Home from the sea, at last

IT’S A WONDER the tracks are not underwater more often, Mike thought. The New York Central train flew upstream under grey skies as raindrops streaked the windows. The swollen Hudson River seemed to be just below the windows, making it feel as if the river were higher than the rails.

As the train slowed for the station stop at Albany-Rensselaer, he remembered the last time that he had passed this way. The remnants of a hurricane had dumped record-breaking amounts of water on the region, driving the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal over their banks, and forcing Margery and him to take shelter for three days in a bed-and-breakfast. I’ve never seen the sun in Albany. Still, they had enjoyed the ride down the Erie Canal until Schenectady. It had been a memorable holiday.

This trip carried more stress with it than just the weather. He had a ticket to Buffalo, New York, and another from there to Cleveland, Ohio. A cheap bicycle he picked up at a Salvation Army thrift store for cash hung in the baggage car. The people he would meet had no idea just when he would appear. Only one person knew where.

West of Utica, the train pushed through the front. He felt his heart lift a little as the deep gold of the setting sun reflected off the clouds behind him and the wet fields on either side. Just before midnight, he rolled the bike across the platform at Rochester, and rode in the dark to the Naval Reserve Training Center west of town.

***

“This way, Commander.” The chief petty officer who met him at the back door of the building pointed to the parking garage behind the center. They walked to a blue van parked by the bike rack. Mike slipped the bicycle into the rack and tossed his backpack into the van.

“Can you make sure the bike goes to a local recycle bike shop?”

“No problem, sir. Got one up the block from my house. Some kid in the neighborhood will be very happy.”

“Thanks.”

The chief put the van in gear and drove north to the village of Irondequoit. At the pier by the yacht harbor, a boat was idling. Like Mike, the crew wore civilian clothes, but the grey paint job made it look suspiciously like a naval vessel.

Six hours later, morning twilight was just breaking in the east as Commander L. Michael Norwood, US Navy, stepped onto a pier in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto, Canada. A grey Toyota sedan was waiting. The park was closed, and the driver was the only person to see the American officer vanish…

***

Four thousand miles away, a Fiat 1500 with five Italians approached the border checkpoint between Fernetti, Italy, and Sezana, Yugoslavia. The car radio blared the latest hits from San Remo, and the young men sang in hearty harmony as the driver slowed. He waved his driver’s license at the guard and pointed to the cluster of brilliantly lit gas stations two hundred meters away.

The guard waved them through, shaking his head at the carload of frivolous youths enjoying a Saturday night. For them, Yugoslavia was where you bought cheap fuel for your car. The guard could not dream of owning a car, much less putting fuel in it. But such things were far from his mind that night. His wife of three months was waiting for him at home, and he could not care about anything else tonight.

At the last station, the car pulled alongside the farthest pump, which was shaded from the neon lights. The men made a show of getting out and singing as they danced around the driver, who was fueling the car. He swatted them good-naturedly. Some of the men went to the restroom and returned.

Tank topped off and debt paid inside the store, the driver and his friends rolled out and returned to Italy in the dark. When they were gone, a man slipped out of the restroom and melted into the woods.

***

Da questa parte, professore.” This way, professor. Mike gently led the older man down the rock-strewn path through the woods to the rocky beach hidden from the lights of both Trieste and Capodistria. The shallow water was just choppy enough to mask the rubber boat that should be arriving soon. Mike motioned for them to sit on some boulders under the trees at the edge of the beach.

Sharing a meal bar from his backpack with the other man, Mike pondered the feeling of déjà vu of this entire mission. More than twenty years ago, he had led a pair of downed pilots and two injured Italian partisans to this same spot after carefully dodging German patrols for a week. Then, he had been a young sergeant detailed to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for his backcountry skills and his knowledge of German and Italian. That he was young and strong helped.

Now he was wondering what his twilight tour would be before he retired from the Navy. The stretched scar tissue from the wound at Inchon made his chest and shoulder ache. He needed the stop as much as the other man, though he hid it as best he could.

This time, he shepherded an Italian scientist who had been captured by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Only about 160 cm tall, the man was so thin that Mike had lifted him over fallen trees and other obstacles as they trekked from the outskirts of Ljubljana to the coast. Many of the scientists interned in Germany during the war had escaped westward as the Third Reich crumbled, but this man had not gotten out before his laboratory was overrun.

The researchers on the Manhattan Project had never forgotten Ernesto Pirrone, but not until the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 could he get a message to them. A special NATO working group gathered an interagency team to extract him. It took years to set up this operation. Late in the planning, Commander Norwood had been the only one in the room who was familiar with the territory and possibly able to guide the scientist to safety without attracting attention.

“How long?” asked the scientist in Italian.

“Ten minutes. How are you doing?”

“Okay now. Coming down that cliff was scary.”

“You did well, like an alpino.” A mountain soldier. They smiled at each other.

In the surf, Mike spied an interruption in the line of the waves.

“Here they come.”

When the Zodiac was a few meters out, Mike and the scientist hurried to the water’s edge. Mike lifted the man into the boat even before it touched the shore.

Rifle fire erupted from the trees, with shouts in Italian and Slovene. Mike felt his good shoulder explode, then his vision imploded, and the stars above him disappeared.

***

Bright light came through his eyelids. He knew not to open his eyes suddenly. Instead, he turned his head and peeked through slits. A shadow blocked the light.

“Welcome back, commander.” Mike opened his eyes. An Army nurse stood by the bed, leaning over to shade him from the overhead neon lamps. As she rubbed her stethoscope on her shirt, she took his arm and began reading his vital signs.

“Where am I and what happened?”

“Camp Ederle in Vicenza. You were shot in the left shoulder. The team that brought you here is waiting for you to wake up.”

“How long?”

“Just three days.” She stood back and made a note on his chart. “The sleep after surgery was good for you. I’ll send someone in.”

“Thank you, nurse.”

Mike was surprised that he felt so good. The wounded shoulder only ached – until he tried to move it. Gingerly, he poured some water into the glass on his bed table. He was finishing it as a doctor entered the room.

“Commander Norwood. I’m Doctor Barnes.”

“Mike. Can you tell me more about what happened during the mission?”

“Only enough to say that you and the other man were successfully evacuated. I’ll let your people know. They’re waiting in the lobby.”

Five minutes later, two men in civilian suits and an Italian army officer came in.

“Commander Norwood, I’m Red Hanson and this is Gerry Monroe. Colonel Vitale here commanded the reception team for Professor Pirrone.”

“How is he?”

“Fine. Reunited with his family, although dismayed that his wife died while he was behind the Iron Curtain.”

“Mission accomplished. That’s good.”

“Yes,” said Vitale, “and the boat crew from the submarine send their thanks for stopping the bullet before it hit the Zodiac.”

“Makes it worthwhile, then.”

***

Coming out of the Customs area at McGuire Air Force Base, Mike saw Margery at the edge of the crowd of dependent spouses and children. His heart swelled as powerfully as it did the first time he saw her on Main Street in Annapolis. The wind had blown her cap off. It flew straight at him, and he caught it. They both had paused in a moment of amazement before she started toward him. He met her and returned the cap.

Every time he saw her when coming home, that scene replayed in his soul. They embraced and kissed, out of the way of the others. Someone sighed, and they disengaged.

“How did you know I would be here?”

“Navy wife network. You’re not cleared.”

“We need you in Special Operations.”

“One of us is enough, dear. How’s the shoulder?”

“Only hurts if I move it.”

“Dirk said that this may be your last mission. That won’t make me sad.”

“I wasn’t supposed to be going anywhere, but when we laid it out, I was the only logical choice to pull it off.”

“Success?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” She knew not to ask for details. “It’s four hours back, so we can have supper at home.”

“Looking forward to it.”

As she took the ramp back to Interstate 95 after lunch in Wilmington, Margery said, “Are you ready for a twilight tour yet?”

“Believe it or not, yes. I had a lot of time to think about it last week in the hospital.”

“Have you made up your mind? Being in the zone for captain, you might be waiting for that.”

“That’s what I’m thinking. I don’t know if this injury will affect my promotion.”

“I take it the mission was impressive enough, or they would not have risked a senior commander on it.”

“There’s that. The board should be out next month. Then we’ll know.”

God, it feels good to be going home, he thought. It’s time to stay for a while.

***

Margery picked up the phone in the hall. She came into the study, where Mike was unpacking his briefcase.

“It’s Dirk.” Dirk Masden had been Mike’s executive officer in the destroyer that Mike had commanded before he was sent to Special Operations. Now Dirk was the secretary of the captain selection board. No one was supposed to know that, but Margery was LeeAnn Masden’s best friend.

“Hello, Dirk.”

“Captain Norwood, I’m glad you’re back, sir.”

“Dirk, I’m not your skipper anymore. You don’t have to ‘captain’ me.”

“The board just let out, Mike. I couldn’t wait to let you know.”

Mike forgot to speak for a while.

“Thanks, Dirk. Thanks very much.”

“You’re welcome. Just you and Margery for now, please. The results will come out over the weekend.”

“Understood. Give my best to LeeAnn.” He cradled the handset.

Margery came to him from the door to his study. “I already sent your blues to the tailor for re-striping. Congratulations, dear.”

“You knew?”

“Not officially, but I was willing to bet on it, so I jumped in front of his other customers.”

He embraced her. They shared a long kiss, then went to the living room for a glass of wine. Dinner was in the oven.

“I need to update my preference card. The detailer may give me something I don’t want anymore.”

“What have you been thinking about?”

“I don’t want to make admiral. I think I want my last assignment to be someplace where we could live after I hang up the uniform.”

“Any ideas?”

“Too many. There are only nine blocks on the preference card.”

“I may be able to help. You have said often enough how much you like Charlottesville.”

“Yes.” Mike had visited the Miller Presidential Center often when doing the research for his PhD dissertation.

“And Storrs. And New Haven. And San Francisco.”

“Have we been anywhere we did not like?”

“No, but guess what all those places have? As do Lawrence Kansas, Chicago Illinois, Ann Arbor Michigan, and New York City?”

Mike shrugged. “What?”

“NROTC Units.” Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. “And each one needs an academically qualified four-striper.”

“How did you figure that out?” His surprise was obvious.

“I grew up with this. You’re the dumb grunt who transferred in from the Army.”

Mike laughed. Margery’s father had been the Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis when they met. She had watched the inner workings of the Navy all her life.

“So, I ask for the NROTC Unit at the University of Virginia?”

“The incumbent retires in August. Placement should be getting a fill request soon.”

“You are amazing. Simply amazing.”

***

In August, Captain L. Michael Norwood assumed command of the NROTC Unit at UVA. The Government Department invited him to join the faculty as an associate professor, so he had a professional home after he hung up his uniform.

That summer, Margery helped him outline the research plan for his first publications. He would be eligible for tenure only two years after joining the department as a full-time civilian professor. He should have two books and several articles published before that.

They bought the house they were renting and put in a garden out back.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea…

© 2022, JT Hine

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