In the Navy we call the Secretary, The Staff Officer. Generally a smart officer. I was in command of the Submarine base at Visakhapatnam. When the CO’s car enters the gate , there is a smart gun salute, one sailor announces Commanding Officer arriving Sir.The Staff Officer receives me at the porch. A tall and handsome Officer, immaculately dressed. a well cropped haircut, he has plenty of hair, and I am bald and short, not as elegant. Every one stands still. My brief case collected and I am escorted to my chamber
In the large chamber, the air conditioner purring softly, fresh flowers are on the table, the room smelling of Sandalwood, the fragrance I prefer. My briefcase kept in the exact spot.
Softly, the door opens and a steaming cup of Tea, golden yellow in color, one teaspoon sugar. tissue paper in saucer to prevent spillage. No drops should fall on the commanding officer’s snow white pants. All activities coordinated and executed without uttering a word.The steward departs automatically.
The signals are brought in, the staff officer is ready with his notepad. Instructions given and recorded for execution. Now I am alone with the Secretary. Without bending, standing still, he reports The schedule of the day. Generally it is hectic with eleven Submarines and the base under my command. I ask him anything else. He reminds me “Sir, tomorrow is Madame’s birthday. My God , I had forgotten. we must order a birthday cake. A bouquets of flowers, and a card.
“Sir, I have done that ” He says.
“Sweet fellow, how will I survive with out you”, I say.
I could read his looks. Okay, I say I shall buy a gift.
You see how smartly and effectively he has prevented a long face , a really long face.
With many ups and downs , life moved on. In life, particularly Naval life nothing goes as planned or as scheduled. Prasanna keeps the house spic and span . not an item out of place except Me. She found a perfect maid and was settling down for a lengthy stay.
Then suddenly when least expected , a signal came, that I was selected for a prestigious course to Russia, a deputation to proceed with family for a stay in Moscow. duration year and a half.A chance to see Europe in addition. There were only two Naval officers , five Brigadiers and three Air Commodores. A General Staff course for higher rank of Generals and Admirals. We were the first ever.
Handing over command is a lengthy procedure. Every thing to be done with in 15 days.
The final day came. I was given a Guard of Honour. An impressive Parade. Sparkling uniform. Medal and Sword gleaming.
I was escorted for handling over ceremony. The photographer and a bouquet of flowers. one important task was to hand over the Top Secret Documents held in my personal custody. They were to be mustered and each page checked. I was sipping tea. The task of signing The Documents and the photo would be over in half an hour. I heard a sound. Sir ” One two page document marked TOP secret is missing.
When a mountain falls on your head, it does not register immediately. because a mountain was not supposed to be there. but it did. In the same context , A statement TOP SECRET Document missing . does not make any sense. It’s implications does not register.. There was pin drop silence. All eyes focused on Me. Not a word spoken. Yet it was the silence of the thunder.
I kept the cup down. Calmly very calmly, I sat there alone. Utterly alone with the beatings of my heart. I could hear the beat. I closed my eyes, as if I am ready for the knife to cut my throat. The implications dawned on Me The loss of Secret Documents means Court Marshall. Removal from Command, and disgrace.Each following swiftly and effectively.
I picketed up the phone and dialed home. Prasanna excited at the other end. “I am busy packing, so many people have come”.
I said, “Stop packing, stop packing, we are not going to Moscow.”.
She said ” why”
I said ” TOP SECRET Document missing.”
Prasanna said ” Search for it. ”
She put the phone down before I could.
Amidst The roaring silence I heard the Staff Officer. ” Sir , we had referred to this document when we made the Operational Orders for the submarine last week.
I said ” Search the OPs room safe ” No other sound could be heard. I sat there with myself for company in that solitude..
“We found it. ” I did hear ” We found it” How sweet it sounded. how mellifluous it sounded. I could smell sandalwood again.
We had worked late at midnight making a secret operational order. sending a Submarine on a secret mission. consulting this document was essential. I had signed The order at two O clock at midnight.. Documents were kept in the Operational Room Safe.
The cheer , the relief was palpable. Sound became audible again.
I picked The phone again. Prasanna on the line some I said ” Start packing again, We are going to Moscow.”
She asked ” What happened”.
I said. ” We found the documents.”.
She said, ” I told you to search properly.”
The rest moved cheerfully, automatically. hectic yes, but with hope and happiness. confidence renewed. My back a little more errect. The steps did not pound The earth. but they landed firmly. The earth under my feel was not slippery anymore.
That evening we had a grand farewell dinner. Every one was congratulating Prasanna. She looked charming. What a contrasting picture. When a changing scenario. Dinner would have been cancelled. I would have been searching for a place to burry my face . Destiny has a peculiar sense of trimming. The dividing line between a hero and a disgraced man is very thin. That night we were on the right side. Just one step.
Since my deputation was at a short notice . I had no time to write the Annual Confidential Report of the officers. I told the Staff Officer. compile themand I shall write them in Moscow. They were close to hundred officers and it would take a long time.
Coincidental Report not yet written. The insignificance of this was evident at the Airport The next day. Almost all of them came to send us off with their wife. Congratulating Prasanna , giving her flowers and hug . Any problems write to us. all smiling beautifully. I am cognizant of their effort. The anxiety was palpable. They were making their presence felt. Marking attendance. I told myself.I should be fair to them. Then only Destiny would be fair to me.
We had an exiting and memorable days in Moscow. we went to Berlin. Prague. Poland. Prasanna bought plenty of crystals.
Many years have passed. I have become phlegmatic. memory is fading. Dysthesia has set in. The bones are aching, the back no longer vertical. When I go to my friend’s house, I have problems in making the opening sentence.
I still miss the smell of the Sea. The spray that falls on your face. The camaraderie, The busy schedule. The uniform, the ships, the Submarine and above all the Secretary. The STAFF OFFICER.
Those were the days. I miss them.
This incident was shared by Commodore M V Suresh who was the commanding officer in Indian Navy. You can follow him on Facebook here.