It was well past midnight. I would be tired at the ceremony tomorrow, but I could not imagine sleeping. Instead, I got dressed in my formal whites and simply walked around the base. Yesterday we had lost one of our own in a helicopter accident. One of our own, for sure, but more than that to me. The Admiral had been like a lighthouse for my career, a symbol of what I could be if I wanted, no matter what anyone else might say or do to discourage me.
We had spoken briefly at functions. It was not seemly for an Admiral to spend too much time speaking with junior officers, and so our words were always short. And yet, something in those storm-tossed ocean blue eyes seemed to say there was a world of things she wanted me to know, if only there was time.
As I wandered I found myself walking down the street where the Admiral stayed when on shore. I heard someone raving, and quickly moved down the street to find out what was going on.
“Sailor!” I barked. A seaman was standing on the sidewalk outside the Admiral’s home, mumbling loudly. He did not react to me at first, until I grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him to face me. With my touch he shrieked, then his wide crazy eyes took a moment to regard me.
“It…it’s alive in there!” He whispered, moving too close for comfort. His breath was thick with booze.
I braced my stance, crossed my arms, stomped on his foot, and shoved him backwards. He landed on his ass, crying out and rubbing his toes through his boot.
As he lay rolling on the grass, two MPs showed up in an electric cart.
They saluted as they came over to me, and one of them asked, “Everything all right here ma’am?”
I snapped a salute back and replied, “this man was the honor guard for the Admiral tonight. I found him drunk and raving out here on the sidewalk. Keep him in custody, and wait for me to check on the Admiral’s body.”
They nodded and I walked up to the door. It was open. The lights were on. As I moved inside I could see the living room had been ransacked. I quickly checked the kitchen, also a mess, same with the bathroom and study. The bedroom was half mess, half orderly, as if someone had gone through one side and then been scared off before the other.
On the bed, wearing the sheet the coroner had brought her in from the morgue, was Admiral Head. In the soft bedroom lighting, she looked to be asleep on top of her blankets, not dead.
I made my way outside and spoke to the MPs: “This sailor was ransaking the Admiral’s quarters. Take him into custody, strip search him, then leave him to sober up. I’ll be over after the ceremony to see what you found.”
“Will you need another sailor for the honor guard, Lieutenant?”
“No, I’ll take responsibility for the Admiral until the ceremony tomorrow. I can’t sleep anyway.”
“Yes ma’am,” they said, saluting once more. I saluted back to let them get on their way. They zip-tied their charge, threw him in the back of the cart, then made their way toward the base lockup.
I returned to the bedroom. The Admiral’s legs were apart. She had been pulled by her ankles towards the end of the bed, so her head was no longer on her pillow.
As gently as I could, I moved her legs together and pulled her back up on the bed. As I rested her head on her pillow she spoke. I was not frightened.
“Is he gone?”
“Admiral Head?” I asked
I told her he was gone, and asked what had happened. She explained the sailor stole all of the electronic storage he could find, then had been inappropriate with her body, so she had started doing things to scare him, escalating until she was following him around the house like a zombie saying she was going to eat his face.
It was Admiral Head’s laugh.
I laughed too, then began to clean up.
She said not to worry, she wasn’t going to be using the place any more, and would I just sit and talk with her before tomorrow when she’d be put in the ground?
I said of course, and told her how much I admired her, how her career had been an inspiration to me.
She thanked me, then began to speak in such a sorrowful tone tears somehow snuck down my cheeks.
“I came to the military as an Air Force brat, but, as teens are want to do, I joined the Navy out of spite. And, as often spite is want to do, it backfired and my parents were thrilled. ‘It is all one great Enterprise,’ they said, toasting my still freshly-creased uniform.
“The Navy was not easy, not for a woman in the 70s. I was harassed a lot, even when they didn’t know they were harassing me, and raped twice by senior officers. At the time, humiliation and shame became turbines of my grief, energy I used to be twice as good as any sailor around me. Officers saw the determination in my eyes. The scuttlebut was everywhere. Everyone knew what had happened to me and who had done it, and there I was staring down some superior officer without fear, as if to say, You can do anything to me, harass me, humiliate me, beat me and rape me, and I’ll still claw over you on my way to the top. How they loathed being afraid of me.
“My rapists were frightened the most. I would meet them in the narrow corridors in out-of-the-way areas of the ship, and I’d stare them down until they made way for me. Their rank didn’t matter. Somehow they thought they would rob me of my power, and instead I stole theirs and added it to my fire.
“In the end what destroyed me was a three thousand dollar tail rotor pin, charged over ten thousand dollars to the Navy, and a quick-release seat belt that failed because the manufacturer was good friends with a Rear Admiral running a desk, and so had outbid the contract with faulty equipment. I drowned fighting that quick-release latch, perhaps 30 seconds before the first hands reached down to help me.
“How odd. I didn’t know any of this before. I seem to understand so many things. It is almost morning. They will be coming for me soon. Will you dress me?”
Her Navy Dress Uniform was hanging in the closet of her tiny room. As shore accommodations for an Admiral, it seemed a small and cramped apartment. But I could tell Head did not care. Her eyes were the storm-tossed blue of the ocean. Wherever she happened to be, that was where she was, her bow sending spray 20 meters in the air as it crashed into the waves of her future.
I was gentle, even tender dressing her. Despite what she had claimed earlier, she did not move. And she no longer spoke as I did up the six brass buttons, straightened her pants, drawing their crease straight down to the center of her white shoes. Other than her epaulettes, I did not add any medals or ensignia. I would give them to her family. Admiral Head had no interest in such things. It was the uniform itself, and the people placed under her command, the bow of her ships, and that surging ocean she cared about.
I placed her hat between her side and the inside elbow of her left arm. I went to place her ceremonial sword beside her, but she spoke up.
“No, as I reflect now I can see that is the answer to nothing. Please don’t let that symbol be my only companion forever in the dark.”
“Yes, Admiral,” I agreed, and found a suitable place to hide the sword that would take too long to find before the ceremony, but allow it to be found eventually. Her family might want it.
There was a ceremony. There was a three volley salute. Many speeches by many wearing brass. Her brother spoke. Her son spoke.
And then it was done.
I returned that night, when everyone had left, and knelt by her marker.
“Is it dark there?” I asked.
“Yes, dark, and cool, and quiet. They said many lies about me. I was never all those things. And no one said my work is done. Must I stay?”
“No,” I said through tears, “you have done your work. Let the weight fall on our shoulders now, Admiral.”
“Very well. But do not call me Admiral. That rank was sacrificed to the makers of widgets.”
“Then how should we remember you?”