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8 September 2006
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer
The trip back to Seathl from Bingham took most of the day as rain started to set in. Ranua looked out the windows of the train and settled back in his seat, a paw cupping his chin as he gazed out the window. Rain began to spatter on the windows, gradually increasing until the landscape became obscured through a thin gray haze.
Rain Island was certainly living up to its name.
He stirred, pulled his pea coat from the duffel bag at his feet and shouldered into it. It wasn’t very cold, but the thick coat would serve to keep some of the rain off him.
When the train came to a halt at the station he put on his ball cap, turned up his coat collar and headed for the bus terminal for the ride back to the base. As he stepped off the bus at the main gate, the rain suddenly slackened and stopped. “Hi,” the gate guard said as the wirehair terrier walked up to his post.
“Hello,” Ranua said, offering his orders before signing in on the gate log. The guard read the orders and passed them back, then waved Ranua in and went back to his coffee.
He noticed a slight spring in his step, and realized that he had learned quite a bit about leadership while on the Emma Goldman. He had more confidence now, and the terrier smiled as he headed for the longhouse.
Several furs, perhaps half a dozen, looked up as Ranua walked into the barracks. “Ranua!” Matt exclaimed, looking up from the book he was reading. He set the textbook aside and the two friends shook paws. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks, Matt,” Ranua said. “Where is everyone?” he asked, looking around.
“Well, not everyone’s back yet,” the Doberman replied, “and a lot of those who have come back are out on leave. Some went to Seathl, but we have orders to be back here before suppertime.” He grinned. “How was your trip?”
“Great,” Ranua said as he dropped his duffel beside his bed and stretched. “But that train trip back – “ he paused as he suddenly bent and touched his booted toes, feeling his back pop as he did so. It must have been audible, since Matt was chuckling as he straightened up. “Where did you go for your training, Matt?” he asked.
The slim Doberman grinned. “I was assigned to a submarine stationed at Port de Fuca,” he said in an eager tone. “I thought it was fantastic. We spent our patrol sneaking around the shipping lanes, and I learned how to shoot a freighter or two.” He sat down and added, “I think I’ll ask for submarine school next week when we get our assessments done. What have you decided, Ranua?”
Ranua shrugged. “I’m still not sure, Matt. I mean, I’ll have to think about it.”
“Well, while you think about it,” Matt said as he clapped his friend on the shoulder, “I say we step off the base and get something to drink. I saw a place there named Sledgehammer Phil’s, and the guy at the gate says that it’s a pretty good bar.”
Ranua thought it over, then nodded. “Sounds like a great idea,” he said as he unzipped his jumpsuit and changed into a clean uniform.
The two encountered Halli and Ari on their way out of the barracks, and the rabbit and the rat agreed to go with them. The gate guard waved at them with a jealous expression as they signed out.
Sledgehammer Phil’s (the eponymous thirty-pound hammer sat over the bar, and Phil looked capable of wielding it with one paw) was maybe two hundred yards from the gate, and after a few minutes the four of them found a booth. The bar sold Naval Issue beer, and the quartet settled down to enjoy themselves. Ranua bought only one mug, and drank it slowly. Although the alcohol content of the beer was fairly low, it had a tendency to sneak up on a person, and he was wary of dipping into his bank account to pay off a tab.
“. . . But when the shot and fur flies
Our enemies will see
Just what can get accomplished
The last word of the unofficial Syndicate anthem ended in a whoop as the four clinked their mugs together and drank each others’ health. A few other furs, some in uniform, cocked ears at the small group of younger furs but didn’t join in.
Halli suddenly paused, her mug to her lips as she looked at the far side of the tavern. Her ears dipped and the others turned to look as two wolves started fighting, swinging fists at each other with gusto as other patrons scattered and several chairs were flipped over. Phil, a huge boar with chipped, tobacco-stained tusks and a pot belly barely restrained by a flannel shirt, started shouting, “Break it up, ya bums!”
The four looked at each other. “Do you think we should help him?” Ranua asked.
“I don’t know,” Ari remarked. “I think he’s got things under control.” The others turned just in time to see the boar knock one of the wolves cold with a heavy wooden mallet. The other squared off against him, but thought better of it and ran out of the bar.
“Hey! Ya forgot your dance partner!” and the boar grabbed the unconscious wolf by the shirt collar and threw him out onto the sidewalk. He started walking back to the bar as one of the patrons started setting the tables back up. One said, “Here, Phil, you’re getting too old for carousin’ like that.”
The boar grunted and spit expertly into a nearby spittoon. “Shut yer trap, Johnny,” he rasped, laughing heartily. “Day I stop fightin’s the day ya can put me inna ground.” The rest of the patrons laughed at that, and soon the place settled down again.
After paying for their beers the group went back to the barracks to find that nearly everyone else had returned. Most shared their stories of what they had done in their brief commands. Ann, the second-youngest Spontoonie in the group, had the most to boast about as she had commanded a destroyer. Two of the Rain Islanders had commanded seaplane tenders operating out of Seathl.
Petty Officer Johansen came into the room and called for quiet, and as the recruits settled down he said, “Vell, here ve all are again, boys’n girls. Tomorra ve start wit’ yer exams an’ assessment boards, an’ ve’ll be getting’ ya all set up fer yer reds an’ greens.”
The examinations were comprehensive, covering every bit of the information they had learned during their first month. Each of their instructors (not Captain Gray, as the Orca was out at sea; his place was taken by the base commander, Captain Muldoon) gave the twenty-nine a rigorous review before proctoring the tests.
The tests followed the same order as the classes: political science, ballistics, leadership and navigation, and Ranua fought to keep everything straight in his head. When he wrote his final answer in the last blue-covered test booklet he discovered that he was actually shaking from the mental effort, and when everyone was done he realized that he hadn’t been the only one who felt exhausted by the process. And it was only Monday.
That night after supper they were marched to the quartermaster’s building and measured for their formal uniforms. The terrier was surprised to find that, without really realizing it, he had filled out a bit around his shoulders and arms. He liked the look, and Ari laughed at Ranua as he looked at himself in the mirror later. “Plan on showing off for Miri?” the rat asked, and laughed harder as Ranua nodded, blushing in embarrassment.
“You’ll do the same for Falana, right?” Ranua teased.
“Absolutely!” Ari replied enthusiastically.
The next day brought the assessment boards. These were a series of oral interviews conducted by the base commander and two senior officers, and were designed as tests of character and knowledge that couldn’t be gauged by a written exam.
Everything had been set up to make the cadets as uncomfortable as possible; the room was too warm, and the board sat on a slightly raised dais that faced a single chair that the recruit had to sit in. The questions Ranua was asked centered around his service aboard Orca and Emma Goldman, and were used to determine how he would react in a given situation.
When he was done, he was sweating again, as were all of the other recruits. Wearily they lined up and marched back to their barracks.
A surprise was waiting for each of them when they returned from their evening meal; a bulky package was on each bed. Ranua opened his and felt his ears stand up.
Inside the parcel was a pair of straight-legged dark green trousers and a maroon tunic with a stiff stock collar. The shoulders of the tunic bore a half-inch wide gold stripe, the rank of an ensign in the Naval Syndicate. Three boxes in the parcel contained a kepi, a billed cap similar to those issued to the French Foreign Legion (but in spruce green with maroon piping), a pair of black leather shoes, and a brown leather Sam Bruin belt. “Wow . . .” Ranua breathed, holding the tunic up and staring at it. Others were doing the same thing, and several were trying theirs on to see if the tunics fit properly.
With an amused expression on his face Johansen watched the recruits for a moment before bellowing, “A’right den, shut up an’ lissen! Ye’ve got yer new uniforms now, an’ by de Liffin’ Got I von’t have ya lookin’ like a bunch o’ pirates. So, ve’ve got a class tonight on how to look yer best.” He chuckled. “Ya have to look sharp, oddervise how can ya attract de boys or girls, hah?” He grinned as the younger furs looked at each other, some dipping their ears in embarrassment. “Right den, ve’ll start vit’ yer shoes . . . “
March 24, 1937:
The cadets (they were called that now more and more often, as the date of their graduation approached) were gathered that Wednesday morning in an auditorium. They were there to hear the results of their grades and assessments, and to choose which technical school and branch of the service they preferred to join.
It was by no means certain that their choice would be honored, as the interests of the Syndicate came first.
“Milikonu, Ranua,” Petty Officer Johansen said, looking down the list to the Ms. “Yer grades are: political science ninety percent, ballistics eighty-six percent, leadership ninety-six percent, an’ navigation ninety-two percent.” He looked over his glasses at the wirehair terrier and added, “All o’ yer assessments vere satisfactory. Mills, Joshua . . .” The moose went on down the list as Ranua slumped back in his seat and sighed. He had passed, and while not with flying colors, at least he hadn’t failed. In fact, he realized, none of the cadets had gotten a test score lower than eighty percent, or a grade lower than ‘adequate’ on their assessments.
When he was passed a pre-printed index card and a pencil for his choice, he stared hard at the selections listed before writing his name. He looked again at the choices, and his heart sank as he realized something important.
Although he had enjoyed being in the various divisions aboard the cruiser, and had learned a lot about actually commanding a ship, he realized that he didn’t have a preference. After half an hour of weighing the pros and cons of each choice, he finally marked the box labeled ‘No Preference’ and passed the card forward. He and the rest of the cadets went to lunch shortly after everyone had turned in their completed cards. The cards and their files went to the Command Syndicate for the choices to be finalized.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Commodore Deirdre O’Rourke said that afternoon, “are we all here? Can we get started – ah, there you are, Marie,” and she grinned as a goat wearing pilot’s wings on her uniform walked in, shutting the door behind her. “Now let’s get started.” She gestured at the stack of twenty-nine folders, and chuckled as the wolf who was the surface fleet commander groaned theatrically.
“These are the ones who’ve made it this far,” she remarked as she passed out the first set of dossiers. She sat down and sipped at a glass of water before saying, “Let’s earn our pay.”
The majority of the recruits, like Halli, had indicated their preferences during the morning period, and these were considered first. A thin haze of cigarette smoke collected in the room as the number of completed and assigned files grew. Finally there was a stack of ten folders remaining, those who had not selected an assignment on their own.
Remarkably, there had been very little argument over the recruit selections. All of the vice-commodores were friends and the various folders were passed back and forth with a lot of good-natured banter.
One after another, the folders marked ‘no preference’ were pored over and decisions were made based on the projected needs of each branch of the Syndicate. O’Rourke glanced at the next folder before passing it to Marie, and the wolfhound sat back to watch as the goat read it over. The head of the air arm then shook her head and gave the folder to an elderly bear whose single broad Vice-Commodore’s stripe was crossed by a silver eagle feather. The chief of the Syndicate’s shamans read the dossier through twice before looking thoughtful for a moment. He closed his eyes, then opened them and passed the file on.
Eventually it came to Broome, and he glanced absently at the name and photograph on the top page before glancing at the contents. He very rarely argued about a fur’s assignment, which was expected; Intelligence was tiny compared to the Fleet or the Air Arm. His brows furrowed as his tail suddenly twitched.
He found himself reading a report from the captain of the Emma Goldman, describing an incident where one of the recruits – his lips moved as he pronounced the Spontoonie name – had apparently read on sight one of the standard ‘workday’ ciphers. He read further, looking over grade reports and assessments written by the instructors, all the way back to the cadet’s Spontoon school records.
He decided that he’d like to meet this young fur.
“Richard? Hey, Richard?” The fox looked up as the wolf to his left laughed. “You gonna share with the rest of us?”
“Sorry, Mike,” Broome said, chuckling as he closed the file. “If it’s okay with all of you, I want this one.”
O’Rourke frowned and sat up. “Are you sure, Richard? You’re only allowed one selection, after all, according to the new budget, and we still have – “ she thumbed through the remaining folders “ – five more to look at.” The other officers glanced at each other as the Commodore spoke.
“I know, Deirdre,” the fox said as he put the folder on the table in front of him and placed a paw on it. “But my mind’s made up.”
“Are you certain?” she pressed. “After all, Walker was considering him.”
The old bear chuckled. “He is devout, I will give him that,” Walker-Under-the-Moon said, “but – well, I don’t feel right in asking for him. I shall defer to Richard,” he said, nodding to the fox, who smiled gratefully.
“Very well,” she said, passing the fox an assignment form.
Broome filled out the form, signed it and tucked it into the folder. The first twenty-three folders had been fairly standard, and he surmised that, statistically, the last five would be much the same. This young man, though, showed a flash of talent, and he could recognize talent when he saw it.
It was, after all, why Rain Island hired him.