October 04, 2017
by Denise Schiavone
Man down. Only he wasn’t shot. Just loaded into a massive steel cylinder armed with food and supplies for sixty days, millions of dollars worth of technical equipment, live explosives and a hundred other guys. They lined up on the pier alongside the sleek black mammoth bobbing like a cork in the bay. Seabags slung over shoulders, they turned for a last look at loved ones before trudging up the gangplank and descending into the shadows.
During his previous tour in Hawaii, Petty Officer Miller had learned a love of diving. This was a different kind of diving. This was diving when you knew there was no imminent return. From the very announcement, “Dive, Dive” over the 1MC, you felt your heart squeeze a little in your chest. As the ballast tanks filled, men all over the boat fell silent and turned to work. The hulking beast would sink beneath the waves into the briny depths, like a babe returning to the womb. Sixty days seemed a mere speck in time. Sixty days underwater -- without sunlight, without fresh air -- would feel like an eternity.
One of the last to board, Miller had said his goodbyes to his fiancé back at the house; tearful public farewells weren’t really his thing. He stood in line behind a tall gangly Seaman who must’ve barely passed the height restrictions. Miller listened to the kid and his buddy reminisce about their previous trip, when apparently the top deck hatch had not been properly secured as they pulled out of port. Hundreds of gallons of seawater had churned into the space known as “No Man’s Land” before anyone realized.
Savoring his final glimpse of land, Miller filled his lungs with fresh air before lowering himself and his bag through the narrow opening on deck.
Down below, as the last inches of metal began disappearing, Miller pressed his palms against the bulkhead and closed his eyes, listening for the rushing deluge above and the sounding of alarms. But within minutes the boat was no longer visible to those ashore, slipping beneath the surface as subtly as a dying woman’s whispered last words.
The USS Atlanta was a U.S. Navy fast-attack submarine about three hundred sixty-feet long -- the approximate length of a football field. When you think about the length of a football field, you figure you could run that distance; you could sprint down that field and actually become winded. But if you slice the width of that football field from about one hundred sixty feet down to thirty three and compartment it into berthing and shower spaces, cooking and dining facilities and engineering and weapons storage areas, and then fill it with radio, navigation and collection equipment, torpedoes, men and their gear, you find you cannot run anywhere at all.
Sailors inched by each other in the passageway chest-to-chest, nose-to-nose. The longest stretch of open space from one piece of steel to another ran about ten feet. The galley hosted about twenty-five men at a time dining at two four-seat booths and two eight-seat rectangular tables bolted to the deck. To ascend or descend a ladder into another area, guys had to first announce, “Going Up!” or “Going Down!” to alert others who might be doing the opposite, a feat not simultaneously possible for two men, regardless of size or girth. The enlisted head featured two stalls, one urinal and two showers just large enough for a man to turn around in. If he should drop the soap, bending over to retrieve it would likely result in a bump to the head or the ass, or both.
A tiny workout area was set-up in what was known as Shaft Alley. A hundred men stayed fit with one Nautilus weight machine and a single exercise bike. In those days the Smoking Lamp could be lit, two cigarettes allowed burning at a time. Shaft Alley happened to serve dual purposes; a small section of the workout room -- roughly the dimensions of a phone booth -- had been designated the Smoking Lounge.
Miller didn’t smoke, but he did enjoy working out. He’d always kept in shape, but during deployments he became religious about his regimen. It prompted endorphin flow, occupied a wandering mind and staved off boredom. But Shaft Alley claimed about the same square footage as a backyard shed, and occasionally carcinogens would drift from the corner to plague Miller’s healthy workouts. What could you do? Nothing to do except -- suck it up.
One morning, a week or so into the trip, Miller made his way to Shaft Alley, looking forward to an intense upper body routine. As he ducked through the hatch he nearly collided with two guys standing shoulder-to-shoulder, smoldering white sticks dangling from their lips. Two more stood an arm’s length away, awaiting their turn. Miller’s eyes skipped from one guy to the next, settling on the two orange tips glowing within of the plume of blue smoke.
“Aw screw it,” he grumbled, backing out through the hatch. Just not worth it, no matter how great the hormone rush.
The crew slumbered in enlisted or officer berthing. Only the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer enjoyed the luxury of private staterooms, each about the size of a walk-in closet with a bed, a sink and an adjacent head with toilet and shower. Three nine-man quarters berthed senior Petty Officers, Chief Petty Officers and commissioned officers, respectively. Two main spaces for enlisted men stacked racks three-high to hold about thirty junior ranking sailors each from the regular crew. But Petty Officer Miller was not regular crew; he was part of a ten-man direct support team that came aboard to provide intelligence support for the sixty-day mission. As a transient of this sort, Miller was relegated to supplemental berthing. His team boarded and hauled their small bags of gear to the torpedo room, where several lower torpedo tubes had been emptied to make space for single mattresses laid head to foot, nestled beside rows of live ordinance. The effect of crawling into this cool, dark space was akin to climbing into to a coffin. Men often commented they slept like the dead.
The crew worked port and starboard watch: twelve hours on, twelve hours off. This schedule allowed the direct support team to “hot rack,” which meant one man crawled into his rack mere minutes after another man rolled out of the very same. Miller was a clean, meticulously groomed man. Unfortunately, he could not say the same of all his shipmates.
On Day Twenty or so after a particularly boring midshift, Miller’s rackmate relieved him in the radio room, his hair mashed against one side of his head and his face still puffy. Miller caught a whiff of something stale and sour as Blevins moved past him to the pos. Blevins was like a cat -- Miller doubted he showered more than once a week. As he took the headphones and looped them over his ears, Blevins stretched and his mouth gaped open into a huge yawn. The stench hovered in the narrow space between the two men like an obnoxious, uninvited party guest. Miller’s upper lip twitched and his nose wrinkled as he handed over the logbook. He and Blevins manned the same position and so shared the same bunk. Miller tried very hard not to think about Blevins’ hygiene habits.
In the torpedo room Miller collapsed into his rack without removing his coveralls. He hooked one arm over the pillow to plump it under his head. His right hand brushed against something lumpy at the edge of the mattress; he extended his fingers and closed them around a stiff piece of cloth. He withdrew it and held the black tubesock suspended above his face for a moment before it registered. Sixty days was a long stretch; some guys got creative when it came to finding surreptitious ways to relieve the back-load.
“Fucking Blevins,” Miller hissed and tossed the Sea Sock across the deck. He rolled over to face the smooth side of a torpedo and closed his eyes, succumbing within minutes to the deepest of dreams.
Water was rationed, air recycled. Throughout the trip oxygen candles burned intermittently, twelve hours at a time, to augment the work of the CO2 Scrubbers. By the end of a deployment, men’s bodies carried the smell of the bromine used in the oxygen recycling process, a scent that lingered on hair and skin and clothing for days, sometimes as long as a week after returning home. Sailors wore personal radiation dosimeters round the clock, as if they’d become another appendage, giving them little thought unless a monthly reading showed elevated exposure. Limited exposure was common, even acceptable. Radiation came from all sources, and under normal circumstances the Atlanta allegedly yielded no more than would a trip to the basement of an old house or a visit to a hospital waiting room.
For the first few weeks underway, the cooks scrambled real eggs for breakfast and served fresh vegetables and fruit with lunches and dinners. As the days wore on and supplies dwindled, cans were opened, frozen meats thawed and sometimes powdered versions of things not meant to ever be powdered piled on plates. The cooks did the best they could. Most guys thought the food on the boat far superior to meals on surface ship deployments. Surely the powers-that-be had figured out that a hundred men locked together beneath the ocean deep should at the very least feel well fed. Miller only ever heard one complaint, late in the deployment, from a First Class engineer who developed a sudden dislike of beef.
Chavez sat with Miller and two other guys, gripping a fork in one fist and knife in the other. He stared mutely down at his tray while his shipmates plowed through mounds of mashed potatoes, puddles of creamed corn, slices of meat pooled in rose-colored juice.
Frowning, Chavez glared at his plate for a minute or two before opening his mouth to speak. “Beef again? Why the fuck do we always have beef on this boat?!” He flung his utensils across the table where they clattered to a stop against Seaman Conroy’s glass. Pushing his tray to the center of the table, Chavez stormed out of the galley.
Miller’s eyes followed him; his fork remained suspended in mid-air. The men beside him continued eating without a single word.
Men left wives and girlfriends and kids ashore, cracking jokes about getting sixty days of peace and quiet. The only communication from home came in the form of a one-way “Fam-Gram” message delivered weekly by radio, limited to one hundred characters in length. Some transmissions came in garbled. Some messages never made it in at all. Thus a cryptic reference to an earlier comment or a statement without apparent context often left the recipient utterly perplexed.
Miller’s fiancé had quickly learned efficiency in writing: abbreviate, skip pronouns and conjunctions, encode wherever possible. Her Fam-Grams conveyed a brief but entire conversation, full statements of affection and desire in just a hundred characters. Other guys’ wives weren’t so clever.
“What the hell does this shit mean?” Torrance, a Chief Radioman well liked for liberally loaning from his collection of porn mags, held the message in one beefy fist. The three other men in the workout room paused in their repetitions.
Torrance cleared his throat. ‘COULD NOT FIGURE HOW TO WORK LAWN MOWER SO I HIRED A SERVICE. MANUEL IS VERY ATTENTIVE. GRASS LOOKS GREAT. LOVE, CINDY.’
As there was no means to reply for clarification, men were sometimes left scratching their heads or driven to double up on smoke breaks to try to calm their frazzled nerves. Still, these scraps of sentiments were the only lifeline to the outside world. Sailors often kept the wrinkled slips of paper in the chest pockets of their Poopy suits, easily retrievable during moments when minds were prone to stray places they really weren’t meant to go.
At the end of cruises, women would rush down the pier to embrace their men, anxious to spend time with them. After the first elated hours of reunification, when men began retreating into their caves at home or fled their houses and inevitable arguments erupted, women would cry, “Why don’t you want to spend time with me? You’ve been alone for two months!” A common misconception on the families’ parts. Without their significant others, perhaps. But never alone.
Miller discovered after all that time with all those guys, a sort of decompression period was in order. His fiancé, a veteran sailor recently separated from service, was sympathetic. She knew the old Navy joke about submarine deployments: a hundred guys go down, fifty couples come back up. It was a tired joke, but still worth a laugh.
Miller didn’t have to explain it to death, but he did provide enough insight so that his fiancé wouldn’t freak when he wanted to be alone. Of the slow but inevitable mounting desperation for seclusion, Miller summed it up this way: “Think about it: for sixty days, you take every meal with a few dozen men. You work twelve hours a day beside a handful of others. You sleep with a dozen guys -- hell, you actually share a bed with one of them. You shit, shower and shave, always with other guys. There is nowhere to go, not one single spot, where you are the only person there.”
Military members often claim that one of the best experiences from their time in service was the prevailing sense of camaraderie. That you could take people from all walks of life -- different races, cultures, religions and personal histories -- and unite them to accomplish a single purpose -- was nothing short of amazing.
Ashore, there was always some place to go when some guy got under your skin. When Okie from the Skokie pulled his twangy bullshit accent during a friendly-debate- turned-sour, when the redneck from Alabama who you knew grew up around Skinheads started spouting crap about how the country was going to hell, when the kid who signed up to get away from the gang-life back home flared a bit of attitude from the ‘hood, you could just walk away. Take a deep breath, step outside for some air, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Come back a few minutes later to find everyone somehow managed to get their shit together and get the job done. Mission first, always.
Underway on a sub, options for escaping the irritants of diversity were limited. And certain distinctions stood out more than others. During Miller’s 1990 Atlanta deployment, homosexuality was still banned in the military. But every trip seemed to have one in the closet, a condition hard to hide while entombed with a hundred other guys.
Miller himself had been the unfortunate subject of one such crush. At least a half dozen guys had gleefully informed him about McAllister spying on him as he came out of the head, or lurking in a corner of Shaft Alley to watch him as he worked out. He’d shrugged this chatter off until the day McAllister, who was in charge of space inspections, invited him along on an inspection of a torpedo tube that could scarcely fit one body let alone two. McAllister claimed the close-up perspective of the tight, confined tube would help Miller prepare for his upcoming qualification board. Miller quickly held up a hand and told McAllister no thanks, he was good to go.
No one knew for sure but everyone had their suspicions about McAllister, which they were more than happy to share with Miller. And after weeks of endless ribbing from the crew, Miller decided enough was enough.
On Day Thirty-two Miller emerged from the shower with just a thin white towel wrapped loosely round his waist. He strategically positioned himself on the makeshift pull-up bar bolted into the overhead. McAllister had been hovering near the Nautilus machine. He watched from a shadowy space along the bulkhead, his gut straining against his coveralls and his head wobbling on his neck. His face was as pale as biscuit dough, with squinty eyes darting from the deck to the overhead where Miller hung from his arms. Miller pulled his chin upward to the bar once, twice, three times. McAllister’s eyes followed each rise and fall, one thin hand pressed to his chest. Miller stared straight ahead at the bulkhead. Then, wiggling his hips a few inches to each side, he allowed the piece of linen to “accidentally” drop to the deck and continued the set of pull-ups undeterred.
First snickering then twittering laughter bubbled up around the space, men wiping at their eyes and slapping their thighs as McAllister’s face flooded hot red. A blue vein above his right brow pulsed as his eyes widened. He stumbled past the Nautilus machine, through the open hatch and down the passageway.
Word spread like wildfire through the boat and from that point forward Miller was no longer just another “rider,” generally ignored by the regular crew. Despite his temporal status, for the remainder of the trip, he was a rock star.
Miller attempted to relay the humor of this incident to his fiancé upon his return. Such things always seem funnier at the time they occur.
The exact missions and operating areas of U.S. Navy submarines are classified. Submarines submerge for a reason. Submarines seek to be stealth. The crew leaves hatches ajar to avoid the clanking of metal hitting metal. Men wear sneakers to minimize the thud of hard soles treading across the deck. At certain times, silence is mandatory. Other times men converse in normal but low tones, sparsely, only as necessary to communicate. Sound is their enemy. Sound can get them discovered. Discovery can get them killed.
Somewhere around Day Forty the boat prepared to rise to periscope depth and the crew carried out the Captain’s orders. Receive the radio traffic transmission, survey the surrounding landscape, submerge quickly and quietly. Miller and a few shipmates were playing a game of Spades in the galley. Other than the occasional clang of lunch dishes being washed, the space maintained the prevailing hush they had all grown accustomed to -- an absence of din and discord that hallmarked the passing minutes and lulled the crew into a semi-meditative state. As the Atlanta rose meter by meter, the men concentrated on their hands of cards, hardly noticing the change in buoyancy.
Miller’s partner had just announced a nil hand when they felt a heavy thud. A long, slow, high-pitched scraping noise followed. The steel bulkheads began to shake and the deck to tremor. The four men at the table froze, the whites of their eyes growing huge in their sockets.
Seconds passed that felt like hours. The scraping and shaking ceased and the boat listed slightly to portside. And then began a sudden descent.
“Holy shit!” Miller’s partner cried. “We’re gonna die!” The men dropped their cards and gripped the edges of the table. The boat continued sinking rapidly into the depths.
When it leveled out two minutes later the men waited for the final thump that never came. The boat righted itself somewhere around two hundred meters. The men in the galley -- and all over the boat -- exhaled in a nearly simultaneous, single breath.
They learned only later that the Quartermaster’s charting had been gravely in error; the periscope had snapped like a twig when it hit the huge, hulking white-blue chunk of ice bobbing near the surface. The frozen slate had effortlessly overtaken the alien creature rising unwittingly from the darkened depths, blinding it again with its glazed and frigid glare.
The unscheduled port call in Scotland for repairs prompted a three-day drunken stupor. Chiefs directed sailors to find lodging and stay out of trouble. No one breathed a word to the natives of the incident that had brought them to town.
Miller’s team stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast owned by a Scot who also ran the pub next door. In Faslane, town law prohibited consumption after two a.m. It took a little convincing but someone talked the innkeeper into bending the rules.
“I’ll have to lock you in though,” the gregarious fellow laughed. “No one enters or leaves between the hours of two and six.”
The innkeeper’s wife stood nearby, fleshy arms folded over her ample bosom. “Lock them in?” She clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Isn’t that a bit like locking a pack of foxes inside a full chicken coop?”
The men decided they would sacrifice and suffer through.
On the last evening in town the men ventured out of the inn to visit some other establishments. Wandering down cobblestone streets, they popped into pub after pub, soaking in the last of the culture before their departure the next morning. Miller’s team found their way to a dark yet still cheery little place called the Logie Baird. They secured three tables in the back room and ordered a round of shots for all. Cursing and hollering, the men were a raucous lot. Free of the moorings of their muteness while underway, they would make the most of their final moments of parole.
Miller stumbled past the bar into the head to relieve himself, and when he returned he noticed a guy seated on a stool, frothing beer in front of him. Slumped against one elbow propped on the bar-top sat McAllister, alone. Miller froze, and in an ironic reversal of circumstances, stood watching for a few moments from the corner. His cheeks and ears burned, whether from the alcohol he couldn’t tell. He harbored no hard feelings toward McAllister -- no harm, no foul. He would buy the guy a pint; words need not be exchanged. Just the simple motion to the barkeep and the placing of a few pounds on the bar would say all that needed to be said.
Miller stepped from the shadows and took a few paces in the direction of the bar.
“Hey!” someone cried out just then from the back room. “What the hell you doing out there, Miller? We’re waiting on you, man.” Shouting and laughter erupted amidst the clinking of glasses, the group growing rowdier by the minute.
McAllister at once cocked his head toward the outburst, his eyes landing on Miller standing some ten feet away. The two men regarded each other for a few seconds. Just as Miller raised three fingers to signal the barkeep, McAllister rose from his stool. From the wad in his pocket he peeled three one-pound notes and laid them on the bar beside his mug. Without a word he walked out the door, leaving a nearly full pint of beer behind.
The most anticipated day of the deployment. Fresh air and sunshine. Long hot showers, a bed shared solely by choice -- and more for screwing than sleeping, at least for the first twenty-four hours or so. Men spent the final days of the cruise fantasizing about what they would do when they got home. Fuck their wives and girlfriends -- though not at the same time. Drive across town to their favorite liquor store. Lock the bathroom door and sit on the shitter for twenty minutes, or at least long enough to get through a full copy of Sports Illustrated. Lounge in their favorite recliner in their underwear with a cold Bud Light and the television remote. Little things they took for granted when ashore.
Miller planned to go for a five mile run through the wooded trails near his house. He wanted to see his favorite barber for the full-service cut -- shampoo and neck shave and all. He needed to unpack his shit and get his stinking uniforms in the laundry. Beyond that, he didn’t have much of an agenda.
Upon their return, Miller’s fiancé met him on the pier. She wore a lacy pink camisole top, a short black skirt that hugged her ass and a pair of black pumps that added four inches to her petite five foot two frame. He could tell from her styled hair and manicured nails she’d recently been to the salon.
Miller wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet. “Did you ditch the boyfriend?”
Kelly smacked his shoulder and grinned. “Sent him packing hours ago.”
In the car, he leaned over to the passenger seat and ran one hand under the stretchy black fabric and mid-way up the soft fold of Kelly’s inner thigh. With the other hand he pulled her head to his and kissed her long and slow.
“Are you excited?” she asked when they finally broke apart from each other.
“Oh yeah,” Miller replied. “I can’t wait to peel that skirt off of you.”
“No not for that,” Kelly laughed. “I meant for the party tomorrow.”
Miller’s face went blank for a moment until he remembered. He could not recall how he ever agreed to the brilliant plan to have their wedding shower the day after his return. All their family and friends would be there, peppering them with stupid questions about the color of the brides-maids dresses and the flavor of the icing on the cake. Kelly’s sister would be singing the praises of the new mega-church she’d just joined and proselytizing the virtues of an alcohol-free reception. His mother would spend the evening interrogating him on their plans for popping out her first grandkid. Miller found it colossally fucked up timing to have to suffer such an event.
He wanted to hop into the back seat of one of the taxis lined up outside the main gate and tell them to drop him at the nearest bar. Instead he shot Kelly a crooked grin that he hoped came off as disarming. “Of course I’m excited. Can’t wait.”
Through the windshield he spotted Chavez at the end of the pier bending down to lift a small, wide-eyed girl about four years old high into the air before hugging her to his chest. A pretty Hispanic woman lingered nearby, her face lit into a broad smile. Miller wondered what the Chavez family would have for dinner that evening. He hoped to God it wasn’t beef.
The crew of the Atlanta dispersed, all but those unfortunate souls on duty. Some to return after forty-eight hours liberty, some for watch the very next day. Miller’s direct support team returned their equipment to base and headed to bars and homecoming parties and family dinners, already savoring the sweet taste of sixty days ashore before the next deployment.
Miller almost made it through the night. Rick kept the tequila coming -- “What’s a best man for?!” Rick roared between shots -- and somewhere between those and the six or seven Heineken, Miller became pretty adept at keeping a smile pasted on and his mouth shut. He stood beside Kelly with a hand resting lightly on the small of her back and let her answer all the questions about the wedding. He feigned an urgent need to help his brother attend the grill every time his mother entered the room.
After dinner he found Kelly in the kitchen with her sister and another girl whose name he couldn’t remember, talking about save-the-date etiquette and seasonal flowers. Rita’s eyes dropped to the empty bottle in his hand and her lips pursed into a frown.
“Of course,” Rita declared, “the groom wouldn’t know about any of this since he didn’t have to lift a finger to help. Kelly has done all the work.”
Miller shot her a sideways glance and reached into the refrigerator for another Heineken. He had always wondered how Kelly got all the looks while Rita possessed the rough, elongated features of a field horse.
“But isn’t that always the way with men,” she snorted. “Conveniently finding other things to do and places to be when there’s work to be done.”
This was typical Rita, self-appointed expert on men and their propensity for slacking. Rita’s husband Denny had spent most of the evening cowering in a corner. Earlier Miller had offered him a shot of Cuervo and caught Denny’s eyes skipping across the room to Rita’s disapproving glare. “No thanks, brother.” Denny had shaken his head and barked a short, nervous laugh. “That stuff’ll kill you.” Rita had smirked in their direction as Miller shrugged and walked away.
In the kitchen now Rita blathered on and Miller took a long swallow of cold foamy liquid and thought about shoving a bit into her mouth.
“They are just clueless about everything that has to be done for something like this,” she continued. “All the phone calls and e-mails and endless details -- they have no idea.”
“C’mon, Rita.” Kelly frowned. “Give him a break. You know he’s been away.”
“Yes and what perfect timing,” Rita broke into a bray, “disappearing for months at a time in the midst of all this wedding planning.”
Miller slammed the green bottle down on the countertop and spun on his future sister-in-law. “And what the hell do you think I’ve been doing for the past few months you dumb bitch? Sitting around with my thumb up my ass?”
The room fell silent. Rita’s mouth dropped open. Kelly clenched her jaw and bit down into her lower lip.
“And another thing,” Miller slurred hot, sour breath inches from Rita’s reddened face. “If I want to have a few drinks at my own god-damned wedding -- hell, if I want to get shit-faced -- you bet your ass I will.”
He glanced over to see his mother hovering in the doorway, her eyes wide. He brushed past her into the living room and she hissed into his ear, “What is wrong with you? You ought to be ashamed.”
“You’re right.” He shrugged her hand off his arm and headed for the front door. “I should.”
One great thing about the United States Navy: a guaranteed change of place -- and often pace -- every three years. Tours came and went, shipmates bid farewell without regret. Sailors commonly ran into each other years down the line, at another place of duty, on another steel deck, in some other mess hall often all the way around the world.
Granted, sub duty was special. Men who earned subsurface qualifications displayed their “Dolphin” insignia with pride. So few pulled this duty, it was almost considered elite. “Remember when...“ -- one of the fondest openings for conversation between two guys who rode submarines, whether the same ones at the same time or not. Some guys reached the pinnacle of their careers while on sub duty and never seemed to find anything that satisfied in the same way. Those were the guys you would run into five, ten, fifteen years down the road who could sit and preach for hours about those glory days.
Miller carried fond memories after his separation, but he was not one who couldn’t let go. He’d been happy to donate his uniforms to the Sailor’s Secondhand Locker and grow a modest but respectable beard, albeit one of the few things Kelly really bitched at him about. He’d stood his ground; no more regulations meant just that -- no more.
As for sharing stories, well, he’d sat through a few bar-side chats here and there about various deployments, but mostly in listening mode, nodding and smiling as the guy bought another round. A decade after calling it quits and landing a decent job that still allowed him to travel, he could honestly say he enjoyed looking forward to the journeys ahead a hell of a lot more than reflecting on those behind.
Of course now he flew business class with a briefcase and laptop instead of a Seabag. Yet one thing he did miss were the great ports of call. The company would never send him through Spain, New Zealand, Dubai or Singapore. The old recruiting slogan was no lie: join the Navy, see the world. Miller had been sad to trade that in for the stateside business trips he now enjoyed, despite the frequent flier perks and plush hotels. And the company travel office occasionally did things on the cheap, booking a stop en route to save a buck or two.
Take Detroit, for example -- a shitty place for a layover. Miller had first flown through in the early nineties, and twenty years did not change the fact that Detroit was still Detroit, a heavy gray shadow perpetually cast over the city and a dreary, dull pall afflicting the general population. But the airport had a bar with two big screen TVs and he could watch the game, uninterrupted and anonymous. The third quarter had just started and his flight did not leave for ninety minutes, plenty of time to see Dallas kick some serious Pittsburg ass.
The Cowboys’ kicker sent the ball sailing into the end zone when Miller noticed, from the corner of his eye, a trio enter the bar. Military: two Marines and a Sailor, only the color of the camouflage and the rank insignia to distinguish their branch of service. Uniforms pressed. Boots clean. Probably headed for The Sandbox.
They sauntered in and found a round top near the wall, tossed their rucksacks on the floor and hopped onto stools. Their arrival turned heads and drew admiring nods from patrons.
Miller’s gaze flicked their way. They were young and fidgety, feet tapping, eyes skipping around the bar. They were itching to go. One of the Marines scanned the room until he saw the bartender.
“Hey, can we get three Coors over here?” he called out.
The bartender pointed an index finger in their direction. “You got it, my friend.”
Miller shifted his body, so that he was half-watching the game and half-studying the group of men. They propped elbows on the table, leaned in toward each other, spoke in low tones punctuated occasionally by barked obscenities and spikes of laughter. Miller noted the relaxed position of their bodies, their sense of ease in each other’s company. Their shared sense of purpose and exclusivity. They were like no other patrons in the bar, but more importantly, no other patrons were like them.
Miller imagined them packed together in convoy trucks heading down a dusty Kandahar road, pulling cigarettes from their pockets and offering them to one another. Sharing jokes and swapping good-natured barbs from their cots within a tent pitched beneath a pitch-black desert sky. Speaking the names of wives and girlfriends back home as if everyone knew each other when in reality no one knew anyone at all.
Miller raised his eyes to the screen and the scotch tumbler to his lips. The Steelers led by a touchdown and the Dallas defense looked half asleep on the field. He glanced back to the small band of brothers. He could send over the next round, a nice gesture. They might invite him over to thank him. Small talk might lead them down the road to his own time in service -- hell, they might even pull a few sea stories from him before he had to go board his plane.
Miller waited for one of the three men to look up and catch his eye, but not a single one looked his way. And why would they? To them, he was just another guy on a barstool, waiting for his flight.
Miller’s eyes dropped to his nearly empty glass. These guys on their way into combat would not want to hear his stories. He was a relic, an antique, not one of them. Hot, pulsing blood flooded Miller’s neck and face; he downed the remaining amber liquid in one swallow.
As the initial anger passed, something jarred loose from within him. He felt as if he was somehow not a part of this place but watching from above, floating, weightless and free. A calm began to settle over him, a dawning awareness of the possibilities born of anonymity. An awakening of sorts. A liberation. A kind of rebirth in progress.
Miller rose from his stool and reached for the black carry-on bag at his feet. He waved over the bartender and tossed two twenties onto the bar. “Can you send another round to those guys over there?” He nudged his head in the direction of the three men.
“Sure thing.” The bartended nodded. “Who should I say it’s from?”
Miller slung his bag over his shoulder. “Say it’s from a friend.” And without looking back, he walked out into the airport terminal and merged into the stream of random strangers rushing past.