A Tangled Web
was SOP that officers and chiefs of the nuclear submarine Seaview took themselves to Admiral Nelson’s home following a
mission, the large conference room inside well suited for this purpose.
Not all of these get-togethers were easy; some had been somber,
depressing affairs with official debriefings and repercussions that lasted
long after the event. This was
one of the informal ones, discussing a quick supply run to Sealab Four.
For this one the cocktail flag was raised and there was ample food from
the NIMR kitchens.
evening had gone well, the men relaxed, eventually drifting away to
home. Finally only the
command team was left; this was the normal turn of events.
They now sat, glasses in hand, talking about what they’d heard.
going to tell Sanders to make sure his inventory ideas are in his last
sitrep, correct, Chip?”
Lee. Bob has proposed some
really good improvements. I’ll
be sorry to lose him back to the Navy.”
Chip Morton was the XO of the submarine, responsible for ensuring
successful operation of the giant vessel.
Crane, Seaview’s captain,
picked up a sandwich quarter and bit into it.
“At least he’s got someone replacing him that’ll keep up the
nodded. “Jurgensen will make
a great Chop.
We won’t have to worry that we’ll find two gross of
Brussel Sprouts and no ice cream aboard any time soon,” he responded,
the others laughing at the memory.
don’t think Bob Sanderson will ever live down transposing those item
numbers,” Nelson said, rubbing his ear, his blue eyes sparkling.
“Luckily we’ve had no problems since.”
He reached for the decanter of
superior whiskey and raised it in
the direction of his young friends. “Gentlemen?”
Receiving two affirmative nods, he poured a generous splash into each glass and refilled his own.
“I have an interesting tale that may amuse you, something from my
past that at the time caused me
not inconsiderable embarrassment. It
was certainly nothing they prepare you for at Annapolis,” he added,
grinning and shaking his head.
and Lee looked at each other. Admiral
Harriman Nelson did not often speak of his earlier life, at least not to
them so this would be an
interesting glimpse at the early career of their boss.
The three men who ran Seaview
had a comfortable working relationship, but no one was likely to ignore
the subtle and not so subtle command structure that governed their past,
their present and most likely, their future.
men settled back in their oversized chairs, three of the dozen that
surrounded the large teak wood conference table.
The raised blinds over the windows revealed the last orange and
pink streaks of a California sunset. From
outside came the raucous cries of screeching gulls and the muffled roar of
the Pacific breaking on the beach, a hundred yards or so away.
Nelson took a satisfying mouthful of the mellow
amber fluid he’d poured for himself and savored it slowly before
starting to reminisce. “It
began with a woman, well, a young
woman I shall call Della Cooper.
She was the daughter of a high ranking officer at 7th
Air Force headquarters. I met
her while I was attached to COMSUBPAC.”
He took another sip
of his whiskey. “It
was Hawaii, the war was over, and there was always some reason to hold
dinner parties and social gatherings.
They still find plenty of reasons today.
That’s where the real work is conducted.”
He looked up at them and his wind-damaged, ruddy face displayed a
look they both knew well.
shifted his tall frame deeper into the leather chair cushions and removed
the tie he’d loosened earlier. Chip’s
tie had come off long before. Reaching forward he picked up another sliver
of ham sandwich. There were only
a few sandwiches left; the men of Seaview
were hearty eaters.
single, it was often my ‘duty’ to attend these parties as a
seat-filler, to put it bluntly. No
hostess liked to see odd numbers at dinner, it just wasn’t done.
As it so happened, I was assigned a place next to this young lady,
who, may I say, was stunningly beautiful.
And free from the clutches of very protective parents that had just
left for a new assignment in Washington.
Their lovely daughter was going to follow in due course and this particular dinner was one of the last things she’d
planned to do in Hawaii. In
any event, Miss Cooper, taking a little Dutch courage from whatever
she’d been imbibing for a great part of the evening, decided that I was
just the person she should
be confiding a deep, dark secret to,
and sounded me out in hushed and breathless tones.
Apparently I reacted in just
the right way to make her
believe me to be a
kindred soul and possible rescuer,
for she showed up in my office the very next day.”
was staring over their heads now, eyes focused on a place almost twenty
years in the past, twirling the remnants of the whiskey in his glass.
Remembering. It was a
good minute before he spoke again.
you can appreciate, her appearance caused quite the sensation.
I was told later, and I could well believe it, that Della Cooper was quite the
southern belle and enjoyed all the
male attention bestowed on her.
Della, as she quickly asked me to call her, was
the kind of beautiful woman to stop a man in his tracks and leave him
stunned into submission. Yes,
Della Cooper was … something rather
head had moved slightly toward Lee, and Lee did the same towards Chip.
Not a sound escaped from either mouth,
they definitely wanted to hear more.
shook his shoulders. “Hmm,
where was I?”
Miss Cooper has just come to your office, sir.”
Well, as I said, Della Cooper decided that she could confide in me.
Bursting to tell me about her little indiscretion, as she titled
it, she proceeded to unburden her
secret.” He took a
drink. “Seems that dear
Della had exchanged a series of reckless letters with a matinee idol by
the name of Enrico Bartoli. You
may remember the name.” Nelson
looked questioningly at the
two of them but on seeing only
furrowed brows, relented. “Or
maybe not. Well, it has been a
few years since his heyday.
The man had some minor success, with most of the big Hollywood
stars involved in the war effort. The
dark, smoldering type, as he was described
to me by Della. A real Latin
lover. However, the closest
he’d ever gotten to Italy was Rome, New York.
This information became public knowledge much later. The man was a
complete fraud. That was long
after my particular escapade, however.”
He sat up in his chair and rubbed a finger over an eyebrow.
“As she began to tell it, she had met Bartoli at a couple of
studio functions in California, and had gushed to him about some movie
she’d just seen him in. The
gushing had led to a correspondence. She
hadn’t expected a reply, but to her great joy, Signore Bartoli began to
write back. Several missives
were exchanged, each one increasingly intimate
and sufficiently detailed enough to curl up the notepaper.
Eventually, there was a meeting, a lunch, then a few cozy tête–à–tête
dinners. Miss Cooper was in
college at the time,
conveniently absent from the watchful eyes of Colonel and Mrs. Cooper.
To make a long story short, the dutiful daughter was expected to
return home to the family’s quarters on Hickam at the end of the school
year, and did so, after a
final meeting with Bartoli. According
to her it was a scene worthy of Scarlett O’Hara, with much gnashing of
teeth, quivering lips and heavy sighs.
And a demand to the man to
return her letters. The young lady may have been a little flighty,
but she wasn’t a complete fool. The
letters were the result of an overwrought imagination, nothing more but
if they should become public, the embarrassment caused to herself and her
family would be highly detrimental. You might be able to guess the
next scene in this little drama.”
that. And quite the tidy sum
of money requested.
The young lady was quite indignant, as you can appreciate.
Actually, she confessed to me she was a lot more outraged
than that. Della Cooper may
have grown up surrounded by magnolias and
showing a suitably demure appearance, but along the way she’d
picked up the vocabulary of a drunken sailor.”
The grin was bigger this time.
“In any event, she could not tell her parents what a silly goose
she had been, now, could she?”
suspect the answer to that
is no, sir,” Chip answered
see her dilemma, Commander Morton. One
that she wanted to have rapidly become my dilemma.”
picked up his glass and gazed into the inch or so of amber liquid that lay
at the bottom. “My luck to
be sitting next to her at the dinner.
That, and the fact that she had gotten it into her head somehow
that I was a lawyer. A
misunderstanding possibly brought about due to the amount of alcohol
consumed, for sitting across from us was an Army JAG officer. Just
as likely, her mistake may have been because of the, uh, personal problem
that the young lady had, one that I’ll mention in due course. In any
event, I didn’t have the heart nor the inclination to disabuse her of
the notion. It was bad enough
that the whole office watched her procession to my door; to have her turn
around and scurry out in great
haste would have been humiliating
at the very least. To us
what did you do, sir?”
was thinking furiously how best to
approach the matter while she explained everything, until at the
very end she dropped her bombshell. Bartoli
was in Hawaii on a USO tour. Della
pleaded with me to make a call on him and demand he return her letters and
be damned – her exact words, in fact.”
Harry took a deep breath and continued.
“So, I went to see him the very next day in
his dressing room. I
presented the case in my most professional manner, citing legal chapter
and verse, which I’d looked up in the base library after Della had left.
Had him believing it, too,” he
actor to another, Admiral?” Lee quipped, and immediately regretted it as
Nelson’s eyes narrowed warningly.
I had my say, folded my arms and waited for his response.
It came very quickly. Bartoli
looked at me as if I was a mad man and told me in no uncertain
terms that he had absolutely no idea what I was going on about. And if
I didn’t get out of his dressing room, he was going to call either the
police, his lawyer, or the head of Paramount Studios, he wasn’t sure
said quietly, “You did say you were dealing with an actor, sir.
Methinks he doth protest too much?”
joined in the laughter that followed.
“I did think that, at the beginning. But as he continued to
protest his innocence, I slowly became
convinced that his outrage and complete denial of the circumstances were
Lee said, “he was certainly someone used to playing a part, Admiral.”
and I kept that thought very much
sat up, his features animated. “Speaking
of playing a part -- what about the girl?
Had the guy given her the cold shoulder and she decided to take
revenge by setting him up like
considered that possibility almost immediately,
but dismissed it.
Her distress was very real.
Coming from an Army family, Della was quite aware of the social
implications of military life. She
knew that I would understand the mortification this incident would cause
for her parents as much as for herself, and would deal with it as
unobtrusively as possible. Therefore, I concluded that she was definitely
not a woman scorned.” He
took a moment to wet his lips with the rest of the delicious whiskey.
“She could be deceived, however.
As I told you gentlemen, Della Cooper was very attractive, and a young
woman that took great pains with her appearance.
Nothing could be allowed to mar that beauty.
Especially bad eyesight. Simply
put, lads, Della Cooper was as blind as a bat without
her glasses. I suspected later
that she latched onto me because she could at least see me,” Nelson
said, chuckling again.
But, sir, you said she had written these letters.
She knew who she was dealing with.
She’d met the guy.”
knew who she had written to, definitely, Lee.
And there was no doubt she’d met somebody.
However, after some further discussion, I discovered that
Bartoli’s letters were always opened first by his secretary, an unsavory
character named Switzer, who was his dresser -- and movie stand-in.”
mouths across the table dropped open.
Lee recovered first. “You’re
not going to tell me --”
A very smart crook, was Mr. Switzer.
He had spotted the squinting young lady when she first visited the
studio in California. It
wasn’t difficult to emerge from the stage door at the appointed time and
sweep little Della off her feet, and
with her none the wiser. Bartoli
summoned the man immediately, and I can tell you that the resemblance
between them was remarkable. Threats
of the police quickly got Switzer to own up to the truth.
It emerged that he had understudied Bartoli on numerous occasions
before the real actor got the call to come to Hollywood, bringing Switzer
along as general factotum and stand-in, as I mentioned. For Switzer, it
was the opportunity for an Academy Award-winning performance.
So he pretended to be his employer, compromised the situation, and
expected to make a tidy sum of dirty money when Miss Cooper came up with
the cash -- as he fully expected her to do.”
with your help, it ended happily?”
few words were exchanged and the letters returned.
I later found out that he did not accompany his boss when the USO
troupe returned to California. All’s
well that ends well, as the maxim
little Miss Cooper went on her merry way, suitably grateful, vowing to
stop writing letters to actors, right, Admiral?”
Lee eyed his boss
she suitably grateful, sir?”
smiled. “That would be
what a tangled web we weave
first we practise to deceive!
Walter Scott, Marmion,
Canto VI, XVII
Author’s Note: “Chop” is Navy slang for supply officer, so named for the shape of their insignia.
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