She was about eleven years old, gangly, freckle faced with a button-nose and brown hair snapping in the sea-breeze.
She stood with feet apart, fists on hips, chin thrust forward, starring eye to eye with a squad of Navy SEALS seated around a wrought-iron table on the patio of McP’s Pub.
Her gaze fixed on each man for a moment before settling on the Lt. Commander.
“Mom wants you home now,” she told him.
He smiled at her with affection and more than a trace of pride. “I’ll be along in a bit, Pumpkin,” he replied.
She shook her head. “Mom said, NOW!”
A few of the men sneered or hid their expressions. The rest sat stone-faced while their officer drained his beer and walked his daughter out of the bar.
Outside the pub, the girl backed a red bicycle with a brown wicker basket out of the bike-rack. Crossing her legs, she set one foot on the left pedal and pushed off with the other, swinging onto the seat.
Her father jogged easily beside her.
“So how did I do?” she asked.
“You were a regular thespian,” the Lt. Commander said.
Stunned and more than a little hurt, she said, “You know I like boys.”
He laughed. “A thespian is an actor – not what you’re thinking.”
“Oh,” his daughter said.
“Now tell me exactly what you saw,” he said.
They reached a cross-walk and stopped. The girl balanced on her bike for a few moments before dropping her feet to the pavement and straddling the frame. “That one guy with white blond hair,” she said.
“Yeah, that what his name tag read. He looked at me like ‘buzz-off kid.'”
“Yup, that would be Lynch.”
The light turned green and the Lt. Commander gave his daughter a gentle push to get her going.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Yeah, the one next to him kept looking around to see what everyone else was going to do.”
“You mean Morzinski?”
“The two guys sitting by the fence… one was really friendly. I liked him as soon as I saw him but the other one acted like I didn’t exist.”
“And the last three guys in the squad?”
“Nothing really, they just smiled.”
“You did good, Pumpkin.”
“Do you want to know why I asked you to stage that little drama?”
The Lt. Commander said nothing for half a block. They were near the beach, and the street was dusted with sand. Across the dunes, the surf crashed like soft thunder and overhead gulls wheeled in and out of the sunlight breaking through the clouds.
“It’s the final evaluation,” he said, “all of those recruits are determined and capable but the command is looking for more than that. We are looking for confidence, the kind that runs deep. So deep that nothing could shake their commander’s authority, even watching him take orders from an eleven-year-old girl.”
“It’s a good thing to learn, honey, how to judge character.”
“One day, you’ll find yourself doing it.”
“Judging men, I mean.”
He laughed and quickened his pace. She strained to keep up then broke away, calling out, “Is it okay if I go over to a friend’s house?”
“No problem,” he said, “but be back by 16:00, we have supper to cook before mom gets home.”
“Okay,” she said, her brown hair flying and wheels spinning in the sand.
Hat tip and salute to an old, dear, departed friend: Len Maxwell.
This story was in response to a photo Len posted of a little girl’s bicycle parked outside McP’s Pub on Coronado Island (San Diego). Len was a Writing Essentials Group editor on the now defunct website: Gather.com