Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)
E. Michael Lewis
E. Michael Lewis, who will be piloting our maiden flight, studied creative writing at the University of Puget Sound and lives in the Pacific Northwest. Let his Loadmaster usher you aboard a Lockheed C-141A StarLifter (like the one on display at McChord Air Museum that is said to be haunted) about to take off from Panama on a delivery mission to the United States. The StarLifter is a workhorse plane capable of transporting loads up to 70,000 pounds over short distances. It can carry a hundred paratroopers, a hundred and fifty combat troops, trucks and Jeeps, even Minuteman ICBMs. Or smaller loads. Coffins, for instance. Some stories chill your blood; here is one that will creep up your spine, inch by inch, and linger in your brain for a long, long time.
I dreamt of cargo. Thousands of crates filled the airplane’s hold, all made of unfinished pine, the kind that drives slivers through work gloves. They were stamped with unknowable numbers and bizarre acronyms that glowed fiercely with dim red light. They were supposed to be jeep tires, but some were as large as a house, others as small as a spark plug, all of them secured to pallets with binding like straitjacket straps. I tried to check them all, but there were too many. There was a low shuffling as the boxes shifted, then the cargo fell on me. I couldn’t reach the interphone to warn the pilot. The cargo pressed down on me with a thousand sharp little fingers as the plane rolled, crushing the life out of me even as we dived, even as we crashed, the interphone ringing now like a scream. But there was another sound too, from inside the crate next to my ear. Something struggled inside the box, something sodden and defiled, something that I didn’t want to see, something that wanted
It changed into the sound of a clipboard being rapped on the metal frame of my crew house bunk. My eyes shot open. The airman—new in-country, by the sweat lining his collar—stood over me holding the clipboard between us, trying to decide if I was the type to rip his head off just for doing his job. “Tech Sergeant Davis,” he said, “they need you on the flight line right away.”
I sat up and stretched. He handed me the clipboard and attached manifest: a knocked-down HU-53 with flight crew, mechanics, and medical support personnel bound for…somewhere new.
“It’s outside Georgetown, Guyana.” When I looked blank, he went on, “It’s a former British colony. Timehri used to be Atkinson Air Force Base.”
“What’s the mission?”
“It’s some kind of mass med-evac of ex-pats from somewhere called Jonestown.”
Americans in trouble. I’d spent a good part of my Air Force career flying Americans out of trouble. That being said, flying Americans out of trouble was a hell of a lot more satisfying than hauling jeep tires. I thanked him and hurried into a clean flight suit.
I was looking forward to another Panamanian Thanksgiving at Howard Air Force Base—eighty-five degrees, turkey and stuffing from the mess hall, football on Armed Forces Radio, and enough time out of flight rotation to get good and drunk. The in-bound hop from the Philippines went by the numbers and both the passengers and cargo were free and easy. Now this.
Interruption was something you grew accustomed to as a Loadmaster. The C-141 StarLifter was the largest freighter and troop carrier in the Military Air Command, capable of carrying seventy thousand pounds of cargo or two hundred battle-ready troops and flying them anywhere in the world. Half as long as a football field, the high-set, swept-back wings drooped bat-like over the tarmac. With an upswept T-tail, petal-doors, and a built-in cargo ramp, the StarLifter was unmatched when it came to moving cargo. Part stewardess and part moving man, my job as a Loadmaster was to pack it as tight and as safe as possible.
With everything onboard and my weight and balance sheets complete, the same airman found me cussing up the Panamanian ground crew for leaving a scuffmark on the airframe.
“Sergeant Davis! Change in plans,” he yelled over the whine of the forklift. He handed me another manifest.
“New passengers. Med crew is staying here.” He said something unintelligible about a change of mission.
“Who are these people?”
Again, I strained to hear him. Or maybe I heard him fine and with the sinking in my gut, I wanted him to repeat it. I wanted to hear him wrong.
“Graves registration,” he cried.
That’s what I’d thought he’d said.
Timehri was your typical third world airport—large enough to squeeze down a 747, but strewn with potholes and sprawling with rusted Quonset huts. The low line of jungle surrounding the field looked as if it had been beaten back only an hour before. Helicopters buzzed up and down and US servicemen swarmed the tarmac. I knew then that things must be bad.
Outside the bird, the heat rising from the asphalt threatened to melt the soles of my boots even before I had the wheel chocks in place. A ground crew of American GIs approached, anxious to unload and assemble the chopper. One of them, bare chested with his shirt tied around his waist, handed me a manifest.
“Don’t get comfy,” he said. “As soon as the chopper’s clear, we’re loading you up.” He nodded over his shoulder.
I looked out over the shimmering taxiway. Coffins. Rows and rows of dull aluminum funerary boxes gleamed in the unforgiving tropical sun. I recognized them from my flights out of Saigon six years ago, my first as Loadmaster. Maybe my insides did a little flip because I’d had no rest, or maybe because I hadn’t carried a stiff in a few years. Still, I swallowed hard. I looked at the destination: Dover, Delaware.
The ground crew loaded a fresh comfort pallet when I learned we’d have two passengers on the outbound flight.
The first was a kid, right out of high school by the look of it, with bristle-black hair, and too-large jungle fatigues that were starched, clean, and showed the rank of Airman First Class. I told him, “Welcome aboard,” and went to help him through the crew door, but he jerked away, nearly hitting his head against the low entrance. I think he would have leapt back if there had been room. His scent hit me, strong and medicinal—Vicks VapoRub.
Behind him a flight nurse, crisp and professional in step, dress, and gesture, also boarded without assistance. I regarded her evenly. I recognized her as one of a batch I had flown regularly from Clark in the Philippines to Da Nang and back again in my early days. A steel-eyed, silver-haired lieutenant. She had been very specific—more than once—in pointing out how any numbskull high school dropout could do my job better. The name on her uniform read Pembry. She touched the kid on his back and guided him to the seats, but if she recognized me, she said nothing.
“Take a seat anywhere,” I told them. “I’m Tech Sergeant Davis. We’ll be wheels up in less than a half hour so make yourself comfortable.”
The kid stopped short. “You didn’t tell me,” he said to the nurse.
The hold of a StarLifter is most like the inside of a boiler room, with all the heat, cooling, and pressure ducts exposed rather than hidden away like on an airliner. The coffins formed two rows down the length of the hold, leaving a center aisle clear. Stacked four high, there were one hundred and sixty of them. Yellow cargo nets held them in place. Looking past them, we watched the sunlight disappear as the cargo hatch closed, leaving us in an awkward semidarkness.
“It’s the fastest way to get you home,” she said to him, her voice neutral. “You want to go home, don’t you?”
His voice dripped with fearful outrage. “I don’t want to see them. I want a forward facing seat.”
If the kid would have looked around, he could have seen that there were no forward facing seats.
“It’s okay,” she said, tugging on his arm again. “They’re going home, too.”
“I don’t want to look at them,” he said as she pushed him to a seat nearest one of the small windows. When he didn’t move to strap himself in, Pembry bent and did it for him. He gripped the handrails like the oh-shit bar on a roller coaster. “I don’t want to think about them.”
“I got it.” I went forward and shut down the cabin lights. Now only the twin red jump lights illuminated the long metal containers. When I returned, I brought him a pillow.
The ID label on the kid’s loose jacket read “Hernandez.” He said, “Thank you,” but did not let go of the armrests.
Pembry strapped herself in next to him. I stowed their gear and went through my final checklist.
Once in the air, I brewed coffee on the electric stove in the comfort pallet. Nurse Pembry declined, but Hernandez took some. The plastic cup shook in his hands.
“Afraid of flying?” I asked. It wasn’t so unusual for the Air Force. “I have some Dramamine…”
“I’m not afraid of flying,” he said through clenched teeth. All the while he looked past me to the boxes lining the hold.
Next the crew. No one bird was assigned the same crew, like in the old days. The MAC took great pride in having men be so interchangeable that a flight crew who had never met before could assemble at a flight line and fly any StarLifter to the ends of the Earth. Each man knew my job, like I knew theirs, inside and out.
I went to the cockpit and found everyone on stations. The second engineer sat closest to the cockpit door, hunched over instrumentation. “Four is evening out now, keep the throttle low,” he said. I recognized his hangdog face and his Arkansas drawl, but I could not tell from where. I figured after seven years of flying StarLifters, I had flown with just about everybody at one time or another. He thanked me as I set the black coffee on his table. His flight suit named him Hadley.
The first engineer sat in the bitchseat, the one usually reserved for a “Black Hatter”—mission inspectors were the bane of all MAC aircrews. He asked for two lumps and then stood and looked out the navigator’s dome at the blue rushing past.
“Throttle low on four, got it,” replied the pilot. He was the designated Aircraft Commander, but both he and the co-pilot were such typical flight jocks that they could have been the same person. They took their coffee with two creams each. “We’re trying to outfly some clear air turbulence, but it won’t be easy. Tell your passengers to expect some weather.”
“Will do, sir. Anything else?”
“Thank you, Load Davis, that’s all.”
Finally time to relax. As I went to have a horizontal moment in the crew berth, I saw Pembry snooping around the comfort pallet. “Anything I can help you find?”
“An extra blanket?”
I pulled one from the storage cabinet between the cooking station and the latrine and gritted my teeth. “Anything else?”
“No,” she said, pulling a piece of imaginary lint from the wool. “We’ve flown together before, you know.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I probably ought to apologize.”
“No need, ma’am,” I said. I dodged around her and opened the fridge. “I could serve an in-flight meal later if you are…”
She placed her hand on my shoulder, like she had on Hernandez, and it commanded my attention. “You do remember me.”
“I was pretty hard on you during those evac flights.”
I wished she’d stop being so direct. “You were speaking your mind, ma’am. It made me a better Loadmaster.”
“Ma’am, there’s no need.” Why can’t women figure out that apologies only make things worse?
“Very well.” The hardness of her face melted into sincerity, and suddenly it occurred to me that she wanted to talk.
“How’s your patient?”
“Resting.” Pembry tried to act casual, but I knew she wanted to say more.
“What’s his problem?”
“He was one of the first to arrive,” she said, “and the first to leave.”
“Jonestown? Was it that bad?”
Flashback to our earlier evac flights. The old look, hard and cool, returned instantly. “We flew out of Dover on White House orders five hours after they got the call. He’s a Medical Records Specialist, six months in the service, he’s never been anywhere before, never saw a day of trauma in his life. Next thing he knows, he’s in a South American jungle with a thousand dead bodies.”
“Count’s not in yet, but it’s headed that way.” She brushed the back of her hand against her cheek. “So many kids.”
“Whole families. They all drank poison. Some kind of cult, they said. Someone told me the parents killed their children first. I don’t know what could make a person do that to their own family.” She shook her head. “I stayed at Timehri to organize triage. Hernandez said the smell was unimaginable. They had to spray the bodies with insecticide and defend them from hungry giant rats. He said they made him bayonet the bodies to release the pressure. He burned his uniform.” She shuffled to keep her balance as the bird jolted.
Something nasty crept down the back of my throat as I tried not to visualize what she said. I struggled not to grimace. “The AC says it may get rough. You better strap in.” I walked her back to her seat. Hernandez’s mouth gaped as he sprawled across his seat, looking for all the world like he’d lost a bar fight—bad. Then I went to my bunk and fell asleep.
Ask any Loadmaster: after so much time in the air, the roar of engines is something you ignore. You find you can sleep through just about anything. Still, your mind tunes in and wakes up at the sound of anything unusual, like the flight from Yakota to Elmendorf when a jeep came loose and rolled into a crate of MREs. Chipped beef everywhere. You can bet the ground crew heard from me on that one. So it should not come as a shock that I started at the sound of a scream.
On my feet, out of the bunk, past the comfort pallet before I could think. Then I saw Pembry. She was out of her seat and in front of Hernandez, dodging his flailing arms, speaking calmly and below the engine noise. Not him, though.
“I heard them! I heard them! They’re in there! All those kids! All those kids!”
I put my hand on him—hard. “Calm down!”
He stopped flailing. A shamed expression came over him. His eyes riveted mine. “I heard them singing.”