Read Sex and the High Command Online
Authors: John Boyd
Tags: #Science Fiction
SEX and THE HIGH COMMAND
For Aristophanes and Lenny Bruce
, from the Celtic word
, reflects the history of female degradation. It is easy to imagine some wedge-headed cave man swaggering up to a peacefully grubbing band of girls and yelling “
,” until, from fear of a clubbing, a helpless female comes forth to be dragged away to a cave. If some bully favored a girl, more timid males avoided her as
, his wife. Eventually, for the male’s convenience, the
was kept in his cave or hovel for other chores as well. Thus we evolved the Old English
which mothered both the words
, with its Celtic pronunciation, was too pungent for the male to let die, and the word survived virtual epochs in his linguistic underworld as
, a derogatory synecdoche for a woman. It surfaces in formal Old English as
of a king, from which is derived the modern
, used as a synonym for prostitute by Elizabethans. Thus, etymologically, the male’s use of
in reference to the female expressed his pride of possession in her organs of regeneration.
It is therefore suggested that
are not suitable words for polite discourse.
—Excerpt from a report by the Federal Bureau of Language Reform
Channel fever raged aboard the USS
. From the starboard wing of the bridge, Captain Hansen could see the forward mooring party playing sink finger on the forecastle while the chief boatswain’s mate in charge dreamed toward Norfolk. He could hear Ensign Fairchild croon cross bearings to the navigator from the port wing, and a signalman striker atop the flying bridge was caressing an Aldis lamp pointed toward the Fleet Communication School ashore. Yet the harbor pilot was holding the vessel to ahead slow, although a clear fairway beckoned toward the navy yard whose gantries jutted above the horizon. After forty-eight sleepless hours battling Hurricane Hannah, the captain could have dropped anchor on the spot and gone to sleep, despite the two most beautiful women in the world waiting for him at Virginia Beach; but Hansen had no choice. He owed a duty to his men.
The captain stepped forward. “Pilot, I relieve the deck.”
Surprised, the pilot stepped back. “You have the deck. Captain Hansen. Your berth is number five.”
“Thank you, Pilot. Mr. Wilson, dismiss the tug.”
As the officer of the deck stepped to the bullhorn and sang out to the tug wallowing off the starboard bow, Hansen felt tension strike the bridge gang, and his own euphoria vanished. Swinging his binoculars southeast, he located berth five, aft of a fleet oiler and forward of a heavy cruiser. He stepped inside the wheelhouse and said, “Left, ten degrees rudder.”
As the helmsman echoed his order, Hansen lined the center brace of the wheelhouse windshield with the bow peak of the
and the after turret of the distant cruiser. “Meet her,” he said to the helmsman. “All engines, ahead full,” to the quartermaster. “Steady as you go,” again to the helmsman. As his orders were chanted back, in meshing unison, the answering pointer on the engine telegraph moved forward, a bell clanged, and the quartermaster called, “All engines answer, ahead full, sir.”
Far below, in the engine room, twin jets of steam slammed against twin sets of turbine blades, and the
quivered from opposing torque. Giant propellers kicked her stem upward. Her bow sank. Twin screws, partially freed from water resistance, spewed mares’ tails twenty yards aft. She shook, settled back on her stern, shimmied as her propellers changed pitch, then buckled slightly as her screws bit and her bow butted water. Suddenly she shivered, rolled, and lunged. A wave rippled from her bow as the wind gauge atop the wheelhouse began to squeak.
Staggering slightly from the ship’s forward surge, the pilot entered the wheelhouse. “This is a high-speed vessel, isn’t it. Captain?”
“Not too speedy. About thirty-eight knots with the wind astern. Hydrofoils are faster.”
Tactfully, the pilot was questioning the captain’s judgment in giving a full-ahead order to a ship in a roadstead. He looked around him, as if seeking moral support, but the eyes of the crew members were impassive above the coal-scoop snowblink shields they wore against the glare from Hampton Roads. Usually sailors wore sunglasses, the pilot knew. “Captain,” he continued, straining for a sprightly voice, “this vessel weighs about eighteen thousand tons, doesn’t it?”
“That’s net. Give a few thousand when she’s loaded.” Captain Hansen, sensing the pilot’s apprehension, added in a conversational tone, “I never figured the weight of the crew, but it’s insignificant and doesn’t ordinarily shift. On ferry boats, however, passenger weight is a factor. The Glasgow-Belfast ferry once capsized in Loch Long, I believe, when its passengers rushed to starboard to watch the
—by heavens, there was tonnage!”
Hansen saw the pilot look through the windshield at the looming cruiser, glance down at the tachometer, jerk his eyes away, and his face grow ashen as he turned and faced aft, hunched, either praying or bracing himself for a collision. Perhaps both, Hansen decided. To calm the man, the captain said, “I was born in these parts. Pilot. I’ve sailed the Tidewater since I was knee high to…”
“But, Captain,” the pilot screamed above the rush of the wind, “it doesn’t matter where a man’s born if…”
Hansen cut through the pilot’s remarks with the orders: “Right full rudder. Starboard engine, back full.”
Helmsman and quartermaster sang out in tandem as the
, with the drive of the port engine and the pull of the starboard reinforced by the drag of the rudder, slewed ninety degrees to starboard and rolled thirty degrees to port. Hansen stepped back as the pilot hurtled past him through the wheelhouse onto the port wing to be caught and steadied by Ensign Fairchild, who was holding to a pelorus.
“Meet her,” the captain said. “Port engine, back full.”
“Port engine answers, back full, sir. All engines are back full. Captain.”
Hansen needed no reminder that all engines were backing, but he appreciated the quartermaster’s conscientiousness. Larson was half Swede, half Alabaman—good blood lines for a fighting sailor.
“Steady on one-eight-three, sir,” the helmsman called.
Perfect—183 headway was 003 sternway. The
was backing parallel to the dock. Hansen held speed until the oiler’s midship housing was slightly abaft his beam, and called, “All engines, stop.”
“All engines stop. All engines answer stop, sir.”
Hansen had resolved his movements neatly. The ship’s forward motion had been converted to side motion by the sudden course change; its headway to sternway by the backing engines, giving it a side speed of six knots and a back speed of three knots. Sidling toward the dock, fifty yards away, it was moving fast enough to crush its port plates against the pilings, and the pilot clambered up the canted deck to the safety of starboard.
The fleeing pilot had not reckoned with the
’s bow wave, now, technically, its port beam wave. That wave was a hummer. When Hansen sent it rolling toward the dock, he knew that junior officers, watching from the yard administration building, would be taking bets that the wave would crest over the dock. He knew, also, that Old Navy hands would be standing by to collect the bets. Captain Benjamin Franklin Hansen, USN, had not earned his nickname. Dock Walloper, by parking jeeps. In twenty-five years as a naval officer, Hansen had never slopped a dock.
“Secure the engine room, Mr. Wilton,” he told the OD. His bow wave had bounced off the sea wall and was rolling back. Its initial surge righted the ship and thus gave full purchase to the
’s keel. Trapped by the sidling vessel, Hansen’s bow wave volleyed between shipside and dockside to slow the hull, which compressed it. Five feet from the dock, its stern twenty yards from the prow of the cruiser and its bow eighteen yards from the stern of the tanker, the USS
lay dead in the water.
“Let go all lines,” he told the OD, and a stupefied handling party on the dock looked alive when a salvo from the ship’s three-pounders hurled four heaving lines over their heads.
He turned again to the OD. “Mr. Wilton, commence liberty immediately for the port watch, liberty to expire at 0800. Officers may bring their ladies aboard for lunch tomorrow. Disembark all scientific personnel. Have my jeep on the dock in twelve minutes without a driver. I’ll be leaving for my home at Virginia Beach, and my telephone number is in the night order book.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
As Hansen turned, the pilot stood before him. “Captain, I request permission to write this docking up in the
Masters’, Mates’, and Pilots’ Monthly
“Sir,” he spoke rapidly, “I understand the theory behind the extreme roll which diminishes the keel drag, and I grasped the principle of the compressed bow wave; but, Captain, to add human interest to my article, may I ask, sir, why you docked so fast?”
“Sir,” Hansen answered crisply, “these men have been at the Ross Ice Shelf for eighteen months and twenty-seven days. In that time, the only females they saw were female penguins. Any delay in getting these lads ashore in Norfolk would be cruel and unusual punishment.”
Shock and horror glazed the pilot’s eyes. “Those poor boys,” he said. “Those poor, poor boys.”
Hansen could have sworn that the man had tears in his eyes as he turned and fled down the ladder, but the captain had little time to ponder civilian behavior. Commander Johnson was emerging from the chart room to ask Hansen to pay his respects to the captain’s wife. “Indeed,” Hansen said, “and give my compliments to your good wife, Anne.”
As Hansen started to go below, he heard Larson call up to the signalman striker, “What’s the word from Norfolk?”
“No chicken, but there’s lots of fruit at the YMCA.”
Descending the ladder, Hansen inwardly shook his head. Time was when the last thing a sailor thought about when reaching port was the menu at the YMCA. This was nothing like the Old Navy.
An hour later, Hansen executed a ninety-degree turn into his driveway at Virginia Beach, stopped, and draped his arms over the steering wheel. Lawn trimmed. House painted. Walkway swept down. Helga had policed the outside well, but he couldn’t give her a 4.0. Definitely not a 4.0. Atop the ranch-style residence was a signal mast; but instead of a black and white pennant, the third repeater, flying from the yardarm to signify the captain’s absence, a television disk antenna resembling an oversize dishpan was secured to the mast.
Hansen smiled to himself. Joan Paula would be gigged for this breach of discipline. Helga rarely watched television but their daughter was a born communicator. When he had called, last June, to congratulate her on graduation from high school, Joan Paula had been more interested in the radiotelephone transmission than in his felicities. Once, at the South Pole, the ship’s radio operator had sworn he had picked up Joan Paula’s call sign from her ham radio.
Crawling from the jeep with his ditty bag in hand, Hansen reflected that his daughter would soon be eighteen, almost ready to quit going steady and to start exercising her options.
Wearily he mounted the steps, lay his head against the doorjamb, and buzzed “sugar-easy-xray” on the doorbell. He was too tired for “sugar-easy-xray,” but naval tradition demanded that he show the flag, and Helga would be delighted by the old, familiar code. But no one answered the ring. Tentatively, he tried the doorknob. It turned. Hansen entered his living room unescorted.
Hansen entered the living room unwelcomed; it was empty.
After the shock of his family’s absence evaporated, he reacted with pleasure to the familiarity of the room. Nothing had changed, not even the position of the furniture. Over the mantel was his midshipman’s sword, and on the mantel was his Bowditch,
Watch Officers’ Guide
, and that book by Admiral Mahan he intended to read someday. Here was the conch shell on the coffee table, the sofa, the television set, all present and accounted for. Only Helga and Joan Paula were missing. He had telegraphed from sea that he would be home at 2000. Granted he was fifteen minutes early, but Helga and Joan Paula should have been standing by since noon. They knew the regulations.
Ah, he knew. They were hidden in the after compartments of the house, waiting for him to come searching. But he would trick their expectations. In a home suddenly glowing with the presence of his wife and daughter, Captain Hansen sat down and lighted a cigarette, leaning forward over the conch shell. When the stub burned his fingers and awakened him, he knew he was home alone, after eighteen months and twenty-seven days of absence.
Snuffing the butt, Hansen reconsidered. Helga was attending some mandatory soiree given by an admiral’s wife, and Joan Paula was out with that certain someone. Admirals’ wives outranked captains to captains’ wives, and ensigns outranked captains to captains’ daughters. He had been outranked from above and below. He took his ditty bag and walked back to the kitchen where night orders were posted, and found his, written in Helga’s hasty slant: