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The Crook Loses His Stuff

By Gaither Stewart

Staff Sergeant Henry Simmons was sitting on the corridor side of the spacious office, a frown on his face and surprise in his eyes. He was not used to bad moods in his happy-go-lucky superior who this morning had been downright churlish with him. Just the sound of the officer’s voice when he arrived had augured bad news. Henry stretched his arms across his littered desk, his palms turned upwards in an expression of bewilderment.

“Sergeant, er, Henry,” the Lieutenant said with unusual impatience in his tone, “let’s take another look at that memorandum from the Colonel about our flight to Rome.” First Lieutenant Michael Cruickshank scowled across the room, drummed with his long fingers on his clean desk and added in a murmur: “the son-of-a-bitch”.

Cruickshank was a big man, broad shoulders anchoring strong long arms and powerful hands that in one way or another conditioned his life. Thinning blond hair, thirty years old, athletic, he was famed as the best windmill fastball pitcher in the military softball league in Germany. And that’s where he had the Colonel over a barrel: the commanding officer had promised seventy-two hour passes for every game his small intelligence unit won in the six-game national playoffs. And with Cruick—as everyone called Michael Cruickshank (pronounced “Crook”)—with Cruick on the pitcher’s mound, the shadowy 2015 Intelligence Unit was a shoe-in to win the championship … and thus the Colonel would emerge from anonymity, gain renown among the top brass in Wiesbaden and finally arrive at the biggest recognition of his life: Generalship, on which he’d been waiting for too many years. It was now or never. And without Crook they were just another team. And the 2015 I.U Colonel was just another colonel.

“Memorandum? From the Colonel?” Henry said. “When was that?”

So that’s why they were talking about Rome in the hall just outside the office door yesterday evening, while Henry—whom Cruickshank liked to call Heinrich because he spoke German—doodled over the drawing of a Russian airfield allegedly near Kazan that some German POW returnee probably made up.

The Colonel! Henry had wondered what was happening. He too had been on that three-day trip to Rome that Cruickshank had organized—as he did other flights every month or so to one big city or another—in order to clock the minimum of flight time to keep his wings active. He couldn’t just fly in boring circles over central Germany to keep his pilot’s license. And the flights that man arranged! Paris, London, Vienna, Rome. Arrangements for a C- 37 with passenger seats along the sides. Flight routes. Landing permissions in Europe’s capitals. The three-day passes for his passengers the Colonel had to sign for. And that’s all the Commandant had to do: sign the three-day passes. But it was the man of the great hands who won the softball games that got the team those passes.

“Lieutenant, I mean Crook, I haven’t seen anything about that. Are you certain I have it?”

“Henry, I saw it on your desk. An internal memo. The one in which he chewed me out for the late return. Only six hours late! Six fucking hours and he makes a big deal of it. Fucking cocksucker of a bureaucrat!”

“Well, Crook, we did miss roll call and all,” Henry ventured, remembering the memo he’d filed away without even reading it. “Somebody said that technically we were all AWOL. And then the German interviewers and the rest of our team were waiting here and didn’t know what they were supposed to do, interrogate returnees from Russia or go out and look around corners for spies.”

With a huge hand, Lt. Cruickshank waved away his cynical remarks. “Well, if the Colonel had been with us like he was on the Paris flight he wouldn’t have said a fucking word. Roll call or not. Sometimes he acts like we’re really in the Air Force ... instead of sitting up here in this fortress and looking for spies … and playing softball like a bunch of professionals.”

“But Crook, we are after all in the US Air Force. It has rules.”

“Oh, fuck their rules. For little people. Listen Heinrich, why don’t you go speak with him? He likes you. Thinks you keep an eye on me. Tell him some wild story like one of the men was late getting back to the airport, got held up in one of those wildcat strikes or something. He trusts you. And,” he added with a grain of reproof in his voice, “you’ve got lots of imagination.”

The thing is Crook and I have a special relationship, Henry reminded himself, and I don’t mean like we’re close friends or that I’m at his house for dinner on winter evenings. We don’t go beer-drinking together either. But we do win those three-day passes … on his arm and also on my catching. I’m his catcher, no easy job what with his riser that’s as hard to catch as it is to hit. You think the ball is about to land in your mitt but it suddenly rises about a foot and if you’re not ready for that sudden rise and fast with your hands it sails over your head like it does over the bats of helpless batters from Munich to Frankfurt.

“Okay, Crook. I’ll try. You think he’ll see me?”

“Most certainly he will. He really wants to overlook our little violation, just doesn’t know how to justify it.”

“He wants to overlook it?”

“Oh yes. And besides he seems to think I’m out to get him in trouble. You see Heinrich—and I shouldn’t tell you this—I know what he really did in Paris … that saintly family man with his precise haircuts. Why, Heinrich, he’s always telling me he has an excellent barber and that I could cut my hair a little shorter around the ears. That prissy bastard whose every thought is about getting his General’s star. You can’t imagine the chicanery among some of these intelligence officers! And, the truth is he doesn’t know any more about intelligence than I do … which ain’t much by any standards. You know, the Germans working here must wonder how the fuck we beat them in the war. If we did! Actually I’ve always thought the Russkies did the job before we even touched Normandy. But Henry don’t ever tell anyone I said that! They’d flay and quarter me on the main square of Wiesbaden.”

So Henry spoke to the Colonel and it was easier than he had expected: the Colonel needed the four remaining wins and the championship more than Crook did; he wanted his generalship more than he valued principles and military honor. His problem was that he commanded too small a unit that no one knew anything about so that he was simply overlooked, nearly forgotten. Destined to remain a Colonel. Why, practically everyone became a colonel just by serving enough time, he must have thought. Nor had he ever caught a real Russian spy and had no real hopes for one. So therefore he needed that softball championship just to get his name in the news. His boys!

Henry waited patiently while the Old Man dreamed and pretended severity a bit longer, cited the rules and mentioned a technical AWOL … “but,” he said, shifting his body behind his huge desk and a look of generosity spreading across his well-shaven face, “after all it was the first time.”

In short, he removed his reprimand of Lieutenant Cruickshank from the files and tore it to pieces in Staff Sergeant Henry Simmons’ presence, patted him on the shoulder and ordered him to get out there and beat Stuttgart on Saturday. Seeing the successful conclusion of his mission to the Old Man’s office, Henry didn’t have the courage to caution him about what had been worrying him since the day Crook said casually that he just hoped he didn’t lose his stuff before the championship was over. It happens to all windmill pitchers, he said. The unnatural movement of arm and shoulder, neck and hips, was too strenuous to be endured indefinitely. Something snapped and your famous riser never rises again. After which wise hitters catch on quick and knock your pitches to the boondocks.

Staff Sergeant Henry Simmons returned down the long corridor to his office pondering two unknowns that had nothing to do with intelligence gathering: What did the Colonel do in Paris that Crook considers the ace up his sleeve? And what if Crook loses his stuff during the final game? Would the first compensate for the second? Or was the era of three-day passes and travel to Europe’s capitals at an end. And would the Colonel remaining a Colonel mean the imposition of military rule on the island of the 2015 I.U.?

BUT THEN: the 2015 spy catcher intelligence unit beat the pants off Stuttgart on the back of Crook’s one-hitter (the so-called hit a fluke pop up that dropped by chance behind the shortstop) and nineteen strikeouts. The Colonel was all smiles, awarded as promised another three-day pass for after the final game, and Crook began making arrangements for a return flight to Paris for which the killjoy Colonel himself signed up.

The game the following Saturday crowned Crook’s pitching career: a no-hitter against the perennial league champions, Munich-McGraw Kaserne. The half dozen sports-loving generals had a box in the covered grandstands just behind the catcher, Staff Sergeant Henry Simmons, a set-up arranged by the shrewd Colonel to show off the phenomenal pitcher, First Lieutenant Michael Cruikshank. The ten thousand fans in the Frankfurt Baseball Stadium included among the five generals from Munich the three-star General and Commander of US Intelligence in Germany who several times during the game smiled and nodded benevolently at the 2015 Intelligence Commander.

Meanwhile, Henry considered the relationship between possibility and probability playing out in the top secret 2015 unit. He went into the game with the champions from Munich trying to distinguish probability from what is possible and what is plausible, and not forgetting the confusing consequences if the improbable did occur here. Although his team did have the Crook and furthermore just because a thing is possible does not have to mean it is probable. Yet, he thought, improbabilities do occur.

The truth that never actually emerged was that Crook did lose his stuff in the seventh inning of the nine-inning softball championship game. In that inning he struck out the first batter, his pitches rising or curving about a foot. No one could hit that pitch. The second batter stepped to the plate, a forlorn look on his face. Crook’s first pitch crossed the plate fast as usual … but it didn’t move an inch. Henry thought it was just a change-up and that Crook was saving his arm for the series of top batters ready to come to the plate. The batter didn’t even swing, blinked and shook his head, he too convinced Crook was tempting him to swing high. The second pitch like the first, sped straight over the center of the plate. No rise, no curve. The batter swung high. And on the third pitch he went down swinging. And so it went. Only Crook and Henry realized what was happening that day in the championship game in Frankfurt: Crook had lost his stuff. Like chance, fleeting and unpredictable. Most likely never to return. You have it. And then it’s gone. Never to return. Still, seven more Munich batters faced the same figment of their imagination of Crook’s power. But the batters faced only illusion. For Crook’s riser at that point was all illusion. A power now lost and gone forever. Gone who knows where. Gone forever.

In the special box in the stands behind the plate, the Colonel was all smiles. Smiles beamed to all the generals. Pats on the back for him. Nods of heads. Grand. Grand, they said, there in the box in the grandstands. Genius and talent on the mound. The man who could command and control that power was General caliber. Generalship. Generalship for the powerful Colonel in command of a team of champions.

Heroic, lost-his-stuff Crook never pitched another game. But the new General kept signing seventy-two hour passes for Crook, Henry and friends so that the Lieutenant kept his Wings and the General often flew with them to meet his German girlfriend for three-day weekends in Europe’s most exotic places.