This is a brand new story, inspired by the book, "Pushing the Limits" by Carl LaVO. It's about that most significant of the sons of North Adams, Allan Rockwell McCann. The son of an immigrant tailor, "Mack" attended local schools, including Drury Academy, from which he resigned in order to attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated in 1917, just as the US was entering World War I. Mack had a long and distinguished career, making his most significant contribution by way of the submarine corps; he retired a Vice Admiral in the 1950's. So it is to Mack that this tale is dedicated, with special thanks to Carl LaVO for giving us a wonderful highlight of his life and career.
by Paul W. Marino
When Harvey Balog opened the front door, his jaw dropped, almost to his chest. He stood staring at the smiling face and was stricken dumb.
“It’s good to see you, too, sir.”
“Who is it, Harv?” his wife asked, coming to the door. The man outside turned his smile on her.
“Alex Travis, Ma’am. I served with your husband back in the war.”
“He was the cook on the Bluefish!” Harvey found his tongue. “My God, man! I thought you were dead!” Travis laughed.
“So did I, sir. But I appear to have gotten better.” Harvey laughed out loud, then reached out and grasped Travis’s hand in both of his, shaking it for all he was worth.
“It’s good to see you, Alex! Come in. Come in!” The smiling man walked into the house, still shaking the old man’s hand.
“With pleasure, sir.”
“You can drop the sir, sailor. I’m retired now. I stopped being a sir a long time ago.”
“I gather you’re old friends,” Mrs. Balog said.
“Yes, Ma’am. Your husband was the best sub captain in the fleet.”
“I don’t know about that, but you were certainly the best cook in the fleet! How did you get out?”
“Am I missing something?”
“I’m sorry, Edith,” Harvey said. “This man is the only other survivor of the Bluefish!”
“Oh dear God!” She gasped. Travis grinned at her. Harvey gestured toward the chairs.
“Sit down, please.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Travis sank into one of the chairs. “Though from what I hear, you got a promotion.”
“Yes, I retired a Vice Admiral.”
“Congratulations. A well deserved honor.”
“Thank you. But tell me, please, how did you get off the Bluefish? Why didn’t I ever hear about you? I’ve never heard of any other survivors.”
“I got out the aft hatch just as she was going down. Almost got sucked down with her, but I had a life vest with me.”
“Thank God for that.”
“Yes sir, I kind of felt that way myself, though not until a good while later. But, I must have banged my head on the hatch or something. I had just enough time to put the vest on before I passed out. I drifted a long time--a couple days, I think--before I was picked up by the Oregon.”
“The Oregon?! The Oregon was three hundred miles away!”
“I don’t know how I got there, just that when I asked who pulled me out of the water, they told me I was on the Oregon. I couldn’t tell them anything about myself; Doc told me I had a concussion. It took me two years to remember anything. By then, I was out of the navy on a medical discharge and working in a defense plant in L.A.”
“Did you tell anyone who you were?”
“No. Didn’t seem to be much point. The navy was busy with the war and I was busy trying to get on with life.”
“What have you been doing all this time?” Edith asked. Travis grinned.
“What I do best. I’m a cook. After I remembered who I was, I left the factory and got a job in a restaurant. I’ve been cooking ever since.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Harvey said. “Do what you love and you never work a day in your life. So what brings you here?”
“You do. Over the years I’d see your name in the news or hear about you from old contacts in the navy. About a year ago, I thought I’d like to see you again; before one or both of us goes belly up. So I did some research, made some calls and tracked you down. I considered calling you ahead of time, but then I got scared you might say no. And I really wanted to see your face again. It.....kind of makes it all real, if you understand me.”
“I do,” Harvey replied soberly. “I sometimes feel as if I’ve forgotten it myself, even though I think about it almost every day. I’m very glad you came, Alex. I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again, and to know that you survived too.”
“Thank you, sir. The feeling is mutual. If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you something.”
“Of course. What is it?” Travis gave him a sly smile.
“What?!” Edith gasped.
“I’d like to cook dinner for the two of you. As I say, it’s what I do best. I haven’t cooked for you in forty years, Admiral. It would be an honor, and a privilege, if I could do it again.” Harvey laughed out loud.
“Alex, I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy more!”
“Just let me get some supplies from the car and point me to the kitchen.”
When dinner was served, it was sufficient to make both hosts gasp out loud. Travis had grilled steaks and served them with candied carrots and green beans, the latter sauteed with thyme and pearl onions and finished with a pale, creamy sauce. On a separate platter were balls of potato, crusted with fine bread crumbs and baked golden brown. Each ball contained a cube of cheddar cheese, melted to a luscious goo. He’d made a spinach salad with slivers of red and yellow peppers and dried cranberries, dressed with a fresh balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert, he’d baked individual cakes, topped with fresh cut fruit and whipped cream and finished with a dash of cinnamon and a generous drizzle of caramelized melted sugar. Looking over the Admiral’s wine closet, he selected the ideal wine to accompany each course.
While his wife gushed over the complexity and variety of the meal, Harvey ate with reverence and a sense of incredulity.
“Alex.....this is incredible!”
“I’m glad you like it, sir. I poured my heart and soul into it; more than I ever have before. It seemed only proper.”
They were lingering over dessert when Travis took a sip of his wine and set the glass down with a gentle, yet final thump. He regarded Harvey soberly.
“All good things must come to an end, Admiral. I have a confession to make, sir. I’ve been lying to you.” Harvey frowned.
“All that about being picked up by the Oregon, having amnesia, working in a defense plant and being a cook for forty years......all lies.”
“Because I needed a way to get close to you, sir. To win your trust and get you to let me in your house.” Harvey’s frown darkened.
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s about you, sir. You, and the Bluefish. I’ve been sent to take you back.”
“Back?” Edith gasped. “Back where?”
“To the Bluefish.”
“The Bluefish,” Harvey growled. “Is at the bottom of the Pacific.”
“Yes sir, it is. And you belong on it.”
Harvey stood up.
“Alex--if that’s really your name--I think it’s time you got out of my house.”
“Nearly, sir. But you really need to hear this.”
“Edith, call the Police.”
“Please, Admiral. Sit down.” Harvey sat down, then frowned in consternation; he hadn’t intended to sit. Travis flicked his eyes to Edith. “Mrs. Balog, please sit; this is important to you, too.” Edith sat down, slower than her husband had.
“Who are you?” She asked.
“I’m Alex Travis, Ma’am. I was the cook on the Bluefish. In a sense, I still am.” He reached across the table and grasped Harvey’s hands. Harvey and Edith both gasped out loud. He, because Travis’s hands were ice cold; she, because his arms were passed through the floral centerpiece as if it were merely an illusion. Then Harvey saw what she was seeing and his eyes widened. He sat back in his chair, pulling his hands out of Travis’s.
“My God!” He breathed. “What are you?” Travis sat back in his own chair.
“For lack of a more accurate explanation, sir, I’m a ghost. I never got off the Bluefish. You were the only survivor.”
“And what is your business with me?”
“That will take some explaining. Think back to when the Bluefish was going down. You’ll recall we were on the surface, in a fog, when we were struck in the bow by a Japanese torpedo. It blew out much of the bow and the Bluefish went down in a matter of minutes. Anyone not killed in the initial blast was either knocked out or drowned.”
“Yes. I was on the bridge. When we were hit, the boat rocked hard to starboard and I cracked my skull on an electrical conduit.” Harvey shivered. Edith put her hands on his shoulders. He brought a hand up and laid it on one of hers. “I watched the water gushing in as the deck started tilting. I remember thinking, So this is it. But then.....”
“Then, you heard a voice in your head. A voice that said, No it isn’t. You need to get out of here, now! And then you felt someone pushing you.”
“My God! How do you know that? I never told anyone that! Never!”
“I know about it, Admiral, because it was me. I was the voice in your head that told you to get out. I was the one that pushed you to the ladder and up into the conning tower, that put your hand on the life jacket and reminded you to put it on.”
“But.....but you weren’t on the bridge!”
“No, sir. I was in the bow, dead from the explosion of the torpedo. You heard me--and felt me--because you were almost dead. But between the two of us, you got out alive. Not by much, but in every way that counts as being alive. And that, sir, is the problem.”
“What problem?” Edith stammered. “If he was alive, how could there be a problem?”
“He wasn’t supposed to survive, Mrs. Balog. He was supposed to go down with the Bluefish and he didn’t. He cheated fate.”
“So why are you here now?” Harvey asked. Travis sighed, then picked up his glass and drained it in a single gulp.
“I’ve been sent to collect you, sir; to bring you back to the Bluefish, where you belong.”
“No!” Edith boomed, clutching her husband. “I won’t let you take him! He’s alive, and he’ll die in God’s good time!”
“Mrs. Balog, you can’t stop me. I wish you could, but you can’t. If it’s any comfort, it will be painless for both of you, and for your children besides. It’s not as simple as your husband dropping dead. It’s a matter of resetting time; he won’t die today, he’ll have died forty years ago. You’ll still be a widow, but you won’t have any memory of the past forty years. Nor of today. It won’t have happened.”
“It’s no comfort at all.” Travis shrugged.
“I don’t expect it is. But maybe this will be. I’m not going to do it.”
“What??” Harvey gasped. Travis smiled.
“It has to do with two things, sir. The first is something you taught me. You may recall that you once told me, A good soldier never follows orders blindly. Do you remember that, sir?”
“Yes, of course. An ordinary soldier does what he’s told and nothing else. A good soldier analyzes his orders. If a standard is set, he doesn’t merely meet it, but looks for ways to exceed it.”
“And in battle, he has to determine both the source and the value of his orders. If they come from the wrong source, he should try to confirm them from the proper source. And if the battle is lost, he has to know how to surrender.” Harvey smiled.
“I like to think of myself as a good soldier, sir. When I said you were the best captain in the fleet, I wasn’t lying. You set the standard we all lived our lives by.”
“And the second?”
“Even more simple, sir. I want you to live. I wanted you to live then, and I want you to live now. Being a good soldier, I volunteered for this mission. I knew I could get close to you, which is what I wanted to do. You might say I love you; not in a romantic way, but I do. That’s why I got you off the Bluefish. I’d have done anything for you, Admiral. If you’d said you were planning to sail the Bluefish into hell, I’d have been the first to say I’m in. Because you were the best damn skipper in the fleet and I was one of your crew. In fact, I still am.
“So I’m going back to the Bluefish and tell them I failed. What are they going to do? Execute me? I’m already dead. Besides, you’re an old man now, Admiral. You’ll die eventually. These things work themselves out.”
“Thank you, Alex.”
“You’re welcome, Admiral. It was a privilege to serve under you. And a joy to see you again. Mrs. Balog, it was a pleasure to meet you. Take good care of him.”
“I will,” Edith said absently. Travis was fading before their eyes, becoming translucent. His lips curled upward.
“I left something for you in the kitchen.” And he was gone.
Harvey and Edith embraced each other and stayed that way for several minutes. When they opened their eyes, the table was still disheveled with the remains of their dinner. When Edith went into the kitchen, she found a yellowed page by the sink, with the recipes printed on it in a neat hand. Below them was the notation, I left the potato peels in the refrigerator; fry them with bacon. Season with with salt, pepper and worcestershire sauce. Bon appetit. It became one of their favorite dishes.