Biographical Fiction posted June 4, 2019


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A short story about reasonability set in the North Atlantic

On Course

by Jerome Goldberg

BRIDGE: CIC - BOGEY AT 135, 4000 YARDS.

CIC: BRIDGE -- AYE.

That was the watch officer in the Combat Information Center (CIC) telling me that we are not alone in the North Atlantic. There is an unknown ship, a bogey, about 2 miles from us. That's cool, I can handle this. I'll have the Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) check it out. He is an Academy Boy and that will keep him busy and out of my hair for a while.

MR. RATHERFORD, DO YOU HAVE VISUAL?

NO SIR, BASED ON OUR LOCATION, COULD BE A RUSSIAN TRAWLER.

Love the trade school boys, so precise! OK, I should not be so cynical. It is just that he is so squared away. His uniform is perfect. His posture is perfect and he is so confident. I guess I am a bit jealous.

Back to business, I might have a Russian Trawler on my starboard (right side) and slightly behind. Wonderful! I am steaming due North in the North Atlantic and I've got a Russian Trawler approaching. It took me a little over a full year to qualify as an OOD Underway (Officer of the Deck, Underway) and here it is 0100 hours (1:00 AM) and I am standing my very first watch as OOD and a Russian Trawler has to show up! This should have been a boring watch, the type you give a rookie: normal weather for time and place and open sea far from the commercial shipping lanes.

OK. I can handle this, after all I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from a great school in the Mid-West. There were no lakes, rivers or oceans nearby; but, I can play the oboe and discuss the fine points of various Renaissance painters.

ENSIGN RATHERFORD, MONITOR THE ANGLE ON THE BOW AND RANGE, KEEP ME INFORMED EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES. SOONER IF IT REMAINS CONSTANT. LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU HAVE A VISUAL.

AYE-AYE LIEUTENANT.

An old rule of thumb is that if the angle on the bow is constant and the range is decreasing, you are on a collision course. Another old rule is that a collision at sea is BAD! VERY BAD! And a standing order on this ship is that the Captain should be informed anytime there is another ship within 1000 yards of us.

ANGLE ON THE BOW STILL 135 RANGE DECREASED TO 3300 YARDS. SILHOUETTE CONSISTENT WITH A RUSSIAN TRAWLER.

This was NOT good. There were four possibilities: 1.The captain of this innocent civilian fishing boat had had too much vodka or is so negligent, that he does not know that he is on a collision course with us. 2. He wants to collide with us. 3. He wants to force us to collide with him. 4. He just wants to harass and possibly humiliate us.

This is a high stakes game and we were just pawns. The "civilian" captain of the trawler would get points for harassing us. Although, he might not live to enjoy them, he would get even more points for a collision because a trawler costs less than one tenth as much as a US Navy ship and carries far less crew. And, he would hit the jackpot if he could trick us into violating the rules of the road and hitting him. The propaganda value of a US Naval ship recklessly colliding with a civilian Russian fishing boat would make the Kremlin PR people jump with glee. What are a few lives here or there?

I needed to narrow down the possibilities.

HELM - LEFT STANDARD RUDDER, STEADY UP ON 345.

AYE, COMING LEFT TO 345.

OK, now it is his turn. I had changed my course by 15 degrees. Let us see what he does. I'll just wait a few minutes to get a status report.

MR. RATHERFORD, SITREP PLEASE.

ANGLE ON THE BOW STILL 135, RANGE 3000.

OK, this is intentional! He changed course too! This is real!

Why didn't I go to graduate school or get married?

Oh, I remember: I was broke and only 20 years old with no hope of earning a living. I was fresh juicy draft bait. I had to make some choices and fast: Officer Vs enlisted? Which service?
From my vast research as a 20 year old, based mostly on TV shows, movies, novels and the omnipresent recruiting officers on campus, I decided that a Marine Officer was at the top of the pyramid. They were smart, they were brave, they were the stuff heroes were made of and they had this terrific slogan -- "Semper Fi." But they were all jocks and taller than five - eight. I was five foot, four inches, weighed 130 pounds and thought that Chess should be an Olympic sport.
Next came the Navy. The officers wore dark blue double breasted suits with gold buttons, white shirts and black ties, had stewards to serve their food and make their beds, and stood ramrod straight as they stared off in a knowing way at the horizon.

Even though being an officer meant almost two more years of service, I signed up. I thought that I would like the life, that I would see many parts of the world and that I would learn a lot.

All of that was true; however, what I did not realize was that at the tender age of 22, I would be responsible for millions of dollars' worth of equipment, the lives of hundreds of men and the reputation of our country.

Come on boy do something!

COMM: BRIDGE -- MONITOR ALL FREQUENCY THAT THE TRAWLER MIGHT BROADCAST ON,
ESPECIALLY THE EMERGENCY CHANNELS, AND REPORT.

BRIDGE: COMM -- AYE.

FLIGHT DECK: BRIDGE -- PREPARE TO LAUNCH THE HELICOPTER.

BRIDGE: FLIGHTDECK -- AYE, READY IN 20.

QUARTEMASTER: STANDBY TO SOUND GENERAL QUARTERS AT MY COMMAND.

AYE.

MR. RATHERFORD, SITREP PLEASE.

ANGLE ON THE BOW STILL 135, RANGE 2900.

Slow down! Think this through! If there is danger of a collision, I really should get everybody out of their racks and prepared. But if it turns out to be a false alarm, I will have a lot of people mad at me including and especially the Captain for not informing him before I sounded GQ. And if I do sound GQ, I will be relieved by the GQ OOD and I will go to my GQ station in the Radio Shack. That will take the heat off me; but, won't help my fitness report nor my self-esteem.
Hey, I went to OCS (Officer Candidate School) for four months and have spent over a year standing watches as a JOOD and had to learn about every department on this ship and each department head had to sign off on my qualification. I should be able to do this for the two hours remaining on my watch. Yes. I can handle it!

MR. RATHERFORD, SITREP PLEASE.

ANGLE ON THE BOW STILL 135, RANGE 2800. DEFINITELY A RUSSIAN TRAWLER.

Still closing; but still over a mile away. If we both maintain current course and speed, we have just about two hours until contact at approximately 0330.

I could increase speed or change course again; but, that would just give him the satisfaction of thinking that he had intimidated us. Instead, I will wait about half an hour or until the range is 2000 yards (about 1 nautical mile) and then I will take action or at least inform the Captain.
Informing the Captain could have many different outcomes: he could be pleased that I called before the 1000 yard instruction, he could be angry that I woke him too soon, he could be angry that I had not informed him sooner, he could be totally dissatisfied with how I handled the situation, he could take the CON and relieve me of the watch, he could suspend my OOD qualification or maybe, just maybe, say Well Done, a very high expression of praise.
This was going to be a very long half hour!

Now it was time to stand up straight and stare knowingly out at the horizon.
It was very important that everyone on the Bridge knew that not only was I in command; but, that I was competent to be in command.

MR. RATHERFORD, SITREP PLEASE.

ANGLE ON THE BOW STILL 135, RANGE 2000.

OK, the time had come. During the wait I had drunk multiple cups of mud thick coffee and I had analyzed everything that had transpired. I was convinced that I had done everything possible to protect the ship and its crew and to preserve the dignity of the US Navy. Hopefully the Captain would see it that way. I did not want to be relieved. I wanted to see this through. I wanted action. I did not want the Captain to take command and make me a puppet relaying orders to the helm and the various departments. But there was too much at stake. I had to advise the Captain.

MR. RATHERFORD, PLEASE GO TO THE CAPTAIN'S SEA CABIN AND BRIEF HIM ON THE SITUATION

The captain of a large ship generally has two cabins. A large cabin on or near the main deck that serves as his home and office, and a small sea cabin, just aft of the Bridge, where he can cat-nap while we are underway.

Mr. Ratherford returned to the Bridge without comment.

CAPTAIN ON THE BRIDGE.

I turned and saw the Captain. I saluted and he returned my salute.
CARRY ON.

He said, "carry on" and went to his captain's chair on the starboard wing. He sat and sipped from a hot mug of coffee. It was almost like watching a movie and he was the star right out of central casting. He was tall, muscular and just a touch of gray hair. He had a chest full of ribbons including wings. He had been a Naval Aviator before joining the surface fleet.
I had expected him to say, "I have the CON," bark a few commands, solve the problem and go back to bed. But instead, he sat and drank his coffee, stared at the horizon in a knowing way and then looked at me.

I had to do something. (Sitting on the deck and crying was not a viable option.) So I walked smartly to his chair and gave him a briefing of what had occurred over the past several hours.

He said, "very well." That's Navy speak for OK -- get lost.

As I returned to the center of the Bridge, he said, "Mr. Yallen what do you plan to do next?"

"Captain, with your permission, I would like to launch a helicopter to get more information about the trawler, especially its potential weapons status."

"And then?"

"Depending on the threat, sound general quarters and perhaps point a few gun mounts in their direction."

"Valid options, what is your goal?"

"Captain I want to prevent a collision at sea and preserve the dignity of the USA."

"Excellent."

"I read your personnel file and I believe that you have a BFA."


Wow that caught me off guard, the old goat actually knows who I am. I answered, "Yes sir."

"Did you take any theater or drama classes?"

"Yes sir. I was in several productions and took classes in set design."

"Good. Imagine that you are the captain of the trawler. What do you want?"

I started to list the options ...

"No not an analysis, what is in your gut, what do you want?"

"I want to stick it to the Americans, gather some intelligence and look good to my crew."

"Lieutenant, you know what you want and what they want. You also know that our role is not necessarily to kill the enemy, but to destroy their will to fight. Now what do you propose?"

Interesting! For a moment I felt like a 12 year old kid in the principal's office; but, the Old Man made sense.

Sending the Helicopter or sounding General Quarters would only show them how intimidated we were by their presence and would also give them intelligence on our capabilities and battle readiness and turning the gun mounts could escalate the confrontation in a very dangerous way.
How can we make this a win-win?

"Mr. Yallen what is the Trawler's speed?"

"About 13 knots, sir."

"How would you calculate that if you did not have the information from CIC?"

"Sir, based on the rate of closure, they are travelling between a half and one knot faster than we are."

"Why? Why not close faster and force us into action? What are they waiting for?"

And then the lightning bolt hit! Perhaps that was their max speed.

"Captain, with your permission, I would like to try gradually increase speed to 18 knots. We will gradually increase the gap until they can't keep up without appearing to be running away and we will send a message of our superior capability."

"Very well, carry on"

Then he looked out at the horizon in a knowing way.

HELM - INCREASE SPEED TO 18 KNOTS.

AYE-AYE.

After a while, the trawler drifted off the Radar screen.

At 0345, another officer came up to relieve me. I had completed my first full watch as a Qualified Officer of the Deck Underway.

As I was about to leave the deck, the Captain turned and said, "Mr. Yallen, Well done." Then he turned and looked out to the horizon.

During that cruise, I learned a lot about seamanship, about leadership, about statesmanship and about myself.

I knew and I know that he knew.

About six months after that night we had a change of command ceremony and the Skipper departed to spend his final years before retirement teaching at Annapolis.

Even now, some sixty years later, every time I look at the horizon, I remember that mid-watch in the North Atlantic and feel a touch of envy for those lucky midshipmen and both a sense of gratefulness and hope for the future.


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