Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For The Greater Good 21


CHAPTER TWENTY ONE   


    The next group of wounded Marines was loaded onto an Osprey for the hour flight back to Cherry Point, North Carolina. Rick was the last one in line to be medevaced out. The medical trauma team decided to take a portable folding table and use that as an improvised stretcher, so as to keep his body still.

    “General, may I make a suggestion?” Commander Greg Nash said to General Barker.

    “Sure.” He replied as he was helping with Martin’s move.

    “These guys have been using walkie-talkies to communicate with Raven One right?”

    The General looked at Commander Nash and nodded, wondering where the SEAL leader was going with the conversation.

    “Those walkie-talkies aren’t secure, and we still have Chinese, Russian and EU Elint satellites overhead, “He commented, then added, “All I’m saying Sir, is that if Martin is as important as we think he is, then maybe we need to get him to someplace more secure.”

    The group moving Rick stopped, and realized the implications of what Commander Nash was saying. “You don’t think that anyone would try to come after him, do you?” Dr. Cadman asked.

    “Stranger things have happened Doc.” General Barker replied. “Greg, get me Raven One, would you?”

    Commander Nash motioned to one of his SEAL’s who contacted Raven One with his secure radio, and then handed it to the General.

    “Raven One, this is Raven Rock. When was the last time you had any contact with CVN-77?”

    “I spoke with them two days ago, Sir. At that time they were about six hundred miles off the North Carolina coast.” Colonel Walters replied.

    “I want you to contact them and tell them that they are going to receive a VIP, who is in need of immediate surgery. I want their best care for this man.” He ordered.” We’re going to send him out on an Osprey, so after you make contact, then vector the two.”

    “Yes Sir.” He replied, and asked, “General, just how VIP is this man?”

    “Very…that’s all I’m going to say. By the way Colonel, how long have you been on station?”

    “About 30 hours now, Sir.”

    “Ok, after you connect the Osprey and CVN-77, I want you on the ground for a minimum of seventy two hours. Good job Colonel, you all need some rest.” The General commented and handed the radio transceiver back to the SEAL. “Have this Osprey take the Marines back to Cherry Point, and get another one here for Mr. Martin.” The General ordered.

    Hal and Amelia Livingston were standing close by the officers. “General?” Hal asked.

    General Barker turned to the bespectacled bearded man.

    “My name is Hal.” He said and extended his hand. “Rick is my man from West Virginia…where are you taking him?”

    The General shook Hal’s hand. “CVN-77, the aircraft carrier Bush.” He replied. “Commander Nash is handling my security, and he suggests we get Mr. Martin to a secure location. The Bush is the latest carrier we have, and they have state of the art medical facilities…he’ll be well taken care of.”

    The Osprey with the wounded Marines lifted off outside with a roar, and shortly thereafter another Osprey landed. They quickly and carefully carried Rick out and secured him inside the Osprey. Stepping off of the rear loading ramp, the pilot quickly raised it and with a noisy blast, lifted off.

    “General Barker, my name is Amelia Livingston.” The elderly woman said in a deep southern accent, and held out her thin hand.

    “Pleasure to meet you Ma’am.”

    “No it’s our pleasure. Now General; we would all hope that you would stay with us for a few days…you’re more than welcome here.”

    General Barker was taken back slightly. The crowd had gathered around the officers, all welcoming them. “We’d like that Ma’am…thank you.”

    “I think we need to get some food started, I bet you boys are hungry.” Amelia said.

    “Ms. Livingston…soldiers are always hungry.” General Perry commented with a smile.

    “We didn’t bring much with us, so I’m going to take my fellows back to Davis and bring some more food here. We also need to get some trucks to pull those trailers.” Hal said and then looking at his watch, he exhaled loudly, “I figure that we’ll be about five hours.”

    “I can get you there quicker.” General Barker offered.

    “Oh? What in one of those…” Hal said, using his thumb to point outside.

    “Yeah an Osprey.” The General replied with a smile.

    Hal nodded and smiled, “General, when was the last time you or your men had fresh food?”

    General Barker blinked as he thought about the question.

    “I thought so. Look, we have corn so sweet that you can eat it right off the stalk.” He said with a smile, and added, “Why don’t you come with us? You can help us load up some supplies and see what we’re all about.”

    “I’d like that…I’d like that a lot.” He said with a broad smile and turned to Gunny Winters and General Perry. “Gunnery Sergeant Winters, Mr. Martin put you in charge, so you and General Perry get started.” He said and then added, “I’m going to help these folks bring back some food.”

    “Sum-bitch. Let’s go.” Hal said, smiling with his new friend.


* * * * * *

 
    “Yes Sir….yes Sir. We will.” Lieutenant Commander Silverman said into the phone, making succinct replies to the one way conversation from the Battle Group Commander, Rear Admiral Daniels. The conversation ended, and Dr. Silverman placed the phone back into its cradle. “Mike, we’ve got incoming.” He commented to Corpsman Mike Malo.

    “What is it Sir?” The Hawaiian native asked.

    LCDR Bernard Silverman rubbed his day old beard and read his notes, “Looks like a fifty year old white male with grenade fragments in his lower back, buttocks and legs. A-Positive and no known allergies.” He said and added, “Let’s get the room prepped.” He said, referring to the surgical suite.

    “Fifty years old? So, I guess he’s not a Marine, right?” Corpsman Malo asked.

    Dr. Silverman looked up at his medic, “No he’s a civilian. The Admiral said he was personally charged with making sure this VIP is well taken care of.”

    “Ugh, a VIP, and you know the Admiral will be calling every ten minutes asking for an update.”

    “You got it.” Dr. Silverman replied with a smile and looked at his watch, “They are less than an hour out, so let’s get moving.”

    “I’ll call Barnes and Washington.” Mike said, referring to two of his Corpsman  shipmates.

    “Good idea, and while you’re at it, let’s Dr. Ottoman down here. I might need another pair of hands.”  


    The Osprey approached the carrier Bush, the late summer pre-dawn sunrise swathed the horizon with a paint brush stroke of blue purple light. The pilot was in constant radio contact with the floating air base. His approach and landing was perfect as the seas were glass calm. The pilot taxied to the side of the angled runway and shut down the engines. Like a toy that kids would play with, the Osprey transformed itself. The propellers nestled together and its overhead wing moved fore and aft, making for a compact machine which fit nicely onto the huge aircraft elevator. Slowly the elevator lowered to the second level hangar. The hangar doors opened, revealing a pale yellow light which flooded the huge aircraft storage and maintenance hangar.

    The Aircraft Maintenance personnel stood out of the way, watching, talking and speculating amongst themselves about the person onboard the V-22 . The medical team waited in the hangar for the Osprey to lower its ramp. They rushed inside with a wheeled gurney and gently lifted and moved Rick from the table onto the gurney. With a rush, the Corpsmen wheeled their patient through the hangar and down the long hallway to sick bay and the operating room.

    Before entering the sterile operating room environment, Mike Malo x-rayed Rick from a dozen different angles.

    Rick moaned softly, as the pain medication was wearing off.

    “Hi.” Mike said. “What’s your name?”

    Rick blinked, trying to get his mind to work. “Rick Martin.”

    “I’m Mike. Do you know where you’re at?”

    Rick shook his head slowly.

    “You’re on the aircraft carrier Bush. Now, we’re going to prep you for surgery. Are you in pain?”

    Rick nodded as the pain started rolling back through his body.

    “We’ll have that taken care of in a minute.” Mike said and then tapped onto the operating room door. Dr. Penny Ottoman came to the window. “The patients name is Rick Martin and he’s awake. I have all the images ready, ma’am.” He said referring to the completed x-ray photos.

    “Ok, gown up and bring him in.” The anesthesiologist replied.

    Mike prepped himself and brought Rick into the small operating room. The lights were intense as Dr. Silverman looked at the x-rays and counted the pieces of shrapnel. “I count thirty seven.” He said to Dr. Ottoman and Corpsman Malo. The two also counted as a double check, and concurred. “Ok Penny do your thing.”

    Lieutenant Commander Ottoman looked at her patient. “Mr. Martin, I’m going to give you some gas…and you’re going to sleep.” She said and placed the clear mask over his mouth and nose. “Just breathe normally, and count to ten for me.” She said with a smile as the gas started to flow into Rick’s lungs.

    Rick counted to three before falling fast asleep.

    “Let’s get started.” Dr. Silverman said lowering his magnifying eyeglasses and peering into Ricks multiple wounds. On any other difficult surgery he would make a joke to Malo about calling his wife and telling her he would be late for dinner. After that day, nobody joked aboard the ship any more. “Mike let’s start from the top. I want you to mark the film as I find these pieces.” He ordered.

    The surgery lasted over four hours. They accounted for all thirty seven pieces of the jagged shards. Dr. Ottoman reduced the amount of gas, which in a couple of hours would bring Rick back into the real world.

    “Mike, I want another set of x-rays, just to make certain we got everything. After that, I want him catherized, he won’t be walking to the head anytime soon.” Dr. Silverman said and then took off his latex gloves, tossing them into a stainless steel waste basket. Lowered his mask, he walked out into the prep area where Rear Admiral Melvin Daniels sat waiting for the surgeon. “Well Doc, how is he?” The stout African-American Fleet Commander asked.

    Dr. Silverman wiped his face with a rough white cotton hand towel. “Well Admiral, the surgery was tedious. He had a lot of shrapnel, and in some very tough spots. His spinal column wasn’t breached although it was covered with metal, same thing with his femoral artery. The sciatic nerve is intact, however the hamstring was torn, which I repaired.”

    “In English Doc.” The Admiral commented.

    Doc Silverman chuckled. “Strange stuff Admiral. Look, any piece of shrapnel that would have breached his spinal column, would mean that Mr. Martin would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. There were pieces all around the column, but nothing penetrated. Same thing with his femoral artery.” Bernie paused and added, “If just one piece punctured the femoral, it would be all over, he would have bled out in a matter of minutes. Basically Admiral…Mr. Martin should be dead.”

    “It looks like the man upstairs is looking out for him.” RADM Daniels commented.

    “I would definitely agree with that. Do you know anything about him?”

    “Nothing. General Barker is unavailable, so we’re in the dark about Mr. Martin. I want your best Corpsman on him, and I want to know everything, understand?”

    “Yes Sir.” He replied as the Admiral exited sick bay.  

    Dr. Silverman poked his head back into the room where Mike was inserting the urine catheter into his unconscious patient. “The Admiral wants you to be Mr. Martin’s shadow.”

    “Yes Sir.” Corpsman Malo replied. “Well, I guess it’s just you and me, Mr. Martin.” He said to his sleeping patient.


    Mike Malo sat behind his small metal desk reading. The desk top lamp gave more than enough light for him to work on his continuing education. Looking up and over at Rick and then checking his watch, he closed the book and went to check on the IV and take another set of vital signs. Dr. Silverman’s orders were for Rick to be heavily sedated for seventy two hours, as the type and position of his wounds needed a good start healing, especially the repaired hamstring. Gently placing his fingers beneath Rick’s wrist, he took his pulse, and then wrote it in the chart.

    Rick moaned slightly and then opened his eyes.

    Corpsman Malo leaned over to his face down patient. “Hey…welcome back.” He said with a smile.

    Rick rubbed his eyes, and lay silent for a moment, trying to figure out where he was.

    “Mr. Martin, how do you feel?”

    “Sore, and a little brain dead.” Rick slowly commented with a dry mouth.

    “That’s to be expected Sir. Doc Silverman has kept you pretty much asleep for the past three days.” He said and added, “You do remember that you are on the aircraft carrier Bush, right?”

    Rick thought momentarily, “Oh, yeah.” He said, and then exhaled loudly. “Well, I guess I’m not dead.”

    “No Sir you’re not dead.” Malo replied with a chuckle, “The surgery went fine. We removed thirty seven pieces of shrapnel from your back, ass and legs.”

    “Ah, the grenade…thirty seven pieces, wow. How is Gunny Winters?” Martin asked, his memory starting to come back. 

    “They are all fine. We didn’t know who you were for a couple of days, and then General Barker called the Admiral and gave him the lowdown on you. The Admiral wants to talk with you as soon as you feel up to it.”

    Rick nodded, confused about General Barker’s name coming up.

    Dr. Silverman came into the small post-surgical room. Noticing that Mike was talking with Rick he stood behind his Corpsman. “Hello Mr. Martin, how are you feeling?” He asked, and read the notes Mike had made on his chart. Satisfied that all was going well, he closed the chart and set it back into the holder on the bed.

    “I’m fine Doc, just a little sore…when can I leave?”

    Doc Silverman laughed. “Mike, what do you think about this guy? He comes on board, gets first class medical treatment, and now he wants to leave.”

    Corpsman Malo laughed with the Doc.

    “Unless you have something more important to do, then you can hang around with us for a few more days.” Doc Silverman said with a smile. “By the way, I see that you have a scar above your left eye. It looks fairly fresh; I’d like to hear about that.”

    Rick rubbed the scar which Brenda had sutured. The memories from that gunfight seemed like a thousand years ago. Doc Silverman pulled back the bed sheets and began to examine his wounds. “Rick, you’re a lucky man. You’re lucky to be alive and lucky that you’ll be able to walk again…eventually.” He said, further examining the wounds and sutures. “Malo, let’s change this dressing and double it up, so that Mr. Martin can sit. I’m going to start him on soft foods, until he handle our fine US Navy cuisine.” He commented with a smile. “Now Mr. Martin, you want to know when you can leave?”

    Rick looked back at the Doc, “Yeah.”

    “You can leave, when you can walk.” The doctor said as he left the room.

    Rick nodded, “Thanks Doc.”

    “Well, it looks like you’ve got your orders, so let’s get started.” Mike said, and then asked, “So. Mr. Martin, what’s your story?”

    “I’ll make you a deal Mike…you help me walk, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

    Mike Malo smiled, “Deal.”


    Ricks recovery was painfully slow. His rehabilitation consisted of moving from wall to wall in the small room. Using a wheeled IV holder as a prop, he shuffled bare footed across the cool linoleum tiled floor. Mike stood by his side each time, ensuring his balance. Admiral Daniels stopped down and the two men chatted. Their conversation was mainly about where each was from and how he was being treated, nothing more. Before they parted, RDML Daniels handed Rick a couple sheets of paper.

    “What’s this?” Rick asked, looking at the papers.

    “We are under a communications blackout, and have been for months now. We received this from Raven One. It’s from your people.” Mel Daniels said and added, “I’m glad to see you progressing…we’ll talk again.” He said and then left.

    Rick looked at the printed gibberish, and then was able to make out in between the military codes, ‘I love you, and miss you, Brenda.’ ‘Come home Daddy, Emmy and Rosie.’ The get-well list seemed to include everyone, and was deeply heart felt. Rick could hear their individual voices in his mind as he read through the list.

    Mike came in from taking care of another patient, and handed Rick a pair of brand new sneakers with socks. “These are from Chief Master Ignewski, they should fit. We are moving up your therapy.” He said, and then handed him a pair of green surgical scrubs. “I’ll help you to get dressed and we are going head out into the ship.” Mike said as he removed the IV needle, taping the area on his forearm and then introducing Rick to his new walker.

    “That looks like something from and old-folks home.” Rick said with a smile.

    “It is. You’ll use this until you get a feel for walking…and then we have a cane for you.”

“Cool, let’s do it.” Rick said as he was helped with the extra large baggy green cotton pants and shirt. They moved to the entrance of sick bay. Rick could only move his legs a few inches at a time. The longer he stretched his stride, the sharper the pain from the sutured wounds. Mike held open the door, and they stepped out into the hallway. Rick was stunned at the activity. Men and women walked quickly up and down the wide aisle. It could have been a scene from any mall at Christmas time, with all of the hustle and bustle, except here everyone was wearing uniforms. The sweet petroleum smell of jet engine fuel combined with the pungent aroma of sweating men and women, hit Rick squarely in the face.. The omnipresent speakers along the top of the walls continually broadcast orders or other pertinent information to all of the crew. People noticed Rick and Mike, they smiled and some commented, “Good afternoon Mr. Martin.”

    “How do they know me?” Rick asked Mike, as they slowly moved down the aisle.

    “Mr. Martin, this ship is like small town. We have almost six thousand sailors on board, and like any small town, word travels fast. Everybody knows or thinks they know everybody else’s business.” He replied, as they shuffled along while being passed by a steady stream of sailors. “So, tell me more about when you and Melissa came out from the shelter…what was it like?”

    The two men talked as they ambled along; Rick began to sweat from the pain of stretching his stride and the heat inside the jet engine fuel scented passageway. When he felt winded, they would stop, trying their best to keep out of everyone’s way. Rick paused by one of the many ladders which lead to the upper and lower levels. Eyeing the steep ladder, and the sailors who literally flew down and took two steps at a time heading up, Rick commented. “That’s steep.”

    “Yeah they sure are; it’s a 70 degree angle. We’ll use that as one of our goals, ok? You’re doing very well with the walker, when we get to the cane, then you can tackle the ladders.” Mike said.

    That is how it went for Rick and Mike, recovery and talk. Rick would tell Mike what happened on that day and since, and Mike would pass the information along to Chief Master Ignewski, who in turn would pass that information up the chain.

    The days rolled on as Rick progressed with his recovery. Slowly he was able to move his legs further without the searing pain. One morning Mike handed Rick an aluminum cane, “Let’s give this a try, ok?”

    Taking the cane and setting the walker aside, Rick had no problem with the transition. “This’ll work.” He replied, feeling the cool metal.

    “Today you’re going to go to mess, and then we’re going to get you set up with in one of the visiting officers staterooms.” Mike said and smiled, “You’re almost on your own Mr. Martin.”

    Rick exhaled loudly and nodded and then questioned. “Mess?”

    “Um, the chow hall…it’s where we eat.”

    Rick smiled at the term, and looked forward to being around other sailors and eating someplace other than Sick Bay. “Mike, this ship is huge, you know I’ll get lost.”

    Mike laughed, “Yeah, I’m sure of it. However, you can’t get that lost. Let’s warm your muscles up and then try one of the ladders.”

    The two walked along the halls of the hangar deck level, their pace being much quicker with the cane, but still slower than the youthful sailors. Mike took Rick to the large mess area. Entering the huge and extremely busy room, they were hit with the smell of cooking foods. “Whoa, this is just like a restaurant.” Rick exclaimed softly.

    “We all wish.” Mike said discontentedly. It was the first time Rick had heard Mike say anything less than positive. They side-stepped along the food line, making their choices and then found a table. Rick savored his meal; it was as good as anything he had eaten in the past few months. For the first time since he was aboard the ship, Rick noticed the attitudes of the men and women. They all seemed to be introspective in their thoughts and sullen in their demeanor. Rick thought they could all have some degree of depression; he kept those observations to himself.

    One of the sailors at a table next to Mike and Rick commented, “MM again.”

    Rick looked over at him, “MM?”

    “Mystery Meat. We know it’s meat, but just don’t know what kind.” He said, managing a smile, and then went back to his meal, his eyes downcast as he seemed to be enveloped in his own serious thoughts.

    Rick looked back at Mike, “You guys have acronyms for about everything don’t you?”

    Mike laughed, “Yes Sir.”

    After they finished, Rick and Mike tackled the ladders. Mike went behind Rick as he started his climb. Sailors flew down with a ‘Make way’ or ‘Coming through.’ which was followed by Rick saying, “Sorry.” The climb exerted a great deal of pressure on Rick’s legs; however he still had a good amount of upper body strength to pull himself along. Reaching the top of the ladder, Rick felt good. It was a worthy goal as he smiled, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

    “Excellent job Mr. Martin.” Mike commented, his cheerful persona now showing. “Ok, let’s catch our breath and go back down.” He said and added, “We’ll change your dressing and then get you set up with your room.” He smiled, “You’ve passed your test.”

    Rick smiled, thinking that it wouldn’t be too much longer before he could head back to shore and the group in West Virginia. “Thanks Mike.” He started back down the ladder and moved to the side when he heard ‘Make a hole,’ as the officer flew down the near vertical steps.

    When they reached Sick Bay, Mike led Rick to his cubby hole. “Mr. Martin I have some things that you might need. Here is another set of scrubs and some skivvies.” He said, handing Rick the green surgical garments and some t-shirts and a couple pair of boxer shorts and white tube socks. “Now, let’s get some identification on you.” Mike said, taking a roll of tape and writing ‘MARTIN’ on it, then plastering it across his left breast. “There you go.”

    “Thanks Mike, I really appreciate everything you all have done for me, I really do.”

    “Not a problem, actually it’s been a pleasure helping you Mr. Martin.” He said, and added, “Now, Ensign Osborne will be along shortly, she is the SLJO onboard, and will take care of you from here on out.”

    “SLJO?” Rick questioned.

    “Shitty Little Jobs Officer.” Mike said with a grin, “Ensign Margaret ‘Midge’ Osborne is the lowest ranking officer aboard ship, so she gets tasked for all of the shit jobs.” Mike explained, and countered, “Not to say that you’re a shitty job, Sir.”

    Rick chuckled, “Sure, I know my place.” He said with a smile.

    “Now I have some meds for you.” He said and handing over a orange bottle of pills, “Motrin, we call them Vitamin M.” He said and continued, “Now, there are some other things I think you should be on the look out for.”

    Mike went on to explain some of the areas of the ship where he might encounter Marine guards, and some of the practical jokes his ship mates might try to play on him. As he was finishing up, Ensign Osborne came in.

    “Mr. Martin.” The woman said in a crisp manner, and extended her hand. “Ensign Margaret Osborne, good to meet you Sir.”

    Rick shook her thin hand, “Rick Martin, pleasure to meet you too.” He didn’t know whether to say Ma’am or Miss, as she was no older than twenty five.

    “If you’d prefer, you can call me Midge, Sir.” She said, and then turned to Corpsman Malo, “And that’s not short for midget either.” Her eyes narrowed at Mike.

    Mike raised his hands in mock surrender, “I swear I didn’t say anything Ma’am.” He said with a smile.

    Ensign Osborne turned back to Rick, smiled briefly and then continued, “The XO has you set up with a singles berth in O-Country.” She said.

    “What?” Rick asked, confused by the terminology.

    The tiny brunette smiled, “You’ll be in the Officers berthing area. Now, if you’re ready, let’s go.” She said and then without another word left.

    Rick turned to Mike, “What the…”

    “You’ll get used to her Sir; she has two speeds, fast and faster.” He said with a chuckle. “Here let me give you some directions.” Mike wrote out where O-Country was in relation to Sick Bay, and handed it over. “Now, I want you back here twice a day for your dressing change. If you have any problems, then you get back here ASAP, understand?”

    “Gotcha, and again thanks Mike.” Rick said and then took his clothes out into the passageway, trying to see which way the Ensign headed. Rick caught a glimpse of the officer through a gaggle of moving sailors and headed over to her, his speed limited by the length of his stride and the cane. “Ensign, Mike gave me some directions on how to get to O-Country, it will probably take me a lot longer to get there than it will for you, so why don’t we meet…” He looked at the directions, “down there in about a half an hour.”

    “Mr. Martin, I am supposed to stick with you like glue. I promise I’ll walk slower.” She replied with a smile. The two walked and talked along the passageways, and then down the ladders to the 3rd level. As they walked, Midge would point out areas of interest, like the ships store. Ensign Osborne kept an eye out for certain maintenance tasks being performed by some of the crew; evidently she had some sort of authority over the sweeping or the mopping of floors. Nearing the area called O-Country, the pair was stopped by another sailor. His appearance was a caricature of how someone would imagine a sailor to look like. This sailor’s forearms were very large from years of physical work. His hair, graying microscopic tufts which accentuated his bent nose, no doubt broken at some time in the past, due to some accident or fight, gave a visual indication of his personality.

    “Mr. Martin, I’d like to introduce you to Command Master Chief Len Ignewski.” Ensign Osborne said.

    “Oh, you’re the one!” Rick exclaimed, and shook his hand vigorously. “Thanks for the shoes…I really appreciate it.”

    “My pleasure Mr. Martin, glad to see that they fit.” Chief Master Ignewski said with a Midwest accent and a smile.

    “Call me Rick.” He said to both of them.

    “Iggy…or Master Chief, which ever you prefer.” He replied, and then the trio continued their walk towards O-Country. They all talked; mainly it was Midge and Iggy asking Rick questions about the ‘Beach.’ The sounds and smells changed as they neared one of the Galleys, the smells of cooking food filtered out the jet fuel scent in the passage ways, and then disappeared as they made a couple of turns, heading along another seemingly endless corridor. The pungent aroma of fresh paint filled this passageway, as two sailors were busy applying a coat of gray paint along one of the walls. Walking past the painters, Ensign Osborne noticed something amiss with the men’s work and stopped. Before she could say a word, Chief Master Ignewski also spotted the infraction.

    “Jesus H fucking Christ!” He said loudly, his neck muscles bulging, “You have got to be shitting me McClenahan!” He said reading the sailors name badge. “Did you fall off a fucking truck this morning and bump your head?” The Master Chief’s voice rose to a shouting level as he ran his finger along one of the many pipes along the wall, revealing a thin line of dirt.

    Ricks eyes grew large as the sailors were getting a royal ass chewing.

    “McClenahan you know that you never, ever paint over dirt or rust…now you take that solvent, “He pointed to the steel container of remover, “and you will un-fuck this mess!

    “Yes Chief Master.” The young sailor said, the fear of confronting the raging bull Chief thoroughly intimidated him.

    Iggy turned to Rick and Midge, “What the hell is this Navy coming to?”

    Rick shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as he hadn’t a clue. “Are you alright?” He said to the Master Chief, watching as the red rage slowly drained from his face.

    “Yeah, these fucking kids…they are gonna be the death of me.” He said.

    “You know Ensign Midget and I were talking…” Rick started to say, and then closed his eyes, realizing his faux-pas. Turning to her, “I am so sorry; I really didn’t mean to say that.” He said, his face flushing with embarrassment.

    Master Chief Ignewski burst out laughing, and then Ensign Osborne smiled and chuckled. “That’s alright, “She said, reaching over and touching his arm, “I’ve heard it all…’Ensign Molecule’, or ‘Hey Ensign Osborne, climb up this ladder to reach the table.’” She said laughing.

    “Jesus Christ Martin, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.” Iggy popped off.

    Rick was embarrassed and conscious of her hand on his arm, which she didn’t withdraw. Their moods changed immediately and the trio continued their walk and found Rick’s room. “Here you are.” Midge said and opened the door, exposing a room no larger than a walk-in closet found in most homes.

    Rick tossed his clothes on the wafer thin mattress bed, and looked around briefly.

    “The head is down the hall to the left.” Iggy offered, referring to the bathroom, and then looked at his watch. “How would you like to see something cool?”

    “Yeah I’d like that.” Rick replied.

    “Good, meet me in Hangar Three in thirty minutes.” He said, then turned and left.

    “Do you have any personal items?” Midge asked.

    “What do you mean?”

    “You know, a razor, deodorant, that kind of thing?”

    “No.”

    “I’ll round up something for you. Now if you don’t mind I have to take care of some other duties. So, make yourself at home, and we’ll meet up at…” She looked at her watch, “1700 in the forward Mess.”

    Rick nodded, “Thanks Midge, I’ll see you there.”

    Ensign Osborne smiled, her brown doe eyes seemed to sparkle, and then left. Rick was for the first time in almost two weeks, alone. He went inside his room and flicked on the small desk lamp. His desk was actually a metal tray which folded out from a small drawer, ‘efficient.’ He thought to himself. Making a note of his room number, he made his way back through the maze of passageways, ladders and levels, arriving at the huge Hangar Three. Walking inside, the aircraft mechanics and technicians were busy on one of the dirty gray jets.

    At the far side of the hangar, Iggy noticed the green clad Martin and came over, with an extra set of can-like headphones. “Here, put these on.” Rick put on the noise suppressors and immediately the outside sounds were silenced.

    Chief Master Ignewski pointed to a large apparatus which held one of the fighter jets engines. “They’re getting ready for an engine test…it’ll get loud as shit here in a minute.” As if on cue the mechanics fired up the long cylindrical engine, the whine of it’s start grew louder and stayed on that level for a moment. When it passed their inspection at that power level, they advanced the throttles to full power. The noise shook everything in the hangar, and then with a loud boom the engine went into afterburner, a long yellow orange hot flame extended out of it’s exhaust nozzle. Rick looked at the Chief; his eyes were closed, allowing for the extreme level of noise to rocket through his body. Rick closed his eyes and felt the violence of noise ratchet every muscle and cell in his own body. As suddenly as it started, the test was over, the engine whined down and then stopped, a thin trail of gray blue smoke rising from its exhaust.

    Iggy took off the headphones, “Now that’s cool!” He said to Rick.

    “No kidding, thanks.” He said in awe of the power of the engine.

    “Where’s Ensign Tinkerbelle?” Iggy asked.

    “She said she had some things to take care of, I’m supposed to meet with her at the forward mess.”

    “You’ve got some time before that, and I also have some other things to take care of. How would you like to see some launches and traps?”

    “I’d love that.” Rick said excitedly.

    “OK, I’ll give you directions to Vultures Row…meet me there in about an hour.” He said and then before leaving, wrote the directions for Rick.

    Rick walked over to the mechanics and handed one of them his headphones. He was in airplane heaven, surrounded by the most advanced naval jets built. One of the aircraft mechanics came over and proudly showed him the various fighters, Super Hornets, Baby Hornets and the newest, the Lockheed Lightning 2. He walked Rick around explaining their overall functions and the differences between each. The other Airedales also gathered around, a chance to meet the man who was the subject of the shipboard rumors.

    As he was ready to start out for Vultures Row, one of the Airedale mechanics asked, “Hey Mr. Martin, would you like to help us out?” 

    “Sure.” Rick replied.

    “When you pass through Hangar Two, would you ask one of the guys…” The sailor made his request and then went back to his job, trying his best to keep a straight face.

    Rick turned and walked towards the hangar door, smiling at the joke that was being played on him. The climb to Vultures Row was long and it was hard on him, going up eleven flights of ladders. The higher he climbed the more he noticed the change in the ship and the personnel. Evidently he was now in the carrier’s superstructure. The sailors here weren’t the mechanics or the engineering types from below deck; they were computer types, aircraft guys and officers. Reaching the level that Master Chief Ignewski had outlined for him, he stood around trying to find where this ‘Vultures Row’ was. One of the Junior Officers pointed at a hatch, Rick opened the heavy steel door and climbed out on a catwalk.

    “Whoa.” He exclaimed to himself, standing about eight stories above the flight deck and in the open air. The ship seemed to be in the center of nothing but ocean, it was an amazing scene. The fresh and cool air cleared his mind of the paint, fuel and sweaty air below. Rick stood, mesmerized at the view and quickly lost his sense of time, as he was perfectly content to watch all of the activity below.

    Master Chief Ignewski stepped out onto the catwalk and walked over to Rick. “What do you think about this?” He asked with a smile.

    “You were right, this is very cool.” He said, and then asked, “What are those guys doing?” He said pointing to a line of multi-colored jersey clad men slowly walking down the flight deck.

    “The Skittles are doing a FOD walk.” He answered, “They wear different colored jerseys to signify what their particular job is. FOD is Foreign Object Damage, they’ll pick up anything that might get sucked up into an engine.” Iggy explained, “It doesn’t take much to shred an engine.” When the line reached the end of the flight deck, the huge elevators along the sides of the ship raised, lifting up two Super Hornet’s. Like a well rehearsed ballet, the Skittles went around the jets, each performing their task. The Hornet’s engines started and then taxied to the forward catapult, and locked into the lug which would rocket them off the carrier. The air deflector barrier raised as the jets wound up their engines to an ear shattering roar, a salute from one of the sailors and the Hornet’s were gone.

    “Amazing, just amazing.” Rick said over the noise.

    “Hell yeah, that’s what we are all about.” Iggy replied, “Oh, I almost forgot, you have a Captain’s dinner tomorrow.”

    Rick looked at Master Chief Ignewski. “Captain’s dinner?”

    “Yeah that’s where all the brass gets together and does what the brass likes to do…talk.” He said with a grin. “Only this one’s a little different.”

    “How so?”

    “They are bringing the Commanding Officer’s from the other ship’s of the group over.” He said, pointing to one of the many ships that dotted the horizon. “I understand that General Barker will also be coming in.”

    “General Barker, ugh.” Rick commented

    “Hey, it was General Barker that got you aboard this ship.”

    “You’re kidding.”

    “No…you were tasked as a VIP.”

    “Well, that’s surprising.”

    “Why is that?”

    “The last time I spoke with the General, I told him that he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.”

    “You’re shitting me.” Iggy said with a smile.

    “No, he pissed me off. This was right at the time we were going to make our attack, and I lit into him, like you did with those painters down below.”

    “Fuck Martin, I’m really starting to like you.” He said with a laugh. Looking at his watch, “Ok, so you’re meeting with the Ensign and then you’ve got all day tomorrow to try not to get into anyone’s way.” He said and smiled.

    “I can manage that. I know how to get up here now; I could spend all day up here. He said as a helicopter lifted off, and turned out towards a distant ship.

    The two men separated, Rick with his meeting with Ensign Osborne, then a dressing change, a shower and finally bed.

    Rick slept surprisingly well in the small room. The noises of the ship seemed to permeate through the walls and floor. It was almost as if the aircraft carrier Bush was alive. The morning hot shower and breakfast was totally satisfying. Throughout the day, Rick wandered the ship, talking to the men and allowing them to excitedly describe their jobs and their equipment. Keeping track of the time, he knew that dinner was at 5 pm or 1700. Not knowing what to expect for the meeting with General Barker, he decided to take another shower, and wished he had something other than the green surgical scrubs to wear.

    A sharp double tap sounded from his door. “Come in.” He replied.

    Ensign Osborne entered his room and stood, she seemed somewhat nervous. “Sir, if you’re ready, I’ll take you to Wardroom Three; it’s where the dinner is being held.” She said with a smile.

    Rick took a deep breath and exhaled, “Ok, I’m ready.” He said nervously. As Ensign Osborne led him through the passageways and up the ladder, Rick smelled perfume. “Hey Midge, are you wearing perfume?”

    She smiled, “You noticed. Do you like it?”

    “Yeah I do…it beats the smell of jet fuel any day.” He replied with a smile and a wink. “I didn’t know this was going to be a fancy dress up dinner.”

    “You’re fine.” She said, gently placing her hand on his arm, then releasing it.

    Rick suddenly felt embarrassed and self conscious about her touch. They continued up through the second level and passed another mess galley. Wardroom Three’s door was closed; Midge knocked and then opened it for Rick. He walked through and she closed the door, staying outside.

    Rick walked inside and was instantly greeted. “Mr. Martin! Good to see you again.” The Officer said, “I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Lieutenant General Ben Barker.” He offered his hand.

    Rick shook his hand vigorously, “Good to meet you General, although, I don’t remember seeing you.”

    “We arrived just after the attack; you were laid out on a table unconscious.” The General said, placing his hand on Ricks shoulder, as if they’d known each other for years. “Let me introduce you.” He said, and then addressed the room. “Gentlemen, this is Rick Martin.” He said in a manner which indicated that he had already spoken to them about him.

    The other officers, some wearing tan uniforms and a few wearing a blue utility uniforms, came over and shook his hand. They offered their first names, but after two or three it became confusing. Rick knew Admiral Daniels and the ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Kevin Flannagan. “Where’s XO Hendricks?” Rick asked Kevin. “Somebody has to run the ship.” He replied with a smile.

    “Gentlemen, let’s take our seats. Mr. Martin, you’re over here.” General Barker said, pointing to the place next to him on the right, his place was at the head of the long immaculately polished wood table. “Why don’t we go down the table and introduce ourselves and our command.”

    “You know me Mr. Martin, Rear Admiral Mel Daniels, Commanding Officer of the Bush Carrier Strike Group.”     

    “We’ve also met, Captain Terry Hendricks, Commanding Officer of the Carrier, Bush.”

    “Captain Rich Bell, Commanding Officer of the Guided Missile Cruiser, Lake Erie.”

    “Commander John Cesaratti, Commanding Officer of the Destroyer, Roosevelt.”

    “Commander Chris Weston, Commanding Officer of the Destroyer, Russell.”

    “Captain Bret Kitchner, Commanding Officer of the Destroyer, Higgins.”

    “Commander Joe Sisk, Commanding Officer of the Guided Missile Frigate, Reuben James.”

    “Commander Ted Pratlow, Commanding Officer of the Guided Missile Frigate, Kauffman.”

    “Captain John Donald, Commanding officer of the Virginia Class Submarine, Texas.”

    “Commander Scott Berkhout, Commanding Officer of the 688 class Submarine, Asheville.”

    “Commander Brook Stroup, Commanding Officer of the 688 class Submarine, Tucson.”

    “Commander Greg Nash, SEAL Team 3, and now with General Barker.”

    “Lieutenant General Ben Barker, Commanding Officer US Armed Forces.”

    “Wow, this is an impressive group General.” Rick commented to General Barker, and then turned to the others, “It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I have to apologize for not being properly dressed,” He said with a smile and added, “and I want to thank you for your service.” Turning to Admiral Daniels, “This is a huge group.”

    “Normally our Carrier Strike Force isn’t as large, but since we’ve lost so many ships and personnel, our groups are larger, but fewer of them. We also have fifteen support ships, oilers and dry supply ships; however we decided to keep this meeting to the warships.”

    “Mr. Martin, I want to tell you that I spent three days in Virginia and West Virginia…it was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve had in the past four months.” General Barker said. “Your organization and level of commitment is excellent. I witnessed democracy first hand.”

    Rick smiled although confused at the Generals democracy comment.

    “So, Mr. Martin, what’s your story?” Captain Kitchner asked.

    Rick exhaled loudly, “Why don’t we do this. I’ve told Corpsman Malo everything, and I’m sure it got passed up to you all…why don’t you tell me what you know and we’ll see if that’s correct.” He said passing the comment back to the group. One by one, the men told what they had heard, and it was surprisingly accurate. Rick nodded and commented, “That’s pretty much the story.” He said.

    The mood was broken up with the arrival of their food. Trays of fresh baked bread and huge plates of spaghetti were set in front of each. As the men dug in to their meal, they would ask questions, it was rather informal. “So, what are your plans from here?” Commander Cesaratti asked.

    Rick thought for a moment, “Well, I’ll go back to my house in West Virginia, spend some time with my family, heal up and then go back out on the line.”

    General Barker laughed, “Yeah, so you think.”

    Rick turned to him. “What do you mean by that?”

    He chuckled again, “Alright, this is supposed to be a secret, but you’ll find out soon enough.” He said and paused, “When I said that I witnessed democracy first hand, I meant that the Virginia and West Virginia groups got together and voted on a leader…you’re it.”

    Rick blinked at his statement, he was dumbfounded.

    General Barker laughed heartily, “Gunnery Sergeant Winters said that when you found out, you’d have a look on your face like someone pissed in your Wheaties.” He said laughing, “He was right.”

    Rick grimaced, “Winters…I should’ve known he’d be up to something.” He said with a wry smile.

    “He thinks the world of you Rick…you saved his life.”

    “Yeah, he’s a damn good man. I can’t believe they would make me their leader…” He said his voice trailing off.

    “Hells bells, it was the logical choice….and it was unanimous.” General Barker added and asked, “So now, how does this change your plans?”

    “It changes everything.” Rick said, suddenly not interested with his meal. Rubbing his face he looked over at all the sailors, “This whole experience aboard ship, has changed everything.”

    “What do you mean by that?” Captain John Donald asked.

    “Well, you all have been at sea for a few months right? I mean, longer than you’d normally be out to sea…why?”

    “Our ports were hit.” Commander Joe Sisk commented, and added, “Some of us were based at Jacksonville and some of us at Norfolk. The boomers were based out of Kings Bay…they are all gone.”

    “Boomers?” Rick asked.

    “Yeah the Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Subs…those guys are cruising down deep, God only knows where, so they couldn’t be here.” Captain Donald replied.

    Rick shook his head, “I know we were hit with a lot of nukes, but didn’t know exactly how many or where.” He said.

    “Thirty four. Not including the high altitude nuke which set off the EMP.” SEAL Commander Greg Nash said.

    “Thirty four!” Rick said, his eyes wide from the news. “I thought there was more than what hit DC and Baltimore, but…thirty four!”

    “Thirty four, and from what we can tell they were approximately four hundred and fifty kiloton weapons…big stuff.” Greg Nash commented.

    General Barker handed him a folder. “Here are the high altitude photos of the strikes.” He said and added solemnly, “I like to keep this with me, it helps me stay focused.”

    Rick opened the well used folder and examined the stack of black and white images. The blasts all looked similar, large blackened circles of cities and military bases, or what remained of them.

    “The blasts also set off massive earthquakes along the west coast and one in Missouri. The damage was unbelievable.” General Barker said. “We estimate that well over one hundred and fifty million people were killed in the blasts, earthquakes and the resultant fallout. Although to be honest about it, those numbers are purely speculative.”

    Rick felt sick to his stomach. He found and held one of the images; the bottom of the image was labeled ‘Baltimore.’ Holding the photo as if were sacred, he traced his finger along the edge of the blast zone, his mind flooded with thoughts of Melissa. For the first time in a month, Rick longed for his lover.

    “Buck, would you pass the butter.” Admiral Daniels asked General Barker.

    Rick’s mind was still on the image and yet the Admiral’s comment caught his attention. “What did you say?” He asked the Admiral.

    “I asked General Barker to pass the butter.”

    “No you didn’t.” He replied, trying to remember something from the past, and then it came to him. Rick looked down and shook his head, and then turned to General Barker, “I don’t know why I didn’t remember this before…Lydia.”

    General Barker looked at Rick, not quite understanding what he said, and then his eyes grew wide as his mind took hold of the comment. The officer’s stopped their own personal chats.

    “I have a story to tell you.” Rick said to the General before he had any chance to say a word. “When the bombs went off, Melissa and I were together in this make-shift bunker. We were there for about three weeks or so. Anyway, during this time Melissa and I fell in love. It was pure; I mean it was the deepest I had ever felt for anyone. Our plan was to leave the bunker, then go to my house and live out our lives.” Rick paused momentarily, the room was dead silent. “So we made our break. I guess it took four or five days to get to my house. Our whole focus was to grow some food, and be together...anyway, Melissa couldn’t have kids so we talked about maybe adopting some. She wanted to have a place to grow flowers. “Ricks eyes were filling with tears remembering their past. “The day after we got to my place, she was murdered...Melissa died in my arms.”

    “Jesus.” Commander Greg Nash whispered.

    “Yeah, and as you can imagine, I went nuts. I found the cockroaches that did it and killed them. Afterwards, I knew I couldn’t go on. I mean, I had lost my wife and kids, as they were in DC when the Washington bombs went off, and now Melissa.” He paused and took a deep breath. “So I decided to kill myself.” He stopped for a moment, “I would appreciate that what I tell you, will stay here. This isn’t something that I’m proud of.”

    All the men nodded their agreement.

    “So I went to my neighbor’s house and got some liquor and then took some pain pills. I was going to get boozed up and then put a bullet in my head. I proceeded to get drunk and then went out onto the street, shooting my pistol and generally making an ass out of myself.” He paused and then smiled at the memory. “So, I headed back into my house, and seeing that I was out of ammo for the pistol, started to go down into the basement for a full magazine.” He paused for a brief moment, “I believe to this day I was pushed…anyway, I went head over heels down the steps and cracked my head, blacking out.” Rick paused, and then looked at each of the men, stopping at General Barker.

    “What happened?” The General asked.

    “When I blacked out, I had a vision. I know it wasn’t a dream or anything like that because it was as real as me being here with you all. I could smell and touch and all of that. Anyway, I found myself sitting on a park bench along the C&O Canal. Now I had never been on the C&O Canal before, but would find myself in that exact same spot in a month or so. It was Pepper Wayne’s place.” He said with a smile as Peppers memories came back to him. “So I’m sitting there, and my wife Lynda and Melissa rode by on bicycles. My hippie chick blew me a kiss.” He chuckled and touched his face subconsciously at the memory, “After they came by, this other lady rode up and she was pulling one of those child bike trailers, you know the kind?” He asked.

    Some of the men nodded yes, as it wasn’t uncommon for some of the sailor’s wives to ride around base with them.

   “This woman stopped right in front of me, and my son Jake came out of the back. Now, Jake was two when he was killed and didn’t talk; well now he did. He told me not to try to kill myself again. He said that there is a plan and I am part of that plan…then he said to get moving and it would all play out.” Rick paused momentarily and smiled with the thoughts of his son, “So, Jake introduces me to the woman who is riding him on this bike.” Looking at the General, “This woman was beautiful, she had alabaster skin, strawberry blonde hair and a perfect smile. Jake said, ‘This is Miss Lydia.’ So, Lydia asks me if I would take care of her husband, ‘Buck Barker.’ I told her that I didn’t know a Buck Barker, and she said, ‘You will.’ She then adds, ‘Tell Buck I said, to trust.’” Rick paused as the room was stone cold silent. “Now General, I don’t know you from Adam. I’ve never met you before and would have no way of knowing whether you were even married, much less your wife Lydia.”

    General Barker, one of the most powerful men on the planet, with the ability to push the nuclear button, sat with his heart in Rick’s hands. A tear trickled down his stress lined face. He listened silently.

    “It’s obvious that someone needs to take care of you General. You know, every picture I’ve seen of high ranking officers, they all looked immaculate with their tailored uniforms.” Rick paused and then asked, “How much weight have you lost Buck?”

    General Barker blinked out his tear and shook his head, trying to get a grip on his feelings, “Thirty pounds.” He replied quietly.

    “So what has you so worried and stressed that you’re losing that much weight? It’s pretty obvious that you’re not getting much sleep, either.”

    General Barker shook his head, “This whole thing, I mean, losing the country, losing most of my men and bases…and losing my wife.” He said and then added, “There’s a lot on my plate.”

    Rick nodded his understanding.

    “The General isn’t telling you the whole story Mr. Martin.” SEAL Commander Greg Nash interjected. “There is a five million dollar bounty on his head.”

    Rick looked at the Commander. “What did you say?” He asked, not really understanding his statement.

    “You heard right, there is a five million dollar bounty on the General. You see the World Court and the EU have tried the General in absentia, and found him guilty of war crimes…mass murder.”

    Rick stood up and stretched his legs and back, “Sorry, I can’t sit still for too long.” He said and then looked at the General, who nodded his agreement of Greg’s announcement, “What’s that all about?” Rick asked.

    “When we were attacked, we retaliated on the evidence we had at the time. North Korea got the same treatment as us, maybe a little more, but not much.”

    “So, what’s the problem? We were attacked and we retaliated.” Rick said puzzled over the issue, his hands held out in a questioning gesture.

    “The problem is…they don’t give a shit about us.” The General replied, his voice rising in anger over the situation.

    “That has to be the biggest pile of bullshit I’ve ever heard!” Rick said, his voice rising, “Who the fuck do those guys think they are?”

    “Now you know.” General Barker said.

    “Listen to me…I don’t know where you’re living now, but I imagine that you’re in some hole somewhere. I want you to come and live with us.” Rick said, as his eyes and the General’s locked on each other. “You have a home with us General.”

    “It’s not that simple.” He replied.

    “It’s as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.” Rick countered, “I want to tell you…nobody, and I mean nobody fucks with my people.”

    General Barker laughed, “Yeah, I’ve already found that out.” He said smiling.

    Rick smiled with him, “Aw, you didn’t have to bring that up did you?”

    General Barker laughed and turned to the officers, “When Martin was ready to make his attack on Winchester, I called and said some things that I shouldn’t have…anyway he tells me, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.’” He said with a chuckle, and then added with a boisterous laugh, “Then he hangs up the phone!”

    “Jesus Martin.” Commander Stroup said surprised at his comments.

    “Hey I said, ‘With all due respect.’” He replied with a smile, as the room erupted in laughter. Rick laughed with the men. “Listen fellows…when I said to the General that he has a home with us, well that also applies to you too.” He paused and continued, “That includes the men and women on your ships, and in this group, and the other groups. You all have a home…there is a light at the end of your tunnel.”

    The officers shifted in their seats, becoming quite excited about the prospects. “Mr. Martin, would you explain this thing about giving people houses?” Commander Chris Weston asked.

    “Sure, it’s pretty simple, actually. People need homes, and they need some land to grow their crops. We provide the houses and the land; we’ll till the land and help you with your planting. We also help you with the knowledge needed to grow and care for your crops, and then to harvest and process your food.”  He paused momentarily, “You see, our economy is primarily food and labor based. Now, when I get back, we’re going to make plans to grow your food. I’d like to say that is a simple thing, but in reality it’s going to be a huge task.” He paused again, “We’ll be going from about four hundred people…”

    “Seven hundred when I was there; and growing.” General Barker interjected.

    “Seven hundred, call it a thousand…and then add, what? Another fifty thousand? That’s a HUGE jump. But, we’re going to do it…we have no other choice.” Rick looked at each officer, “You see, at some point you’re going to run out of food. Now, I don’t care how big or bad your ship is, if you don’t have food…” He said with a raised eyebrow, his point made.

    “So how can we help you?” Captain Rich Bell asked.

    Rick exhaled loudly, “I guess right now, we need time. Time to build our foundation, and really that’s what we’re doing now is starting our foundation.” He paused and added, “You can help by keeping those guys off of us.” He said using his thumb indicating the unseen enemy.

    “You mean Engstrom and that group?” General Barker asked.

    “No, I’m not worried about him; I’m more concerned with Russia, China and anyone else that thinks they can have a piece of us.” He said and then turned to the officers, “So, their submarines, ships and aircraft…keep them out.”

    The entire group had their eyes focused on Rick, nodding in agreement.

    “Alright,” General Barker addressed the officers, “Does anyone have any problems in giving their full support to Mr. Martin?” He said, uncharacteristically asking for a vote of sorts, instead of giving an order.

    The men, one at a time spoke, giving their commitment and support to Rick and the civilians.

    “Mr. Martin, you have our full support. Now, speaking for all of the other groups, I can say without a doubt, if you need anything, anything at all, you just ask.” General Barker said. 

    “Thank you General.”

    “One thing you are going to need is the ability to communicate. A couple of the guys at Raven Rock were from NRO, that’s the National Reconnaissance Office, um…satellite spooks, if you will. Anyway, they are in the final stages of moving what’s remaining of a global satellite constellation. There are enough working satellites to give us civilian and military ‘open air’ communications to cover our Northern Hemisphere. We now have the  capability to communicate.” He said proudly, and then added, “After you get your feet on the ground, I’ll have some guys come over and set you up.”

    “Thank you, I appreciate that.” He said with a smile. “Now, gentlemen, I have a dressing change to do…and a lot of work.” He said, and then went to each man, shaking his hand.

    “Mr. Martin, would you do us a favor?” Admiral Daniels asked as the two were shaking hands.

    “Certainly Admiral, what is it?”

    “I’m sure you’ve noticed the morale onboard this ship.” He commented somewhat ashamedly.

    “You mean that it’s in the dumpster?”

    “Exactly. Before you leave tomorrow, would you give the men a talk?”

    Rick cocked his head, his eyes telegraphed his unspoken question.

    “Just like what you did with us…they need to have some hope.” The Admiral asked.

    Rick scratched his head and replied, “If you think that I could say something to them that would have any effect on their moral, then it would be my pleasure.” He said, somewhat insecurely.

    “You leave at 0900, so let’s say 0800 in Hangar Three.” The Admiral said, hopeful of the outcome.

    “I’ll be there…gentlemen, see you later.” Rick said, then took his cane and limped through the door, making his way to Sick Bay. An hour later, his mind swirling with all of the thoughts and mental lists of everything involved with being responsible for the survival of not only the civilians, but now the military, he meandered through the ship. No one said anything to him, or if they did, he didn’t hear. It was the noise of rushing waters, which brought his mind back to the present. Rick was at the fantail of the ship, which is the rear-most part of the carrier and a decent place to experience the incredible power of the ship. The churning waters from the huge propellers ripped vast amounts of ocean as they shoved the massive aircraft carrier forward. There were a couple sailors over to the side; they seemed to be doing the same thing he was, thinking.

    Feeling the rush of wind and seeing the huge expanse of ocean, Rick realized just how small he was, in the larger scheme of things. Taking a deep breath and exhaling loudly, he closed his eyes and muttered, “Ok, God, I can’t do this. It’s just too much…I need your help.”

    His train of thought and impromptu prayer was interrupted, as Chief Master Ignewski walked out and stood next to him alongside the railing. “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” The grizzled sea salt said, looking out at the setting sun and the vast body of water. “Once it gets into your blood, then you can’t stand being away from her.”

    Rick nodded and gazed out, wondering where they were, not that it mattered, he was just curious.

    “I hear that you are ‘The Man’ on the beach.” He said and added, “Why didn’t you say something before?”

    “I just found out myself.” Rick replied, as Ensign Osborne found the pair.

    “Mr. Martin, I just heard.” She said with a smile.

    “Man, word travels fast.” Rick replied. The Ensign looked different; Rick couldn’t place what the changes were, then he noticed she was wearing make-up…and looked very attractive.

    “Yeah well, you know…telephone…telegraph…and tell a Master Chief.” She said with a chuckle. The breeze swirled a hint of her perfume to the men.

    Iggy was surprised at her uncharacteristic comment. “Ensign Osborne, I’ve never heard you talk that way before…what’d you grow a pair while we were gone?” He said sarcastically.

    Midge made a face at the Master Chief.

    “Ensign, would you do me a big favor?” Rick asked.

    “Sure, anything.”

    “My mind is going crazy right now. I would like a legal pad and something to write with.”

    “Not a problem.” She said, and then left.

    Rick and Iggy looked at each other, both shaking their heads. “She is a ball of fire, isn’t she?” Rick said chuckling.

    Iggy didn’t respond to Martin’s comment. “So, you’re married, right?”

    “Yeah, you know that. I’ve told you about Brenda and my girls.”

    “Just asking…that’s all.” He commented, looking in the direction where the Ensign went.

    “What?” Rick asked. “You don’t think…”

    Iggy nodded yes, like he knew something secret. “I know.”

    “Shut up…I’m married. Besides, I’m old enough to be her father.”

    “That don’t mean shit and you know it.” He said. “Look, all I know is that Ensign Osborne was ramrod straight and gung-ho the moment she set foot onboard this ship. She’s not had anything to do personally with anyone onboard…until you came along.”

    Rick grimaced, and then nodded. “Alright, thanks for the heads-up.”

    “No problem, that’s why I get paid the big bucks.” He said with a smile and a chuckle.

    The announcement of a general assembly was broadcast over the loudspeakers for 0800.

    “I guess that’s you, right?”

    “Yeah.” Rick replied and then changed the subject, “Hey, do you think your guys would want to do some work duty on the beach? It would be short term, for right now.”

    “Are you kidding me? They’d kill for a chance to get off this ship…even for just a few days.” He said excitedly. “What do you have in mind?”

    “Just some ideas floating around in my head.” He said and added, “Why don’t we get together for breakfast tomorrow…me, you and the other old Goats.” He said with a smile, using the term that the younger sailors use for Chiefs.

    Iggy smiled and nodded, “Sounds good. 0700 in the forward galley on level three…see you there.”

    The pair split up, Rick headed back to his quarters, as the evening air turned cool, his thin cotton scrubs offering little protection from the changing temperatures. Making his way back without getting lost, Rick smiled at his accomplishment. Lying on his bed was a yellow legal pad with a couple of pens and pencils and some personal care items that Ensign Osborne had rounded up. Rick decided that a hot shower and a shave might help him clear his head. Twenty minutes later, he returned, fresh and clean, and then started to jot questions and make lists.

    A soft rap on the gray metal door interrupted his train of thought, “Come in.”

    Ensign Osborne peeked inside, “Hi, I see you found the notepad.” She said, entering and then closing the door behind her.

    “Yes I did, thanks.” Rick turned sideways in the chair facing Midge, as she sat on his bed. “So, what’s up?”

    “Nothing, I just wanted to stop by and see how you were doing, that’s all.”

    Rick smiled and again noticed her perfume. “I’m doing fine. Just trying to get a jump on…”

    “Rick?” She muttered.

    “Midge, look,” Rick knew the direction this was headed, “I don’t know how…I mean, I’m married.” He said, nervous and definitely not wanting to be offensive.

    “I know…” She replied softly, “but…”

    “But what? No one will know?” He countered.

    Midge nodded, “No one has to.”

    He smiled and stood up, “Come here.”

    She stood up and put her arms around his shoulders, her head in his chest.

    “You are a beautiful woman…and I’m a married man.” He said softly, as she looked up into his eyes. “If I break my promise to my wife, then my word wouldn’t mean crap would it?”

    Midge stared up at him, a tear forming in her eye.

    “I know you are lonely, hell, everyone on this ship is. If I were a single man, I’d be all over you.” He paused and then added, “But I’m not.”

    A tear rolled down her cheek, “Do you really think I’m pretty?”

    “I didn’t say that you were pretty, I said you are beautiful…and you’re a damn good officer.” He said and meant it, “I don’t know any man that wouldn’t want to be with you…and that’s the truth.”

    Midge wiped the tears from her eyes, and looked back at Rick, “You mean it?”

    “Mean it? Hey, look at me...” He said pulling away from her, and chuckled, “now I’m going to have to take another shower. Only this one will be cold.”

    Midge eyed him and blushed, “Oh my, you’re not kidding.” She said with an embarrassed chuckle.

    “Hey I might be married, but I’m not dead.” He said, embarrassed with his own arousal.

    Midge kissed him on the cheek, then turned and went to the door, “What time do you want to get up tomorrow?” She asked, her professional character coming back.

    “I have a 0700 breakfast with the Chiefs, so say 0600?”

    “I’ll have coffee for you, and will knock loud.” She said with a smile, closing the door behind her.

    Rick sat on the bed and let out a long exhale, and then headed off to the head for a cold shower. The cold shower settled his hormones, but not his mind. Trying as best he could to get back to the job of at hand of making notes and writing his thoughts, was impossible. The focus wasn’t there. He desperately wanted to be home with Brenda and the kids, and his people. Reaching up, he clicked off the lamp and went to sleep.

    0600 seemed to arrive a few minutes after he clicked off the lamp. Ensign Osborne entered his dark room and clicked on the desk light, and then placed a steaming cup of jet black coffee on the small desktop. “Good morning, time to get up.” She said with a smile and then quickly left.

    Rick sat on the edge of the bed, and sipped his wake up brew, ready to face the day. After his morning shower and shave, which he really didn’t need, Rick found the forward mess galley and had breakfast with Iggy and some of the other Chief’s. He explained what he would like to do in bringing some of the men over to help out, and in turn received some very good advice and ideas about how they could help.

    Master Chief Ignewski looked at his watch, “Are you ready?”

    Rick and the Chief’s walked through the passageways towards Hangar Three. The closer they got, the more the passageways filled with sailors, as everyone headed towards the assembly. Inside the hangar, Rick met Admiral Daniels, Captain Flannagan, General Barker and XO Terry Hendrick. The XO had a microphone and introduced Rick as a ‘special guest from the beach.’”

    Rick was at ground level, the same level as the rest of the men and women. Noticing a large yellow metal work ladder next to a Super Hornet, he went over to it. With his hands filled with the notepad, cane and microphone, he climbed up to the top flat work area. Ensign Osborne was at the base of the ladder, he asked her if she would take the cane and notepad. She climbed up.

    “Stand up Ensign, we can’t see you!” Someone called out from the crowd.

    Ensign Osborne gave a grimaced stare to the area of the comment. The crowd laughed.

    Rick smiled at the comment and spoke, “Can everyone hear me alright?” He looked at the rear of the hangar where the commanding officers stood. They nodded yes.

    Admiral Daniels spoke quietly to Captain Flannagan, “I hope that we are recording this.”

    “Yes Sir, audio and video.” He replied just as quietly.

    “Good, I want to make sure this gets digitized and encrypted, and then sent out to all units.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    All eyes were on Rick Martin, standing in front of all the men and women of the Bush, with his green surgical scrubs. He looked no more of a leader than one of the ships mess galley stewards, “Good Morning.” He said and took a deep breath, “Life lesson number one.” He said and raised his index finger into the air, “Having your butt peppered with shrapnel, isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds.” He said with a smile. His attempt at a joke drew a few chuckles, “My name is Rick Martin and I have been chosen to lead the Virginia and West Virginia groups.” He looked at the quiet crowd, “We are the only ones, as far as I know, who have any form of civilized government or society.”

    The crowd was very quiet, with an occasional cough sounded out from the masses.

    “First of all, I want to thank everyone onboard this ship. I thank you all for your service, and your professionalism and thank you for putting up with me.” He said with a smile, “I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of you over the past two weeks, and if we haven’t met, I was the slow guy clogging up the ladder-wells.”

    The crowd smiled and nodded their agreement.

    “I especially want to thank the medical staff here,” He said, looking to the crowd for Corpsman Malo and the Dr. Silverman. Finding them he gave a nod, “They are some of the finest guys I’ve met. As a matter of fact, starting today we are making a change.” He paused briefly, “From now on, they will not be known as ‘Pecker Checkers’, they are now, ‘Pecker Checkers, Sir.’” He said with a smile and a chuckle.

    The sailors roared with laughter.

    “Also, where are those aircraft mechanics I met the other day?” He said and looking over the crowd, finding them. “Guys, I still haven’t been able to find that roll of ‘flight line’ you sent me after.” He said, looking over his glasses, like an old style school teacher would to a rowdy pupil, and smiled.

    The crowd roared again at the practical joke, each of the mechanics laughed and elbowed one another. Their Chief glared at them, giving a non-verbal indication that there would be an ass chewing later on.

    “Don’t worry though, when you come over to the beach, I have a special project for you all…it has to do with artificially inseminating a bull.”

    The crowd roared their approval with hoots and laughter.

    Ensign Osborne looking up at Rick said loud enough for her voice to be heard through the microphone, “Sir, that would be a cow not a bull.”

    “No, that would be a bull!” He replied, inciting the crowd further. Rick smiled and waited for a few moments as the crowd quieted down. “It’s good to hear you all laugh…there hasn’t a lot of that lately, has there?”

    The crowd quieted down.

    “They say that the eyes, are the windows to the soul.” He said, pausing briefly, “I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that each of you has two sides to yourselves. One side is the professional sailor or soldier who does their job diligently…the other side is what you reveal when you’re alone. Maybe this other side shows up at the mess galley, or out on the fantail of the ship.”  

    The crowd listened quietly.

    “It is the ‘other side’ where I’ve noticed your pain…yes, I’ve seen it, and I understand it, all too well.” He paused and continued, “There isn’t a person here who hasn’t lost relatives or loved ones, or for some of you…entire cities. The pain from those losses, is excruciating. We have also experienced the same pain. Compounding the pain from the nuclear blasts, is the feeling that you’re not thought of…you’re ignored.” He said, allowing his words to settle in their hearts.

    The sailors stood silent, not even a cough was heard.

    “You all are basically, ‘The Red-Headed Step Children,’ you know what I mean. You don’t have a port to call your own…you’ve got no word from the outside…and life aboard this ship sucks.”

    The group of about a thousand sailors in Hangar Three, and all the others watching on the ships video system, nodded in agreement. Officers and enlisted men nodded as one, their eyes focused on Martin.

    “I would like to take a moment and compare what you have…to what we have. Please bear with me.” He said and then continued, “You get up in the morning, or the afternoon or evening, depending on what your shift or schedule is. You’ll make your way to the head and take a hot shower.” He paused briefly, “For us, a hot shower is non-existent. It would be a luxury beyond compare. For us…to bathe means that we build a fire and then heat up a pot of water…all the while being very careful not to ingest any of the radioactive particles. If we don’t have the time to make hot water, then we’ll bathe in a stream or a lake…again, being very careful about the fallout.”

    The crowd silently listened.

    “So, you’ve had your shit, shower and a shave…and then head down to the Mess Galley to eat. Maybe along the way you’ll stop by one of the many water fountains and get a sip of water.” He paused again, “For us, the process of making drinking water starts the night before. We take a five gallon bucket with small holes in the bottom, and then fill it with dirt and rocks. We’ll set this bucket on top of another and then slowly pour water in, allowing it to filter through and hoping that the fallout is removed. It is a very slow process. The filtered water is dirty, as you can imagine, so then we need to build a fire and boil it. After this water is boiled, it is then set aside for the night to cool…and for the dirt to settle to the bottom. This is our drinking water for the day and for cooking our meals that evening.”

    The sailors were silent, and some had their heads hung down.

    “So, you’ll head into the Mess Galley and hand your tray to one of the servers for some hot chow.” He paused again, “For us to eat, we have to cook our food. Beans and rice takes time…it’s not a quick thing, especially the beans. So we’ll add whatever we like to this concoction and that will be our dinner and breakfast.”

    Rick looked at the crowd, some avoided his gaze.

    “Once you’re finished with your meal, you’ll then go to your duty assignment. Our duty assignment is to break camp. That means we pack our tents and sleeping bags, and then head out to our next camp…constantly looking for water and secure areas.” He paused and quickly continued, “Once you’re finished your duty assignment, then maybe you have some other chores that need to be taken care of. Once that is finished, you’ll head back to your bunks.” Pausing again, “We have to be constantly on the look out for possible ambushes from the ever present cockroaches. You see, the nuclear blast didn’t take out all the bad folks and leave the good ones…it took out all sorts of people. The pedophiles, murderers and rapist thugs are still around. Now, we are the lucky ones, you see, we have weapons. This piece of shit government decided that to have a ‘safe society,’ so they felt the need to confiscate weapons right after the blasts…God help you if you’re an unarmed woman or a child…because you are at their mercy.”

    Rick looked over the uneasy crowd; they were becoming agitated at the mention of the cockroaches.

    “No, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t trade places with you in a New York minute.” He paused and then added, “Now, that being said…I want to offer my apology to all of you.”

    The crowd looked up with questioning expressions.

    “I apologize for not thinking about you all…please understand, we’ve been too busy trying to survive.” Rick took a deep breath and then continued, “However…that is going to change.”

    The crowd shifted slightly, their eyes back on Rick.

    “I give you my word…and I don’t give it out lightly either, that when I return, I will make everyone aware of what you are going through. I am making it my personal mission.”

    Someone started to clap, and it grew louder. Rick held up his hand to continue.

    “Wait please. Here is what we are going to do for you.” Holding up his hand with his index finger extended, “First of all, we are going to grow your food. Now this isn’t as easy as it sounds…the overall increase in production will have to be huge. But we don’t have a choice do we? You see, if we don’t grow your food…you’re not going to eat. Fellows, there are no more Wal Marts.” He said, pausing and then extended another finger, “Number two, we are going to find you a port you can call your own.”

    The crowd clapped excitedly, boisterously hollering at this comment.

    Rick waited a moment for the raucous cheering to calm down, and extending another finger, “Number three, we are going to start bringing you back into civilization. You’ll notice that when I said we’d find you a port to call your own, I didn’t say a port to ‘call home.’” He paused briefly, “Your home is with us.”

    The sailors went wild, cheering and back-slapping each other.

    Rick waited for a moment, “Red-Headed Step Children…there is a light at the end of your tunnel.”

    Rick smiled broadly, allowing the cheering and excitement to build, and then he held up his hand, “However…” He said, sharply into the microphone, “There are some things that I need. This is a two way street.”

    The crowd grew quiet, all eyes and ears were on the speaker.

    Holding up his hand again, and extending his index finger, “Number One, we need time. It takes time to till the fields, time to plant the seed, time to grow and nurture the crops, time to harvest the crops and time to process the food.”

    The Hangar was stone cold quiet as the sailors nodded their understanding. Extending another finger, “Number Two…I need you to keep those guys off of us,” he said using his finger to point outside of the ship, “That means, Russia, China, the UK and anyone else who is harboring thoughts about coming over here for a piece of us. This means, no submarines, no ships and no aircraft.” He said, pausing briefly, “You’ll have to utilize your resources and weapons wisely, and be on your best game 24/7.” He said and added, “Now, don’t worry about Engstrom and those bastards…oh, we’ll take care of them. We have some awesome Marines and combined with our guys, we’ll deal with Mr. Engstrom…you just take of those other clowns.” He said with a murderously grim smile.

    The entire Hangar Three crowd moved closer to Rick’s perch, all showing the same confident expression that his guys had before their attacks. General Barker along with the Admiral and the ship’s officers mixed with the enlisted, they were now as determined as they had ever been.

    Rick noticed the group coming closer and spoke softly, “Now for the last part…this is the most important.” He said, giving the men and women time to clear their minds to listen carefully, “I need you to dig deep and deal with the anger you’re feeling. You need to come to grips with the fact that we have to move on…that doesn’t mean we will forget. We will never forget.” He said softly, his words became steel in their hearts. “Now, I know that some of you will be able to work things out for yourself…but some can’t.” He said and raised his hands in mock surrender, “I couldn’t do it myself, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. So, may I suggest that you ask The One who made you, to take the pain away.”

    The sailors nodded.

    “If you don’t deal with this pain, it will manifest itself in self destructive habits…that’s not healthy. The other part of this equation is…I need you to fall in love again.”

    The group didn’t quite understand, their eyes questioning his comment.

    “Do you remember the first time you set foot on this ship?” He asked.

    They all nodded and moved even closer, wanting to be near Martin.

    “Do you remember that feeling you had when you finished your training and went to your first duty assignment? I need you to dig down deep and bring out those feelings again.” He paused briefly, “If you are to be at your post at 0800…be there ten minutes early, don’t make someone have to come and find you.”

    They all nodded again.

    “When you walk down these passageways, do it with a spring in your step. When you do your job…do it right, the first time. If your mate is down, lift him up, help him out. If your buddy has a task to do and it’s too much, lend a hand, without someone having to ask you.” He paused and looked directly at the grouping of Master Chiefs and Officers, “You Chiefs and Officers…remember that at one time you were young sailors too. Don’t beat up on the young sailors.” He said, and then turned to the vast majority who were just out of high school, “You young sailors…don’t piss off the Chiefs and the Officers. Give then the respect they deserve.” He smiled, as his fatherly talk was almost at its end. “Let’s recap, we are going to grow your food…we are going to find you a port and we are going to bring you all back into the world.” He nodded to them and smiled, “You are going to give us the time we need to grow your food…and you’re going to keep the enemy at bay, and finally, you’re going to do a check-up from the neck-up, right?”

    They all nodded, some said loudly “Aye aye, Sir.”

    “I guess my hearing is going bad…do we have a deal?” He said loudly, egging the crowd to engage with their voices.

    The ship’s crew as a whole; erupted into a deafening cheer.

    Rick smiled at them, “I believe you.” He then looked at his watch, “Well, we’ve been dicking around long enough…I have work to do…and so do you.” He said with a smile, “I’ll see you all on the beach.”

    The sailors massed around Rick as his feet hit the Hangar deck, everyone wanting to either shake his hand, or tap fists. Rick tried to find Iggy, who was buried three people deep. Reaching out, he grabbed a hand full of his shirt and pulled him towards him, “I’ll see you on the beach.”

    Command Master Chief Ignewski smiled, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world…Sir.” 

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