By Helen H.
“… the results of the gradient readings indicate a preponderance of… damn, that’s not right!” A hand slapped down on the desktop, and the dark haired girl sitting on the other side winced. A long sigh filled the air. “Forgive me, Angie. Give me a minute, and we’ll try this again.”
Williams rested her pencil and studied her boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson. Head bent over the research reports he’d been trying to make sense of,
a finger rubbed across his forehead, trying to rid himself of a headache,
no doubt. He’d been dictating for over an hour now, and the
thoughts and words were increasingly disjointed. He was tired, and with good
reason. Lee Crane, Seaview’s commanding officer, was a day
overdue from another of the cursed ONI missions he’d been commandeered for yet again. The admiral didn’t get much sleep when that
happened. His normally pink skin, roughened from a lifetime spent at sea,
was very pale today, lifeless almost. She could tell from the wan look in his eyes and
the dark circles underneath that it had been another night of tossing and
turning and worrying. Would this be ‘it,’ the day that Lee didn’t come home from one of the crazy operations that
Admiral Johnson, director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, had sent
him on? That was the deal when Lee
came aboard; Nelson could have him, but not all of him, not now or for the
foreseeable future. Every minute that he didn’t report in, didn’t
stick his head around the door with that big grin on his face, was
nerve-wracking for those concerned. This time the admiral seemed
because it was near Christmas; the stress of waiting, especially the not
knowing, was a heavier burden.
top it all off, the annual company holiday party was tonight. The guys took turns being
Santa -- Lee had to have extra pillows
to fill up the costume -- and it was his turn this
year. Despite her misgivings, since Angie Williams was
never one to tempt fate if she didn’t have to, she’d already spoken to Chief
Sharkey about getting a stand-in, firmly telling him that one wouldn’t be necessary, of course, but just in case….
had dressed for the occasion, in a simple dress of dark green jersey, the
pencil skirt emphasizing the slim lines of her waist and hips. Pinned at the neckline was a large Christmas wreath
brooch with green, red and gold stones. Her
chestnut hair arched back from her forehead and hugged the sides of her
head to just below the ears. A bit of mascara enhanced dark
brown eyes. Naturally pink cheeks needed
no enhancement. She had touched up her bright
red lipstick before coming in to take dictation.
her bob with a
manicured hand, Angie said decisively, “We can pick this up on Monday,
sir. After all, we’ve
got a Christmas party to get ready for.”
“Christmas party… my God, is
shocked look on his face told her this was not a joke; he really had
forgotten. “Oh, Angie, I don’t suppose… no, I’ve got a duty to perform, and I won’t disappoint anyone.”
“They’d miss you, sir.”
looked up at her and smiled sadly, the blue eyes unusually dimmed. “Would they really miss another reading of The
Night Before Christmas?”
“Yes, sir, they would,” she said firmly in her soft
but ‘take no prisoners’ southern accent. “Besides, it gives us adults a
moment to compose ourselves before Santa makes his appearance. After that, bedlam takes over.”
“Santa.” Nelson’s brow clouded. “Wasn’t Lee supposed to have that duty this year?”
“Yes, sir. I reminded him just before he left.”
eyes narrowed. “He won’t forget, sir. He knows I’d
have his hide otherwise.”
“A threat he takes very
tried smiling, and almost pulled it off. “However, these reports need reviewing, and in a --” Nelson stopped, swallowed,
then began again. “In a timely fashion. It’s necessary… the submitters
expect it… can’t make them wait on me….”
losing control of his voice altogether he fell silent, thoughts chasing
across his face like the spray off a windy sea. Suddenly he swiveled in his chair and stared out
the big window behind the desk, the one that offered up a view of nothing
but blue water.
eyes followed his direction.
was across this very ocean that Lee had flown two weeks ago, destination a
secret base in the depths of an Indochinese forest, somewhere that
somebody needed help. Why it seemed like it always
had to be him, Angie couldn’t fathom. She had
stopped thinking about it, knowing that it was useless to worry about
circumstances she had no power to control. She could still get angry, though, at the effect
these disappearances had on the man she worked for. Lee hadn’t been with them long, but he had found a place in everyone’s heart, and although they kept
their relationship strictly upon professional and traditional lines, Angie
knew how close Admiral Nelson and the younger man had become.
gave a shake of his head, and the chair spun back. “I think you’re right, Angie. This job would be better done
on another day.”
shut her steno pad with a snap. “Let me get everything put away and I’ll give you a ride over to the
voice was sardonic. “Think I’ll skip out on you otherwise,
“Now, Admiral Nelson, that
thought never crossed my mind. I was instead thinkin’ that a good secretary can be a good chauffeur when
the need arises.”
was happy to get a chuckle out of him for that. “Well, a good secretary would
also know that I need to go home and change out of this uniform.”
a very good secretary, sir. That’s why --” she rose from her chair and crossed to the closet
built into the wall in the furthest corner of his office “-- she plans for every
contingency. I’ve got your Christmas sweater right here, sir.”
eyes widened in alarm. “You didn’t… I thought I threw that
away last year.”
“You did try, Admiral.”
the sweater off its hanger, Angie held it out for inspection. A giant
reindeer with a very large, very red spangled nose took up the front,
embroidered over the alternating stripes of red and green knit. Someone had attached ribbons of
material around each arm that resembled gold tinsel. A
torn cuff had been mended
with something shiny and silver. ‘Hideous’
barely described it. She had found it in a small
thrift shop in Santa Barbara three years ago, persuading Nelson to put it
on for the inaugural party that year, and then the next and the next.
“No one at the party would
recognize you anymore without this sweater, Admiral.”
Nelson’s lips thinned to a tight
smile, and then his eyes twinkled. Rubbing his ear, he said, “Better that they shouldn’t, I’d say. Since bribery would be useless, I’ll take your word for it. What would I do without you, Angela Williams?”
“You would be as bereft as
Robinson Crusoe on his desert island before he met Friday, sir. Now put this on and let’s get going.”
“Aye Aye, ma’am!”
* * * * *
party for the children of parents working at NIMR was, as usual, a great
Christmas trees dotted every corner and tables in the middle of the room
held goodies for parents and children alike. In one corner sat an armchair,
fronted by child-size chairs, waiting for first, Admiral Nelson, and then
jolly old St. Nick. A month or so back ‘Letters to Santa’ had been collected from each
child, and one present selected from the lists, to be handed out at the
annual party by Santa Claus. Only Santa hadn’t
shown up yet.
kept looking at her watch, alternatively smiling at the children enjoying
their light dinner and then staring towards the door, waiting. She had called Chief Jones,
who assured her that he had spoken to the new crewmember and that he knew
where to go and what time he had to be there.
And knowing Curley’s fashion, she had no doubt that he’d put
the fear of God into the new man. Unfortunately,
that deadline had come and gone twenty minutes ago.
would soon be time for Admiral Nelson to sit in the big overstuffed chair,
wait for the laughter to die down after the kids got a look at his
sweater, and recite Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, in his beautiful
baritone. And after that -- Santa was supposed to make his appearance. Only there wasn’t
a Santa yet, neither Lee nor the substitute that Sharkey had promised. What was she going to do?
never mind Santa, where was Admiral Nelson? He had
come in, greeted the parents and other adults at the party; he would see
most of them again the next night, arrangements made to keep the children
happy at home while their parents and other invited guests enjoyed a
lavish holiday dinner at the Biltmore Hotel. He’d slipped out while she was distracted with
something or the other. She was starting to panic -- just a little bit -- when Nelson walked back in through the door.
face and nose were flushed, and he smoothed down his hair as he walked
“Before you wonder, I was just
outside, taking a short walk.”
“And checking with Security to
see if anyone had driven in through the gate, I don’t doubt.”
harrumphed at that, and said, “Are we ready?”
handed him the large illustrated edition of Clement Clark Moore’s beloved story, the one they used every year. It had belonged to her as a child, one of her
happiest possessions. Nelson ran his hands lovingly over the book.
“Your audience awaits, Admiral.”
“And I won’t disappoint. Thank you, Angie.”
would prevent him from performing this duty, even if it was only a
walked up to the front of the room, the book under his arm. He allowed himself to sink
into the deep softness of the cushioned, burgundy velvet armchair. The chair had a spotlight overhead, making it easy
to pick out the words. Settling into his seat, Nelson had a smile on his
face that Angie knew he didn’t feel. His
iron self-control, honed from long use, would keep the children from even
a hint that there was anything wrong.
cleared his throat and opened the book. He lifted his head and looked
around the room, at several dozen young, upturned faces.
“Twas the night before
Christmas, when all through the house….”
“Please call us, Lee. That’s all I want for Christmas,” Angie said to herself.
* * * * *
gave a magnificent performance, as always. The
words perfectly enunciated, complete with gestures when required, set the
stage for the moment when the children joined in:
“Now Dasher! Now,
Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
was almost done, and no Santa had appeared. She
thought he had spoken unusually slowly tonight, delaying the moment when
an announcement would be necessary. Thinking about that, and standing behind and to the
side of Nelson’s chair, it took a few seconds
for her to notice Melody Chase’s frantic beckoning from beside
the hallway door. Heels clicking, Angie crossed the room.
“What is it, Melody?”
“Two Santas, Angie! What are we supposed to do?”
pulse quickening, Angie stepped around her and looked down the hallway.
down the corridor were indeed two Santas, one busy adjusting the pillows
stuffed behind the large belt buckle. Behind them both was a
grinning Chip Morton.
“Oh, Lee!” Angie
exclaimed. “Thank God,”
she said, more quietly.
was Lee Crane; the white beard
and busy white eyebrows couldn’t quite hide the bright hazel
eyes and flashing white grin.
“Made it, Angie! We didn’t even wait to make a phone
call, Chip just picked me up at LAX and brought me straight here. Think we broke a few speed laws along the way. Am I too late?”
“No, the admiral’s just finishing up.”
“My timing is impeccable, as
blocked his path, arms crooked on her sides. “When you’re not giving us a heart attack, wondering where the
heck you are. Why are you a day late? And why couldn’t you pick up
held up his hands in mock surrender. “We hit head winds over the South China Sea. I barely made it to Pearl. Only had time to make one
call, and that was to Chip. Caught my flight with a minute to spare.”
folded her arms and glared from Lee to Chip while fighting the urge to
just grab hold and hug them both. “Chip must have forgotten how to dial a phone too, I
take it. I think you enjoy your little grand entrances.”
“You wound me, Miss Williams.”
“You’re lucky it’s not a real wound, Commander Crane. Or two. Who are you, by the way?” she asked, turning to the
big, young man grinned sheepishly. “Jim Castlebury, ma’am. Chief
Jones sent me over. Sorry, I had a little car trouble, or I would have
been here a lot sooner.”
“Well, at least you made it,” Angie said.
“From not having one Santa I’ve
got two. Now what?”
was saved from coming up with a solution as a booming voice sounded out
right behind her.
“Lee… lad! You made it! You made it back,” Nelson said, whispering the
last words. He, too, looked from Castlebury to Crane and back
again. “Lee, since it seems we have an acceptable
substitute, I think we might be able to tear you away from here. I want to hear about
everything,” Nelson said, rubbing his
hands together. “Chip -- can you join us?”
shook his head, saying, “Sorry, Admiral, I’m meeting my sister and her
husband in town. They’re on their way north to San Francisco. Haven’t seen Jennie in a while, it’s
going to be great to get together.”
reached out and grasped Lee’s
hand. “Glad to have you back, buddy.”
“Glad to be back, Chip. Thanks for the lift -- and bringing the Santa suit. Say hello to Jennie and Mike
kissed Chip on the cheek and thanked him for picking Lee up, and amidst a
chorus of “see
you Monday!” the XO headed out the door.
had met Jennie Lancaster and her husband, Michael several times as they
visited Chip in Santa Barbara from their home in the San Fernando Valley,
both being part of the entertainment industry, she as a writer of travel
documentaries and he a well-regarded cameraman. She looked enough like
Chip to be his twin, but was a little over a year older. Chip had been excited about
their visit for weeks, and she was glad that nothing would now cast a pall
over his excitement.
turned to the new crewman. Castlebury
was a good six foot four, and his blushing cheeks and bright blue eyes
behind the white woolen beard looked authentic. As did the circumference of
his stomach -- not fat, just big in places where it was needed.
“I’ll concede that Castlebury here fits the bill a lot
better than I do. I’ll gladly give up my chance to play Santa if it’s
all right with him. Okay, Castlebury?"
I always played Santa or Santa's helper back home in Cloquet,
made way for Castlebury to enter the room -- which immediately elicited a
chorus of happy squeals and handclaps. His heartfelt "Ho Ho
Ho" filled the air.
reached up and pulled the fake beard off his face. “I won’t miss wearing this thing, it itches like the devil!
After you, sir. There’s a duty car outside. Your place is closer than mine, and besides, I’m
craving some of that fine Scotch Whiskey you keep.”
winked at Angie, and added, “Oh,
by the way, you have my favorite sweater on, sir."
be about enough of that, mister!"
waited and watched the pair walk down the hallway. Slowly, Nelson's arm went up
over Lee's shoulder and with a swift movement, he pulled the younger man
to him, just as quickly released. Angie's
eyes softened. All her men were home, Lee and the Admiral
together, Chip off to celebrate with his visiting family. The Institute kids would soon
be seen off, hugging their presents. And she was heading for a
nightcap with a particularly handsome associate professor from the
Everything was right in the world.
on a heel, the smile on her face radiant, Angie went back into the
conference room to help with the gift giving.
* * * *
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish
can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth;
can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away,
to his own fire-side and his quiet home!
Dickens, The Pickwick Papers