Authors: Greg Dinallo
The digital clock in Pensacola’s ASW Duty Room read 05:23 hours.
Navy First Lieutenant Jon Lowell was the airborne tactical coordination officer on duty. The tall sandy-haired Californian was leaning over the pool table about to put away a game of eight ball when the alert sounded. The other members of the crew scrambled immediately. Lowell coolly stroked the winning shot before hurrying after them.
Last to leave, last to arrive, never pressured, Lowell had a patient, methodical nature that made him well suited to ASW. His resting pulse of forty-eight came from running the equivalent of a 10-K each morning in under thirty minutes. He’d grown up in a rambling Santa Barbara beach house, and inherited his exceptional hand-eye coordination from his mother—a talented graphic artist—and honed it in the video arcade on State Street, where, as a teenager, he spent after-school hours destroying alien starships that flew across his video screen.
Within minutes of the alert, Lowell and his crew had collected mission data, and were sprinting across the tarmac to their Lockheed Viking S-3A. The two-engine plane—pilot and copilot side by side on the flight deck, TACCO and sensor operator in aft cabin—was designed to locate and track submarines, and equipped with armaments to destroy them. Primarily carrier based, the Viking’s small crew, and maneuverability enabled it to respond quickly to ASW alerts from land bases as well.
The Viking’s pilot, Navy Lt. Commander Keith Arnsbarger, was a tall red-faced Georgian. The first thing he put on each morning was the mirror-lensed sunglasses he claimed to be wearing at birth. He had done two carrier-based tours in Nam piloting reconnaissance aircraft, and assignment to ASW was a natural.
Arnsbarger had gone straight from Annapolis to war, and had been living in the fast lane ever since. The endless chain of one-night stands and hangovers ended the day he started dating Cissy Tate, the widow of a fellow pilot whose F-14 vanished during a training mission over the Gulf. Arnsbarger had been living with Cissy and her eleven-year-old son for three years now. Lately, he’d been thinking of the boy more and more as his own, and though he hadn’t told anyone yet, for the first time in his life he was considering marriage.
He was imagining what Cissy’s reaction to the idea might be, imagining her gentle face coming to life when he got a priority ASW clearance from Pensacola Tower and started the Viking down the north/south runway. Twenty seconds later, the silver and sky-blue bird rose from the tarmac and, wheels still retracting, headed due south over the Gulf of Mexico.
* * * * * *
When the Soviet submarine left Cienfuegos harbor, she remained on the surface and headed for open sea. The sounds of her screws pushing water were picked up by SOSUS.
The Sound Surveillance System was a global network of hydrophones anchored to the ocean floor. These submerged listening posts ringed Soviet Naval bases and shipping channels throughout the world. The Caribbean net that covered Central American and Cuban ports detected the sounds of the Foxtrot’s cavitation.
This noise—the whine of a spinning propeller creating a vortex, a whirling mass of water with a vacuum at its center—was transmitted by cable to ASW Headquarters in Pensacola.
Within minutes, these sounds were recorded, computer analyzed, and matched against a library of previously recorded acoustic signatures of the Soviet fleet. The submarine’s “ac-sig” identified the target vessel as a Soviet Foxtrot.
This data—along with location coordinates, also determined from the hydrophone contact—was immediately transmitted to the Viking in flight.
In the compartment aft of the cockpit, Lieutenant Lowell sat at the plane’s electronics-packed surveillance console. The unit is folded vertically
about the TACCO’s center of vision, presenting him with three equidistant data planes: flashing banks of SOSUS status indicators above, combination radarscope and graphic tracking monitor with attendant controls in the center, computer and communications apparatus below.
Lowell entered the newly transmitted positional coordinates for the submarine.
The computerized tracking system reconciled the data from the satellite and hydrophone contacts, and recalculated the
Fly To Point,
the estimated position of the Soviet submarine, which had been previously determined from the satellite data only. Lowell had just initiated a process of refinement that would continue automatically.
The blip of the Soviet Foxtrot started pinging across the radarscope.
Lowell’s pulse quickened; his eyes narrowed; he straightened in the chair.
“Target up,” he announced while encoding again.
Three rows of numbers flashed across the screen.
“Range—three point six five miles. Heading—six zero five five. Speed—twenty-five knots,” Lowell reported in crisp cadence.
The first light was just bending over the horizon as Arnsbarger repeated the data and dipped a wing, adjusting the Viking’s course to the new FTP. The Soviet submarine was still on the surface when Arnsbarger leaned forward in the cockpit and spotted it. A plume of water arched behind the conning tower as it sliced upright through the sea.
“There she blows, bucko,” he called out. He increased airspeed, put the Viking into a shallow dive, and started closing.
Below, atop the Foxtrot’s conning tower, her captain pulled the stem of an English briar from his mouth and leaned into his binoculars, observing the Viking’s approach. “Clear the bridge! Dive! Dive!” he shouted, his voice blaring from loudspeakers in every compartment in the submarine.
The Klaxons wailed their call to action.
The crew scrambled to battle stations in response.
The captain and executive officer came down the ladder from the bridge into the control room, joining Gorodin, Beyalev, Deschin, and Uzykin, who had assembled in response to the alarm.
“What is it?” Deschin asked. “Something wrong?”
The captain shook his head. “Right on schedule as a matter of fact,” he replied without taking the pipe from his mouth. He slipped out of his
parka, and dropped it onto a hook welded to the bulkhead. “We’re just playing the game,” he went on as he passed them. “We play it every time we make this run.” He smiled, took up his position at the chart table, and addressed the diving officer. “Negative trim. Take her to two hundred feet,” he ordered. “All ahead full.”
“The game?” Deschin inquired impatiently, turning to the men around him.
“The Americans expect us to dive and run,” Gorodin replied. “So”—he paused, inhaling deeply on one of the little wrinkled cigars he favored.
“So we dive and run,” Beyalev interjected, taking advantage of Gorodin’s hesitation. “We don’t want to break the pattern we’ve established and arouse their curiosity beyond the normal.”
“What would make them curious about this, this—” Deschin paused, gesturing to the interior of the sub as he searched for an appropriately derogatory word “—this rust bucket of obsolete technology?” he continued, finding it. Though a reliable workhorse, the diesel-powered Foxtrot class was designed in the fifties and was far from the cutting edge of Soviet naval power.
“Nothing,” Gorodin answered simply, smiling to indicate that that was the point.
“Precisely,” Beyalev snapped, launching into one of his self-aggrandizing tirades. “Once identified as such—and not a Viktor Class
whose superior speed, range, and armaments intimidate them—they will lose interest as they always do. Then”—he made a sharp turn in the air with his hand accompanied by a whistling noise—“back to base for the Viking.”
Deschin let an amused smile indicate no more explanation was required.
Beyalev nodded and reddened slightly, sensing he may have overdone it.
Uzykin, the KGB man, had said nothing throughout. He stole a glance at Beyalev, clearly pleased with his enthusiasm if not his penchant for verbosity.
On the surface, the sea rolled over the decks and conning tower of the Foxtrot as it submerged.
The Viking, jet engines whining, made a low strafing run. Doors in the underside of the fuselage yawned open, dropping sonobuoys into the Caribbean a thousand feet below. Hydrophones within the canister-shaped units began transmitting data that pinpointed the submarine’s course beneath the sea up to the Viking.
The tracking-monitor in Lowell’s console came alive with a series of green lines: each represented data from one of the sonobouys; each moved in a staccato rhythm across the screen; all intersected to reveal the position and course of the Foxtrot below.
Lowell tracked the sub for approximately half an hour. He ascertained its course was away from the United States mainland, verified its acoustic signature as that of a Soviet Foxtrot, and transmitted this data to ASW Forces Command.
As the Russians anticipated, once satisfied the vessel was an over-the-hill Foxtrot, and not a missile-carrying Viktor Class III, ASW Command called off the alert, ordering the Viking back to base.
Arnsbarger put the two-engine jet into a looping right turn.
Lowell sat staring pensively at his console. After a few moments, he leaned into the cockpit.
“Where do you think they go?” he asked.
Arnsbarger shrugged. “Search me,” he replied. “Probably Castro’s weekly nose candy junket to Bogota.”
Lowell laughed. “No kidding. This is what? The fourth, fifth time that
tracked ’em. Same sub. Same course. Like every three, four months, right?”
Arnsbarger nodded, swung onto a heading for Pensacola, and pushed the throttles home.
The plane vibrated, then just hummed.
Lowell was deep in thought.
“I think I know,” he said.
“Know what?” Arnsbarger asked.
“I think I know how to find out where they go.”
Below, the captain of the Soviet Foxtrot waited until he was certain the Viking had broken contact, then changed to a northwesterly course. For the next six hours the Foxtrot headed at top speed into the waters of the Mexican Gulf.
* * * * * *
Churcher’s helicopter had been cruising at wide open throttle for exactly two hours and thirty-eight minutes. He was thinking about how he would approach Deschin when the ever-changing graphic on the computerized navigation monitor indicated the Viper was directly over the rendezvous spot. Churcher put the chopper into a sweeping turn, and spiraled to a landing on the gently rolling sea.
A thousand yards due east, the Foxtrot’s periscope broke the surface and cut through the waters toward the helicopter.
Churcher shut down the turbine and released his harness, preparing to transfer to the submarine.
The black steel hull punched through the surface into a blazing mid-day sun. The Red Star on the conning tower glowed like an illuminated beacon.
* * * * * *
A maroon-and-black hearse came through the big curve in Pembroke Street, skid chains drumming on the plowed road in a rhythmic dirge. It slowed at the bottom of a rise and turned into a drive lined with pines. The antenna flicked a low hanging bough, and snow crystals sparkled in the cold light. The hearse pulled next to a car at the far end of the drive, and crosshatched the snow until the rear door was aligned with the entrance to Sarah Winslow’s cottage.
Two men, bundled against the cold, got out and went inside. The walls of the tiny house shook as they clambered up the stairs and entered the bedroom.
The driver removed his visored hat. “How goes it, Doc?” he inquired a little too avidly.
The doctor, a boyish fellow with glasses, had made the call that brought them. “It’ll be a minute,” he replied in a curt tone that dulled the man’s fervor.
Sarah lay under the quilt in a fetal curl. The doctor was with her when she died early that morning, her hands clutching the envelope, her head filled with the smell of it—a mixture of ink and onionskin, and time. They triggered a flood of memories, enriching her last moments. Her life ended with a brilliant flash of light and rolling thunderclap—the same bolt of lightning she thought had ended it early in the spring of
1945, in Italy, during the war. The same one that gave rise to the events culminating in the letter.
The doctor gently pulled the envelope from between Sarah’s hands, slipped it into a pocket, and went downstairs to use the phone.
The men from the funeral home unfolded the large polypropylene bag with the broad zipper and sturdy handgrips they’d brought, and crossed to Sarah’s bed to take her.
* * * * * *
Melanie Winslow’s loft was a bright, cheerful place in the mornings. Light streamed through the skylights, bathing a jungle of plants and illuminating the numerous dance posters on the walls.
She sat cross-legged on the bed, holding a cup of coffee, the sheet over her shoulders like a collapsed tent. “One-nighters,” she said coolly, “are how I make sure I don’t become dependent on someone.”
Tim propped himself against the headboard, and nodded. “There are—devices, you know,” he said facetiously.
Melanie chuckled. “After a couple of bad marriages, a ton of guilt, and too much therapy, they start looking pretty good,” she said, adjusting her position on the bed. “Seriously, I got my act together and decided, never again. I don’t date. I don’t get involved. I don’t see anyone more than once. It’s that simple.”
“Must’ve been a couple of real losers—”
“Not really. I was as responsible as they were. Selfish. Focused on my career,
my body. They wanted kids, which I thought would destroy both. Don’t get me wrong, they had their faults, but”—she paused and took a sip of the coffee—“yours truly was no angel. First time, I was nineteen and didn’t know anything. The second, I was twenty-eight and thought I knew it all. Funny,” she said poignantly, “they both hurt as much.”
Tim didn’t reply, nor did his expression change to indicate he empathized. He was too intent on studying her face—obliquely, the way men do the next morning.
Melanie had seen the distant uncertainty many times and knew what he was thinking. “I’ll save you the heavy math,” she said. “I’m forty-two.”
She slipped from beneath the sheet, stepped to the floor unclothed, and did a lovely
jeté en tourant
across the sleeping balcony. She held the last position, articulating it, a current flowing through her in the diffused light.
Tim swept his eyes over her elegantly arched figure, easily that of a woman ten years younger.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said desirously.
“An illusion,” she replied, moving back to first position. “The lighting. It’s all in the—”
The single clipped ring of the telephone interrupted her.
The answering machine clicked on.
Melanie tilted her head thoughtfully, deciding, and did a little
to the phone. She turned up the volume on the answering machine, heard the end of her recorded message and the electronic beep, then monitored a man’s voice.
“Miss Winslow? This is Doctor Sloan. I’m calling about your mother. Give me a call as—”
Melanie snatched up the receiver. “Doc? Hi, it’s Melanie,” she said rapid-fire. “How’s she doing?”
Melanie’s highly tuned posture slackened at the reply. “Yes, thank you,” she said softly. “I’ll come this afternoon.” She hung up slowly, and glanced to the skylight in reflection. Her eyes filled.
“You okay?” Tim asked, seeing the change in her.
Melanie nodded unconvincingly and slipped back under the covers next to him. She buried her face in the curve of his neck and cried softly. Her feelings were complex and difficult to sort out. She had never been this aware of her own mortality before. She burrowed in closer to him, and lay there thinking about it for a while. Then, in a small, vulnerable voice, she said, “Make love to me.”
* * * * * *