Although it was mid-September, the famous Florida sun seemed to have abandoned its appointment with the winter solstice and instead appeared to be putting in some extra time to help out the state's citrus industry. The blinding hot sphere hovered in a cloudless sky, showering the land with rays so intense that they illuminated every speck of dust floating in the atmosphere. The resulting reflections from these otherwise invisible motes appeared as a faint haze that dulled the colors of the surrounding landscape. Heat waves distorted what remained, their cumulative effect over acres of asphalt serving to melt the trees, towers, and buildings on the horizon into a blurry, wavering potpourri.
My companions and I stood in a loose formation outside the main hanger of Patrick Air Force Base, whose broiling decks and runways must be measured in square miles. We each adjusted our positions every few seconds as we tried in vain to find the remnants of a breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. This inviting playground was only a hundred yards in front of us but was hidden behind Highway A1A and a strip of undeveloped dunes, these last a rare sight amongst the condos and bars that stretched along Cocoa Beach's blossoming Space Coast.
Fifteen minutes earlier, the hanger's loudspeakers had announced that our plane was ready to be boarded. My fellow travelers and I had stepped out of the too-cool waiting room and into the wilting heat of the unprotected boarding area. There, a security guard stopped us and, after telling us to wait, disappeared into the hanger.
"It's not the heat, it's the humidity," announced one of the passengers, cleaning his sunglasses on his shirttail.
Wrong, asshole. It's the heat, the humidity, the sun, the air, the ground, and the effects of walking out of a waiting room that had a thermostat setting that could douse a fire. For me, it was also the extra surface area caused by my six foot, 190 pound frame, which appeared to contain more heat sensors and sweat glands than most everyone else around me. I rapidly became drenched with perspiration.
Hoping to catch a cooling glimpse of water, I looked behind me towards the Banana River, actually a saltwater lagoon that serves as the base's western boundary. It was no use. Light rays reflected, refracted, and polarized by the intervening layers of superheated air ultimately combined and canceled each other out, leaving a wide black impenetrable void where ground and water should have been. Above and beyond hovered the blurry coast of Merritt Island, supported only by the mirage.
Wilting under the staggering heat, I recalled an article written by a local who believed that a direct hit from a hurricane would dredge a path right through the air force base and provide another access to the Banana River. As I stood on the runway, sweat soaking my pants, shirt, and dripping from my hair onto my ears and neck, I thought the prospect of turning Patrick Air Force Base into the Patrick Intracoastal Waterway seemed particularly inviting.
I turned my attention towards our plane. This would be my first flight on a military aircraft, and the C-141 Starlifter cargo transport squatting on the runway provided the clue that this flight would be very unlike the few commercial jaunts I had taken during my short professional career. What struck me most about the plane that was to fly me five thousand miles down range was the apparent affinity it had for the ground. The plane's wheels were barely visible, with the result that the dull gray belly seemed to droop perilously close to the asphalt. The hatch on the side of the fuselage was so low the crewmembers needed only a short stepping stool to ease their entrance.
Furthermore, the fuselage was designed to hang under the middle of the plane's wing. On the ground, of course, the body of the plane bore the weight of the wing, complete with fuel tanks and four jet engines. This load caused the wings to sag like those of a tired albatross. The cumulative effect was to make this droopy low-rider look like it was trying to hug the ground. I wondered if I should be doing the same.
My wife, Gloria, had preceded me on this trip, and although she hadn't supplied me with the details of a Military Airlift Command (or MAC) flight, she did pass on the advice many of her coworkers had given her on how to ease the discomfort of the trip. Alcohol was the common denominator of each of these suggestions, the only difference being the amount to be ingested. A sober flight was not among the recommendations.
I was glad I hadn't followed the advice, however well-intentioned; my rapidly dehydrating body was already on the brink of collapse. The additional effects caused by a bloodstream full of alcohol would have been too much to bear. Of course, once I was airborne, in-flight jitters might cause me to have a change of heart. By then, however, it would be too late. MAC flight loadmasters wouldn't be serving drinks, and our carry-on bags had already been checked to ensure we wouldn't be helping ourselves.
At last we got the signal to board and our little group shuffled forward to select our accommodations for the next thirteen hours. By the time we reached the hatch, I was somehow first in line, as one-by-one, the other passengers had slowly fallen in behind me. After I vaulted myself into the plane and took a few steps towards the passenger area, I discovered the reason behind my companions' apparent generosity; the atmosphere inside was even worse than what we had been enduring on the exposed runway. Once the huge cargo doors in the tail were closed, the Starlifter's interior was rapidly approaching the temperature required for baking pottery.
My lungs searing with every breath, I walked slowly towards the rear, my hands outstretched for protection while my eyes worked to adjust to the darkness. Two small bright disks glowed from either side of the plane, illuminating a few rows of rear-facing bucket seats. I plopped down beside one of the two windows and with the help of its light, watched as the rest of the passengers took their seats.
Gradually, the darkness ebbed and more and more of the plane became visible as my eyes adjusted to the dim overhead bulbs. In front of me, a cargo net served as a divider, separating the passenger compartment from four pallets piled high with boxes and canvas bags. More cargo nets held the pallets in place. Along the colorless aluminum fuselage ran the vents and the plumbing and conduit connecting each of the plane's subsystems. Again, the crew had applied cargo netting liberally, using it to hold an assortment of supplies against the sides.
Sitting only inches from the uninsulated aluminum skin of the airplane, I could feel its heat even through the super hot air and my drenched clothes. Suddenly, there was a loud roar of rushing air and I was showered with a cloud of ice crystals. Air conditioning. Within seconds, my damp clothes became an extremely efficient conductor for the frigid wind blowing down on me and I covered myself with one of the blankets piled on the empty seats.
After ten minutes and no fluctuation in the volume and temperature of the air pouring out of the vents, I had just begun to pull another blanket around me when the air suddenly stopped. I breathed a foggy sigh of relief, but the atmosphere in the plane seemed to defy physical laws; the cold, clammy air slowly warmed up, then skipped the mid-seventy degree comfort zone and landed in the high eighties. From there, the temperature resumed its steady climb until, with another roar and shower of ice crystals, the air conditioning kicked in and the cycle repeated itself.
A trio of loadmasters in olive drab Air Force jump suits began to make a number of trips between the galley and the passenger area, making preparations for the flight. As they solicited each of us for the dollar to pay for our optional lunch, I realized they were acting as flight attendants. I was quite amused to see that one young attendant, although dressed in jump suit and combat boots, still displayed enough attributes to reveal she was a very good-looking girl. She must have been a knockout in civvies.
The howling winds of the air conditioning had just announced the beginning of yet another Arctic Circle experience when the pilot pushed the throttles forward to roll us out to the runway. With no insulation in the fuselage to deaden the loud, shrill whine of the engines, our compartment seemed to amplify each frequency and focus it right into our ears. At takeoff, the unimaginable happened--the engines got louder.
Soon after we were airborne, my favorite attendant circulated up and down the aisles offering each passenger little pink wads of chewing gum from a box in her hand. At least, I assumed it was chewing gum and I was about to flick the goodies into my mouth when I saw my neighbors rolling theirs between their hands and pushing the resulting cylinders into their ears. The stuff wasn't a new flavor of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, it was earplug wax.
Privately embarrassed, I imitated the rest of the passengers. Unfortunately, the earplugs merely changed the tone of the all-encompassing noise. The wax did effectively block out the engines' high-pitched scream, but in its place I became more aware of a low frequency rumble that bypassed the middle ear and penetrated my skull.
I quickly regretted not having taken the advice of my wife's friends, specifically the ones who had suggested that a MAC flight was best experienced while unconscious. But I was about to reunite with my mate after an agonizing six month absence (forced upon us by a bad career move) and I didn't want a hangover to mar the occasion. After all, we had some catching up to do; the previous month had seen our first wedding anniversary go by.
I closed my eyes, as if cutting out all visual clues of my surroundings would help diminish the roaring audio, and tried to envision my reception at the flight's end, where, after six suspenseful months, my wife and I were going to be together again. And although my determination to be reunited with Gloria was such that I probably wouldn't have minded a tryst in the Gulag, the knowledge that we would be living on a tropical island was a plum in the pudding. In just thirteen hours, home would have a new name--Ascension Island.
My fascination with island life went back as far as I could remember, with books, movies, and television fueling the fire. Neverland may have provided the first spark, especially the Disney portrayal. Peter Pan's home was a jewel in the ocean, set in a ring of sparkling coves, bays, and lagoons and containing an exciting assortment of pirates, Indians, and mermaids. The scene was so inviting that I began exploring the possibilities of wishing upon a star. I wanted Peter to bring me some fairy dust to frost my happy thoughts. I'd have joined the Lost Boys in a heartbeat.
Peter never showed. But as a six-year-old, I had already fallen victim to the allure of islands. Once I learned to read, my cluttered bookshelves bore testimony to my preference. I whisked through Robin Hood, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill and enjoyed every tall tale, but for sure-fire daydreaming material, I turned to Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe, or even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It wasn't Tom, Huck, and Joe hiding on an island in the middle of the Mississippi, swimming, fishing, and watching the river traffic float by; it was Tom, Huck, and me.
Classic literature aside, there has never been a shortage of reminders that islands breed romance, mystery, and adventure. Few people haven't heard of Fletcher Christian, Nellie Forbush, or McGarret, Five-Oh. Ian Fleming wisely sent James Bond to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands for many of his missions. Game show announcers excitedly describe grand prize trips to Bermuda, the Bahamas, or Hawaii in tones usually reserved for the announcement of a new pope.
My love affair with islands and the sea ultimately led me to climb aboard the USNS Vanguard shortly after my twenty-third birthday. The Vanguard was a ship that NASA built in the '60s to complement the existing land-based global tracking network in preparation for the Apollo moon missions. I had been too young to participate in those glorious days of space exploration, but on the Vanguard, I consoled myself with ports of call in the islands of Hawaii, Trinidad, Tahiti, the Seychelles, and Truk Lagoon as we provided coverage for both earth-orbit and interplanetary satellite launches.
Although our brief visits to these islands never gave me the chance to "go native," they did reinforce the overt and subliminal messages I'd received all my life. Each island anchorage was wondrously beautiful, and even the worst photographers on the ship went home with albums full of picture postcard-quality scenes of crescent beaches rimmed with coconut palms, colorful sailboat regattas in blue-water lagoons, and sparkling waterfalls cascading through orchid-rimmed jungles.
These spectacular surroundings seemed to have a therapeutic effect on the islands' inhabitants. Without exception, islanders we met exuded contentment. Of course, we had spent much of our time ashore at vacation resorts; the tourists there had every reason to display such symptoms, while the resort staff, arguably for monetary reasons, had every reason to follow suit. But many of us prided ourselves in venturing off the beaten track, finding the locals' favorite haunts. There, to our mild surprise, the atmosphere was even more relaxed.
The Vanguard not only carried me to the islands of my dreams, it was responsible for introducing me to the girl of my dreams. Tall, slim, and lovely, Gloria Tucker had the same desire to travel as I did and had decided her ambition was worth the difficulties inherent in breaking the ship's all-male tradition. To her relief, the vast majority of the ship's two-hundred sailors welcomed her aboard; the unmarried crewmen, of course, accepted her unanimously.
Six months later, our crewmates' smiles had lost a little of their brilliance; it was my arm that Gloria held when we walked down the gangway. For two years it seemed that there could be no sweeter deal than the Vanguard, where Gloria and I enjoyed free room and board, banked generous pay and bonuses, and sampled life in dozens of ports around the world.
A long-lived career aboard ship, however, was not in the cards. With the constant downsizing of NASA's post-Apollo budget, the value of the Vanguard's returns began to diminish. Bendix Field Engineering, the company that owned the tracking station contract, transferred as much of the ship's crew as they could to other stations. Gloria and I took this cue to marry and try our hands at playing house. Unfortunately, the house we chose to play in was on a mountainside in Quito, the two-mile high capitol of Ecuador and the closest city to what NASA called QUI, its tracking station in the Andes Mountains.
The experience all but wiped us out, both financially and physically. Our first mistake had been to ship a planeload of goods to our new mountain home before reading our company's guidelines for overseas relocation. Bendix reimbursed us for only a fraction of what we spent. At the same time, we learned that the cost of living was much higher than we had expected; for rent and groceries, we paid more than we made.
We still might have been able to manage if we had at least kept our health. We didn't. Gloria and I both succumbed to an Ecuadorian version of Montezuma's revenge, a chronic ailment that was fairly common to the inhabitants of the area. Gloria, however, became so sick that, while she hadn't exactly been knocking at Death's door, she certainly found herself cruising through his neighborhood.
Broke and sick, we felt our only answer was to transfer to another tracking station, one which would put our health back in the pink while getting our checkbook out of the red. Ascension Island had to be the answer.
During the course of our tracking station careers, Gloria and I had often talked to people who had visited Ascension, making the arduous trek to the remote middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A few degrees south of the equator between South America and Africa, Ascension was classified by Bendix as "overseas hardship" duty, which encompassed some broad territory, but basically meant employees working at ACN would not be exposed to many of the amenities to which they had previously become accustomed, no matter where they had lived before. From many descriptions, a stretch in the maximum security wing of San Quenton prison was more attractive than a visit to Ascension.
By all accounts, Ascension Island had little in common with any of the islands I had visited in the Caribbean, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean. There were no vacation resorts, no lazy lagoons, and no waterfalls. Indeed, there was precious little of anything, especially vegetation. For that reason, although the United Kingdom's official name for its tiny possession is Ascension Island, those familiar with the place more often refer to it as "The Rock"; a clue that the island has less in common with Hawaii than it has with Alcatraz.
But scenery wasn't as important to me as Gloria's health was, and from what I could tell, there was nowhere else on Earth that could match the island's salubrity. Ascension boasted pleasant temperatures and fresh ocean air. It was thousands of miles from any sources of pollutants. Drinking water was distilled on the island and subject to US health standards. Food, flown in from Florida twice a week, was also subject to US standards. Ascension could be Gloria's sanitarium.
As for money, none of our contacts had ever disputed the fact that a person could make a pile of money on Ascension. Besides the overseas bonus and the guaranteed weekly overtime, food and housing were provided free of charge. Best of all, if we stayed eighteen months, our income tax calculations became exceedingly simple; we kept everything, Uncle Sam got nothing. Gloria and I pulled out our map, searched the South Atlantic for our new home-to-be and marked it, not with an "X", but with a dollar sign.
Of course, we had heard our fair share of gripes about Ascension, too. One common complaint was the boredom. With no television and just three radio stations to choose from, most Americans turned to the only barroom on the base for their daily dose of escapism. Others focused on fishing and scuba diving in the ocean or hiking around the mountains.
The island's extreme remoteness exacerbated the boredom. With transportation limited to the biweekly C-141 flights, there could be no such thing as "getting away for the weekend." Bendix did, however, provide for a two-week (unpaid) leave-of-absence for every three-month stay on the island.
Boredom and cabin fever conspired to take their toll on the islanders, but the number one challenge to Ascension's workers was significant enough to eclipse all other concerns. Unmentioned in the tracking station's orientation brochure (but understood by all who contemplated the move) was the plain fact that the island had very few women on it.
One source gave the ratio of men to women as ten to one, but that statistic was misleading, as it included the married women who lived in the two tiny British communities and who were rarely seen by the Americans. The ratio of men to women at the American base probably approached a hundred-to-one.
Ironically, it was this feature of Ascension life that nearly quashed our plans. The "overseas hardship" classification meant Ascension was not a family assignment; the room and board benefit and the free transportation to and from the island applied only to company employees.
Unfortunately, our company had never been in the situation where two of its employees had married and wanted to work together at one of the overseas hardship facilities. There were too many intangibles to consider, not the least of which was the morale of all the single workers. The picture of a young married couple strolling gaily through the midst of a flock of young, hard-working, hard-drinking, lonely Romeos was more than Bendix management wanted to consider. There was no policy governing this circumstance and they did not appear eager to initiate one.
Nevertheless, with Quito slowly draining the life out of us, we had to make a move, even though the Ascension tracking station had room for only one of us. I packed Gloria off to the South Atlantic and prepared to brave the Ecuadorian parasites by myself. Meanwhile, I immediately began filing transfer requests to join her.
Three months later, Bendix gave me my ticket out of Ecuador, but instead of sending me to join my wife on Ascension, they sent me back to sea; the Vanguard had one more trip to make, a long South Pacific cruise to support the launches of the two Voyager spacecraft, the magnificent machines that eventually transmitted back breathtaking pictures of our outer neighbors in the solar system.
Finally, six nail-biting months after my wife and I had reluctantly agreed to split up, my managers notified me that my transfer request to Ascension had been approved. The message was delivered with little fanfare, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. I, however, felt like I had just been dealt a royal flush for the last hand in a six-month poker game, a game against a con man who had suckered me into wagering all my current and future holdings, and a few pounds of flesh, besides.
With all the right cards in my hand and my young wife waiting for me at the end of my flight, it was easy to discount all the harsh descriptions I had heard about life on The Rock. I cleared my head of all the stories that had compared the place to Devil's Island and dreamed once again of Neverland.
(Sorry, you'll have to wait!)
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