written July 3, 2006
A hazy blue van is slowly chasing myself and a group of three others through Germany. I knew they would catch us, somehow- it was only a matter of time. The Autobahn would only delay the inevitable. The riders in the blue van would find us. They would never tire, and we would be found—
“Man overboard! Man overboard! All divisions submit muster reports-“
Instantly I am no longer in Germany, and the blue van is but a memory. I take a breath, thrown from my sleep, suddenly having to gathering my thoughts. There is already a hustle of bodies, a flurry of activity from beyond my curtains.
This wasn’t a drill.
It was too late to be one, surely. What time could it possibly be, I asked myself as I chose my moment to spring from my bed, driving headlong for my coveralls hanging on a hook. I reach up and over a sailor busily tying his boots, at the same time sidestepping another, already dressed. The lights have not come on, and the entire berthing is cast in a dim red light. I take a stab at my own boots, grasping them and then finding a open spot to lurch them onto my feet. All around me are the normally dull and indifferent, suddenly clear and full of purpose. Voices compete with each other in the cramped space.
“What is this, a fucking drill?”
“Better the fuck not be, it’s two o’clock in the fucking morning!”
“Pass me my belt, man.”
“Shit, get your own fucking belt, motherfucker.”
Already a short line has formed at the ladder leading up from berthing,comprised of men in various forms of undress. The guy in front of me as I scale the steps up and out of the small circular hatch is wearing only boxer sand his slippers. Racing up the next level, up and through the darkened ship, I wonder if someone really is out there, lost amid the black waters.
A mechanicalized voice resonates throughout the ship.
“Man has been in the water two minutes!”
I reach sonar, flinging open the metal door and stepping up inside, having to adjust my eyes to the normal light. Less than a minute ago I had been sound sleep. I rub my stubbled face unconsciously in an effort to wake up. Second Class Brown is the only other one in sonar, being on watch, and hands me a freshly-printed muster report that will soon let the bridge know we are all accounted for— if we really are.
One, then another, and then another, appears through the same door from which I had just arrived. I start to jot an “X” next to the corresponding name for face I see, but not all have shown up yet.
“He’s right behind you, Carlson,” says one, exasperatedly. I don’t lookup.
“Then make yourself useful and call out names,” I tiredly shoot back. Another few spaces on my list are filled in, and we are awaiting only one.
“Man has been in the water four minutes!”
“Fuck, man,” says just arrived Musgrove. “And I’ve got the next watch in twenty-minutes,too.” I can’t believe he’s complaining.
The last arrives, and I rush through combat, and up the stairs of the bridge,and into a pitch-black void. I can’t see anything, or anyone. It is crowded though, and warm bodies are briskly brushing by me. I need to find the person to give this report to. He is usually stationed at a table to the left,so I fight my way through. The captain is giving an order to my right, directing for the small boat to be lowered in the water to begin a search.
“CS-2 division, all accounted for,” I call. I wait to make sure it’s been registered what I said, and the watch has the muster. I carefully make my way down the stairs and return through a hectic combat, in the midst of tracking the signal being sent from the sea.
“Man bears one-eight-seven, four-hundred-eighty yards!”
* * * *
It had been only the previous morning the entire ship had conducted a “safety stand down,” to emphasis the need for preparedness in the case of an emergency. One of the stations each group visited was concerned with life vests, and what to do if you found yourself thrown over the side.
“As you know, this is a kem light,” the old boatswain’s mate rustily said to the semi-circle of sailors. “When broken it will glow neon, lighting you up like a fuckin’ Christmas tree. There is also this thing here— a remote beacon— that sends a signal to the ship upon its activation by saltwater.”
It seemed bland and boring, the thirtieth time told how to cross the street by looking both ways. How long ‘til lunch?
“There is also this flashing light, bright as a motherfucker, let me tell you.” The mate turned on the blue life jacket he was holding, letting us all get a look at it. “And then of course as the ever-trusty whistle.”
* * * *
Assuming, I now think, that whoever it is has one on.
Sonar has already cleared, a few heading back to their beds to continue their sleep. I can’t understand their utter lack of compassion, or morbid excitement. I settle into a chair and listen for words being passed from the bridge.
“Man has been in the water seven minutes.”
“Carlson,” Brown says, “you don’t have to stay here any longer, the muster reports been turned in,” like I wasn’t the one who had done it. I simply say I know. I couldn’t shake the fearful thrill that this was real, and could have very dire consequences. Did I have my dress whites ready in case of a funeral? Things like this will go through your mind in these cases, believe me.
“YNSN Cox, pilothouse!,” calls the ever-urgent voice over the loudspeaker.
Now they are calling the few not found on any muster reports. There were always a few: the tardy, the involved. Any of these names, these people could be the one, I sit thinking. I knew Cox, he had helped me find a college website in the spring. Besides that and his name I didn’t know him at all. But I could say that about most.
“AW1 Blake, pilothouse!” comes another name. Blake. Blake answered some questions a week ago for a press release I had been asked to wrote, all about the rescue of two Germans lost at sea. The story and paper fizzled without a juicy enough plot, but the Germans had been rescued. So Blake might be the one.
“Man has been in the water eleven minutes! Expedite submitting muster reports to the pilothouse!” Some divisions are still waiting on people to show up.
My mind drifts away from the safety of the small, bobbing frigate.
It’s cold, and I’m chilled to the bone, but I’m too afraid for my life for this to be my first concern. My primary fear is the high crests of water rising and falling all about me. All is dark, and I struggle to keep my head above the water. With every swell I am knocked to the left or right, the water seeming to come up from directly beneath me, from all sides. It is all I can do to push my body up from the waves and search for the closest light, and the saving glow of the ship. I think I see something, but I can’t be sure. The temperature of the water is now getting me to me, and I shake in a futile fight to get warm. The lights are far off, too far. The light doesn’t even know I’m out here.
“Musgrove better hurry back to take this watch so I can hit my rack,” says Brown, pulling my thoughts back aboard. I don’t look at him.
“Man now bares one-eight-five, four-hundred yards.” At this moment SAR swimmers, having donned their wet-suits, are being lowered in the ship’s boat, to look for the kem light seen floating in the dark.
And there I wait, as the moments tick by, and the reports come in that all on board are accounted for. Somehow, supposedly, a kem light had accidentally found its way overboard, sans a wearer. I finally rise from the chair and begin the descent into berthing, with all my other shipmates, blessed with the good fortune of being alive and well this night.
“All that for a fucking kem light, Jesus Christ,” says one.