waved his dismissal.
Two days later, on Thursday, the Isaac Hull put to sea for her speed and maneuvering trials. The black gang, the Patch in particular, had worked around the clock to install both sets of the repurposed ex-Moosbrugger equipment, with the result her steering was faster to respond than it had been, improving her handling. She easily met her marks, and the Old Man ordered a roast beef dinner for all hands to celebrate. The officers sat around the wardroom table, well pleased with the day, when the Captain tapped his water glass for silence.
"A good day, gentlemen. Our namesake would be pleased; Isaac Hull liked a ship that handles smartly. But I am not satisfied with the appearance of our First Lieutenant. On your feet, Mr. Michaels."
Puzzled, Wally stood up, missing the concealed smiles of the Exec and the Chief Engineer. Captain Vincent stepped over to him.
"Attention to orders. Wallace Michaels, Lieutenant, USNR, is hereby promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, USN, with date of rank October 15th of this year." He unpinned the silver railroad tracks of a lieutenant on Wally's collar, and replaced them with a pair of golden oak leaves that had the wear and patina of years spent on watch in all weathers and climes on all the world's oceans.
"Not so many years ago, I wore these oak leaves. Before that, my father wore them on patrol duty in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Before that, my grandfather wore them chasing Vietcong in the Mekong Delta; and before that, my great-grandfather wore them when he had the Radford during the Korean War. When it comes time for you to pass them along, be sure it is to someone as worthy. Congratulations on being frocked, Lieutenant Commander Michaels." The other officers crowded around him, shaking his hand and slapping him on the back.
"Gentlemen, to the O Club, to properly wet down Wally's promotion!" proclaimed the Executive Officer.
The rowdy bunch carried him in on their shoulders, singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow," appropriating a corner of the bar and two tables, calling for champagne. As Wally settled into his seat, he looked over the nearby tables. Most of the officers and their dates or wives, figuring out that this was an impromptu promotion party, caught his eye and raised their glasses in salute. He noticed the Supply Corps lieutenant he'd been dealing with, his "salad bar" only a row and a half and with no SWO Supply pin on his chest, glowering at him. His date was the redhead he'd seen coming out of his office, looking slinky in a black dress that clung to her hourglass figure and red lipstick that matched her hair as she toyed with her glass. She smiled and eyed him speculatively.
Notified by phone of the celebration, the wives and girlfriends of the Hull's officers arrived in hastily donned glad rags. It got just a little drunk out. The XO spoke to the club manager, the sound system was fired up, and the dance floor filled. Alone of the ship's officers, Wally didn't have a girl. He danced with the Captain's wife, the Weapons Officer's significant other, and the wife of the squadron's Commodore, but most of the time he sat at the bar watching the dancers, sipping bourbon.