Read an Excerpt
THE O'LEARY ENIGMA
By Bob Purssell
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Bob Purssell
All right reserved.
My temporary, at most two-week, assignment to assist in straightening out the Dwight D. Eisenhower's communication center had dragged into a month. Worse yet, so I could help the ship do well in an important fleet-wide exercise, the executive officer had pressured me into staying for at least three more weeks. The result was one unhappy LTJG Barbara O'Leary.
Then a funny thing happened while we were making our preparations for the exercise: reality intruded.
* * *
Today we learned that in southern Chad a rebel faction had abducted eleven aid workers, three of whom were Americans. This development was not all that surprising; the country has had an on-again, off-again civil war for decades.
In response to this crisis, although Chad is landlocked, the Eisenhower powered up and raced toward the Cameroon coast, which was as close as she could get to the region where the aid workers, who were now hostages, had been working. Before we arrived, the intensity of air operations increased as the ship's air group sent manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Cameroon into Chad in an attempt to locate the abductees. In the communication center, we diligently monitored transmissions from our planes, but other than jungle, desert, and unrelenting poverty, their reconnaissance saw nothing of significance.
A contingent from the CIA arrived. As requested, the communication center established communication links back to CIA headquarters. Telling us nothing of their plans, rumors spread that the Eisenhower was to be the base for a rescue operation, but nothing materialized because our technology-based information systems could not provide actionable information.
* * *
At 1800 hours on the fourth day of the crisis, the XO summoned me to his office and asked, "Lieutenant O'Leary, you're fluent in French, aren't you?"
"I speak the language, sir."
"Good. Our embassy in Chad has asked for a French-speaking communications expert. Interested?"
Not very happy with my Eisenhower experience, I didn't want yet another temporary assignment. Instead, I most desperately wanted to wrap up this supposedly temporary duty on the Eisenhower and return to my tour at the Advanced Naval Communication School in College Station, Texas. With this in mind, I spoke up, "I think my work here is done. I was hoping to go stateside."
That was not what the XO wanted to hear. "Lieutenant, when the embassy people heard about you, they were very excited."
"You told them about me?"
"Had to. The request was marked 'Priority Urgent'."
Really pissed, I bit my tongue. Best to say nothing, I thought.
Trying to smooth things over, the XO said, "I know you want to go back to the ANCS. This is just a more circuitous path." Realizing that I was not buying his assurances, he added, "I forwarded your commendation letter to the captain."
That clinched it. At least I would get something out of all this. Fearing that yet another emergency would arise and I would again be stuck on the ship, I decided getting home via Chad would be quicker than staying on the Eisenhower, which was beginning to feel like my own personal prison barge. Coldly, I said, "Thank you, sir. When do I ship out?"
"I'll pass the word that you're coming. Be ready to leave immediately."
As instructed, I frantically packed my stuff into my sea bag. After signing some forms and receiving numerous injections for tropical diseases, I was ready to begin my trip to Chad. Two hours later, the XO contacted me and said, "There've been some delays in arranging transport. Stand easy until we get this worked out."
I thought of saying something, but again I kept my annoyance to myself. In the time-honored tradition of "hurry up and wait," I cooled my heels until 0530 hours the next morning when the C-2 Greyhound assigned to transport me took off for Cameroon.
* * *
Upon landing at the airport that services the port city of Douala, Cameroon, a man in civilian dress stepped into the cabin and, after identifying himself as Doug, said, "You'll be flying on a commercial flight to the capital of Chad. Here's your passport and your ticket."
Nobody had mentioned anything about a commercial flight, but before I could ask a question, the man asked, "You have any civilian clothes?"
Long ago, when I thought my stay on the Eisenhower would last a week, I had only taken my working uniform. "No, nobody said anything about clothing."
"Damn. Here's a penknife; ditch the insignia before you get off the plane. I'll wait for you outside."
After removing my insignia, I looked like any other civilian ... if you were standing five hundred yards away. Before stepping out of the plane, I took the precaution to look at the passport Doug had handed me. I was now Barbara O'Malley, schoolteacher. I looked at my ticket and found I had a two-hour wait.
The C-2 took off, leaving Doug and me on the tarmac in the early morning heat. Pointing toward a distant building, he said, "That's the terminal. If you get tired of lugging that stuff, I'll give you a hand."
I asked him how he liked Africa, and he informed me, "It sucks."
I tried again to strike up a conversation, but that effort also failed. In silence, we approached the doors to the terminal.
About fifty feet from the entrance, Doug gave me a warning. "Don't take any shit from these fuckers."
* * *
As I entered the terminal, uniformed men besieged me, demanding I pay them ten dollars to check my bag.
Doug stepped forward and told the most persistent pest to, "Get lost."
The man yelled out something in a language that I did not understand. The others in his group began laughing. I had the distinct feeling I was the object of the remark, because Doug, who seemed to know the meaning of the words, told me, "Don't give those assholes the time of day."
At the check-in counter, I handed the agent my ticket. Haughtily, he informed me, "The plane is overbooked. There is no space. You'll have to wait until tomorrow."
Doug stepped forward and growled, "Maybe you ought to check again."
Without doing any checking, the agent answered, "Man, I already tell the lady the plane is overbooked."
Doug hopped over the baggage scale and positioned himself in front of the reservation keyboard and monitor. In spite of the ticket agent's protests, he punched the keys.
The display changed, and Doug, pointing to the display screen, said, "There are three empty seats."
Pissed, the agent checked my bag and gave me a boarding pass. Doug took out a twenty-dollar bill and left it on the keyboard.
The angry ticket agent pocketed the money, saying nothing.
Walking me to the security checkpoint, Doug said, "From here on, you'll have to look out for yourself. Remember what I told you about taking shit."
Pondering that discomfiting thought, I asked, "Will there be anybody to meet me when I get to N'Djamena?"
"I don't know." Then in an ethnic voice, he added, "Not my territory, man."
"I appreciate your getting me through."
"All in a day's work."
Trying once again to strike up a conversation, I asked, "How long have you been out here?"
"Too long," replied Doug, as he turned and walked away.
* * *
The flight to N'Djamena, other than being rough, was uneventful.
As the door to the cabin opened, the central African heat almost knocked me off my feet. Recovering, I walked down the plane's ramp to the tarmac, which was managing to capture every ray of light and turn it into heat.
Following my fellow passengers, I sweltered my way to the terminal. Inside the building, a small, slender man in a white suit, who probably weighed no more than 130 pounds, waved at me and called out, "Miss O'Malley, follow me, if you would."
Before I could respond, before I could tell White Suit I needed to go through Customs and claim my bag, he turned and briskly started walking away from me. Fearful I would lose him and end up abandoned to the chaos on the other side of Customs, I chased after my guide. He spoke in a native language to a man in a military uniform slouched in a chair. Lazily, the soldier got up and opened the door he was supposedly guarding.
Over his shoulder, White Suit said, "It's best we keep a low profile."
Sprinting, I kept up with the man. Trying to strike up a conversation, I asked, "I suppose we're going to the embassy?"
"No," replied White Suit, as we exited the terminal and began walking quickly across a parking lot. "That wouldn't be advisable. The press is camped out all around the embassy complex. This hostage thing is world news. We're headed toward a quieter part of town."
* * *
Thirty minutes later, we were in an area of modern, better-kept homes. Turning off the street, we drove up a long driveway and then into a detached garage. The door closed behind us. As I got out of the car, a tall young woman in her late twenties held the door. She was busty with platinum blonde hair and I instantly thought of Marilyn Monroe. Before I could speak, the woman introduced herself. "We're so glad you could come on such short notice. I'm Susan Waterford."
"Lieutenant Barbara O'Leary."
"Barbara, I think you should avoid emphasizing your military connection. The political situation is kind of touchy, if you know what I mean."
Of course, I did not know anything about Chad or its political situation. But then again, one did not have to be a political scientist to realize that many in the Third World held America in low regard.
I nodded my understanding and Susan continued. "Let me get you a rain coat then we'll go inside."
In the blazing sunlight, I had not notice anything that remotely looked like a rain cloud. Anticipating my question, Susan said, "It's a precaution. Your uniform might ..."
I nodded that I understood her uncompleted thought.
* * *
Inside the substantial two-story house, Susan explained. "Doug, the fellow you met at Douala, called and said you needed clothing. I found some things for you. You'll be traveling on the street, so it's best not to look conspicuous."
For a moment, I thought of asking what had happened to my bag, but I decided not to. Instead, I took the jeans, running shoes and blouse into a room and changed, or more correctly, tried to change. The shoes were a good match, somewhat tight but not bad. The pants were skin tight, but I could get them buttoned, barely. The blouse was hopelessly small. I put the shirt from my uniform back on and stepped outside to tell Susan the bad news.
White Suit, who was standing next to Susan, exclaimed, "She can't wear that."
Ignoring the comment, Susan asked, "Too small?"
"Yes," I replied.
"We've got to get going. They're up my ass as it is," complained White Suit.
"Let me think," replied Susan. "I could go into town. Be back in forty- five minutes."
"Too long!" exclaimed White Suit.
Susan responded. "We need a shirt. Anything will have to do."
"No," protested White Suit. "Not my Jets T-shirt."
"You're the one who's in a rush," countered Susan.
Muttering obscenities, White Suit disappeared then reappeared holding a New York Jets T-shirt. Handing it to me, he growled, "Try not to fuck it up. It's sentimental."
* * *
The Jets T-shirt bulged, and I looked like I was going to a wet T-shirt contest at a pick-up bar. As I sweltered silently, White Suit glared at the world and ignored me. For a half hour, we drove through the ever-poorer parts of the city, with evermore-curious citizens. Finally, we arrived at a rundown, four-story government building, whose obvious decay could not hide the architectural beauty it once had. A weathered bronze plaque contained the words "République du Tchad, Bureau Principal du Système de Téléphone et Télégraphe."
The guards in camo paid White Suit no heed, but they closely observed my bulging T-shirt. As we stepped through the doors into the building's lobby, one of them made a remark that I did not understand. Because his comrades began laughing, I had no doubt about its object.
With White Suit leading the way, we went to an office on the third floor and walked in unannounced. A tall, slender, blond-haired man stood up from his chair at an old wooden desk.
"Phil, this is Miss Barbara O'Malley. She's the communications guru you asked for."
Pushing out his hand, Phil lit up. "Great. Thanks for coming. You know French?"
"Yes." "Man, that's really cool."
I smiled. Encouraged, Phil asked, "Can I call you Barb?"
Although I prefer Barbara, I replied, "Sure."
"That's cool. Barb, your knowing French is going to be a big help."
White Suit interrupted our chitchat with, "Look, I got some shit to take care of. How do you want to do this?"
Phil responded, "When we're done here, we'll give you a call."
"Don't make it too late. I'd like to get out of Dodge City before it gets dark."
Phil nodded that he understood.
"I'm out of here," replied White Suit. "Hasta la vista, ciao, whatever," were his last words as he opened the door and stepped outside.
* * *
"Here's the deal," explained Phil. "I help the Chad government with the cell phone side of their telephone system. The radiotelephone portion, they handle themselves." I nodded that I understood. "Well, along comes this kidnapping thing. And the kidnappers, through an intermediary, call up the government using the radiotelephone system. Well, they talk, and the kidnappers let three of the hostages go. So everything's cool, right?"
I nodded, and Phil continued. "Well, then something that's not cool happens."
"There's an outage. And zippo, there's no more talking to the kidnappers."
To confirm my understanding, I framed a question. "A malfunction in the radiotelephone system is preventing contact between the government and the kidnappers?"
"That's it. That's where we are right now."
Knowing there had to be more, I asked, "You're the phone guy, correct?"
"Phil," I asked, "why don't you fix the outage?"
"Remember, I'm the cellular phone guy. The problem is on the radiotelephone side. And that stuff is before my time."
With the words 'pulling teeth' floating around in my head, I asked the obvious. "What about your counterpart who handles the radiotelephone system?"
"That's the problem.
Excerpted from THE O'LEARY ENIGMA by Bob Purssell Copyright © 2011 by Bob Purssell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.