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24 April 2006
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer
The students marched back to their class after lunch and took their seats as their new instructor studied them over the tops of his wire-frame glasses. The instructor was a short wolf whose fur had a haphazard pattern of black, gray and white, and he was in civilian clothes. “Good afternoon. My name is Halvorsen,” the lupine said in a quiet, accentless voice, “and your classes during this part of the day will be in leadership.
“Being a leader is something that should be important to all of you, since you are training to become military officers.” He favored them with a wintry smile. “If any of you are content to be followers, you can drop out of this course right now.”
He was met with silence, and after a moment he nodded. “Very well. You all want to be leaders. What is a leader, then?” He pointed at a fur at random. “You there. What is a leader?”
The bighorn sheep stood, self-consciously scratching at one of her ears. “Seaman Jane Redpaw, sir, and a leader is . . . um, someone who sets a good example?”
Halvorsen wrote the answer on the chalkboard and said, “Good answer, Miss Redpaw, but you need to be assertive when you give a reply. If you’re uncertain about your answer, be prepared to elaborate on it.” The ewe sat down and the wolf started to pace in front of the chalkboard, his paws jammed into his back pockets as he said, “So, a leader sets a good example. An example of what?” Ranua put his paw up, and the teacher pointed at him.
The young canine stood and after identifying himself replied, “Self-control, sir. A leader doesn’t allow feelings to overcome his good sense.”
The wolf paused in his pacing and touched a finger to his muzzle as he considered his reply. “Very good. Can you name an example?” he asked as he wrote the answer down.
Ranua thought for a moment and said, “General Haig, sir, at the Somme.”
Halvorsen almost smiled. “I’ve met Field Marshall Haig,” he remarked, “and I’ve never been fully convinced he had any feelings at all. So, Mr. Milikonu, tell me how did General Haig let his feelings overcome his good sense at the Somme?”
“Well, sir,” Ranua said as his ears dipped, “Haig continued to order troops to advance despite reports of high casualties and no progress. I guess he was angry or anxious to make the plan succeed – or afraid of what might happen if the plan didn’t succeed.”
“Hmm. You’ll never hear him say that, Mr. Milikonu.” He waved him to his seat as he said, “But you have a point. A leader who gets angry or fearful may make bad decisions. Now, a bad decision may cost someone very little, or cost thousands their lives. You all need to remember that. Oh, and Mr. Milikonu, there’s another term for continually doing the same thing, even if you know it won’t work, in hopes of a different outcome.” A twinkle came to his eyes. “It’s called insanity.”
A slight ripple of amusement ran through the class as Halvorsen wiped his glasses with a pawkerchief, but everyone quieted as he said, “So, a leader has to set a good example by not allowing his or her emotions to lead them into making bad decisions. Would everyone agree on that?”
The remainder of the lecture followed a similar pattern; Halvorsen would ask a question, and use the reply to generate more questions. Ranua realized that he’d need more than one notebook if the rest of the month was going to be like this.
When Halvorsen assigned homework, Ranua took the opportunity to look into his textbook for the course and his ears dipped. The book was obviously cobbled together from various earlier works, including Voltaire’s history of King Charles XII of Sweden. He gulped, thinking ahead to all of the reading he’d have to do. He glanced around and saw that others were also coming to that realization.
There was another short break, and when the students retook their seats they were faced with a thin, almost emaciated-looking gray and white tabby feline in uniform, with the rank of captain on the shoulders of his jumpsuit. His voice was loud, almost booming, and completely at odds with his slim frame. “Hello, class. I’m Captain Gray, and this course is on navigation.
“First, I’ll tell you a bit about myself. I’m currently the commander of the RINSS Orca, which is currently undergoing maintenance here at the base. I’ve been her captain for six years now, and was her second-in-command before that. I was born and raised here, on Rain Island.
“Later on in your course, you’ll be invited aboard the Orca for gunnery drills, so you can get practical experience in ballistics to complement what you’ll have learned in Mrs. O’Farrell’s class.” He smiled and flexed his paws, his tail waving over his head like a flag. “You’ll also get training in how things are done on a warship.
“As I said, this part of your course is navigation. Who here’s served aboard a ship?” Several paws went up, and he nodded. “Anything larger than a hundred tons?” All of the paws went down, and he nodded. “Great. Fishing boats, right.” He sighed. “The Orca is ten thousand tons, ladies and gentlemen, and she handles quite a lot unlike a fishing boat. When you get your classes on ship handling, you’ll realize the difference.
“But for now, you have to learn how to read maps, plot a course and prevent yourself from piling a large and expensive warship full of precious lives onto rocks. Open your books to page 5, so we skip all the self-congratulatory crap . . . “
As Gray went on, Ranua found himself liking the captain. He posed problems and seemed interested in the answers, even to helping the students along with their work until they understood the problem and its answer completely. He wasn’t evasive, and with his voice there was no way a student could say he hadn’t heard the man.
Finally Gray put down his chalk and closed his book. As Ranua and the others looked up he said, “That’s all we have time for today. Petty Officer?” he asked, and the class turned to see the moose closing the door behind him.
“Yah, Sir,” Johansen said, nodding to the officer as he said, “On yer feet, people, an’ ve march on ta dinner.” The students gathered up their books and headed for their coats.
They stopped at the barracks first, to put their books away and get cleaned up for dinner. Ranua noticed that the tiny bookcase by his bunk was rapidly filling up; in addition to the three books he brought with him to the base, there were now four textbooks and a notebook. He grinned, thinking that the case would be overflowing before very long.
At the mess hall, Ranua was surprised when he saw that the drinks being offered now included half-pint mugs of a dark brown beverage with a thin head of foam on top. “I didn’t think they offered beer to recruits,” he said, and Matt grinned.
“It’s a standard ration for everyone in the Syndicate,” the other canine said, putting a mug on his tray. “And since we’re actual recruits now, we rate, same as anybody. The only people who don’t get it are either very religious or in trouble.” He gestured to the counter. “Ever try Naval Issue ale before?”
“No,” Ranua said, and he selected one of the squat mugs, then took it and his meal of baked fish and vegetables to a table. Part of being here, he reasoned, was to try new things. Matt sat beside him and while he added salt to his food asked, “What do you think of our instructors?”
“I think they’re great,” Ranua replied. “They obviously know a lot about their subjects. Halvorsen seems like he knows more than he lets on.”
Matt laughed. “He should. He was the Chief of the Governing Syndic about five years ago,” he said around a mouthful of food. He washed it down with some of his beer and added, “He helped negotiate a border dispute with Canada back then. My Dad said that they didn’t know what hit them.”
Ranua chuckled, and sampled his mug of beer. The drink had a heavy, yeasty aroma and the taste was strong. He rolled the flavor of it over in his mouth as he swallowed, and his ears pricked up as he felt warmth spreading through his belly. “Hey, this isn’t bad,” he remarked. He took another swallow of it and returned to his dinner.
When he stood up to put his tray away he had to stop and blink as the room suddenly seemed to tip away from him. As he staggered to the left, Matt put a paw out to stop him. “Hey there, Ranua, you okay?”
“Think so,” he said, shaking his head. The effect was different than Nootnops Blue, whether better or worse he couldn’t tell immediately. He made his way to the dishwasher and cleaned off his tray, then went outside.
He took several deep breaths of the cold air and found that it cleared his head somewhat. He turned as Johansen asked, “First time havin’ a beer, Milikonu?” The moose was seated by the door, wreathed in smoke from a pipe clenched in his teeth.
Ranua nodded, then put out a paw to grab at a nearby post as the moose chuckled. “Yah, dat’s how it usually is,” he grunted. “Ya young kids ain’t be used to it yet, but ya vill be. S’only a ha’ pint, ‘tvon’t do ya no harm a’tall.”
“Thank you, sir,” Ranua said, and he walked around for a few moments until his head felt clearer. He did feel a bit sleepy, however, but lined up with the others as the rest of the group emerged. Several looked a bit unsure of their footing, and as they fell in Johansen said, “Vell, de first taste o’ our Naval Issue. Ye’re proper sailors now, by Jingo. So, ve’ll march around a bit, den go back t’barracks.” At his command, the thirty started marching.
After two laps around their barracks everyone felt better, so Johansen led them inside and explained what was expected of them now. Rosters had been set up while they had been in class, and details were set for laundry and general cleanup. These chores had to be done before the lights went out at ten, and the schedule also included time for study and for exercise.
Each of the students had been issued five of the duty uniforms, and it was their responsibility to keep them clean and keep the rest of their equipment in good working order. Their boots were supposed to be for work, so they were not expected to be shined. When they received their formal maroon and dark green uniforms at the end of their training they would be required to maintain a presentable appearance.
Johansen spent the first hour showing the thirty furs how to properly fold and stow their clothing and equipment. He glared as each of them went through the motions, and would occasionally roar oaths at them until they got it right. “By de Liffin’ Got,” he bellowed at one point, “ve’ve gotta inspection on Sunday after church, an’ if’n ya fail it I’ll march ya ‘round till yer feet drop off, I’m tellin’ ya.” Eventually everyone mastered things to his satisfaction, and the recruits then turned to studying and homework.
Their assignments were not very hard, but everyone knew that as time went by the problems would grow more and more complex. Ranua resisted asking Halli for help with the ballistics problems, and eventually arrived at the same answer everyone else had gotten. The other assignments were mainly reading from the textbooks and taking notes for the next day. When the last person was done, Johansen looked around the barracks and said, “Lights out at ten o’clock, people,” before stepping into the small office he had at the far end of the large room.
Ranua got ready for bed, and took out a pencil and a sheet of paper to write a letter to Miri. Thinking about her made him sigh and his paw touched the Tailfast braid on its cord around his neck. He started writing just as Ari asked, “Ranua, me and a few others want to pray before turning in. Care to join in?”
The terrier smiled. “Sure, Ari.” The six Spontoonies stood in a circle, joined paws, and Ranua led them in a soft chant. After a moment they could hear several of the Tillamookans and Rain Islanders following suit, thanking their gods for a good day and wishing for success. The prayers took only a few minutes before each had to return to their beds before the lights went out. Only a single light remained on, illuminating the way to the bathrooms.
Ranua lay there for several minutes as he thought back to what had happened on his first day. It would be a story for his children, and he drifted off to sleep with that thought.