Friendly Fire

by Jim Bryson

It was May 26, 1981, a few minutes before midnight, as the Marine Corps EA-6B jet dropped from the sky on a last chance to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. We were cruising off the coast of Florida, taking on a squadron from Pensacola, and this poor bastard couldn’t seem to do what Uncle Sam trained him for—land a $40 million jet on a floating patch of steel the size of a football field. He’d missed the arresting cables on his previous attempts. He had fuel for one more shot.

It ain’t easy landing on the pitching deck of a carrier; more of a controlled crash. Nothing graceful about it. Following a sight glass from ten miles out, a pilot glides his craft over the ship’s stern and slams his ass-end onto the deck, praying he hooks one of the five arresting cables stretched across the deck like a whore’s smile. He comes down hard and, just as quick, throws the engines into full afterburners to fly off again in case he missed one of the cables. Imagine a thirty-ton jet crashing onto the deck, jerking a steel cable connected to a hydraulic piston below decks that absorbs the momentum of this massive bird plus the thrust of its engines raging for the sky. Failure to blast the engines can mean a quick dip into the sea. Jets sink fast and pilots are notoriously poor swimmers.

The good ones never miss. The bad ones forget they are fallible.

If everything goes right, the landing ends in the final surrender when the plane’s handler throws up his hands. Power down! You hooked it already! Now get out of the way! We got more coming behind you!

It’s a violent symphony of screeching tires, screaming cables, and thundering flames. The cacophony reverberates through the ship’s steel frame; even ten decks below, you know when we’re launching or landing. It becomes part of the audial routine, the rhythm of our daily grind while policing the world’s oceans under the flag of the free and brave.

At six-thousand sailors strong, a carrier at sea is a floating city replete with multiple chow halls, chiefs’ messes, officers’ wardrooms, mechanical shops, nuclear reactors, water treatment systems, a hospital and a chapel. We also have love, fights, murders, suicides, drugs, moonshine stills, prostitution, smuggling, and a thriving black market in anything not welded to the deck.

The crew of a deployed carrier has a split personality. Half the population is, like me, permanently assigned to the ship. It’s our job to keep her alive and steaming through blue water. The other half is the airwing crew and pilots of the land-based aircraft squadrons that fly in once we are underway—the whole reason for this floating airport in the first place. But having these prima donnas aboard doubles our population and backs up the lines for everything from chow to the barber shop. Most of us hate these jerks who act like tourists on a Mediterranean pleasure cruise. Feelings grow acutely raw when the ship’s crew gets put on water restrictions so the airwing can wash their precious magnesium-skinned jets.

Of all the ship’s company, I probably understood flight-ops better than most. As supervisor for the catapult and arresting gear electrical shop, my berthing was right under the flight deck and up against the water brakes—the damnable invention of a sadist engineer who answered the question: What to do when a steam-powered catapult charging at full speed reaches the end of its track, having just shed its colossal load of flying metal? Answer: You let it slam into a cascading film of water just below decks. Better yet, you build a berthing on the other side of the bulkhead. Then you cash your bonus check from NAVSEC and drive off into the sunset, laughing about the generations of kids who will leave the Navy shattered to the core from the deafening metallic explosions that ripped through their miserable existence after every cat shot.

It’s a bitch, but you get used to it.

Strange as it must seem, most of the crew actually ignores flight ops. There is so damn much that has to be done for a ship like this to function, the flight deck activity is just the flower poking through the manure, the fruit of our grease-stained existence. The guys manning the engineering stations below decks could care less what’s happening above. They are snipes, subterranean creatures, the morlocks of this floating dystopia. They stay busy making steam or water or grinding tomorrow’s chow for a hungry crew hungover from a long shift of wrenching bolts in sweltering spaces while the glory boys slip the surly bonds of earth and laugh in the face of God.

That night near Florida, most of the snipes were asleep deep in the catacombs of their berthing areas. But a few insomniacs like me had just finished watching some creepy movie on ship’s TV and were scanning the credits for the name of the buxom female star who was nearly eaten by the three-horned space alien before Lars-the-Farmhand saved her fragrant ass and swept it into his arms. I mean, you never know who you are going to meet on shore, but having her name on the tip of your tongue could be a great start.

So I’m repeating “Ursula Rose Smith” for the fourth time when the TV flashes to a new flick. Wide awake from the last horror scene, I’m instantly engaged. But instead of Hot Girl Meets Zork, I’m seeing a giant ball of fire devouring frantic people who are running like ants under a magnifying glass. Something about this flick is familiar. I want to scream but the panicked voice on the ship’s P.A. system does it for me.

Gen…uh…General Quarters! General…! Not a drill! Not a… Fire on the flight deck! FIRE ON THE FLIGHT DECK!

It hits me. I’m watching the feed from the flight-deck camera. The ball of fire is the bow. It’s right above me. I gotta get out of here. My ship’s on fire. People are dying. I gotta move!

The EA-6B pilot dropping from the sky had missed again. Only this time, instead of bouncing off the deck and back to the friendly skies, he had touched down too far to starboard, clipping the carrier superstructure, ripping through a couple of tethered helo’s and careening into the bow where a group of jets were fueled and armed with a death-wielding arsenal, including Phoenix missiles—the most lethal armament carried by fighter jets at that time. The ensuing ball of flame killed the jet’s crew, engulfed the other jets, cremated a dozen flight deck hands, and wrapped the waiting missiles in fiery arms of incineration. Had enough of those missiles detonated, it could have blown our bow to hell, ripping through the ship from flight-deck to bilges—the first aircraft carrier sunk by friendly fire.

Since I owned the electrical system of the catapults and arresting gear, I figured I should get to the flight deck, though what I’d do there, I hadn’t a clue. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Since General Quarters was called, those with actual battle stations were manning them. These are secondary assignments that people have for when the ship faces imminent danger. Because my job was vital to the ship’s function, I didn’t have an assigned battle station; keeping the cats and cables working was my battle station.

Once on deck, I crouched down to take it all in. The front of the ship was consumed by flames doing a deadly dance against the night sky—a multi-headed dragon illuminating the carnage around it. I saw the tails of charred jets poking above the flames. Everything smelled of burnt fuel and seawater, exploded ordinance and melted metal. Confused sailors ran frenetically, some panicking, others heroic, all terrified.

From my entry point on the flight deck, I saw a group of sailors huddled together, staring at a twisted body several feet away. One sailor broke from the group and crawled over to the mangled crewman. He shook the fallen sailor’s foot, trying to wake him. Someone from the group yelled, “He’s dead!” The sailor recoiled and scurried back to the safety of the herd.

I could see, lying beside the crumpled body, the object that killed him—a two-hundred-pound ejection seat. It had shot from an enflamed jet, disappeared into the night sky, failed in flight and returned to the deck that spawned it.

Sailors dragged hoses toward the fire’s edge. A line of firefighters formed near the flames at the bow while another group manning empty stretchers hunkered off to the side. An explosion like fireworks erupted in the middle of the flames and half the firefighters fell. The line of stretcher-bearers moved forward to gather the dead and wounded as new firefighters filled the holes.

My legs shook so badly I could barely walk. I managed to hobble to the stretcher-bearers, squatting alongside them and waiting my turn to assist. It was the only thing I could think of to do. About that time, a flight-deck officer in full gear ran over and ordered me below decks. He wore a helmet with goggles, a life jacket and heavy gloves, same as the fire crews. I was in a t-shirt and dungarees. On a ship of our size, being where you don’t belong can foul things up as much as not being where you do belong.

Weary and shaken, I headed to our shop to check on my men. All were alive, and like me, were waiting for things to subside so we could get up there, assess the damage and get to work. With nothing else to do but worry if we were going to make it, I finally managed a little sleep behind the ventilation duct that ran through our shop. For some strange reason, extreme stress always made me sleepy. But every time I drifted off, the scene of mayhem and destruction exploded before me. I woke up red-eyed a few hours later and heard nothing but quiet above. I figured they got the fire under control. It was nearing daybreak and we could get up to the flight deck to assess the damage. First thing I heard from my guys was fourteen dead, forty-two wounded; then the names spilled out. Each was a dagger in my gut. The greatest warship in history was limping north to a shipyard, fleeing the ravages of hell and our own self-inflicted wounds, and all I’d done was sleep through it.

But we lived compartmentalized lives, and some of the crew actually seemed in a jubilant mood that morning. The fire meant the long dreaded cruise was cancelled and we’d soon be back in port. I did not share their mood. I had friends who might never walk again; there were dead crewmen and pilots cooling off in the morgue below. I despised anyone who dared look like they felt otherwise.

I handed out work assignments to my guys, then grabbed some tools and headed to a section of the catapult I knew would be a challenge. I faced a long night and several weeks of reworking charred wiring and waterlogged switches to bring the catapults back to life.

My path from the shop to the flight deck took me along a section of the catwalk—a narrow deck edge hanging over the water that runs the perimeter of the flight deck. I passed a couple of junior airwing sailors in dress-white crackerjacks, the uniform for liberty when we docked that evening—a liberty I would not be sharing. Apparently enjoying the holiday, they were leaning over the rail taking in the view of white-foam water a hundred feet below, their chortling voices blending with the fresh salt air.

I hated them instantly and thought of helping them off the ship a bit earlier than they planned. But I remembered my new First Class stripe and the few months I had left in this stinking canoe club before returning to civilian life. I didn’t want to mess that up. Mess them up—sure, especially the tall one with his dark wavy hair, tight smirk wedged between cheeks flush with arrogance, tossing sly looks to his sidekick who seemed to be feeding on tidbits of his inane wit. My shipmates were eating through plastic tubes, counting the seconds until the next pain pill. These punks looked ready to hit the beach, get drunk, go to a show, find some whores, and stagger back satiated and infected with diseases that even penicillin…

…I needed to get a grip. More reason to forget this ilk and tear into the catapult. I shook my mind clear, brushed past them and moved on.

The repair was going to be a bitch. A catapult is electrically controlled and hydraulically powered. From the fire, there was carbon, seawater, and hydraulic fluid everywhere. The catapult tracks were filled with junk: jet parts, deck parts, and for all I knew, human parts. I surveyed the scorched flight deck, imagining all who fell here, then turned back to the wounded machine.

Thirty minutes later, covered in grease and hauling the charred remains of a fifty-pound switch box—my constant companion for the day—I headed for our repair shop. I’d forgotten about the two jerks I’d passed earlier until I started down the same catwalk and noted that they hadn’t gotten far in life. Now, catwalks are narrow to begin with, and if these two honeymooners hadn’t been hanging out admiring each other’s suntans, I would have had room to get my gear past without twisting around them. But of course, they didn’t move. Why should they? It wasn’t their ship.

“Make a hole!” I said.

The tall one cast a sideways grin at me and said, “Watch out for my nice white uniform.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn back to his friend, crack up, and to my estimation, barely budge. Upon reflection, it was a perfectly normal way for a primped-out airwing punk to act, but this morning was not normal.

As I wrenched past these two miscreants, I deposited a choice epitaph into the ear of the tall one, cursing the crisp creases in his brilliant jumper, despising his shiny black shoes, and casting aspersions on his mother’s ancestry. As if this wasn’t enough, I also offered my fervent hope that he would pass from this life by way of a miserable death after a feast of warm excrement.

I don’t recall the exact wording, but it was my juxtaposition to the two which made this a particularly hostile contribution to their sunny demeanor. Delivery is everything.

My fury still on stout legs, I continued with the lifeless switch box to our shop several yards beyond. I kicked open the hatch and slammed the box on a dented workbench, intent on its resurrection, even if I had to beat life into it.

I soon realized I needed one more piece of gear from the flight deck, so back up I went in search of my quarry and straight into the path of the freshly wounded pair. Now, these geniuses had apparently formulated a reply, and not wishing to waste the opportunity, the tall one turned as I passed and uttered it with scathing accuracy, the kind of remark you can only conceive in the flush of base youth.

I had intended to pass these two without further malice, but when the comeback was uttered, I felt myself going far, far away while something… someone?… took over my body. I turned towards the tall kid thinking: Why? Why did you have to fuck with me? From my ethereal perch, I heard my voice.

“What did you say?”

He gladly obliged me, repeating his remark louder this time, perhaps thinking that the sea breeze was filling my ears, or—and this is what I truly suspect—as a display of his utter disdain for me, my ship, and all I stood for. And that was an unfortunate choice on his part.

I really can’t tell you how I covered the few feet between us, or how I managed to take him down, or even if he put up any resistance. All I remember was going white inside, every emotion channeled to raw energy, a being of pure light. I found myself sprawled over this foul-mouthed jerk who was now flat on the deck, and I thought of how my high school wrestling coach would have been proud. I grabbed him hard, forcing every molecule of grease, dirt and hate into his crisply starched attire as he remained inert beneath me.

With nothing left to prove, I released the him, stood up and admired the fine mess I’d made of his pristine plans for a speedy departure. He was filthy. I slowly came back into my body and spoke the first words that came to mind.

“There’s your nice, white uniform.”

Not the greatest comeback line in history, but it got the point across. With a final glance at my handiwork, I stalked off in the direction of my original quest—that needed piece of gear and my elusive peace of mind.

Of course, that type of shipboard slime doesn’t give up easily, and within the hour, I was in my shop locked at attention, facing his commanding officer while the tall kid stood behind him playing “Did not/did too/he’s lying,” to my recitation of events. I was sane now and calculating all that my cathartic adventure could cost me. After hearing both versions of the great catwalk skirmish, the officer ordered me to cover the kid’s cleaning bill, which I readily agreed to do. The kid left in filthy triumph in search of another uniform that I was sure he didn’t possess. Then the officer turned to me with a look of familiarity rarely seen by enlisted men.

“Man, I wish you would have decked him,” he said.

I steadied my nerves while he continued in unexpected candor.

“That kid has been a pain in my ass since he got here,” he said. “I keep waiting for someone to break his jaw. Sorry you got messed up in this. Just take care of the bill and we’re even.”

I should have felt victorious; instead, a sadness crept into the void left by the receding tide of adrenaline. Why did I let that punk get to me? What had I really won? I kept seeing the kid’s face, his shock and pain as I pinned him to the catwalk, his nakedness. Deck him… It didn’t seem right. What kind of feeling is that, knowing even your commander despises you? What if this kid was just like me? Just like all of us? Alone and scared, fighting his way through this steel-gray city that exposes every strength, every failure, forcing us to face the familiar stranger, the unknown assailant, the victim and victor raging within.

Back in port, I forgot about everything but work. It was several days and nights until we had the catapults restored. The rest of the ship took longer until we redeployed under our captain’s benediction broadcast across the same P.A. system that had rallied us to courage and cowardice on that fateful night.

“I know it’s tough, but the Nimitz belongs at sea. Thank you for your hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. I know many of you are proud of what you did. Others may not be. But know that we got through this together.”

Our ship was back together. We were at sea. It was beginning to feel whole.

About a week into our cruise, feeling the familiar churn of the nuclear-powered screws slicing through blue water, I stood at an enlisted chow hall waiting to be placed at the head of the line—a privilege afforded First Class Petty Officers where the queue of hungry sailors can take an hour to reach the steaming pans. The Master at Arms policing the line put me ahead of this lower-ranked sailor in dungarees. I half turned to him and smiled apologetically, remembering how I hated the First Class pricks who used to cut in front of me, but the sailor smiled back and said, “No problem. You earned it.”

No problem… That voice! I tensed, ready for anything: a swing, a shove, a comeback. But nothing came, nothing but churn.

I looked up slowly and surveyed the tall kid. He was different somehow—not the smart-mouthed jerk I’d wrestled to ground zero, but polite, even respectful. To my amazement, he returned my gaze, quietly reading my soul, and seemed to be waiting for something.

My tension grew, suppressing a strange impulse. I wanted to reach out to him, apologize, say it hadn’t been necessary, that all I’d accomplished in those intense moments was to wrestle myself to the catwalk.

And that’s when I saw it.

All that I could teach this kid. Arrogance becomes confidence; provocation comes from insight; the fruit borne of the intersection of proffered souls. People like him and me, we would always incite; that was our gift. The question was and forever would be: Incite what?

All these things ran through me in an instant, revealing an unknown part of me, but something else fought to hang on. I could miss this landing; I could lose everything. Hit those afterburners and get the hell out of here.

But I couldn’t move.

In the midst of my confusion, I finally managed one halting step, then another, testing the bridge forming between us.

“So… I… I never got a bill,” I finally said.

“Forget it,” he said, smiling. Then he extended his hand. “My name’s Evan.”