The XO braces himself in the ejection seat with his right arm locked on the canopy bow towel rack, left arm braced against the rail, holding the engines at full power. He puts his head back against the seat, peeks to his left at the deck-edge cat operator and catches him just as he fires the catapult. The XO bites down on a scream of mingled primal joy and physical strain as jet bounces up and down the long catapult stroke. His body is pressed against the seat by the g-forces as even his eyeballs flatten, making the flight instruments in the HUD momentarily unreadable. But after a long moment, it is over and his heavily laden fighter wallows, rather than springs into the air on this hot day in an Arabian Gulf summer. Airborne, by God.
A clearing turn follows (gently, now: gently – heavy and hot and low as we are) then straight ahead at 500 feet until clear of the overhead pattern. There’s no one waiting to land of course, this is the first “real” launch of the day, but there’s only one right way to do this, and in this case it actually is the “Navy way.” He thumbs the radar into search while idly looking around for sea-based traffic. A few scattered dhows here and there, and a massive oil tanker hull up on the horizon. Inbound to Bushehr, most likely. Clear of the pattern finally, and throttles to military power, capture best climb airspeed and there… raise the nose for the climb to the air force refueling aircraft. No traffic anywhere: It’s good to be the first airborne.
Back on the flight deck, the launch continues. The FA-18 strike fighters first, then the E-2 Hawkeye and finally the EA-6B Prowler. The E-2 is slower than the fighters of course, but doesn’t need to tank, can’t tank in fact – and isn’t going to go “in-country,” so it hasn’t got as far to go. The Prowler won’t need as much gas, not right away.
One of the FA-18E’s is tanker configured, he’ll remain overhead as a backstop for the recovery – just in case. A squadron mate joins him overhead the ship at angels six to ensure that his refueling package works properly prior to proceeding on mission to the USAF tanker track. Satisfied, the tanker pilot reports “Sweet” to the carrier air traffic control center, then settles back into his seat for what promises to be a very boring hour and a half. The tanker pilot reflects that, in a Hollywood movie, he would at this point plug in an iPod and rock n’ roll his way to Bagdhad, escaping death a dozen different ways and saving the girl at the end. It isn’t a movie though, and they also serve who wait overhead to pass gas, so he checks around for traffic carefully before turning the jet over to the autopilot, loosens his O2 mask to let it dangle by one strap and starts a letter home to his wife. Before he puts pen to paper on the kneeboard strapped to his thigh, he first reaches into his g-suit pocket to retrieve the last letter he got from her. Before he writes back, he’d like to read it one more time. He’s one of the few guys who still writes paper letters home, he’s old fashioned that way. While an email is a great way to share data, he believes it’s a poor media to share emotions in, nothing but ephemera, these pixels on a computer screen. There’s nothing like a handwritten letter, a tangible thing you can hold in your hand. His wife writes back from time to time, above and beyond the emails she sends on a near-daily basis.
Her letters sometimes arrive in clumps of two’s and three’s after weeks of no mail, and when they arrive in that fashion he always intends to save them, to ration them out over time in some private space, alone and apart from all the world. To try and make them last. He never manages to do so though, like all the other pilots, he pulls them greedily from his mailbox in the ready room, walks to a corner away from everyone else and quickly devours them one by one until all newness is gone from them. She numbers the letters, just the way he’d asked her to after their first deployment together, because often the letters don’t arrive in order and he used to get confused. Sometimes the third letter of the week would arrive first and when they weren’t numbered she’d make assumptions about things the things she thinks he should know and he struggle to fill the gaps. Now when her letters come out of sequence, he now knows to suspend his curiosity, that eventually, as he re-reads the letters again and again in the quiet of his stateroom, aligning them in the order numbered on the envelope flap, they will unfold for him gradually and gratefully like an unwrapped present. He re-reads the letters as well to try to feel her physical presence: Trying to feel her hand on the pen, imagine her forearm across the paper, the coolness of the dining room table, itself sitting in a house whose details he increasingly strains to accurately remember.
And at that very moment, half the world away she wakes up early, rubs her eyes, gets out of bed and pads into the kitchen for a cup of coffee before going into the family room, where the computer sleeps. She likes to get up early, before the children wake up. They are still young, and have not yet learned how to sleep in on a summer morning, a fact that she regrets but does not resent. She wants to read what he has written in his email overnight – while he always complains that everything is the same and that there is nothing new to report, yet he will somewhere tell her that he loves her like no other, and aches for her and that this will all be over soon, not too much longer now. The early morning is her private time alone with her absent husband and if she can get it all done before the kids get up, she’ll have time to wipe her eyes and wash her face and the kids won’t ask her why she’s so sad, because that never makes it any better.
She thinks of him, and marvels at the recollection of how strongly his memories are tied to scents, the everyday domestic smells. She loves the way that he’ll run his hand through her hair and then hold it to his face, breathing deep, and then sometimes she remembers, her cheeks tingeing red, his breathing deep will turn to breathing hard. Sometimes after they are done he tells her that her own scent reminds him of the way the air smells just before a thunderstorm, the instant before the first thunderclap. Although she has never known quite what to make of that, the way he says it pleases her inside, and she smiles ruefully at the thought, contrasted against the distance.
She decides that today she will write a letter, and moves into the dining room to do so. Just as he had envisioned on the other side of the world. She writes to him about the dream that she had of the two of them together last night. She fills it with the kind of details that would have mortified her mother, and that she’d be embarrassed to put into an email – she knows that he reads his email on one of the two machines in the public space of the squadron ready room, and someone might accidentally glimpse a bit of it over his shoulder, so she saves such details for her letters.
Because she knows how strongly he reacts to smells, she always puts a bit of her perfume on the letter before she sends it to him, hoping to remind him more closely of her. When he writes back, he lies and tells her that he loves the way her letters smell, and how they remind him of her – he has to lie, because in truth all the scented letters from all the different wives and girlfriends are smashed together in a canvas mail bag for so long that by the time they reach the ship, all of them smell exactly the same. But he cannot think of a single reason why she would need to know that, and he considers this lie, at least, to be forgivable.
So halfway round the world he checks outside for traffic once again before bowing his head and beginning to re-read her last letter. Trying to feel her in its tangible presence, imagining her arm across the dining room table, holding down a pad of stationary as she writes him one of her maddeningly enchanting letters. In that exact moment, sixteen time zones and half the world away, she is doing precisely that, with an impish half-smile in her face and feeling an internal glow of warmth from the graphic memory she is relating. Down the hall two children slumber, temporarily fatherless, dreaming children’s dreams.
For each interrupted couple on a six-month deployment there are tens, perhaps hundreds of such moments of unlikely synchronicity, and the true tragedy is that each will pass unnoticed and therefore unlamented into the endlessly unfolding wale of indifferent time.
Twenty miles away from the overhead tanker pilot, the squadron XO acquires a radar lock on the USAF tanker orbiting in its track, analyzes the target angle and maneuvers to intercept heading for a stern conversion…