Navy Captain Pete Adler has arrived at the pinnacle of a US Navy career. He is the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. The first time he takes the ship to sea, a huge fire breaks out and threatens the survival of the ship and its crew of thousands. Many in Pete’s crew perform heroic and noble deeds, and the carrier is saved. But there is no rest for Pete and the crew. They must repair the ship and make their scheduled deployment date. Again the crew responds heroically. In the midst of the repair effort, Pete’s father dies. When he is at home for the funeral, he learns the nobility of some deeds is but skin-deep.
J. J. Zerr has published six novels and a book of short stories. He is a US Navy and Vietnam veteran. He and his wife Karen reside in Missouri.
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By J. J. ZERR
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 J. J. Zerr
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CAPTAIN PETE ADLER
The sign bolted to a steel fencepost in a bucket of cement reserved the parking spot. The sign read, "CO." Captain Pete Adler pulled into the space as if he owned it, which he did. That spot belonged to the commanding officer of the USS Marianas, one of the navy's aircraft carriers.
Niggling at the corner of his mind, trying to get in, was the thought that the job was as temporary as a reserved parking spot marked by a portable sign. That thought might get in another time. Not today. Today, Captain Pete Adler was taking his carrier to sea for the first time.
Colleen rode with him to the ship. Pete could have had his marine orderly pick him up, but she wanted to ride along. The day was special to her too. Special enough to get her out of bed well before the sun came up. She didn't even groan when the alarm went off.
Pete shoved the gearshift lever of the Chevy van into park and peered out the windshield at the illuminated steel structure looming fifty feet above the pier. He turned his gaze to the flight deck and then the island and the top of the mast sticking up another 150 feet, pointing to the stars.
He took her hand. She sat in shadow, but he didn't have to see her face to know it radiated love that was as fresh as a newborn's lusty yowl, yet still glowed golden from twenty-five years of marriage and thirty of going steady.
"Have I told you lately that I love you ..." she started singing, a song she adored from a fifties Elvis album.
Colleen. That woman could reach a hand inside his chest and fondle his heart, and it thump, thump, thumped, happy as a petted dog's tail.
He'd never had a main squeeze. Colleen had been his one and only squeeze since senior year of high school.
"Stop that caterwauling, woman. What will the guys on the quarterdeck think if I walk aboard crying, snot trickling out of my nose and into my mouth?"
"I do love you, Pete Adler."
He leaned over to kiss her. She stuck her tongue in his mouth.
After a moment, he pulled back. "Rats. Now I have to go home and take a cold shower."
Joking was better than saying that he knew he could never make her as happy as she made him. That was the most god-awful thing.
Pete got out. Colleen slipped into the driver's seat. They'd bought the van twelve years before. Pete was going through test pilot school when the fifth daughter was born. The only seat left for baby Molly in their two-door Impala was her mother's lap. The older girls loved the van. They no longer had to be scrunched together with annoying sisters. Colleen appreciated the ability to be able to move from her seat to the back to quell mutinies or to tend to Molly.
Pete watched her click her seat belt, move her purse to the floor beside her, and adjust the rearview mirror. He felt the familiar magnetic pull of the ship tugging him toward his greatest naval adventure. Much of him was anxious to get on the ship, on his ship. At the same time, there was a fishhook embedded in his heart. Colleen held the line to the hook, and she tugged at it. Departing for a stint at sea had always contained these two disparate forces drawing and tearing at him.
"Takeoff checklist complete?" Pete asked.
Pete kissed her hand and stood looking up at her shadowed face.
"Pete Adler, do I have to remind ye, then, the crew of the mighty warship USS Marianas, they be waiting for the commanding officer himself to be coming aboard to take them out upon the briny deep? Be on with ye then."
"Aye, Mrs. Commanding Officer."
Pete saluted her and closed the door, shutting off the overhead light of the van and hiding Colleen in darkness.
COMMANDER HAROLD PENNINGTON III
The executive officer of the USS Marianas, Commander Pennington, stood in the shadow of the island on the flight deck and watched the CO get out of his van and walk toward the brow. The handheld radio crackled static.
"This is the officer of the deck, XO. Cap'n's coming aboard."
The exec double-clicked the mic on his radio to acknowledge the message.
It would have been nice if the CO had scheduled the orderly to pick him up. Then everybody would have known what time the CO was arriving. But COs didn't conduct themselves to make life easier for an XO. It worked the other way.
It was the second time the navy had put him together with Pete. The first time, Harry was CO of one of the F-18 squadrons in Airwing 21. Captain Peter Adler commanded the airwing. The two of them had hit it off. Both had an eye and impatience for BS, bureaucratic shinola, Pete called it. Both were Good Sticks. Navy pilots characterized the guys who got the best scores on the bombing ranges, won the mock dogfights, and who knocked down the best carrier landing grades as Good Sticks. No one ever said, "Pete or Harry is a Good Stick." Those who needed to know just knew.
Harry admired Pete because of his experience. Two tours to Vietnam topped his list of reasons. One night in the O Club at Naval Air Station, Lemoore, California, they discovered that they'd both prayed the same prayer in the late sixties and early seventies: "Please, God, don't let the war end before I get there." Pete's prayer had been answered with 330 combat missions. Harry got his wings in 1973 after the first planeloads of POWs had landed in the Philippines. He had missed Nam but fought other kinds of battles in the Pentagon and Naval War College. He had logged enough operational experience to earn an orderly progression through the ranks.
Pete admired Harry for his lack of experience, or so it seemed. Harry smiled, recalling the fitness report he'd received when he detached from the airwing. Captain Adler had written: Experience, in terms of flight hours, carrier landings, and combat missions, tells something about a man. Everybody needs some experience. Some men, like Commander Pennington, don't need much at all to demonstrate that here is a Good Stick, here is a leader, here is a man who can handle whatever challenges the navy wants to throw at him. Here is a man who will be an admiral.
Harry was six two and burly. His nickname had been Bear. Former Bear watched the "little shit," five-foot-seven Pete, stride across the lighted ramp to the brow. Navy officers—superiors, peers, and some subordinates—referred to Pete that way quite often.
But for an XO, even thinking it was sacrilege—worse, mutiny.
When Pete assumed command of the Marianas, he made it clear he wanted a clean ship. Crewmen tracked grease and oil from the flight deck. Feeding five thousand men three times a day, another source of defilement. "Cleaning passageways once a day won't keep up with the mess," he'd said. "But, XO, the cleaning guys can't close off the passageways. I want things clean, but people still have to move forward and aft. Figure out how to do it." The CO wanted a clean ship another way too. Pete hated drugs and especially hated the idea of drugs on his ship.
A week after taking over, Pete addressed the crew on the flight deck, laying out the things he expected of "all of us Marianas sailors ..."
The XO shook his head. In a week, Pete had the crew eating out of his hand. He had that way of making himself one of the thousands, while at the same time, clearly establishing himself as the alpha, the high-hooba-jooba bubba, the boss, the commanding friggin' officer. During that talk, he'd dropped the Clean Harry nickname on his exec. It spread. And stuck.
The little shit was something.
She watched Pete climb the ladder and cross the brow to the quarterdeck.
You've come a long way for a Missouri farm boy, Pete Adler.
Colleen remembered when Pete had gotten the call. She left the sink, dried her hands, and picked up the kitchen phone.
He was at the table helping Eileen with seventh-grade math. According to Pete, Eileen's brain rejected algebra like a body rejected a donor organ with an incompatible blood type. Still, he was so patient with her. She fretted, fussed, fumed, and he never raised his voice, just calmly tried to find another way to explain a concept.
"For you," Colleen said, and then she handed him the phone.
Something the caller said surprised Pete. He listened and then said, "Thank you, sir," and hung up. He kept his hand on the wall phone.
The way Pete acted, it must have been bad news. Then he turned and shook his head. Bad, but what? she wondered.
He just stood there, frowning.
A grin bloomed over his face. He pumped his arms and his feet stomped up and down. He seemed to want to scream.
"Pete, what is it?"
He stopped dancing, looked her in the eye, still grinning.
"A carrier," he said. "I screened for an aircraft carrier."
He started laughing.
She remembered thinking about that word screened and felt as if she understood it for the first time. When the navy selected a man to command a squadron of planes or a ship, he screened for command. The screening process was like dumping a large number of people onto a fine-meshed sieve. Most got segregated and dumped aside with the chaff and tare.
"A friggle-frappin' aircraft carrier!" he said.
"Hey! How about my friggle-frapping algebra?" Eileen asked.
Colleen and Pete were both stunned. It took them a moment to understand that Eileen really hadn't said naughty words.
Simultaneously, laughter exploded from both of them. They pulled Eileen to her feet and the trio stumbled in a clumsy dance around the kitchen.
That night had been the finest the navy had ever allowed them. So many times, they'd sweated new assignments and promotion lists. But after the call, all their anxiety over the future, whether they had one or not, all went away.
An aircraft carrier!
And Eileen's friggle-frapping math. Pete said once, "The only thing that has been like Eileen encountering puberty was Chernobyl."
Eileen was a handful.
Pete had disappeared inside the ship.
"Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea," she prayed aloud.
It was her prayer every time Pete went to sea.
Peril. In many ways, that's what an aircraft carrier was: a floating steel box of peril. Aircraft accident rates were several times higher for navy carrier pilots than for air force counterparts. Just moving the planes around the flight deck, with inches to spare between wing tips, was hazardous. And the bombs. Pete had lost a cousin, one of 134 killed, in the Forrestal fire off Vietnam. The cousin was from his mother's family, the ones they never visited. Still, a relative, cousin Del.
The Forrestal's flight deck video camera recorded Del's death. Pete had seen the film. In the movie, a tall skinny kid, Del, manned a fire hose by himself. He aimed the stream at a bomb hung from an airplane wing rack. Beneath the bomb was a puddle of burning jet fuel. There was a flash. When the whiteout materialized into a picture again, the plane was gone, just a view of ocean. Del, gone too.
Pete only talked about Del once, but Colleen knew he often thought about his vaporized cousin from the estranged side of his family.
She started the engine to drive home, which was Quarters J across from the O Club, where the girls slept like angels. Sleeping, even Eileen qualified.
"For those in peril on the sea."
She backed out of Pete's parking spot.
"Amen," she said.
CAPTAIN PETE ADLER
It was early. The ship wasn't getting under way until 0930, but Pete wanted a bit of that morning for himself. Arriving at 0445 didn't ensure solitude, but the chances were decent.
The CO's in-port cabin was on the 03 level, just across the passageway from Admiral Miller's quarters. Miller was a battle group commander, and Marianas served as his flagship. He wouldn't be aboard that week. The ship was providing carrier landing services to A-7 and F-14 training squadrons. The next time the ship went to sea, other ships of the group would sail with the carrier. Miller would be aboard then, commanding his battle group.
Pete didn't enter his cabin. What he wanted, or maybe needed, to do was to visit with the previous commanding officers of the Marianas. Their framed photos hung in a row tacked to the bulkhead in the passageway outside the door to his room. All nineteen men were still alive, but Pete thought each of them had left a wisp of soul behind when they turned over command. When he looked at the photos, and no one else was around, he felt their spiritual presence. He felt something else that morning. The past COs expected him to take damn good care of their aircraft carrier.
He saluted them. Then he climbed four ladders to his at-sea cabin, located just aft of the pilothouse. He stashed his toiletries and skivvies and noted that the steward had brought his cassette player up from below. Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash to shave to. Chopin's nocturnes and Liszt's symphonies for the end of the day.
He walked out to the bridge.
Good, no one here.
Soon the pilothouse would fill up with phone talkers, bearing shooters, lookouts, officer of the deck, position plotters, radar operator, bosun, helmsman, and others, two dozen, maybe. When the ship got under way later in the morning, all of them would be doing familiar jobs. Pete would be doing his for the first time. He'd assumed command a month before, but this would be the first time he'd take his aircraft carrier to sea. Pete was so hyped and full of energy he thought he might be able to hover.
Aircraft carrier COs weren't supposed to be excitable, though. Instead of sweating, they exuded cool through their pores.
Be cool, Pete.
He crossed the pilothouse to the forward port corner to his chair. Enough light came through the bridge windows to read the white letters sewn into the blue Naugahyde chair cover.
Capt. Pete Adler
Son of a gun! Little Petey Adler, you've come a long way, baby!
To the west it was still black, above blue, and to the east red and orange.
Pete clasped his hands behind him and regarded the San Diego–Coronado Bridge towering over the bay. Its tall center pylons rose out of the black water like arms offering the bridge roadbed up to heaven.
An aircraft carrier CO!
He thought he, too, should offer up something to God for all the blessings that had come his way, and for him to be there, in his pilothouse, watching July 5, 1988, dawn over San Diego harbor.
Whenever he thought of offering something to God, sacrificing to Him, invariably an image came to mind of a white-haired, white-bearded Abraham, Bowie knife raised, about to stab Isaac tied to an altar atop a hill in the land of Moriah. The thought of sacrificing one of his daughters, or his one and only squeeze, left him shaking his head. Pete owed Him, no question there. He snapped to attention and saluted with his eyes raised to the sky.
Pete hoped He wasn't too disappointed that his faith wasn't up to Abraham's, that all he brought to offer was a puny salute.
Off to the right of the bridge, the red spires atop parts of the Hotel del Coronado pointed to the realm of his disappointed God.
An image of Pop lit up behind Pete's eyeballs. The disappointed look on Pop's face said Pete still didn't amount to anything and that his father's assessment hadn't changed since Pete was in second grade.
Pete hadn't thought about those days for six years, when his momma died.
Why the hell you coming back now, Pop?
It must have started earlier, but Pete's memories were fuzzy prior to second grade. Clarity began at age seven, the age of reason, the age at which his guardian angel started chiseling each and every sin on his eternal and everlasting soul. Sins came as thoughts, words, or deeds. Sins could be things a person did, or failed to do.
Second grade, right after the 1948 World Serious, which is what he'd called it then, ended.
On school days, when the church bell chimed three, seventy-eight kids plus Petey Adler spewed out the door and down the steps in the center of Holy Martyrs Catholic Grade School, a spill of noise as well as mass prison break. The escapees sorted themselves into after-school-walk-home groupings. Petey had two choices: Willie Ochsenzeimer, one of four farm boys in his second-grade class, or Jimmie Joe Kleinhammer, a first-grader who lived on the opposite side of town from him.
Excerpted from NOBLE DEEDS by J. J. ZERR. Copyright © 2013 J. J. Zerr. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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