The Magazine of History & Fiction

A brief bio: Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.

Swimming Naked in the Dusk By Bill Vernon

Nonfiction told in story form.

The 2-jet-engine cargo plane rushing us to the Naval Air Station Key West shuddered so badly, we strapped ourselves down and prayed. After escaping the plane and trucking our personal gear to living quarters at the Naval Station Key West (where sea-going vessels docked), we saw a TV report that our plane with a load of equipment had crashed at Guantanamo, killing all onboard. Most of us figured that pure luck had spared us.

Our Launch and Recovery unit handled emergency arrests at the Air Station, but there were so few, waiting prevailed. Planes continuously took off and landed on the other runways, just occasionally on ours. Our routine was so boring, almost anything different was good. Like Air Force pilots using our runway insisted we disconnect and lay our cables aside, afraid their tires might blow. When these flyboys finished, we'd have to reconnect the cables between arresting gears across the runway. Great. The USAF gave us something to do. Our favorite breaks from routine were chow calls at the Navy mess. Swabbies eat better than jarheads.

We were like monks in disguise practicing patience, meditating over card games, poker, blackjack, sexy magazines and novels. We improvised, scrounged up slats, stuck them in the ground between our arresting gear and the ocean, then upon them raised ponchos and shelter-halfs. This flimsy roof kept out the tropical sun. Why not? A tent shaded officers. We put on Mickey Mouse ears and took digestive naps after meals without burning.

These habits hid a kind of fatalism. We'd arrived here knowing only what the Brass had told us at Cherry Point: that this was not an exercise. They did not inform us that it was a Russian/Cuban vs. US conflict. The TV news had given us that information. For the duration, perhaps mercifully, we remained ignorant of the dangerous military and diplomatic maneuvering between those countries.

We were aware, however, that catastrophe could strike at any moment. Planes from three branches of the service crowded the naval airfield. The first day on duty, three of us drove a pickup around the air base and discovered a stockpile of nuclear weapons inside cyclone fencing topped with razor wire and emblazoned with warning signs about radioactive materials. Trucked into the city of Key West to our sleeping quarters, we also noticed missiles pointing south on open beaches. Additionally, the planes taking off and returning to the field were fully armed.

The second night at our sleeping quarters, we'd seen the CIC on television declaring the blockade, describing the installation of Soviet Missiles in Cuba, the threat to America, the need to remove those weapons. "The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing." The naval piers were empty, the public streets carried little civilian traffic, so we knew the world was on the verge of destruction. Our corner of America was 90 short miles from Cuba. With no other choice, we tried not to think about what our fate might be.

I was driving our unit's pickup back to the arresting gear after lunch one day when an MP on a motorcycle with flashing lights sped in front of us, stopped suddenly, and raised a hand palm up to block our way. Tension rose. I was illegal, without a military license, and we were overloaded with Sergeants Travis and Bailey in the front seat beside me and 3 guys behind us in the open bed slouching forward, elbows on our roof. Was the MP after us? No. Three limousines paraded past with little flags fluttering above the front bumpers, and JFK himself looked out the rear window of the first limo. He smiled, waved at us, and we waved back. Didn't think of saluting or sitting at attention. His presence dissolved our immediate fear of arrest but further impressed us with the world-wide danger we were in.

That night at the Naval Base, walking from street light to street light along one Navy pier, Johnson, Travis, and I noticed large fish rolling about 40 feet out in the ocean, their fins and bodies breaking the surface and reflecting the dim street lights. Minutes later a sailor in white tee shirt and blue trousers, carrying a bow and two arrows, came up beside us. One arrow was attached to a cord and a reel on his bow. He shot twice, missing, reeling in his arrow, chattering away about taking advantage of the opportunity to do it because all the ships were gone.

"What kind of fish are those?" we asked.

"Tarpon. They're feeding," he said.

His third shot struck home. As he reeled in, the fish jumped and splashed, a silver sheen flashing in the darker sea. "Couldn't handle one much bigger," the man said winding his reel. "This here line's just 20-pound test."

His "catch" seemed big to us. Johnson from Chicago said, "Wow!"

"It's a baby," the sailor said hauling it up from the liquid. "There's some out there three times as big. But this one did put up a good fight."

I asked how he'd cook it, thinking that a mess cook might help him out.

He laughed. "Nobody eats tarpons, man. Well, maybe some poor coons do."

We watched him yank out the arrow, throw the dying fish back in the water, and we almost threw him in too. The three of us were sensitive on the race issue. Maybe the missile crisis had made us more sensitive than normal. The tarpon shone beautifully silver with blue flashes, floating. Taking its life for sport repulsed us.

Maybe that experience, along with boredom, prompted what we did the next day. After five hours exercising, doing sit-ups and crunches, plus loafing behind the arresting gear, Johnson idly showed us a large hook he'd found on the street back at the Naval Base. The hook was the size I'd used back home when setting trot lines for snapping turtles. Johnson said he bet there were some nice fish right off the edge of the land we were on. Our runway was on a man-made strip of ground that jutted out into the water. Johnson's idea grabbed our interest. .

From tool boxes we took a ball of heavy twine, a roll of strong wire, and a heavy O ring. To the twine we attached the O ring as sinker above a wire leader holding the hook. Bait? Maybe Travis's Penobscot Indian instincts inspired him. He folded his Marlboro pack's aluminum foil into a long, half-inch-wide rectangle and ran it twice at one end through the hook so it had a tail that dangled and wiggled. At water's edge Johnson threw the lure out as far as he could, about 30 feet, and started pulling it in, winding the cord back onto the ball. Almost immediately something struck. It was big enough to swing rapidly back and forth and strain the hand holding the ball of twine, which Johnson quickly dropped. He backed up, pulling in the fish, causing it to surface, thrash, and throw water.

As it neared the shore, its head came up into the alien air, mouth opening and closing like a person gasping. It looked enormous. Its back was a dark pipe sloping down into the water out of sight. "Grab his mouth," Travis said, "and lift him out."

We all laughed. It was a barracuda with long sharp teeth. Only a fool would put his hand in that mouth. We dragged him ashore without breaking the twine, all four feet of him. Johnson extracted the hook from its bony jaw with pliers while someone's foot held its head against the soil. Maybe remembering the sailor who'd killed the tarpon, Travis returned the fish to the ocean.

The water was too dark to see very far down into it, but our imaginations told us that swimming down there under the surface were schools of fish like that one. Larger predators too, sharks. We'd talked in the day's heat several times about diving in right there and cooling off. We thought we could get away with swimming naked in the dusk. The Brass stayed several hundred yards back in the buildings and wouldn't be able to see what we were doing then. After the barracuda, though, there was no more serious discussion of that.

All of this happened during the most precarious period of the US-Soviet stand-off, around the time Cuba fired a Russian surface-to-air missile that shot down a U-2 on a reconnaissance mission, killing the pilot. When a submerged Russian submarine, under threat of assault by a US destroyer, nearly fired its nuclear-tipped torpedoes in retaliation. Those particular crises passed us unnoticed, as did most other critical particulars. Like the little fishes swimming around with barracudas and sharks, we took our chances, watched the constant coming and going of airborne predators, and on a few occasions caught aircraft that requested assistance.

These were Navy or Marine planes, several A-4Ds and a couple of F-8Us. They each had some mechanical failure and were carrying full armaments. Therefore their emergencies involved obvious explosive possibilities. Their catching was overall, though, routine.

Except for an arrest that happened at night. We were called back to the gear after returning to our naval ship base barracks. A fully armed F-4H was circling the airfield, waiting for us. Almost immediately upon our arrival, he came in low over the hangars. We'd been alerted that he had landing gear problems, including a flat tire. The plane's fuselage was to us a dark shadow between the bright light on each wingtip and the nose's brighter landing light. Its body cut down through the night's blackness, obscuring the lighted rooms and rooflines of buildings. Two fire engines and two ambulances began driving alongside our runway ahead of the plane.

When its tailhook struck the runway, sparks flew. The damaged landing gear was on my side of the aircraft, and when it struck land, more sparks flew up. At the same time, hitting the runway so hard jarred loose a Sidewinder air-to-air missile on each wing. Two fell off, threw sparks as their body and stabilizing fins struck the runway, and raced on ahead of the heavier jet planethat was braking and slowing down.

The missiles came straight down the runway, but if they veered off course and hit our arresting gear, they might explode. My body tightened. A few feet before reaching our arresting gear, I saw that the missiles were skipping, going airborne a few feet, hitting back down, rising off the ground again. Reaching my position, they jumped over the cable in front of me. Then the farther away missile scraped the second cable, but no problem. They sped off away from me toward runway's end and the ocean.

I quickly looked back at the plane. It was near, veering left of runway center toward my side because the flat tire was pulling it that way. Its mounting and the tailhook were throwing sparkswildly, and despite the plane's noise, I could hear sounds like people yelling. Someone hit my arm. Our crew was running backwards, away from the arresting gear. I too ran toward the water where we'd caught the barracuda. Halfway there, people dropped prone to the earth. I went down too, diving forward with my head away from the gear, but looking back across my body to see what would happen.

The plane slammed across the first cable, flattening it, but somehow the tailhook caught the cable. The impact of the catch and its pull toward inertia jerked the plane to a halt sideways leftjust past the other ends of both arresting gears. The fire engines roared, racing up to suppress flames that never occurred. The plane, the pilot, we were safe.

Dumb luck? Resolution through skill? A combination of both probably. Maybe the same might be said for the Cuban Missile Crisis itself.

After that excitement, the aircraft missions slackened off. Groups of planes left en masse, returning to home bases. Russia and America had reached agreement. Missiles and supporting equipment were on their way out of Cuba. Relief hit us the way a cool breeze feels on a hot day.

Our last night at the Key West Naval Base, the brass granted us a Cinderella liberty, i.e. from six until midnight, "for exemplary service during the crisis," according to a bullshitting Marine Captain. We'd all brought a civilian shirt and trousers to Florida just in case. I unpacked my civvies, but Travis told me to buff my boots instead. He and I were on Shore Patrol duty. He handed me a baton, a belt holding a .45, a white arm band, and a helmet with SP in black.

"Well damn!" I said, grinning. I really didn't care. We were alive. Annihilation had not occurred.

We walked the basically empty sidewalks of downtown Key West, the town, twirling our batons like cheerleaders at a high school football game. When we found our guys in a bar, they greeted us by raising their drinks our way and taunting us because we couldn't drink. We threatened to end their party, but they didn't believe us.

We were careful with jokes. Other servicemen were present, short haircuts identifying them, and a gung-ho nut might report us. Plus the Sergeant of the guard might drive up in a jeep, checking on us. Travis and I toured the main streets on foot like tourists, whiling away the time, gazing through office windows, eating a few snacks, drinking pop. The civilian population had not returned yet or was hiding out in their homes until we ruffians left. Most of the sailors were still on ships out at sea.

About 11:30, strolling one final time along the main drag, we happened upon a young man in civilian clothes, leaning awkwardly against a parking meter as if he might fall over or be sick. Travis asked if he was okay. The man nodded, turned, and staggered away.

Travis grabbed my arm. "See who that is?"

I looked back at the man. "No."

Travis started after him. "Hey, sailor. Give me your ID. Let's see your pass."

The man turned unsteadily and stared at us. It was the archer, the tarpon slayer.

"Your ID and pass," Travis said.

The sailor slashed the air with his right hand and slurred, "I don't have to give you nothing. You're not even in the Navy."

"That right?" Travis tapped the man's right bicep with his baton. "The coons are in charge tonight."

The guy said, "Huh?"

Travis held out his empty hand palm up. "ID and pass! Now!" Travis tapped the man's arm again, but hard enough to make him flinch.

I squeezed Travis's shoulder. "Let him go."

Travis shrugged my hand off, grabbed the man's arm, jerked him into an alley, and stopped in the darkness between buildings. "Boy, we got to make sure you can get back to the base on your own. I want you to repeat what I'm going to say. You hear me?"

The man nodded.

"The Navy sucks."

The guy said, "Hey, man."

Travis slapped the man's arm with the baton. "Say it!"

I said, "Travis...."

Travis said, "I want him to say it."

The man said it.

Travis said, "Louder!"

The guy yelled it.

Travis said, "Now get down on your hands and knees. I need to check your balance."

I said, "Come on. Enough's enough."

The guy dropped to his hands and knees. I thought Travis was going to hit him with the stick so I grabbed it to hold it down.

Travis didn't try to pull it loose, but said, "Now crawl and bark like a dog."

And the guy did. Travis said, "Louder," and the man complied. He was crawling toward a garage-like building, barking, when Travis about-faced and left the alley. I laughed in relief, but not Travis. We hurried back to the barracks and turned in our SP gear.

I never said we were saints or smart. If the sailor complained, the brass would identify us so we'd be in trouble. That never happened, but Travis and I worried that it might.

Why do it? We'd changed. Yes, my unit returned to Cherry Point where I finished my enlistment leisurely, enduring a few more hurry-ups while waiting for my discharge into something like freedom back home in Ohio. But I felt different, and my buddies probably did too. The threat of impending annihilation had been real, not a vague possibility. We had experienced how vulnerable we actually are.

Maybe what we did to the sailor was a protest against an American tendency that was corrupting. Maybe we were symbolically trying to excise it. If Travis is out there somewhere, I bet he is continuing, like me, to wait for that cleansing to happen. Or waiting, tentatively, for that ultimate earth-cleansing that almost happened in 1962.