by Helen H.
“’It was a dark and stormy night,’” Harry said, and joined in the laughter that followed.
They were sitting, Lee, Chip and Harry, in the conference room at NIMR 1, the oldest and largest of the research buildings on the grounds of the Institute. The building faced seaward, and from the third story windows one could see “all the way to Honolulu,” as many a visitor had said. Harry had pulled the blinds back to reveal an incoming storm. The wind-whipped seas were frenzied, spume flying off the tops of the waves like skittering ground-bound clouds, the waves themselves crashing and breaking apart below the cliffs. This was no wide expanse of sand perfect for strolling along the high water mark; in point of fact there was no beach at all. The Pacific Ocean ended and began here, wide and wild at this point, throwing itself onto the rocks only to gather for a moment before recovering strength to turn and begin the long trip back to Japan.
The late afternoon was indeed darker than normal, the storm’s clouds efficiently hiding the sitting sun. Rain threatened every moment, but had held back, perhaps waiting for precisely the right time to catch the unfortunate Institute worker who had neglected to bring his or her umbrella to the office that morning. The wind knew no such constraints. It was battering the windows in a constant rise and fall of squealing sound and fury, occasionally sending an eerie counterpoint up and down the scale, playing in concert with the heavy drum of pressure that those using the Beaufort Scale called “a fresh breeze,” but which, for mariners, meant they should make for the closest safe harbor lest they be caught in the squall that was playing up. At times like this, Harry had mused as he’d packed away the reports the three men had worked on during the day, the elements seemed alive, waiting for the chance to get back at the puny humans that challenged their authority. It was then he had uttered the famous line from Bulwer-Lytton’s epic Victorian tale. The men with him had laughed, but it was a knowing laugh; years at sea had taught them the power of wind, water and air.
They were finishing up a meal that the catering staff had brought in. The afternoon’s vigorous work talk had been put aside. They sat quietly, such as men do that had known each other for a long while, relaxing and enjoying the aftereffects of fine food and fine wine.
“Need I mention, gentlemen,” Harry addressed to the air, holding his half-filled glass up and staring at the plum-colored depths within, “that in a few days it will be Halloween?”
“No, sir,” Lee answered, while Chip nodded absently. “We’re ready for the party. Chip’s got his giant pumpkin costume all picked out.”
“What!!!” Chip cried, a look of murder in his eyes, the healthy tan on his face reddening. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I heard you were going in costume to the party this year,” Lee said innocently, rolling his eyes up to the heavens. “Perhaps I was misinformed.”
“If you weren’t across the table I’d show you how misinformed you are,” Chip offered in mock anger. “Don’t listen to him, Admiral. I’m bringing a couple of pumpkins to the party, but I am not – repeat not – dressing up as one.”
Harry’s shoulders moved up in down in silent laughter as the blush on Chip’s face subsided. “That’s good to know, Chip. We don’t need anything out of the ordinary to happen. Not like last year,” Harry mused, staring into his glass once again. Each Halloween the admiral hosted a party for the children of NIMR’s employees. What had been out of the norm at last year's party was the sequence of events that no one had been able to adequately explain at the time or since.** "Have I ever told you about my earliest ghostly encounter?”
Chip and Lee exchanged glances. “No, sir,” Lee said cautiously.
“We’ve had a lot of strange things happen on Seaview, as you know,” Harry said. Both Lee and Chip agreed that that was true, to say the least. “But this – this was different. And as an impressible young man, I’ve never forgotten it.”
Picking up his wine glass he rose from the table and went to stand by the window. The rain, unleashed at last, was falling in streaks and wide rivulets on the glass. The seas were running now, wave tops tearing, bending and stretching in furious movement.
Suddenly the wind seemed to increase, and Harry pitched his voice louder. “Most people believe that I had never been to this part of the country before I conceived the idea of building the Institute here,” he began. “That isn’t true. I’d actually made a trip, a pilgrimage of sorts, right after the war. I wanted to see where the McCulloch*** had gone down.” He swiveled around to smile at Lee and Chip, the familiar twinkle in his eyes. “Do you know of it?"
Chip answered almost immediately. "Revenue Cutter. She was attached to Admiral Dewey's fleet in the Spanish-American War."
"Well done, Mr. Morton," Harry said admiringly while Lee punched Chip lightly on his upper arm. "What you may not know is that she was shipwrecked off the California coast in 1917. I had just been detached from Admiral Lockwood's staff at Pearl and had a lot of leave saved up, so I decided to lay over in San Diego and do some driving up and down the coast, and having read of the McCulloch, do some investigating. I spent the night in Santa Barbara, visited some of the sights, and then negotiated a very muddy dirt road to Point Conception. Luckily that’s as far as I had to go. There was just enough daylight to pick out the site of the wreck, and I had timed it for low tide. It was not Halloween, but close to it.
“I knew from historical accounts that the McCulloch lay just off Point Conception. I stopped in to let the lighthouse keeper know that I would be out there exploring, to assure him that if he saw some crazy figure encased in a grey slicker popping up and down amongst the rocks that it was certainly no ghost. Little did I know at the time how prophetic my words were to be.”
His voice had descended to a comfortable rumble as he leaned against the window and recounted his story. It would not be incorrect to say that the admiral had almost forgotten his audience as he stared out into the darkness. Lee and Chip had drawn their chairs closer to catch every word.
“I had been out there about a half hour, taking pictures of what was left of the cutter’s superstructure. I was lining up for another shot of the sunset when I realized I was not alone.” Here Harry paused and raised the wine glass to his lips and drank, and satisfied, resumed his narrative. "About thirty yards away a man stood amongst an outcropping of rocks, staring seaward. He had on a Navy pea coat, that much I could see. His hands were thrust down in his pockets.
"Remember, this was 1945, right after the war ended. If a man had on a pea coat, that meant to me he was in the Navy. I identified myself, called out a half dozen times at least. He continued to ignore me. Insubordination! Never mind that I wasn't in uniform myself. I was having none of this."
Lee's lips thinned while he stifled a laugh, and Chip's blonde head went down on his chest while he struggled to keep silent.
"Don't think I don't see you, gentlemen," Harry intoned without turning his head.
"No, sir!" they both chorused.
"I was going to give him one more chance to answer me. Then I was going over there. I hailed him again. And this time," Harry said, holding the wine glass in one hand and rubbing his ear with the other, "he turned and looked at me. Only -- there wasn't anything there. The face was blank. I would swear to you, I could see through his body to the rocks and the ocean behind. Oh, the pea coat was there, alright. But then again, it wasn’t; it was as if the clouds were flitting back and forth in front of the sun, and what I thought I saw was visible and in the next instant invisible. And wafting towards me on the wind was something I can only describe today as a sense of overwhelming anger touched with sadness. I suddenly had the idea that I should have on my person either a pistol or a rosary, I wasn't sure which."
Chip cleared his throat. The sound broke the spell that had descended upon the room. With a raised eyebrow Lee held up the almost full bottle of wine, and Chip thrust out his glass. Lee filled it, and topped off his own. "Admiral?"
"I think I can use it," Harry said. His glass full again, he continued. "I refused to believe what I was seeing, of course. It was a joke, a consequence of how tired I was from the drive, the weather playing tricks. I was seeing things. I told myself all this in a matter of seconds. Being the big bold submariner I was, I then took a step forward. And tripped over a rock, ending up on my hands and knees. When I got myself back to my feet, the -- man -- was gone. I looked around for several minutes, exploring every spot that could have been used for a hiding place, until it began getting too dark to see. I even went back and questioned the lighthouse keeper, whom I'm sure was convinced I was insane. But -- what I saw was there. Or wasn't there, depending on your point of view."
A heavy gust of rain and wind battered the windows, rattling the panes. "This is just the kind of weather that makes me think back to that day. Was it a ghost I saw, someone who had served on the McCulloch, come back to see the final resting place of his old ship? I later found out that the local Chumash Indians consider the area sacred ground, where the spirits of the dead rest before making the long journey to eternity. I would hardly think that one of their departed would be wearing a pea coat. I therefore, have convinced myself that it was the workings of my over-enthusiastic mind, visiting a ship’s graveyard." He tipped back his glass and drank deeply. "Halloween brings out the best in me. Or the worst, perhaps. Luckily enough what it didn't do was keep me from coming back to Santa Barbara. The rest, as they say, is history."
Lee unfolded himself from his chair, twisting the kinks out of a body frozen in rapt attention while Admiral Nelson related his tale. "There's got to be some rational explanation, Admiral."
"Of course. I've thought it through a thousand times. But with what we've seen out there" -- he swept his arm outwards -- "my mind is no longer closed to any possibility." A wry smile crossed Harry’s face, and he shook his head, blue eyes alive and glittering. "And with that epic pronouncement, I’ll be heading home. Thank you for your hard work today, gentlemen. I'll see you in the morning."
"Goodnight, Admiral. See you tomorrow, sir."
The door of the conference room closed behind Nelson and the room was quiet again, save for the maelstrom going on outside. Chip rubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin. "Just a trick of the light, Lee. That's all it was."
"Never say I don’t agree with you on some things, XO." He clapped a hand on Chip's shoulder. "Tell me again about this pumpkin costume. I have it on good authority it's a doozy!" he cried, dodging the hand that Chip attempted to whip around his neck.
“When I get my hands on you--!"
Act I, Scene V
is a reference to the short story in my folder entitled A
Halloween Tale, my contribution to Halloween of last year.
***The USS McCulloch was indeed attached to Admiral Dewey’s fleet during the Spanish-American War, her captain and crew distinguishing themselves in battle. Returning to patrol duty along the California coast, she went down in a collision with a steamship on the 13th of June, 1917. Which happened to be a Friday.