Loloa Fononga:
The Long Journey

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

   

The lights at the Dragon Pagoda were dim, but if not for the circumstances, Chip Morton would have been thoroughly enjoying himself.  The last time he had been in the elegant place was when he and Lee had taken their dates there. 

He and the admiral ordered their meal.  Chip decided not to waste time.  “Admiral, I don’t want command of the Seaview, at least not permanently.

Nelson sipped his drink and nodded.  “I expected you to say as much.  What if he can’t?  What if he’s had enough?”

Chip shook his head.  “I think that won’t be an issue, sir.  I believe I know Lee enough to feel he will eventually see things more logically.”  He smiled softly.  “And then I think he’ll be mad as hell.”

Nelson chuckled, then sobered quickly.  “But what about you, Chip?  And I want you to be honest with me.  What are your feelings about command?  You’re one hell of a fine officer, a superb leader and certainly have enough experience to have your own boat.”

Chip didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but he didn’t think it this.  At least not right off the bat.  “Admiral, I’m not exactly sure just what my feelings are about this.  Most of the time I’ve been perfectly happy serving under Lee.”  He paused to collect his thoughts into something that would sound cohesive and . . . and what?  Loyal?   Nelson sat quietly in the seat across the table from him, saying nothing, only taking a couple of puffs on his cigarette.  Chip sighed.  “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some thoughts of wanting my own command.”  He leaned forward, his intense blue eyes boring into the admiral’s.  “But I refuse to take command of the Gray Lady this way.  I will not accept the command of Seaview.  He surprised himself by the vehemence of his statement.  But he meant every word and pulled out the despised letter and threw it on the table.

Nelson smiled softly.  “Can I gather then that you just gave me your official answer to this situation?”

“Yes!”

“Good.”  He took another sip of his drink and a puff of his cigarette before stubbing the latter out in an ashtray.   “But what about command in any other circumstance?  What about command in general?”   Morton blinked and sat back in his chair as the waiter set a plate of dum sin in front of them.  He ignored it as he continued to study the admiral.  Nelson sighed and ignored the plate as well.  “The reason I ask is because I have studied the Seaview’s mission logs and I see a definite trend upward in her activity.  It’s no secret that I have been turning down requests for years, but lately it seems that is all I’ve been doing.  I had balked at building another sub because of what happened to the last.”  He paused, his eyes clouded in painful remembrance.  “I have not wanted to lose more good men like that.”   He shook his head and took another drink.  “But Seaview just can’t continue to work the pace she’s been going.  The men can’t either.  Lee is just one symptom of a general problem.”

Chip nodded, not trusting himself to say anything. 

“I guess what I want to know is if you would be interested in a command if, or rather, when I build a sister ship to Seaview.

Morton sucked in his breath in surprise.  Him?  His own command?  His heart leaped at the opportunity and he had to control the sudden surge of joy.

“It will be a while yet, because I want to be very careful about this new one, but she’d be yours if you want her, Chip.”  The admiral fell silent as he let Chip ponder.

“Admiral, my first inclination is to give an instant answer based on emotion, but I would like to think about it, if I may.”

“Of course you may, Chip.  Good heavens, the idea’s only in my head and on the sketch pad, but even so, I’ve known from the first tenuous thoughts just who should be at the helm.”

“I am honored by your confidence in me, Admiral.”

Nelson snorted at the formal words.  “Just make sure you let me know before we commission her,” he said with a laugh. 

Chip couldn’t help it; he chuckled at the feeble joke.  Then he thought of Lee and sobered immediately.  “I am very serious about refusing that though,” he said, pointing to the Navy’s letter of appointment. 

Nelson nodded.  “You go ahead and send your answer.  I’ll back it up with some choice words of my own.  Something that indicates my displeasure at them for going over my head as well as letting them know that nothing is changing pending an investigation into all of this.”

“Thanks, Admiral.”

Nelson took another sip of his drink.  “I’ve got the best damned bunch of men anyone could ask for and no one in the Navy or out of it is going to screw that up,” he said vehemently.  He looked at the platter.  “Now let’s have some dinner before it gets stale.”

As if on cue, the waiter brought out their entrees. 

 

                             =========================

 

Doc, Nelson and Morton sat in the observation nose of the sub, coffee cups in their hands, coffee barely warm, staring out at the boiling water on the clear hull plates. 

“Two weeks and no word,” Doc growled.

“We aren’t going to be able to cover much longer,” Chip murmured. 

Nelson just shook his head.  He’d cover for as long as he needed to, but still, he was worried.  Where in the world could Lee be, he wondered?   There were steps on the stairwell and he looked up to see Chief Sharkey.  “Well, any new scuttlebutt, Chief?”

Sharkey grimaced and then sighed.  “Well, Admiral.  I, uh, well, the men are seriously worried about the skipper, since this is longer than he has been gone except for times when his missions, uh, haven’t gone quite right.  But, um, there’s uh….”

Sharkey clearly looked embarrassed and Nelson chuckled.  “There’s a betting pool.”  While the admiral had said that he didn’t want the word of Crane’s dismissal passed around, he had almost figured that some hint of it would have slipped out among the men.  When it came to the captain, most of the men had deep loyalties and would have pestered Sharkey until the COB had let some tidbits slip. 

“Uh, yes, sir.  I’ve sort of didn’t discourage it because I thought….    Well, I sort of figured it might bring out a good idea or two, sir,” he stammered apologetically. 

Nelson nodded.  “Good thinking, Chief.  Sometimes people not as close to the situation can see things more clearly.  “What’s the consensus?” 

“Well, there’s a couple of the men who feel Captain Crane’s with a relative.  Several say the mountains, some say specific places like Alaska or Hawaii.”

“That it?” Doc asked impatiently.

 

“No, Doc.  A few think he’s still near Santa Barbara to keep an eye on Meeka and the other orphans.  And one says Hikeru.”

“Hikeru?” snorted Doc.  “You’ve got to be kidding.  He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

But Chip had seen something back during that time and had wondered.  Apparently the Admiral had, too.  “Interesting.  Did the seaman in question give a reason why?”

“Well, I asked, but no one would own up.  Seems that rate has been ragged about it.  Later though, privately, Stu ponied up and said he heard it was probably because of the girl.”

Chip nodded.  “He may have a point there.”

“You, too?” Doc asked, incredulous.

“You didn’t see her attraction to him before she left to go home,” Chip pointed out.

“But do you think it was mutual, Mr. Morton?” Sharkey asked. 

Chip paused in thought.  “I think Lee was very grateful for the girl saving him,” Chip finally said.  “From what little he told me, she was the only kind face and gentle hand he had during his horrific stay on Hikeru.  I think he greatly respected and admired La’ani.  I know he liked her a lot as a friend.  Whether there was anything more than that, I don’t know.”  He paused.  “And then there was A’ona Matua.”

“Huh?” Sharkey sputtered.  “What did she have to do with it?”

“She was the one who seemed to know everything that was going on and seemed to predict what was going to happen and what needed to be done,” Nelson contributed.  “That may be something Lee’s looking for right now.”

Chip nodded but didn’t say anything. 

Doc was skeptical and just shook his head.  “But if Lee knew we had gotten him a review of the past procedures and a reversal of the decision pending a new physical, he wouldn’t need anything from some Polynesian witch doctor,” Jamieson said, exasperated.  He drew in a deep breath and tried to rein in his frustration.  Up until the time they had shipped out, he had been trying to get more out of the doctor who had given Lee his physical without any success. 

“Well, just to be on the safe side, I sent a message to La’ani asking her to contact us,” the admiral informed them.

“How?” Doc asked.

“Through a courier from American Samoa.  I sent my letter out ten days ago.  Angie will let me know if anything comes of it.”  He took a drink of his lukewarm coffee.  “Of course at that time I didn’t know how successful we’d be, so it was generally vague.”

“Hopefully, we’ll here something soon, from whatever quarter,” Chip murmured. 

 

                 ==================================

 

Several days after his departure from the Seaview, Lee Crane sat on the beach looking out over the crystal clear waters.  He was not in proper beach attire, not having bought any since his arrival, but he was not in military attire either.   The ocean breeze kept him cool, despite the fact that he was wearing slacks and a casual polo shirt.  He was wondering for the hundredth time just what he was accomplishing being here.  How many times had Doc admonished him to take some leave, take it easy and just get away from it all?  More than he could remember. 

Even so, he wondered just what he was accomplishing here several thousand miles away from home.  Home?  Where was his home now?  He knew he should go back and face whatever options were available to him, but he couldn’t force himself to act on his thought.  Should, ought, must—they were all good words; nice sentiments. 

So here he was in American Samoa gazing out at the charter boats bobbing at their anchors, taking hours to make a decision when he used to make several decisions in seconds.  A thought suddenly crossed his mind.  He had promised La’ani he would come and visit.  He had also promised Meeka a phone call, too.  That spurred him and Lee slowly rose to his feet, brushing off the sand, and reaching into his pocket to see how much change he had there.  Enough for a quick call.  He could have used his charge card back at the hotel, but those were traceable and he didn’t want to be traced just yet.  Why, he wondered?  What was wrong with him?  He felt as though he was running from a fight.  But what could he fight?  It was all a done deal.  No one had risen to his defense.  A little voice promptly reminded him that no one may have been told, so who could have risen in his defense, but still….   Lee walked to a ramshackle bait shop where an old pay phone hung precariously from a pole.  He slid the coins in the slot.

The Navy giveth and the Navy taketh away.  Even though he had resigned his active Navy commission, the Navy still had control.  And it was control even Admiral Nelson couldn’t influence, he thought sourly. 

Lee rang the number and was gratified to hear Meeka’s sleepy voice.  He mentally kicked himself.  It was night back in California.  “Meeka?  I’m sorry I woke….”

“Vadeer!!” she cried. 

Lee cringed.  A father was the last thing he’d consider himself.  

“Where are you?”

“In the Pacific.  How are you, Meeka?”

“I worry about you.  Uncle Chip told me a little bit.”  Her English deteriorated in her agitation. 

“Meeka, I wanted to call to let you know I’m fine.”

“When are you coming back?” she asked eagerly.

“A week or two,” he said.  “I’m just doing some thinking.”

“I miss you, Vadeer.”

“I miss you, too, Meeka.  I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you with me.”

“Yes, I wish I could come, too.  The admiral said to tell you he and Uncle Chip and Doc are going to get this straightened out.”  She said it like one repeating someone else’s words.   “They want you back on the Gray Lady.”

So they hadn’t been successful tilting the Navy windmill, Lee thought sardonically.  “Well….”

“They will be happy to know you are all right,” Meeka said happily. 

“No, Meeka.  I’ll call them myself.  Don’t tell them anything yet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”  A voice came on demanding more money.  “Meeka, I have to go.  I’ll call you again in a few days.”

“Okay.  Please be careful.”

“I will.  You, too.”  Quietly, he hung up and contemplated what he had just told Meeka.  He picked up the phone to place the call to the Institute and then hesitated.  As close as he was to the admiral or to Chip, he couldn’t talk to them right now.  He couldn’t bear to hear the sympathizing platitudes, the patronizing tones of their voices.  He remembered Sharkey’s hangdog look of sympathy and he wanted none of it right now.  From anyone, especially those he was close to.   He’d be talking to his mother, but she was dead and buried back home.  Home….  Again Lee snorted in irritation. 

The phone went back on the receiver and Crane walked over to the charter boat area.  “Where do you go?” he asked the first person he came to. 

“Anywhere within a day,” came the quick answer.

Lee studied the boat with a critical eye.  This was not a boat a rich traveler or tourist would to be seen on, but still it looked seaworthy.  He pondered the time it had taken to get to American Samoa from Hikeru and he really couldn’t remember much of that trip.  More than a day, that much he knew.   “If I paid you more, would you take me to Hikeru?”

“Hikeru?”  The man looked startled.  “No, I don’t go there.”

“Who does?”

“Only Mata goes there.  Mail.  A few supplies.  Only goes occasionally. 

“Where’s Mata?” Lee persisted. 

The Polynesian man pointed.  “Just getting ready for an island run.” 

“Thanks,” Lee said and turned toward Mata’s boat. 

“But you cannot go to Hikeru.”

Lee turned back to the speaker.  “Why not?”

“No, uh, whites are allowed.  Hikeru is off limits.”

Lee smiled.  “I suspect they will make an exception for me.”

The man shook his head and then shrugged.  Crane continued to Mata’s boat.  Two men in lava lavas and tee shirts were loading crates and large canvas bags into a small cargo hold.  “Which one of you is Mata?” Lee called out without preamble. 

The two men looked up.  The smaller man straightened up and walked to the side of the boat closest to Crane.  “I am Mata.  Do you wish me to take something to another island?”

“Yes—me.”

“We don’t usually take passengers,” Mata replied bluntly.

“Well how much do you charge for one of those larger crates?” Lee asked, wondering if Mata was one of those who enjoyed dickering over prices.

“Crates don’t eat.  Find someone who takes passengers.”

“You’re the only one going to Hikeru,” Lee countered.

Mata’s eyes widened.  “I can’t take you….”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one.  I’m a white man.”  He paused a moment.  Why in the world did it seem so all fired important to go to Hikeru all of a sudden?  For that matter, why had he suddenly chosen a ticket to the South Seas when he had walked into the air terminal back in Los Angeles?”  He just knew it was important for some reason.  Now, for the first time since his mother had died, he felt a definite focus.  His thoughts seemed unmuddled and sharp.  He needed to go to Hikeru.  For La’ani or A’ona Matua?  He mentally shrugged, but in his mind, he saw La’ani Rana’oanui as he first saw her when he was a prisoner.   “I will pay you the equivalent of shipping a crate like that one plus some.  And if they won’t allow me to disembark, I’ll pay you the same again to bring me back.”

Mata scrutinized him carefully.  “How do I know you can pay that much?” 

Lee laughed.  “This is my first extended R & R in over two years.  I am a bachelor with moderate tastes.  My only luxury is a sports car that’s three years old and paid for.”

“Military?”

“Navy.”

Mata shrugged.  “It’s your money.  One hundred now and one hundred later.”

Lee flashed a credit card.  “You take these?”

Mata studied it, then laughed.  “Of course.”  He continued to laugh.  “If you can leave now.  The sea dictates a great deal of my schedule and I can’t wait for you to mess around with your luggage.” 

Lee smiled.  “Didn’t have that much anyway.  Let me give word to the hotel to stow my gear.”  Mata nodded and Lee went back to the pay phone.  At this rate, he thought wryly, it would be a good thing he was going to be on an island with limited phone access.  He stuck his last coin in the slot and dialed the hotel.  He picked up a few toiletries at the bait shop and was soon back at the dock.  

 

 

 

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