September 20, 1994
When you go, you go for real. And there is no time more real than 3:00 A.M. Sergeants' time, it's called. Zero three hundred. Zero dark early.
On the old Army boat, the general-quarters bell rang twice for wake-up at 0300. The bell didn't matter; those who'd slept had been up for at least half an hour. Most of the thirty-four soldiers hadn't slept. In warm bunks and cold latrine stalls they'd all felt the engines throttle down at 0245, the hard rattle in the bulkheads reduced to a low buzz as the vessel went from full speed to barely making headway through the Caribbean waters.
The echo of the bell died in empty steel passageways, replaced by the hollow silence of nothing to say, nothing to talk about. Cigarettes went to lips, Zippo lids flipped back. Brown T-shirts came down over heads, camouflage BDU blouses buttoned up. The skeleton crews on night watch wiped oil from the gray sides of the diesels, raised binoculars to eyes on the bridge wings, listened to quiet static on the marine bands, made coffee.
In a cramped, two-bunk crew cabin the soldier everyone called Jersey sat in the only chair, bent over, pulling speed-laces tight on a black jungle boot, tucking ends. The door opened, Dick Wags in blue engine-room coveralls, hands in pockets. The light from the passage behind framing a tight face.
"Roomdog," Dick Wags said, with deep-voice Dick Wags drama. "Voodoo Lounge awaits."
Jersey looked up, snorted, said, "Please." The soldier tapped a Marlboro against the ashtray, bent to tie the other boot. Dick Wags was from northeast Jersey, Jersey from northwest. Dick Wags was Dick, sometimes Rick. Jersey was Jersey, except to Dick Wags; to Dick Wags, Jersey was Roomdog. Everyone's roomdog was Roomdog. It wasn't complicated.
"You done?" Dick Wags asked. "I gotta get my shit on."
"Two minutes," Jersey said, picking up the cigarette again.
"Two and two," Dick Wags said, leaving, closing the door. Boot-sole footsteps padded down the passage then were gone. "Two and two," Jersey whispered, standing, tucking brown T-shirt deep into green, camouflage BDU pants, tightening belt, reaching for BDU top. "Two and two." They had all taped silver reflective patches to the shoulders of their uniforms and the crown of their helmets yesterday. A new system, they'd been told. Easier identification from a distance. To avoid friendly fire. "Friendly fire," Jersey whispered. "Two and two."
Dick Wags was back in two and two, as Jersey stepped into the passageway. "Friendly fire, Dick Wags," Jersey said, pressing fingertips against the patch of silver tape. "Gotta watch that friendly fire."
"No friendly fire in the Voodoo Lounge, Sergeant Roomdog," Dick Wags said.
They slammed knuckled fists as they passed. They were going, going for real, trying to do it right. Two sergeants Jersey a very young buck sergeant, Dick Wags a staff sergeant going for the first time.
The cabin door closed. Jersey made for the stairs up to the galley deck. Someone was reciting the Lord's Prayer in the head. Might be Matata, hard to tell.
Pelton filled the passage at the bottom of the stairs, M-16 rifle hanging from shoulder, forehead pressed against the bulkhead, eyes clenched tight. Jersey put a hand up to the big shoulder, squeezing past, whispered, "All good, P. All good." Pelton inched forward, head not moving, skin to metal. When Jersey made the stairs and turned to look back the thick snipe was still there, hands wrapped around the rail, face to wall.
In darkened cabins soldiers sat alone, waiting. Dressed; drumming fingertips on desktops, rubbing palms on cheeks and chins.
In the bow-thruster room, deep beneath the wave pushed by the front of the ship, another young buck sergeant, whom everyone called Scaboo, set down hand weights and picked up a towel to wipe sweat, unable to wait passively. In the soundproofed engine-room box Chief threw the breaker to switch generators. On the bridge the first mate, Mac, sat slumped in the skipper's chair, staring at the flat black of night through the glass. In the skipper's cabin, directly below the bridge, Mannino sat on the edge of the bunk in boxers and a T-shirt, vessel manifest in hand, the thirty-four names of the warrant officers and crew.
In the small crew's mess Snaggletooth and Shrug sat below the TV mounted up on the bulkhead, joysticks in hand, playing Tetris. Riddle walked in, moving to the coffee pot. "Turn that shit off." Riddle's loud, flat, Florida voice filled the mess like it filled every room Riddle entered. Snaggletooth made a noise, stood, and pushed the button to make the TV a TV again. The screen filled with segueing images of plantations, beaches, city streets teeming with black figures in cars, on foot, on bikes. Swelling symphonic music from the speakers, no words ever, just the music. The TV had been like this since yesterday afternoon. They'd lost the tail-end of the Miami NBC station the day before that, then gained a few hours of Cuban broadcasting. Now, just this: one station out of Port-au-Prince, showing the same scenes over and over, and the never-ending music. It was patriotic, Mac had said. Cedras was broadcasting this to work up Haitian nationalism and pride. The coming American invasion was no surprise, no secret D-Day. They were going for real and half the world knew it. The glory broadcast on TV proved it.
"Nobody needs that now," Riddle said, sitting at a mess table, looking at the TV. "Put in Serpent and the Rainbow."
Shrug pulled the Tetris cartridge from the Nintendo, swaying to compensate for the slow pitch of the boat. "Skipper came in last night, threw it overboard."
"Yep," Shrug said. "Took the tape, threw it overboard."
It was 0315.
Roy stepped into the mess from the galley. Roy liked to be called the Steward. Roy had done some reading, and Army cook or no this was a boat, a military vessel of the United States, and that meant Roy was the Steward. It was all the cook would answer to. Roy crossed to the coffee pot, dressed in BDUs, a white cook's apron hanging from red-blotched neck. A web belt was tight around the apron and the Texan's thick waist, a 9-mm pistol in a black holster.
"Hey Steward!" Riddle called, pointing at Roy's pistol. "You think Ton Ton Macoute is coming for your chowder?"
"Fucking-A," Roy said, Texas slow, adjusting steel-framed glasses and sipping from the coffee mug. The Skipper had assigned Roy to one of the big .50-cal machine guns for battlestations because Roy had spent two years in Korea, cooking chow for an infantry battalion. "Yeah, okay, Skip," Roy had said, "but I don't know much about fifty cals." Mannino put the cook there anyway. "You know what they look like, right, Sergeant?" Mannino had a strong Long Island accent. "If I call battlestations you could probably find it on the deck, right? And pull the trigger?"
Roy had the kitchen privates, Matata and Cain, up at midnight to make chow for the 0300 wake-up. No one wanted chow, though. Just coffee. Back in the galley Roy told Matata and Cain to clean and put everything up then get dressed and ready. They didn't have designated battlestations. They were substitutes, in case someone got shot.
The ship cut through the night waters, silent and slowing. Thirty-four soldiers, wide awake with nothing to say.
At 0340 general-quarters sounded again and Mac called to prepare for battlestations. Time to stop waiting down below. Time to hurry up and wait somewhere else. Time to go.
When you go when you go for real you put on pounds. Even Waterborne soldiers, with no field equipment, bore some weight going in. Real-time weight. Kevlar helmet, flak vest, web belt, LBE suspenders, ammo pouches and clips, M-16 rifle slung over back. Mac had told them not to tuck their pants into their combat boots because it would be easier to swim if they fell overboard. No one bothered to point to the dead weight of their flak jacket and ask if it mattered.
A few weeks before, Jersey had picked up a dog-eared copy of The Things They Carried at the USO and the book the cool parts, anyway had become standard reading for bored quarterdeck watches in the last days before they went down range. They made up their own lists of things soldiers carry, filling in what the book left out, scribbling anonymous notes on the inside cover: crystal meth and a case of the ass wrote one wit. Herpes from Scaboo's mom we all carry that a penciled line reported. Riddle, signing name to note, pointed out that Snaggletooth carried the weight of ugly for the whole detachment. Even with the patience of paper and pencil Snaggletooth wasn't quick enough to transfer the weight of anything back to Riddle. Now it didn't matter; this morning they were going for real. All of them privates to sergeants to warrant officers alike for the first time. All of them combat virgins. All any of them carried was gradients of fear.
There was one more signal before the scatter for individual battlestations. One more place to wait before they went to wait someplace else. Four of them crowded behind a steel hatch, forward in a tight passage on the port side, like groups were now waiting at five different hatches around the boat. Waiting for the last signal to go for real. Jersey, Temple, Scaboo, and Riddle behind this one; helmet straps tight, adjusting the pounds hanging from their bodies, waiting. It occurred to Jersey that Riddle was silent for the first time in memory, a line of sweat running down the soldier's left cheek. Jersey drew a breath, held it, let it out.
Tense, tense, feeding on the silence.
"Stupid, going to battlestations this early," Scaboo growled.
"Can't you shut up," Jersey said, spinning so quickly on Scaboo their helmets clicked together.
Scaboo brought a hand up, but PFC Temple, bigger than both of them, slipped between the two new sergeants, stepping lightly on Scaboo's highly polished jump boot. "Not now," Temple said, and a second later the passage lights went out their signal. Riddle reached up, undogged the hatch, and swung it open. A warm wisp of darkness came to them, sweet flowers and salt, Riddle holding the hatch open. Temple pushed through then forward into the night air. Jersey moved to follow.
"Bitch," Scaboo whispered, lips to ear, and then was gone, through the hatch and up the ladder to the deck above.
Jersey's open palm shot out, searching for the other young sergeant's head, but Scaboo was gone.
"C'mon," Riddle barked. "Fuck that."
Then Riddle was gone, scurrying up the ladder behind Scaboo. All sound was gone as well, lost to the larger wash of ocean and wind.
"Two and two," Jersey whispered to no one furious "and fuck you," turning to dog the hatch tight, close to hyperventilating. Concentration broken from verbal friendly fire, two quick breaths, concentration back, then moving behind Temple's shadowy form on the ship's deck, the long walk forward up the portside catwalk to the bow.
They were going, going for real, but their reality was shaky, shifting; the truth as elusive and unsteady as the deck beneath their boots on a long rolling swell. They'd had a week to prepare for one stark reality; made peace and tied themselves into its probabilities like they tied themselves into their racks to sleep through rough weather. Then it shifted, with only hours to spare.
"Ex-president Jimmy Carter has asked Mister Cedras and the Haitian army not to blow us out of the water," Mac had intoned on the loudspeaker, voice floating and alien in the dim, empty passages. "Jimmy Carter says they'll be surrendering to us instead of shooting at us." They'd heard a click they all understood to be Mac's Zippo in action on a Camel Light. "The Skipper voted for Jimmy Carter twice." The officer exhaled. "Me, I was too young."
Nothing changed. Just more anxiety. When you finally go, you go for real. Jimmy Carter or not. You have to. And you have to hold on to that keep it first in your head. If your cracked-leather black combat boot crosses from deckplate to soil and there is a rifle in your hand, those watching from high on hilltops or from behind thick curtains have drawn their own definition of you. It doesn't matter how you define yourself, or how a president or general defines you, what official title or task is given you and those who travel with you. All that matters is how those watching your arrival define you. They provide your definition. And they know the neighborhood better.
When you go, you go for real, because those watching you arrive may not agree with your own definition. If your cracked-leather black combat boot crosses from deckplate to soil and there is a rifle in your hand, that is definition enough.
It was two-hundred-some feet up the portside catwalk from ship's house to bow. Jersey stepped onto the steel walkway, then paused. Stopped. Pulse slowed. Breath restored. Scaboo's spit-soaked insult forgotten, even mission momentarily set aside. The soldier gripped the rail and stopped in place, helmet tight and gear hanging, fingers closing around salty, sticky steel in the humid blackness. Stars overhead, the night was full heavy and warm. Light would crack the horizon soon, but for now they could just as well be in space as at sea. Thirty-four soldiers, floating in the void. Three points forward the port beam five tiny red lights twinkled. Straight down, the sea was an ebony void cut by a pale line of wake rushing down the vessel's side, sea wind pulled along with it; predawn oblivion.
Okay okay okay, Jersey thought. Now we go for real.
It had taken five days to sail from Newport News. A midnight departure from Skiff's Creek, running lights blacked-out through the Dead Fleet and into the James River, past Norfolk and the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, ten miles to sea, then due south. Five days, marked by the slow fading and gaining and fading of TV signals from Virginia and the Carolinas and Florida, intercut with bad zombie movies and war novels, engine readings and bridge watches, midnight rations, and one halfhearted rain-soaked late-afternoon battlestations drill somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. Five days, and crossing the Windward Passage past Cuba they'd found five empty Haitian refugee rafts bobbing silently between swells, plywood and plastic and two of them upright again, with makeshift canvas sails the Catholics on the LSV crossing themselves as the big boat steamed between the ghost rafts, the soldiers as one scanning shadows in the whitecaps for bodies, shuddering at the deep-ocean fates of the desperate Haitians who'd stepped barefoot into midnight waters pushing these deathtraps past the waves and jumping on to huddle with their families below a matchstick mast, whispering unheard prayers for clear winds to Florida.
Five days, this run. As a crew, they'd run longer much longer and harder, to accomplish nothing: celestial navigation training sails around Long Island to Nantucket and Portland, a stomach-wrenching North Atlantic crossing to the U.S. Army Waterborne depot at Hythe near Southampton, a midwinter sleeper run to the Azores to pick up rusty port equipment and bring it to Livorno. Only five days, this run just a stone's throw from their backyard but to accomplish something real this time, sailing through death floating silent and apathetic at the gates of their arrival.
"But here we go go go," Jersey whispered to the black, sweet wind. Two and two. Friendly fire. Battlestations. Voodoo Lounge, baby.
The Voodoo Lounge was Jersey's destination, the machine-gun nest on the port bow. The vessel was an Army LSV, bow split in two, the center a raised mighty ramp, sixty-some feet up, thirty-some feet across, with a small line-and-anchor station on each side, each one now reinforced as a machine-gun nest. Jersey and Temple crewed the portside bow station, and Temple called it the Voodoo Lounge. Within a day or two the whole ship was the Voodoo Lounge, but it started with Temple painting the words on the steel plate lining their battlestation on the bow. They'd stocked it yesterday with bottles of water, a few MRE bags for chow, five apples, and an extra pack of cigarettes in a Zip-Loc bag. "No smoking until the sun comes up," Mac had ordered the crew during the briefing, trying to speak infantry. "Keep five yards!" Riddle had yelled back, Mac's eyebrows raising.
Jersey inhaled deeply, pulling it all in. They were going, and they were trying their best to go for real. Dawn would break shortly. The sergeant wondered whether it was simply automatic you pissed your pants when someone shot at you, or only if you'd had to go anyway. Maybe you just shot back. Maybe nothing happened at all.
Jersey looked forward to the bow, only gray shadows defining the ship's width. It was time. Her knees hurt, her back hurt, and an ammo pouch was digging into her side, but all in all it all seemed as good as it was going to get. As ready as they could be. She tugged her rifle strap then hustled up the catwalk toward Temple and her place in the Voodoo Lounge.
Copyright © 2005 by Christian Bauman
Chapter One: Port-au-Prince
Dawn came with engines half, running the north side of Île de la Gonâve. The immense aircraft carrier Eisenhower stood a mile off their port quarter. The white hospital ship Comfort with the big red cross steamed closer and closing, a few points off the starboard quarter. It described an arc, the measure between the two bigger ships; a starting point and an ending.
Through the purple of sunrise she could see mountains now, misty gray-green jungle, glowing orange points of fire and black-blue plumes of smoke and cloud rising over it all. When they cleared Île de la Gonâve it was laid out in front of them, the inside of a crescent, green and shimmering, wind thick with salt and overripe fruit again, shades of charcoal and diesel and dung. And now, faintly, noise the sound of Haiti. A low thump with no steady rhythm, a deep-bass heartbeat working an invisible echo inside the bowl of the Port-au-Prince basin.
The kitchen private Cain crept up the catwalk to the bow with coffee in a canteen right before all this, right before the dawn. "Y'all kill 'em dead now, hear?" the skinny cook whispered, then scurried back to the house. Temple stowed the warm canteen then rolled to his side and pissed down into the open well-deck, sprinkling the tops of the unmanned trucks and Humvees lined up twenty feet below; their cargo, the port-opening package for 10th Mountain Division. Jersey, having thought this through, scrambled behind a mound of sandbags and, in the last moment before daylight made them visible to the bridge, pushed her pants down clear of hips and squatted over a Styrofoam cup. In one motion her left hand drew her BDUs back up while her right tossed the overfilled cup over the side.
"Nice," Temple said, packing his smiling jaw with a chew. "Be all you can be."
They heard Riddle's voice on the radio, asking the bridge if they were allowed to smoke yet.
Temple and Jersey spent the last hour ducked down behind the plates of sheet metal that had been painted gray and welded on the bow handrails before they'd left Virginia, peering out through the gaps as Port-au-Prince grew in their vision. They could make out buildings now, dotted colorful carpets of neighborhoods spread across the basin and rising steep up the hill. A pink cathedral stood in the center of it, and a chalky domed building. As Jersey squinted through the forward gap the main harbor slowly took form, masts of a few small boats, curve of a cement pier, a small island in the middle with palm trees and a low building. This is where they were going. She'd thought the port was somewhat removed from the city, but even at this distance it was clear the port was completely in the city, surrounded, direct in the middle of it all.
"What are the Coasties doing?" Temple asked, chewing.
The only vessel forward of them was a Coast Guard cutter, a minesweeper. The cutter had stopped, about a half-mile up. Its wake went frosty, bow coming around.
"I think they're getting out," Jersey said.
The Coast Guard would only go so far; if there was a mine dockside it was the Army's problem. The handheld radio clipped to Jersey's flak jacket squawked.
"Gentlemen, we're clear. Thirty minutes. Stand by."
The first mate's voice, from the bridge. Mac always talked like that: Gentlemen.
Temple gave Jersey a light shove and she rolled and sat back, resting against the forward shield.
"Hey, gentlemen, you think these things will stop a bullet?" he asked her, rapping his knuckles once against the steel plate.
"They're pretty thick, gentlemen," she said, leaning to press her face to a gap in the metal. "A bullet yeah." Temple looked out his own gap, goggles pushed up on his helmet.
Early morning and already hot steamy. The steel plates blocked the sea breeze. It occurred to Jersey to be thankful they weren't packing a hundred pounds and air-assaulting in today, like many were. But the hell with thankful. Sitting in direct sun, flak jacket, helmet hot.
Their mission the job of the boat was straightforward: have the bow ramp down on the city's main pier at the exact moment a company of 10th Mountain infantrymen dropped from their helicopters. Deliver the ship's cargo of trucks and Humvees to the grunts. Pull back, let the other Army boats in, await further orders. Avoid getting shot.
Jersey rapped her knuckles against the steel plate again, sticky with salt and grease.
"Avoid getting shot, gentlemen," she said.
Temple looked over at her, eyebrows raised. She liked Temple. He was a surfer; stout, compact. California blond. He should have been pinned sergeant with her and Scaboo in July, but took out a stop sign near the Fort Eustis gate leaving Buck's Grill one night. Instead of up to sergeant stripes he got knocked from specialist back down to PFC.
"Scared?" he asked.
He shook his head no, smiling.
"Maybe," he added.
"Yeah, maybe," she said.
He slugged her on the shoulder and she slugged him back. She lit a smoke and he put his face back to the gap, keeping watch forward. Their M-16 rifles lay on the deck, the big M-60 machine gun on its two stubby legs between them. When the time came, Temple would aim one point off the port bow with the M-60 and Jersey would crouch dead ahead with her M-16. They'd already agreed, days ago, that if they took an RPG hit, or something worse, and survived, they would drop the thirty feet down into the well-deck, and if one of them was too fucked up to do it on their own, the other would roll the injured one over the side and down to the steel below. Pelton and Bear, manning the M-60 nest on the starboard bow, thirty feet across the well-deck from Voodoo Lounge, had a similar plan.
Looking aft Jersey saw Snaggletooth stick his helmeted head up from behind the shield on the port bridge wing. He saw her looking up, waved once, and she lifted a hand in return. Fucker ought to put his head down, she thought. A few seconds later a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back. That made her smile.
The handheld spoke, through static:
"United States Army LSV Gilman, this is Coast Guard Cutter Richards. We've completed our sweep. Leaving the AO to your starboard, two whistles."
"Two whistles, Coast Guard. Thank you."
Not Mac, but Mannino answering, the skipper on the radio for the first time today. The old man didn't like to talk on the radio.
"Good luck, Army."
Across the great ramp on the bow, past Pelton and Bear on the starboard machine-gun nest, Jersey watched the Coast Guard cutter hauling ass.
Static, twice, then Mannino again:
"This is USAV Gilman, LSV-16. We're in position."
A voice came back:
"Army LSV Gilman, and all Army watercraft following LSV-16, the port is yours. Refer to updated rules of engagement, keep your eyes open. Proceed at best speed."
"Goddamn, Tory," Temple said, backing off the gap, sitting down next to her. "Goddamn."
She nodded at him once. "Yep."
The handheld clicked with static as Mannino switched them out from the command frequencies and back to on-ship commo only.
"You hear that?" his voice rang out. "Don't do anything stupid. Let the grunts catch the bullets, that's what God made them for."
He clicked off.
And then, looking back, it seemed the deck of Eisenhower levitated off itself, a straight black line moving steadily up. It broke, twenty or more helicopters adjusting their course, taking position, waiting in the air. This was the second time they'd seen a flight lift this morning: 10th Mountain reported taking the Port-au-Prince airport an hour ago. The Marines had done the same up north in Cap-Haitien.
"Who's gonna get there first, us or them?" Temple asked, watching the choppers float from Eisenhower.
"Hard to tell," Jersey said. "Might be a tie. Hope so." She could see the main port clearly now, clear enough to make out a fence beyond the docks and warehouses, surrounding the port, a mile or so long. The fence was dark, and Jersey blinked. It looked like it was moving.
Sun glare? she thought.
She pulled her goggles straight down so they hung around her neck. Looked again.
The fence wasn't moving: something behind it was. The fence was chain link, and what she saw solid and moving was a press of humanity. A thousand people? Five thousand? All of Port-au-Prince on the fence to see America come in. To see who shot first.
"Jesus," she said. "That's a lot of people."
Temple pushed her out of the way again, glanced through the gap. He whistled through his teeth.
"Avoid getting shot, gentlemen," he said. "You think they're friendly?"
"I dunno. We'll be the first to find out."
The main concrete pier was empty of vessels as the LSV nosed into the waters of the horseshoe-shaped city port. Windstorms of dirt and debris flew a quarter-mile north and south of the warehouses lining the pier 10th Mountain choppers dropping their chalks of troops and dangling Humvees to the far corners of the port perimeter. But those soldiers fanning out from the safety zones around the choppers hadn't yet made it to the main pier where the LSV was going. The warehouses blocked the LSV's view of the landing infantrymen, and blocked their view of the immediate neighborhood as well.
The city's right there, though, Jersey thought. Close enough to touch.
For now, the LSV was alone.
"Sixty seconds," the radio blared. The deck plate beneath Jersey and Temple started rattling as the massive gray bow ramp slowly inched down, the chain holding the ramp feeding from the locker one level below them. The links on the chain were bigger than Jersey's foot.
"Port bow!" Mac called. "Faces in the window, warehouse, ten o'clock." Temple, flat on his belly with M-60 trained through a side gap, raised his left hand in acknowledgment to the bridge and twisted the barrel down and right. Jersey, dead-ahead with M-16, couldn't see the window on the warehouse Mac was talking about. She aimed forward, rifle shifting left and right and left and right in her small field of fire. As the LSV advanced snail's pace as they approached the pier a section of the city fence became visible again. Whatever passed for Port-au-Prince police had cleared the port and locked the chain-link gate some time before. The press of bodies up against the fence, now less than two hundred yards from them, was huge. An immense, moving, breathing crowd, menacing and friendly at once, watching, yelling. A living thing, river of crowd, filling the boulevards and alleys from the port uphill through the city. Jersey could hear their singing and clapping, but only in waves.
"Starboard bow!" Mac called from the bridge. "Movement in the alley between warehouses. Three o'clock."
Sweat ran down her face, into her goggles, blinking, stinging. She realized she was breathing too hard, almost panting, and took a lungful of air and held it as long as she could.
Choppers dropping in and out beyond the warehouses roared like prehistoric war birds, the loudest thing Jersey had ever heard, but still there were no troops at the pier they were closing on.
They heard Mannino's growl on the radio: "Where's the fucking cavalry?"
The ramp was more than half down, the pier to portside fifteen feet and closing, the pier ahead they were setting their ramp on now less than thirty feet. She heard metal on metal in the well-deck below her, T.K. and those guys on Staff Sergeant Arnold's bosun's crew dropping the chains that held the trucks and Humvees in place, firing off their engines.
But still no one to drive them off. There was supposed to be a company of troops on the pier to retrieve the vehicles, to drive them to the airport, but the LSV got there first. Across the pier and toward the city the chain-link fence bulged with the weight of the Haitians pressing on it, flags and banners waving, dirty colors floating through thick morning air. The murmur of thousands of voices drifted in between and around the screams and roars of the engines of an arriving army.
"Twenty seconds!" Mac, on the radio. "Team One, on the ramp. Team Two, portside pilot door. Prepare to tie off. Forward gunners, keep an eye on that fence." The radio clicked a few times, then: "Anything approaching us on the pier not wearing Army green right now is a target."
"Hoorah," Temple whispered, two small syllables.
Jersey leaned and looked over the bow. T.K. was on the ramp tip, pulling his leather deck gloves on, riding the ramp down, rifle slung across his back and nervous eye to the crowd on the other side of the chain-link fence. As the ship nestled in the pocket, portside-to and ramp resting on pier ahead, a Black Hawk chopper dropped like a lead ball from the sky, slamming to a stop twenty-some feet shy of the ground, then hovered, two lines down, ten full-gear soldiers dropping down the ropes to the concrete in front of the LSV, not making security, just down and immediately flat-out running for T.K. and the ramp of the boat. The dust wind of the rotors caught Jersey dead-on, her goggles saving her eyes but her lungs taking damage from the loose, heated dust, sending her into a coughing spasm. The chopper went nose down, tail up, and as fast as it was there it was gone.
Jersey cleared her lungs best she could then leaned forward again.
Staff Sergeant Arnold was down on the ramp now, face to face with a soldier from the chopper, a 10th Mountain captain. The captain looked up in Jersey's direction, eyes locking young, for a captain. The blackest man Jersey had ever seen, skin a deep, rich tone that seemed to pull in all the light around it. Sergeant Arnold was an older man, a much lighter shade of brown, with a thin mustache. He was the LSV's new bosun, assigned days before they sailed. Arnold's face was shining now, under the sweat pouring from him, his helmet unsnapped and pushed back.
"You got to clear my deck, sir," Arnold was saying to the young captain, whose eyes had remained on Jersey's for a beat, and then another, before dropping down to the sergeant before him. Arnold was swinging his left arm toward the rows of Humvees and trucks filling the LSV's well-deck. The chopper was gone but by instinct he was still yelling. "We got eight LCU boats stacked up behind us, waiting to come in." The ten soldiers who had dropped from the chopper with the captain were moving into the well-deck, throwing rucks and gear into the lead Humvees.
"I can't drive without troops, Sergeant," the captain said. "Most of my company is still sitting on the deck of Eisenhower."
The captain and forward squad dropped off without his company. Jersey, who had always imagined the Army would somehow seem smarter during war time, shook her head.
The heat in the Voodoo Lounge was brutal now, sweat pouring off her and Temple in buckets. She had seen him reach for a canteen before and drink never taking his eye from the sight of the M-60 and she did the same now, pulling a few sips of water from a canteen, one eye down the rifle sight to the crowd in the distance, one eye on the ramp below her.
"Someone's driving this shit off here, Sir," she heard Arnold say, "and if it ain't you, then it's us."
"Not that easy, Sergeant " the captain said, but Jersey lost his next words in the storm of another chopper.
Everyone looked to the pier, expecting the captain's lost company to drop. But this Black Hawk didn't drop and hover; it actually set down, at the half point of the hundred or so yards between the nose of the LSV and the flimsy gate holding back the ever-growing, laughing, clapping, singing population of Port-au-Prince. The rotor wash from the chopper was tremendous, sucking the breath from everyone on the bow, pushing the ship back so its lines went taut.
"What the fuck? Over," Jersey heard from the bridge on the open channel of the ship's radio. What the fuck? Over, indeed.
Six soldiers jumped from the open side door of the Black Hawk. Jersey noticed they had no nametags or unit insignia on their BDUs. And no helmets. They all wore mirrored Oakley sunglasses and carried short, stocky machine guns. Delta? Jersey thought. Or contractor bodyguards. They fanned in a circle perimeter, but didn't seem particularly concerned they sauntered. The bulge on the chain-link fence had deflated, the monster wind from the Black Hawk driving back the crowd.
Temple gave up on his assigned faces in his assigned window and scooted forward with Jersey. From around the warehouse on their port side three shiny black Chevy Suburbans came flying down the pier, screeching to a halt yards from the Black Hawk. Jersey was so startled she almost shot at them her rifle instinctively up and over, pressure on the trigger. She barely stopped herself, adrenaline pumping so dangerously hard her head tingled, breath coming short, close to hyperventilating.
What the fuck? Over.
Looking down, saw she wasn't the only one. The young 10th Mountain captain and SSG Arnold had both dropped to a knee, pistols up. Across the pier, three of the bodyguards had also dropped to a knee, weapons trained on the captain and Arnold.
Mannino's voice came screaming out of the radio: "What in the Jesus fuck?!"
A tall soldier climbed out of the Black Hawk. Jersey recognized him. He was a three-star Army general, commander of XVIII Airborne Corps. He reached a hand up and helped out a civilian man in an open-throat shirt and sports coat and then a middle-aged woman in a blue suit and puffy hair.
"Isn't that " Temple started.
"Yeah," Jersey finished. She wasn't sure about the guy, but the woman was easy. She was the undersecretary of somethingoranother who'd been blabbing endlessly on TV the last day they'd been able to see network TV on the way down here.
The general gave a short laugh, patting the two civilians on the back, guiding them toward one of the three Suburbans. They turned as a group and faced the chain-link fence and waved at the crowd behind it, drawing a wild cheer from the mass of people, and smiling they all got in the middle Chevy. The bodyguards hopped on the running boards of the three SUVs as they started rolling down the pier, back from where they came around the warehouse, the Black Hawk lifting then gone.
Temple put a piece of gum in his mouth.
"I take it this means our AO is safe and secure," he said, contemplatively.
Jersey heard Arnold's voice down on the ramp: "Motherfuckers almost shot me!"
Gotta watch that friendly fire, Jersey thought.
"It's a friendly neighborhood war," she said. "All the friendly neighbors gonna come down to see."
The radio crackled to life, catching Mannino up in the bridge bellowing a blue line of obscenity. Mac's voice cut in over the skipper's: "Harris, Riddle, Pelton, Scaboo report to the bow, full gear and weapons."
"I'm already on the bow," Jersey muttered, but Mac meant the ramp and she knew it.
"Good luck, troop," Temple said, punching her arm, then crawling back over to his M-60. "I'll keep the senators and generals at bay while you're gone."
Jersey Harris, her ID said, Sergeant Tory Harris on her ID card slung her M-16 tight on her back, stuck a few clips in her ammo pouches, checked her pockets for cigarettes, slapped a hand down on Temple's leg, then scurried down the ladder to the catwalk.
Copyright © 2005 by Christian Bauman