Jane L. Daffron
A tall gray haired man stood near the outcropping of boulders that jutted out into the vastness of the Santa Barbara Channel. It was chilly, and he adjusted the buttons of his overcoat as he fought to overcome the damp cold of that gray April morning. Why his old friend had asked to meet him here, in this early dawn weather, he couldn’t understand. His friend hadn’t been in the best of health lately. In fact, if truth be told, he was getting a bit worried about him. So, when he got the call to come to this particular place at the beach, he became concerned.
He’d been waiting about ten minutes when he heard the faint sound of a car’s motor. Turning slightly, he saw a blue car pull up at the top of the hill. The driver got out, turned around and opened the back door. A shorter, stocky built man with faded auburn hair got out and slowly walked down the path to the beach. Silently, he walked over to the taller man and shook his hand.
“What the hell was so important that you had me come out here, Harry?” inquired Tony Rennalt.
Admiral Harriman Nelson, USN (retired), and director/founder of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, stood near the water's edge and gazed out over the Channel. He took a slow, deep breath and slowly exhaled. As he did, he coughed several times, and as he did, he grimaced from the dull pain that had plagued him now for several weeks.
After the pain subsided, he turned to his old friend of many years. “Partly because I wanted to come out here to clear my head. And partly because I wanted to ask a favor of you.”
The older man slowly walked over to one of the boulders and sat down. Looking over at Rennalt, “I’m not well, Tony. We both know that.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I couldn’t figure out why you’d want to meet here instead of…”
“Because this is where I feel…at peace, I guess you might say.”
Tony nodded and then sat down on the rocks beside his old friend.
A few moments of silence and then, “It’s been a helluva time, old friend. Sometimes I look up on the cliff and think back to when this all began…”
“You built something that’ll last for a long time after we’re all gone, Harry. They’ll make sure of that.”
“I know. And that’s why I wanted to ask a special favor. I want you to take care of them, Tony. After I’m gone. And make sure she’s all right…”
A shaggy eyebrow lifted just slightly. “Karen?”
Nelson slowly nodded. “Yeah. You know…for all that steel she shows on the outside, there's another side that a lot of others don't always see. She’s going to have a rough time of it...”
“That lady’s a lot stronger than you give her credit for…”
“Oh, believe me, I know that,” he laughed softly. “Remember, my friend, I’ve been on the receiving end of her anger a few times. And truth be told, I probably deserved one or two…” His tone then softened. “She hides behind that 'mask' a lot of times...you and I both know that. So does Caitlin and Sean."
"Yeah, I know."
"I want you to make sure she’s okay after I…”
“Harry, Karen’s a Steel Magnolia. You know that. Hell, she always has been…”
He sighed. “I know…and she’s been one of the best things that ever happened to me. Her…and Sean…and Caitlin.” He shook his head just a bit. “We’ve been married almost 27 years now. I’m amazed at each day, actually. And I look at Sean and thank God for both of them. What the hell did I do to deserve either one of them?”
“I’ve asked myself that a couple of times when you went on a rant or two…”
Nelson shot him a look that would have stared down most men. But then again, Anthony Rennalt wasn’t ‘most men.’ He was Harriman Nelson’s ‘other conscience.’ The one person, besides his wife, who could be totally and unequivocally honest with him. Who could, and often would, provide that proverbial ‘kick in the ass’ when he needed it the most. He treasured, and yet sometimes cursed, his friendship with the tall Texan. Yet he depended on his counsel more than anyone would ever know.
There was another moment of silence and then, “I’ve prepared all the paperwork with Legal.”
“Yeah, I remember years ago you said you’d done up your will the day before the two of you got married…”
“I’ve modified it a bit…to take into consideration what needs to be done here…”
“And just why the hell you telling me this? Shouldn’t you be telling her?
“Because I want you to watch over them… Be there when she needs someone to talk to…”
“You know, I’d swear if I didn’t know you better, I’d swear to God you’re givin’ your…”
“Blessing?” Nelson smiled. “Maybe, but then again, you see, I know her. I’ve always known her. And I know you. Oh, you could try…but something tells me I know what she’d do.”
Rennalt laughed. “Damn, Harry, you’re an arrogant sonofabitch.”
“No, I know her. Besides, if Michael Briggs couldn’t turn her years ago, you don’t stand a goddamn chance in hell.” And he laughed, then coughed again.
“Yeah, well…you may be right. ‘Course, then again…”
There were moments of silence again, broken only by the lapping of the water against the sand and the soft cry of an occasional seagull.
“You remember the first time we met?”
Tony snorted. “Hell, yeah. At Benny’s Bar in Gaviota. You were bound and determined to drink yourself into a stupor.”
Nelson sighed just a bit. “Well, I was responsible for Katherine’s death…”
The Texan turned and faced Nelson. “No, you weren’t, Harry. You’ve carried that goddamned guilt with you all these years and it’s about time you made your peace with it. You didn’t kill her.”
Quietly, “I may not have pulled the trigger, but my arrogance was what got her killed.”
“Well, it’s a helluva thing to be carrying around all these years, ya know? We all make mistakes. Even me.”
“Humph! And here I thought you considered yourself ‘perfect.’”
“Hell, no. Two ex-wives who both said I needed to grow up… Nah…at least, I can say I’m honest about it.” He bent down, picked up a small rock, and threw it into the water. “But you… You almost let the best thing slip by you because of that goddamn guilt…”
“The operative word there is ‘almost.’ The point being, I woke up and didn’t.” Nelson’s eyes scanned the horizon for any hint of sunlight. The cold dampness was beginning to gnaw at his bones. “I’ve made mistakes in my life, Tony. Ones I had to live with…like what happened with Katherine. But marrying Karen…that was definitely no mistake. What I need from you is…I need for you to promise me that you’ll look after her…”
“She’d skin you alive if she knew you were doing this, you know that, don’t you?”
“You didn’t answer me…”
Tony looked over at his old friend, hesitated, then, “Yeah, I’ll make sure she and the others stay on the ‘straight and narrow. I don’t know for how long, though. I ain’t no spring chicken either, ya know.”
“Humph! Hell, none of us are…”
The Admiral paused and again gazed out over the channel. In the distance, the clanging from the bell of a channel buoy could be heard. He looked back over into the craggy bearded face of his old friend. The signature ponytail was long gone and his hair was now completely white, but his whole manner had never changed from the first day they’d met at Bennie’s.
“Why you? Because you’ve been the closest thing I’ve had to a brother, I guess. I couldn’t ask Jiggs to do this, now could I? He’s down in San Diego and besides, he’s not the type for this. Not that he wouldn’t do it if I’d really have asked…but Karen and Sean and Caitlin know you. They respect you. And Karen feels comfortable with you…”
“Doesn’t mean she’d want me around all the time.”
“I didn’t say that… Hell, you know what I mean…”
“Yeah, I know.” Tony stood up and stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket. This kind of weather was grading on even him and he knew it wasn’t the best thing for Nelson. “Harry, Karen’ll be okay, you know that. Sean…well, he’s grown now…and Caitlin, well, she’s got Lee to protect her…”
“I know that.” He shook his head and there was a faint smile. “Sean and I came down here the day before he left to report down to San Diego, and we had a long talk, about a lot of things. I have to say that he’s grown into a fine man. I’m proud of him, Tony. You have no idea.”
“Oh, I think I do…”
“I have to admit that we had some rough times. Karen kept telling me that raising a son had to be easier than raising a daughter – course I never had that pleasure, since Caitlin was 17 when they first came here. That was something that Karen had to do on her own. But I look back on everything and then I look at him now and I thank God that He gave me the chance.”
“He got into a few scrapes, Harry, but nothing serious. Except maybe for that ordeal in Boston…”
“Which, hopefully, he’ll never find out about until after we’re all dead and buried. I, ah, arranged for a journal to be given to him at a particular time. The Boston attorney has it, along with strict instructions as to its disposition.”
“You did what had to be done, Harry…for his own well being as well as for the others.”
“Doesn’t make it any easier.” He looked up into Rennalt’s eyes. “Karen and I had a major argument about it.”
“I wonder why…” came the sly comment. “Look, we need to get inside. This damp weather isn’t good for you. I don’t think you’d want Frank Lerner up your ass. He’s about as bad as Jamison was.”
“I’m fine. I just needed to come down here...to look out and see all of this.” Nelson stood and turned to face the taller man. “You know, I think it was Mark Twain who said something along the line of ‘a man’s first duty is to his conscience and honor.’ Well, I’ve tried to live my life that way, Tony. I’ve always tried to do the right thing. It wasn’t easy sometimes, and sometimes it wasn't what I would have liked...but I've always tried to. I tried to teach Sean that as well. I know I had a tendency to get tunnel-visioned sometimes. That’s why, I guess, I tolerated your sorry ass for as long as I did.”
A small grin graced Rennalt’s face. “Ya know, if I didn’t know you better, I’d swear to God that you were trying to tell me something…”
There was a small twinkle in the steel blue eyes. “Just that I’ve appreciated your friendship. You and I both know you didn’t have to come here...or even stay here after you turned over the Engineering Department to John Vickers. You could have retired to that ranch in Texas a long time ago. And you sure as hell never needed the money. I don’t know why you even had me make out the damn paychecks in the first place…”
Tony laughed. “Neither do I. I donated’em anyway...and the various charities should be thanking you, not me, for those generous contributions.”
The two men leisurely started up the beach for the path that would lead back to their cars. As they neared the path, Nelson turned and looked back for a few moments. Deep down inside, there was a nagging feeling that he’d never grace this beach again. It held so many private memories, both good and bad, but he also knew it was finally time to move on.
“Take care of them, Tony. Take care of her. I couldn’t ask that of anyone else...”
Tony looked over and simply nodded as the two men slowly walked back up the pathway in silence.
©Jane Daffron, 2006
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