“What’s the story with this sailor?” said the Lieutenant as he probed the shoulder of the cook-striker with the toe of his buffed, brown shoe.
Wade, finished from the last of the field lockers being off-loaded onto the Tudor Hill quay, gazed down at Dusty who rolled over and looked up glass-eyed at them. “I think he’s a bit under the weather.”
“Sir,” prompted the Lieutenant.
“I think he’s a bit under the weather—Sir.” He helped Dusty into a seated position on the deck and proceeded to mock the officer’s instruction in formality. “He should be checked out for sun-stroke—Sir.” Before the Lieutenant could reject that as nonsense, Wade turned his attention to Dusty.
“Sailor? What is your name?” He felt Dusty’s forehead and cheeks for excessive dry heat. He yelled at one of the crew, “Get me some water here.”
Dusty looked around before he could summon the strength to answer. “Howard Hoover, serial number … uh ….”
Ignoring the lapse, Wade continued. “How old are you Dusty?”
Dusty looked absently at his watch. “Still seventeen for a couple of weeks—praised be.”
The Lieutenant shifted on his feet as if trapped in an uncomfortable position. “Seventeen? How can that be?” he asked to anyone who might answer.
Dusty hoisted himself to one elbow and put his hand on the cassette in his pocket as if he were pledging allegiance at elementary school. “My Dad signed the papers … It’s legal and proper and everything ‘cause my Dad signed the papers … Dad was with the 7th Infantry Division in the war, but he decided this was my patriotic choice, not his … and then he signed the papers to put the amen it … But he thought today’s tribulations signaled the end times … and he wasn’t happy with me—Sir.” Dusty mopped a salute off his brow.
Ignoring both the Lieutenant and Wade, Dusty steadied himself against the pitch of the launch and rose to his feet. He licked the salt spray off his lips and muttered a few words before the remainder became distinct. “… end times. Dad saw tribulation at Pork Chop Hill while the generals sipped tea with the commies, he said. I’m gonna fix that.”
Wade noticed that the Lieutenant had long since stopped listening once he was satisfied that Dusty was as clear-headed as a Navy cook could be. All three took stock of the pitch of the RV Erline alongside the quay as the water rose and fell as harbinger of the approaching storm surges. One of Wade’s people waved from the lead Jeep as a signal to them they had finished loading and were ready to head up to the Naval Facility.
With firmer steps, Dusty was the first to move toward the gang plank. “Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Erline departing.” None of the Bermudian crew rushed to man the rails nor to pipe him across the brow, but Dusty moved with slow pride in his celebration of surviving the transit from Argus Island.
Wade smiled at Dusty’s mocking swipe at the Lieutenant’s dignity when he ceremoniously promoted himself to captain of the launch. Dusty must have practiced this and other veiled rebellions at home, playing out his last trump card of dad signing the papers before he ran away to sea. Wade hoped this young boot could find his bearing before his next career move.
That thought slapped him back as if he were Dusty’s twin.
His own career path had consisted of two year enlistments where he had each time re-enlisted late in the second of the two years. It was a safe move if he ever wanted to bail out quick. It was a poor move if he ever wanted to advance in a career.
Dusty’s father had Pork Chop Hill to suffer through every evening with the five o’clock news from CBS. There, they reported fighting for anonymous hills of no strategic value. Wade had never heard Dad speak of battle. War was uttered, in diplomatic language, certainly; but never in the husky vulgar speech of battle Wade had become hardened to.
Unlike Dusty’s father, Wade’s father had clout that allowed him to park Wade at a desk in the hallowed halls of the State Department. With that dubious appointment, he understood Dusty’s end of days anxiety as himself being stuck in a soul numbing office. What he didn’t understand was that, suddenly, Dusty’s foot seemed to be set on the path to redemption.
Unlike Dusty’s sense of mission, Wade remained at a loss to outflank traditional career paths. None could lead meaningfully towards saving Michael. The greater danger of his strategy was finding him slowly entombed in a service career through passivity.
His seeming indifference gave his anemic manager at ONI the fits about giving him deeper assignments. That bloodless old man was stepping aside so a new manager might better handle his trust fund baby.