Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The trial of Cap’n Crunch
(Suggested by news reports that the Cap’n is, or at least was, being considered for retirement)
HMS Raptor bobbed softly at anchor in Plymouth harbor, as the bright sunshine splintered into thousands of sparkling lights on the surface of the calm waters. Belying the apparent serenity of the morning, however, a group of grim naval officers had assembled on deck to perform an exceedingly unpleasant task : the officers, under the presidency of Vice Admiral Lord Cadogan, had gathered to form a court martial that would adjudicate a serious charge against a brother officer.
The judges removed their cocked hats and placed them on a long table that had been placed on deck to serve as the bench. Lord Cadogan cast his eyes over the small crowd of junior officers and sailors who had been called as witnesses, and gave a quick glance at a short, portly man with a bulbous nose and a white mustache, who stood in front of the others, smiling rather inanely; this peculiar-looking little specimen was none other than the subject of the inquiry, Captain Eustace Marmaduke Crunch. Lord Cadogan sighed and took his seat, as did his fellow judges.
“I hereby declare this court martial to be in session,” Lord Cadogan intoned. “Captain Crunch, you have been charged by numerous officers and crew members of conduct that represents a breach of your duties under the Articles of War, specifically Article 20, the relevant section of which states, as follows: ‘If any person of the fleet shall find cause of complaint of the unwholesomeness of the victual, or upon other just ground, he shall quietly make known to his superior, or captain, or commander in chief, as the occasion may deserve, that such present remedy may be had as the matter may require; and the said superior, captain or commander in chief shall, as far as he is able, cause the same to be presently remedied.’ We will hear first from the principal witnesses who have lodged the charge. Is Lieutenant Viscount Henry Chenoweth present?”
A young man stepped forward and approached the bench. He was correctly attired in the uniform consistent with his rank; however, it was clearly manufactured of superior materials and made by one of the most prestigious tailors in London. Lieutenant Viscount Henry Chenoweth stood before the judges brimming with the confidence and self-possession of a man who had ascended in the service rapidly, having eschewed the irksome path of hard work, long experience and merit, for the greased rails provided by the family fortune that had enabled his father to purchase a commission for his (admittedly) indolent and vexatious younger son. Lieutenant Chenoweth made a gracious leg to the court and took his oath.
“Lieutenant Chenoweth, you are the person through whose efforts this matter was first brought to the attention of the Admiralty. How long have you served with Captain Crunch aboard HMS Guppy?”
“Nearly a year, my lord. Although, if the court will permit me to say so, it seems a much longer time, due to the foul provender that Captain Crunch inflicted on us.”
“Can you give some account of the victuals that were provided under Captain Crunch’s command?”
“I am most grateful for the opportunity of describing the …the victuals, as you call them, my lord; however, I would sooner refer to our comestibles as the sort of inferior feed with which a dirt-poor husbandman might, in sheer desperation, slop his hogs, than as victuals fit for even the most lubberly pressed man, let alone for an officer in His Majesty’s service.” Lieutenant Chenoweth took the lapels of his coat in hand, striking what he took to be the perfect courtroom pose of the justly aggrieved plaintiff. He smiled inwardly; his use of the word “lubberly” gave his testimony what he believed to be the requisite salty air.
“Thank you for your testimony, Lieutenant. You may stand down. The court now calls chief gunner, Davy Toadvine.”
A short, stocky fellow approached the bench, tugging his wholly imaginary forelock; the real thing, along with the rest of his hair, having vanished years before, the result of an excess of powder in a 32 pounder, a mistake committed in his salad days as a gunner’s mate. Taking his oath he stood solemnly before the court, his eyes glued to the deck.
“Mr. Toadvine, you were elected by the crew to approach Lieutenant Chenoweth with a petition from the common seamen, were you not?”
“Aye, sor, I was that.”
“Now, Mr. Toadvine, how long have you served under Captain Crunch?”
“’R, nigh onto three year, your worship.”
“And how long have you been in the Navy?”
“It be twenty year, this May, sor. I run away when I were a lad, on account of me ol’ dad bein’ hanged at Newgate for housebreakin’. Which were a mighty big miscarriage o’ justice, your lordship. See, me ol’ dad come home one night three sheets to the wind, an’ he accidental-like put his key in the door o’ the house across the street. Well, when he couldn’t get in, he broke a window, so…”
Lord Cadogan held up a commanding hand. “Chief gunner, the sad end of Toadvine pére is not the business of this court…”
The chief gunner looked at Lord Cadogan in perplexity. “Pair, your worship? There weren’t no pair o’ Toadvines, sor, just me ol’ dad. Although I did have an uncle once, what got transported to the colonies for stealin’ a cow…”
“Mr. Toadvine, the fact that the Newgate Calendar is graced with numerous entries featuring the exploits of your family is a matter of no little general interest; however, the purpose of this court is to determine whether or not Captain Crunch provided the officers and men of his command with unwholesome victuals.”
“R, well, when it comes to that, your lordship, the stuff he give us tasted like wood chips with treacle on’em. Give me good ol’ ship’s biscuit any day over that swill.”
Lord Cadogan, with considerable asperity, invited Mr. Toadvine to step down. The chief gunner was followed by a long procession of witnesses who testified to a congeries of complaints about the ill effects of Captain Crunch’s provisions –now identified as a sugar-coated cereal - ranging from diarrhea to tooth decay. As the sun began descending over the taffrail, Lord Cadogan called Captain Crunch to make his defense.
“Captain Crunch, you have been advised of the charge against you, and have heard the testimony of your officers and crew. What is your defense?”
“Why, my cereal is part of a balanced daily breakfast!”
Although Lord Cadogan was a fair man disposed toward leniency, he had to fight down the irritation he experienced on hearing the captain’s fruity, sing-song voice.
“Captain Crunch, you have just listened to a dozen witnesses denounce your ‘breakfast cereal’ as cattle fodder, so unpalatable that it has to be coated with sugar to get it down. And you have the men eat it with milk! As an officer of the Royal Navy, with many years of experience at sea, you know full well that water can go bad; how much more likely that is with milk.”
“But, my lord, the cereal stays crunchy no matter what you pour over it, due to my secret formula!”
“The impermeability of your cereal to liquids, whether they be water, milk or grog, strikes me as entirely irrelevant. Have you anything further to say in your defense?”
“Kids love it!”
“This court is recessed until nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Lord Cadogan and the other judges went ashore, booking a private room at a local tavern in which to discuss the case. Their conference was interrupted late in the evening by the arrival of a dispatch rider who brought important news from London having an indirect, yet important, bearing on the matter at hand.
The next morning, the judges reconvened the court martial upon HMS Raptor. Captain Crunch stood before them, the same inane smile plastered on his face. Lord Cadogan rolled his eyes and cleared his throat.
“Captain Crunch, it is the judgment of this court that you are guilty of violating Article 20, having compelled your officers and crew to eat unhealthy victuals, and having failed to remedy their just demands; however, we have considerable latitude in determining the appropriate punishment, and in view of your recent heroic action against the notorious pirate, Jean La Foot, news of which we received just last night, it is this court’s desire to exercise leniency. Therefore, you are hereby reduced in rank to lieutenant, although, for the time being, you will remain in your position as commander of HMS Guppy."
For the first time during the proceedings, the usually ebullient captain appeared crestfallen. He looked yearningly at Lord Cadogan and asked, “There’s to be no flogging, then?”
Lord Cadogan’s eyes narrowed to steely slits. “This court is adjourned!”