Gilbert Keith Goes Blind

Remnants of low-slung morning clouds uttered their dying gasps under the gaze of the triumphant sun. A miraculously well-preserved pressing of an antique Garbage album allowed Shirley Manson the luxury of hauling our weary minds across the decrepit-dead years to the summers of strong bones, before the great attrition had vexed our spirit and sapped the very breath in our lungs. A great expanse presented itself starboard. The wide Strait of San Juan de Fuca exposed the lurid vulgarity of the mother ocean. A wave of nausea curdled my gut.

“You’re looking a little green there, Sam.”

“I’ll be fine, Dave. We’re almost there. Besides, the channel is visible. Wind usually picks up around here after the clouds burn off.”

“That it does. Seems you’ve sailed these waters more than I’d have reckoned.”

“You know I used to be stationed near here, right?”

“I seem to recall you mentioned it, yes. Bremerton, right?”

I peered belowdecks to see if our precious cargo caught the same wave of sickness that had assailed me. My eyes refused to adjust to the darkness quickly enough. “Bangor, actually. The submarine base is on the Hood Canal.”

“Those are the nuclear submarines, right?”

“All the submarines in the US fleets were nuclear.” The two exceptions didn’t seem noteworthy enough to mention.

“All of them? I thought some of them just had torpedoes.” He pushed his wraparound sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t think torpedoes could have nuclear warheads.”

“Huh? No, the term applies to the propulsion system. The power plant is nuclear. The alternative is diesel-electric. But in this case, I was on one of the ones with the nuclear missiles.”

Without letting his smile slip for an instant, he remarked, “so you think your submarine did this?” He swept his arm in a great arc, subsuming as much horizon as he could fit in a single gesture.

“No, they retrofitted it to take the missiles off and replaced it with special ops gear a few years after I got out.” My vision took on a muted mulberry tone. “It could have launched a SEAL team, but not an ICBM.”

“You ever feel guilty?”

“Come again?”

“You ever feel guilty about having been a part of all that? Nuclear Armageddon kind of sucks.”

I have had ample opportunity to paw through my culpability in the intervening years. I signed on in a time before anyone had given much thought to catastrophic failures of powerful institutions, powerful behavioral norms. I joined in a time when the world seemed stable, predictable. I agreed to strategic deterrence under false pretenses, though in my paltry defense, I had no good way of knowing so at the time. “You might not realize it, but you’re asking more than one question.” I soaked a bandanna and pressed it to my brow. “After my second or third patrol, I got a special battlestations assignment. I took over the Contact Evaluation Plot in the control room. For conventional combat exercises, against surface ships or other submarines, it was a busy job. I had to keep track of everything that went on in the control room, as well as track the bearing of all sonar and visual contacts. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. But that was for battlestations torpedo. Ballistic missile submarines aren’t intended to get into close range combat. Their mission is to run and hide from hostile contacts. If hostile contacts are detected, the appropriate response is to turn tail and flee. Therefore, if everything goes as intended, the only genuine battlestations the ship should have to call in wartime is battlestations missile. That’s when you spin up the gyroscopes in the missile battery and get ready to erase civilization.” I could feel my heart racing. “During battlestations missile, there are no sonar contacts. Or at least there shouldn’t be. There isn’t much for my plot to do other than note down the ship’s orders like when we turn on the hovering system.”

“The what? It turns into a hovercraft? What about the eels?”

I snickered as best as I was able. “The hovering system is what allows the boat to maintain a tight depth tolerance while stationary.” I didn’t want to bother explaining fluid flow mechanics and how the fairwater planes acted like the aquatic version of airplane wings to maintain depth while the vessel was moving. Neither did I want to explain why the ship had to be stationary and at a very precise depth in order to launch the missiles. All of this was perfectly self-explanatory, and had little to do with the moral questions at hand. “From my battlestations plot, the little console the skipper would insert his key into to end the world was roughly a roundhouse kick away. I probably could not have exactly stopped a launch, but I could have delayed one as long as it took to find a pair of pliers.” I smiled weakly. “I fancied that such a tiny rebellion should the worst come to pass might be my lone act of redemption. Multiply the tens of millions of lives by two minutes or so to figure out how many centuries of human life I could preserve with one sweep of the leg.”

“Wouldn’t they execute you for that? It sounds like treason.”

“Totally worth it.” I have to admit that I never did try to figure out what the criminal charges might be for something like that. “But at the time, I think I was a bit unreflective about the whole thing.”

“How so?”

“I was twenty years old when I got my first at-sea assignment. To me, the sweep of history, the role of the men and women who had shaped it, and the institutions that governed it were a collection of alien artifacts. I took it all for granted.”

“That makes sense. The world is as it is. Aren’t you obliged to grant that the world exists as-is?”

My legs had gone weak. I gripped the closest rail as tightly as I could. “It’s worse than that. I enlisted at seventeen. At that age, I still bought the Truman propaganda.”

“Propaganda?”

“After the Enola Gay run, that smarmy goiter had the nerve to parrot a wholly fabricated estimate of Allied casualties for a beach assault. James Byrnes pulled that 500,000 number out of his butt. He was the one who bullied 20th century America’s second most callow president into incinerating all those civilians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t usually taught in schools.” I winced as another wave of dizziness overtook me. “My point is, I thought that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was pretty good, conditional heavily upon the existence of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated willingness of at least one national sovereign to deploy them in wartime.”

“So as long as they exist, make sure no one wants to use them?”

“I was eight years old when War Games hit the theaters. It was formative.” I paused a moment. “Dr. Strangelove, too.”

“So something changed?”

“Yeah. Something changed. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15. But I never realized just how close those calls were.”

“I know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s the other one?”

“A Soviet monitoring station gave a false positive. It said the US launched 5 nukes out of Montana. The station commander figured it was a problem with the equipment, and reported it as an error. He was right, and we all got to live another quarter century in relative peace.”

“That was lucky.”

“Cuba was too. Kennedy was a drug-addled megalomaniac. He was supremely unfit to be commander-in-chief. But hey, in America, any asshole can be elected to the highest office in the land. The parties helped filter out the worst of the rubbish, but you know the problem with filters, don’t you Dave?”

“They clog, Sam.”

“They clog. They clogged with that Massachusetts goon, they got bypassed with that Ford bumpkin, and they just sort of gave up a bit there towards the end. Unserious people with no real appreciation for the horror of war got too close to the sun. And we ended up paying for it.”

“Yeah, but we chose them. So isn’t it our fault?”

“We merely chose the form of our demise. We chose the color of its neckerchief. The button wanted to be pushed from the moment it was created. The button doesn’t care what finger does the pushing. It’s our own vanity, our own urge to pretend we’re in charge of ourselves that insists it matters who does the pushing.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic for someone who walked from Florida to Alaska to find his old lady.”

I again peeked belowdecks. I again heard nothing, saw only darkness. “The fate of men is not the fate of nations. Surely you agree.”

“I do, Sam. And Sam?”

“Yes, Dave?”

“Don’t call me Shirley.”

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Dark Passenger

Traveling southbound in the springtime is the derelict’s time machine. As the miles flit by, leaves ripen to maturity and the sun bakes the bone-warming heat into the glad rocks. Ordinarily, spring breezes make for easy enough sailing, but inside the aptly-named Hecate Strait, the breath of dead sailors roused from their tormented slumber pitched Dave’s creaky old sloop more than I might have liked, considering the valuable cargo we carried belowdecks.

“The weather started getting rough, Sam.”

“The tiny ship was tossed, Dave.”

“Feeling fearless, Sam?” Continue reading “Dark Passenger”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The history of the British crown is a history of revolt, usurpation, connivance, thrall, and intrigue. In that respect, it is akin to most other monarchies. It parts ways with its Continental cousins in its persistent acrimony towards subjects. Consider King Cerdic. Widely considered to be the first proper king of the Saxons in Wessex, this interloping swine slaughtered the Briton incumbent Natanleod, effectively incinerating the remnants of the bitter near-victory of the Iceni over the Roman occupation five hundred years earlier. Cerdic’s brutal line lasted until Danish boggart Sweyn Forkbeard, husband of Sigrid the Haughty, swept on with threshing oar to spank poor, feckless Æthelred the Unready right off the throne. At least for a few months. Back and forth these two fetid dynasties waged their petty contests for dominance over a squalid archipelago populated by illiterate mud-squatting peasants. Back and forth for fifty years and change these doomed lineages wrangled. Back and forth until French fop William the Bastard settled their hash but good. In 1066, this flaccid pirate king handed Harald the Flatulent his baggy ass at Hastings. By the conventions of the primitive Whig hagiography that once passed for the history of Great Britain as taught in the United States, the Norman Invasion of 1066 marked the beginning of proper British history. The Celtic, Jute, Saxon, Briton, Anglo, and other assorted tribes, clans, and proto-nations were but prelude to the glories of the houses of Blois, Anjou, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, and after the Acts of Union, Hanover, and finally Windsor (nee Saxe-Coburg). A great deal of fuss here in the forlorn colonies attends key moments in that squalid potted history. Certain provisions in a Manorial accord from 1215 allegedly provide the underpinnings of what eventually became the English rule of property law. The impious sacrilege of pudgy Tudors severing ties with Rome not over the corruption of simony and the decadence of the Pope, but rather that the head of state could dip his quill in a fresh pot of ink helped justify the fissiparous tendencies of Protestantism abroad. The surly ouster of James II and the sallow capitulation of William the Orange to the Exchequer upon his restoration gave the English-speaking world the basis for parliamentary government, in which the former locus of power became little more than a gelded, gilt symbol for the adoration of the stinking public rather than the hard kernel of bloodthirsty tyranny it had been for so long.  Continue reading “Stirred, Not Shaken”

Dial D for Despair

For a skinny, maladjusted kid growing up itinerant amid the stifling fens of American public school systems, portable refuges of stability were rare, cherished things. I had my dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. I had my pocket knife, favored by the alpine fighting forces of the Republic of Switzerland. And most reliable of all, I had the periodic table of elements. Books can be left out in the rain, or accidentally dropped into a campfire. Pocket knives can be lost or stolen. But the very elements of nature themselves? I never worried about losing a copy of the table once I had taught myself to recreate it from memory. Wherever I might wander, the halogens were and shall always be fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and (theoretically) astatine. The alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, now and evermore. No matter how many friends I had to say goodbye to for the last time, no matter how many piles of boxes I would have to pack and unpack, no matter how many miles of lonesome highway I rumbled over entombed in heavy Detroit steel, molybdenum boasted an atomic number of 42, then and in all the days to come. Some kids have a security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal. I had the periodic table of elements. Continue reading “Dial D for Despair”

Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite

Keep your cotton, ladies and gentlemen. For my money, Linum usitatissimum is the finest gift Mother Nature has offered humanity, narrowly edging out hemp for the most useful non-cereal angiosperm ever cultivated. While hemp gives us seed oil, plastics, paper, and textiles, its traditional use is cordage. Nothing on earth surpasses the cost performance of a length of sturdy hemp rope when your business is stretching a neck. Continue reading “Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite”

Asymmetrical Morality

Most people already know a few basic facts about radiation. They know, for example, that radiation can be passed through a human body to produce a photographic print that allows physicians to observe the presence of internal injury. They know that nuclear devices, for war or for peace, produce dangerous quantities of radiation. They know that our planet’s own sun emits radiation and that the earth shields us from the worst of it with its natural magnetic field. They know that a sufficient dose of radiation can be harmful, producing burns in the short term, cancer or other genetic mutations over time. Sunburns are your skin’s way of telling you to reduce your exposure to harmful solar radiation. Fewer people know that entire electromagnetic spectrum, from soup to nuts, is radiation. My suspicion is that sometime during the atomic era of the 1950s, American media figures muttered conflations around the stem of a tightly-clenched pipe. Perhaps adding “ionizing” to modify “radiation” for the sort found in the heart of Eisenhower-era nuclear devices was too much of a mouthful for prime-time television. Perhaps the distinction was unimportant when weighed against the urgency of the blossoming arms race. Whatever the case, the notion of high-energy radiation was sufficiently impenetrable that by the time it became a plot device for dimestore fiction, it ended up transforming mild-mannered research physicists into raging emerald smash-monsters. For those rare few who know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, fewer still know that the line dividing them is neither bright nor clear. To understand why, please bear with me as I digress a bit into a little introductory nuclear physics. Continue reading “Asymmetrical Morality”

Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety

“Tell us a story, Clay.” Brigit forced a smile, but we could all feel the incessant chitter of invisible insect feet dancing the Charleston inside our skulls. It wasn’t as bad on the Puget Sound, but the nearer we drew to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, the more we felt the dreadful onset of unavoidable madness. The stories helped. Helped to quell the insistence of the alien noises. Helped still the turmoil.

“It’s my turn, eh? What story would you like to hear? I think I remember some old Twain. Who wants to hear me recount the Incredible Tale of the Celebrated… um… Frog of Some Sort of Calevaras County?” Continue reading “Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety”