The Commander on the Soapbox

by Steven Craig

CMRD POLLOW On the Soapbox

From time to time, Steven would sit someplace quite and bend his head down just a little and think about some of the things that his commander had said to him over the years. He would, at times, pull on his lower lip slowly and repeatedly with his left hand and try to picture in his minds eye a day that had so much influence on what he had become, what had made him what his is now, and would forever touch him.

One such day was at the Laboratory, early on a Wednesday, April morning. The sun was out, the birds had already returned, and Carol had called Steven down from his office. This was the day Steven thought about most often, the day he started it all.

The commander had an outer office inhabited by his secretary and receptionist. Carol liked the office bright, so there was nothing in the windows but 3 African violets in a little white tray. The filing cabinets were out of the way in the right corner, next to the connecting door leading off to the right to a conference room. Carol was at her desk right next to the door, smiling with her head perched atop her fingers, her long arms resting on the desk by just her elbows. Steven thought Carol was pretty, very pretty at times, but altogether much to skinny. She was almost 5’ 10”, but if she weighted in at 90 pounds, it would be a wonder. She never wore a uniform, preferring red, bright red to offset her wondrous head of long, brunette and very straight hair.

Carol had perched her chin on her hands and was looking for Steven to arrive, and when he walked in, she smiled at him and just moved her eyes to the connecting door on the left, the commanders office, his inter-sanctum.

“He’s expecting you, Sir.” She raised her eyebrows just a bit, with the mention of ‘Sir’. Steven had stopped to say good morning, but stopped his words in his throat, and just nodded his head and returned a pleasant smile. Carol was already bending slightly to her left, toughing the intercom button...

“Mr. Craig, Sir.”

“Good.” A single word reply, followed by a ‘buzz’ of the electric lock as Carol ‘popped’ the door for Steven to enter.

Steven had thought that he was entering another world, but the office of the inter sanctum was nothing if not ordinary. It was the same size as his office space. Except for the chalk board, there was no other decoration on the walls. The desk was standard navy gray, placed near the window. The filing cabinet was standard navy gray, placed in the dark corner with the drawers facing the desk. The small conference table in the front of the office and its six attending chairs all standard navy gray. And the commander was sitting in one of them, holding a small brown folder, pushing a page back into it. Steven stood at attention as the commander lightly tossed the folder onto the table, and turned to look at Steven standing in the morning sunlight entering through the small window behind the commanders desk.

Steven broke the silence in his usual way, with a smile. “Good morning Sir. You wanted to see me ...”

“Please, close the door Steven. Come around here and have a seat.”

The commanders voice was pleasant, almost delightful, a combination of fatherly and Santa Claus, deep, not loud, but definitely strong. Steven looked at the commanders face for a clue, but he was waiting for the door to be closed as he had asked. Steven moved back, and closed it, glancing out at Carol as he did so, but she was busy at the electric typewriter, tapping away at its keys with abandon. Steven moved over to the table, selecting a chair on the same side as the commander, careful to leave a chair between them. As he sat down, he noticed that the folder was rather thinly populated with papers, that its outside was stamped in the center with large letters “TOP SECRET/PRAIRIE.”

“And good morning to you young man. Things are well with you? Your mother is fine? Has the computer been behaving?”

To each of these questions, Steven nodded, smiled, began to answer, but the commander was talking on. Steven gathered that he did not really expect an answer. Something was on his mind, and it must have something to do with “TOP SECRET/PRAIRIE”.

“Steven, you have volunteered for an assignment some time ago, not knowing what it was. A lot of people have looked you over. Those that know you recommend you highly for the job. I’ve seen you here at the lab for a number of months, and it’s what I think now, that is all that matters. I want to talk with you today, and I want you to level with me, come right down here to earth...” and he smacked his open hand on the table top to make the point, “ and you listen to what I have to say, and you give me your honest from the heart answer. This will be the only time I will say what I have to say, and what you say will determine how we’ll get on with this project or you go on with what you are currently assigned.” He tapped the folder with the index finger of his right hand. He was looking at the folder as he spoke, but now he turned at looked directly into Steven’s eyes. The commanders eyes were hazel gray, standard navy gray.
“Yes, Sir.” That was as much as Steven could bring himself to say. He felt as if some doom was about to be passed upon him, and he was being given a chance to duck and run. He sat there in his chair.

The commander was still looking at him.

“I won’t mince words, and I expect the same from you. Son, you are about to join a special group of people that are fighting a war, a war which if we win, no one will ever know of it.” He paused at looked at Steven to seek his expression. “And if we loose, no one will likely be alive to care about it. This group is army, navy, air force, marines, and civil servants. You, just like any of them, must be ready to give your life if necessary, and to kill if need be.”

The commander stopped, and continued to look at Steven, looking to detect any doubt, any fear, or a look that would tell him that this person was not of the sorts he needed.

Steven was busy letting all this soak in. No one had ever made such an unusual offering to him before. Yes, there was that thought of just was sort of fix was he about to fall into. Give one’s life for? Steven looked stonely at the commander.

“I can tell you that we are here to do everything possible to achieve just two simple goals. One is to prevent World War III, a nuclear war son. The other is to try like hell to defeat and bring down the Soviet Union. Are you with me on this, Steven, can you picture what it is I’m trying to get across to you? We win or we die based on weither we can prevent a war, a global nuclear war that will totally destroy all things. And you must be willing to do anything..., everything, sacrifice anything..., everything if that war is to be prevented. Do you understand me on this Steven? If you can not, now is the time, the only time, that you can just walk away from it, and leave the job to some other. You won’t be the first to walk away. It is not just courage or morals or guts that a person must exhibit to do this job, its fear and knowledge of ones own mortality, the love of a chance to live and grow, and be who you are and what you want to be. Do you understand Steven? This happens once and only once in a lifetime.”

This time, with the question, the commander paused. Steven was looking at the folder on the table top, and looked up at the commander, then shied his glance away, thinking on what the commander had said. The word that stuck was ‘sacrifice’. Childhood dreams and fantasies aside, Steven knew he was no hero, he had never been a hero. He did want to live and enjoy life and have some fun doing that living and own a home and raise a family and enjoy his love of the mountains and see the stars. And now, here was this man offering him what sounded like an empty sack, just big enough for him to die in. But there was something else there in that offer, something Steven felt, but could not clearly state in his mind. There was something there.

“I’m not real sure, Sir. I... have not thought on this before. This seems to me to be a pretty big thing. There is something there that I want to hear more about.”

The commander stood up, motioned for Steven to stay seated. He walked over to the window, looked outside for a moment at the budding trees, the lake glistening in the sun, at the person here or there walking around the lake, thinking.

He turned around then as pressed the intercom.

“Carol, you still have those ginger ales on ice out there?”

“They were never on ice, Sir. But they are still cold. Be right in.”

The command lifted up on the intercom button.

“I’m going to tell you a little story, son. It might get a little dry in the telling...”

Carol tapped at the door, the commander strode over and opened it. Just Carols hands with the two green cans appeared through the door, and then she shut it.

“Schweppes. A taste that can’t be found anywhere in the world, and I should know.” The commander smiled at he handed a can to Steven. Steven took the cool can in his hand, and thanked the commander, but preferring that it was a Pepsi instead. But this was the commanders treat and it was his story that he began telling.

“Ever hear of the National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO? Thought not, not many have as it ‘doesn’t exist.’ The NRO has a mission, to provide the President of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff with detailed information gathered by various national means so that these people can make the best decisions possible in safe guarding the security of the country. Without this information, a crystal ball would have better results.”

Steven looked up at the commander at the mention of ‘information’.

“Yes, Steven, information. Spy’s, and spy equipment if you really want to know. We are in that business. A very specialized business. The proper wording is overhead reconnaissance. Information gathered from aircraft and even more so now... satellites.”

“The future rests with he who has the best information, and the fastest response to use that information. That means that accuracy and speed of delivery is most essential. It must be correct, it must be accurate, able to pin point, leave no question in the mind of those who it reaches, those who must act on it. That’s were we come in.” And the commander popped open his can of Schweppes to make the point. “The Navy has been charged with coming up with a method to provide that accuracy. Navigation satellites.”

“The NAVSATS that we currently use for the fleet can provide accuracy’s within a mile or so, good enough if you want to drop a big bomb in the general area of say Kansas. One trouble is, we don’t know enough about all the places on the earth to use this type of system for any other useful need. In other words, if you take a picture of something from far away...” and the commander looked up at the ceiling as if something was looking down at him, “... just where the hell is it exactly? In the future, we will need to know. And that is where people like you are coming into this picture. You are going to go out there and re-discover the word, re-map the world, make it understandable to both the computers that you will be using and the people that will be using this new information for years to come.”

Steven was beginning to catch on a little, but the commander wasn’t yet finished.

“There is this one thing about all this that I want you to understand. All of this, your work, the tools, the data, the equipment, everything about it, you must keep it secret. You will talk to no one about it except those who have been introduced to you as being cleared for this sole line of work. And no one will talk to you about it unless they have been introduced to you. Only as many people and work subjects as are necessary for you to do your job will be made available to you.”

“And for most of us and its likely it will be that way for you too, the hardest part is that no one will ever know. You’ll never get a medal for anything you do, you’ll never receive a promotion list advancement for duties performed, you’ll never have a parade to honor you down the street where you grew up, your mother will never be proud of the things you’ve done for your country, your sweetheart will never be there to greet you when you arrive back at home after risking your neck, your picture will never appear in the hometown newspaper for everyone to see, you will certainly never get rich or famous, and in the event, you’ll never be buried in Arlington, no rifle volley fired over your grave.”

“And if that is not sweet enough for you, there are people out there, people from Russia, China, East Germany, Cuba, with connections the world over that would be just as likely to kill you on sight as walk away. You will in all likelihood be on your own, left to your own resources, called upon to do most anything at just a moments notice, and do it as well as you ever have. And at times, that thing that you do will be most unpleasant. And even then, there is no promise you will succeed.”

Steven still sat there, silent, listening to what seemed like threats, and then, seemed like warnings, but most of all, came across as cold truth.

“When you do something out there, you do it because it must be done, and there is no other way. You do it when you are there because you are the one who is there, and no one else. You do it the best way you know how, and you never give up, no matter what you encounter, no matter who you encounter, no matter where you encounter it, you will never give up. Indeed, you can fail, but you just can never give up.”

The commander stood up walked to the rear of the chair he had been sitting in, turned and leaned over the chair back, again looking at Steven with that look he had, to see clear into a mans soul.

“Well, mister, What is it to be?”

Steven was thinking back over those six months since he had met the commander, since the commander had banged on that table top and had wanted to know if it was true that he was a satellite programmer. Here was a time like that again. Opportunity.

“Can do, Sir.”

“Good. Good! Then, mister, as of now, you are detached from all your previous responsibilities and units, and are to be assigned to my team. Your orders will reach you and your old unit commander by days end. Here, you need to sign this ...”
The commander opened the folder for the first time. In it was one sheet of paper. Steven looked at this single sheet of paper, and looked back up at the commander. The page was blank, except for a short sentence near the bottom and a line to sign on over his typed name:

“I here-by acknowledge and concur with all statements contained above, and fully agree that they are true and precise as stated, and further, agree and consent to comply fully and completely with all laws of the United States, be they current or future,”

Steven looked up in simple amazement from the empty sheet of paper.

The commander was handing Steven a pen.

“Yes, mister, you are signing your life away and to what, ... only God knows.”


Posted on 10/13/2017
Copyright © 2020 Steven Craig

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