- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
The Passageby David Poyer
THE gull gray hull towered up suddenly a mile from the sea, its main deck rising two stories above the sluggish eddies of the East Pascagoula. The squared-off, high-volume superstructure went up another fifty feet, topped by two rectangular stacks with screened intakes and cooling baffles. An echelon of pelicans slanted past the forward mast tip, 140 feet above the river.
It looked like a warship, but it wasn't--not yet.
Alone on the bridge, a thin, bearded man with gray eyes glanced at his watch, then at a walkie-talkie. He wore service dress whites, with choker collar, sword, and gloves.
Propping a shoe on a cable run, Lieutenant Daniel V. Lenson, U.S. Navy, looked down at the paved area inboard of the quay.
Half an hour to go, and the bunting-draped grandstands were filling. Above them, the flags of the United States, the U. S. Navy, the state of Mississippi, and Ingalls Shipbuilding stirred in a warm wind. On a raised dais, a technician chanted, "Testing, testing." Below her, men in work clothes pushed brooms past TV vans, sending welding grit and paint chips sifting down into the muddy water.
Aft of the stands, the white-hatted mass of USS Barrett's prospective crew was shuffling itself into order like a pack of new cards. Dan didn't envy them, broiling down there on the asphalt. It would be a long ceremony. Politicians and flag officers loved commissionings. No better way to get your name in the papers.
He stretched, rubbing his shoulder, and glanced at the radio again. Then he strolled forward and looked down at the ship.
Barrett was at attention for her first day in the Navy, launchers and guns aligned fore and aft, brightwork polished to a jeweler's glitter. Every flag she owned, a two-hundred-yard display of fluttering color, stretched from the bullnose aloft to the masts, then aft to the stern.
With a teeth-rattling crash, the band swung into Sousa, selections from El Capitan. Dan picked up a set of binoculars and undogged the starboard door. The thud ... thud ... thud of the drums echoed back seconds later from across the river, out of joint, out of step, as if two bands were playing, one real and true and the other false, counterfeit, always somehow lacking or lagging behind.
As he stepped out on the river side, the wind snatched his hat off. He lunged and caught it at the deck edge, just before the long drop to oily water, where anhingas bobbed like dirty bath toys. He jammed the cap viciously onto sandy brown hair, set the glasses to his eyes, and searched up and down the channel.
The shipyard surrounded him, lining both sides of the torpid estuary with an industrial ghetto of docks and plate yards and construction sheds. On the east bank, steel towers rose like rusty castles: jack-up rigs being built for offshore drilling. They'd delivered one last week. Without much ceremony, Dan thought. Just flood the dock and off it went downriver behind a tug.
The Navy did things differently.
The channel was clear except for a barge anchored upriver, where the Pascagoula moseyed east before wheeling south, oozing past the yard and surrendering to the Gulf of Mexico. He swung the round magnified field of the glasses past welding generators, stacks of steel plate, coils of cable, and mobile test equipment and steadied on Port Road.
The radio babbled into speech. "Bridge, XO."
"Dan, keep a sharp eye now. Just got a call from the ship supe's office. The official party's en route."
"Yes, sir, I have my glasses on the gate. Stand by--here they come."
The sedans and limos rolled in like a funeral cortege, headlights on. Marines snapped to present arms as aides and chauffeurs opened doors. A saluting battery detonated dully across flat water. Amid handshakes and salutes, gold braid and gray suits searched for their seats. A frail woman with bouffant blue hair teetered at the edge of the dais and was hauled back by an usher.
The band crashed to a halt. The crowd quieted for the invocation. Dan stepped back inside the pilothouse. He didn't bend his head or close his eyes. He stared out at the river, then beyond it at the milled-steel edge of the open sea.
DAN had joined Barrett two days before, his third duty assignment. His first tour out of Annapolis had been aboard USS Reynolds Ryan. After the court of inquiry following her loss in the NorthAtlantic, he'd finished his division officer tour aboard Bowen, a Knox-class frigate, then reported to Commander, Amphibious Squadron Ten, for deployment to the Mediterranean.
With his fitness reports from Commodore Isaac Sundstrom added to the letter of admonition for Ryan's loss, he'd been surprised to make lieutenant. But he knew why. After Vietnam, the officer corps had decimated itself in a mad rush to leave a shrinking Navy. Now that the fleet was building up again, there were billets galore, but not many bodies to fill them.
Not that he was due anything wonderful. His detailer had explained that he could forget the good jobs--cruisers, destroyers, and the flag aide billets and postgraduate schools the golden few were picking up. He was headed for a tender or an oiler, the bottom of the surface Navy's pecking order.
He'd thought about whether it might not be better just to get out. But the trouble was, there wasn't anything else he wanted to do.
He decided to give it his best shot and see what happened. After his wife left him, he'd sold the furniture, hauled the leftovers to the dump, and moved into the Bachelor Officers' Quarters. Transient personnel got a twelve-by-twelve room with a dresser, desk, and bed. He didn't feel like dating. So he stayed in nights and weekends and plunged into his textbooks like a man leaping into the sea from a burning ship.
Department-head school was six months long. First came administration, then antisubmarine, antiair, and antisurface warfare, then tactical action officer training--four weeks of high-pressure memorization and drill in handling a ship in combat.
But halfway through, a funny thing happened. His midcourse grade put him in the top 10 percent of the class. The day after that, the school's commanding officer called him in. They talked for a while about what kind of ship he really wanted. Then Captain Chandler had pointed to his phone. "Call your detailer, Lieutenant. I believe he has something to discuss with you."
Lieutenant Commander Veeder had the clipped glibness of a man who spent eight hours a day on the phone talking people into things. He said he had an unexpected opening aboard a Kidd-class destroyer. Dan said, buying time, "That's one of the Iranian Spruances, right?"
"Same hull as a Spruance-class, but the Shah wanted more bang for his buck. The beauty is, it has cruiser weapons, but you don't have to deal with the fucking nukies. With that weapons suite, it's a second-tour department-head job."
Dan stroked his beard as he tried to figure out whether this was a good deal or a trap. Lieutenants did two eighteen-month tours as department heads. The first was on a simple, technically less demandingship, a frigate or auxiliary. The second tour you fleeted up to a bigger ship, with more complex weapons and systems.
He said cautiously, "You're considering me for a Kidd? What job?"
"Weapons officer. Combat systems, they call it now. I know we were talking a gator freighter or oiler, but when this opened up and I called Chandler for a recommendation, you were the highestranking guy with the lowest-ranking expectations."
"Where is it?"
"USS Barrett, DDG nine-ninety-eight. Commission in Pascagoula, home port in Charleston. Beautiful city. Sue'll love it."
"Isn't that your wife's name?"
"She goes by Betts. Anyway, we're divorced. What happened to the regularly scheduled guy?"
"Divorced? Sorry ... . What happened was, he fell off the brow. The ship was in dry dock, fixing seals on the sonar dome, and he went sixty feet down and splattered himself over the concrete ... . Before you answer, uh, downside: Trying to learn all the systems while they're in predeployment work-up, it's gonna be easy to fall on your sword. Hear what I'm saying? You don't wanna sweat blood, work thirty hours a day, say no and I'll send you to an oiler."
"I hear you, sir."
"Be make or break careerwise, but I figured you might go for a gamble ... . We'll cut you two-week orders to Weapons Direction System school. That'll get you to Pascagoula for the commissioning. Okay, you talk now. Want it or not?"
Dan remembered how he'd gone quiet inside. He looked across the desk at Chandler. The old man was watching him, eyes narrowed.
"Yes, sir," he'd told Veeder. "Thanks for the chance. I want it, and I'll give it everything I've got."
THE wind changed, carrying the public-address system up to him more clearly, and he came back to the present. One of the suits from the shipyard was speaking.
"We are here today to deliver the last of five ships built under a contract awarded six years ago. Originally, these were not intended as U.S. Navy ships at all. Under the military sales program, the Kouroosh-class destroyers were to be built to U.S. standards, equipped with U.S. weaponry and sensors, and sold to the Imperial Iranian Navy. Ironically enough, all the Spruance-class destroyers were originally intended to be armed as heavily as these ships are. Due to cost considerations, however, the U.S. units were cut backto one short-range missile launcher apiece, and many other items were deleted.
"But events supervened. The lead ship was nearing delivery when revolution broke out in Iran. Following the new government's demonstrated hostility to America, Congress and the President authorized purchase of all five destroyers to fulfill the Navy's requirement for increased general-warfare capability.
"The basic Spruance-class hull and propulsion, already proven in fleet service, will provide Barrett with speed, maneuverability, and extremely quiet mobility. She is powered by four General Electric gas turbines, the same engines used in commercial airliners. Their eighty thousand horsepower can drive the ship in excess of thirty knots. Her weapons include five-inch guns, triple-barrel torpedo launchers, Harpoon surface-to-surface missile launchers, Phalanx close-in guns, and fore and aft twin launchers capable of firing surface-to-air and antisubmarine missiles. The ship is equipped with highly capable sonar, radar, and a remarkable new weapons-control suite ... ."
DAN stared down at the audience--at the female guests, at the wives and girlfriends and mothers. Wind rippled their dresses, contrasting with suits and uniforms.
His white-gloved hand struck steel.
Betts and Nan had been taken hostage when he was in the Med. She'd done what she'd thought she had to to protect their daughter. After her release, they'd seen a chaplain; talked it out; cried over it. And for a while, he'd thought it was over and that their marriage was stronger for it.
He'd only slowly realized something else was wrong. She subscribed to feminist magazines, then joined a group. The more meetings she went to, the angrier she got. It seemed to him they were designed to make women unhappy with men and marriage. He'd tried to explain that to her, but she'd turned on him, angrier than he'd ever seen her.
He'd fought to keep her, tried to become what her magazines said a man should be like. He didn't object when she went out or ask where she'd been. But it didn't seem to work. Somewhere in there, the sex had stopped, too. Then one day, she gave him a choice. He was gone too often; it wasn't what she'd had in mind when she married him; either he left the Navy or she was leaving him.
It hadn't been an easy decision. But if it was that kind of choice, he'd lost her already. They'd had five years--not long by civilian terms, but a good run for a Navy marriage.
He'd come back from a two-week underway period to find the apartment empty. The note said she and Nan were going back to her parents till she decided where to live. She'd left his things, half the furniture, and the new vacuum was still in the hall closet.
He'd gone out and gotten a fifth of scotch, then sat on the floor, holding an old pair of her jeans and an old, outgrown set of Nan's jumpers, and cried. He drank till it didn't hurt anymore, till he felt nothing at all.
That had been months ago. He didn't miss his ex-wife now. In fact, he felt angry whenever he thought of her. But he missed his daughter, missed the little stocky body cuddled against his chest; the way her skin smelled, like sugar and butter; the way she saw the world new and fresh and told you about it, all excited, in ways that made you laugh and at the same time see it new again, too. When he thought about her, he had to stop or go somewhere so the men around him couldn't see. He missed feeding her and even changing her diapers, though she was long out of them now. He called every Sunday to talk to her, sent things on her birthday and at Christmas, but already he could hear forgetting in her voice. Who could blame her? She had so much to think about, school, new friends ... .
Yeah. He'd drunk himself into oblivion that first night, and a lot of nights after, too.
He couldn't understand, even now, how anyone could stop loving someone else. But apparently women could. Women ... No matter what you did, they wanted more. They wanted you to devote your life to them, change for them. But if you did, they turned away in disgust; you were weak.
Since the divorce, he'd decided he didn't need anything from women he couldn't get in one night.
All is for the best. Wasn't that what Alan Evlin had told him as Reynolds Ryan fought thirty-foot Arctic seas, the old destroyer foredoomed to a fiery death, and Evlin doomed with her?
Fucking Ay, Dan thought bitterly. Like Seaman Recruit Slick Lassard used to say on the old Ryan.
Fucking Ay, it is.
AN admiral was speaking now. Which one, he didn't know, or care.
"The commissioning ceremony marks the acceptance of a ship as a unit of the operating forces of the United States Navy. At the moment of breaking the commissioning pennant, USS Barrett, DDG nine-ninety-eight, becomes the responsibility of her commanding officer. Together with the wardroom and crew, he has theduty of making and keeping her ready for any service required by our nation in peace or war.
"The first USS Barrett was a response to the worldwide catastrophe of World War Two. Named for one of the first Navy men to fall at Pearl Harbor, she fought throughout the war in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and in the closing campaigns in the Pacific. We are delighted to welcome several of her old crew here today.
"These, too, are dark years. We stand guard against a determined enemy around the world. Just as we stand guard against another, more ancient enemy: the sea itself. No matter how advanced our technology, going to sea is an inherently dangerous venture. Today, in the North Pacific, Navy units are searching for another ship--USS Threadfin, a nuclear submarine overdue and presumed lost on a routine training cruise. Let us pause for a moment, thinking of them, and pray that the news will be good.
"The newest Barrett, built to face and outlast any sea and any enemy, is a symbol of the resurgence of America, of her return to the world scene after years of withdrawal.
"Not long ago, the Navy was in trouble. The mood of discontent was reflected in the fleet's decline to a low of two hundred and eighty-nine ships. By wide agreement, this number was inadequate to fulfill our commitments in two oceans. And with recent events in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean has been added to our responsibilities.
"Today the Navy is coming back strong. We now number five hundred and forty total ships in the operating forces, and the fleet will stabilize at six hundred, centered around a powerful striking force of fourteen carriers. Barrett, with her ability to counter enemy attacks in every dimension, will be a stout shield to the battle group she is designed to defend.
"The ship we are commissioning today is the most formidable warship of her size ever to patrol the oceans. She blends the hull of a destroyer with the combat systems of a nuclear cruiser. The result is unique: a ship so quiet, she can operate offensively against submarines; the most sophisticated antiaircraft systems in the fleet, quick-reacting and highly accurate; and a deadly antiship weapons capability, as well. Able to deal simultaneously with air, surface, and subsurface attacks, she is designed to go in harm's way--and win.
"But even that does not completely describe her. Barrett is the first ship to incorporate a new automated combat direction system. So new that even its capabilities must be classified, it is truly a tremendous step toward the warship of the twenty-first century."
DAN'S gaze moved to the faces in ranks below--his new shipmates: his division officers; the other department heads, his peers aboard Barrett; the chiefs and senior enlisted; the sailors, rank on rank. At parade rest in front stood the exec, Lieutenant Commander Vysotsky. Weird, he thought, having an XO with a Russian name.
He shifted his eyes to the dais. Behind the admiral, legs crossed, hands folded on the pommel of his sword, sat the slight, relaxed figure of Commander Thomas R. Leighty, USN, Barrett's prospective commanding officer. Dan had met him only once so far, not long enough to form much of an impression.
He crossed to the starboard wing and swept his glasses up and down the channel again. The barge was still anchored. A crew boat was coming in, hugging the east bank. Satisfied, he looked into the sun, welcoming its warmth after a bitter Rhode Island winter. It seemed like a pleasant place, the Gulf Coast, but they'd be leaving right after the commissioning.
That was one thing you could count on in the Navy: You never served with anyone or went ashore anywhere for the last time. How many of the wizened geezers down there on the dais had figured they'd be back forty years after the big WW II, commissioning another USS Barrett?
WHEN he went back to the port wing, the senator was speaking, his tones booming out over the audience even when he turned away from the mike. He was saying something about how the Navy, and the nation, faced a critical time in world history. Dan watched the crew flexing their knees surreptitiously. Now the senator was off on how they stood at a crossroads of world events; how if America could stand up to this last pulse of Soviet expansionism, it might be the last gasp of the Evil Empire; but how the last innings were always the most dangerous, and the other team might still come from behind and win.
There was a stir in the ranks as someone toppled, buddies on either side catching and easing him down, corpsmen carrying him off to the ambulance.
At last, with a scattering of polite applause, the speeches ended. Everyone on the platform stood. The officers and men came to attention.
The supervisor of shipbuilding read the orders for the delivery. The dry official words bounced off steel and reverberated in expectant silence. The shipbuilder, in sentences just as arid, turned her over to the Navy.
The admiral turned to Leighty, and said quietly, "Commission USS Barrett."
The bugler sounded attention. Eyes swung as flags broke snapping against the sky: the national ensign, the red-and-white whip of the commissioning pennant, and, on the bow, the white stars on dark blue field of the jack.
Leighty strolled to the dais. He slowly unfolded his orders and read them. Finally, he faced the admiral. "I assume command of USS Barrett, sir."
A salute, a handshake, then Leighty barked, "Commander Vysotsky, set the watch."
A dozen boatswains' pipes keened and, simultaneously, the whiteuniformed ranks broke into a run. Boots clattered on steel. As each sailor reached the main deck, he broke left or right. The chiefs followed, slower, heavier of foot, and then the officers. When the thunder finally subsided, 350 men stood at parade rest along the main deck, the flight deck, the 03 level, the bridge wing. Leighty paused at the microphone, running an eye along them, before he announced, spacing the words dramatically, "USS Barrett--come alive!"
And together, all the train warning bells began to ring, the horn droned out a deep note, the radars began to rotate. Missile mounts elevated, signal flags leapt up their halyards, and every light came on from the stern to the man overboard and task lights high on the pole mast. The audience broke into applause.
THAT was the high point. After the benediction, the stands emptied; the limousines swung in again, embarking the guests for the reception. Dan wiped out his hatband with a glove. "Okay, that's it," he told the enlisted. "You guys want to go over to the tent, punch and cake yourselves, make your bird. You can knock off from there, unless you're in the duty section. See you tomorrow."
"Not coming, sir?"
"Think I'll stay aboard, get some reading in on the combat systems doctrine."
A kid who looked about eighteen lingered shyly. He said, "Guess we got us a ship now, Lieutenant, huh?"
"Yeah, Sanderling. A brand-new one."
He watched the technician look around proudly. Being part of a ship's first crew, a "plank owner," was a title a sailor carried all his life--like the old men who'd put the first Barrett in commission when the skies were dark with war. Funny how he kept thinking of them. Had they ever been as young as Sanderling, as trusting, as thrilled, as dumb?
He grinned to himself, amused but also bitter. He'd been like that once himself.
The buzz of the A-phone brought him back. "Bridge, Lieutenant Lenson," he said into it.
"Dan, this is the XO. I've been looking over this inventory, what you came up with versus what Sipple signed off for before his accident. Are you sure these figures are right?"
"The chief warrant and I counted everything twice, sir."
"Well, I got some questions. Can you come down to my stateroom?"
"Yes, sir," he said. "I'll be right down."
THE PASSAGE. Copyright © 1995 by David Poyer. Map copyright © 1995 by Mark Stein. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like