The deck pitches in a slow roll with the swells, but worse is an irregular jolting motion which induces a drunken stumble gait. It is night, raining hard, and windy. There is a constant roar from the storm and the workings of the deck. Sailors run to and fro with jet fuel and bombs, toolboxes and short little light sticks — like those cheap Star Wars light saber toys, but shorter — for guiding jets into their parking spots.
My cod has landed and we’re parked aft of the island. I trail after someone who seems to be guiding the passengers with a pale yellow light stick. He has on a green jersey and I begin to wonder if we’re following the right guy. F-14s and A-7s are prepping to launch up ahead, thick steel cables snap loudly to the side, and all around us the deck is being frantically cleared for what looks like an emergency recovery drill.
The group splits up. A few sailors go into different doors. Others wander away to service various planes and equipment. If there was a group of passengers being led to safety, I’ve lost them. Feeling abandoned and exposed, I decide to go to the side of the island where passengers are normally taken, in my limited experience.
I’m carrying thirty pounds of flight gear in one hand and my sea bag in the other, clumsily navigating parked deck tractors. Hot oil fumes from the hydraulics mixes with the pervasive JP-5 to burn my eyes and sinuses. Through my tears, and the wind and spray, I can see no visible demarcation of the deck’s edge, normally a 90-foot drop, now rising and setting to the storm.
A Corsair launches with a roar, the fire of the engines momentarily lighting up the flight deck with harsh light and shadow. I stumble, scrape my hands and a knee on the non-skid, then sprawl forward across some metal tubes I fear might be sidewinders — an act which could make me infamous, the cause of the next Forrestal disaster. A deck monkey barks at me from behind while a hatch opens dead ahead. I go in, momentarily knocking into a group of aircrew coming out.
The light is red and feeble in the corridor. I push into a space lit by a lone fluorescent tube on the bulkhead. Amazingly it is the right place. I see a few of the other passengers seated on folding chairs. No one notices me or talks to me. The cod airdales run in and out of the room. They won’t answer any questions, nor look at our orders.
No one from my squadron is there to pick me up like they should be. I scan the room for a boat phone book to call them, but of course they wouldn’t be in it as they’re only t-a-d to the ship. And since I’m only t-a-d to them, I’m less than nothing to most people onboard. I feel totally insignificant and miserable.
I’m hot already, as the room is crowded and starting to steam. I pull off my watch cap and tug at my woven undergarments. It was cold on the cod — not as cold as the whale, but still, glad to have them. Then, and especially in the weeks to come at eight miles up, they’re wonderful. Not now, though.
I’ll hit the head in a minute and ditch the thermals — in a minute, though. I lean back against a steel column and close my eyes against the sweat and nausea, the exhaustion and anxieties of travel. I start to drift off, speculating about nuclear steam, when, at a sudden command, all the stragglers from the transport are rounded up and shoved into the dim corridor.
The hatch closes amid our confused protest. Someone mentions g-q, but my mind draws a blank on the meaning of this particular military acronym. Right away we see people pouring up the ladder and into the short passageway. We huddle against the bulkhead to let them by. The third person to pass, doesn’t, but stops above me. It’s too dark for me to make him out clearly.
He addresses me by name and says I’m needed for the next whale launch. I need to get up there, asap, he says. Happily, I remember that I can’t get up there asap for the next whale launch because I have no parachute harness; this is to be issued to me by the rigger.
The dark silhouette holds still for a moment, then gestures sharply. He tells me to GET One from the rigger, ASAP! I tell him I don’t know how to get to the squad shack. He starts to gives me some questionable directions, stops, then shouts in my face: “YOU know how to get to the FUCKING squad shack, GODDAMN YOU!”
At this, he’s off.
And so am I, in the opposite direction. The force of his last statement is such that it convinces me that I do indeed know how to get to the squad shack. There are more than 5,000 people on this ship and every nook and cranny is somebody’s office, repair shack, or sleeping space. I’m not thinking of this when I go down the first few ladders.
He said the quickest way would be through the cafeteria, which complies with my general knowledge of where they usually put us. The mess is always down about four or five decks. The ladders rarely go straight down for more than a couple decks, so I’m out and into other passageways, dimly lit from red and orange lights above the hatches.
After dead-ending twice, I decide to pass through some dark berths. At first, I perceive them as unpopulated, but soon I’m getting shoved around in the dark. I feel very bad. I’m lost, and my squadron is expecting me to fly on some sort of mission. Even if I could find my way, I’m sick at the thought of having to crawl into the belly of that decrepit old jet, the whale, to get launched into a night like this. And that g-q thing is nagging at me.
I find an exit to another corridor, then down one more deck to the blue cafeteria floor. There is tape stretched across the hatchway. I can’t cross it. I could, actually, but I’m quite timid about breaking somebody’s rules here — even though it’s probably just some lowly E-1s buffing the floor. It’s just that the light down there is also red, like the passageways, not bright white like the cafeteria is usually lit.
So I’m back up the stairs, but now I can’t get out of the stairwell. The hatches are all secured. I go up and up and up until I’m sure I must be inside the island, above the flight deck. I put my bags down frequently as I am exhausted. I finally find an open hatch.
As I’m entering another corridor, I remember.
G-Q. General Quarters. Like Red Alert on Star Trek.
Everyone is supposed to be at their battle stations, but I don’t know where mine is. I run quickly towards what I think is the center of the ship, but am soon forced to open a hatch, since all of them are closed now, at least all the ones I can see.
My sea bag gets stuck and I can’t get through. I feel exposed in the open corridor, panicked at the possibility of Marines charging past, gleefully beating the hell out of anyone in their way, as they are licensed to do during G-Q.
I force in the bag and step into another berthing area. My appearance seems to pass unnoticed as everything stays still and quiet, even as I re-secure the hatch. I emerge from a curtain into the tv room. It is dark, except for the blue-green light of the cathode rays shooting out from the box. The sound is down and still no one is talking. Everyone seems frozen still, except for someone standing next to the tv. His hand moves in slow motion. On the closed circuit flight deck channel I can clearly see the whale being readied to launch. The image goes to static then flicks onto an old WWII movie.
I don’t know why, but I’ve had enough. I can’t stand it in this room another second. I pull back a different curtain to the main sleeping area and pass into endless rows of triple-stacked bunk beds. Dim bulbs protrude from the padded ceiling. They shower the room with a red haze. I have my sea bag in front of me and my flight bag behind me. I walk slowly, cautiously. I hear occasional whimpering from behind the curtained bunks.
I wonder if there really is a G-Q going on. The somnambulist behavior of the seamen in here does not seem indicative. And I never heard anyone actually say that there was a G-Q. I just heard it mentioned. Such uneasy ambiguity is a familiar sensation, and dismaying.
I set down my bags as my arms are killing me.
There probably isn’t a g-q. I just need to calm down. I slouch against a metal beam wrapped in foam and slide, remembering how my “battle station” is sometimes my bunk on aircraft carriers, since there is so little room. With a cringe of self-loathing, I recall how I crept in and cowered there during the first few drills — as much from a feeling of frustrated rage vaguely directed at the edifice of stupidity that is the military, as from any fear that I might drown, forgotten in my bed.
I recline and stretch my legs outward, beneath the floor panel, into an impossible tangle of wiring. Far above some scattered puffy clouds, shadowing a moonlit sea, the jet’s windows are frosty against a deep black night. I’m in the whale. The battery of electronic equipment in front of me, which I am supposed to be operating, lies dormant, unlit. I am fast asleep, oblivious, even as all hell starts to break loose inside the cramped fuselage.
I wake up with a start and try to get my bearings. Is that right? The whale was ready to launch and I’m not there? And a G-Q?
Wait, I think. Of course it’s real! I was just in the ready room when we heard that there was a p-t boat a couple hundred yards off port. We were running through the ship, D and I. Shit! I’ve got to be on that plane or they’ll have my ass.
No, that’s not what happened. I just landed on this boat a half hour ago.
It’s all blurring together. I pick up my bags. I feel very nauseated and disoriented. Am I drunk? Hungover? Sick with ear infections, antibiotics, decongestants, pain killers? Scared shitless? I’m sure of only the last, but the rest are true too. They all happen.
There’s a down hatch ahead which I recognize. I stumble forward.
This is always here and it always ends like this.
The lid is held by chains to the bulkhead at a 60-degree angle. I approach and look inside. Far below, light sticks scratch out precise directions until the tiny diorama is lost in a cloudy mist. The ladder is very long, but a humming warmth emanates from the depths. I know this is a dream, and I’ve known it all along. I know that the p-t boat turns out to be a spy trawler, that I get on the whale and help kill some people, that we’re spiraling down for a trap that goes sideways, that part of me stays below.