I stood up from my chair and stretched. I could feel the tightness of the end of the day pulling through my back and shoulders.
“I’d better be shoving off,” I said.
“How about a nightcap to speed you on your way?” Roger asked.
“Sorry?” I responded, surprised.
It was Saturday night at the Naval Academy and, although hop season was in full swing with a full-dress ball at Dahlgren Hall, neither Roger nor I had dates that night. We’d spent the last two hours sitting in our skivvies underwear and robes in Roger’s room—which always smelled of sweat and brass polish—discussing our almost-completed term papers. We’d both chosen to write about the evolution of German submarine warfare during World War I, our final big paper push before finals and graduation.
Roger Falco and I were seniors, first classmen, at the Academy. Roger was a by-the-book true scholar-athlete who had virtually walked through the academics of our four years as midshipmen at Annapolis. He was a Midshipman Lieutenant, a three-striper, who had waited until our final year to tear up the playing fields of track and 150-pound football.
I had barely made it through the four years, testing the limits of the system at every possible turn and then some. I didn’t have any stripes. I was, as they say, without rank. Roger wanted to graduate, marry his high school sweetheart and become a career submarine officer. I just wanted to be gone, out of there.
“A nightcap, a drink, a whiskey,” he continued, explaining, taking his cue, perhaps, from the look on my face. “Splice the main brace and all of that happy British navy horseshit.”
“Me. It’s almost over. It’s time to get ready for the real world.”
“Here. RHIP,” he said leaning down to twirl the combination dial on the Confidential Locker sitting under his desk. He slid the door open.
RHIP, or Rank Has Its Privileges: the United States Navy’s first unwritten law. Confidential Lockers were a first-class privilege, issued to Naval Academy first classmen for storing various confidential papers and documents required for our studies. Since first-class privileges also included freedom from most forms of drills, exercises, inspections and other petty annoyances that were the endless and constant scourge of the everyday life of underclassmen, Confidential Lockers were often used to stash any number of things that might bring forbidden, youthful pleasure but that might also cause alarm and confusion if discovered. Whiskey was just one of those things.
Roger pulled a pint bottle of bourbon from his Confidential Locker and poured two fingers equally into each of two glasses. “To graduation,” he toasted.
“To freedom,” I countered.
We started to sip our whiskeys when I looked at my watch. “Jesus Christ, it’s almost time for lights out. The OD will be calling soon to tuck us in. I’d better shove off.” I tossed down the rest of my whiskey and shuddered. “Thank you, my friend. See you in chapel tomorrow morning.”
Roger roomed on the fifth floor, or as it was called in Navy jargon, the fourth deck of the Bancroft Hall midshipmen’s dormitory. I lived on the first floor or zero deck. We were in different companies in the same battalion, the 5th Battalion. Roger was in the 20th Company. I was in the 19th. The Officer of the Day, the OD, was responsible for patrolling all decks and all companies in all battalions all day every day including Saturday night.
I jogged slowly down the stairs and through the passageways of an eerily quiet and darkened Bancroft Hall. There were no plebes racing and sliding down the passageways playing “Aircraft Carrier.” There was none of the usual frantic last minute running from room to room. No upperclassman had the plebes out singing the graduation verses to “Navy Blue and Gold.” Except for the security lamps, the passageway and stairwell lights had all been extinguished. Most upperclassmen were dancing and romancing the night away at the hop. The plebes, who had an early lights-out and whose rank and privileges did not include either dancing or romancing, were in their darkened rooms snug in their bunks.
As I turned the final corner into the passageway where I roomed with three other first classmen, I almost ran over the Officer of the Day. I stopped as abruptly as I could and braced to attention. The OD was a Navy lieutenant but not an officer, I recognized.
“Good evening, sir,” I sounded off quietly not wanting to disturb the surrounding silence.
“Good evening.” He paused. “Better get a move on back to your room, mister,” he admonished me. “Carry on.”
I broke from attention and sped up my jog away from him. As I approached our room I could see through the frosted and wired opaque glass window of the door that the lights inside were off. I hadn’t heard the bell yet for late lights out. I checked my watch. We still had fifteen minutes to go. I eased open the door not wanting to disturb my roommates, Jimmy and Hulk, in the event that they had already turned in and were asleep. My third roommate, Bob, had taken leave and was spending the weekend at home at his parents’ quarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. As the door eased open I could see Jimmy and Hulk sitting in their skivvies at their desks opposite each other. Their cigarettes glowed in the otherwise complete darkness. There was a dead fifth of whiskey sitting in the otherwise empty space between them.
“Jesus Christ, are you guys crazy? The OD’s on deck. Hide that thing,” I said shrugging out of my robe.
Except to suck on their cigarettes, neither of them moved. “We’d offer you a drink, Joe Buddy, but…,” Hulk started.
“…the bottle seems to be empty,” Jimmy finished.
I grabbed the empty bottle and dropped it into the wastebasket.
“Damn!” I said.
“Our one night to howl, Joe Buddy,” Jimmy said.
“Oww. Oww,” Hulk howled softly.
At that point the late lights out alarm sounded. A moment later the OD, clanking his large gold Academy ring against the glass of the door, which was the standard way for the Officer of the Day to announce his arrival, shoved it open.
“Just what’s going on in here, gentlemen?”
The three of us leaped up and, as required, sounded off our names and ranks.
“I asked you what was going on in here,” he continued stepping into the room. He flipped on the light switch.
“We’re just getting ready to turn in, sir,” Jimmy responded.
He saw the bottle sitting in the wastebasket and pulled it out.
“What have we here, Mister Norton?” he asked pointing the neck of the bottle at Jimmy. Jimmy was a Midshipman officer, a two-striper and the senior man in our room. Hulk, Bob and I didn’t share a stripe among us. Jimmy was a lot like Roger except that he wanted a career in the Marines and didn’t have a high school sweetheart. Jimmy wanted Marine aviation. Even as an undergraduate midshipman Jimmy looked like Marine aviation. The Marines were the equivalent of Jimmy Norton’s high school sweetheart.
“A bottle, sir,” Jimmy answered.
“What kind of bottle, Mister Norton?”
“A whiskey bottle, sir.”
“Let’s see what’s in your Confidential Locker. Open it, Mister Norton.”
Jimmy reached under his desk and twirled the locker’s combination. He slid the door open. Three oranges rolled out onto the deck. The locker was otherwise empty. The OD nudged the locker shut with the toe of his burnished black dress boot.
“Look. You’re first classmen. You ought to have more sense. It’s almost graduation.”
He paused in the silence.
“I know that it’s Saturday night and I know the bottle’s empty. If I had actually caught you drinking it would have been a different story.”
He paused again. The three of us shrank back into the silence that surrounded us.
“I’m going to give you a break. I’m not going to put you on report for this. What I’m going to do is let it be known at the Main Office that a bottle was found in this room. This room will be inspected regularly. First class or no first class, graduation or no graduation, if this happens again, you’ve had it. Good night, gentlemen. Consider yourselves very lucky.”
He picked up the bottle, flipped off the lights and pushed open the door. The door closed softly in the darkness behind him.
“You’re welcome,” he called over his shoulder back into the room.
“Thank you, sir,” we said together. It seemed only appropriate.
We climbed into our bunks. Nobody said anything further. After a while our quiet breathing filled the otherwise silent darkness. I could smell whiskey in the air.
The next morning when Jimmy and I returned from chapel there was a note for all four of us to report at once to the Main Office. Hulk hadn’t yet returned from an off campus church service in Annapolis. Bob was still at his parents’. The note was signed by our Company Officer, Lieutenant Bryce, who must have been pulling Officer of the Day duty for that Sunday. As our Company Officer, Navy Lieutenant Bryce was responsible for the performance, care and well-being of our company, the 19th Company.
“Damn! What do you think?” Jimmy asked me.
“I think we lucked out with Bryce pulling OD duty. He knows us. He probably just wants to yank our chains a little. Could be a lot worse.”
Still in our full dress white uniforms we trotted, caps in white-gloved hands, down to the Main Office and presented ourselves to the OD. The office was a small one that adjoined the Main Office complex, which was otherwise empty: not unusual for a Sunday morning.
“Midshipman First Class Junker,” I announced stepping into the OD’s office.
“Midshipman First Class Norton,” Jimmy followed.
Lieutenant Bryce stood up from his chair behind the OD’s desk. He signaled us to stand at ease and resumed his seat.
“Well, gentlemen, it looks like we may have a bit of a problem. Where are the other two roommates?”
“Bob is on a weekend at his parents’ in Philadelphia and Hulk isn’t back from church service in town yet, sir,” Jimmy explained.
“Lieutenant Carter left a note in the log from last night. It said that you had a whisky bottle in your room. He suggested a warning and follow-up room checks. He’s doing you a very big favor.” He paused. “Were you drinking last night?”
I shot Jimmy a glance. He was staring at the deck. I didn’t know what he was thinking about. I was thinking about Roger’s Confidential Locker and the drink we’d shared.
“I was, sir,” Jimmy said raising his eyes to meet Lieutenant Bryce’s gaze.
“I was too, sir,” I said after a moment. Damn.
“Look,” Lieutenant Bryce said, “I’ll go along with the warning. Nobody is going to be put on report for this. I can promise you that.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Jimmy and I nodded simultaneously.
“I’m aware of what goes on around here,” he continued. He was looking directly at Jimmy. He was talking to Jimmy. I just happened to be in the same room. “I was a midshipman once too.”
“What about Bob and Hulk, sir? Can we tell them it’s settled and to forget about the note to report to you?” Jimmy persisted.
“Yes,” he said waving us off. “Dismissed. Carry on.”
Jimmy and I snapped to attention, did an about face and left the office. Neither of us said anything until we were well clear of the Main Office complex and had begun the jog back to our room.
“Why did you say you’d been drinking? You weren’t there,” Jimmy asked me.
“I didn’t know what to say. He asked if I’d been drinking. I had. I’d had a drink with Roger in his room earlier. I had been drinking. I just hadn’t been doing it with you and Hulk. I didn’t want this to become an Honor Code violation thing.”
“We lied about Hulk.” Jimmy said.
“We didn’t lie. We just didn’t say anything.”
“If they did decide to put us on report for this, Hulk has so many demerits already he’s out of here. No graduation. No commission. No nothing.”
“Bryce said we’d only get a warning. The bottle was empty. They can’t put us on report – anyway, we have his promise.”
“But what if…,” Jimmy continued.
Neither Jimmy nor I had anything in the way of a problem with demerits. We were fairly “clean.” Jimmy was right. Hulk was the problem.
“I’m worried about the Hulk.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Whether he asks us. Whether he asks Hulk. Either way Hulk’s out of here,” Jimmy continued.
“So what do we do?”
“We tell him Hulk had nothing to do with it. We tell him before he asks us. The OD just read all four of our names from the nameplates over our door. He screwed up about Bob. He could have screwed up about Hulk. He didn’t know who was there and who wasn’t.”
“Damn. We’re talking about a deliberate falsehood. We’re talking about ‘knowingly and willingly.’ We’re talking Honor Code violation here. Damn. I’m not sure that I ever really understood what moral turpitude is. Why do I suddenly feel like it’s something warm and alive creeping into my skivvies?”
“We’re talking about the Hulk here.”
“I know, but…,” I tried. The look in Jimmy’s eyes stopped me cold. He was right. Hulk was our best friend. Hulk was in trouble. They had screwed up about Bob. They could have screwed up about Hulk. Jimmy was right.
I pushed the door to our room open and Jimmy and I walked in. Hulk had returned from church service. He was still wearing his dress whites. He was holding Lieutenant Bryce’s note in his left hand and appeared to reading it over, letter by letter, maybe counting off demerits in his mind. In his right hand he was holding an unlit cigarette. He hadn’t removed his gloves.
“You guys see this?” Hulk asked waving the note at us.
“It’s taken care of,” I said.
“How?” Hulk asked somberly. I tried to snatch the note from his hand. He pulled it back from me like it was addressed only to him. He had apparently been crushing and smoothing it like he could will it to go away and come back.
“You and Bob don’t need to do anything. Just forget about it. It’s taken care of,” Jimmy said.
“But…,” Hulk tried.
“Hulk,” Jimmy interrupted, hushing him with an upraised open palm, the universal stop signal.
” I owe you guys. I owe you big time,” Hulk insisted.
“Hulk. It’s over.”
The next note that we received was delivered to our room while we were away at class Monday morning. It commanded Jimmy and me to report to Lieutenant Bryce’s company office after our last class that day. We arrived on time and as directed. The door was closed. Jimmy knocked.
“Come in,” we heard Lieutenant Bryce’s voice answer through the closed door. We entered and sounded off. Commander Taggert, our Battalion Officer and the officer to whom Lieutenant Bryce reported, his boss, was there in the office with Lieutenant Bryce. Lieutenant Bryce was seated behind his desk. Commander Taggert was standing directly behind him. Jimmy and I stood at rigid attention.
“Mister Norton, Mister Junker,” Lieutenant Bryce began haltingly but directly, “I know that it’s going to sound like I’m going back on my promise to you, but Commander Taggert and I have been discussing the problem. We both feel that it would be both lax on our part as responsible command officers and, seen as special treatment, unfair to the rest of the midshipmen in the brigade to ignore your actions of last Saturday night.”
I could feel my locked knees trying to buckle. I stood rigid. I could feel the air go out of the room. I didn’t dare move to look at Jimmy. I stared straight ahead. The warm silence of the room was stifling.
“Sir. Your promise…,” Jimmy broke the silence.
“There was no promise. The Navy doesn’t make those kinds of promises. You break the rules and you pay the price. That’s the only promise the Navy makes,” Commander Taggert interrupted Jimmy.
“Your punishment, gentlemen,” Lieutenant Bryce continued, “will be 75 demerits and 45 days restriction to quarters.” Restriction to quarters meant that, except for going to classes, meals and “urgent calls of nature,” we had to sign in and out at the Battalion Office whenever we left our room. Restriction to quarters meant that we could, under no circumstances, leave the Academy grounds. Seventy-five demerits meant that Jimmy and I had been right. Hulk would have been gone.
“And, Mister Norton, this will cost you your stripes,” Commander Taggert continued.
“If you’ll drop by the Company Office after your last class today I’ll leave a note you can take down to the Tailor Shop to have your stripes removed. You can drop off your sword when you pick up the note,” Lieutenant Bryce followed up. His words jangled like so much change in an otherwise empty pocket. No ceremony. No nothing. Just a note to the Tailor Shop. RHIP.
“Is that all clear enough?” Commander Taggert asked.
“Yes, sir,” Jimmy and I answered.
“Very clear,” Jimmy added.
“Very well, then. Dismissed,” Lieutenant Bryce said. Jimmy and I turned a sharp about face. Jimmy pushed open the door. Court adjourned, I thought, closing the door behind us.
“Jimmy, I’m sorry,” I tried breaking into a trot.
“Forget it. It’s over,” he said breaking into a trot beside me.
Neither of us said or did anything else except take and return a couple of salutes until we reached the door to our room. Jimmy, grabbing my forearm, stopped me in mid-stride. ”Hear that?” he asked.
He released my arm. “Somebody has a bunch of plebes down the hall singing the graduation verses to ‘Navy Blue and Gold.’ It must be a ‘Sob Sunday’ rehearsal,” he answered. “Sob Sunday” was the last time the first class would assemble at Sunday chapel before graduation and final orders. The graduation verses of “Navy Blue and Gold” had been written to commemorate that final “sad” assembly. The graduation verses to “Navy Blue and Gold” were only sung on “Sob Sunday.”
I listened. The singing sounded ragged and forced. I heard an upperclassman shout the command, “Again. Sadder. From the top.”
The plebes sang, “Four years together by the bay…”
“Damn, you can sing sadder than that. I want to hear sad.”
“…where Severn joins the tide…,” the plebes continued singing.
“Gentlemen, sadder or I’ll have all of your asses on Come Around every night from now until graduation.”
Come Around meant that a plebe had to ‘come around’ to an upperclassman’s room between the end of study hour and the taps alarm in whatever uniform the upperclassman ordered and do whatever that upperclassman ordered him to do. Come Around was a challenge to any plebe’s strength and endurance. Come Around was a challenge to any upperclassman’s imagination and whimsy. RHIP
“…then by the service called away, we’re scattered far and wide…”
“Sobs. I want to hear sobs. I want to hear it like your dog just died.”
“…and yet when two or three shall meet and old tales be retold…”
Jimmy grabbed my arm again. I could feel the tension in his squeeze. “I don’t want that to happen,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t want this old tale to ever be retold.”
“’til death, “I responded. “Word of honor.”
“’til death, word of honor,” he repeated.
I shoved against the door and into the room. Jimmy tumbled in after me. Hulk was seated at his desk. He smiled up at us, “Gentlemen,” he greeted us.
“Gentlemen indeed,” I responded.
“And soon to be officers,” Jimmy added.
“…and yet when two or three shall meet and old tales be retold…”
* * *
First Lieutenant James ‘Jimmy’ Norton, USMC died while on a routine training flight on October 4, 1960 three years after our graduating from the United States Naval Academy. Experiencing engine trouble and losing all radio contact he broke formation and piloted his aircraft away from any populated area and crashed it into a heavily wooded one. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery SECTION 8 SITE 231 LH. He was twenty-six years old when he died. Until now this tale has never been retold. RIP.
Colonel “Hulk” graduated from the United States Naval Academy and was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps. He served 25 years in the Marines, including two combat tours in Vietnam. During his service he received his Ph.D. and, upon retiring, returned to the Naval Academy as a professor.
His short stories have received numerous honors: Dancing With The Jesuits wonfirst place in the Catholic Press Association’s Best Short Story category in 2008. The Accordionist and the Sparrow earned first place in the Marin California Writers Group’s fiction competition for 2012. The Test and Yesterday Perhaps received honorable mentions in the 2013 Tuscany Press 2013 international short story competition and the Short Story America 2013 international short story competition, respectively.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons