NavPress Publishing Group
Friday, December 18, 1998: Athens, Greece
John tumbled half-conscious into the nightstand, sending a glass crashing across the cold marble floor.
The pounding that had awakened him still rocked his door. “Launch the alert crew!” the voice shouted again.
Dancing around the jagged glass shards, John sprang into a flight suit before the last knock sounded. Up and down the spartan hallway, shouts and clatter from his groggy combat aircrew shattered the early morning calm.
Seven minutes later, all twelve airmen piled into a cramped European van at the hotel’s entrance, flight bags in hand. The smelly diesel-fueled van lurched out of the portico and began a race to Athens airport and the crew’s U.S. Navy submarine-hunter aircraft, the P-3C Orion. They had one hour from notification to be airborne.
John glanced at his watch. Nine precious minutes had passed. They caromed down vacant, narrow streets paved with ancient cobbles. Aware that all eyes were on him, John balanced on a tiny, bouncing perch at the front of the van and studied the classified message in his hand. “The Russians just popped up north of Libya. Victor III class,” he said.
A low whistle came from a short crewman stuffed in the back. The Victor III was the stealthiest of Russian attack submarines, the quietest of all underwater predators in this, the noisiest water on the planet. No Mediterranean-based crew had ever tracked a Victor III; it was the elite of the Russian fleet. This could be history—if they succeeded.
“I don’t just want to track this Ruskie. I want to humiliate him. The U.S. Navy is here to stay.” John surveyed his experienced crew, a dozen brassy aviators on the verge of a great hunt, every one of them hungry for bear.
Mediterranean Sea, North of the Gulf of Sidra
Eleven hours later, orbiting over the last known location of the submarine, the crew continued to scan the sea for some sign of their quarry. Patrol Plane Commander John Wells and his copilot shifted in their seats in the cockpit, struggling to stay alert after nearly half a day in the air.
“Any contact, Sonics? I mean anything?” John asked.
“Zero, Flight. Nothin’ in this water but fish and freighters.”
The tactical coordinator chimed in. “We’re almost out of sensors, Hawk. Want to leave early?”
“No way,” John said. “Only takes one sonar contact to claim we got him. We stay.” He wasn’t about to quit what might be his last chance to nail a Russian. In a month, John would be home, his last tactical flying assignment completed. He was almost out of time.
“Only got ten sonar buoys left, Flight. Better drop ’em right on him or it’s all over.” John’s whiz tactician “Choke” Baciocco sat ten feet behind him in the loud aircraft, planning their next move in this crucial game. The final decision—stay or go—was up to John.
John nodded and double-clicked his microphone switch in silent reply. With a little luck, one of their deep hydrophones would get a “sniff,” a brief acoustic trace of the silent craft. Visually scouring the water for any clue to the submerged warship, John strained for a last-minute chance to salvage this historic opportunity.
“Aw, come on, Commander. It’s time for Happy Hour,” said a voice on the intercom. “Friday night . . . Athens . . .”
“Ouzo!” someone else chimed in.
Not a chance. You never left time on the clock, sensors in your aircraft, or extra fuel in your tanks. Anything could happen—like during the cold war, those glory days when he and Choke flew their first missions together, chasing every variant of Soviet missile submarine that slipped into the frigid North Atlantic. Countless covert missions more than a thousand miles from the nearest land, far from rescue, swearing to never divulge the day’s secrets. Those missions were distant memories now, but the lessons were vivid.
“We stay,” John said. He snugged his safety harness tighter and rolled into a crisp turn to hit the next computer-predicted drop of another hydrophone. Five thousand flight hours in a dozen models of aircraft guided his smooth control of the airliner-sized plane. Four engines roared as he advanced the throttles, accelerating toward the next sensor waypoint.
John’s one consolation in the sunset of his tactical flying career was his return to family. The constant separation from Amy and his young son tore at him. He pulled her picture from his sleeve pocket and wedged it under the instrument visor in front of him. As much as he loved to fly, to match wits with the enemy, he was ready to be home, to be a father and a full-time husband.
There was one more benefit to his return: the possibility, however remote, of astronaut selection. “Astronaut” was John’s lifelong goal; Amy would say it was his whole life. He’d worn his knees out praying about it. Now, after years of work and eight NASA applications, he was a finalist. Surely God understood that he had to make it this time. Soon he’d be forty. The window for selection was about to close.
He buried his anxiety, pushing it deep to get his head back in the game.
The sun flirted with the horizon in front of him. Somewhere behind his right wing was Crete and beyond it, Greece. To his left, Benghazi and the infamous Gulf of Sidra. The flat Mediterranean shimmered like a golden platter before the brilliant sinking sun. It was an incredible panorama from the cockpit of the P-3C Orion, two miles above the ocean.
Yet the platter had a flaw, pointing straight into the dipping sun, a feather that tore the fabric of perfect gold. It was a wispy submarine periscope wake, unmistakable to his trained eyes, which had found more wakes, or feathers, than any man’s in any squadron he’d served in. John had earned his flight call sign, Hawk, by locating submarines the old-fashioned way. With his eyes.
“Tally ho! Periscope. Eleven o’clock!” John called out as he whipped into action. “Radar, get me a fix! Warm up MAD!” The Magnetic Anomaly Detector would sense the slight magnetic field disturbances created by the submarine below, but only if John could get the plane down to two hundred feet, and fast.
“Choke. Set up for active sonar. Might be your last chance.”
“Way ahead of you. Active sonar buoy 31, ready to drop. Sonics, d’you copy all that?” Choke said, his voice tight with stress.
“Roger that. Goin’ active. Ready to pang him.”
“Tha’s what I said.”
“Attack in two minutes, Hawk!” Choke yelled.
“Hang on!” John grinned as he yanked the power levers to idle, dropped the landing gear to increase his drag, and pointed the nose straight down toward the water. He was headed to the surface to slam the Ruskie.
The big plane plunged into a sickening dive. “Yee-haw!” screamed Sonics, their drawling Georgian sonar whiz, as the crew floated weightless in their seat harnesses. John knew his experienced copilot, flight call-sign Bulldog, had been through this hair-raising maneuver a dozen times, but the color still drained from the face of the young man to his right.
John wrapped the plane into a nauseating sixty-five degree angle of bank until all that could be seen in the windshield was water. The huge craft hurled toward the ocean like a suicidal fighter jet.
Bulldog called out rates of descent and completed checklists as the altimeter wound backward in a wild race toward zero. The flight engineer hovered over the power levers and his panorama of dials, switches, and knobs. With one exception, the members of Combat Air Crew Six were a well-choreographed squad. Clutching the radar console behind John, third pilot Phil Armstrong, new to naval aviation, tried to hold down his lunch.
In a flurry of six hands and a dozen levers, the landing gear came up, engines went to full throttle, and the plane leveled in a low-altitude thrill ride just a hair’s breadth above the green sea. The surface raced below them at three hundred knots. Surrounded by the piercing whine of four massive turboprops, with a Russian ahead of them and cocked weapon racks below, the adrenaline gushed through the twelve modern warriors. This was the stuff of dreams.
“Ready, Choke? Let’s waste him.”
“Ready, Hawk. Torpedo selected. Get me on top.”
The P-3C Orion roared across the water toward the last ripples left by a periscope that had sliced through a flat sea. The sun was half-submerged ahead of them, and the submarine was gone. Ivan was on the run. John shook his head in silence, sure the Russian could hear them. The whine of their engines pouring more energy into the sea than a pair of Chinese garbage scows.
No one cared about stealth now. They were about to bang their quarry with everything they had in their peacetime arsenal. Everyone was poised for the magic word: MADMAN—the code word that the airplane’s sensitive electronics had plucked a magnetic needle from the saltwater haystack. In the middle of a million square miles of water, they had to fly directly over the Russian to find him.
Had it been wartime, the open bomb bay and its loaded weapon racks would be ready to release a deadly accurate high-speed torpedo to chase down even the fastest quarry. Today, however, their torpedoes were simulated. If they caught him, their quarry would live to see another day—but not before a dreaded active sonar buoy would ping the Victor III into submission, ripping away any veil of stealth. In this high-stakes peacetime game, locating the enemy with an active sonar buoy was as good as a kill.
John leveled his wings and flew toward the invisible submarine, armed with a sixth sense. The Russian was below him. He was sure of it.
“MADMAN! MADMAN!” The sensor operator alerted the crew as the sensitive stylus flailed in a bloody frenzy across his data recorder. “Pen banger!”
“Weapon away! Smoke away! Active buoy away!” Choke yelled into his microphone as he punched a dozen buttons on the tactical panel. A smoke buoy fell to the water, igniting to mark the sub’s location, and the sonar buoy began to unreel its acoustic gear seconds after water impact. The bomb bay weapon rack clicked open, releasing an imaginary torpedo to find its prey.
Most eyes were on the tactical computer scopes, but John craned his neck to the left, searching for a sign of white smoke on the water as he counted to himself. He trusted his eyes. John knew that many of his crewmen dreaded what came next. It took a perfect gut-wrenching three-G turn to make the maneuver work. He counted down the final seconds out loud. “. . . Two, one, now!”
John concentrated on the altimeter as he hauled the big airplane into a sixty-degree turn to the left and pulled hard on the yoke. Any slip in his airmanship at this point and the plane would dive headlong into the ocean below. They were either seconds from death, or a minute from the next simulated kill. The force of three gravities drained blood from his head in the tight turn. Over the intercom, Choke let out a piercing war-whoop.
The plane never dipped. The altimeter looked like it was stuck on two hundred feet as they whipped in a tight circle to capture the escaping Russian. There was nothing to see outside but a watery grave as the plane shuddered in the tight turn. In his peripheral vision, John saw Bulldog shake his head in wonder. His copilot had never succeeded at flying the perfect high-G turn.
“Hydrophone’s deployed. Ping it!” Choke commanded over the intercom in the back of the noisy bucking plane.
“Fixin’ to pang him . . . now!” The Georgian’s next move blasted a wall of acoustic energy into the sea that could be heard by whales a thousand miles away. The ear-splitting poing! jolted the warm waters as it located the submarine with astounding precision and reverberated through the enemy’s soundproofed black hull. Poing! Poing! The Georgian boiled the water with sound.
“Got him! Forty-three yards, bearin’ 280 degrees off buoy 31.”
“He turned left!” Choke called out orders as John, anticipating the Russian, counted quietly and rolled into a tight right turn. Another three G’s of churning guts and head-numbing joy. Behind him, John could hear Phil puke a chunky puddle on the cockpit floor. John’s nose wrinkled as he remembered his own days of barfing in hot cockpits where there was no up or down.
“Sorry, buddy. We’re not done yet.” John’s eyes were fixed on the instruments, his lips moving in a silent prayer. He snapped the plane to wings level, bearing down on the invisible prey.
Again, the sub made a radical course correction. But it was too late.
The open bomb bay doors roared in the airstream as Choke simulated the release of a second torpedo. “Weapon away!”
John high-fived his flight engineer as they closed a virtual coffin on the unseen Russian submariners, then wrapped the plane into a third hair-raising turn.
“Time to go,” Choke announced moments later, grunting under the G-load. “Relief aircraft above us . . . want some of Ivan . . . before it’s too late . . . lots of pukin’ back here.”
John nodded, clicking the mike twice to confirm his friend’s request, then leveled the wings and advanced the throttles. The aircraft leapt forward as John pointed the nose into the sky and headed for home base. The placid emerald waters quickly faded into a blue-grey sea far below them.
Half an hour later, on the return to Athens, John turned the pilot seat over to Phil and sauntered to the back through the cockpit’s blackout curtains. Choke and the navigator met him at their station with wicked grins.
“Message from Naples, sir.” The navigator pointed to the printer.
“Guess they got our news, eh?” John said with a smile. “‘Saw sub. Sank same.’”
“Seems so.” The grins got bigger.
John’s smile faded as he eyed his crew warily, sure of a prank. Choke was full of them. “Okay. Hand it over.”
The navigator tore off a sheet from the line-printer and passed it with a reverential bow to John.
Something was amiss. John yelled at the pilots beyond the blackout curtain. “You guys okay up there? I think I’m about to get had.”
“I’m sure you deserve it,” Bulldog yelled back. “Read it on intercom.”
Now John was sure he was being set up. Bulldog, a quiet young man with no sense of humor, was somehow in on this, too.
John read the terse tactical message aloud. “One-eight December. Well done, crew six. First active sonar contact on Victor III in Med. Admiral Tuttle sends personal congratulations. Additional news for Mission Commander—” John blanched, then coughed, unable to continue.
“Go on, John,” Choke urged, his smile widening. “We all want to hear.”
John felt light-headed as he scanned down the message. He leaned his tall frame into the white bulkhead and continued. “Skip—” He took a breath and continued. “Skipper advises that NASA requests you report to Houston, Texas, February 1999. New assignment: Astronaut Candidate. Congratulations, Hawk. You finally made it.”
Monastiraki Square, Athens, Greece
“No more for me!” John waved off the offer of another souvlaki sandwich and the bottle of cheap yellow wine.
“Come on, Commander. Retsina! Celebrate the kill!”
John shook his head and toasted his happy crew with the dregs of a lukewarm Coke.
“I’ve really enjoyed this, fellas. Now go home. And don’t let the Ouzo loosen you up, got it?” He smiled, sure that at least one of his airmen would drink his way into trouble.
“Where’ll we find your skinny body tomorrow?” Choke kidded as they stood up.
“The Parthenon.” John slapped his best friend on the back as they parted ways on the crowded sidewalk. “Get ’em to bed, Choke. And sleep in.” Combat Aircrew Six, the “Sons of Thunder” from Patrol Squadron Eight, flowed downhill toward their hotel, cheering their commander off-key as they sang their way to the next bar.
Alone at last, John soaked in the night air and the old market district. He loved Athens. He closed his eyes and drank in the odors—roasting lamb, souvlaki spits, coffee shops, olive oil, spices, and that unmistakable but elusive odor of oldness, the ancient city smell.
John climbed through the cobblestone alleys of the Agora toward the Acropolis, heart pounding with expectation. He was on a quest for closure. Beyond the tall cedars and clay tile rooftops, the Acropolis dominated the skyline. Athens’s crown jewel, the Parthenon, adorned the top of the mount, bathed in a spectacular white light. It was his beacon, the Sacred Rock.
The years of toil that had brought him to this hour were now behind him, like the sidewalks and cafés in his wake. He had reached the final ascent of his personal Everest: selection for the astronaut program.
Today’s news confirmed the unwavering sense he had received years ago—a sense that he was called to make a difference. He’d endured years of ridicule for his insistence that he was destined to be an astronaut, but tonight all the jibes were forgotten. The Acropolis and its sister mount to the west, Areopagus, rose before him in the distance. One of countless pilgrims across forgotten centuries who had followed the apostle Paul to this place, John was here for closure, and to give thanks.
He climbed past old women in black shawls and scarves, old men arguing politics, and groups of nubile Greek girls trolling the sidewalks arm in arm with their girlfriends. A late-night sea of shoppers parted as he pressed upstream, past the three-thousand-year-old walls of the city. History and its monuments towered over him.
Ahead, the path scaled the Acropolis on marble steps carved by long-forgotten hands. John climbed with care up the well-worn outcropping, once the site of the ancient court of Athens. The slick, bare, rounded rock of Areopagus rose like an ancient lectern above the ruins and the city below. On this rock, the apostle Paul once stood in the midst of Athenian nobles and orators, preaching with confidence about the Unknown God.
He scaled the rounded outcropping, alone at the peak. A small, red New Testament waited in his pocket for this very moment. Only Amy knew the story of the precious old book, a third-grade gift from the Gideon Society. It flew with him on every flight, wrapped in a waterproof bag and stored in his survival vest. He opened the brittle pages to the story of Paul’s witness to the Greeks in Athens. As he did, he connected with history, reaching out across the millennia.
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
* * *
Few people, except perhaps his wife, fully understood what compelled John so powerfully toward space. Amy had been so upbeat when he shared the news with her tonight by phone, but he also felt her angst, her deep longing for him to be home. That separation was his lone regret about his chosen career.
I will provide.
The promise flooded over him, a quiet assurance that he and Amy would not be tested beyond their ability to cope. He could see a clear handprint on all the open doors and vanquished challenges that stretched out behind him. God had brought him this far—had brought him here—for a purpose.
Areopagus. The Mars Hill of Athens. John sank to his knees on the cool polished rock, a lone pilgrim late at night, overflowing with thanks. As he prayed, he looked up, probing the few stars that weren’t washed out by Athens’ lights. A tingle ran down his spine. A fuzzy red dot in the washed-out Athens sky twinkled as it beckoned him.
Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine
Amy Wells stood motionless at the bay window of her old duplex on Brunswick Naval Air Station. The winter sun was at the apex of its low arc to the south, beyond massive fir trees that encircled the senior officer housing. She stared at the cul-de-sac, invisible below a perfect blanket of fresh snow, and bordered by six-foot-tall frozen ridges of dirty white stuff. She was in awe of the handiwork of nature poured out before her.
Powder drifted down from the giant hemlock in the front yard, showering the house in a mini-storm. Gems danced before her in the noon light as she longed for what she had not yet lost. She twirled long hair in her fingers as she watched the frozen wonderland. There would be no snow in Texas, no cold, no sledding or L.L. Bean, no clam chowder, no lobsters or Bar Harbor. Only concrete, stucco, and heat. Oppressive mind-numbing heat.
And a husband? Would her one love be lost to the complete immersion that John would require as he fulfilled his dream, training for dangerous missions that would take him away? She wished silently for more time with him, and for peace—reminding herself that the anxiety tugging at her was the enemy. She smiled sadly as she marveled at the snowy images dancing before her. Texas would have its own magic, she tried to convince herself, but her shoulders sagged.
John’s distant voice still echoed in her ears, so full of joy from far away in Greece. She could imagine him standing before her, face alive with emotion. He would be cheering their achievement of a lifetime. She smiled again, wishing with all her soul she could be celebrating with him this night. She bent over, distracted by an errant sock on the floor, one of Abe’s many discarded about the house.
Deep within her spirit was a painful tug, a strain in her heart, some sense that in John’s calling she would have her own ministry and suffer dark trials. As John was sure of his call to space, she was certain of something else: There would be sacrifice and loss. Doubt crept in and she drove it out, again forcing a smile—yet never completely freeing herself from that nagging dread, that sense that this life mission of her husband’s would test her to the limit. And a sense of defeat, that despite her best efforts at the daily control of her life, it was coming unraveled at the worst possible time. She wanted to stay. In Maine. With John.
Sunlight danced across her round face through the glitter of falling snow as she sank to her knees beside the couch.
* * *
The reassuring “tick-tick-tick” of Abe’s wind-up swing had stopped.
Amy rolled to her side and sat on the floor, her knees numb. A damp spot on the couch marked where she’d buried her head an hour ago to pour out her heart. She chided herself—she had forgotten to replace the battery in the swing. She checked the clock. She had eighty-seven minutes left until her next insulin bolus.
Abe was immobile, his head tilted back in slumber. The peace would be short-lived, but the silence was sweet. The old house snuggled her in its familiar oil-fired warmth.
A tumult raged inside her, a desperation for order and control, amidst a life whose well-planned structure was unraveling by the second. She marveled at sleeping Abe, his tiny face at peace with the world.
She sat down by her son and rested an arm on the damp cushion, struggling to clear her mind of all her tasks and schedules, to free herself of images of mountains of boxes and the carnage of burly movers. Reminders of new messes that she must clean, a new home that she must build. Without John—because her husband would be immersed in yet another challenge, with more training, more trips . . . more accomplishments . . . that would leave her alone. Again.
She fought the tears, chiding herself for slipping into self pity, for losing control. For separating herself from the other women who tried to reach out to her. She would endure this, too. Like all the other lonely times—just one more solitary Navy wife.
A new stream of tears pulled her head down in defeat as Abe rested quietly beside her.