Union Atlantic, page 1
ALSO BY ADAM HASLETT
You Are Not a Stranger Here
For support during the writing of this book, the author wishes to thank the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, as well as Nan Talese, Ira Silverberg, Robert Millner, Ruth Curry, Luke Hoorelbeke, Amity Gaige, Jon Franzen, Julia Haslett, Timothy Haslett (1966–2008), Nancy Haslett, Sarah Faunce, Jenn Chandler-Ward, Andrew Janjigian, Melissa Rivard, Adam Hickey, Brett Phillips, David Grewel, Daniela Cammack, David Menschel, Joe Landau, Mark Breitenberg, Julian Levinson, Michael Graetz, Richard Eldridge, Brendan Tapley, Josh Cohen, and Daniel Thomas Davis.
For my mother,
Nancy Faunce Haslett
Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each. The gesture went over well until the canteen ran out and then the dispensing machines, leaving fifty or so enlisted men and a few petty officers feeling cheated of the one recognition anyone had offered of what they had been through. A number of them, considerably drunk, had begun milling outside the commissary, suggesting it ought to be opened up to make good on the promise. Realizing he had a situation on his hands, the admiral’s staffer pulled Vrieger aside, handed him an envelope of petty cash, and told him there was a jeep and driver waiting for him at the gate.
“That place on Al Budayyai should still be open. Get whatever you can. Get menthols if you have to. Just make it quick.”
“Come on, Fanning,” Vrieger said. “We’re taking a ride.”
“But I’ve got mine,” Doug replied, holding up his half-smoked pack of Carltons. Three or four beers had done their sedative work and set him down here on this bench by the officers’ mess, where he sought only to rest.
“It ain’t about you.”
Hauling his gaze up from the linoleum floor, Doug saw the lantern face of his lieutenant commander bearing down on him. He wasn’t a handsome guy, with eyes too small for the broad circumference of his head and a big jowly mouth. The square metal-rimmed glasses added to the look of middle age though, at thirty-one, he was little more than a decade older than Doug. Vrieger was the only guy in the navy who knew more about him than the town he came from and the bases he’d trained at, and this counted for something.
Lifting himself from the bench, he followed Vrieger out the rear door of the mess.
Outside, the temperature had dropped into the eighties, but the air was still humid and laced with the scent of diesel fumes. A mile in the distance, across the desert plain, the white needle towers and minaret of the grand mosque rose up spotlit against the empty night sky. This forward base at Juffair, a small, island pit stop in the Gulf, consisted of a few acres of outbuildings strung along the port southeast of Manama. If the tour had gone according to plan, Doug would have returned to the States from here. But who knew what would happen now?
He shuffled into the backseat of the jeep, not quite lying across it, not exactly upright either.
“Where to?” the driver asked, as they rose onto the rutted two-laner that led into the capital.
“Just head into town,” Vrieger told him.
“That was some dogfight you guys were in, huh?”
“This kid sounds likes he’s fifteen.” Doug called out: “Kid, you sound like you’re fifteen.”
“No, sir. I’m eighteen.”
“It wasn’t a dogfight,” Doug said. “No dogs, not much fight.”
“Shut up,” Vrieger said, leaning into the driver’s face to ask if they were obeying some kind of speed limit. The jeep leapt forward. Slumping lower across the seat to escape the wind on his face, Doug closed his eyes.
All morning he’d been on the phone with a staffer at the Naval Weapons Center back in Virginia going over the Vincennes’ tapes and then all afternoon with the investigators, the same questions again and again: When the plane first popped on Siporski’s screen, what did Lieutenant Commander Vrieger do? Asked for a tag. And it came back what? Mode III. So the first time you tagged the plane it came back civilian, is that right? Yes. On and on like that for hours, every answer rephrased into another question, as if they didn’t understand a word he said. Not even so much as a “must have been rough,” nothing, not even a handshake at the beginning. He’d told them the truth. To every question he’d told them the truth. They’d listened to the tapes. They knew what Doug had seen on his screen and what he’d failed to report. Yet they never asked him what information he’d communicated to Vrieger, as if they knew in advance the story they wanted to tell. Back home, apparently, the Joint Chiefs had already begun covering for what had happened.
The engagement occurred in international waters. Untrue.
The Vincennes was acting in protection of a flagged tanker. Untrue.
As the kid steered to avoid the potholes, the jeep swung gently from side to side, while a song by Journey played on the radio. Doug had listened to the same song in the backseat of a friend’s car in the parking lot of a mall in Alden, Massachusetts, the week before he’d left home to join the navy. Hearing it now—that big, stadium rock anthem with the soaring guitar and hard, wounded voice of the singer, angry at the love lost and the damage done—he pictured his mother alone in the apartment and for a moment he imagined what relief it would be if the jeep were to swing too far into the opposite lane, where it might meet a truck with no headlights, seeing in his mind’s eye the explosion that would consume them, a blast as instantaneous as a ship’s missile striking a plane.
But this was weakness. He would not be weak.
Three years had passed since he’d left Alden without saying a word to his mother about where he was going. And though in the last twenty-four hours, since the incident, he’d been tempted to call her, that would mean having to account for himself, when all he wanted to do was tell someone the story. Someone who hadn’t been there.
Yesterday had been like any other morning. Coffee and cereal in the wardroom, and then a walk along the aft deck, before the temperature rose above a hundred degrees and the railings became too hot to touch. Looking out over the stern he’d seen the milky bellies of jellyfish flipped by the ship’s wake to face the sun, floating atop the surf along with the garbage tossed from the sides of tankers.
On the passage out, across the Pacific, he’d written the last of his college applications as well as the letters to the banks and brokerages where he hoped to get a job while he studied, behind the counter or in the mail room if that’s all they had to offer him. Most of the guys he knew leaving the service were going for jobs with defense contractors—electrical engineering and the like—but he’d known all along he wanted more than that.
Down in the gloom of the Combat Center his shift had started quietly, nothing on his or Siporski’s monitors but an Iranian P-3 doing surveillance down the coast and some commercial air flights out of Bandar Abbas, puddle jumping to Doha or Dubai.
Since June, the Vincennes had been detailed to Operation Earnest Will, escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Kuwait was Saddam’s biggest ally in his war against Iran, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had been tasked with protecting her ships from Iranian gunboats. America was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, but everyone knew who the enemy was: the ayatollahs, the ones who’d taken the hostages back in ’79, who’d bombed the marine barracks in Beirut.
Their gunboats weren’t regular navy, but Revolutionary Guard. Basically a bunch of loyalists in speedboats loaded up with mortars and small arms. A helicopter pilot told Doug he’d seen four guys prostrate on the deck of an idling Boston Whaler, their heads bowed west to Mecca, RPGs leaning up against the rails like fishing poles.
When Vrieger called the captain—a man eager for his admiral’s stripes and the combat he’d need to get them—he immediately ordered general quarters. Boots began stomping above and below, hatches slamming closed, the ladder steps rattling as men poured into the Combat Center to take their stations. Eighty thousand horsepower started churning so loudly it sounded as if the rear of the ship were detaching. They were doing thirty knots before the skipper got down from his cabin, the command net in Doug’s ear already starting to fill with chatter, the signal weakening as half the ship began listening in on the Sony Walkmans they’d figured out could be tuned to follow the action.
And then as quickly as it had arisen, the incident seemed to dissolve. Ocean Lord, the helicopter the captain had ordered up to fly reconnaissance, said the boats appeared to be dispersing already, heading away from the tanker. When command in Bahrain heard this, they ordered the Vincennes back to course.
“Is that it, Captain?” Ocean Lord’s pilot asked.
“Negative,” he replied. “Follow the boats.”
On his radar screen, Doug watched the helicopter start to track west, the boats it pursued too low in the water to register a consistent signal on the surface radar.
Less than ten minutes later it began.
“Taking fire!” the pilot shouted into his radio. “Evacuating.”
This was all the excuse the captain needed to ignore his command’s orders. Soon enough he’d steered the ship to within eight thousand yards of the Iranian boats. There was still no air traffic on Doug’s screen except the same P-3 making its way along the coast.
Upstairs, the bridge called twelve miles, meaning the ship had passed into Iranian territorial waters in violation of standing orders. Doug looked back over his shoulder at Vrieger, who shrugged. Vrieger disliked the captain but he wasn’t about to be insubordinate. The haze was too thick to get a good visual on the boats; all the bridge could make out were a few glints in the sun. The raiders appeared to be idling, imagining themselves safe.
At seven thousand yards, the captain ordered the starboard five-inch mount to open fire. Doug heard the explosion of the gun but confined at his console he could only picture the blasts disappearing into the hot, sandy vapor. Once it started, it didn’t let up. Round after round, the concussions echoed back against the ship’s housing.
That’s when Siporski first spotted the plane.
“Unidentified out of Bandar Abbas,” he said, “bearing two-five-zero.”
Vrieger stepped forward from his chair to look at his petty officer’s monitor. Doug could see it now on his screen as well.
“Tag it,” Vrieger ordered.
They had to assume a hostile aircraft until they got an ID. The plane’s transponder sent back a Mode III signal, indicating a civilian flight. Vrieger opened his binder to the commercial air schedule and, squinting to read the print, ran his finger down the columns of the Gulf’s four different time zones, trying to match the numbers up, the arc lights flickering overhead with each discharge of the deck gun.
“Why isn’t it on the fucking schedule?” he kept saying, his finger zipping across the tiny rows.
Someone yelled that the starboard mount had jammed. The captain, pissed and wanting to engage the port gun, ordered the ship hard over and suddenly the whole room lurched sideways, papers, drinks, binders spilling off desks and sliding across the floor. Doug had to grab the side of his console to remain upright, the cruiser’s other gun beginning to fire before they’d even come fully about.
“Shit,” Siporski said, as they leveled off again. “It’s gone Mode I, sir, bearing toward us two-five-zero.”
Responding automatically to the signal, the ship’s Aegis system popped the symbol for an F-14 onto the big screen. Someone over the command net shouted, “Possible Astro.” The Iranians had scrambled F-14s out of Bandar Abbas a few times but it was rare for them to get this close. They were the best planes they had, sold to the shah back in the seventies.
Vrieger immediately challenged with a friend or foe.
“Unidentified aircraft you are approaching a United States naval warship in international waters, request you change course immediately to two-seven-zero or you will be subject to defensive measures, over.”
“Damn it,” Vrieger said, having to shout to be heard over the gunfire. “Thirty-two miles, Skipper. What do we do?”
That’s when Siporski called out, “Descending!”
Doug didn’t see this on his monitor. His screen showed the plane’s altitude rising into the commercial air corridor.
“Descending!” Siporski repeated. “Two-five-zero, descending!”
It was Doug’s duty to provide his commanding officer with all information relevant to the ship’s air defense. That was his duty. And yet he froze, unable to speak.
A minute later, Vrieger ordered fire control to paint the plane. It had popped on the big screen only two minutes before. Standing orders were to fire at twenty miles. Under ten would be too late. Vrieger challenged the plane again but again got no reply.
“Lieutenant Vrieger!” the captain shouted. “What the fuck is the status of that bogey?”
Doug watched the plane rise steadily on his monitor.
A year ago an Iraqi F-1 had mistaken the USS Stark for an Iranian ship and fired two missiles, killing three dozen American sailors and nearly sinking the frigate. Doug had not come here to die.
“Did you hear me!?” the captain yelled. “What is that plane!?”
Vrieger kept staring at Siporski’s screen, cursing to himself.
“F-14,” Vrieger said at last. “Sir, it breaks as an F-14.”
He opened his eyes to see Vrieger reaching back from the front seat of the jeep to shake his leg. “Here,” he said, handing him the envelope of cash. “You’re the one who speaks the phrases. This guy looks closed up. You got to get in there quick before he leaves.”
They were parked on a narrow street lined with darkened storefronts, posters with once bright photographs of soda cans and soccer stars plastered over one another on the walls between shop doors. Closed shutters were spaced in no particular pattern across the beige stucco walls of the apartments above, lights visible between the down-turned slats. A bulb still burned in one vendor’s room, a metal grate pulled down over the store window.
Doug felt unsteady crossing the street. The acrid smell of rotting fruit filled his nostrils and he thought he might be sick as he reached the curb. Holding on to the grate, he reached through it with his other hand and tapped on the glass, pointing to the shelf of cigarettes.
The man looked up from behind the counter where he stood over a ledger. More unshaven than bearded, wearing a striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he could have been anywhere from forty to sixty. His face was long and deeply creased. He adjusted his eyes to see who it was who had disturbed him and then shook his head and returned to his calculations.
“I would like cigarettes,” Doug said in mauled Arabic, his voice raised, uttering one of the twenty sentences he’d learned from the phrase book. “I would like cigarettes.”
This time, the man lifted his head slowly, and called out in English, “Kloz’d.”
Grabbing the wad of greenbacks in his fist, Doug banged on the glass. The man put down his pen and walked from behind the counter to stand on the other side of the door.
“Lots,” Doug said. “I need lots. Ten cartons.”
Muttering something he couldn’t hear through the glass, the storekeeper unlocked the door and raised the grate high enough for Doug to dip his head under and enter.
“Only because my customers did not buy what they should this week,” he said. Turning his back, he added, “Otherwise, I would not sell to your kind. Not today.”
More than ever, Doug desired to be gone from these wretched foreign places with all their filth and poverty, to be back in America, starting on his real life, the one he’d been planning for so long. But he found he couldn’t ignore the dark hair on the man’s neck and his small, rounded shoulders and his baggy cotton pants and the sandals strapped over the dusty brown skin of his feet.
Reports on yesterday’s incident were still coming in, Vrieger had told him. At the base, command wasn’t letting the crew see or hear any news from the outside.
It was Vrieger who had reached his hand up to the ceiling panel and turned the key, illuminating a button on Doug’s console he’d only ever seen lit in the dwindling hours of war games: permission to launch.
“Marlboros,” he said, leaning his elbows on the counter, trying to put a stop to the spinning motion in his head. “Give me Marlboros. All of those cartons. I need all of them.”
The shopkeeper stepped onto the second rung of his ladder and reached up to the shelf, where the red-and-white boxes were stacked. Down to his left, behind the counter, a television sat atop a milk crate, the sound turned off. A mustachioed announcer in a double-breasted suit spoke directly to the viewers. The screen then cut to an overview of the inside of an air hangar filled with rows of boxes, groups of people walking along the aisles between them; then came a cut closer in: a man in uniform opening a long black bag for the camera, which zoomed in to hold the shot of a young woman, twenty-five maybe, though on the grainy screen, her face bloated, who could tell? Her corpse grasped in stiffened arms a child of three or four, his body and little grayed head mashed to his mother’s chest. The dead arms gripping tightly the dead boy.
“Eighteen miles,” someone—Doug still didn’t know who—had shouted into the waning strength of the command net, “possible commercial air.”
The wake of an SM-2 missile looked like a miniature version of the space shuttle blasting off from Cape Canaveral, the launch fuel burning a hot white plume. But down in the battle chamber Doug had heard only its deafening roar and, seconds later, as the symbols on the big screen collided, the eruption of cheering.
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