Lee Crane fingered the St. Christopher medal. He remembered vividly the moment that Rodriguiez had given it to him. And then he remembered the first one he’d gotten, and the day that he’d received it from ‘Pops’…
The tall, curly-haired youth stood in the doorway of the small grocery store. ‘Pops’ DeLuca resisted change mightily. The store still had the century old wooden floors, still smelled of the amalgam of spices and meats and vegetables, all fresh and ready for purchase. The front of the shop, on the street, displayed all those fresh fruits and vegetables ready for sale, and inspection by the many, regular, customers that ‘Pops’ had cultivated over the years. It amazed the young man how he knew them all, their families, their stories, and how he could easily talk to them of the matters that they all cared about the most. People gravitated to ‘Pops’ and he to them. He was honest, never cheated anyone, and if the truth be told, he probably carried most of the neighborhood on his books at one time or another, quietly helping his neighbors whenever and however he could.
‘Pops’ was also fiercely loyal to his people. Lee Crane had come to work for him, as his father had before him. David Crane didn’t ‘need’ the job, as many young people had in his day, but his parents felt he ‘needed’ it. David’s family had been comfortable, but they wanted their son to have a good work ethic, and working for the DeLuca Grocery store had given the young man that and much, much more. The friendship had endured long after David had given up his job, married and traveled away. ‘Pops’ had come to David’s memorial service, and had taken young Lee aside, talking to him gently, and telling the young boy what a fine young man his father had been when he’d worked for him. He told the boy that when the time came, to look him up and come and work for him, which is just what Lee had done. At twelve, he’d been a stockboy, helping in the store, freshening the vegetables, replacing the cans and boxes on the shelves. He worked his way to cashier and general helper to ‘Pops’, and when he was old enough, he took on deliveries, driving the same old woody station wagon his father had. So many of the customers, mostly older ladies, remembered David Crane, and often told the tall, quiet youth how much he reminded them of his father.
Lee was here, this day, to return the keys to the woody, as he was catching a train to Annapolis in a few hours. It was a hot day, this end of June day, and the old ceiling fans were creaking with use. The store was quiet, not bustling, as it would be soon. Lee knew he would find ‘Pops’ in the back of the store, at his desk, reading the morning papers, with his coffee. The young man walked through the store, glancing about, taking in the familiarity and comfort for one last time. He was saddened to be leaving ‘Pops’. The older man had been something of a father figure to him, encouraging and supporting him, especially once Lee had decided to try for the Naval Academy, and continuing that support once he’d received the appointment and been accepted. ‘Pops’ knew Helen Bradford Crane well, as a customer and as David Crane’s wife. He understood why she felt as she felt, even if he didn’t understand why she treated her son as she did. He was a young man any parent could be, should be proud of. He was proud of the boy, even if his mother wasn’t. Someday, he knew Helen would realize her mistake. ‘Pops’ could only hope it wouldn’t be too late for her or her son.
‘Pops’ looked up, over his reading glasses as Lee entered the tiny office. The young man’s face was a myriad of emotions. ‘Pops’ smiled.
“Good morning, Lee. This is a big day for you…you all set?”
The young man dropped into the chair by the old rolltop desk, as ‘Pops’ leaned back in his creaky wooden desk chair. Lee grinned at the creaks.
“I wish you’d let me fix that…”
“No, no… part of the charm of the place, the old man’s creaky chair… like the old man, creaky… Ready to go, son?”
Lee nodded, then dug into the pocket of his khaki slacks. He pulled out a key on a key ring, “I wanted to give you back the keys to the ‘old girl’. She’s primed and ready for her next driver. She’s got at least another few thousand miles in her.” He handed the keys to ‘Pops’, who took them, tossed them once in the air, and then leaned over and hung them on the wall.
“Maybe she should be retired.
Or I could keep them there for your boy, when you have one, so he can deliver
for me like you and your dad did.”
Lee laughed, “I don’t think so, ‘Pops’. That day is a long way off, and by then the ‘old girl’ will be long retired.” He leaned forward in the chair. “I, ah, want to thank you… for everything, ‘Pops’. If you hadn’t been here, if I hadn’t had your help and encouragement…well, I…”
“Don’t say another thing, Lee. We helped each other. I couldn’t have kept up with things here without your help. You’re a hard worker, and I hope that Danny has half your get-up-and-go. You’re a hard act to follow. I think you frighten the boy!” DeLuca laughed, and Lee reddened at the compliment.
“You’ve given him a very high standard to live up to. If you command your ship like you did things here, they’re getting one of the finest and best Captains they could imagine. I respect you, son.”
“’Pops’, please, I don’t deserve that. I just did what I had to do, that’s all. Part of the job.”
“Well, you may have thought it part of the job, but you’ve done real well by me, Lee. Real well. I am going to miss you around here.” He stood up, and Lee automatically stood with him. ‘Pops’ raised an eyebrow and then smiled. “Got a train to catch?”
Lee laughed, “Yessir, actually. The 9:40 out of the city. I have to make a connection in New York, and then to Baltimore. I can get a bus from there to the Academy.”
He extended his hand to Joe ‘Pops’ DeLuca, “I want to say thank you again. For everything, sir.”
Joe DeLuca felt his throat become clogged, and his vision behind the glasses fogged. He didn’t want to say goodbye to this young man, so very like his father in so many ways. He wanted to tell him how proud his father would be of him, and how proud his mother should be. He wanted to tell him how proud he was of him. But he knew if he did, he’d wind up blubbering all over his store. That wouldn’t be good for him, or for Lee Crane. So he cleared his throat, and shook the young man’s hand soundly.
“as I said, son, you’ve given me much more than you can ever imagine. You have left large shoes to fill.” He took a small box off his desk, and handed it to Lee. “I've got a small gift for you… Now, before you protest, open it, and let me explain.”
Lee opened the box, and found a shining St. Christopher medal, on a silver chain. He looked at ‘Pops’.
“Just listen, son. St. Christopher's the patron of travelers. You know that. I gave one of these to your Dad the day he left here. He was also going to be doing a lot of traveling. One thing about St. Christopher is that he always brings you home. Wherever home is. The last time I’d talked to your dad was right before his last cruise. He’d come in to say hello and I hadn’t seen him in a few years. He’d kept in touch, that was his way, but he’d not come in. Anyway, he’d been in, and he told me that this cruise was going to be his last for a while, that the next duty he was getting was going to be on land. He’d asked me to hold this medal for him, that he wasn’t going to be traveling, and didn’t need to have it. He told me to give it to the next sailor that I ‘hired’. Little did he ever imagine that it would be you. So here, Lee. This is your dad’s. Wear it well, and with pride, son. He was a very good man.”
Lee was surprised and overwhelmed. His father’s medal! All that he had of David Crane’s were some pictures, and the black onyx signet ring that was in his drawer in his room. He wasn’t taking it with him to the Academy for fear of losing it in the next four years. He’d wear that again once he was commissioned, and stationed somewhere. But a medal, he could wear. Slowly he took it from the box, and slid the chain over his head, till the chain rested around his neck, and the medal on his chest. He tucked it under the tee shirt that peeked from the open neck of his dress shirt. It felt as if it belonged there. He looked at the older man, whose eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. He knew his were as well, as he could feel the moisture building. Not wanting to embarrass the older man or himself, he reached forward, and pulled him into a bear hug, holding tightly to the man who had been a ‘father figure’ to him these last six years. After a few seconds, he released his grip. Clearing his throat, he said, “Thanks, Pops. I’ll take good care of it.”
‘Pops’ nodded, too emotional for words. He took a large handkerchief from his pocket, swiped at his eyes, blew his nose, and finally said, “Damn allergies. They get me all the time!” He saw Lee smile at the obvious bluff. "You take care, Lee. Write when you can. Study hard. But most of all, be true to who you are. You’re going to be one of the best the Navy will ever have! We’re all proud of you!”
A fleeting shadow passed over the young man’s face, but he gave the older man a smile. “See that your next delivery boy takes good care of my girlfriend out there!” He extended his right hand again, “Thanks, Pops. I’m gonna miss this place. I’ll come back and see you on my first leave.”
The older man nodded, and then stepped aside. Lee walked slowly to the office door, turned once, and then continued out of the store. The older man sat heavily in his chair, full of the emotions that he’d felt since this day had begun. He was going to miss that boy, but there was something very special about him. He was going to be quite a man, and have quite an exciting life. He was indeed someone the Navy would be proud to have…
Lee looked again at the medal he now wore. His father’s was somewhere in his house, most likely buried in his office desk. He’d taken it off for an ONI mission before he’d come to the Institute, and when he’d gone to retrieve it, he’d not been able to find it. He knew it was there, somewhere, but where… someday, he’d find it, and maybe give it to his son or daughter, if he ever had one. But he’d also take good care of this one, and continue to wear it. Rod was right. The Saint always brought him home. Now that Chip also had the protection of the saint, he should have the same good fortune. Lee tucked the medal into his shirt, and tried to return to his paperwork. Unable to concentrate, he decided to go over to the Med Bay to check on Chip. Paper work could wait. He needed to be with his ‘brother’ more, and tell him about how he got his first St. Christopher medal, so Chip would understand why it was so important. …
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