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Through forty years of twilight struggle
You balanced firmness with prudence
Readiness with restraint
And gave us, at last, victory
In America's longest and most dangerous conflict.
This book is dedicated to all who served during the Cold War, 1948â1989,
To the spouses and friends who supported them,
But especially to the crews of USS
And all the others, from all the services,
Who gave their lives
For the defense of their country
And the triumph of democracy.
Ex nihilo nihil fit.
For this book, I owe much to James Allen, David Bellamy, James R. Blandford, T. P. Cruser, Carol E. W. Edwards, Kelly Fisher, Frank and Amy Green, Paul Golubovs, Vince Goodrich, Lenore Hart, Milo Hyde, Robert Kelly, Robert Kerrigan, Lloyd Lighthart, Woody Miller, H. C. Mustin, Alan Poyer, Lin Poyer, Randy Wagner, George Witte, Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, and many others who gave generously of their time to contribute or criticize. All errors and deficiencies are my own.
She was tiredâthat old ship. Her youth was where mine isâwhere yours isâyou fellows who listen to this yarn; and what friend would throw your years and your weariness in your face? We didn't grumble at her.â¦ All this time of course we saw no fire.
The Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
PAST the guard's rigid back, the buttoned holster and tailored uniform, Lenson looked down the corridor. Humming and empty, lighted so brightly the fluorescents mirrored themselves in freshly waxed green tile, it tapered into distance like a Renaissance perspective. Beyond the window at its end were thousands of white crosses. In the dying day, their shadows stretched across the snowy slopes of Arlington Cemetery.
When the court of inquiry had first convened, all the guards had looked alike to him. When it was in session, they stood at parade rest in the rear of the hearing room, motionless as monuments. When the survivors were sequestered, they posted themselves at their doors. But by now, the fourth and last day, Dan had learned to distinguish two types: big and hard-looking, and small and even harder.
The gleaming rows of tile ended at his door. The holding room was carpeted in a government gray green that would never reveal dirt, nor ever look completely clean. It held an end table and three chairs in oak and red leather. The other two were empty. The air smelled like a grove of artificial lemons. A brass clock, engraved with the name of a cruiser scrapped before he was born, clicked cadence to his heartbeat in a stillness he'd heard only once before in his life, deep in a limestone cave.
He examined his hands, twisting the heavy gold ring till the Academy crest faced him. His shoulder prickled beneath the dressings. The air was growing chill. Or am I, he thought, only imagining that it grows cold, as I watch the slow coming of night?
When he cleared his throat, the marine turned his head from the distant crosses. From parade rest he came to attention. As he faced about, the doorway filled with six feet of service dress, garrison cap, precisely bent tie, three rows of ribbons, black Pentagon name tag, green fourragÃ¨re. His eyes met the bulkhead three feet above Dan's head. They held no friendliness, no deference, no admission of relationship beyond an acknowledgment of rank so formalized it bordered on insolence. He'd met more welcoming looks from behind chain-link fences.
“Is the ensign comfortable. Sir.”
“I could use a drink of water, if you don't mind.”
The stare dropped, noted his arm, lifted again. “The ensign knows the sergeant can't leave his post.”
“Look. The ensign has been burned. The ensign is on pain pills. The pain pills make the ensign thirsty.”
“Yes, sir,” said the marine. His face did not change. “If the ensign is sick, or wishes to take a piss, the sergeant can accompany him to attend the men's can.”
“Never mind. I'll wait. You thinkâlook. You people, the guards I mean, you must talk on your breaks. What's going on in there? Will they have a verdict tonight?”
“I can't say. Sir. Usually they hold court-martials over at the Annex. Or at CINC headquarters. Never seen one here before.”
When Dan said nothing more, the marine waited, then about-faced again. After 1.5 seconds at attention, he snapped back to parade rest.
Dan contemplated the rigid back until his attention wandered. He'd gulped one of the white pills at 1600 and found it hard to concentrate. He looked at the table. Three magazines lay squared across it.
Leatherneck. Proceedings of the Naval Institute. Annual Report of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He'd read them all twice. His cap lay cocked across the corner, its cover yellow in the artificial brilliance, the bill smudged where his fingers grasped it to take it off.
He crossed his legs again, the other way, and his eyes followed the crease of service dress blue trousers to the toe of his shoe. He'd polished them that morning at the Marriott, Susan still asleep. With one arm, it was a slow, painful process that he nevertheless cherished for its familiarity. For the achievement of a small perfection. As the layers smoothed under his blackened fingers, his image emerged as from a calming pool: long, pale face, short sandy hair, gray eyes. A wide mouth that smiled only reluctantly. When he was on the stand, he'd glanced down at them sometimes, reassuring himself.
He'd bought this pair the day he was commissioned. Now, contemplating them with the intense attention lent by a morphine derivative, he saw that beneath the gloss they were scuffed and cracked. They'd stood too many watches, absorbed too much saltwater, slammed into too many knee-knockers on
Always his thoughts came back to her. Relic of war, bride and harlot, first loved of so many in the strength of their youth; and he'd cursed and loved her, too.
He closed his eyes, and shivered.
If only he could do it over. Climb her gangway again for the first time, the future gleaming like his Academy-issue bars. Could cast off, clear of the land and its complications, ambiguities, encumbrances. Could cling to the starboard rail as a green comber boarded, as chunks of brash ice the size of scuttlebutts ground frozen paint off steel.â¦
Above seventy degrees north everything had been so clear. Unequivocal as a wind like a snowman's fist, driving a man's breath back into his throat. Concrete as a fire-pump fitting, brass smooth and yellow as machined gold. Unquestionable as a hard right rudder, when a surfaced submarine looms from a midnight swirl of fog.
He'd boarded her like a boy going to his first woman. He'd gone to her in nervous eagerness, with secret dreams and secret doubt, and, like a woman, she'd fulfilled some and shattered others.
And then, outlined in fire, she'd abandoned them all.
His head sagged, and his good hand came up, shaking, to his face. From beneath the soothing of the drug, anger and regret rose like the slow loft of the ocean-dominating moon.
“What else could we have done?” he whispered.
The fading light crept across the tiles, retreating pace by pace as outside the day dimmed to night.
Alone in the ticking stillness, he stared down into a gray-green shimmer of tears.
It parted before his eyes, and became the sea.
Newport, Rhode Island
THIRTY feet below him the gray-green sea surged restlessly between splintered oak and painted steel. The water was murky, flecked with harbor scum. But at its surface, a thin slick of oil sliced the sunlight of a clear December morning into dancing rainbows.
Dan leaned forward, tranced by the mobile light. In that play of chance reflection, of ever-changing form, one might see suddenly and with total clarity anything, past or future, real or imagined. Might see his own face, as it would be at the hour of death.
But only for a moment, even as it, too, shattered again into that eternal dancing brilliance.