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Authors: Luke Rhinehart

Long Voyage Back

BOOK: Long Voyage Back
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Signalling the new attitude over a year ago, George Bush spoke of emerging a 'winner' in a nuclear exchange - and more recently, Administration officials have talked of surviving a limited war in better shape than the other side. Many critics believe that mere discussion of 'winnable' nuclear war increases the chance of one occurring and inevitably escalating into full-scale conflict. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist agrees: at the end of 1980 its famous `doomsday clock' was moved up three notches to just four minutes before midnight . . .

Newsweek, 5 October 1981

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in an unusual action, declared today that their '

doomsday clock' was now at thirty-seven seconds to midnight. It was the first time the scientists have used seconds rather than minutes in their periodic assessments of the probable proximity of nuclear war . . .

A.P. Bulletin, 9 January 1985

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,

cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy the sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising

and the moon will not shed its light .. . Therefore will I make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place .. .

Isaiah, 13:9-10, 13


This is not a ship's log nor an official report. Although notes we have taken over the last year have certainly helped, it's also not our diaries and journals. What we've tried to do, for ourselves primarily, for some future readers if there are any, is to re-create what it was like for those we knew and for us, for this small family &people who are, still survivors.

We make no effort to take a global view, nor have we pretensions to being historians. We have no thesis. We are interested in people, in those who survived the initial holocaust, whom we met, knew, tried to save, in some cases failed to save; how we all, the remnants, coped with the aftermath; how we were dragged down by it, so often failing. Yet some of us survive. At this point that alone gives our story significance. The room was crowded, its occupants scurrying from place to place in organized chaos. A gigantic videoscreen filled the north wall, showing a map of the earth with lighted and blinking symbols indicating weapons, forces, counterforces. A second, smaller screen high on the east wall spewed forth printed messages, with an inventory of warheads, explosive power, probable targets, number of casualties. Along the south wall were ten desk-size computers, each with a uniformed man watching it as ancient priests-watched moiling entrails. Along the western wall was a long table at which sat thirteen men, all but one of them uniformed, listening to the man at the head of the table speak to them in a sullen, lugubrious tone of the intentions of the enemy, the probability of surviving various war scenarios.

There was no joy or humour in the room. The seriousness had a disjointed, alienated quality as of men working hard at a job they don't quite understand, discussing alternatives they don't quite believe in. The sullenness that marked many of the faces was the expression of men doing what was expected of them, but doing things they didn't want to be doing. Their voices were sometimes high-pitched, close to cracking. A few of the eyes seemed wild. When one general burst out passionately in favour of one course of action, a few looked at him as if he were mad; others looked at him gloomily, nodding. When an admiral spoke for the opposite course of action, a few looked at him as if he were mad; others looked at him gloomily, shaking their heads, The words spoken, whether coolly or in anger, sadness or nervous panic, all had about them a scientific detachment as consistent and codified as the uniforms most of them wore.

They were eminently reasonable words, and they poured out across the table with the sporadic urgency of a teletype machine rolling out its messages: nullify evasive evacuation . . . no more than eighty million . . . reduce counterstrike potential by fortytwo per cent . . . state of belligerency inherent in . . . dilute the economic infrastructure . .

. diversification of missile response . reduced military options necessitated by the higher kill ratio . . . the incidental effects of maximizing radiation . . . nullifying recuperative capacity .. .

Behind the ten desks the ten uniformed men stared at the ten computers. On the north wall the giant screen blinked out its kaleidoscope of pulsating lights like a pinball machine; a few uniformed men stared up at it as if waiting for it to tally the final score. Eventually the men at the long table seemed to reach some sort of decision. A telephone was brought to one of them. With the receiver at his ear he waited patiently for the proper connection. The others watched, some smoking, others staring at the table. None spoke. None bothered to look at either of the videoscreens. None smiled. The man with the phone began speaking respectfully to the party at the other end, paused, listening, then spoke again. After less than two minutes he hung up. The others looked at him. Two orderlies began placing cups and saucers in front of the officers and pouring out a hot steaming liquid. The man cleared his throat and uttered a simple declarative sentence indicating that the man he had spoken to had decided to adopt the course of action they had just recommended. None spoke. None leapt to action. None smiled. One man sipped at the hot steaming liquid; then another man sipped. At the end of the table opposite the presiding officer a man began to cry. The officer opposite him glared angrily; two other men looked away, tightlipped.

The presiding officer began to speak again in a tense, gloomy voice, addressing first one man and then another

down the table. One by one the men rose to depart. Most hurried. None spoke. None smiled.

Left at the table finally were the presiding officer and the man who was crying. The first, sullen and gloomy, rose and left. Only one man was left.

Her three white hulls slicing quietly through the water, her giant genoa bellying out to starboard, Vagabond sailed into the Bay. Neil Loken sat in the port cockpit of the large trimaran watching the causeway of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, through which they had just passed, recede behind them. At the wheel Jim Stoor was peering ahead and shifting his weight excitedly from one foot to the other. Although his father owned Vagabond, this was the first time Jim had made a landfall after a long ocean passage, and his boyish face, haloed by the rays of the early morning sun, showed it. He appeared to Neil at that moment - his slender broad-shouldered body bronzed by their five days at sea

-like a seagoing Pan.

But Neil didn't share Jim's excitement and joy. Sailing up into the huge mouth and throat of the Bay depressed him. He was an ocean sailor; he rarely enjoyed leaving the clear deep waters of the open sea for the mud and shallows of ground-enclosed bays and inlets. And it didn't help that the Chesapeake was a sort of home. Neil had attended the US

Naval Academy at Annapolis for four years and, after serving in Vietnam for three, captained a forty-six-foot sloop based in Norfolk for several summers. Sailing down the Bay out to sea had often meant adventure, freedom, escape. Sailing into it meant land, civilization, the complications of returning home.

As he looked forward to examine the set of the mainsail and genoa and check Jim's course towards the next buoy, Neil was troubled too by the quite mundane fact that Vagabond's propeller shaft had been struck and bent by a submerged log off Cape Hatteras and the big trimaran thus

had no auxiliary engine power. How long it would take to sail her the next seventy-five miles up to Point Lookout to pick up Frank Stoor and his guests now depended on the wind, a notoriously unreliable friend, especially in the Chesapeake.

`Hey, look!' Jim suddenly said, pointing past Neil towards Norfolk. 'Warships. Three of them.'

Turning, Neil saw low on the horizon three long grey vessels steaming out of Hampton Roads heading out of the southern channel to the bridge and -the ocean. Two were destroyers, the third a ship the Navy must have designed since he'd resigned his commission. A supply ship maybe - but since when was a supply ship accompanied by two destroyers?

Ì wonder where they're going,' Jim went on, looking past Neil now through binoculars, holding the large stainless steel wheel in place by the pressure of his bare chest. Like Neil he was wearing only a pair of blue jean cut-offs.

`There are always a few ships from the Norfolk Naval Base either coming or going,' Neil said quietly, but even as he spoke he recognized yet another reason he was depressed: the slow, awkward, terrifying way the US and Russia seemed to be trying to frighten each other into war. For the last three days, the radio news reports had been increasingly disturbing. On Wednesday an American reconnaissance plane downed by an Iraqi missile, probably fired from a launcher manned by Russians; yesterday the US rejecting the Soviet mutual troop withdrawal proposal, labelling it extortionate; today the US

government reinforcing its marine units in Saudi Arabia. Neil had listened to these radio reports alone.

`You ever serve in ships like those?' Jim asked, lowering his binoculars and smiling with his general excitement.

`No, I was lucky,' Neil replied, turning back to Jim. 'They put me in the smallest combat vessels the Navy had - coastal patrol boats.'

`You ever get sunk?' Jim asked next.

Neil smiled, his usually stern face suddenly lit, his blue eyes crinkling. Jim's boyish curiosity about things always redeemed for Neil some otherwise annoying habits: listening to loud rock music at every opportunity; leaving food, towels, dishes, clothing strewn about the boat as if they were precious jewels he was magnanimously bestowing upon the poverty-ridden ship; his penchant for pot . . . But Jim's enthusiasm redeemed him; that, and the important fact that he'd turned out to be an excellent sailor.

`No, I can't say I did,' Neil replied, standing up and watching the distant warships. 'In fact, most of the war I and some of my men were thoroughly depressed that no one ever fired at us.'

`But Dad said you were wounded,' Jim said.

Òh, yes,' Neil agreed. 'Occasionally we got lucky.' Ànd you sank a lot of ships?'

`So they say.' Neil could feel himself tensing over the direction the conversation was taking. He walked towards Jim and began doing chin-ups from the edge of the wheel-house roof. He had a muscular gymnast's body, browned from the sun like Jim's, but thicker, more mature; that of a well-conditioned athlete in his thirties. Like Jim he held his six foot height with military erectness. But his face, unlike Jim's, was weathered and lined, a light scar running into his hairline at his right temple. His blue eyes often pinned people with distracting coldness, but could suddenly lighten and crinkle with the warmth of his smile. His shock of thick brown hair was uncombed and stiffly awry from the saltwater and wind.

`Well?' insisted Jim.

Neil lowered himself from the last chin-up and moved into the wheelhouse and stood beside the eighteen-year-old. Two empty glasses sat on the wheelhouse shelf, reminders of the whisky they'd drunk at dawn when they'd sighted land for the first time since northern Florida. Neil picked up one and drained it. Ìt was a pushbutton war, even for the smallest ships,' he said slowly. 'We killed at long range. If we ever happened to see what havoc we had fashioned it was always a little disconcerting to find that the "enemy gunboat" or "'Cong supply ship" looked suspiciously like a fishing boat, and the dead and dying like bony fishermen.' Neil paused, staring through the windows of the wheelhouse forward past Vagabond's wide white deck and mainmast to the grey bay stretching out ahead.

`Some of them must have been . . . 'Cong,' said Jim. Òh, sure,' said Neil. Ìs that why you resigned your commission?'

`That and a dozen other reasons.'

He didn't go on. He walked back out of the wheelhouse to end the conversation. He knew he'd been the wrong man for the job. When he'd graduated from Annapolis he'd been fully prepared to stand on the poopdeck of his ship and fight to the last man. But he wasn't prepared to stand and blast away not knowing whether he was killing good guys or bad guys, rarely being fired at in return, and being forbidden by standing orders to pick up the wounded survivors.

Resigning his commission had been both a protest against a specific war, and an acknowledgement that for him, even were the war 'justified', the technological and impersonal means of fighting it were not. For years after resigning he'd been a loner, unfit for either the unregimented chaos of civilian life or companionship with his old Navy friends. A woman had brought him back to life, but after a year and a half, with the abrupt arbitrariness of battle, she'd been killed in an auto accident. Since then he'd found a healthier aloneness as professional captain of wealthy men's yachts, reestablishing some of the order that he'd liked in military life, and finding a closeness with the sea and sky that seemed to heal.

Staring upwards at the set of the mainsail he noticed two trails of jet vapour inching across the sky, the thin cotton lines tinged with pink and seeming to emerge from nowhere in the west and to be disappearing nowhere to the east. The planes themselves were invisible. When a loud sonic boom broke the stillness of early morning, Jim turned quickly towards Neil.

BOOK: Long Voyage Back
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