“Dusty … you get it all? Over?” The military FM radio crackled at the start and end of this quick broadcast in noisy bookends to a dicey operation that could put him into Portsmouth Naval Prison.
Dusty clumsily flipped a switch on the deluxe cassette tape deck. This rewound the tape that recorded the earlier transmission they had secretly planned to duplicate. Would it be worth the risk? He thought so. His recorded copy of whale songs was certain to be a babe-magnet said his friend back on the base in Charleston. Dusty had seen this kind of unauthorized tape duplication going on yesterday—and all the day before.
“Dubček … you there? What the fuck, over?”
Dusty Dubček clicked the talk button twice on the microphone to signal that he had heard. He had watched others do this, too, and it felt awkward, but he didn’t want too much radio exposure that could turn their dicey operation into a disastrous certainty.
He was just a cook-striker, but he had his Dad’s savvy about what the Navy called cumshaw, the unofficial practice of trading important favors between different Navy groups. At the end of Boot Camp, he was offered limited job options. For him to serve in any specialty work skill like cooking, he had to apprentice first. In the Navy, a sailor climbing onto the first rung of apprenticeship was called a striker. His apprenticeship’s start was unremarkable. Passing through Charleston Naval Station, on his way to cooking school, they put him into X-Division, a holding pen for sailors at loose ends. There, the Master-at-Arms sent him to Argus Island on a short-term assignment to help their cook. His principle job was chipping paint, painting, and cleaning paint brushes.
He had described this irony to his Dad. His Dad laughed—the first time he had heard him laugh like that—and explained to his son that this part of his life was normal. Further, his Dad added without prompting that practicing cumshaw was the natural and single most important skill of any cook, personnel records keeper, or pay-master.
So, if he was doing cumshaw, this favor for his friend Charleston, then he could expect a favor back. This was one of the few times he trusted Dad’s intuition to step over the line for someone else. But anxiety still clung to him.
Clung to him like stink on shit, as the saying went.
Dusty nervously put the mike on the shelf next to the tape deck as the cassette drawer opened with a gliding motion to offer him the recording of the whale songs.
The whale’s origins for these sounds had at first been known as the mysterious Jezebel Monster that disturbed the super secret SOSUS, sound surveillance system, readings. Then, in the late 50s, scientists from Columbia University figured out the thundering sub-audio came from whales migrating by Bermuda. Most sailors quickly ignored them.
The cassette’s label displayed elaborate artwork on the cover: The Four Seasons … Vivaldi. Recording over this musty music for old croakers was no problem, but would he have done it if the only tape was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album? Surely, the girls liked the Beatles, but his friend back in X-Division insisted this was the next big thing in getting laid.
Dusty fidgeted with the tape, sticking it into his shirt pocket so he could put the mike away properly. The deck beneath him shuddered with the foot-falls of many men climbing the access ladder from the lower level boat launch platform. It should have been fewer people if this were his boat ride back to Bermuda and eventual return to the States.
Was this a bust?
As serious men climbed over the coaming of the hatch from below, he reached up and nervously turned off the system’s audio feed.
Only the skinny cook had a startled expression on his sallow face. The rest wearily glanced at the Office of Naval Intelligence brassards worn by the newcomers and put their work aside to watch the security team sweep their secret lab. The cook was terrified, the others were bored. Either response could be explained by the sultry heat on this isolated man-made island. Argus Island was a drab two-story platform perched on four cross-braced spidery legs above the Gulf Stream’s lapping waves. A briny gust whipped through the open hatch and this troubled Wade.
He turned from the cook’s assistant to the approaching second-class petty officer, presumably an Electronics Technician, who must be the senior man. This was a rare outpost that hosted only two types of men. There was this striker, someone who, elsewhere, would be called an apprentice for one of the Navy’s many specialty skills. And there were the senior petty officers, like the ETs. This breed, particular to SOSUS operations, were uncompromising experts who could master many situations. Wade thought it would pay to open with a bland question with a thick slice of hokum—then slowly work into the mission’s real goals.
“How many of you all here on this Texas Tower?”
The ET lifted his cap and wiped the sweat off his brow using the sleeve of his white T-shirt. “Eight. And cookie there is leaving with you because X-Division back in Bermuda is always rotating cherries through here.” He replaced his sun bleached ball cap and stared.
Wade felt the ET inspecting Wade’s three unearned chevrons—Wade’s window dressing for major security operations. To deflect the ET’s questioning eyes, he looked back at the short, sandy haired seaman striking for commissaryman. The ET’s statement explained why this cook striker was wearing tropical whites instead of the black shoes, dungaree bell bottoms, T-shirts, and ball caps the others wore.
The ET pointed at Wade’s sleeve. “Don’t recognize that rating.”
“Photographic Intelligenceman.” Wade had legitimately earned the first chevron of the three he wore. To answer the ET’s puzzled look, he added, “Went to school in Denver—“
“Lowry Air Force Base hosts a Navy school for Seals and spooks training in reconnaissance analysis.” He didn’t add that he had entered that school as a Seal.
“Spooks. I suppose you did well with the SCV at Lowry.”
Wade felt the sharp point of that probing comment. There had been several dozen ETs at Denver in another specialty school. The Navy had a very small, but tight unit of swabbies housed among the thousands of zoomies on that Air Force Base, and they hung together. This ET knew the drill.
“I could count grass blades photographed from ten thousand feet with my Stereometric Comparison Viewer.”
The ET nodded, satisfied with the answer. “I guess that’s why you’re the big wheel in the machinery.”
Wade dryly swallowed a response to that sly comment and forced himself back into mission mode. Around them, his men silently collected large reels of tapes, did tests on this remote lab’s sound monitor, and on the chart recorder. Their mission was explicit: seize all evidence: hydro-acoustic tapes, LOFARGRAM printouts, and documents that even vaguely suggested the loss of the USS Thresher.
When he glanced at the sandy haired cook, he recognized that his face had glazed into shock as he stood mesmerized, looking at Wade. It was like the kid could see the last wave coming to sweep him into the sea. He didn’t have time to dwell on existential issues. That was the Chaplain’s job, and Wade’s job was this official fiction being played out by his team.
Things were going quickly, judging from the flow of their activities. Just as this cook was filling a short-term assignment from Bermuda NAVSTA, his men were from Charleston NAVSTA’s X-Division.
An X-Division could be found at any Naval station or large ship. It contained men between assignments. More often it was like a kindergarten full of unskilled, newly enlisted youngsters.
Luckily, his men were mostly old lifers who knew how to follow orders efficiently. The cook was a tormented boy in an apathetic man’s world.
As another rush of warm wet air came through the hatch, he recognized the source of his tension. This change of weather had preceded his brother’s death in a place too much like this Texas Tower. However, recognizing this tension, this worry, this anger, and controlling it …
He signaled his tech to flip on the live feed speakers. Earlier, Wade had noticed one of the Argus Island’s crew surreptitiously turning them off during their entry. The speakers’ low rumbling shudder from a mile deep and ocean spanning sound channel barely rose above the disturbing groan of the platform shifting restlessly in the turmoil of a rising sea. Meanwhile, chart recorders called Verniers continued to burn this nearly subaudible sound onto their continuously scrolling paper charts.
“Do we have today’s LOFARGRAMS?” Wade asked no one in particular. His team had never heard the term before this morning. His first exposure to the term was explained as a frequency vs. time paper roll display of the sound arriving at the array from a specific direction. He had translated it into simple English as something like a long scroll of teletype printing. That hadn’t helped, and the men who had never been in a radio shack shrugged the explanation off as being too sophisticated—too unnecessary.
Originally, their orders were to collect the last three days of sea recordings. Instead, Naval Intelligence decided to add securing everything five years—and two months—back. The mission statement, such as it was in its brevity, was to clear out old records between now and when the submarine USS Thresher was lost.
Taking today’s paper stream wasn’t important. Nor were the five years before, Wade thought in light of the Thresher’s one day of tragedy. But as today’s stage director, he decided to make this good security theater.
Wade’s lead man, Jones, ripped the nearby Vernier’s paper stream and carried away the paper take-up box the recorder had been slowly filling. Wade turned back to the lab’s leading ET. As their stares met, the lab’s low-frequency speakers filled the room with a deep grumble. It sounded like the burdened propellers on the team’s C-131 struggling over the oncoming storm’s squall line on their flight to Bermuda. The ET shrugged as if the growling of the sea was commonplace.
“Eight seems a rather small crew for this size of an offshore platform rig,” said Wade.
The ET smiled. “Texas tower? Offshore rig? You’ve been at sea on somethin’ other than a big gray boat. I bet you recognize the kind of launch, the R/V Erline, that brought you out here.”
Another sharp pointed probe pried open the past. The ET seemed to know him better than he knew the ET.
Wade’s father, in one of his diplomatic missions, had presented the treaty for Project Mohole to Mexico, but family secrecy prevented him from mentioning that detail. Still, the probe’s sharp point had to be dulled. He needed to offer a blander version that omitted mention of his time aboard CUSS I, a technological test bed drilling ship.
“I did a spell as a teenage roughneck on offshore drilling platforms to impress Dad.” It was true enough, but having said it caused his anger to rise again. He had failed his brother during that time. The approaching storm was igniting unfinished grief.
The ET accepted this half-answer and nodded sagely. “Family can be difficult. It’s hard to score points with my old man, too. Vietnam doesn’t compare with his heroic stories of World War Two. I stopped trying when he threw his beer can at Walter Cronkite reporting the casualties on TV.”
The hair on the back of Wade’s neck felt every lick of the scorching air from the open hatch. The cook-striker was still frozen to the spot. His team moved with indifferent purpose. Their conversation was a sham. And he felt like a specimen pinned to a display board. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, and his extra stripes were impotent in bringing relief.
The agonizing topic of Vietnam didn’t move the ball down the field for either of them. Their liberal politics were at odds with the nature of their conservative security clearances and the ultra secret work they did: the ET’s straining to hear Comrade Ivan in this ocean’s stream; Wade’s team casting suspicion everywhere with the delicacy of a hurricane ripping through the coastal islands of Georgia and the Carolinas.
Wade retreated to the neutral corner of the ET’s question. “About the launch. I’d say it was the same as the 105 foot oil field personnel transport that I was caught aboard that took thirty degree rolls during a tropical breeze called Betsy.” It was a bad choice. Anger rose. “And I don’t like the feel of that breeze.”
The ET crossed his arms to signal his shift of conversation back to business. “And that answers why so few of us are here, and one less when Dusty, one of our cooks, leaves on the last launch back to Tudor Hill. Supposedly, there’s a big blow comin’ our way, and we’re the storm crew, and it’s going to be a cluster fuck. I take it as affirmative that X-Division back at NAS didn’t send his replacement?”
Wade shrugged in response. His people had made a quick job of it. The raw recordings were packed and ready for moving to the launch. Wade prompted by the ET’s return to business, moved to pursue his agenda, “So the cook’s accounted for. And the others?”
“I’m the super. There’s two more ETs,” which he indicated with an off-hand wave toward men in the near distance. “Comm specialist and Digital specialist. Then we have two engine men, snipes who specialize in diesel mechanics—a crane operator being one.”
Wade must have smiled, because the ET looked at him with wonder. “I struck for engineman when I was in the diesel boat Navy,” Wade said. He was sure the ET knew the cultural differences between the clean-cut crews of the Boomers, the nuclear submarines, and the scruffy older pig boats’ men.
His grizzled team, men all older than the techs, nodded with restrained affirmation for Wade’s first career choice. The Argus Island crew shifted impatiently.
The crane operator said to the ET, “We need to transfer their cargo and then batten down, Jackson.”
The ET smiled at his man and added a stage whisper to Wade, “Smitty has been through a surprise visit, here, by Tropical Storm Brenda back when Noah was a striker on the ARK-1.” The ET spoke to his crane operator. “Smitty, now’s too early in the season for a serious storm.”
Smitty flipped him off. “They abandoned SeaLab for that storm. Just remember that when the shit hits the fan. If you ain’t first, scrambling to save your life, all ya gonna see is assholes and elbows in front of you.”
The ET sighed and finished his muster list for Wade. “And two cooks, with Dusty as our deck-ape, doing light janitorial work, fills in for one of them.”
Wade looked at the crew manifest on his clipboard. It checked. This would make the Lieutenant happy. But to keep the Lieutenant pleased, Wade had to probe back. “This manifest describes you and your men as private contractors.”
“What your report suggests for security purposes are Tudor Hill Laboratories operating with Western Electric, Bell Labs, and college researchers studying marine life.”
Wade lifted one hand to his ear and added, “and this sound you are so diligently recording is from …?”
“Weird shit, certainly. It’s the calls of whales as only we know. We’ve heard them playing on our Hit Parade over those speakers for years, and those overpaid stiffs have just become aware of them.” The ET leaned back against a patch panel going to multichannel UHF telemetry radio links back to Tudor Hill. “Last time I saw the headlines for the minimum wage, we’re all pulling down something deep south of $1.25 an hour—if we were working straight time.”
Both crews of men in the lab laughed bitterly.
“That’s nothing near the big bucks a contractor would pull down managing this station ‘round the clock in all kinds of weather. And who of us in our right minds would ever bother to listen to whales fuck when we should be straining to tweeze out the data of the Thresher’s last dive—or the Scorpion’s attackers?”
The wind’s noise filled the silence that followed.
Wade felt the stare of every man in the lab. The ET, and undoubtedly the rest, was among those who knew a secret few people knew, and fewer said.
The ink was still wet on newspaper headlines about the official announcement of the Scorpion’s missed return to base.
Recovering data for the five year old loss of the USS Thresher was a smoke screen covering the sinking of the USS Scorpion.
“Wasn’t expecting that,” said Wade.
The ET grimaced at that weak answer.
This pain touched nerves far deeper than the politics of ‘Nam, and was equal to family grief. Wade struggled for a response that could balance on this razor’s edge. He pulled together his thoughts as both crews waited for him to continue. “The original world-wide mission was directed to scrape every SOSUS station of all record of this week’s loss of the USS Scorpion.”
The ET shook his head at Wade’s dispassionate analysis.
“That was for shit, wasn’t it?” Wade reached inside. “Bro’, as fucked as my orders might get, my shipmates come first.”
The ET eased off from his hard glint stare. “Only time will tell.”
They were close to finishing this ritual, but the Lieutenant wanted more. Dusty caught his attention again when this kid who looked too young to go to the prom fidgeted with a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
“As a closing question …” Now was the time to put the Lieutenant’s frame around the ET. “Can you actually take range readings through a storm?”
This awkward dissonance returned them to the Navy’s business. But even if both recognized it as a bogus tripwire, the Lieutenant would want some security probe asked. Aside from how this sea platform was the audio mixing board for 1400 underwater hydrophones that lined the Bermuda seamount called the Plantagenet Bank, his question uncomfortably pressed the margins of the retired Project Artemis’ past supersecret one-megawatt SONAR that was designed to hunt the Russian’s submarines a thousand miles out.
“Not sure what you mean by that—tomodachi.” The ET hid his conspiratorial smile behind unrolling his cigarettes from his T-shirt sleeve in a Marlon Brando performance from The Wild One.
Wade recognized the word tomodachi, the Japanese for friend, as an echo of his use of Bro’. Over the ET’s shoulder, Wade caught sight of Jones waving at him to signal their confiscation was complete.