A number of fast-moving small craft are approaching your ship, and frankly, you don’t know what they’re up to. Your squadron has never really operated in this zone before, so distinguishing between civilian traders and a swarm of attackers is difficult. If you overreact in defense of your force, you might end up firing on innocents –– even kicking off a war. What do you do?
Well, if your name is Wes Pellew, you’re going to launch a screen of F-194 Starlights, go to standby action stations and make sure your mags have a firing solution on the small craft –– just in case they turn out to be hostile. Then you’re going to start hailing them until someone answers, and if they don’t, you’re going to fire some warning shots to let them know you mean business. If worst comes to worst, low-powered mags will disable them, and you can tow them aboard for a stern conversation (perhaps involving a wrench).
But what if your name is Calvin Mofford, and your ship –– HMCS Iroquois –– doesn’t possess two squadrons of atmospace starfighters, or a battery of non-lethal mags? What if you’re commanding the flagship of the first Canadian squadron deployed for Operation Apollo –– meaning, you’re skipper of the command-and-control destroyer we sent to support operations in Afghanistan, in the fall of 2001? Not quite so easy.
I had the chance to speak at some length with Cal Mofford during my time in Halifax. He’s a retired Commodore –– the Chair of Canada’s Naval Memorial Trust this year –– and he is incredibly thoughtful about his many experiences as a senior officer at sea. I should really bug him to write his reminiscences, Martian War style… though despite being retired, I don’t think Cal would quite classify himself as a ‘rogue’ commodore. On the contrary, you need only talk with him for a few minutes to realize how balanced and wise his perspective is when it comes to so many contentious issues.
Cal is not alone in his thoughtfulness; it is another characteristic my grandfather possessed, which I’ve seen in naval veterans over and over –– particularly last week. Take Jim Reddy, for instance; the retired Lieutenant Commander who is now Sackville’s skipper sailed for years with the RCN. As he explained to me, one of his posts was in command of a small vessel patrolling around Newfoundland –– looking in on the many small ports for which the sea was the only means of transport or communication.
Jim would find ways to shimmy his patrol craft into coves fit only for dories –– to places like the outport where Alex arrived at the start of Whitecoat. This ability led him on some very interesting missions, such as ferrying Red Cross teams to communities where genetic disorders were beginning to spread, owing to the isolated natures of the populations. Read back that last sentence and you can easily see through my political correctness: Jim was delivering Red Cross genetic specialists to communities that were suffering due to inbreeding.
Such missions could be easy fodder for poor humor –– unkind jokes about the consequences of small groups of humans being trapped together, without any opportunity to add diversity to their populations. Jim’s perspective: it was his job to help these people, and the Red Cross, in any way he could. To call him noble might embarrass him, but I think the word fits. Like many of his kind, he believes strongly in right and wrong –– and that he serve on the side of the former.
That’s not to say Lieutenant Commander Reddy was some somber missionary –– in a story told over the objection of his friend, Sackville’s pictorial historian Bill Gard (who knows everybody), Jim relates a rather impressive prank. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say an entire ship got together to convince poor Bill of something terrible. And uncomfortable. Took more than a day for the joke to be discovered –– an impressive feat, requiring much cooperation among the ship’s company. One supposes that, over a long career, Jim and his comrades lived many story-worthy adventures… and they share them now, without malice or ego, in a familiar way.
Of course, no one ever fired upon Jim Reddy. He offered himself up to be shot at, but he served in the RCN during the Cold War –– the Soviets never obliged. That being the case, he humbly dismisses himself as not a ‘real’ veteran (in the Battle of the Atlantic context), and perhaps that’s fair. But he is the sort of man who came and went through our navy –– who, like Lieutenant Davies from HMCS Halifax, incorporates his sense of humor, and his genuine respect for people, into his service aboard ship.
Lieutenant Commander Murray Knowles (retired) skippered HMCS Louisbourg II by the end of the Second World War.
All the navy people I personally met in Halifax seemed to share these characteristics –– from the young-for-his-post base commander right down to the veterans in their 90s, like corvette skipper Murray Knowles. The war experiences of those who fought the Battle of the Atlantic were profound, often horrifying, but having survived and lived rich lives since, these men appear determined to smile, chuckle, and not forget the deeds of others (even if they chose to overlook the deeds they’d done themselves).
Still, it must be remembered that Cal, Jim, and Murray, fought different wars, in different places. Where one saw bitter and desperate combat in the harsh waters of the North Atlantic, another was thrust into hugely complex and politically-sensitive Gulf of Aden. While one never fired in anger, he was still a player in an international staring contest that could have ended the human race. Three vastly different stories… and yet I find I recognize similarities between these men –– see things they have in common with each other, with the currently-serving members of the RCN, and with my grandfather too.
It must be the sea, and the culture that surrounds those whose lives depend on it. This doesn’t just mean the navy, but it certainly includes them. These are people with the ability to place themselves within a vastly bigger context –– who understand that no ship can do anything with just one person aboard, and that every ship, no matter how impressive, is ultimately at the mercy of the ocean upon which it sails.
So while plenty of viciously funny barbs can traded back and forth, the shots are belied by an impressive self-awareness… sniping at each other is fine, but that at the end of the day, lives could –– would, and do –– depend on the suspension of ego, and a supreme willingness to get the job done. This is the culture I grew up with in St. John’s, and which I believe still imbues many of the great Atlantic cities today. I surely hope I still possess some of it within myself.
But how does this culture play out when someone looks back on his experiences? If you’re called Cal Mofford, it leads to a balanced and very well-informed perspective on Operation Apollo, and a properly philosophical opinion about dangers surrounding the use of force, and popular opinion. It also produces an incredible reverence for those who went before you –– who had to do even harder jobs, under worse conditions, with fewer advantages.
If you’re named Jim Reddy, it means dismissing yourself as ‘not a real veteran’, and working to do right by those who came before you… and those still to come. It makes you appreciative of all visitors to your ship, then leads to strange moments when, after being praised for being such a fine ambassador for Canada’s Naval Memorial, you humbly point out that when it comes to Sackville, you’re just the Captain.
And, I suppose, if you’re a Rogue Commodore named Barron, it means spending twenty books trying to undermine a myth the media built up around you, which quite wrongly suggests you’re a hero. Because you were just an idiot who lucked into a good posting, and whose Belt Squadron crews –– the finest sort of people –– made it possible for you to do your job. And it means feeling rather like a bastard, because you have no business being named in an author note that mentions real veterans, like Cal and Jim.
I suppose the lament of many authors is that they can never truly find themselves in the worlds they write about. Perhaps that’s less the case for those who tell contemporary stories about normal events… but for a sci-fi writer, there’s not really much hope. Or, at least, I thought there wasn’t.
Wish though I might, I don’t expect to ever stand on the bridge of a Predator-class frigate, dine on fish and potatoes with an Earther, or take a train to a whole other planet… but in every story, what matters most are the people. I’ve said many times that my fictional characters generally make their own decisions, but I never actually get to meet them anywhere other than in my head, or on the page.
After reading all of this, I don’t suppose I need to tell you how validating it has been to spend time alongside these people. I’ll say only this: if wish you could spend time in the Belt Squadron, just get to know the Royal Canadian Navy.
And if you don’t know where to start, simply find the ship that gave its name to Katya Romanov’s Martian War corvette. It still sits patiently in Halifax harbor, and I guarantee it will be glad to see you.
Sackville deserves your attention.