On The Line 7.3

by Steve on January 24, 2010

Back to 7.2

“Liberty call, liberty call…”  Nobody heard the rest of the announcement.  All hands not on duty scrambled to collect their touring gear, cameras, money, etc., and headed for the brow.  There were two, one for officers and another for the enlisted crew.  Both had gangways leading down to the “camel”, a large floating dock used when the ship anchored offshore instead of tying up pier-side.  Sailors streamed down the gangways and boarded utility boats that had been launched from the carrier for the express purpose of serving as water taxis for the in-port period.  The long hours week after week all seemed worth it now that liberty was here.  Some of the sailors were off to see the sights that Antalya, Turkey had to offer, others were hell bent on packing in as much drink and debauchery as they could possibly master before they were due back to stand their rotation on the in-port watch schedule.  Either way the boats were loaded to capacity with laughing smiling sailors.  Once the tide of escaping sailors subsided, the boat officers and their crews settled into a schedule that would last for the next five days until the tide reversed itself on the tail end of the port call.  Cheryl, Ted, and Commander Hart boarded a boat to find a somewhat bitter LT Flemington serving as Boat Officer.

“Alan, how’s your new command-at-sea going?” asked the CO.

“Much better than the last, Skipper,” he replied referring to the last port period when as Boat Officer his bosun had misjudged his approach to the camel, ramming it, and throwing several senior officers to the deck.  “So, you guys headed in to set up the admin?”

Ted ignored the conversation and closed his eyes, inhaling the scent of a foreign land.  Life on the ship has a distinct smell.  Most of the squadron wives would say it was a revolting stench.  The sweet mix of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, and sweat.  Susan had never complained but then it was the same perfume that she came home with.  She was gone.  Mac was gone.  The game had suddenly turned cruel.  The noble career of flying jets off a ship had taken a personal toll that he could not reconcile.  It had cost him dearly.  How many more faces would haunt him in the years to come?  Several faces in his graduating class were already names on headstones.  Two had succumbed to hypoxia at high altitude in their F-14 on a training flight over Fallon, Nevada, flying off into giddy oblivion as their brains, deprived of oxygen when the jet’s oxygen system slowly failed, tricked them into a euphoria that abruptly ended on a mountainside.  Another died in his F-18 when a total hydraulic failure manifested itself as he crossed the round-down behind the Eisenhower.  He had initiated ejection but the seat hadn’t cleared the rails when the jet hit the deck and dissolved in a fire ball.  One of his closest classmates bought it in the tunnel of an E-2 when it augered into the wake behind the GW.  All five went down with that one.  God, the horror of knowing you were going to die because the aircraft you flew for a living had no ejection seats and it was unquestionably going down.  The Hawkeye crews were a brave bunch, launching and landing on a carrier with no ejection seat for insurance when it all went to hell.  The boat pulled alongside the pier snapping Ted out of his mental tailspin.

“Where’d you wander off to?” CDR Hart asked.

“You don’t want to know, Skipper.”

As the group made their way down the pier CDR Hart caught Cheryl’s attention and they lagged behind.
“Keep an eye on him, Sis.  He’s still battling some demons plus he’s not 100% physically either.  Doc wanted me to restrict him to the ship but I didn’t have the heart.  I’m counting on you and the rest of the animals to bring him back in one piece.”

“We’ll take care of him, Sir,” she replied.  Cheryl moved to catch up with the rest of the junior officers and then checked up, dropping back in stride with her commanding officer.  “Is Ted going to be able to fly again?”

“Too soon to know for sure.  Doc says his spine took quite a punch.  He’s off flight status until we can get him a full medical evaluation.”  CDR Hart studied his nugget pilot’s face looking for a reaction but got none.
Cheryl nodded.  “He hasn’t been the same since the ejection.”

The CO thought he detected a curious undertone in her voice but instantly dismissed it chastising himself for looking for something that wasn’t there.  She was concerned, as they all were.

“See you at the admin, Skipper,” Cheryl said as she left him to catch up with her peers.

Maybe this one won’t be too costly, he thought.  Damn admin.  Each squadron had one when in port but they were both a blessing and a curse as far as the Commanders were concerned.  A crash pad for the JO’s to operate out of while in port, a stocked hotel room paid for by their own money, ostensibly a place to retreat and recuperate.  A safe house, a place to deposit one’s squadronmates after they had downed a few too many and needed to sleep it off away from the eyes of the local police.  But while the institution of the squadron admin offered a haven in port it also made it that much easier to get inebriated in the first place.  Ted consulted his copy of the hand-drawn map indicating the location of the Gamblers’ admin and started up the hill heading away from the docks.  He was on a mission.  He needed to forget and he’d had plenty of practice in the art of induced memory loss.  He failed to notice the look of concern on his skipper’s face, not that it would have made any difference.

When Ted reached the room where his squadron had set up camp the door was locked with a note taped to it which read: “gone shopping, be back in a while.”  Frustrated, Ted turned down the hall and ran into Cheryl with several of the other Gamblers.

“Where are you headed?” one of them asked.

“They’re not back with the supplies yet so I’m looking for the nearest bar.”

The group reversed course and made their way back into the street.  They wandered down the sidewalk laughing and joking with one another occasionally pausing to inspect the local wares offered by the various shops.  A few blocks down from the hotel Ted found a small bar which, it being mid-morning on a weekday, was mostly empty except for three old men at a corner table.  The group of aviators swarmed the bar, pleased and surprised to hear, “Good morning,” in English although spoken with a heavy accent.  The bartender, who also happened to be the owner of the small establishment, set out to make his new guests as comfortable as possible hoping to keep them and their money as long as possible.  His lunch-time regulars were not due for a couple of hours yet and he knew from past experience American sailors were an excellent source of income.

“Bartender,” Ted started in then stopped.  “What’s your name?  We’re going to become good friends.”

“Cemil,” the old man replied.  “My name is Cemil.”

“Nice to meet you, Cemil.  I’d like a beer.  Your favorite local beer.  For me and my friends.”

From the back of the group: “What friends?  You brought friends with you, Flash?  I’d like to meet ‘em!”

“Smartass.  No beer for that one, Cemil,” Ted shot back.

For the next hour the beer and lighthearted conversation flowed.  The stress of the last few weeks subsided as the young officers engaged each other and poor Cemil in good-natured verbal abuse.  At some point the three old men from the corner joined the fun at the bar and the mixture of English, Turkish, and some combination of the two blended into laughter.  Regulars started to filter in and Cemil was drawn away from the bar with increasing frequency.  The old men took their leave and the banter died down.

“Hey, lets head back to the admin,” one of the group offered.  A consensus was reached, the bill was settled and the group got up to leave.

“You guys go on.  I’m hangin’ with Cemil,” Ted said with just a slight slur.  He was well on his way to forgetting.

Cheryl and two of the others paused at the door reluctant to leave anyone behind in a foreign bar.  She looked at Ted then turned to her squadronmates; “You guys head on, I’ll stay with Flash until he’s ready to go.”  She pulled up a bar stool and sat down next to Ted.  “What’s up?” she asked.

“I just don’t feel like doing the admin thing yet.  I’m comfortable here with Cemil.  You didn’t need to stay, I’m fine.”

“Right.  And leave you on your own, violate the buddy system.  Skipper’d have my ass.”

Ted grinned.  “Well I definitely got the best looking buddy out of that bunch.”

“Careful Flash.  I’ll write your ass up for harassment and put an end to your bright career,” she teased.
She watched the clouds roll across his face as he shifted from playful to dark as plain as if someone had just flipped a switch in his brain. 

“What career?  I’ll likely never fly again.  I’m done.”  The darkness poured from deep within him turned lose by a combination of alcohol and comradery that reminded him of the past.  Back when he had been a carefree junior officer on his first deployment and everything was new.  When he had Susan to return to.  He had loved her deeply such that without her, breathing became a pointless labor.  She had disappeared in an instant.  No warning, no time to prepare, no body to grieve over and bury.  No closure for his soul.  Where was the fairness in the random loss of life?  She was a highly skilled professional and yet that had not been enough.  A stupid seagull in the wrong place at the wrong time, there was nothing she could have done to avoid it.  If only the flight schedule had been different, a different time, a different route, a different anything.  He and Susan had just started their life together.  They had so much to look forward to and now she was nothing but a memory.  He could still see her face when he closed his eyes but he was terrified that too would fade.  Sometimes Susan entered his dreams and other times it was Mac who appeared.  The worst one, the dream that gave him the sweats, haunted him with increasing frequency.  Like the movie Groundhog Day, he kept replaying that fatal launch in his nightmares detail by detail from the time they walked all the way through the flawed cat shot.  The last few seconds took a twist: Mac would look over at Ted with fear and anger in his eyes screaming, “What the hell are you waiting for?  You’ve killed us!  It’s too late.”
As Ted talked, Cheryl listened with a compassion beyond her comprehension.  She was deeply aware that this man was hurting on many levels and she was determined to help him work through the pain.  When he finally stopped he was emotionally wasted.

“Everyone I let into my life ends up being ripped out of it,” he said.  “I can’t afford for that to happen again – I don’t think that I could take it.”

“So that’s it, huh?  That’s your answer?  Just shut everyone out and Flash will be just fine.  Well that’s bullshit and you know it.  What kind of life would that be?  That’s not living.  You might as well have gone down with that plane if you’re just going to shut yourself off from the rest of the world and wallow in self-pity.”

“I wish I had gone down with that plane.  I should have.”

“Dammit!  That’s not your call, Flash.  If it was your time you wouldn’t be here.  You need to deal with that fact and move on.”

“What?  Are you my self-appointed therapist now?  I bet the skipper told you to keep an eye on me, didn’t he?”  When Cheryl didn’t respond immediately, he continued.  “Well you can tell the old man I don’t need a damn babysitter!”

“Well for your information I had already planned on watching over you before it became my official duty,” she shot back.

“What the hell for?”

“You know, you really can be dense at times.  But it doesn’t matter anyway since you’ve declared that you’re walling yourself off from the rest of the world.”

“What doesn’t matter?”

“This,” she leaned in and kissed him, then locked eyes with him for a second before spinning around and heading for the door.  “You’re on your own, Flash,” she said as she disappeared through the doorway fighting her skewed sensation of gravity.

Ted stared speechless at the doorway wondering what had just happened.  Cemil broke down in laughter: “Did you not see that coming my boy?  I did.”

“You might have warned me, Cemil.  I wasn’t ready for that.”

“This is big problem for you, right?  Both officers, same unit?”

“What?  Oh yeah, same squadron, same command, definitely a problem,” Ted replied, obviously distracted.  He paid his tab and left in search of Cheryl.  He wasn’t sure exactly what had just taken place and he certainly wasn’t prepared to admit that her kiss had awakened feelings for her that he had been denying.  Initially the parallels between Susan and Cheryl had been too painful for him to consciously consider but somewhere along the line he started seeing Cheryl in her own light instead of the shadow of his dead wife.  He was a professional officer and as such refused to entertain unprofessional thoughts of a fellow officer, especially one on his ship and in his squadron.  Ever since the Navy started assigning women to combat aviation billets the fraternal order of Naval Aviation had quickly revamped its traditions and educated its members on what was expected, allowed, and prohibited in the new co-ed Navy.  Pursuing an intimate relationship with one’s pilot and squadronmate was pretty high up on the list of career killers so Ted had quickly nipped any budding thoughts of Cheryl that fell outside of her ability to get him back aboard the ship in one piece.  Conscious thought can be controlled but not the subconscious variety.  He had to find her and set things straight before either one pushed beyond the point of no return.

{ 2 comments }

FbL March 27, 2010 at 13:49

okay, I need to do some catching up on this story. Is there anywhere I can find all the links to chapters in one place?

Steve March 27, 2010 at 17:47

FBL, if you look at the top of the page (any page) just under the header there’s a page link titled “On The Line”. That takes you to an outline by chapter. Each individual post has a link to the previous one at the top and the next one at the bottom. Find where you want to start reading and you can click through to the current post without having to hunt around. Hope this helps. I’ll have a new one up in the next few days – I got hung up on a part I didn’t like!

Sounds like you had fun flying last weekend 😉

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