Circle William Kindle Edition
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The captain prepared to jump overboard.
The destroyer USS Winston Churchill drifted slowly south on the warm Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Commander Bill Schmidt, had ordered the engines stopped an hour earlier and announced a swim call, a very rare occurrence on most ships, but a regular event on Churchill. During swim call, a ship would drift lazily and routine work would come to a halt. It was an impromptu beach party, minus the beach.
As Schmidt turned to head back to the fantail, he saw his second-in-command, Churchill's Executive Officer, coming onto the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Oliver Ellsworth III looked preoccupied and slightly nervous, as usual. "XO, I'm going to go back aft and jump in. Everything taken care of for the swim call?"
Schmidt saw his XO grimace for a moment. "Yes sir, we've got the shafts locked, a boat in the water, cargo nets up on the sides, and a rifleman standing by in case of sharks. I've also got the Master at Arms bringing up some blankets for the steel beach..." He looked balefully at his commanding officer.
Bill Schmidt was, in every respect, a typical naval officer. He was of average height, and average weight. He bore no unusual scars under his mop of sandy hair. Schmidt had an easy smile which often bordered on a smirk, and rock-solid self-confidence, which sometimes got him in trouble.
"What about the DJ, Tom? Did you set up the big speaker system?"
The XO shuddered slightly. "Sir, do you really want to get into the music today? We can't just drift all afternoon if we're going to make Toulon on time tomorrow morning."
"We can if we go real fast, XO. Get the DJ up. And throw out a couple of cases of that nonalcoholic beer and the sodas we picked up in Rota."
Another darn picnic, thought the XO. Ellsworth was the kind of officer who never swore, even to himself.
What a dipshit, thought Schmidt. "Relax, XO. It'll be fine," said the Churchill's captain as he walked away, shaking his head. He said those precise words to his XO at least a dozen times each day. Schmidt was beginning to doubt if Ellsworth, the son of a retired three-star Admiral and a card-carrying member of America's informal naval aristocracy, had the makings of a destroyer captain. Or at least the kind of destroyer captain Bill Schmidt wanted to sail with. During his career, Schmidt had run across dozens of similar flag officer progeny. With rare exception, the navy juniors displayed an expectation of privilege and promotion. Their attitude, he thought, would have been more appropriate for the Royal Navy at the end of the nineteenth century than the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the twenty-first.
Schmidt's trip aft was interrupted by the blare of the ship's announcing system, known as the "1 MC." "Commanding Officer, please dial one-zero-zero-two."
Schmidt's call to the bridge was answered by Ensign Marshall Madison, a newly commissioned and very inexperienced Junior Officer of the Deck. "Captain, there's an unidentified submarine on the surface heading straight toward us at over twenty knots. We've tried calling her on bridge-to-bridge but she doesn't answer." Unless they were emitting some sort of electronic signals, the identity of approaching submarines at sea was nearly impossible to discern.
"Unidentified? What's her CPA?"
"CPA?" There was a long pause. Schmidt guessed that Madison was trying to figure out why his commanding officer wanted to know the name of the submarine's accountant.
"Marshall, please put the Officer of the Deck on the phone." Schmidt heard the crisp voice of Lieutenant Debbie Smith, Churchill's Antisubmarine Warfare Officer and one of his best bridge watch standers. "Officer of the Deck, sir."
"What is the CPA, Debbie?" Schmidt quickly asked again.
"The submarine's closest point of approach is...let me recheck on the radar...CBDR."
Constant Bearing Decreasing Range. Collision course. Christ, thought Schmidt, here I am with both shafts locked, about half the crew in the water, an XO trying to set up a disco on the fantail and a submarine bearing down on me.
At six feet tall, Debbie Smith was a full two inches taller than her commanding officer. She moved about the bridge briskly, with an athleticism that had served her well in her days as a volleyball player in college.
"Looks like the submarine is picking up speed, sir. CPA is dead on the bow. I'm trying to get the crew back aboard."
"Break out some flares, and have the signalmen flash her continuously. We need to know a nationality. I'm on my way up."
When Schmidt stepped into the pilot house, the Boatswain's Mate gave the traditional call, "Captain's on the bridge." Schmidt got a quick update from the OOD and walked straight to the radio.
"Surfaced submarine, this is United States naval destroyer Winston Churchill, channel sixteen, over."
Silence. The submarine's sail was clearly visible cutting through the water, perhaps four miles away. There was a big wake behind them. Man, they are clipping, thought Schmidt, and coming right for me.
"Submarine, submarine, dead ahead on my bow, this is U.S. naval destroyer Winston Churchill, channel sixteen. Request you alter course immediately. I am dead in the water and cannot maneuver. Request you alter course."
Nothing. Schmidt tried channels sixteen, thirteen, and twelve. The sub was closing fast. Inside of three miles. The more alert members of Churchill's crew were starting to climb the cargo nets to get up the side of the destroyer. Eric Clapton's "Layla" was blasting out of the fantail speakers.
Ellsworth, who had been standing and fidgeting next to the captain throughout the radio calls, began imagining how a collision with a submarine would end his career. I can't believe I'm steaming around the Med with this idiot cowboy CO, he thought. If my dad knew how many swim calls we've had in the last month, he'd roll over in his crypt at the Naval Academy cemetery.
Schmidt was getting slightly nervous. Who is this bozo? he wondered. The Russians hadn't been deploying to the Med much in recent years. The Syrians and the Israelis didn't venture this far east. Maybe the Libyans had finally figured out how to operate those Kilo-class subs they bought from the Soviets a decade ago.
Schmidt turned to the quartermaster. "Sound six blasts on the ship's whistle."
The few crew members who heard the horn blasts over the music began scrambling on board in earnest. The Master at Arms, Chief Petty Officer John Browner, tried to get the attention of the rest of the crew with a whistle he always carried around his neck like a badge of office. Unfortunately, he was largely drowned out by Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer."
Back on the bridge, a crackle on the radio...static...a burst of white noise, then "Churchill, this is American submarine. Is your Charlie Oscar available?"
No shit I'm available, thought Schmidt as he grabbed the radio. In the phonetic alphabet Charlie Oscar, the letters C and O indicated commanding officer. U.S. submarines rarely identified themselves on open circuits, even when everyone knew who they were. Secrecy carried to idiotic lengths, thought Schmidt. But he had to play the sub's game.
"Submarine on my bow, this is Churchill, Charlie Oscar. I am conducting hydrographic investigation in this area and have my shafts locked and divers in the water. Request you maintain at least a two-mile clearance from me, over."
The bridge team exchanged glances and smiles. Several didn't know exactly what "hydrographic investigation" was, but they knew Churchill wasn't doing it.
Static. A buzzing sound. The submarine slowed perceptibly, her range about four thousand yards. Her bow slowly swept away from Churchill and pointed west. Someone on the submarine's sail was waving his ball cap.
"Churchill, this is American submarine Charlie Oscar. Bill, this is Chet Hollomaker, and trust me, I don't need a periscope to see you're doing swim call. Hydro-graphic investigation. Right. You haven't changed since Annapolis."
At the sound of his Naval Academy classmate's voice, Bill Schmidt grinned. He'd heard that Hollomaker had recently taken command of the Los Angeles-class submarine Hartford. He looked around the bridge. Everyone was now smiling except Ellsworth.
Hollomaker and Schmidt had been in the same company when they were midshipmen at the Naval Academy. As a result, they'd spent a lot of time together during those trying four years. They had become friends, as close friends as two young men with completely different interests and personalities could be.
Hollomaker could have been pegged as a future submariner from his first day as a plebe. A physics major, he spent most of his very limited free time in his room poring over textbooks. The Lucky Bag, the academy's yearbook, listed the chess club, computer club, and the cross-country team as his only extracurricular activities. Schmidt, on the other hand, was rarely seen with his nose in a textbook. A liberal arts major at Annapolis, he told classmates that he saw studying as a sign of weakness. The arts and sciences are based on common sense, he said, and if you have a knack for them, you shouldn't need to study. The Lucky Bag listed a dozen organizations of which he was a member, including, in his senior year, the "Irish Cultural Society." Despite the fact that he had no Irish blood, Schmidt thought joining the group was a good idea, if for no other reason than to enjoy their parties.
Hydrographic investigation, thought the XO. The man has no shame.
"Hart...err American submarine, this is Churchill, roger, Chet. Slow down a little, will you? You looked like Victory at Sea powering down on me like that, and you scared the hell out of my crew, over."
"Churchill, this is American submarine, they don't look too scared to me. I can hear the music from here. Just thought we'd do a slow flyby and motor on. We're headed to Marseilles for some French Navy Day thing. Have a safe day, classmate. I think we're in an exercise together in the eastern Med in July, over."
"American submarine, this is Churchill. Roger, Chet, looking forward to it. You can come down my port side at a couple of thousand yards if you want. We'll be in Toulon while you're in Marseilles -- maybe we could meet in Saint-Raphael at the Excelsior Hotel. Send me a P4. Either way, we'll see you off Syria in a couple of months, over." Schmidt made the Excelsior his unofficial headquarters whenever his destroyer was in the Riviera port, and he hoped he could see Hollomaker. The P4 was Navy shorthand for a "Personal For" message, sometimes used as an informal communication between commanding officers.
"Churchill, this is American submarine. Roger, Bill, I'll see how the schedules look. We'll see you around the pond. American submarine standing by channel sixteen, out."
"Churchill standing by channel sixteen, out."
Schmidt ruminated as he walked back to the fantail for his slightly delayed swim. He could never serve on a submarine, he thought, although the extra sub pay would be nice. The seventy-day deterrent patrols of the ballistic missile submarines would have driven the sociable Schmidt to distraction. He wouldn't have been able to handle the isolation. Bill needed to be able to get away from his work from time to time and blow off steam. That wasn't possible as a bubble head. And he couldn't have endured life aboard a fast-attack submarine like the Hartford either. Although they get into port more often than the ballistic missile boats, when they are under way, those onboard see the same one hundred shipmates in very close proximity for days on end. The gregarious Schmidt needed more variety in his life.
He knew that the careful checklists and constant vigilance of submarine duty were beyond him.
Flying wasn't his thing either. The naval aviators Bill knew spent countless hours doing maintenance, preparation, and paperwork for every hour they spent in the air. It was a good thing he loved destroyers.
Destroyers are for stable extroverts, Schmidt thought. His classmates with excessive amounts of hubris chose aviation. You have to think you are invincible to try to land a jet aboard an aircraft carrier. The brainy introverts in his class tended to end up in submarines. They didn't mind the isolation and enjoyed memorizing countless tech manuals and checklists. But destroyer drivers were team players. They enjoyed taking their swift and agile ships on all manner of missions. They sprinted ahead of and around aircraft carriers, protecting the behemoths from harm. They hunted submarines and scanned the skies to keep unwanted and unknown aircraft away from the capital ships. They made solo visits to obscure ports to project U.S. power and interest. Destroyers gave Schmidt the freedom and opportunities he craved.
Not a brilliant student at Annapolis, Schmidt had survived by his gift for gab, a keen eye for "the gouge," information one needed to slide by, and above all the ability to come through in the clutch. There was a wildness about him that intrigued women and either appealed to or angered men, depending on their own level of self-confidence.
The fact that Schmidt had achieved command of Churchill just seventeen years out of Annapolis was a surprise to many of his classmates. Some considered it a miracle. Still single, captain of one of the best-equipped, most powerful destroyers in the world at age thirty-eight, and headed for a swim in the Med. Not bad, he thought, for a guy whose highest aspirations at Annapolis were making the lacrosse team and drinking a lot of Heineken.
As he crossed the after missile deck, Schmidt glanced at the sixty-four vertical launch cells, each containing a Tomahawk land-attack missile, a Standard antiair missile, or a rocket-propelled torpedo. He reflected about the strike power of the ship's cruise missiles that could fly over a thousand miles, the two heavily armed helicopters, the big five-inch gun up forward, the huge phased array radar and all the electronics known to man. All the best toys. Inwardly, he sighed. Still, a ship is a ship, but the crew is the heart, he thought. Bill Schmidt wasn't big on formally articulating his command philosophy, but that was basically it. And it worked pretty well for him. This was only the second deployment for the Churchill since she was commissioned in 2001. She was still state-of-the-art.
A crowd of Churchill crew members still concerned about the mystery submarine gathered around their captain as he emerged on to the fantail. "Nothing to worry about, folks. Just an old classmate of mine from Boat School playing 'Chicken of the Sea.'"
Schmidt looked around at the relieved smiling faces of his crew and momentarily felt the weight of his responsibility for keeping them safe. Over three hundred people on board who think I'm their daddy. Schmidt felt the need to break the mood. Although it was a late April morning, the Mediterranean sun had produced a steamy day that felt like midsummer. "Hey, let's get wet," Schmidt shouted. He kicked off his black uniform shoes and jumped feet first off the fantail ten feet into the sea, fully clothed in his khakis. On the way down, he flashed his customary V for Victory symbol, in honor of his ship's namesake.
The crew cheered, laughed, and did a ragged wave on the fantail in approval. As they did when their CO did something unusually crazy, many of them turned to each other, shrugged, and said "Schmidt happens."
The comment echoed over the sea as Schmidt's brown hair bobbed above the surface. He started an easy crawl around the hull of the slowly drifting ship. I wonder what my big brother is doing today, thought Schmidt. He could be making half a million a year at IBM, and instead he's a government worker, flacking for the President. Well, to each his own. I'll bet Jim doesn't get to go for a swim in the middle of his work day, Bill thought. Ah, this is the life.
A few hours later and four thousand miles to the west, the crew of the M/V Valetta held a swim call of their own. Theirs was a very different event. In the cold, predawn darkness, two divers slipped over the side of the Maltese-owned, Panamanian-registered freighter moored at the Dundalk Marine Terminal in Baltimore, Maryland.
All was quiet except for the call of a couple of seagulls and the gentle lapping of the tide against the piers.
The aged vessel had arrived a day earlier with a cargo of Maltese textiles. M/V Valetta was scheduled to depart the following day after unloading the fabric and taking aboard a shipment of U.S.-made consumer goods destined for Europe.
At 3:00 A.M., even the busiest ports in America can be fairly quiet. The Valetta's Master had requested and been assigned berth three; one of the least desirable locations. Only four of the thirteen berths at Dundalk lacked the big cranes necessary to unload so many of the modern container ships, and this was one. The master chose the location in part because it was farthest away from the shed on berth 11 which housed the U.S. Customs, Food and Drug Administration, and Agriculture Department inspectors. Valetta's unloading would have to be accomplished with her own shipboard-based crane.
Customs officials had been onboard Valetta shortly after she pulled into Baltimore. After a cursory tour of the ship, inspection of the vessel's documents, and a visit to the Master's cabin for a chat and a shot of brandy to ward off the chill, the inspectors declared everything in order.
Now, in the early morning fog, the port area was bathed in the eerie yellow glow of halogen lamps. With her starboard side moored to the pier, the superstructure of the Valetta blocked much of the light. The port side, facing the water, was cast in shadows.
Unable to use searchlights, the divers relied on their sense of feel as they dove beneath the vessel. Valetta's twenty-foot draft left about fourteen more feet of water between the keel and the harbor's muddy bottom. Moving quickly ten feet below the waterline and about a third of the way forward from the ship's stern, they found what they were looking for. Where the sides of the ship started dramatically curving inward toward the keel, a ten-by-ten-foot long compartment had been attached to the hull. Known as a "blister," the addition was invisible from the surface, even on a bright day in clear water.
The blister had a dramatic effect on the navigation of the ship. The increased drag added twenty-four hours to the normal nineteen days that it took Valetta to sail from the Maltese port of Marsaxlokk to the East Coast of the United States. But speed was not what mattered here.
The divers carefully removed four bolts which allowed the blister cover to drop away, exposing eight chrome canisters, each three feet long, secured to the ship's hull. After attaching flotation devices to the containers, the divers released them from their holding racks and silently guided them to the surface.
Waiting crewmen stood around the deck of the Valetta while their colleagues worked beneath them. As the hidden cargo broke the surface, the crewmen used a boat hook to corral the canisters and one by one gently lifted them aboard the vessel. On board Valetta, the chrome containers were inspected and gingerly dried off. Then they were slipped inside coverings which made them appear similar to the bolts of fine Maltese textiles which Valetta was importing.
When the sun rose, the crew of the Valetta set about unloading the textiles, taking special care with one truck, which they said would be taking samples of the material to potential future buyers.
The Dundalk Terminal was a beehive of activity once again, but few people paid much attention to the rusty old European freighter or the trucks alongside her. As the driver of the delivery truck passed through the terminal exit lanes he provided his paperwork to the waiting clerk. After executing a few swift key strokes on his computer, the clerk found everything in order and waved the truck through with a sweep of his arm and a thumbs-up gesture.
Within minutes the driver had driven the two-and-a-half miles to Interstate 95, the Main Street of the U.S. East Coast, from which he could go virtually anywhere.
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Harlow --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- ASIN : B004RR12XQ
- Publisher : Scribner (February 18, 1999)
- Publication date : February 18, 1999
- Language : English
- File size : 724 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 384 pages
- Lending : Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,245,934 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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Some of the male characters seem like fugitives from central casting, and the females tend to be either ciphers or super-achievers. Harlow's spelling is at times inconsistent or downright incorrect. If Bill Harlow writes a second book (and I earnestly pray that he does, although it's been eight years since Circle William) I hope he will have a copy editor look it over before publishing. In general, readers might not care, but the print media will appreciate it and take it that much more seriously. And, dare I say it? In this book there should be more frequent, or at least more intense, encounters between the fella and the girl.
Yet it all doesn't matter, somehow, because the book is witty and funny and terrifying enough to override its flaws.
There is such hubris, and at times such hilarity, that if I were a producer I would be doing my best to turn this into a hit movie. Starring, hmm, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. We have computer technology now. We can do that, can't we? And possibly Jimmy Stewart for Jim Schmidt. Maybe I have touched on something. There is a refreshing, old-fashioned quality here that makes the reader believe that Americans are really keeping the world safe without ulterior motive.
Still, it's more than that and hard to pinpoint exactly why this book is so gratifying. There is the obvious, of course: there are good guys pitted against wonderfully pompous types. Harlow writes with authority about the upper strata of the military, politics, and government--always a seductive combination. The technical side is fascinating and frightening.
Provoking laughter deliberately, even with all the other good things going on in the book, isn't easy. For that reason, if I had to choose just one achievement in Circle William, it would be the humour. Harlow's curriculum vitae in the Navy and in public affairs reads as extensive and daunting. So, mawkish as it may sound, thank you for sharing, Bill Harlow. Please write again soon.