In Silent WaterbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
The sun's fierce light bore down mercilessly on the shimmering water, the relentless light scattered into a million crystal shards, each blinding ray intent on finding it's way into Walter Hansen's tormented eyes. He scanned the light gray instrument panel quickly, noted the threat receiver still blinking intently, and he looked at his airspeed indicator. 460 knots. Altitude so low the altimeter was bottomed out. He glanced out the canopy and could just make out wave-tops as they roared by in blue-brown streaks; he guessed he was low enough to be sucking sea-spray directly into the battered Pratt & Whitney engine, but it really didn't matter anymore. The A-4 Skyhawk had been hit by God only knew how many rounds of small arms fire on it's way outbound from Haiphong Harbor, and Hansen watched with growing alarm as the engine's compressor pressure began to climb and the fuel flow gauge pegged out at max. Not much fuel left. He had nursed the jet back to the coast and was hoping he would have enough JP-5 to make it back to the Constellation. He'd heard stories about how pissed off the sharks were in the South China Sea, and he really didn't want to find out if those stories were true.
Sweat was running down his face, and he reached with his right hand to the little silver air nozzle beneath the right side of the canopy and directed the tepid airflow up onto his face. It didn't help, but he saw a flash in the middle of all the reflected sunlight just as the threat receiver began howling in earnest, and he instinctively pulled back on the stick and turned toward the threat - presenting the lowest possible aspect to the threat - and popped off a canister of chaff and a couple of flares. He saw a line of tracers arcing up and watched as the bullets disappeared off his left wing, and he jinked to the right in a tight snap-roll, then again hard to the left in a counter-roll. He pushed the stick down hard and dove toward the water - and there they were, right in front of him. Two North Vietnamese patrol boats. Lines of tracers arced up from their bow platforms toward his jet, and he - knew - he was caught, that there was nowhere to go.
Hansen slammed the throttle all the way to the stops and made sharp, hard movements with the stick as he dove toward the two boats, and he moved to line up the first boat in his gunsight as he closed on it. But too fast - he was past it, and then the second boat shot past and he pulled back on the stick to level out. He looked down at the radar altimeter just above his right knee - it was bottomed out again, he must be back down in the waves again - and he shot a quick glance to the upper left panel and saw his airspeed was inching up toward 600 knots. Shit! You didn't take a Skyhawk trans-sonic a sea-level - at least no one had done so and lived to talk about it. He eased back on the throttle, pulled back on the stick to get out of the wave-tops.
He felt the rounds slam into the aircraft somewhere aft, and he yanked back on the stick now, and felt the old bird reach for the sky one last time. Fire warning light! Pull the bottle. Exhaust gas temp off the scale now, compressor pressure pegged, fuel warning light going off now. Secondary fire light going off - just a few more seconds and she's going to come apart. Quick! Altitude? 8500 feet and climbing. Get on the radio, now!
"Boomer five-oh-five, twenty-five from point x-ray on one-ten radial, just ran into two patrol boats, about ten offshore, packing it in now - gonna punch out."
"Boomer five-oh-five, radar contact, good luck."
There it is - the short and sweet of it. Straighten your spine, keep your neck straight or it'll snap off when the ejection seat fires, get the cover off the ejection seat handle between your legs and - PULL!
The dank smell of sweat and testosterone blows away with the canopy, the near quiet of the raspy turbine sound in the cockpit is ripped away into the violent airstream as the ejection seat explodes beneath your seat and hurls you into the maelstrom - and then - it is quiet - and you're falling through space. Why does that feel so familiar? Why?
Falling. Falling toward coffee colored water full of sharks. Pissed-off sharks. The water looks malignant now, not passive, and you feel afraid. The water is reaching up for you, ready to pull the life out of you. Noise, motion . . . The 'chute opens and the seat falls away, and you feel the survival pack and life raft fall on their tether, yanking you down. Toward the water.
There she is.
You watch the old Skyhawk in her agony, flames spilling out from behind ruptured panels on her skin as she tumbles toward the water below, her light-gray form still elegant as the sea reaches up to claim her. She hits the water in a spray of foam and she is as quickly gone.
It's so quiet up here, you're thinking. Almost peaceful. You look down past your boots at the water below, and you want to stay up here in the air where it's been so nice and safe. The shimmering waves reach for you, the blinding shards of sun dance past your outstretched hands, and you see them. Dark forms lazily arcing through the water, just beneath the surface.
And the patrol boats. About five, maybe six miles away, arcing through the water toward you. You reach for the little radio clipped to your harness, and are reassured to feel that it is still strapped snugly there.
How much longer? How long until I hit?
About 2,000 feet - or so it seems - make that 25 feet per second in this dense air. What's that, 80 seconds, give or take?
I wonder how warm it is?
I wonder if it's as warm as my blood?
You're sinking, salt water runs up your nose and you remember the tank at Whitby Island, the ditch drills - slamming into the water and going inverted in a heartbeat - what was it they said, exhale slightly through your nose, force the water out? Don't panic, don't get tangled up in your 'chute. The May-west will pop any second now, feel for the knife, get ready to cut any lines that you'll inevitably get tangled up in.
It's dark water, not much sun getting through the mud and salt. Ears are popping . . . am I going up or down? Feel the vest . . . is it inflated? Yes? Good, gotta be going up. Light? Is that light?
Your head breaks the surface, and water coats the dark gray plastic of your helmet's visor, creating fluidly shifting prisms of light in your eyes, and the breath you've been holding bursts forth in a spasm of cough and the overwhelming need to vomit. You feel something tugging at your waste, and you're afraid to look, afraid of the dark shapes you know are just out of sight, never out of mind. You turn and see the yellow-orange life-raft bobbing on the waves, and you work your way out of the parachute harness and swim toward the raft. You reach the webbing that hangs down into the water and use it to wiggle up into the raft, and your breathing comes easier once you're in the womb of the raft. You reach up to the radio on your chest and turn it on.
"Boomer five-oh-five, in the water and no company visible." You hold your breath, waiting for the voice on the other end of the precious circuit that means life.
"Ah, five-oh-five, that's a roger. Pop some dye."
You reach into your survival vest and pull out an olive colored canister little bigger than a can of beer and pop off the safety, then toss the dye-marker out into the water, and the water around your raft turns a vivid florescent green. Someone once told you the stuff repels sharks.
"OK five-oh-five, we got you. Charlie is about three miles out and a little off course. Some fast-movers are coming in to keep you company."
"Roger," you hear yourself saying between spasms of vomit. You swallowed a ton of sea-water, and it burns as it flows up and out your mouth and nose on it's way back to the sea.
The air all around you ruptures and ripples as the first F-4 Phantom screams overhead; the concussion of the sonic boom almost knocks you out of the raft but you feel elated, and you want to rise and shout at the patrol boats you know are about to get toasted. A second Phantom flies past somewhere behind you, but you hear a new sound. An artillery shell whizzes overhead and hits the water several hundred feet away, and that concussion does in fact knock you out of the raft. You take on more water while vomiting and almost lose your grip on the raft.
Another round lands in the water, this time much closer, and as the high explosive round goes off you feel your body compress as the sound waves move through the water. It is at that moment that you feel the shark grazing along side of your body, it's coarse hide feeling like 40 grit sandpaper as it slides along. In an instant you feel yourself levitating out of the water and are back in the raft. You hear a huge explosion in the distance, and then hear one of the Phantom pilots screaming on the radio:
"Jolly Three, we're hit, ah, wait one - punching out! Jolly One, watch that lead boat, they've got some kinda SAM on board."
After a moment you poke your head above the edge of the raft and can see the stricken Phantom cart-wheeling toward the sea behind a curtain of flame and black smoke, and you look around hoping to see a pair of 'chutes blossoming when another round lands behind you and your raft tumbles through the air. You're in the water again, and you don't need to be told that the hissing you hear is coming from your rapidly deflating raft. You look skyward; there's a large dogfight shaping up as a couple of Mig-17s arc across your field of view while another pair of Phantoms roar over - coming from somewhere out of the east.
You grab another canister of dye and pop the top, toss it into the water a few feet from you. The dye spreads like radioactive blood on a wet tile floor, and you hope the shark hates it enough to look for his next meal somewhere - anywhere - else.
A pair of ancient A-1 Skyraiders thunder overhead, their old propellers beating the air like vulture's wings, and their cannon fire rakes the lead patrol boat as one of the Vietnamese gunners on the foredeck squeezes off a burst in your direction, and you watch as the seaman disappears in a pink haze, and when the boat bursts into flames you hear yourself cheering. You're thrashing the water as you yell, and only then do you remember the shark - that sharks are attracted to motion, to signals of distress.
And there it is, a dorsal fin cutting through the water like a scathe, lazily arcing back and forth at the perimeter of the dye, testing the currents in the water and not at all deterred enough to stop hunting. You become motionless, pull your legs up into your chest, and pop another canister - your last canister - and toss it into the water between you and the shark.
In the distance you see two parachutes lofting down toward the water, maybe three hundred yards away. Should you swim in that direction, swim for another raft - yet risk exposing yourself to the shark. You look back toward the fin, and it's - gone! The water beneath you ripples with electricity, and a dark shape glides by under your feet. Your body contracts, compacting itself more tightly, and you reach for the Kabar survival knife on the left strap of your survival vest, and gently take it out of the scabbard, moving as slowly and gently as you can.
There it is, over there! The fin seems to stiffen, and as suddenly it is coming straight at you. No lazy arcs now, there is purpose in it's trajectory. You are it's purpose. Your mouth is dry, and you ready the knife in your hand.
Then . . .
The shark is flying through the air, flicking about in lightning that dances in the air, and it is in that instant of time - gone.
You feel a presence in the water. It is next to you, it is all around you. It is inside of you.
You turn, and she is their.
Her skin is luminous blue-green, mottled by faintly etched deep purple veins that shimmer with purpose, and you realize - somehow - something very beautiful has happened to you. Time seems to have stopped, even the water seems to dance to a slower rhythm.
You can just make out her face. It is human. Maybe even - familiar. But the eyes are off, something's really not quite right with the eyes, the structure of the bone around the eyes is crisper, more sharply delineated, and the "whites" of her eyes are sky blue, the iris of each eye an electric copper color that radiates - what? Love? No, not love. Knowing.
'She knows me . . .'
She is smiling at you, and laughs gently as she looks deeply into your eyes. Her hair is incredibly long, and long streams of her copper colored hair drift about in the swaying water.
You haven't taken a breath in what feels like forever, and you can't take your eyes off her even though you know it's a dream. Maybe the shark has taken you, and you're on your way to heaven even as the form of your hopes and dreams drifts on the surface in front of you.
She drifts on the water like a dream, and her eyes glance down toward unseen forms that drift in lazy circles below your body. She struggles with a choice, then moves through the water until she is right in front of you. She leans forward those last few inches and touches you.
You close your eyes when you feel her hand on your face, and you are among the stars for a moment.
You open your eyes, and she is gone. You are lost in darkness.
"What the fuck did you do to that shark, man?"
You're sitting on the hard metal floor of the rescue helicopter, your iron-white fingers clutching the lifting harness that pulled you from the sea as your teeth chatter like a jack-hammer. You can't remember anything other than her eyes. Something about her eyes has torn it's way into your heart and soul, and nothing else seems to matter. Something so familiar . . .
"What did you do to that shark, Lieutenant? Thought it had you for sure."
You feel the question in your head - but it doesn't make sense - then your whole body is shaking, and this world goes dark. Again.
You never felt the odd bits of blazing metal that had torn into your left thigh and right calf. No wonder the sharks had come so quickly. You'd lost a lot of blood.
They'd stabilized you on the carrier, then shuttled you off to DaNang. But you missed all that as you drifted past a dizzying array of stars, you never really woke up during all those tortured moments. And now here you are, somewhere in Hawaii, your legs swaddled in bandages, and IV bottles of antibiotics drip remorselessly into a burning vein in your left arm. Your gauzy eyes are open, but there isn't much to see in the darkness.
But there is a feeling in the air . . .
A nurse, actually a pretty young woman, is leaning over your chest adjusting the lines that ground you to the earth, and you smell her. It smells like something from a place you might have once called home. She is like someone you once knew, but the feeling is different. You want to say something, but your mouth is so dry. Your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you struggle to move it.
Panic. Don't panic.
"Water," you manage to say.
"Oh! It lives. It speaks," the girl says with sarcasm born of too many bad Frankenstein movies, yet you feel a straw at your lips, and you pull the plastic into your mouth and furiously pull at the cold water. It sears your throat as it runs down, and you swish some in your mouth a couple of times until your tongue breaks free. It feels so . . . good . . .
"You smell - nice."
"Yeah? Pleased to meet you, too." She is looking at you with knowing eyes. "How are you feeling today?"
"Where am I?"
"Hawaii. Pearl Harbor."
"I was in the water . . . a shark . . ." And suddenly you're back there, in the water, and you're filling with panic as you watch the shark's fin arrowing in on you.
"It's all right . . . sh-h-h-h . . . you're all right now, Lieutenant. You're safe now . . ."
And you're holding on to the nurse, sobbing, looking for the hole in your memory. Looking for that whole truth. Those eyes. Why can't I remember anything else. What happened. What happened to me?
Who am I?
The nurse, her name was Sarah. Sarah Henderson.
For some reason, she liked you. You spent a lot of time together while you were recovering. When, after a few weeks you started to walk regularly, you started talking to her about Vietnam, about the missions you'd flown, about the friends who'd gone up North and not come back, you found she listened to you. She cared.
The more you talked, the more she cared. She gave of herself to you, and that meant something. It seemed so unreal, this connection. And the things you talked about . . . The blood soaked cockpits in many of the planes that did make it back. The death you'd visited on targets in North Vietnam - hopefully all military targets - but you really weren't sure, were you? You sat on that red brick patio in the sun. Talking. Remembering. You could see the ocean as you talked, the palm trees swaying in the tradewinds. It was so easy to talk to this woman. When you looked at her, you could almost forget those eyes that had held you in the sea, that beings smile that held time in abeyance. That knowing laugh just before she touched you . . . and was as soon gone.
Sarah Henderson was flesh and blood, and there was a connection. How could you reconcile connection in this world. This world of death and destruction. Soon the only thing that mattered was this woman's hand in yours.
In time, you grew well, you walked more as the torn muscles in your leg healed. And your heart healed in that woman's hands. The connection grew stronger.
Orders. New orders.
Back to Whitby Island. Help train fresh meat for the grinder of this, our first national nightmare. Ask her to marry me? Yes, that is right. Right. And you did, too, with humility and a boundless love in your soul. She said yes. You flew back to Washington state, rejoined the world of war. She transferred just weeks after you left, continued to work as a nurse. You married a few months later, and when your hitch was up you signed on with Delta, moved to Atlanta, started flying 727s. Sarah was soon pregnant, you bought a house, fixed up the baby's room. Not long after that, you were fixing up that spare bedroom - the one that was going to be your 'office' (like you really needed an office), remember - for your second kid.
It was all so easy.
It started one night in the late eighties. The dreams.
You were in the water, floating in a sea of blood. It was night, and a crimson moon bathed a seascape littered with disfigured bodies. Bodies burned and charred floated all around you in distorted packs, and sharks tore into the feast. They slipped by as you floated in quiet agony, their black eyes rolled back in sated lust as they brushed past you.
She was there, too. Her blue shimmering skin glowed in defiance of the forsaken moon, yet you could see tears forming in her eyes, tears that left no doubt - no doubt - that she was powerless to repeal all the death that had been born of man's wars.
The waters shook with the echoes of great explosions, and the sky on the far side of the earth grew intensely white. Rainbow hued shockwaves danced through the sky, and the heat grew unbearable as the energy of man's final assault on man reached like Satan's fingers through the sky. Sharks danced in the light, their death-lust overwhelming the last vestiges of hope in the sea-nymph's eyes, and she turned to you, looked at you with infinite sorrow in her eyes.
"Why?" she asks you. "Why have you done this?"
As she slips beneath the water you wake up.
Why have I done this, you ask yourself, not really sure who you are.