Frank walked into the Chief’s Mess and poured a cup of coffee. He was early. He passed the time thumbing through the latest issue of Stars and Stripes. Punctual as always, the command master chief walked in as the clock struck the top of the hour. He greeted Frank and refilled his coffee cup. They made small talk for a few minutes before the master chief ushered Frank into his office.
“Welcome back, Frank. How are you holding up? Anything I can do for you?” Skip motioned Frank to a seat.
“No. I’m doing great now that I’m back in civilization. It just feels good to be out of that hell hole, even for a few days.”
“Well, I won’t ask you for details – we know all about it here – but I’m glad you and the others are safe.”
“Thanks Skip. By the way, Otis, Sam, and Jim are in admin; I’ll have them hang around if you’d like to see them.”
“Do that. I won’t take up too much of their time. I’m sure they’re anxious to get out of here and head into town. What about you? Do you still plan to help out in the Barrio today?”
Frank settled back into his seat and sipped his coffee. He felt fully relaxed for the first time in weeks. “I do. I’m helping the Chaplain load supplies before we head for the orphanage. George Franklin will be there. Are you coming?”
“Well, I’d hoped to, but I have too much to do here. I have to attend a change of command committee meeting this afternoon.”
“I had forgotten about the change of command: when is it?”
“Too bad, I’ll be back in ‘Nam. I would like to say goodbye to the Skipper, though.”
“You’ll be here, Frank.”
“You’ll be here. We’re not sending you back to the Chicken Ranch. We have so many detachments gone we need you here; we’re spread pretty thin. Chief Rodgers will remain at the Ranch for the duration of deployment. Did you leave anything you can’t do without?”
The Master Chief peered closely at Frank. “You’re not disappointed are you?”
“No. Not at all. I’m relieved in a way.” Frank paused, not sure he wanted to speak his mind. He went on. “Skip, I thought for sure I was going to die in the attack. There’s been a feeling of doom hanging over me since before the attack began. I can’t shake it, Skip. I just can’t shake it.”
“Well. You’re safe here, Frank. Most people get that feeling once in a while. I had it when I was in ‘Nam in ’65. I wrote my wife and folks and gave the letters to the Chaplain to mail if I didn’t make it. I still have the letters.”
The door opened and Commander Stephens, the executive officer, stuck his head in. “Chief. Great to have you back. I hear you’re staying here for the duration. Excellent. Excellent. I’m heading to Guam for a few days, but I want to chat with you when I return. Anything I can do for you?”
Frank stood when he saw the XO. They had served together in an earlier command and knew each other well. “No, sir. I’m doing fine. It’s good to see you. I’ll stop by as soon as I know you’re back from Guam, sir. How’s Louise? Tell her I said hello.”
“She’s doing just great, Frank. Just great. The kids too. Just great. I’ll tell her that. Hey, make sure you do stop by when I get back. See you later. See you, Master Chief.”
He ducked out and closed the door. Frank shook his head and said “We never knew if he’d make it past Lieutenant. Not many junior officers can raise the kind of hell he did and still select for command.”
Skip laughed. “Every now and then, someone else who served with him says the same thing. He must have been some character. He’s a solid leader now, though, whatever he did in his youth.”
“He’s come a long way. It’s going to be a pleasure seeing him assume command of the squadron.”
“Frank, I’d keep you here instead of sending you back to turnover and collect your gear, but you need to turnover with Chief Rodgers. You do have stuff back there, don’t you?”
“Yes. Most of my seabag, since I expected to spend all six months there. I only brought enough civilian clothes for this trip, and just one working uniform. All I have here are some books and old khakis. What about Jim, Otis and Sam? Are they staying?”
“Only Sam. Otis and Jim will finish deployment back at the Ranch; they’ll return as scheduled. We want to groom Sam for other duties, leadership duties. I know you two are close, so Sam will be yours to mentor for the duration of deployment.”
“I like that. I’ve been mentoring him since I made Chief, helping him study, making him shave,” he said with emphasis and a smile, “and making sure he polishes his boots. He’ll love me more now that it’s official.”
Master Chief Underwood laughed. “I’m sure he will. With his score on the Chief’s exam, and his performance marks, he has the best shot of anyone at promoting to Chief this year. He can use the experience managing maintenance. You’ve been running the Ranch since we deployed and you need a break. It won’t hurt Chief Rodgers to get some solo leadership time under his belt either.”
“Does he know he’s taking my place?”
“We told him yesterday. He’s happy about it, and he’s ready. He’s done a great job since making Chief last year, and he’s earned a chance to lead a team on his own. The XO likes the idea too. Come to think of it, Sam also needs to go back to collect his gear. You can work out the details with Howie – Master Chief Howard – and the Operations Senior Chief. By the way, did you meet Senior Chief Kelly at the Chiefs meeting?”
“I did. Why do you ask?”
“I just got off the phone with his detailer. The Senior Chief is checking in next week. His current command is top heavy with Chiefs, so the CO is sending him here to finish out his sea tour; we can use him. He’ll be running ops but he won’t be flying. George doesn’t know yet so I’m going to walk over and let him know. You know what the Senior Chief’s story is?”
“Yeah. George filled me in last night. Too bad what happened to him.” Frank leaned forward. He rubbed the coffee mug with his fingers. He had managed to let his guard down and his quick temper get the best of him with the Senior Chief. Now he would be working with him. “He doesn’t seem to have much respect for others, especially locals, and he called me out as a Flip lover. That didn’t bother me, but Chief Magalapa was sitting right there and had to listen to the whole thing. Finally, George told the Senior Chief to stow it and show some respect. That calmed things down.”
“Senior Chief Kelly has sixteen months left on his sea tour; that’s plenty of time for him to learn some respect. That’s plenty of time for him to earn his own self-respect back, too. I’ve spoken to the XO and we’ve decided to send the Senior Chief to counseling to help with his grief and anger issues. His accident was tragic and traumatic, but his career is finished if he doesn’t get help.” Master Chief Underwood sipped from his coffee cup and set it down. “We’ll do what we can to help, but it’s up to him to try.
“Well, I have to go, Frank. It’s good to see you again. Enjoy your time off and relax. Spend a few days on Grande Island or, better yet, go to Baguio. The fresh air will clear your head.”
Frank straightened his trouser legs as he rose and picked up a copy of the flight schedule. “Thanks, Skip. Maybe I will. By the way, where will I be working, maintenance control?”
“Yes. Master Chief Howard said it would be a good move all around. He’ll be back tomorrow to get you situated. It’s almost nine o’clock. You’d better head over to the Chaplain’s office; you don’t want to be late. Tell Otis and Jim to see me before they leave; I want to see how they’re doing. I’ll talk to Sam later. Have a good time today.”
“Thanks, Skip. I will.”
The two Sailors shook hands and Frank walked out of the CMC’s office and into the Admin office next door.
The Personnelman stood and smiled when Frank walked into the office.
“Hey, Chief. Welcome back. It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Petty Officer Angelis. Where are Sam, Jim, and Otis?”
“They just left for the coffee mess, but they’ll be right back. They have more paperwork to fill out before they’re free for the day. I hear you’re staying back, Chief. That’s a good thing. We need you on the softball team. The Marines are killing us.”
“Count me in. When is the next game?”
“Friday. Will you make it?”
“I should. I’ll let you know for sure as soon as I talk to Master Chief Howard. I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, Chief. See ya.”
Frank walked upstairs to the coffee mess, grabbed Sam, and told Otis and Jim to see the CMC before he left for the day. He smiled at Tess, the cashier, who smiled back.
“Hello, Frank. It’s so nice to see you again. Are you back?”
“In person, Tess. I just got the word from Skip. I’ll be back for the rest of the deployment.”
“Oh, good. Maybe we have a drink at the club later?”
“Not today. I’ll be in the Barrio all day. I’m not sure what time I’ll be back.”
“Oh, you make me so sad, Frank. I think you don’t love me.”
Frank winked at the honey-skinned beauty. “You always turn me down, Tess. Bye.”
Tess tilted her head and smiled beneath long lashes. “Okay, bye-bye, honey ko.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Frank and Sam left through the hangar bay and walked up the street to the bus stop. They were too late: the bus had just pulled away. They decided to walk up the hill toward the main part of the base, ‘downtown’ as Sailors called it, where the Quarterdeck, or headquarters, medical dispensary, barbershop, chapel, and other buildings were located.
They kept a wary eye on spider monkeys watching them from across the road. No good ever came from eyeballing the monkeys; they were likely to throw rocks or sticks at anyone making eye contact or otherwise harassing them. Confrontations were rare, but Sailors and Marines had a penchant for getting into trouble, particularly after a night at the club. Monkeys had big fangs and bit hard.
The heat made the walk uphill strenuous, and the humidity made it about three sweat drops away from a full rain, but they waved away several taxis that beeped at them for fares. The walk would give them time to talk.
Their friendship had deepened over the two years they served together in the squadron. Frank comforted Sam when his wife died giving birth to their son. Her loss affected Sam deeply, coming so soon after the deaths of his parents the year prior. He had gone home on emergency leave to bury Susanna. He had also given up their son for adoption to a childless couple. He didn’t feel he could care for the boy properly as a single parent, and didn’t want to orphan the boy if he died in Vietnam. Frank wondered if he wasn’t afraid of the boy constantly reminding him of Susanna. He had never seen two people fall more deeply in love so quickly. Sam also had no desire to return to the bad memories back home in the states, and determined to remain overseas as long as the war lasted; he hoped he could take the place of another Sailor. Since then, they had spent most of their time-off together. Serving in Vietnam only brought them closer.
They talked together while walking to the Chapel. Sam mentioned his happiness at hearing he would be staying back with Frank rather than returning to the Chicken Ranch.
“If you had anything to do with me staying back, I sure do appreciate it. I don’t mind staying in ‘Nam, but I need the desk time back here if I’m ever going to make Chief.”
“It was the Master Chiefs’ doing. They want you to work the desk and get some experience managing aircraft maintenance. I’m your mentor,” Frank added with a smile. “Besides, I had a bad feeling about Vietnam, Sam. I didn’t think I was going to survive the attack.”
Sam looked at him curiously and said, “You? You’re indestructible. It would take more than one bullet to do you in. I think you have a great guardian angel, so count your blessings. And don’t make him work overtime,” he added.
Frank stooped to pick up a rock from the road. “I hope you’re right. I wish I felt as confident as you do.” He wound up and threw the rock as far into the jungle as he could. A flurry of thrashing noises rose from the jungle and several birds flew away from them complaining at the disruption.
“I hope you’re right. Some mentor, aren’t I, worried about dying?”
Sam winked at him. “Don’t worry. You’ll be a great mentor. We’ve only worked together for what, six years now? I should know everything you know by now.”
“You do. Pure luck made me a Chief first. Had you been ranked number one instead of number two, you’d probably be wearing the anchors instead of me. That, plus the fact that I have one more year in the Navy than you. We’ve had all the same schools, the same types of duty, and the same jobs. All you need to do is find some way to magically grow an extra year of service to match mine and you’re golden!”
“No kidding. Now, if only the selection board will see it my way.”
“They will. Although, you never know what specifics the board looks at from year to year. Ah, don’t worry, you’ll be selected and go through initiation, get pinned, and buy me the first beer at your wetting-down party.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident.”
“I have reason to be: I trained you,” Frank said, grinning broadly.
“Come on. I’ll race you to the top.”
“Hey, no fair; you started running before you finished talking!” Sam was a runner and fast. He laughed as he gained and passed Frank.
Chaplain Christopher Michael was working in his flowerbed when they arrived. Frank called out to him.
“Hey, Chaps, are you pulling weeds or planting them?”
The Chaplain stood and wiped his hands as Frank and Sam approached. They both grinned broadly. It was impossible not to grin at the good-natured chaplain and his round face, a face made for smiling.
“Why, hello Frank, hello Sam,” he said smiling, “You know what they say: when weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to gently tug on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant. It’s pretty tough keeping the jungle at bay. Last week I found a python hiding in the shrubbery. Yesterday, a monitor lizard decided to sun itself next to the rectory. I draw the line at cobras for neighbors, though.”
He looked from one to the other. “Welcome back, my friends. Welcome back. I’m happy to see you both safe and sound.” He shook their hands and said, “I lit a candle and said a prayer for all of you when I heard about the firefight.” I’m so sorry for the casualties.”
“Thank you for the prayers, Chaplain. Only three casualties – it could have been much worse.”
“Yes, it usually is. I understand shock was the intention behind the attack rather than significant victory.”
“Yes, that’s what we heard. They certainly succeeded.”
“Well, let’s pray this war ends sooner than later; I’ve presided over far too many memorial services and sent far too many bodies home to family.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Chaplain.” Silence for a moment before Frank changed the subject. “Do we have a truck for the supplies?”
“Why, yes we do. The Seabees kindly loaned me two stake trucks from their motor pool. One left for the orphanage earlier, along with a bus carrying the rest of the volunteers. They parked the other behind the chapel for me. Come, we’ll head over to public works. Oh, let me change these clothes first.”
The Chaplain disappeared for a few minutes before reappearing wearing short canvas trousers and a t-shirt. “You’ll forgive me for appearing like this; shorts are much cooler and more comfortable than long pants in this heat.”
“No problem, Chaplain,” Frank said. “We need to change as well. Would you mind if we swing by our barracks on the way?”
“Of course not. By the way, will Master Chief Franklin be coming with us?”
“Yes. He said he’d meet us at public works.”
“Good. He’s always such a pleasure to have around, and the kids love him. They call him Goody-Goody.”
Frank cocked an eyebrow and wondered why the kids at the orphanage would call George Goody-Goody. Coincidence? That would be a stretch. Maybe they had heard it from someone who worked at Maricel’s, one of the barmaids. Were any of the barmaids orphans? They reached the truck and climbed in; Sam had volunteered to drive.
Sam looked around to make sure Frank and the Chaplain fastened their seatbelts. “Ready, fellas?”