The JG looked forward in the ready room to see his squadron CO and XO break from a closely whispered conference – his CO looked him in they eye even as the JG tried to answer the questions of his brother JO’s. The old man pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, raised his chin pugnaciously – and then nodded, almost imperceptibly. Nodded at him. Well done.
Turning his smiling face back to his brothers, it was all the young man could do not to weep.
The JG sat at the huge round table forward in the “dirty shirt” wardroom – the pilot’s wardroom traditionally, a place, especially at this hour: With all the “old heads” gone to bed, they were free to be fully themselves, free to dine in flight suits, free to speak loudly and laugh boisterously, for these were their customs. Free also from the foreign and sometimes stultifying traditions of the “clean shirt” wardroom down below on the second deck, where the ship’s company officers dined more fussily in pressed khakis, and looked down their noses at the brash aviators in their smelly flight suits.
Midrats – “midnight rations,” and for most of the assembled aviators, their second or third meal of the day – very few would arise to eat breakfast before it closed at 0700. Not when they’d been hurling themselves at the back of the ship at 140 knots in the darkness only an hour or so before. You didn’t go right to sleep after something like that, you couldn’t. It takes a man a while to tick down.
The JG looked down with some regret at the remains of his “Barney Clark” – a double cheeseburger with bacon and a fried egg atop, accompanied by greasy fries and a coke. There would come a day, he thought, when a man might have to pay his dues on a meal like this, just before going to bed. But he was not quite 24 years old, in the arrogant bloom of youth, and obesity, never mind heart disease, was the furthest thing from his mind.
A lieutenant to his left – the one that had broken off a probe tip during the tanker rendezvous earlier in the day, in fact – noticed his momentary introspection and broke in upon it – “What’s up with you, hero-of-the-moment?”
“Ah,” the JG replied. “I was just thinking that it’d turn the flight surgeon’s hair gray to see us eating like this.”
“You must be an optimist,” the young lieutenant rejoined, smiling broadly in anticipation of twisting the blade, “Any man who flies the ball like you do and worries about dying from a heart attack is either an optimist or delusional.”
“Ah, fuggoff you – what’s a probe tip cost, anyway?” the JG answered, laughing heartily right alongside the rest of them before falling thoughtfully silent again, looking at each man at the table from beneath lowered brows, almost shyly. After last night’s “night in the barrel, he hadn’t had the heart come to midrats – he had mostly wanted to be alone, to try to pull the curtains shut on his rack and hide from the world, to try to sleep.
The sudden realization had hit him that, had he come to midrats the previous night, no one would have teased him – they wouldn’t have had the heart for it. They were not unkind, these men, although a stranger to their tribe might wonder at the pleasure they took in their customary exchange of verbal barbs, their casual japes and mockeries. And while they would not in general kick a man when he was down, neither was theirs a culture of public sympathies. They wouldn’t have been pitching me crap, he thought, not last night. They probably wouldn’t have even looked at me.
But tonight he was a part of the brotherhood again, having won through against hardship. He was back on the team, although, like all of them, he knew his membership was still conditional on future successes not yet achieved. But he was with his friends, and his belly was full, and he was still alive, and none of these things had been certain an hour or two ago. He sat back quietly in his chair, enjoying the easy camaraderie, laughing as the others prodded and poked at each other, always testing, always looking for weakness. This was how they were with each other when perfectly at ease, he thought – this was for them the verbal equivalent of puppies wrestling.
Tomorrow was a new day, and the JG was on the night schedule again, he remembered with a sigh – it was not yet over, not with just one good pass. He still had to demonstrate his ability to land consistently. But a huge weight had been taken from his chest, and he was, for now, content. Half an hour later he would lie down in his rack, flick off the reading lamp above his head, close his eyes and wonder how long he would toss and turn before finally falling asleep. Not for the first time he marveled at the sound of the air circulating through the vents, like the ship’s own breathing. The passing footsteps of night check maintenance personnel moving through the passageways like the blood flowing in her veins. Odd mechanical noises slammed and banged in the distance, and high pressure hydraulic lines spat and shook above his head, but these had become for him like the sound of his own heartbeat, his own breathing – mere background noise.
Somewhere down in engineering, young men were standing their watches, staring at their gauges and dials, preparing for the inevitable array of reactor drills designed to test their skills, to test their knowledge. In Combat, the TAOs and Operations Specialists watched their tactical displays and radar scopes with lidless eyes and counted the hours until they were relieved. The aircraft maintenance crews were moving to the flight deck to service their charges, fixing what the pilots had broken during the course of the day, the ordies reloading the weapons they had expended, re-testing the ones that they had not. On the flight deck, the yellow shirts and blue shirts were untangling the mess on the bow, pulling fighters back to the fantail with tow tractors, preparing the deck for the night alerts, and the first launch. A single auxiliary power unit of an FA-18 shut down, singing its mournful, dying song as its pilot finished setting the alert, raised his canopy, removed his helmet, placed it on the canopy rail and looked at the glowing hands of his wristwatch – two more hours, he thought. Two more hours and I’ll be relieved. In a moment’s quiet, he heard the sibilant sound of the ocean sea pressing against the ship’s hull as she cut through the waves, always pressing. It whispered to him beckoningly, whispered to him promises, promises of sleep. But still pressing against her hull, always pressing, always trying to get in. Two more hours, he thought, two more hours and I can sleep.
On the bridge, the Navigator put the final touches to the Captain’s night orders, walked from the starboard side to port and waited as patiently as he could, as tired as he was. The Captain sat there in his sacred chair on the bridge’s port side, wrapped in the darkness and his mantle of severe authority, listening impassively to the Operations Officer’s brief about the next three day’s events and the flag’s intentions. The Chief Engineer and Reactor Officer awaited their turn to brief the CO on the status of the propulsion plant, and outline for him the upcoming engineering drills, and the reactions they anticipated from the watch standers. He took all of this in, he had to: There were decisions to be made that only he could make. It would be 45 minutes at least before the Captain could stumble his way towards his own rack, nearly weeping from exhaustion, and falling into it like a young man returning to a grateful lover. He looked at his watch, rubbed his face wearily, and thought, like he did each and every night for the last thirty, I can do this – I can make it. I can do this for one more day.
The Officer of the Deck stood just outside the CO’s senior circle, one eye on the old man, the other on his watch team. Course 350, speed 13 knots, no traffic of concern for now. Weather fine. The customary, cackling indiscipline of the Arabian Gulf mariners on the VHF radio brought a professional frown to the corner of his mouth. Three more hours and I’ll be relieved.
Down below, in a coffin rack on the O3 level, in a darkened 8-man junior officer berthing the JG heard the sounds of the ship’s breathing, her circulation, her musculature and thought to himself, this ship is alive. And she never really sleeps.
But she does tick down.
He blinked twice in the darkness, shifted to his left side and was instantly asleep.
At 0330, an alarm went off in a coffin rack in the Ops berthing. A hand groped in the darkness behind the rack curtains to silence the alarm. The curtains served as a demarcation line – they marked this space as the owners. This space is his only privacy, the only thing that is truly his own in a berthing area shared with 100 other men, themselves stacked in bunk beds three high, arrayed in cells that fade into the greater darkness.
He is only 19 years old, and a third class operations specialist and what he wants more than anything else in the world is to go back to sleep. All around him are the exhalations of 75 deeply tired, deeply sleeping men – the rest are on watch and it’s his task to relieve them in 30 minutes. When he gets there he has to be fully awake, so he turns the reading light on above his rack, hoping that the flicker and buzz of the light bulb as it starts up will help him shake off his torpor. He shares responsibility for the safety of the ship, and the 5000 people on board. Most of whom he does not know. Most of whom are still asleep, and will be for hours.
—> Part LIV – Epilogue