Carpool

by Middie Rosie


Seaman Specialist 1st Class Stuart Riley gazed forlornly at the bewildering array of wires, conduits and unrecognizable parts all crammed into the footlocker-sized engine compartment of his newly acquired car. This wasn't the first time he regretted a youth spent at the beach instead of working on cars. This was the first time, however, that his job could be on the line. What bugged the young sailor the most was that his job included working on the most sophisticated engines in the world: those of the fabulous research submarine, Seaview. He was rated to work on nuclear reactors, for gosh sake, and here a little thirty year old combustion engine had him stymied.

Stu's glassy gaze was caused by a few too many shooters last night. He shook his head, mentally vowing never to go all the way to the Trestles just before a big cruise again. The surf at Rincon was just as radical as anything further south, and it was a damn sight closer to home. Of course, if he had stayed at Rincon, where he was one of the regulars, he would never have been given the opportunity to trade pinks for this genuine 1941 Ford Woodie.

Last night it had seemed like such a good idea. To trade his Vee Dub for the Woodie. The classic surfer transportation. To trade his reliable, comfortable, never-breakdown-in-a-million-years Volkswagen for a smelly, seat sprung, oil eating piece of garbage. Oh yeah, Pea-brain, you been had. He should have realized last night that the deal was too good to be true, but he had been too busy going mano a mano with the guy to think straight. He was so hung up on not losing face in front of a crowd of strangers, that he drank far more than he intended to, matching shooters with a guy he would probably never see again. He was paying for it now. Stuck, with a throbbing headache, on a back road thirty miles from the base, Stu had a little less than three hours to make it to his boat before she sailed.

When he had told his friend and mentor, Kowalski, that he was going all the way to San Clemente to surf, Ski had told him he was nuts to go so far away. Why didn't I listen??? Stu didn't even want to think about what Ski would say about this little blunder.

And his boss, CPO Sharkey!!! He'll skin me alive!! Stu put his hand to his pounding head. Think, Stu, think!! Okay.... the only way you could possibly make the boat is by abandoning this hunk of junk and hitchhiking. Stu sighed miserably. He had only just paid off the VW two months ago. He hadn't had to hitchhike in years. A look up and down the road confirmed that he had not seen another car since he had broken down. Stu had been using this back way into town for years. It was a much prettier and more relaxing drive than the freeway. He had never before given a thought to the isolation.

Stu stood gazing at the engine, trying to remember how far the next outpost of civilization was. He was so wrapped up in his own misery that he did not even hear the purr of the approaching car until it was past. He turned with his hand half raised, but it was too late, and the car disappeared around the bend. Disgusted with himself, Stu slammed down the hood of the Woodie, walked around to the rear, and pulled out his board and duffel. He knew that lugging his surfboard would make getting a ride harder, but there was no way he was going to leave it behind. Ten feet long, he had built it himself in his senior year in high school.

No sooner had he set himself up on the grassy verge of the road, when the sound of an engine perked up his ears. Sure enough, a car appeared from over the slight rise. Hoping his luck had changed, Stu stuck out his thumb in the time-honored pose, and tried his best not to look disreputable.

The car was practically on him when he realized it was one of the familiar gray sedans owned by the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. Stu's hopes soared then crashed down as he recognized the driver. Oh no! Of all the luck... Stu froze, half hoping that the driver would not notice him, but it was a vain hope. Stu had to admit to himself that it was unlikely that Lt. Cmdr. Morton, the Seaview's Executive Officer, could miss his bright purple board, with orange and yellow flames covering the upper half. As it was, the XO did seem to miss him, passing him up and traveling a good hundred yards down the road before screeching to a halt, pausing for what seemed like an eternity, and then backing up.

Stu sighed resignedly. Facing Chief Sharkey was bad enough, but to have to explain to Mr. Morton was a billion times worse. Stu figured the base was an hour away, and he could count on the lecture on responsibility to last at least that long. Determined to put a good face on it, Stu grinned and called out, "Boy, am I ever glad to see you, Sir!"

The Exec never looked at Riley, but instead he made a beeline to the Woodie. "Riley, what happened? Where's your Volkswagen?"

"Uh, well, Sir, I sort of traded it for this Woodie, Sir."

Morton slowly turned and pinned Riley with a cool stare. "You did what?"

Stu wanted to dissolve into the ground, but Ski had once told him that if he showed any fear or hesitation to any of the senior officers, they would pounce and eat him alive. So instead of giving into his desire to cower, he put a cocky grin on his face, and brazened it out. "I traded my Vee Dub for this Woodie. It's a classic, you know. Sir."

Lt. Cmdr. Morton blinked. Turning his attention back to the car, he asked, "What's wrong with it?" He reached expertly under the grille to release the hood, and lifting it up, peered into the engine compartment. Stu stood next to the officer, trying to look knowledgeable as he stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at the engine. A look of confusion passed over the XO's face as he fingered some of the more frayed looking wires. "How did you get it here?"

"Sir?"

Morton looked perplexedly at the younger man. "Riley, how did you get this car here?"

The question left Stu slightly bewildered. "What do you mean, Sir? I drove it up from the Trestles."

"The Trestles??? You're kidding!!!" The Exec's ice blue eyes widened in shock.

Stu Riley was taken aback by Morton's blatant disbelief. "Sure I did, Sir. Why, is there something wrong?"

Chip Morton stood shaking his head as he ran a hand over one of the disintegrating rubber gaskets. "Riley....... never mind." With a typically decisive move, Morton shut the hood, produced a handkerchief and wiped his hands, saying. "This is not a simple repair job. Lock it up, and let's get going."

Stu picked up his duffel and board, and headed toward the gray sedan, saying "It's already locked, Sir."

"Whoa! Wait a minute! The surfboard stays. Put it in the Woodie."

Stu felt a thrill of horror course through him. Leave his board??? Was the man crazy? "Mr. Morton, I can't leave my board, Sir! I've had it since I was a kid! Please, Sir, can't we just strap it on the roof?"

Lt. Cmdr. Morton's stare became icy. "Stu, we don't have time for this. Put the surfboard in the car, and let's go."

Riley recognized the end of the discussion and angrily stomped to the rear of the Woodie, unlocked the tailgate, and slid his board in. Stu mournfully locked the car up, sure that he had seen the last of his baby. He raised his eyes, glaring balefully at the gray sedan parked in front of the Woodie.

He remembered a gripe session with some of the engine room gang. The consensus was that Lt. Cmdr. Morton had not been born of a woman, but had sprung fully formed, complete with clipboard and mechanical pencil, from the brow of Admiral Harriman Nelson. His friend, Kowalski, had laughed at the idea, saying if they really knew the Exec, they wouldn't have any doubts about his humanity. Stu had been doubtful, especially when Ski refused to mention details. This latest incident just proved the point. The Seaview's ice-and-steel Exec had no heart.

The trunk of the sedan had been opened, and Stu advanced to put his duffel in next to Morton's. He slammed down the trunk and looked up to find that the Exec had gotten in on the passenger side. Resentment surged through him. Oh great, now he expects me to play chauffeur. He had little choice, so he walked to the driver's side and got in.

The speaker of the car's two-way radio crackled with static, but a tinny voice could plainly be heard to say "I'll get on it right away, Sir. Base over and out!"

Morton replaced the microphone in its holder, and turned to the young sailor. "I'm having your car picked up by the motorpool at the Institute. They'll be here within the hour. You mind driving? I have some reports to go over."

Riley's surprise showed on his young face. He had been worrying about how he was going to get the Woodie home. It never even occurred to him to ask the Exec to have the car towed. Stu realized he was staring only when the XO cocked his head and prompted sardonically, "Riley?"

Stu shook himself and grinned foolishly, "Thanks, Mr. Morton! For taking care of my car, I mean. I mean, sure, I'll drive, Sir!"

Morton's slight frown smoothed out, and he settled back into the seat, opening the briefcase he held on his lap. Riley started up the car, put it into gear and pulled smoothly out onto the asphalt covered road. As he relaxed behind the wheel, he made a face at the music coming from the radio. Leave it to Mr. Morton to listen to old lady music.

When he was a kid, his grandma had tried to interest Stu in classical music, but even at a young age he had only liked rock and roll. By his late teens, the southern California surfer culture had developed its own music which Stu embraced wholeheartedly. As he drove, the sounds of violins wafting from the radio started to grate on his nerves.

How can anyone listen to this stuff? Stu gripped the steering wheel tightly, hands together at the top of the wheel, thumbs tapping a nervous tattoo. He glanced over at the seemingly oblivious Exec, then down at the radio, then back again. Morton was engrossed in the papers he was reading. Stu figured that the man couldn't possibly care what was on the radio. Almost as soon as the thought had been formed, and before Stu could act on it, the Exec spoke without ever raising his head. "Touch it, and die."

Startled, Stu blurted, "Sir?"

Without ever giving any indication that he was doing anything other than reading, the XO murmured, "You heard me."

Stu sighed. Now he understood what Patterson had been talking about when he said the senior officers were all psychic, and could read your mind while on autopilot. Disgusted, Stu turned his attention back to his driving. The song that had been playing ended, and the next one was one that he was actually familiar with. It had been background music to a movie he had seen called "2001: A Space Odyssey". Funny, it never occurred to him that the Dawn of Man theme had not been specifically written for the movie. Stu cocked his ear, and as the miles passed, started to relax. Maybe not all of this music was so bad.

Forty minutes later, they were approaching the outskirts of Santa Barbara. Morton looked up from his reading for the first time and said casually, "Head up to State Street, would you? We have to pick up the Captain." Stu, who had finally started to relax in the quiet presence of his boss's boss, immediately started to tense up again. Being this close to the senior staff could give him a case of brass poisoning. He wasn't sure why that was. He worked side by side with both Mr. Morton and Captain Crane on the Seaview, and it never bothered him. But somehow, driving along in his jeans and tee shirt, sitting next to the immaculately uniformed Exec made him feel as if any sudden movement on his part would bring all sorts of trouble down on his head.

A thought suddenly occurred to the young seaman. He blurted out without thinking, "Hey, Mr. Morton, weren't you on leave? How come you're in uniform?"

The Exec paused in his reading, "Hmm? What?"

"Um, I just wondered how come you're in uniform, because I thought you were on leave too."

"Oh. No, I wasn't on leave."

"You know, Mr. Morton, you really oughta take some time off once in a while. You're gonna put yourself in an early grave if you don't learn to relax." As soon as the words left his lips, Stu knew it was the wrong thing to say. Geez, what am I doing? Sharkey will kill me if he finds out I've been giving advice to the XO!

Stu risked a glance over at the Exec, and found the older man was staring at him, a slight smile playing around his lips. Stu felt his ears turn pink, and he glued his eyes to the road, saying "Sorry, Sir. I didn't mean anything by it."

"That's all right, Riley. It is nice to know you would prefer I live a while longer."

"What??? Oh gosh, Sir, that's not what I meant at all! I mean, I don't want you to die! I didn't mean for it to sound like that!"

"Riley!! Riley, relax. I know what you meant. Calm down. Now, do you know how to get to Captain Crane's place?"

"Uh, yes, Sir. Um, you turn up at the next light, right?"

"Right, then turn left at the second stop sign." Morton returned to his paperwork, and Stu tried to relax as he piloted the big sedan up into the hills above Santa Barbara. Captain Lee Crane owned a spacious condominium overlooking the city and the ocean beyond. Stu had been to the Captain's condo on a couple of occasions, and wished he could aspire to such a beautiful place. One side of the living room was a wall of glass interrupted only by a sliding door that opened onto the balcony running its length. The kitchen and bathroom were as modern as anything Stu had ever seen, yet the place was full of comfortable, homey touches. The first time Stu had been there he came away with a better sense of the humanity of the man.

He pulled up in front of the large building and spotted the Captain coming down the front stairs. Mindful of his position as chauffeur, Riley hopped out of the car, and hurried to take the Captain's duffel and briefcase. Flashing a grin, he said "I'll take that, Skipper!"

The bemused Captain handed over the duffel and said, "I've got a couple of cases just outside my front door."

"I'll get them, Sir."

Riley could tell the Captain was on the verge of asking him what he was doing there, so he double-timed away to forestall the question. He thought Captain Lee B. Crane was about the most heroic person in the world, and it pained him to think how foolish he would look in the Captain's eyes when he found out how Stu lost his Vee Dub. He trotted to the trunk, popped it open and dropped in the Captain's duffel bag, then trotted past the approaching man to get the cases that had been mentioned. Stu found the cases by the front door as promised, and was surprised by their weight when he picked them up. He wondered if Captain Crane had taken to lugging lead weights around. Riley moved as quickly as he could carrying the two cases. As he put the cases in the trunk, he could hear the Captain laughing merrily.

When Stu climbed into the driver's seat of the sedan, he noticed that while Captain Crane was still chuckling in the back seat, Mr. Morton had gone into shut down mode in the front. Uh oh. Mr. Morton only got that look when he was annoyed about something. Riley could never quite figure out whether to run or just stand very still when the Exec got that look. He swallowed hard, and started up the car.

In an overly calm voice, Morton asked, "You know how to get to the Admiral's place from here, don't you Stu?"

"Yes, Sir. Up to Foothill, and straight over, right?"

"No, go on up to Piedmont. There's a lot of construction on Foothill right now."

"Piedmont, Sir? Doesn't that dead end?"

"Yeah, it does, but if you turn on Clarion, it will take you right to Silverspur."

"Oh, okay, Sir."

Stu glanced in his rearview, and saw the Captain leaning back in his seat, hands behind his head, a big smile on his face. As he pulled out in traffic, he heard the Captain call out softly, "Chip?" The Exec, although giving every sign of being totally engrossed in his paperwork, immediately looked up at the sound of his Captain's voice.

"Yes, Sir?"

Again so softly that Stu had to strain to hear the words, the Captain spoke. "Chip, what is that noise on the radio?"

"Uh..." The Exec cocked his head, momentarily listening. "The Carmina Burana. Carl Orff. 1936."

"Chip, why is that noise on the radio?"

With an almost inaudible sigh, the Exec reached out, and pushed one of the preset buttons on the radio and hot jazz blared out of the speakers. Stu glued his eyes to the road, and bit his lip to smother the laugh that wanted to erupt. While not surf music, jazz was better than the old lady music that had been playing. Glancing into the rearview, he saw Captain Crane wink at him.

"So, Stu, tell me about this car."

Inwardly cringing, Stu realized there was no way Mr. Morton hadn't told the Captain about the Woodie. Mindful that hesitation would only make the Captain more insistent, Riley pasted a smile on his face and explained. "Yes, Sir. It's a genuine 1941 Ford Woodie. That's a kind of station wagon with real wood panels on the sides. They are really great! You can fit six people and their boards and anything else you're gonna need in them! They are like, classic, you know, Sir?"

"Mr. Morton tells me it broke down."

"Well, yeah, it did. After all, it is an old car, Skipper. But I figure I'll get some of the guys to help me out, and I'll get it running. This is the kind of car surfers dream of, Sir! I am lucky to have it."

Stu tried to keep the pleading whine out of his voice. He was trying to convince the Captain as well as himself that he did the right thing trading for this car. He stole a glance at the rearview, and saw the Captain was trying to stifle his amusement. Stu felt his heart sink. He couldn't think of anything worse than looking like a fool to this man.

With slumped shoulders, Stu turned back to his driving. Mr. Morton had returned to his report, but Stu sensed a tension in the officer, as if he were waiting for something. Riley barely registered the tension before Capt. Crane remarked from he back seat. "Lucky. Yes, I guess you are lucky at that. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Morton?"

A frown flickered across Stu's young face as he realized the Captain's words held some deeper meaning for the XO. Try as he might, he couldn't quite puzzle out that meaning. Mr. Morton had shifted uneasily in his seat, muttered something that sounded like, 'yeah, lucky', but never once lifted his head from the report he was studying. Stu risked a glance in the rearview, but Captain Crane was to all appearances looking out the window, enjoying the view.

Stu hated that feeling of being left out of the conversation, but there was very little he could do about it. He drove with knuckle whitening tension, but both of the officers seemed relaxed and oblivious to his annoyance. Stu Riley was basically an easygoing guy, and he let go of his pique after a few minutes, relaxing into the drive. The big sedan was a seductive car in its own way, with more power than Stu's little bug could ever muster.

Admiral Nelson owned one of the big showplace homes at the top of a ridge overlooking the city. Scuttlebutt had it that the Admiral's sister had bullied him into buying it, saying it lent prestige to the Admiral, and by association, to the Institute. The Admiral rarely stayed at the home, preferring a small, cramped apartment on the Institute grounds.

Stu could understand Admiral Nelson's reluctance to stay in the place. Every time Stu had been there, he had felt a slight shudder at the size of the rooms, and the sheer expensiveness of it all. Despite the echoing expanse of the entryway, Stu always felt he should hold himself tightly in so that the costly appointments were in no danger of his bull-in-a-china-shop clumsiness. But despite its magazine cover perfection, Stu felt the place was essentially soulless. When you walked in, there was no sense of the Admiral's presence, not like his cabin on the Seaview. It was just a big empty decoration. But it sure is a pretty decoration, Stu thought as he drove up the wide sweeping driveway, past the immaculately manicured lawns that always reminded him of a golf course.

Parking in front of the flower lined front walk that led to massive double front doors, Stu paused before getting out. He just knew the XO and the Captain would start talking the minute he was out of earshot. His hesitation did not go unnoticed... the Exec suddenly looked up from his report and pinned Stu with a typically blank-eyed stare. Stu started and then hustled himself out of the car.

He ran up the wide steps to the front door, and pushed the doorbell. He heard the slightly muffled chimes sound in the house. He recalled Ski telling him once that they alone had cost more than a month's salary. Stu was pretty sure that Ski was pulling his leg. Admiral Nelson was far too practical a man to spend that kind of money on something so frivolous as a doorbell. Stu heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and glanced back at the car. Sure enough the two officers were having an animated discussion. Stu swung back around as the door was opened by a tiny older woman in a housekeeper's dress.

Stu grinned widely, "Hi, Mrs. Contreras! I'm here to pick up the Admiral!"

"Ah, Stuart! It is so good to see you again! Come in, come in, Admiral Nelson's bags are right here! I thought Commander Morton was coming?"

Stu stepped into the marble entryway. Mrs. Maria Contreras held a special place in his heart. She reminded him of a Mexican housekeeper his parents had employed when he was a kid. "Mr. Morton is out in the car, Ma'am. Are these the only bags?"

"Yes, Stuart. I will go and tell the Admiral that you are here."

"Okay, Mrs. Contreras. I'll see you later!"

"Vaya con Dios, Stuart."

Stu picked up the two small suitcases and trotted out to the car. As he approached, he saw the XO glance at him quickly, confirming Stu's suspicion that the two officers were talking about him. Him and the damned car. Stu wished he had never seen that rattletrap. It cost him in the eyes of his superiors. Stu had realized some time ago that his youth was behind him. While he still enjoyed surfing, it couldn't replace the adult pleasure of solving problems that made a difference in the world. These three officers dealt in life and death decisions, often with the peace or even survival of the world a consequence of their actions. He couldn't even imagine any of them ever pulling such a bonehead play.

Opening the trunk, Stu noticed Admiral Nelson coming down the front walk. He hurriedly tossed the bags in the trunk, and hastened to open the car door for the man. As the Admiral passed, Stu grinned, "Good Morning, Sir!"

Nelson glanced up, seeming to notice Riley for the first time. "Uh, good morning, Riley. " Nelson paused with one hand on the car door, staring at Stu as if he thought he should remember why Riley was there. The young seaman stood patiently waiting for the Admiral to enter the car, and after a moment, Nelson did just that.

Stu heard the Admiral's "Good Morning, gentlemen" as he shut the door. He trotted around the rear of the car, shutting the trunk as he did so. Getting in and starting the car, Riley was aware of the Admiral's eyes on the back of his neck. Captain Crane was asking the Admiral if he had seen the news on TV, saying that it sounded like the Congress was looking at cutting back the budget again, but the Admiral was silent. After a moment, the Exec seemed to surface from his reading, and calmly said, "Stu, why don't you tell Admiral Nelson about your new car?"

"Uh, yes, Sir. Admiral, I traded my Vee Dub for a 1941 Ford Woodie. I was driving it up from Orange County, but it broke down. Mr. Morton just happened to come by, so he gave me a lift, and here I am, Sir."

"A Woodie?"

"It's a classic." Captain Crane said helpfully.

Riley felt his ears start to redden. A quick glance in the rearview showed a look pass between the Captain and Admiral that Stu could not for the life of him interpret. He heaved a sigh. If the headache didn't teach him never to overindulge in liquor again, this little trip with the Seaview's senior staff sure would.

As Riley pulled out on to the street, Admiral Nelson's voice floated up from the back seat, "Chip, turn the station."

Mr. Morton immediately sat up and pushed a button on the car radio, with a crisp "Yes, Sir" in reply. The sounds of big band music came from the speakers. Stu groaned inwardly. His Dad's favorite music. To Stu, it was hopelessly square. He looked over at the Exec, and was surprised to see the man shudder expressively. Morton caught Riley's eye, and said dryly, "The foodchain in action."

Riley barked a short laugh. Could it be Mr. Morton was actually joking with him?

Wary of attracting the attention of the higher ups in the back seat. Riley smothered his smile and muttered, "Good one, Mr. Morton." He concentrated on his driving. A quick look at the Exec, and Riley was left wondering if he had heard it right. The XO was once again to all appearances totally oblivious to his surroundings, his eyes glued to his paperwork.

The four men settled into silence for a short while. Admiral Nelson eventually spoke up. "Chip, how did it go at Hueneme?"

Recognizing that the Admiral wanted to talk, Mr. Morton carefully put the report he was working on in his briefcase, saying, "It went pretty well, Sir. We got the hydraulics installed with no problem. Some of the computer connections gave us a fit, but we worked overtime, and got the whole system up and running right on time."

"Captain Delaney give you any grief?"

"No, Sir. Nothing I couldn't handle." came the firm reply.

Riley wondered at that. The Admiral's tone indicated he expected the XO to have had problems. He'd have to remember to ask Chief Sharkey who Capt. Delaney was. Stu realized with a start that if he asked the Chief, he would be letting himself in for some real grief. He could hear Sharkey now: 'You eavesdroppin' on superior officers? The bilge needs cleaning, and you just volunteered.' Stu turned his attention to the road, diligently ignoring the conversation swirling around him.

After a while, the talk died down and the car was quiet except for the silky voice of Helen O'Connell and the Tommy Dorsey Band. Stu's attention was all on his driving, as cross-town traffic picked up. He was aware that Mr. Morton was sitting looking out the window. He wished the man would go back to his paperwork. Although the XO gave no indication, Stu felt as if his driving skills were under intense scrutiny. He felt his neck muscles tighten up, causing his poor head to throb even more than before. Coming up on the light at State and Washington, Stu's natural inclination was to speed up when the light turned yellow, but mindful of Mr. Morton's attention, he instead slowed to a careful, legal stop behind the crosswalk. Breathing a sigh, he relaxed only to stiffen at the tone of disgust in Captain Crane's voice. "The longest stoplight in the city."

He wanted to point at Mr. Morton and say it was all his fault. No, what he really wanted to do was escape. He settled for a penitent, "Sorry, Sir." As they sat out the light, a huge flatbed tractor trailer pulled up at the intersection, drawing Stu's eye. On the flatbed rested three compact bright yellow shining backhoes, apparently destined for an equipment rental company. Stu stared at the bright little machines, trying to place them. They looked so familiar . . .

"Tonka Trucks!!!" Stu blurted out without thinking.

Riley groaned inwardly as all three of his passengers looked up at the enticing sight. Ah, Geez, Pea-brain! Grow up! To his amazement, Captain Crane broke into a delighted chuckle. "You know, Stu, you're right! They do look just like Tonka Trucks! I had one myself. Only it was a grader. You could work the wheels and everything. One of the best toys I ever had. I wonder whatever happened to it....."

The Admiral's gruff voice broke in, "I had a steam shovel. It was red and gray. I used to spend hours digging holes in my mother's flower beds. I suspect she must have given it away at some point."

Stu was lost in his memory of a backhoe just like the ones on the back of the truck. "I used to take my backhoe to the beach. Mom gave me a little bucket, and I would fill it with my backhoe."

Crane, Nelson and Riley sat lost in momentary reverie, connected across the generations by memories of simple toys. The light changed, and the moment was broken, as Stu accelerated down the street. After a moment, Captain Crane spoke softly, "Chip, what kind of Tonka Truck did you have?"

The Exec started slightly, and said simply, "I never had one."

Stu felt an instant sympathy for the man. He'd never given a thought to what kind of childhood these men had. He had grown up in a house full of love and laughter and had only become aware that that was not everyone's experience when he started his Naval career. What kind of a parent would deprive a kid of toys? It sort of explained why Mr. Morton was so... well... hard.

He glanced sympathetically over at the man, who happened to look up in time to catch the pity in Stu's eyes. Raising a sardonic eyebrow, the XO said, "I'm a Buddy L man myself."

Stu heard a snorted laugh behind him, but he was unsure if it came from the Captain or Admiral. Mr. Morton looked away out the window and commented, "I had a dump truck that could bury any grader, backhoe or steam shovel out there. And if THAT didn't do the job, my bulldozer would."

By the time the Exec had finished speaking, Captain Crane was laughing out loud, and Admiral Nelson was chuckling softly. "Oh God, the Terror of the Sandbox strikes!!" The Captain gasped out between laughs.

"Sandbox?? You crazy? There were cats all over the neighborhood. Nobody with any sense played in the sandbox!"

Stu couldn't help sniggering. The vision of the Seaview's exacting executive officer playing with toy trucks was too much for him. He could sense the man's ice blue eyes upon him, but he refused to glance over. After a moment he felt rather than saw the man relax next to him.

Stu turned down the entry road to the Institute, thinking the security gate never looked so good to him. He pulled up to the gate, and Joe Weisner leaned over to look in the car. Weisner, a grizzled veteran of many years service, always made Stu feel uncomfortable, like the man didn't trust him. This time, though, with all the brass in the car, Weisner just waved him through. Stu asked, "Shall I drive straight to the docks, Sir?"

Stu didn't know precisely who to address the question to, but it was Admiral Nelson who responded, "Drop me off at my office."

"Stu, I think I'll get off there, too. I think the Exec wants to have a word with you, don't you Mr. Morton?"

When the XO heaved an exasperated "Yes, Sir" in Captain Crane's direction, Stu felt his stomach tighten. He should have known that the senior staff would not let the fiasco with the car pass. Sure enough, when the Captain and Admiral got out of the car in front of administration building, Captain Crane paused just long enough to say to the Exec "Go easy on him." The two minute drive from the Administration offices to the docks passed in silence.

Stu felt he could not stand the tension any longer, and turned to the Exec as he turned off the car, but the man silenced him saying "We'll do this in my office. Come with me, Riley."

Getting out of the car, Morton hailed the Officer of the Deck, "Bob, would you get someone to unload the trunk, then get this car over to the motorpool, please."

The Exec did not wait for the crisp acknowledgment, but strode down the gangway, with the disconsolate Riley trailing behind. Stu found that he had to double time it to keep up with the quick pace that the Exec set. Upon arriving in officer's country, Mr. Morton ushered Stu into his quarters and indicated to the young seaman to take a seat in front of his desk. Riley did so, and then waited for the lecture to come. And waited. And waited. Finally he risked raising his eyes from the floor.

Mr. Morton sat staring at him with a disconcertingly worried frown. It seemed almost as if the officer didn't know where to start. Stu thought fleetingly that maybe the Exec was going to fire him. Maybe getting that car showed judgment so bad, that the Captain and Admiral didn't even want him on the boat. Leaning back, rubbing the back of his neck, the XO said, "You know what this is about, don't you?"

"Yes, Sir." Stu hung his head miserably. "It's about the car."

"Yeah. The car." The Exec paused. "All right, Riley. Who put you up to this?"

Stu blinked in confusion. "Put me up to this? Put me up to what, Mr. Morton?"

"You know what I am talking about. Who told you to about that Woodie?"

"Sir? I don't understand what you are asking me. I went surfing and I ran into this guy and he talked me into trading pinks. Believe me, Sir, I wish I'd never seen the guy! I'd give anything to have my bug back!"

"Your bug. You want it back?"

Oh, yes, Sir! I really loved that car. It was just right for me. This Woodie, well it was like a dream come true. You know, the perfect surfer car? But that's all it is. Just a dream. The reality is, it's the kind of car only a car buff should have. You know, the kind of guy that spends weekends tinkering? I'm just not that kind of guy."

"So, can you trade it back?"

Riley shook his head in despair. "Sir, even if I could find the guy, why should he trade it back? He got the best of the deal."

"What if you bought the Volkswagen back?"

"Sir, I couldn't afford what it 's worth."

"I'll tell you what. Why don't we call the guy, and see?"

Stu blinked. Hadn't the man been listening? "Sir, I don't even know his name."

With an air of patience, the Exec replied, "You have the pink slip, don't you? Let me see it."

Feeling like an idiot, Stu reached into his wallet and pulled out the pink, which obligingly showed the name and address of the proud new owner of his VW. Mr. Morton took the slip, jotted down the information on a notepad and handed the pink back to Riley. "Okay. Let me see what I can do." The Exec looked at his watch and frowning said, "You better go get suited up. You're on first watch."

"Yes, Sir." Riley was a bit confused and more than a bit annoyed at the officer's seemingly abrupt dismissal, but was too well trained to do anything but obey. He left the Exec's quarters, and made his way to his berth in the crew quarters. There was a cheerful hubbub in the quarters as men prepared for yet another cruise. Stu opened his locker to get his coveralls when Kowalski's voice was raised as he 'argued' with Pat Patterson, a longtime friend. "No, Pat, you must have heard it wrong!! How could Riley have gotten in trouble with the Exec before we've even left the dock?"

"I dunno, Ski. Riley's a pretty inventive guy." came the reply. Stu shut his locker to find his two buddies casually leaning up against the bank of lockers, grins plastered on their faces.

"You guys have it all wrong, see. The XO just wanted my advice on how to run the boat... Somethin' you two wouldn't know anything about."

Ski threw his head back in a laugh, shaking his head. "What happened, Stu? Malone said he saw you drive up in a company car with Mr. Morton. Didn't you go down to San Clemente to surf?"

"Oh, man! Don't mention San Clemente to me! You were right, Ski, I shoulda never left town. I went down there, got drunk as a.... as a sailor! And then I got conned out of my car."

"The Vee Dub?"

"Geez, Riley, what have I told you about drinking?"

"I know, I know, two beers or one tequila, but Ski, you had to have been there... There were all these beautiful girls, and everyone else was doing it. I was just trying to score...." Riley hoped that calling on Ski's well known weakness for pretty women would justify his actions in his mentor's eyes, but Ski stood there shaking his head. The distaste was as plain on his face as the pity was on Patterson's.

"All right, so you got conned. How are we going to get your car back? You can't be without a car." Riley felt a hope stir in his breast. He was facing some serious teasing over this, but when all was said and done, the men of the Seaview stood together.

"I don't know, Ski. The Exec said he was gonna try to get the guy to sell it back to me, or trade back the pinks."

"Pinks? What pinks?" Patterson asked.

"Well, what happened was, I got drunk and traded pink slips with this guy. He got my bug, and I got his old jalopy."

"Jalopy? What, you mean like a rod?"

"Naw, nothing that good. Just an old, beat up Woodie."

Patterson's eyes grew big, and Kowalski burst into laughter. "A Woodie??? Stu, you have got to be kidding! A Woodie, he says!"

Patterson stood grinning and shaking his head, "You'd better tell him, Ski!"

"Tell me what?"

"Oh, no. No, no. You'll find out soon enough!! You traded that damn bug for a Woodie!! Oh, man!! The Exec must be...." Ski left the words hanging, as he wiped tears from his eyes. "Riley, you really do have the damnedest luck!"

Stu really hated not being in on things. He was about ready to knock heads around when the door to the crew quarters flew open, and in strode CPO Sharkey, clipboard in hand. "All right, people, listen up!! This here's the duty roster for the next seventy two hours. I want A watch on deck in five minutes. C watch at sixteen hundred, B watch at twenty hundred. Patterson, I want you down in the missile room right now. And Riley, I catch you wiping your nose then the sonar screen again, I'll launch you right out the torpedo tubes, got it? All right, knuckleheads, let's go get this boat moving."

Sharkey disappeared as quickly as he had come, knowing his orders would be followed. There was sudden movement in the room as lockers were shut and men moved to take up their duty stations.

Stu made his way to the Control Room and took his place at the sonar array. The next hour was spent in running diagnostics and test patterns. He had learned the art of sonar detection at the side of the master, Kowalski, and it was only in the last few months that the Captain had deemed him worthy of performing the function without close supervision. It was an exacting job, and Stu was very proud of his ability. All thoughts of his personal problems fled his mind as he settled into his work.

Stu became so engrossed in his work that at first he did not here Chief Sharkey calling his name. He only surfaced when the Chief tapped his shoulder, making the young seaman jump a foot out of his seat. "Yeah, Chief?"

Sharkey leaned closer and said conspiratorily, "Kid, I been hearing about your little escapade. Good job!"

Stu blinked. What on earth? "Uh, thanks, Chief."

Stu watched with puzzled eyes, as the CPO made his way out of the Control Room. Shaking his head, he turned back to his systems checks.

Stu had just finished the final checks on his system when he sensed someone next to him. He looked up into the wary face of Lt. Cmdr. Morton. Stu felt uneasy. Why would the Exec look at him like that? He asked hesitantly, "Can I help you, Sir?"

Morton seemed to give himself a little shake. "Riley, I've got your car back for you."

Stu blinked, and thrill of hope rising in him. "You got it back, Sir? How? I mean, did he trade back the pinks?"

"No, Riley, he didn't want the Woodie back. I just bought your Vee Dub."

Stu felt his heart sink. "Sir... Mr. Morton, I don't have the money to pay you back for it. I'm sorry, Sir, I thought you understood that."

Morton crossed his arms across his chest cocked his head and said with a touch of sarcasm, "Just how much do you think that car is worth, anyway."

Stu was stung by the question. He loved his Vee Dub. It was the first new car he had ever bought. In his eyes it was priceless. "Uh, I paid three thousand dollars for it, Sir!"

"Well, let's just say I paid a lot less. So, why don't I trade you the Vee Dub for the Woodie?"

Stu felt as if he could not have heard the question properly. "Huh?... I mean, excuse me, Sir?"

Exasperated, Morton said, "Riley, you have got to be the only man on this boat, make that the only man in Santa Barbara who doesn't know I've been looking for a Woodie to restore. You said the Woodie belongs with a tinkerer. Well, that's what I do. I restore old cars and I want that Woodie. Now, are we going to trade pinks, or what?"

Stu Riley sat with his mouth hanging open. A slow smile started as things began to make sense. He looked up at the Exec, waiting patiently for his answer. Seaman Stuart Riley grinned, happier than he had been all day, and said, "You've just bought yourself a Woodie, Sir! It's a classic, you know!"



Copyright 1999 by Middie Rosie
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