Sarge put up a video of USS Ronald Reagan the other day and I commented that it brought a little tear to my eye. He replied that when we're doing our duty, we don't know that someday we'll miss it...a lot.
To which I replied that at that age, you don't really know what someday means.
Well, if you live long enough, you find out.
I woke up at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, heart pounding, filled with the dread of impending doom. It took a few moments to remember that I'm an old fat guy on a ranch in Nebraska, not a young whippersnapper on the boat fixin' to sierra hotel india tango down both pant legs.
I walked out on the front porch, sat down on the top step, and gazed up at the nearly full moon. It was cool and quiet and the hint of southerly breeze began to dry the sweat from my body. Nona the Wonder Dog appeared, whined gently, and put her head in my lap. As the sweat evaporated and the heart pounding faded the terror slowly seeped away.
I hate it when I have that dream.
It was just after 3 a.m. on the shortest night/longest day of the year, so I decided I might as well stay up and get some stuff done. Sick calf to examine, miles of fence to tweak, lots of stuff to be writing about.
As I started to get up Red and Jeter dashed by barking. Nona watched them go, looked at me, looked back longingly at the developing fun, and decided to stay put. I wondered if she sensed that I appreciated her support, or if she felt like I was in enough distress that she should hang close.
Within a few moments the heavy scent of skunk began to drift through the air. Maybe she wasn't concerned about me at all. Maybe she's just a bit smarter than the rest of the pack.
The nearly overpowering odor of skunk brought a memory out of storage. Let's see, it would have been the early 90's, perhaps 1993.
I'd bought a bunch of baby chicks that spring with the intent to "raise" my own eggs and put some broilers in the freezer. I didn't know manure from marigolds when it came to chickens, but how hard could it be? This being the pre-interweb days, I got some books.
Things went quite well for a while, but then one morning I had some dead chicks in a coop that whiffed strongly of skunk. Hmmm.
I did what a chicken farmer would do back in the days before smart phones. I picked up the landline. Seriously. It was a greenish, oblong, two-piece thing hanging on the wall, with a long, curly cord connecting the wall thingy with the talking and listening thingy. I pressed the dial buttons in a particular sequence, and soon I was talking to the predator control expert at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Dallas Virchow. He told me what to do.
The next morning I had the skunk firmly caught in a muskrat trap and the words of the expert echoing in my head. "Use a .22 short, and shoot him in the middle of the chest. He won't be startled because the short is so quiet, and that'll keep him from spraying. He'll just sit there and bleed out internally, and that'll be that."
He sprayed for about 15 minutes. I had to move the chicken coop. And for about 10 years, every time it rained, the scent of that skunk took revenge on the atmosphere.
I had a few adventures in my day and from time to time there was fear involved. Sometimes the "oh $#!+ we're fixin' to die" kind (tail rotor departing the aircraft) and sometimes the "I firetrucking hate this part" kind (helo dunker). Those kinds of fear never really bothered me much, and on the few occasions I thought about it, I was kind of surprised at my savoir faire. I'd always imagined fear being more dramatic, I guess.
There's another kind of fear, and I didn't meet that one until I'd had six years to become complacent about how undramatic fear was.
As it turns out, there's also the kind of fear where you find yourself doing something that You. Do. Not. Want. To. Do. That one sucks. And it's the one I sometimes dream about.
It's funny in a way, because you'd (well, I'd) expect the dreams to be about the close calls. But they never are.
The whole thing came out of the blue, in the middle of the night. Which is a badly mixed metaphor, appropriate to a badly mixed up mission. The phone rang in the BDS, I answered, and the ship's Senior Medical Officer (SMO) told me to grab my flight gear and head to Ready Five for a briefing.
That was odd, the SMO passing the word. The middle of the night call wasn't odd at all, not on this deployment. There'd been a lot of interesting tasking.
As I rolled on up to Ready Five I was in "too cool for school" mode. But the Marines at the doorway changed that in a hurry.
"May I see your ID please, sir?"
WTF? As I fumbled out my ID card I started to get a bad feeling. The Lance Corporal scrutinized my face, comparing it to the image on the card. He knew me, I knew him. He knew I wasn't a "sir." He was very much in Professional Marine Mode, however. Seemingly satisfied, he silently handed the card to a PFC (and yes, we knew each other), who compared it to his clipboard, grunted and penciled a tick mark on his list, and nodded to his partner, who stood aside from the door. Apparently I'd passed muster.
As I stepped in, someone said, "Okay, that's the corpsman. Let's get started."
I looked around the room and my bad feeling intensified. This wasn't normal at all. There were a lot of people in the ready room. Not a crowd, exactly, but more than usual. The Skippers or XO's from most of the squadrons were present. Three helo crews. CAG and DCAG. A bunch of intel types. A cluster of khaki-clad zeroes I'd never seen before.
And the four longhairs. I'd seen them before. Longish, razor-cut 80's hair, sunglasses, jeans and sneakers. I'd flown several missions with them back in June. First names only, a bit standoffish, clearly competent. I didn't know who or what they were, though I had some suspicions. I wasn't sure if I liked them or not, but looking around at the tense faces in the ready room, I was sure I didn't like them in that place at that time.
A Captain from the Flag Staff started the briefing. "In response to National Command Authority Tasking, we're going to..." The bad feeling flared into dread.
Twenty months previously similar tasking had resulted in a pair of jets being shot down. One aviator dead, one prisoner, one rescued. "Washington" had been singled out as the major culprit in that Romeo Foxtrot for micromanaging the mission and demanding a "press friendly" timeline. We'd been told that the lesson had been learned, that on-scene commanders would call the shots from now on. But as the brief progressed it became obvious that someone in Washington was in the drivers seat.
My palms began to sweat and I felt a chill worm of fear in my guts. There was something in the air in that room that made me feel like a thing, an object, rather than a person. I didn't like what I was sensing and feeling.
The mission would be simple, really. Fly in, pick up some dude, come on home. I'd done the same thing a couple of times in June, in the Bekkah. Those hops had been a little tense, but straightforward and trouble free. This time we'd be flying into Beirut proper, which did nothing to alleviate my concerns. Beirut was a snake pit.
The brief was hurried and short on detail, but at least the intel weenies were honest about what they didn't know. The staff pukes from flag country, however... Well, I got the impression that they were all positioning themselves for MAX CYA while leaving plenty of room to collect medals.
The nuts and bolts of the thing were dead simple. One of the islamic jihad groups had cut a deal and were releasing an American hostage. We'd fly in, the longhairs would sign for the hostage, we'd fly out. Just in case, there'd be a strike airborne, Intruders and Corsairs loaded with Rockeyes and an Iron Hand four-ship of Corsairs loaded with HARMs and MK82 SERET. The MAB was was over the horizon (USS Tarawa IIRC) and on hot standby to put Marines ashore in the event. Still, the thing didn't smell right. There was nothing about the tone of the brief I liked, nor about the undercurrent of tension in the room.
"Now we're just waiting for confirmation," said the Captain from CTF-60.
I huddled with the helo crews and we did our detailed brief. Then we sat and waited.
As I sat there my mind kept turning back to some of the information I'd seen regarding the behavior of the good folks presently populating that part of the world. In particular, images of a film clip kept playing in the theater of my mind. Shot from overhead, probably from an upper story of a nearby building, the film depicted a medieval drama with a horrible modern twist. A man was chained between two beat up cars, arms hooked to one, legs to the other. A small group of AK-armed men surrounded the cars, watching. The cars sped apart. The victim's arms came off in a spray of blood, while the rest of his body bounced wildly behind the car that his legs were still chained to.
Another scene, still pictures that I won't describe but had reason to cause me a great deal of concern and anxiety.
I'd been doing peacetime practicing for war for quite a while. I'd done risky and had a couple of really close calls. This was my fourth deployment. I wasn't a noob. But, given the overall context and the feel of that ready room, I was treading new ground. I was really, really scared.
My heart was hammering. My mouth was bone dry and I was paradoxically swallowing gallons of saliva. I felt both flushed and chilled. There was a faint ringing in my ears. I felt like I was screaming inside. This had never happened to me before. This was not the way it was supposed to be. I had never seen this coming, this near-panic rampaging through my guts and so perilously near to snapping its chain.
Yes, there was plenty of reason for fear. But I'd done fear, dammit, and it had never been like this! I was shocked to find myself on the ragged edge of hysteria. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run away. I wanted to say no.
I wanted to say no.
But I didn't. Not because I was courageous, but because I couldn't find a way to run away from my shipmates. Which looks great when spelled out in sentence form, but was in actuality such a closely run internal contest that I still don't understand the outcome. I never will. I can guess and surmise but I can never know the how or the why, only the result.
Another staff puke, a Lieutenant, entered the ready room, followed by four sweating sailors lugging a pair of obviously heavy cruise boxes.
The staff guy spoke briefly with the Captain, who looked around, then pointed at me. The Lieutenant walked over and handed me a clipboard.
"You need to sign for this gear."
Another WTF moment. "What is it?"
"Just sign it," said Lieutenant shiny-ass.
I glanced down at the form and studied it. It was an inventory of medical gear, presumably contained in the cruise boxes. My eyes bugged out. It was mass casualty gear, probably enough to treat 50 badly injured people. Field dressings, splints, burn kits, surgical kits, six cases of IV fluids, lots of meds. Including 100 morphine syrettes. More than 400 pounds of gear.
The fear churning in my gut flashed into white hot rage, which I welcomed like a long lost friend. I'd been sitting next to the HAC, the aircraft commander of our helo, and I turned to him.
"We're picking up one guy, right?"
"Yep," said the HAC.
"And we're not delivering medical supplies to anyone?"
"Not that I know about."
I handed the HAC the clipboard, and the Lieutenant immediately snatched it away, shoved it back in my face, and growled, "just sign for it."
The rage flowed.
The HAC snatched the clipboard back and began to read. The Lieutenant began to splutter. The HAC raised his hand, then stood up when the Lieutenant began to "insist."
"Just stand there with your mouth shut, Lieutenant," said the HAC, who happened to be a full Commander and the squadron XO. He strode to the front of the ready room and handed the clipboard to the Captain. A moment later the Captain called the Lieutenant over and spoke to him in a quiet voice. As he spoke he looked at me across the room and I met his gaze evenly. The Lieutenant gestured toward his working party and the sailors picked up the heavy cruise boxes and departed, followed by Lieutenant shiny-ass.
The HAC came back and resumed his seat. He leaned over to me and spoke in a quiet voice.
"I'm quite sure I didn't hear you say that, and I'm even more sure that if I ever hear something like that there'll be hell to pay."
I felt a lot better. The fear and concern were still there, but the rage had chased away the panic.
We launched about two hours later and the mission went, more or less, like clockwork. It got a little sporty for a few minutes on the ground in Beirut, and it got frankly strange on the return leg, but those are stories for another time.
The important thing was that I'd learned how to channel rage into a tool for evicting panic from my guts. That was an important moment in my life.
All thanks to Lieutenant shiny-ass.
I didn't know it at the time, but on that September day back in 1985 I became part of the All Star Guns For Hostages Team. I loved President Reagan then, and I love him now, but that stuff still sticks in my craw. To extend the chicken metaphor, as it were.
No, the dream isn't about a firefight or a midair or something terrible that happened.
It's about terror and panic and the memory of how I very nearly said no, very nearly abandoned my shipmates. I didn't do those things, but I found that I have the capacity to do so, and that sometimes haunts my sleep.
When I examined the sick calf I found that she had a big abscess on her neck.
Which my favorite lady vet took care of.