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Chip Morton's Journal

Motorcycle Rag


Noise. I should be used to it. But after Riley had introduced,  singing and strumming, something called the Motorcycle Rag, I’d had enough, especially when the catchy little tune started to be hummed on the boat by most of the crew. But since the boss was humming it as well, well, what could I do? It’s one thing to tell the men that singing (or humming) wasn’t allowed on watch, it was quite another to tell Nelson what he could or could not do on his own submarine.

But I also noticed that Lee seemed to wince every time  he heard it. Now, I knew he didn’t like the younger generation’s music much, but this little ditty was a kind of mix between old fashioned rag time and country western. So it couldn’t have been the melody. Or the lyrics, as there weren’t any.

But he had also been starting to wince whenever Sparks handed him a message, which by the time we neared Santa Barbara, probably numbered over ten. At first I wondered, like everyone else on duty in the Control Room what it was. And Sparks, when pestered, claimed they were confidential so he was of no use to solve the mystery. But since Lee didn’t issue battle stations or seek out Nelson during the entire cruise regarding them , well, it couldn’t be detrimental to Seaview.

Lee had been with us for little more than  a year and while I’d learned most of his mannerisms, after all, it was my duty as the XO to gauge a potential storm,  there were a few I hadn’t been able to figure out. Especially  his eyes.  And they were, and are, certainly weird. Chameleon I guess you’d say. Sometimes I could swear they changed color with his moods, but the colors were never the same for the same mood! Then other times, they stayed the same greenish brown hazel even when he was in some kind of rip snorting altercation with Nelson. (They’ve had more than a few of those but after a while we’d learned to ignore them-well, most of them. Some of their yelling matches have  found their way into a distinct ‘Admiral’ vs. ‘Captain’ battle of wills. And the Captain, being the Captain, either backs down to Nelson’s superior rank and ownership of the boat, or he completely ignores those facts  and exercises  his right as Captain to do as he damn well pleases. But I digress.

It was just after Lee had received yet another message that he actually groaned.

“Do you want me to send a reply, sir?” Sparks asked.

“No,” Crane sighed, “just send a confirmation of delivery, like all the others.”

“Aye sir.”

“Skipper?” I approached and pulled him aside, “you okay?”

“I’m fine, Chip. How soon before we reach the harbor?”

“About a half hour.”

“Send Kowalski to my cabin as soon as you have the crew stand down. I have a special assignment for him.”

“Special Assignment?” I gulped. We’d learned early on that our Skipper was a bone fide field agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence, something nobody but nobody appreciated, except maybe him. He was supposed to be a sub driver, not  James Bond. For some reason he must like skulking around in jungles and getting shot at in Siberia, etc. But ours was not to wonder why, so I said, (it’s my sacred duty to remind him of any potential harm to Seaview and/or working for the Agency),   “Sir, Ski’s not a qualified agent.”

What?” Lee asked, bemused, his eyes doing that chameleon thing again.

“With all due respect Captain, he’s not a qualified spook, sir.”

Lee shook his head, and grinned, placing a firm hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay Mr. Morton. This time, he doesn’t have to be. Have him come to my cabin as soon as possible.”

It was the longest half hour I’d ever had waiting for Seaview to pull into the sub pen and release the crew from duty, along with Kowalski to his cabin. A more nervous crewman I’d never seen. He’d  become rather fond of the Captain since his initial distaste, and Crane seemed to favor him as a dive buddy.  But a Special Assignment? Ski looked like he was being summoned to the principal’s office or traffic court. (He had a few too many speeding violations and it took the combined pleading from the Chief, and myself there to return his driver’s license.)

The boat was pretty deserted by the time Ski reported to me to be dismissed from the boat as I had to check him off on my clipboard. It was difficult not to notice  that he was dressed in Crane’s black jeans, black turtleneck, and heavy steel tipped combat boots of all things. (The crew called the ensemble the Skipper’s Spook Uniform.)

“Kowalski,” I extended my hand, “Good luck.”

“Come back safely,” Nelson, who’d already come forward, added.

“Well, I’ll try, sir’s,” our loyal crewman  picked up his duffle and headed up the ladder.

“You have any idea what the mission is?” Nelson asked me.

“Zero, ziltch, and Lee’s taking it way too lightly. I’d never think he’d have the gaul to assign one of his own crew…” I said, disgusted.

“I’m a bit surprised myself. Well, maybe he had no choice. Remember that. He has to take orders from ONI too.”

“Yeah…well, I thought they’d said they’d keep their paws off him for a while.”

“I guess their version of awhile is different from ours. Sign me out, son.”

“Aye sir,” I initialed his name and in minutes I was all alone except for Lee. Damn, I needed a drink. 

It wasn’t all that much later when Crane  came in through the aft hatch, in blue denim shirt and black jeans  along with of all things, a blue suit jacket! He was  freshly shaved, and his hair combed with slick to help keep the little curls he complained he was cursed with down. Yes, picture perfect. What the devil was going on? I was about to ask him when his eyes dared me to say something. So not wanting to risk getting my head bit off,( I was getting used to that but I didn’t have to like it) I simply initialed him off on my board, gave it to him, and he initialed me and returned the clipboard to its slot under the plot table. Someone from Admin would come later to collect it. My bag at the ready I hiked it over my shoulder and climbed topside allowing the Captain to be the last off the boat. (Traditional )  

It was a bit of a shock that we had an audience, which included Nelson. Or rather that Ski and Crane had an audience.  Kowalski was sitting the passenger side of the Captain’s bright red convertible.  (Security must have brought it down at Crane’s request and Lee waited for me to salute the colors and clamber down the gangplank before he did likewise, immediately heading to the car without a glance back. One of security guards  popped the trunk so he could toss his bag into the small trunk already containing Ski’s.  Then he handed Lee his keys.

In minutes, Lee  jumped into the driver’s seat, and sped off. A grimmer pair I’d never seen.

“That has got to be one strange mission,” I overheard one of the men say as the crowd dispersed.


It was a week later that I returned to NIMR after a pleasant if worrisome shore leave and was pouring myself a cup of coffee from the ever present percolator in the employee’s lounge when I heard Ski humming the familiar ditty.

“Kowalski!” I almost spilled my cup, so pleased he’d come back alive. I was still biting my fingernails over Lee.


“You’re okay? No wounds, no scratches, no bugs, no bites?” I walked around him, a quick  inspection. He was in his usual jumpsuit, this time white, indicating he was on extended shore duty, usually given as a reward for exemplary service aboard Seaview or on the other hand, as one of the walking wounded.

“Well, got a few bug bites, but..”

“Have you reported to the Med Center?”

“Med Center? Aw heck, sir…it was only…”

“No buts, go on. I want a full report..er..tell them to leave out any classified stuff you had to inform them of…’

“But sir..”

“Go on Ski, that’s an order.”

“Aye sir.”


In minutes I was in Nelson’s office.

“Well, that’s a relief,” the boss said by his picture window. “I’m still concerned about Lee. Has he returned yet?”

 “Not yet, but if Ski’s here, maybe he will be soon too….hey! Some asshole biker’s pulling into Lee’s parking slot!”

Nelson headed to his switchboard and punched in a few numbers. “This is Nelson, go see who just parked in Captain Crane’s slot. C’mon Chip. And Chip? Watch your tongue. But in this case, you have my permission to call the interloper an asshole, no matter what dept. I have him working in.”

“Aye sir.”


Now, it’s not that I’m against motorcycles or other modes of transportation. But this one was an older variety I noticed as we approached. Black and Chrome. Dented, paint chipping off, and worn tires. The rider was wearing old fashioned leggings and had a black jacket with a red fringe  on the sleeves and a red pirate skull and crossbones on the back and on his helmet.

“Hey you!” I hollered. “What the hell are you doing in Captain Crane’s space!”

The man turned and removed his helmet, well, I guess it had been a helmet at one time. Half of the visor was missing so there hadn’t been much protection for his eyes.

“Ah..er..sorry, Lee…” I said as he tried to remove a squished bug off his helmet with his fingernail.

“Captain Crane,” Nelson spoke for us both, “would you care to explain yourself? ”

“Explain, sir? I don’t understand. I have NIMR tags for both my car and cycle…”

Nelson looked at me as if I had an answer.

“Beats me sir.”

“Damn, I’m thirsty. Must’ve swallowed a dozen bugs  where my visor’s cracked. Helmet’s about useless. But there was no way I wasn’t going to wear it. Not after my license expired and they wouldn’t renew it long distance…er…you okay Chip? Admiral?”

“Son,” Nelson took his arm, and began to speak very slowly, very dangerously, “Am I correct in believing those confidential messages you received aboard had something to do with that?”

“Confidential? Oh, yeah…well, you see sir, I just happened to mention to Sparks that they were personal….”

“Were you and Ski or were you not on assignment with ONI?” I yelled.

“ONI? Where’d you get that from?” he smirked.

“You all but admitted it! That special assignment and that…”

“Chip, Chip,” he patted my shoulder like a favored pet, “I said I wanted Ski for a special assignment, at no time did I actually say it was for ONI. If you wanted to believe it was, I didn’t have the heart to tell you otherwise. Besides,” he winked, “did wonders for Ski’s ego.”

It takes a lot of control to be an XO of a submarine. I almost lost that control as I toyed with the idea of taking Lee’s helmet from his hand and smashing it against the pavement.

“Why Ski?” Nelson demanded.

“I needed someone with a valid motorcycle license  to tag along with me to the DMV in case I didn’t pass the renewal test. So he could bring her home if I couldn’t. ”

“There wasn’t a cycle tied up to your Cobra, so just where was your ‘hog’?”

Lee lowered his eyes, embarrassed.

“I’m waiting Lee,” Nelson said.

“She was in their  impound lot. Wasn’t my fault, Admiral. It was just a little accident, oh, shortly before we sailed. Wasn’t hurt, just my pride, when I hydroplaned on an oil slick and smashed into a tree. Couple of dents, here, and over here,” he pointed them out, “she'll need a  whole new paint job…red and black I think, or maybe just red…just like my  Cobra.”

And?” I prodded already on the verge of ripping my hair out.

“Well, the cops saw my license had expired. The renewal was oversight on my part…you must know that I don’t ride her that much.”

“We didn’t even know you could!” I yelled.

“Go on Lee,” Nelson said.

“Well, I’d signed up for NIMR’s new electronic messaging system for renewals and such… must have missed the reminder…didn’t make much difference to the cops, though. Kind a big fine, if you ask me and they suspended my license…not the car’s though and..are you okay sir? Sir?”

It was such a simple explanation. And I suppose Ski had gotten a kick out of being the Captain’s spook partner, so who was I to complain. But Nelson simply huffed away, waving his arms in the air muttering.

“Is he okay, Chip?”

"He's fine...by the way, why'd you need a suit jacket? Surely you didn't need it to ride?"

"No, but it sure was nice for my lisense photo!"

“Oh,” I noticed he had some squished bugs other places than on his helmet. “ C’mon and tell me all about your shore leave after you got your bike back."

“Well, it was like this,” he smiled and began to tell me all about the Santa Barbara Motocross he’d just come from. Kind of the Daytona 500 for motorcycles. Only smaller. Much smaller. And bumpier over all those mounds of dirt.

I wondered if I should tell him about the squished bugs on his  forehead and cheek as we entered the Admin building and passed by the girls at the water fountain.

Common sense prevailed and I took him to lunch without saying a word about his gooey passengers. You’d think that I’d had a modicum of revenge in so doing, for all the anxious moments he’d caused us but the best laid plans of mice and men backfire.

In minutes, NIMR’s women were all a tither, with their “Oh, you poor boy!” and “Let me get that for you, Captain” as they wiped the goo off his face with their handkerchiefs and tissues,  to their “Oh, you must let me ride pillion with you Captain! It’s a big enough motorcycle isn’t it?”

Ever courteous, he soon managed to wave them all off, but even I could recognize a smirk when I saw it.  It was then that Kowalski passed by with his sandwich laden tray, humming Motorcycle Rag with a wink at his Captain.

Tomorrow there’ll be two motorcycles in front of Admin. Mine’s baby blue. Of course, I can’t ride it yet not having learned how. And I certainly don’t have a license for it. But I’ve bribed Ski into driving  my brand new ‘baby’  in early. Yes, having Ski on Special Assignment is going to be par for the course.


As for the Admrial's permission to call Lee an asshole, well, that will just have to wait for a more auspicious occassion.




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