From his perch high above the flight deck, the sailor watched two big helicopters circle a growing column of red and green smoke that poured from flares there in the massive wake of the ship — back there where the jet had gone over the side. He waited for the carrier to turn, to circle back to where the choppers were cutting in and out of the smoke. But the boat did not slow, did not alter its course; it did nothing, really, except drive relentlessly forward into the slate grey of the afternoon. It seemed that everything that day — the water and the sky and, of course, the ship — was grey. It was only the smoke from the flares that gave the scene color and life.
He had seen it all: The pilot snapping a salute to the flight deck crew chief, the catapult failure halfway through the launch and then the plane — robbed of sufficient power to clear the deck — disappearing over the side of the ship.
Sometimes, the sailor knew, a pilot would have time to trigger the ejection mechanism and the jet’s canopy would pop off and his seat would be blasted far enough into the air for a parachute to deploy. But that had not happened this time and he knew that the ship had either struck the plane and the pilot was dead or he had lived long enough to explore the special terror of a man trapped beneath the surface of the ocean with no hope of escape.
It was the fall that the pilot had loved best. Walking through the forest with his old single-shot .12 gauge at port arms, hoping to jump a covey of grouse. Proud stands of quaking aspen set amidst massive armies of tamaracks. When he came upon the birds, they would erupt from the brush with an explosive force that always startled him. His right thumb would rock back the hammer and he would raise the ancient weapon to his shoulder, lead the first bird and squeeze the trigger. When the shot hit the bird, the animal would fold and tumble through the air and fall silently to the ground.
Then he would pick up the grouse and slip the lifeless body into a game pouch in the back of his vest that had once belonged to his father. And then he would continue on his way through the forest. Sometimes, it would rain, and he would always pause and look skyward and let the raindrops pepper his face. He loved how that felt and how the rain made the air fresh and all things good.
When he got hungry, he would stop at a good spot and sit down on a log or prop his back against a tree and sit on the ground. He always brought two sandwiches with him — one ham and Swiss with onions and lettuce, and one roast beef and cheddar. Both sandwiches were made with homemade white bread, which had been smeared liberally with mayonnaise and mustard. He would eat the sandwiches slowly and wash them down with hot black coffee that he kept in a small thermos.
Later, when he got home, his wife would greet him at the front door and his two boys would demand to see the birds that he had killed that day and which would be eaten by his family later that evening.
He was almost there, now, with his family. Could smell his wife’s perfume and feel the loving embrace of his boys. But he was being pulled back, too, back to this reality, this moment — dazed, in shock, and his chest hurting from something.
The pilot ripped the oxygen mask from his face and tore at the seat harness. He looked up through the canopy at the light on the ocean surface and raised his arms to push in vain against the glass. Then he reached down between his legs and grabbed hold of a looped cable that would eject him from the plane. He pulled hard, but nothing happened. A malfunction. And, now, looking up again, the pilot could see that he was drifting down and away from the light. Darkness was swiftly closing in on him and he knew he was finished.
And then the pilot was flashing again to the woods and the grouse and the thumbing back of the hammer on the shotgun. But he wasn’t quite there. Not totally. One moment, he was alone in the forest; and then suddenly he was back inside his sinking plane, struggling with the reality of these last few moments beneath the surface of the ocean.
The pilot unzipped his flight suit, somehow unsnapped from its holster the .38 that he and many other pilots carried as some small measure of self-defense in case they were ever shot down. But it was also a tool with which he might end this undersea nightmare.
Flashing now, yet again, to the forest: The smell of rain and how it felt on his face, the sound of a twig snapping beneath his boot, the easy touch of grouse feathers and the warmth of blood leaking timidly from each hole in the bird’s tiny body.
And now the pilot in one moment was rocking back the hammer on the .38 and in the next instant was cocking his shotgun as another family of grouse broke from safety beneath a chokecherry bush and rose beautifully into the mountain air, their wings madly pumping away until the roar of the gun ended everything.
Tim Hanson lives in South Carolina with his wife and two children.