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A debt paid
Author's note: I wrote this while thinking about the effect the attacks of September 11 had on High School. I felt that the events of that day could affect so much of their lives.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the mountains of Afghanistan. The pinkish hew was the only color in the surrounding landscape in the gray early morning hours. The dark sides of the mountains were draped in mist that would soon be dispelled as the region rapidly heated up under the powerful sun. The almost complete silence of the early morning was interrupted by a far off sound that slowly grew louder and louder. It was a dull thud that repeated with ever increasing intervals as the sound drew closer.
John Mahanoy sat in the cockpit of his Black Hawk helicopter and surveyed the tranquil scene that he was so rudely interrupting. As he surveyed the scene while also paying careful attention to his instruments, he longed to rub the patch of skin just under his flight helmet. The constant motion of the helmet against his neck always irritated him. He resisted however not wanting to be distracted for even a second, as the wind had been intense this morning acerbated by the wind patterns created by the proximity to the mountains.
In the back of the aircraft there was a squeaking noise like a rusty hinge as the door gunner swiveled the gun toward the front of the aircraft. John frowned at the high pitched noise that he could hear over the sound of the rotors. He had though the ground crew sergeant had taken care of the problem after the last sortie. He made a mental note to remind the sergeant of it when they returned to base.
In the back of the aircraft in addition to the door gunner was a compliment of eight soldiers of the 101st airborne that John was bringing to a small village where they would be assisting fellow members of their division on a humanitarian mission. Of the eight men one was an interpreter and a two were medics. The company in the village was short of both and had requested re-enforcements the previous day.
John checked his position and using the radio to talk to the door gunner and told him to alert the men that they were nearing the landing zone. John began to scan the horizon for the signs of the village. Soon the village could be seen materializing out of the flat landscape. John had been to the village on many occasions, but this time something was wrong. He could already hear the far off rattle of gunfire. Smoke was curling up from the center of the town and he could see mortar strikes impacting the North side of the village. John gave his co-pilot, Gary Crossman a nervous glance.
“Black Hawk 3 to Alpha Bravo, has Charlie company made contact, over?” said John
“Alpha Bravo to Blackhawk 3, that is a firm Charlie Company is taking heavy small arms and mortar fire and has lost a vehicle to an IED, over”
“Copy that Alpha Bravo what is the status of our LZ, over.”
“We do not have information on that at present, over.”
“Copy that Blackhawk three out.”
John looked at his co-pilot with a dark knowing look. The two had flown into heavy fire before, but never carrying this much weight. In addition to the eight men in the back and their equipment they were also carrying a partial re-supply for the Army ground forces. On takeoff John had felt the loss of maneuverability.
John ordered his co-pilot, Lieutenant Gary Crossman to see if he could get Charlie Company on the radio to gain an update on the landing zone security. As Gary began to transmit to Charlie Company John quickly scanned all the systems of the Blackhawk, running down a mental check list of systems. He scanned gages checked hydraulic pressure, fuel readings, engine temperature and a myriad of other systems.
“Sir, Charlie Company is not responding.” Said Gary over the radio
“Copy that, you got a visual on our LZ?”
“Negative, smokes blocking most of the village, we may have to do a fly by to get their attention so they can mark it for us.”
“That’s a firm.” Said John calmly, his heart was racing. Turning slightly in his seat he craned his neck to yell back to the soldiers in the rear of the chopper.
“We can’t get Charlie on coms. So we’re going to come in low and fast from the east toward their positions to try and get their attention and get a visual on the LZ. O’Connor don’t go crazy on that door gun we’ll be near friendly lines, identify your targets. Huah?”
“Huah.” responded all eight in unison.
Turning back to the controls John took a deep breath. He made a last scan of his gauges and dials before slowly pitching the nose of the aircraft down. When he was two hundred feet above the ground he leveled off and throttled the engine up to full speed. The high pitched whine and the thud of the rotors overhead combined in one cacophony of sound. John’s ears listened to the noise of the engine like a musician to a tuning fork, listening for any hint of irregularity that would be-speak a problem.
Everything else disappeared except for the helicopter. With a deft motion he kept the massive machine on course. As they approached the village they entered the cloud of smoke when they emerged from it he realized he had dropped a few feet below his desired altitude. He carefully made a correction on the stick. The sound of gunfire could be heard louder than ever. There were almost over the middle of the village before they saw the airborne troops. And just inside their control was the LZ.
The landing zone (LZ) was a large courtyard of what had been a very wealthy and luxurious house. Now it was pockmarked with bullet impacts and in one corner a mortar round had destroyed a small section of the house. The courtyard was walled in and John estimated that the wall would provide them with cover once the aircraft was within it, however the approach would have to be made slow as the space was extremely small. This would expose them to enemy fire for a longer period of time. John did not like the situation at all.
As they speed over the American troops John could see them yelling and brandishing there weapons. At roughly the same time he was also aware of the heart stopping sound of metal on metal. He only heard it three times, but the sound was unmistakable. It reminded him of when he was younger shooting cans with his brothers pellet rifle.
“Gary, Radio Bravo Charlie and ask for an abort this areas way too hot for us.”
As Gary made the radio transmission John circled the Chopper sharply back around in preparation for retreat or another run at the village. Looking across the cockpit through Gary’s side window he could see tiny flashes of rifle fire. He could also see streaks of light winging their way toward the flashes as O’Connor returned fire from the door gun.
“Bravo Charlie denied our request for an abort; they say Charlie Company needs its supplies and its re-enforcements.” Said Gary angrily
“Copy that. All right we’re going round again this time we’re putting down.” Said John continuing his bank back toward the village.
The approach was more difficult this time and the chatter of the door gunners SAW grew more and more frequent. The familiar sound of bullets striking the metal frame of the aircraft started earlier then the first time. John swore quietly under his breath as the frequency of the strikes increased.
The landing zone was approaching rapidly. Green smoke set off by Charlie Company was spreading rapidly from the center of the courtyard. The thick smoke spreading in billowing cloud over the village. Using it at as a reference he began to adjust the heading of the helicopter to align with the wind. As he did so he slowly made his approach on the courtyard.
There was a slight bump as the “Black Hawk” set down in the courtyard. As the wall blocked the helicopter from enemy fire the sound of the bullet strikes ended. As soon as the aircraft touched down the eight men in the back of the chopper leapt out and crouched as they ran beneath the chopper blades. The green smoke created a light green haze that covered everything and made it hard to see anything.
When the eight men were clear of the chopper, and the supplies had been hurriedly removed, John looked at his co-pilot and nodded. The engine made a distinctive whirring sound as it speed up for takeoff. The sound was a dull whine as the engine labored to lift the massive airframe. John signaled to the soldier one of the soldiers on the ground to stand clear. He prepared to make a rapid ascension followed by a swift bank over the village. By this maneuver he hoped to minimize the aircrafts exposure to ground fire. He now lacked a door gun for protection so the faster the maneuver the better.
“All right Gary let’s take her up fast and bank hard over the village, huah?” said John
John pushed the throttled up the engine as fast as he was able to without damaging the aircraft. Even with the precaution he heard the engine strain and almost stall as the aircraft soared upward.
Gaining altitude as fast as possible John slammed the stick hard to the left and banked over the village. The metallic sound of bullets striking the aircraft resumed and John could even see the individual insurgents firing at him from the roof of numerous houses.
“We have an RPG inbound, two o’clock!”
John’s heart almost stopped, but deftly he maneuvered the aircraft into a sharp climb. The rocket passed beneath the aircraft with a sizzling hissing noise. The maneuver however had made them visible to more of the village and the volume of fire increased. John again began to descend hoping to avoid the worst of it. It was then that it happened. This time John saw it.
From no more than a couple hundred yards from the nose of the aircraft another RPG was winding its way toward them carrying within its nose an explosive charge that could change everything. The trail it left in its wake was a pure white and John even thought he could make out the small tail of flame that was powering the rocket.
John had only seconds to react. He once again slammed the stick of the aircraft into his gut as he desperately tried to gain altitude to avoid the missile. The rocket was gaining to fast and the chopper had barely begun to climb when it struck the Black Hawk, thirty feet behind the cockpit and almost square in the engine bay. The explosion was deafening.
The instrument panel began to come to life as gauges wired and blinked. A loud beeping was coming from two “MASTER WARNING” alarms. Hydraulic power to the flaps had been almost completely destroyed and John was having no response from the aircraft controls as he desperately tried to right the damaged aircraft.
The chopper was in a tailspin and was vibrating at irregular intervals as the damaged engine tried to continue in its designed operation. The engine was spinning down with a grinding and clicking noise. Black, greasy smoke was trailing from the burning engine. The situation was every pilot’s worst nightmare.
“This is Black Hawk 3 we are going down! This is Blackhawk 3 w are going down!” Gary was repeating the distress call over and over again.
John swore profusely as he attempted to bring the aircraft under some semblance of control. The engine was still putting out enough power for John to stop the spin, but there altitude had been so low the dusty ground was rapidly coming up to meet them. John slammed the stick to the right hoping to make it to the edge of the town and avoid hitting the buildings, but the controls did not respond to his commands. The Chopper hit the ground and slid for sixty feet before it slammed into the wall of a building. Johns head slammed into the control panel and he blacked out.
After a long while John slowly began to come to. His head was aching and he was vaguely aware of a pair of hands shaking his shoulders. It was Gary. He was shaking him roughly and appeared to be yelling something, but all of this was silent. He shook his head trying to clear it of a persistent ringing noise.
Slowly as if the volume was being turned up sound returned and he could hear the engine sizzling as it burned. The far off sound of gunfire was distinct, but Gary’s anxious voice was the most predominant.
“John! We have to get the hell out of this chopper now! Come on give me your hand and I’ll pull you out!”
His hands extended toward John over the middle console of the chopper that divided the two pilot’s seats. He felt light headed and slow. He dumbly looked around the chopper before pulling himself up enough to take his hand. The chopper was leaning far to John’s side and he was leaning heavily on the door of the cockpit. He could feel the broken glass of the window cutting his hand as he pushed himself up.
Gary took Johns hand and pulled him roughly over the console. After several moments of effort the two emerged from the wreckage of the Black Hawk in a courtyard similar to the one that had recently been their LZ. However this one was smaller filled as it was with the wreckage of the large aircraft. There were two gates leading to the courtyard both were large and tall wooden doors. The first was just behind the two airmen where they sat next to the cockpit of the destroyed aircraft and was closed and bolted from within the courtyard. The second gate was on the other side of the helicopter and was wide open on a narrow alley beyond which could be seen a wide dirt street.
John surveyed the wreckage of his aircraft like a parent sadly looking at the grave injuries of a child. This aircraft had been his for almost a year and a half. In this time John had spent hours caring for it. He felt like he had been charged to protect it and preserve it. Therefore seeing it in a mangled heap actually brought a lump to his throat. When the engine emitted its final bang John felt as if he had watched a dear friend die. To him his aircraft had just died and he had failed.
“John, can you try and stand, because we got to get to some cover pretty damn quick.” As he said this Gary removed his sidearm from the underarm holster that he wore
“I’ll try. I’m going to cover that one gate while you get that C-4 from the chopper and I need you to plant it all over chopper focusing on the radio and cockpit, but first salvage anything useful.”
As Gary climbed back into the chopper John struggled to his feet and trained his own sidearm on the gate to the courtyard. Gary had just finished planting the explosives on key components of the aircraft when two figures appeared at the far end of the alley coming from the street beyond. John hurriedly called out to Gary as soft as he could to be quiet, but the two approaching figures had already heard him.
John carefully aimed the Beretta M-9 at the first of the two men. Using the fuselage of the aircraft to steady his hand John took careful aim at the chest of the man. With a deep breath john slowly began to squeeze the trigger. The gun jerked as it went off and the first man dropped. John quickly switched to the second man and fired. The bullet missed striking the alley wall just behind the man. The second shot found its mark, but not before the man fired a wild volley at John.
The bullet struck John in the chest knocking him flat on his back. For a long moment the only thought in Johns head was that of intense pain. Above him the perfectly blue sky looked blankly back at him. Suddenly the face of Gary appeared over him as he checked his wound. When John was bandages he had once again regained sense of what was happening around him. Holding up a hand to stop Gary for a moment, for he heard something coming from the alley.
“You hear that?” said John
The two listened intently and both tensed as the sound of Arabic coming from the alley grew closer.
“Gary help me up we have to get out of here now.” Said John calmly
As quietly as was possible, Gary carefully helped John to his feet and the two began to move as fast as they could toward the second door. They reached it without incident, but Gary could not pull the bolt from across the gate with one hand. John shrugged off Gary’s support and slumped against the wall clutching his chest.
Gary struggled with the dead bolt as the voices, now more agitated upon finding the two bodies, came closer and closer. Finally the bolt gave, but it made a loud and very audible metallic bang as it slid out of place.
A burst of gunfire impacted the wall above their heads. Two insurgents came into view from around the tail of the chopper. They were simply dressed in traditional Arab garb and carried Ak-47’s. John noticed that they walked with a subtle air of determination. John raised his pistol and fired at the same moment as Gary did. The two fell, but more were on the way.
“Gary go! You have to go now!” yelled John as he slumped further down the wall while keeping his gun trained on the place where the two insurgents had appeared.
However Gary was not listening he was running back toward the wreckage. John swore as three more men emerged in the same place as the other two. Again John and Gary fired and the three dropped, but not before Gary was hit in the hand by a bullet from one of the men’s AK-47’s. Gary kept moving and John realized he was heading for the quick ignite fuse. He reached it and pulled the cord and began to run back toward John. Before John knew what happened the two were though the door and moving hurriedly down another alley that John guessed must run parallel to the street.
The rest of the journey was a blur of pain, but after passing through what felt like two or three houses Gary was setting John down in a dark basement of one of the houses. It was an earthen wall shallow basement and was a more of a pit beneath the house. Scattered around were numerous clay jars. This was obviously a storage room.
Gary laid John against the earthen wall and began to better bandage Johns wound. The pain was intense and for a long moment while Gary worked, all John could do was clench his teeth and try not to move.
When he was done John looked as his friend as he tended to his own superficial wound of his hand. The bullet had taken a large chunk of flesh from the heel of his hand, but was not that serious. When he was done Garry leaned against the opposite wall so he could watch the ladder that lead into the basement. John smiled at his friend.
“Thanks for getting me out of there Gary.” She said weakly
“I promised I would always watch your back.” Said Gary returning the grim smile
The wind blew through the trees that were beginning to show the signs of their lush green summer leaves. The wind gusted across the Dineberry school district. The campus had been an airport until the 1970’s when the gusting winds coming off of the nearby East Mountain of the Adirondacks made landings dangerous. The land had been sold and slowly a large school district had grown up.
On the edge of the expansive campus were three or four baseball and softball fields. They were almost half hidden by trees and farthest one was right along the road of a housing development. It was this field that was a flurry of activity while the other two remained dormant in their winter slumbers. The yells and laughter of a third period gym class could be heard from hundreds of feet off in the flat landscape.
The game had been in progress for almost a half an hour and it was almost time for the large class to head in to change and be ready for their next class. The game was a close one and the score was tied with a man on first and third. A single would easily score the winning run for the team at bat. There were two outs and the giggling girl who had made the last out was just retiring from the field. The team captain took the bat and began to walk to the plate with an air of confidence bordering on arrogance. The team in the field groaned.
“Oh come on coach he’s batted like forty times today!” yelled the pitcher, a small redheaded guy with glasses.
“Yeah!” yelled the team in almost perfect unison
“Bull-s***! I batted like once, come on coach!” said the captain angrily
“Hey I’ve told you Mr. Cole to watch that mouth of yours!” replied the coach, placing a mocking tone on the ‘Mr. Cole’
A group of the captain’s friends shook their finger at him in mocking impersonations of the coach behind his back. They stopped as the coach turned toward the fielders and Cole flipped the group off.
“They’re right though. Cole get one of your teammates up here. Someone who hasn’t batted at all today, like…Mahanoy over there.” Said the coach pointing at one of the players who was sitting on the bench apart from everyone else and had been taking no interest in the proceeding’s until he heard his name.
“Oh come on coach not John!” said the captain exasperatedly looking angrily at the boy as if it was his idea.
“Yeah, not him he couldn’t be on the bowling team!” said another laughing
“Hey! Just leave him alone you asshole.” Said a student near John Mahanoy
“Shut up Gary, you know he can’t hit worth s***”
Gary stood. He was a slim, but muscular young man of sixteen. His hair was a dark black. Not like a normal black, but black like wet pavement. It was short and well-kept. He was of average height no taller or shorter than most of his classmates.
Gary moved toward the student and stood right in front of him his face close to the other boys, who flinched.
“I said leave him alone Steven.” Said Gary quietly, but his tone was one of a person not to be trifled with or disobeyed. The coach was quickly walking toward the two students ready to intervene at any moment
“Alright! Crossman, Ghedni that’s enough from both of you! Said the coach angrily, and then turning to John “Mahanoy your up I haven’t seen you do anything today.”
John stood slowly. In contrast to Gary he was short and skinny. His body looked like it had never had muscle in it, just bone. His face was covered in pimples and his brown hair was long and greasy. He picked up one of the metal bats and walked slowly to the plate. He assumed something that resembled a batting stance. The pitcher was grinning as he played with the ball in his glove.
Gary watched from the edge of the wire fence backstop. The pitcher went into a simple wind up and through the ball. It soared right over the plate. Johns only movement was to watch the ball as it passed by. Laughing came from the field and groans and swearing from the backstop as the ball was thrown back to the pitcher and strike one was called.
Gary walked calmly out to the plate holding hand up to stop the pitcher and offering an assurance that this ‘would only take a minute’ to the coach who was yelling about the amount of time left. He approached John who stared at him with the blank look of someone who has lost all emotion in regard to what is to happen next. Gary first without saying a word straightened out Johns batting stance and then he looked him squarely in the eye.
“John. What the hell are you doing?”
“What I do best. Striking out.” He said sadly
The question seemed to puzzle John for a few brief moments in which his eyes for a brief moment seemed to come back to life, but then the moment passed and they resumed their previous blank stare.
“Because Gary, I can’t hit that goddamn ball.”
“How do you know that you’re not even trying?”
“I’ve done this before and…”
“Yeah you struck out, but why stop trying?”
“Because they give me hell either way, but they’re even worse when I try.”
“Exactly you will get razzed if you strike out either way right? So don’t strike out. If you hit that ball and win the game they won’t razz you.”
“But I can’t hit it!”
“Not without swinging the bat you can’t. I’m not saying it’s a guaranteed thing, but if you try you might succeed. I can guarantee, however, that you won’t hit it if you watch it whiz by you. You can’t just give up John.”
He walked back and then turned his attention to the pitcher. He settled into his batting stance waiting for the pitch. The pitcher smirked and got ready for his windup. The pitched rocketed toward home plate where John stood waiting and ready.
The aluminum bat glinted in the sun as it was swung around at the ball that was passing over home plate. With a distinctive “blink” the ball hit the bat and soared high into the sky. John stood for a moment in shock before he took off running. He had gotten only six steps when he heard the loud voice.
“Foul Ball!” yelled the coach
John slunk back to the plate and picked up the bat and settled back into the batter’s box. He was determined now. He was focused solely on what he wanted to accomplish, and could barely hear or see anything else, but the redheaded boy who was holding the ball. He wasn’t grinning as widely as before and seemed a little apprehensive. John stared unblinkingly at him.
The pitcher let out a quick sigh and began his wind up. A slow step back of one foot, the other slowly rotating to fit into the pitching rubber the slow steady motion of the lead foot rising up, the body rotating the arm coming over and finally the release of the ball. John could have counted the red stiches on the ball. His front foot lifted and stepped toward the ball and the bat swung round.
There was a sharp thump as the ball hit the pocket of the catcher’s mit. The yell of ‘strike three’ followed close behind. John stood on the spot for a long moment as his classmates filed gruffly, past heading for the school building and the locker rooms. John stayed and helped pick up the equipment.
“There you go. I tried and I failed, just like always.” Said John tossing a ball into the canvas sack by the pitching mound
“Yes but you tried, and you almost had it, isn’t it better that you had a chance at it, you knew the outcome if you didn’t try so you tried and hey it’s not the outcome you wanted. But you had a chance and you’ll have another next week and maybe you’ll succeed.”
John thought for a long moment about how it had felt to feel the vibration of the bat as it had struck the ball.
“I guess you’re right.” Said John half smiling
“Of course I am!” said Gary laughing
There was a long silence as the two finished picking up the field and packing away the bats and gloves in a small field house just behind the backstop.
“Yeah man?” he said tossing the last of the gloves into the house
“Thanks for sticking up for me and, you know helping me out.”
“Don’t worry about it John, I’ll always have your back.” Said Gary smiling
The two walked slowly back to the school talking light heartedly of other things.
Night was falling fast on the Afghan village and the sun was nothing more than a fading memory. As the sun disappeared the region quickly grew as bitingly cold as it had been blisteringly hot a few hours before. The sound of fighting had quieted now, but the occasional burst of gunfire continued into the dead of the night interrupting what would have been a quiet night.
The earthy smell of the basement was sharp in John’s nostrils as John inhaled sharply. The pain was dull and intense as Gary removed the bandage and probed the wound with his fingers. John stifled a yell as Gary’s fingers touched the bullet that was embedded in John’s chest. Dark warm blood was running down John’s stomach from his wound. Hesitantly John looked down at the wound.
John gasped as he saw the wound. The whole was ragged and the area around it was a faint purplish color and blood was oozing out of it. This blood had already begun to cake and turns black in places making the sight of the wound even more startling.
Gary, after locating the bullet, elected to leave it in its place fearing that removing it would cause too much bleeding. He cleaned the wound and re-bandaged it causing John another round of intense pain.
When the process was completed Gary wiped the blood from his hands on a rag that he had found in a corner of the cellar, and slid down the wall to sit next to John. The two sat in silence for a long time. Both thought of the same thing, how to get out of the village. Their survival radios had been lost in the escape and the flare would only give away their position. Gary had an even more pressing reason to get out of the village as soon as possible, but he did not share it with John. It wouldn’t do him any good.
John’s vision he noticed was blurring every few seconds. This struck john as strange, but he attributed it to the force with which his head had hit the control panel of the aircraft during the crash. He soon forgot it, but a feeling of unease lingered.
“I guess this wasn’t what we expected when we joined, huh?” said John with a weak smile
“Yeah I guess not. Try not to talk too much man.” Returning the smile briefly
Something was wrong, John knew it. His thoughts seemed scattered and jumped from one thought to another with ever increasing rapidity, like a record skipping from one track to another.
He thought of the crash and tried to remember what his engine output reading had been right before the chopper hit the ground. From this his mind jumped to the base they had left early that morning. Had the base been notified yet that they had crashed? What would their fellow pilots say? He thought back to his training after he left the Academy with Gary and the endless hours of crash footage they had watched trying to spot what could have been done differently.
John kept tracing his life back. From his flight training he thought of his and Gary’s graduation from West Point. He thought of the glimmer of the gold hat badge as it caught the afternoon sun as he and one thousand other cadets tossed their hats into the deep blue sky. He thought of his first day at The Academy, staring down an upperclassman and reciting timidly the phrase that had been given to them.
Finally, like a game piece alighting on the desired square after hovering over other innumerable squares, John’s flurry of memories found one single memory that John clung to. It was not one of war or helicopters; it was of a normal day that turned into anything but a normal day. It was a memory of a cool September in the early morning, a day that few who witnessed would ever forget.
John’s eyes closed as the memory of that day washed over him like the pounding waves of a vast, vast ocean.
Dineberry New York was famous for its falls. The season transformed the lush green of the Adirondack Mountains into an array of deep yellows and oranges. The temperature began to come down and the wind began to pick up ready to blow the leaves from their trees and plunge mountains into their gray winter sleep.
It was early in the morning and the sun was just beginning to come up as busses slowly began to trickle onto the Dineberry School Districts Campus, all heading for the high school building. They deposited their barely conscious cargo at the rear entrance and with blank expressions the students began to head for their first classes.
John was one of these students. He walked quietly to his first class not speaking to anyone. The beginning of the school year always depressed him and the fact that he was now an upperclassman made little difference. He wondered if being a senior next year would even make a difference.
He sat down in his trigonometry class and barely listened. Morning classes were always the quietest. No one had the energy yet to be much of a problem. When the class ended he gathered his books and pushed them into his back complaining inwardly about the number of books he was required to carry. It was a typical day.
Walking down the halls toward his homeroom John was still wrapped up in his own musings. If he hadn’t been so distracted he might have noticed the hushed tones from inside the classrooms he passed. It wasn’t normal. Homerooms were was usually loud and full of activity as students began to wake up.
Not noticing any of this, John walked into his homeroom and dropped his bag into his seat. Only then did he notice the lack of conversation within the room. The class was standing in a huddle staring at the plasma TV that was mounted just above the black board. It was on and to John alarm was showing a building he knew well burning.
“Good Morning today is September 11, 2001 and we are live at the scene of a breaking news story here in New York City,” said the news anchor solemnly, “we turn now to Laura O’Donnell who is reporting just a few blocks from the World Trade Center.”
John frowned at the TV as the reporter explained that a small private plane had accidentally crashed into the one of the towers. Live images of the building were being displayed and when an image of the damage caused by the plane was shown the entire class gasped. The whole was large and ragged. One thought swept through the room.
“That does not look like a small plane.” Said a male student near the door quietly
“Yeah, but how would a large plane not see a freaking tower, I mean they’re huge.” Said another skeptically
“Maybe the plane was…” the last one trailed off distracted by a movement on the TV screen
What followed seemed to be surreal to John and perhaps to the rest of the students staring transfixed at the TV. A large passenger liner had appeared banking hard toward the tower. It flew past and banked sharply and with a great fireball struck the second tower.
The reaction in the room was a sudden gasp followed by an utter silence that could be felt throughout the entire building. No one spoke Even the news anchor was silent for a long moment. No one could believe what they were seeing. The long beep of the bell seemed like a rude intrusion on the event that had just occurred. No one moved for almost two minutes, when finally with dumbstruck expressions they wordlessly left the classroom.
The halls for the rest of the day emptied quickly as people hurried from class to class not wanting to miss any of the coming developments. John was in his second period class when the first tower collapsed. At first it was hard to say whether the tower was truly gone, but as the dust settled nothing could be seen of the once great tower, but a pile of rubble.
As the second tower collapsed a new emotion replaced his shock and sorrow. Reports were now coming in of a plane striking the Pentagon. The emotion was anger. Anger that welled up fast from deep within himself. He didn’t know who was responsible for this, what country what organization what man or woman, but he did know that the U.S. was going to make them pay.
Gary was sitting in the desk just in front of John staring at the screen and shaking his head. Garry turned to look at John and he recognized a familiar gleam in his friend’s eyes. It was a gleam that must be in his eyes even as he sat looking at Gary. It was a look of anger. It was John who spoke first. It was the first time he had said a word all day.
“We’re going to make these bastards pay.” Said John coldly
“Yep.” Replied Garry simply
John was vaguely aware that the sun was coming up on a new day. He could not understand how he knew this for there were no windows in the in the basement. Perhaps the perceived increase in temperature of the soil of the wall he was leaning against had tipped him off. However he had figured it out the sun was indeed coming up.
John thought of the mountains from the flight in just twenty-four hours before. He frowned. It felt like it had been longer since that morning. He slowly turned his head and saw Garry at the base of the stairs where he had been for hours, standing watch.
Garry’s face now seemed lined and haggard. His eyes were bloodshot and he had purple bags under his eyes. He had obviously not slept. His flight suit was filthy with gore and dirt. John could just barely make out there squadron patch on the shoulder.
John, uncomfortable struggled to sit up. The effort left him breathing irregular, light headed and struggling not to vomit. He didn’t dare look down at his chest. The pain had returned with a new intensity and John groaned in spite of himself. The noise drew Gary’s attention and he stood stifle and, crouching under the low ceiling of the basement moved over toward John.
“Just sit back John we can’t have you moving too much.”
“Have…you…heard anything.” Asked John struggling to speak each word
“No, but they’ll be sending choppers for us today I’ll bet. You just hang on all right; we’ll get out of this.” Said Gary reassuringly
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that we’ve made it too damn far for you to wash out now.”
“I know, but I just want to sleep, I feel like sleep would help, just let me sleep Gary…” said John his voice trailing off as he closed his eyes
Garry shook and yelled as loud as he dared to wake John up.
“No, John, John no man you can’t sleep! Hey! You can’t sleep ok you know that.”
John opened his eyes slowly. He just wanted to sleep, but he knew Garry was right. He struggled to keep his eyes open. For almost three hours Garry talked to John trying as best he could to keep John from sleeping. It was what must have been noon when a feeling of apprehension began to descend over them. There had been no sounds of planes or helicopters all day, just the rattle of rifle fire.
“John, If I go up top and scout around a little maybe I can get a signal to Charlie Company as to where we are?”
“No, it’s too risky…we’ll wait for a chopper and we’ll try to signal them…but for now we wait.”
“John we need to get help soon.” He said glancing quickly at John’s chest. John noticed the glance.
“I’ll be fine Gary. I’m not letting you expose yourself to unnecessary risk for me.”
A torn look came over Gary. His face was one that you could almost see the gears of his mind tackling the problem, weighing options and outcomes, risks over necessity. The decision was long in coming and even when it was made his hesitation was clear. He made to stand twice. Checked his pistol and tied and retied his boots three times before he finally acted.
“I’m sorry John I can’t just sit here.” He stood and bent double because of the ceiling height, moved to the ladder.
John tried to raise his voice, but the effort needed was beyond him. He could only watch in anger as his friend climbed the ladder and opened the trap door on the floor above. He squinted as sunlight came streaming in from the door. As Gary pulled himself out a spent 9mm shell casing fell from his pocket landing silently on the dirt floor. It sparkled in the sunlight.
The image brought back more memories to John. He thought, vaguely, how strange it was that he would begin to remember these things now. The glinting of the brass shell was exactly like a shimmer he had seen only two years ago. There had been a thousand of them thrown into the air at once. Oh how many years ago it seemed.
John smiled inwardly as the summer air filled his nostrils. The short hairs on the back of his neck were tickled ever so gently by the early June breeze. His perfectly shined black shoes clicked with every step he took down Thayer Walk.
It was his favorite spot on post at West Point. The trees that lined the walkway were as familiar as old friends. He had opted to take a spot in one of the older Barracks, Lee, just to live along the famous walkway. As he neared The Plain, the large parade field near the center of the campus, a twinge of regret and sadness seemed to suddenly dampen his mood. This would be one of the last times he would walk this beloved place for a long while.
John was on his way to his last lunch in Washington Hall as a West Point Cadet. His graduation was like, the other one thousand of his class, this very afternoon. Most were spending the last few hours as cadets off post eating with their families who had come in for the graduation. John however had no family coming in for the graduation. His mother had died at the beginning of his third year and his father had been opposed to the Army as a career from the get go. John frowned as the thought of his father entered his mind like an unwelcome guest.
John had called him the previous night to ask him to come to the graduation explaining to him how important it was to him that he be there. His father had been quiet for a long time, so long in fact that John had though he had hung up. He hadn’t though. His father had finally broken the silence.
“Have you been writing at all.” He had said quietly
“No dad. I’m always too busy here and… you know.” John had replied hesitantly
“I don’t understand you.”
“Dad I wanted the Army you didn’t want that for me, you wanted me to pursue writing, that’s all there is to get.”
“Not that. I never understood why you threw away your gift.”
“What gift! You always tell me about this gift I don’t have a gift!”
“Your right John you don’t! Not anymore, your gift died when you left for that place. And that saddens me more than anything. You through it away like it was nothing.”
“Dad… I wanted to go to this place, it was my dream, I wanted to defend my country and be part of this. I don’t think you’ll ever really understand this place and why I had to come here, but I do. I want you at my graduation tomorrow. I want to share perhaps, the proudest moment of my life. That’s all I want.”
A long silence had followed. John could tell his father was still on the line. He waited for almost a minute before he said goodbye and hung up. For all John knew he could have been talking to the static on the other end of the line.
John pushed the phone conversation out of his mind as he continued to walk toward Washington Hall. He was trying to enjoy his last few hours in this place before he left for flight school with Gary. Both of them had chosen aviation as there branch. They, were going to fly helicopters.
After Lunch John passed the last few hours before the ceremony walking the post one last time. Even in his last few hours he instinctually corrected the infractions of plebes as he passed them. When he had only an hour left John made the short walk back to Lee Barracks down Thayer walk.
In his room in the Barracks John changed into his dress uniform for the last time. The white pants, black shoes, gray Jacket with brass buttons, the red sash about his waist, the white gloves the silver and gold saber, and finally his white hat with the brass West Point emblem just above the brim. He surveyed himself in the mirror running through a mental check list of uniform regulations that had been drilled into him for four full years.
John surveyed the room. It was as empty as he had ever seen it. All the shelves were empty. The wall lockers empty, the desk top and drawers empty, the space under the bed where shoes and boots usually sat neatly in a line empty. It was all empty. The only item left was a green duffel bag packed and ready for final departure. John straightened his red sash in the mirror and exited the room.
John walked down the hall and met up with Garry who was similarly dressed and waiting for him. The two without saying a word walked down the hall and down the stairs together. John said nothing until Thayer walk was behind them.
“Well Gary it took four years, but its time man.”
“That it is. I guess it’s time to make those bastards pay.”
“Huah to that.” Said John
The two had to split up once they reached their gathering point as they were not in the same company. The two sat through the graduation separately. The two stood with the other one thousand cadets and took their oath as officers in the United States Army. They walked across the stage and received their diploma and their commissions. The sky was a perfect light blue, not a single cloud in it.
John’s heart began to race as the class was ordered to stand. The final words were said the anticipation of all the cadets was so thick one almost had to squint to see anything through it. There was a long silence as the officer smiled at them all and then the words they had dreamed of since the very first day fell calmly, but proudly from the man’s lips.
“…Class of 2007, dismissed.”
There was an explosion of sound as the joy swept the one thousand graduating cadets. John yelled with them and in one fluid motion that each had rehearsed in their mind at least one hundred times, they removed their white hats and threw them into the air. John tilted his head back and laughed as the hats soared into the air. The sun caught the hat badges and it looked as if a thousand stars were winking at them in the late afternoon sun.
John was almost knocked off his feet as Gary ran over from his own company to give him a massive rib-cracking bear hug. They had done it. Pounding each other on the back the two began to move toward the stadiums exit. Families were pouring onto the field John was separated from Gary. John began to leave, but he stopped when he noticed a man standing by the exit tunnel as if he was waiting for someone. It was his father.
John walked over to him in disbelief. His father was dressed in a pair of khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt; he looked somewhat uncomfortable surrounded by people in uniform. His eyes were scanning the field. When John reached him neither said anything for a moment.
“Congratulations.” Said his father extending a hand
“Thanks, Dad. It means a lot that you came.” Said john shaking the proffered hand
“Well, I…” he stopped “I knew I might regret it if I wasn’t here. I can’t say I’ll ever approve of any of this, but I know how important it is to you so…”
“You be careful ok? I researched Army helicopter pilots and they say how dangerous it is so…be careful.” He said hurriedly
“I will be, besides I have Gary to watch my back.” Said John with a smile
His father had an expression that John recognized. It was one he had seen many times before. He made it when he had something to say, but couldn’t seem to get it out. With a hurried and awkward hug his father strode briskly away down the stadium tunnel. John stared after him for a long while before walking after him. He spent an hour saying goodbyes to his fellow class mates. He stood on the edge heard of the group of ex-cadets. He found it strange to just walk away from these people. He would have happily stood with these men and women for the rest of his life, but the moment had to come.
John turned slowly and without looking back began to make the short walk back to his barracks. The walk normally took no more than ten minutes, but John took his time. When he reached Thayer walk his pace slowed even further. He entered his barracks and for the last time removed the uniform of a cadet. His white gray and red were replaced by the camouflage fatigues of a Second Lieutenant.
John left the room in his barracks and for the last time strolled down his beloved Thayer Walk. The sun was just beginning to set on post and for the last time the sound of retreat drifting across the post fell upon John’s ear
John was vaguely aware once again that night had fallen on the small village, from the cooling of the earth wall he was leaning against. The basement grew steadily darker, but to John for some reason it seemed darker. It was as if a gray mist had settled over his vision. He rubbed his eyes weakly but the condition persisted.
The night worn on. John tried to stay conscious but a sense of heavy weight had settled over him. Twice he felt he was on the verge of losing consciousness. He was once again on the verge of passing out when the distinctive rattling of an AK-47 that was silenced by a sudden single gunshot. John raised his pistol weakly from his lap where it had been sitting. He cocked the hammer and pointed it at the ladder. To his relief a familiar muffled voice drifted through the wooden cover over the ladder.
“John! It’s me, I’m coming down.” Said Gary in a harsh whisper
Gary came down the ladder and hurriedly knelt next to John. John turned his head slowly to look at him, but it was a long moment before his eyes focused enough for him to see him. It was another moment before he could understand what he was saying.
“John can you hear me? I found a clear route to Charlie Company, but we have to go now!”
Gary began to try and pull John to his feet. John moaned as the pain intensified as Gary tried to quickly lift him. The pain was blinding and he could barely see, hear, or taste anything else, but somewhere in the fog of pain John heard something. John’s eyes shot open.
In the dark John could just barely see anything in the dark, but he could make out a blurry shape slowly moving down the ladder. John squinted at the shape and after a moment the sharp outline of an AK in the man’s hand was easy to see. John tried to cry a warning to Gary who had his back to the figure, but the words just wouldn’t come. It took John all his energy to raise his pistol and carefully aimed down the sights. The sound of the gun discharging its round was muffled in the earthen basement.
The figure fell with a muffled thump to the earthen floor. Gary turned hurriedly bringing up his own pistol. John had been almost to his feet when Gary turned and without support he fell hard back against the wall. The pain once again racked his body. Gary seeing that the danger was gone turned back to John.
The pain began to subside to its usual dull burn. Gary was looking at John with concern and apprehension in his face.
“Thanks.” Said Gary weakly looking quickly back at the prone figure
“You’ve always had my back…its time I had yours…” said John weakly
“All right we have to get you up the path to Charlie Company won’t be clear forever.”
Gary began to lift John again. The pain was no less intense, but John seemed almost less receptive to the pain. He didn’t seem to have the energy left to feel the pain. Gary had gotten John up and was moving him toward the ladder when they both heard it. The sound was coming quite distinctively from the neighboring house. It was a group of perhaps ten men all speaking in low voices that none the less carried through the thin walls of the houses. They were speaking Arabic.
Both froze with fear. The sound of the men ransacking the house could now be heard. The two friends looked at each other. Both realized the seriousness of the situation. John was having trouble standing on his own let alone running or even walking. There was only one option, but the decision would have to be made quickly or else even this final desperate play for survival would be lost.
“Gary…you have to go, now.” Said john quietly
“No I won’t leave you man we’ll have to fight them.”
“Gary, we have two pistols and I’m not up to even firing one, against ten guys with rifles. I’ll only slow you down, on your own, you have a chance.” Said John weakly but calmly
John slowly sank to the floor his back against the wall. He was going to make the decision for him. Gary did not give up easily however, the decision was made non-verbally. John watched as his friend tried to pull him up, the look on his face of helplessness and finally the look of sorrow and unimaginable pain as he resigned himself to the decision that John had already made for him when he sat down.
The sounds of the men ransacking the house were dying down as the men finished their search of the neighboring house. They would soon be moving on to the next house. Gary looked painfully at John one last time before climbing hurriedly up the ladder. John listened to the sound of Gary’s footsteps move out of the house. When John could no longer hear Gary he relaxed.
The sound of the men moving into the upstairs of the house seemed very far way to John. It was as of the crashes and bangs just a few feet above him were happening on a far off planet. They were like the mini explosions on the face of the sun, mattering little on the far away earth. John noticed little of this; a sense of listless floating had overtaken him. It should have concerned him, but it seemed almost normal to John. His thoughts were focused on Gary.
He thought of Gary moving hurriedly through the village on his own in the cool dark of the night. He knew Gary had not wanted to leave him and the affect it would have on him, he knew, would be great. It’s for his own good though. He thought vaguely. He’ll get back to his wife and live a good life. Besides I owe him this…this time my friend I have to have your back. John smiled to himself and closed his eyes dreaming of Thayer Walk.
Captain Gary Cross was walking across the tarmac of his base in Afghanistan in the gray of the early morning. Next to him was his co-pilot. This was their first mission together and for the young second lieutenant his first flight in a combat zone, and for Gary his first flight without John. Both were filled with trepidation.
When the usual preflight checks were complete Gary took a deep breath and started the engine of the Black Hawk. He throttled it up and the ground fell away as the bird took to the sky. They reached their desired altitude and set a heading for a small village about ten miles from the base. Their mission was to pick up two wounded Marines.
It was strange for Gary not to have John by his side and the love of flying he had once shared with John had disappeared. A sudden light blinded Gary’s right eye. John squinted and saw that the sun was just rising over the mountains. Gary smiled remembering his last fight with John. Suddenly as he remembered his old friend the liberated feeling of flight came back to him.
He peered down through his door window at the landscape that was slowly being touched by the sun and as it was touched seemed to come to life. It had been Johns favorite time to fly he had said. Garry could almost hear his voice in his head “Just as the suns coming up and everything’s waking up from a cold dessert night, and your just soaring over it and able to drink it all in. There’s no better feeling in the world.”
As he looked out on the landscape he began to realize what John had meant. A sense of peace filled him up like a cooling rain as he gazed out over this ancient land. And to Gary it seemed like this was the most glorious morning that one could imagine. I wish you could be here my friend, boy do I wish you could be here.