The Devil's Ashpit

and other

Tales of Ascension Island


Dan Kovalchik

Chapter 1..............Starlifter
Chapter 2..............Beginnings
Chapter 3..............The Rock
Chapter 4..............Island Boy
Chapter 5..............The Southern Cross
Chapter 6..............The Base
Chapter 7..............The Ascension Diver
Chapter 8..............That's Entertainment
Chapter 9..............Repatriates
Chapter 10............Wake-Up Call
Chapter 11............Back In The Trenches
Chapter 12............Things That Go Bump
Chapter 13............That's Entertainment, Too
Chapter 14............Movin' On
Chapter 15............Escape

The Devil's Ashpit

and other

Tales of Ascension Island


Dan Kovalchik

Chapter 1: Starlifter

The pain came so suddenly that my first thought was that I’d taken a blow to the head. My second thought was that the little bastards in the row behind me had violently escalated their War On The Passenger In 18F. But even through the fog, I reasoned that Donald Dont and Steven Stopit (the only names I had heard their mother call them) had been quiet for the last hour and more importantly, this “blow to the head” hadn’t knocked me sideways. One second I was fine and in the next, my entire right hemisphere throbbed.

I managed to find a bright side; the pilot had just announced our descent to Melbourne International Airport. My all-day Hawaii-to-Florida flight was coming to an end. I just needed to control my impulses for a few more minutes and abandon the shock-and-awe campaign I’d been formulating against my Row 19 antagonists. In another hour I’d be relaxing in my hotel room.

But what in the world was going on in my head? Sure, I was weary from the flight and my six-foot frame was stiff and aching due to the confines of my economy seat, but fit, healthy, 26-year olds don’t get headaches like this one outside of a hockey rink.

I had no clue. Instead, I winced my way through the landing, through the baggage pickup, through the car rental process, and through the half-hour drive north to Cocoa Beach. There, I winced my way into my hotel room and dialed an old shipmate’s number. During my layover in Los Angeles that morning, I had called him and told him to plan on taking me to the TGIF beach bar parties that evening.

“Bob. It’s me. Change of plans. I can’t go out,” I said, and apologized for breaking the date. I tried to explain how much my head hurt.

“Nonsense!” he countered, “A little Scotch will fix that.”

It was a compelling argument.

Yes, my head was pounding so much that each word, either uttered or heard, hit another high mark on the pain scale. On the other hand, it was Cocoa Beach on a Friday night. My previous experiences there led me to believe that there was a city ordinance that decreed all residents must plant themselves on the nearest bar stool and inject cash into the local economy.

Soon, Bob and I were sucking Scotch at the Mousetrap, a bar/restaurant that looked like it had been constructed out of Space Race memorabilia collected from nearby Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. The first double shot of Johnny Walker Red Label disappeared rather quickly. By the time the second appeared, I could already feel my headache dissipating. Thank goodness for Dr. Bob! I started to fill him in on the three month cruise he had missed.

“Never mind that,” he interrupted, “What’s this I hear about Ascension?”

I nodded. “Plane leaves on Wednesday.”

“No, I mean why Ascension?”

“You know Gloria’s there, right?”

“Well, tell her to come back here,” he said. “I can help you get jobs with Harris.” Harris Corporation in Melbourne was a major employer in Brevard County.

“Naw, thanks. I appreciate the offer, really,” I said, “But I think Gloria and I are going to like it there.”

“But it’s…it’s the ‘Rock!’” he protested, reminding me of the island’s reputation. Then his eyebrows went up. “Wait…I’m getting déjà vu. Remember that bar in King’s Cross?”

“Of course,” I answered. Bob was referring to a bar in Sydney, Australia. “But all I remember was Sheila after Sheila blowing you off. And not in a good way.”

“Hah. Hah. Bite me.”

But I knew that Bob was remembering the heart-to-heart we shared between drinks and Bob’s attempts to engage Sheilas. We had compared our histories and discussed our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Bob had grown up on Rockaway Beach in New York, with the ocean at his doorstep. I grew up in a surprisingly thickly-wooded area thirty-some miles northeast of Pittsburgh. There were few luxuries in the house and the closest beach, while only a six-hour drive, may as well have been on the Sea of Tranquility; a visit was absolutely out of the question. As a result, I didn’t see the ocean until I was 22 years old. Certainly, the inaccessibility of the compound that covers 70% of the earth made it all the more desirable to see firsthand.  

My fascination with oceans quite naturally extended to the islands they guarded and went back as far as I could remember, with books, movies, and television fueling the fire. Many in my generation can point to the Disney portrayal of Neverland as having provided the first spark. 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 my six-year-old self 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 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 the adventures of 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 had ultimately led me to climb aboard the USNS Vanguard shortly after my 23rd 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.

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 dock. 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 many 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. Pronounced “Key-toe,” the city is the two-mile-high capitol of Ecuador and was, for us norteamericanos, the closest approximation to reasonable housing that could be found within seventy-five miles of NASA’s 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 close to what 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 that 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 found ourselves working with people who had visited Ascension, people who had made 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 there 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 Quentin prison would be preferable to a stay on 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 a thousand 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 US Air Force 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 US transportation limited to the biweekly, five-thousand-mile flights out of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, there could be no such thing as a relaxing weekend getaway. Bendix did, however, provide for a two-week (unpaid) leave-of-absence for every three-month stay on the island.

Boredom and cabin fever certainly 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 nobody appeared eager to initiate one.

Nevertheless, with Quito slowly draining the life out of us, we had to make a move, even though the roster at the Ascension tracking station only had room for Gloria. I sadly packed my wife off to the South Atlantic and prepared to brave the Ecuadorian parasites by myself.

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 beamed 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 manager notified me that my transfer request to Ascension had been approved. Bendix gave me no explanation for this sudden change of heart, nor did I ask for one, as I suspected the outcome had ultimately been decided by a coin toss and any invitation to revisit that decision might result in a sudden flip-flop.

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, 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.

 “Hey, Dan!” Bob was snapping his fingers in front of my face. “You with me now?”

Neverland quickly evaporated. I shook my head to clear it and looked back at Bob. “Yeah, I’m back. Sorry.”

“I didn’t know if it was too much Scotch or too little Gloria,” he said. “By the way, how’s your headache?”

Amazingly, my head felt absolutely normal—right down to the twinge in my jaw that I’d been living with since Quito. Dr. Bob was a miracle worker. He not only rid me of the headache, he also helped me diagnose my problem as a toothache.

During what I knew would be my last few weeks in Quito, I had decided to visit a dentist. I’d discovered a broken filling in one of my molars and I thought I should get it fixed prior to setting sail on the Vanguard. It seemed like sound reasoning at the time.

Someone at the tracking station recommended a Dr. Lopez. She turned out to be an attractive, thirtyish woman with the cheekbones and black hair typical of Ecuadorians. Like many of the professionals I’d met in Quito, her English was very good.

“Hmm. That is a very big filling,” she said. “ I could replace it, but it would just crack again. I recommend putting a crown on it.”

I didn’t know what a crown was, but it obviously fit over the tooth. This sounded much more appealing than having a drill grinding into my tooth to replace a filling, just millimeters from my nerves.

Of course, I was dead wrong. I didn’t realize that Dr. Lopez would have to grind out the old filling, clean out the hole, and then file down the whole tooth in order to get a crown to fit over it. I was young, inexperienced, and completely ignorant of dentistry—especially Ecuadorian dentistry. I told her to proceed.

Dr. Lopez dove into my mouth without hesitation, and without offering me a shot of Novocain. The first bite of the big grinder against my molar told me that perhaps the crowning of a tooth was more involved than I had first suspected. But surely the pain would be short-lived, otherwise she would have offered the painkiller. I said nothing, thinking that every time she pulled her drill out would be the last. Every time she put it back in, I died a little.

Finally, with the temporary crown in place, I walked home, exhausted, soaked in sweat and still wondering, why didn’t she give me a shot? It dawned on me that the key word was she. I may have been the victim of the dentist’s gender in combination with the South American geography.

That is, I was in the land of machismo, sort of the forerunner to the “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” movement. Dr. Lopez had not offered me a shot because it had never dawned on her that I would want one. Obviously, the vast majority of her patients were her countrymen, and no self-respecting Latino was about to admit to a woman that she was hurting him, even a woman with a drill.

When I returned to Dr. Lopez for the permanent crown, she showed me what looked like a big gold nugget. Once the crown was in place, it felt like a big gold nugget. When I complained, Dr. Lopez polished the crown for a few seconds. My bite was still wrong and I told her so, but she refused to take any more off the crown.

“It just feels big,” she said. “You’ll get used to it.”

Instead, I got used to hammering that molar with every movement of my jaw. I also got used to tilting my head to pour all hot and cold fluids into the opposite side of my mouth. And finally, I got used to the dull ache, the very thing that I had wanted to avoid in the first place.

As my date with Bob had just kicked off the weekend, I had no recourse but to return to my motel room and open the slim Cocoa Beach telephone book to the yellow pages listing for dentists. I propped it open with a bottle of Scotch I bought to keep me company until the offices opened on Monday.

I was extremely upset at this new development, worried that my dental problem would cause me to miss my Wednesday flight, thus postponing yet again my reunion with Gloria. On top of that, I was still stinging from my last disappointment. When I had finally received my transfer notice to Ascension Island, the Vanguard was still a week away from docking at Hawaii. From the moment I accepted the offer, I pictured myself running down the gangway as soon as it touched the pier and catching a cab to the airport. I was easily the happiest person on the ship.

The admin supervisor, however, had a different set of priorities. I didn’t get my paperwork until we’d spent a week at our dock in Pearl Harbor. And since the Vanguard’s support requirements were over and the ship was headed for the mothballs, it was a week with nothing much to do. Not many people would complain about spending a week in Hawaii, but my circumstances were very much out of the ordinary. As a result, I was the only person on Waikiki Beach wrapped in a scowl.

In Cocoa Beach, though, I begrudgingly had to admit that the admin supervisor’s plodding pace was a godsend. If I had made the flights I had originally been hoping for, my toothache would have occurred on Ascension and it would have forced me to head right back to the airfield for a medevac. I would have been making three of the grueling thirteen-hour flights in the space of a few days.

Monday morning finally came and I forced myself to shake off the fog left over from my alcoholic weekend. I picked up the phone and all of my fears vanished; the first dentist on my list sent me to a specialist who squeezed me in for a root canal during his lunch period. The term, “root canal” gave me pause, though. I was as ignorant of that procedure as I had been about crowns, although I remembered periodically hearing the phrase, “That sounds about as attractive as a root canal!” Uh-oh.

 Well, it just so happens that root canals have a bum rap. A root canal ends the pain, so the person who needs a root canal is the one to be pitied. If there was pain involved in the procedure, I didn’t notice; it was minuscule compared to what I’d been suffering. As a bonus, the doctor finally ground the crown down to adjust my bite and sent me on my way with a prescription for pain pills. I was so busy with my travel preparations, however, and I was experiencing such relief (in every sense of the word) that I forgot to fill it.

And then came Wednesday, my Wednesday, the Wednesday that I had been fixating on ever since I got my travel package on the Vanguard the week before. And what a day it was; although it was mid-September, the famous Florida sun 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 further transformed the scenery, their cumulative effect over acres of asphalt serving to melt the trees, towers, and buildings on the horizon into a blurry, wavering potpourri.

I stood with my fellow passengers in a loose formation outside the main hanger of Patrick Air Force Base, which is just a few miles south of where I’d been staying in Cocoa Beach. Although I had been living in the tropics for the last three months, I was unprepared for the heat emanating from what seemed to be square miles of broiling decks and runways. We each adjusted our positions every few seconds as we tried in vain to find the remnants of an ocean breeze. The Atlantic was only a hundred yards in front of us but was hidden behind Highway A1A and a strip of undeveloped dunes—these becoming something of a rarity since the blossoming of the Space Coast had been piling up condos and bars all along the beach.

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, he disappeared into the hanger.

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” announced one of the passengers as he cleaned his sunglasses on his shirttail.

How original…and how wrong, I thought. 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 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 great 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 watersports enthusiasts with 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 that the crew members 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.

This was the same type of plane that had taken Gloria to Ascension six months before and although she hadn’t supplied me with the details of a Military Airlift Command (or MAC) flight, she did repeat 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 step 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 moved up and down the aisles offering each passenger what looked like a treat from a box in her hand. My eyes lit up when I recognized the soft pink peppermints that had been my grandmother’s favorite candy. I grabbed a couple and was about to flick them into my mouth when I saw my neighbors rolling theirs between their hands and pushing the resulting cylinders into their ears. Despite their appearance and their heady peppermint smell, the stuff wasn’t from Grandma’s candy jar; 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 deep inside 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. Then, only minutes into the flight, I caught myself glancing at my watch. I resolved not to look at it again until we landed for fear that the thirteen-hour countdown was going to be too much to bear.

Instead, I began to tick off all of the various legs of the trips I had made since Gloria had left for Ascension. I remembered the feeling I had on the Vanguard when we left the Atlantic Ocean—Gloria’s ocean—and traversed the Panama Canal. As the ship exited the Miraflores locks and entered the Pacific, Gloria and I were officially oceans apart, and our separation increased with each turn of the propeller. Ultimately, the Vanguard’s western course to its assigned launch support position took me through the point where I had the unhappy distinction of being on the exact opposite side of the globe from Ascension. On that day, I made the glum observation that Gloria and I were literally a world apart.

Once my Vanguard support ended, though, I had been steadily drawing closer to my wife. The first leg was the most agonizing, as it was a 3,000 mile journey at a top speed of fourteen knots. Then, after my 5,000 mile flight from Hawaii and restless weekend in Cocoa Beach, I had just one more 5,000 mile hop to make. I tried not to think in terms of the thousands of miles or even the thirteen hours, but in terms of one last hurdle.

I closed my eyes, as if cutting out all visual clues of my surroundings would help diminish the roaring audio and I 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. Just this one last hurdle and home would have a new name—Ascension Island.

Chapter 2: Beginnings

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