The Arctic Circle, land of the howling maddness ,where they can't hear you scream.
|They said it was a routine operation. What is routine? Routine for who? A routine mission; radio warfare, above the Arctic Circle in Finland; an electromagnetic chess game of gossip. Jerk the Soviets off into thinking NATO had something going on when they didn't. The only thing I liked about it, and this sold me, is they'd have me working with my eldest sister, Satan. The Stasi already killed Terry, so I jumped at any opportunity to work with my other sisters. I loved working with my sisters after that, whether it made me more protective or appreciative I don't know. I do know is before hand I wanted them in the rear instead of being under the bullseye center ring of stupid. Maybe acceptance is the right word. I stopped wanting it my way and just accepted the situation.
They trained us in a classroom. They equipped us and then they kicked us off a Chinook with two dog sleds and equipment provided by the Finns. The sleds were more of a sledge in design, being a hollow plastic shell shaped a bit like a Jon Boat that could float with about two hundred pounds of weight, and naturally each had about four hundred pounds of this that and the other thing strapped on. The handle bars at the rear were aluminum, ironically, it looked like something you could buy from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
On the flight there, Satan tried to name each of her dogs and teach them to sing. It annoyed the cargo master, however, the pilots thought it was funny. Personally, I believed my cousin Animal Rabies would've been a better choice since she was an encryption specialist at HQ. Personally, I think her name Animal Rabies nixed her off the short list. Put a woman named Animal Rabies in with a bunch of sled dogs somehow in retro, doesn't sound like a good idea. When the idea initially floated around her, she thought she'd like it, stating that 'Army guys are a bunch of sled dogs anyhow...she could get them working probably easier than she did the two-legged variety...' As another side note, when I mentioned that to Satan she giggled and declared that we'd have to shoot the dogs afterwards out of mercy. She never called our cousin Animal Rabies. To her, she was Ms. Hydrophobia as it sounded more polite and that she, a woman that answered to Satan, was a lady.
Nevertheless, we drove our sledges, and there is a small technical difference between a sledge and a sled, off the back ramp of the Chinook into this vast unending expanse of bleached nothing. A thick overcast sky, littered with big impenetrable dirty clouds and dull snow over anything solid, I couldn't tell where the sky touched the ground. We stopped about fifty yards away and watched the helicopter disappear into a void of grey mottled oblivion. It didn't take long for the machine to totally disappear leaving a dry cold wind in its place. Satan and I decided to inventory the sleds separately, as we didn't pack them the Norwegians did. Each unit had enough supplies for one man for two weeks and duplicate equipment. The idea being if one of us succumbed to the machinations of Hel, the Goddess of the Underworld, the survivor could carry on without a loss of capacity.
Well, I'm looking through a tool box with this that and the other thing in there, noted a specialty tool for the dog harnesses, as I had just finished inspecting my Valmet. That's the Finnish military rifle, 7.62 mm caliber, as our M-16s really suck in artic conditions. As note for the gun nuts reading this, the problem with M-16s is the metal and the tolerances. The sub-zero colder than a well digger's ankle weather causes the metal to contract and seize up the bolt carrier and the 5.56mm doesn't have the clout to overcome that. Nor did it have this vast expanse of range the larger ammunition did. I told myself I'd have to get one later in life. I never did, I ended up with a FN-FAL from Argentina but that's another story for another day.
As I'm sorting my heap of paraphernalia, I hear Satan yell. I yell back and ask her what's the eff is up since I can't hear jack diddly with my parka hood on. She keeps yelling and I keep sorting and as I turn around to insert my boot up her posterior, I see her fall off the sled's handle bars through the ice. Making a mad dash, a bad idea in minus 70-degree meteorological conditions, burns the alveoli out of your lungs much like a blow torch, I pull her out of the ice. Well, the upper half, the rest of her was under water. She's screaming something about save the dogs as I roll her in snow to dry her off. I look at the ice, about six inches thick and hope it will hold. I can't get the sled out of the hole; we can't get it to budge.
Bright idea on my part, unload the sled. Make it lighter and be quick about it. Sounds good right? Who knows in retrospect, as I didn't have a clue, thought I had it then though. We start pulling what I believed is the important items off. Her Valmet, the ammunition, the radio set, her sleeping gear, we were working on the food when we both stopped moving. A tremendous groan gave way to the vibrating terror of ice cracking under our boots. We rushed back to the sled, she panickily latched onto the handlebars while screaming hoarsely 'Mush! Mush!', as I grabbed the lead sled dog by her collar and yanked.
No good, the sledge fell further into the gapping maw over the Arctic Ocean. I yelled to unhinge the dogs...Satan can't, excessive tension on the hasp and now it's also frozen. I have her look for that special pair pliers in her toolbox. She can't find it; I'm now sitting on the ground using both feet to brace myself again the ice. It didn't work. A large earsplitting bang overwhelmed the cacophony of two humans screaming, Satan jumps off the sledge, as the sled took all thirteen dogs to the bottom in a few seconds.
Satan stood there, on the edge of insensibility, speechless. It took several moments of shaking her shoulder with a few stern words to snap her out of it. She stood there just watching a turbulent roil of bubbles give way to a flat black calmness of ocean. With some more verbal encouragement, we retrieved the salvage onto my sledge, take a position with the solar sextant then make haste to our first contact point.
Once there several hours later we took stock of the situation. Setting up the tent wasn't a problem, staking the remaining dogs wasn't an issue. We raised an anemometer and attached several gauges to the pole, what did give us some consternation was the radio long range antenna. A wire suspended about twelve feet up between to poles. We weren't familiar with that equipment, what we knew was Army issue, not stage props for Ice Station Zebra. Satan read the manual, I fretted over a feed-back loop blowing our primary radio and it worked, despite our selves.
Command asks if we could continue with the loss of our equipment. I say yes, though I didn't believe it. We had a week worth of provisions, and a two-week operational window. Nothing good about that. Once the transmission ended, I fed the dogs and took my Valmet for a walk as Satan cooks up dinner and attempts to melt the dry as sand snow into a few gallons a water. When I return, we eat and Satan turns into my sister. Animal Rabies wouldn't have done this. As I use the hand crank generator to charge up our batteries, Satan sitting on one of the cots gets into her personal bag and produces math workbooks and flash cards.
She reminds me that my head injury made math difficult and I needed at least a rudimentary education to balance a checkbook and handle money. She's right...What she doesn't know is I can't do algebra in my head anymore and I need an abacus or pencil and paper for anything involving number. I do math slow also, and after twenty minutes of cranking and flash cards I had a headache.
She asked me what I brought in my personal bag. At first, I didn't want to go into detail, it felt stupid. After some kind words of encouragement, I produced a fifth of whiskey, playing cards, dice and magazines involving firearms and fast cars. What else she asks. I look at her with my patented stupid look. She insists. The only thing remaining is my personal .45 autoloading Colt pistol, in a shoulder holster. Satan then attempts to use that object as a specious argument relating to my spiritual position in the grand cosmos.
Then she levels a charge of heathery against my character. That's right, Satan accused me of impiety! She then, contemptuously stated if I was to content myself with being a noxious reprobate, she was going out to socialize with the sled dogs. She retrieved a wooden recorder out of her bag, waltzes through the tent flap and entertains the dogs with religious hymns, then singing in Yiddish. She's quite good at it. More talent than I have.
What I don't let on, is I know she converted to Judaism. It made her feel good, and that worked for me. As for me I'm a pagan of The Craft. No intentions of changing. Everyone needs spiritual guidance and if she gets that from being Jewish, I'm all for it. Well, after a minute or two, she comes back in, scolds me for being drunk as I ask her if she wants a snort. Then we had a factual, somber, heart to heart talk.
It was the first time, in a long time, I didn't permit myself the performance of the archetypal hero. When I went to work, I was always fearful, so I forged a counterfeit courage behind a facade; I became a kaleidoscope vision of my movie heroes, 'people' who knew not fear; Lee Marvin's Sgt. Edgar Millen from Death Hunt, Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales or John Wayne's John Books from The Shootist. After a good half hour of talking, she brought me to the realization that I wasn't acting anymore and furthermore, according to Satan in a blue snow suit, I am a lost man. I naturally grunted, took another swig and ordered her to wake me up for the mid-night shift. She is right, I am a lost man and I'd never at that point, would confirm that to her.
Over the next two days we moved six times, increasing or decreasing the radio transmission according to operational requirements. In short, we had a book on it. We had just set up our tent on the third night, not really night, as it never really darkened, we experienced an atmospheric inversion as we gained altitude. The previous days were blindingly bright, as far as what passed for days went. Our travels removed us from the ice flows over the ocean and placed us over land. I pointed that out to Satan, who seemed to be playing the part of a faithful school teacher, that the outcroppings of ice and the transition from a barren flat wasteland to a forest of protrusions and wide vales is a result of geology. That the features mirrored the formations underneath. As we walked around the outcroppings of ice, a profuse curtain of haze rolled in. She seemed impressed by the statement that 'The topology places us over Norway'.
A relatively warm fog, filled with thick droplets of dry snow; white globes dancing as string puppets do, swirling around a grey blanket of nothing. The clouds were coming from nowhere, one couldn't pin point an exact terminus for the excretion of such phenomenon against a sky that blended earth to heaven so seamless. I climbed the side of a jagged profane outcropping and observed my private apocalypse unfold. Satan returned a few tens of yards to camp to call in the unexpected occurrence.
Among the murkiness, two nearly imperceptible shapes stirred rhythmically 'way out there'. I watched as my heart exploded in my chest as reality shifted, noticeably; I felt the world transform with weird sensations that propelled my senses to someplace else. Way out there, in the distance the shapes became clear. Grey ghosts, walking like men, cloaked in a veil of ancient obtuseness that swallowed whole, everything known to man.
I yelled to Satan that 'We have company!' as I dropped the front sight of my Valmet on 'them'. I had then the presence of mind to remove my over glove from my right hand as the mitt wouldn't let me engage the unfamiliar controls of the rifle. They seemed to be getting closer, now just two 'men' walking abreast of each other, toward me. Not really defined, but shapes moving.
I shot. There is no reaction. I shot again. Satan now is screaming behind me at this point herself encased by a jagged outcropping of ice that I was either having a flashback as I knew I had PTSD or experiencing a bout of piblokto, arctic hysteria...That the lack of perceptible horizons, the previous bright sun light and the cold, was causing me to temporarily loose my focus on reality.
Without thought, I melt into a hero. I reply quite offended, that piblokto is a culture bound phenomenon common to depressed Inughuic women in Greenland and I didn't have a drop of Icelandic in me. She then reminded we descended from Vikings. My retort, then she should be the one losing her discipline. What about the PTSD? I had flashbacks before she replied. My response? Then it narrows the options down as I shot two rounds into what I thought was center mass of both, to no effect. To put a definitive end to the row, I rushed forward determined to inflict the most murderous mayhem upon them.
Somewhere out there, in a blinding curtain of charcoal grey I 'found' one. 'He' wasn't Russian, Finn, Swede nor Norwegian. He was a man wearing fur mukluks, seal skin pants and a caribou coat. He carried a spear, and had a satchel slung to his offhand side. I couldn't see his face, as a black void encapsulated by an untrimmed hood obscured his visage. I yelled at him, and then at them as the second materialized from the age-old fog as more droplets of white detritus danced about. Both dressed the same.
Yelling, threatening, cursing didn't work. They stood there stoically, immovably immune to fury. Accordingly, I feebly attempted diplomacy, they didn't smoke. They didn't want water from my canteen, nor did they want a drink from my flask of whiskey, the good stuff, not the rot gut back in the tent. They just stood there, immovable, unyielding to wrath or reason.
I had to know what the closest look like. I reached out and pushed his hood back and what looked back is dramatic. Nothing looked back but myself. The instant I saw myself in that thing, he vanished. The second one turned, faced me then walking backwards, he chuckled saying 'You are free now'.
Satan then nudged my shoulder. She asked what I saw and what happened. I struggled to remember, but I did relate the experience. I noted she had a rope tied off around her waist, she said it was so she could find her way back to camp, as she tied the other end to the dog stake. What if she ran out of rope? Then she'd say a prayer for my soul and carry on.
What? Just because visibility is less than three feet, you need a rope? I laughed, then performed a magic trick; I faced the compass points yodeling. Then pointed to the direction of the camp. Echolocation, I explained, like dolphins use. The returning sound bounced off the outcroppings where the other vectors didn't return. Satan looked at me with pity and queried if I knew where I was and who she was. After walking a considerable distance blind to the surroundings, I stopped her, yodeled again, then pushed her through the miasma into the outcropping of ice. She then asked for a drink of whiskey.
As resupply would lift the veil of our deceptions, a day later we faced the immutable reality of the harshness of life. Slow starvation hoping to survive until our retrieval, or dispatch the sled dogs to augment what dwindling food we still had. Satan insisted I select them by random lot, so I used match sticks. She also insisted that I didn't shoot the beasts in sight of the others. I butchered them, and she then cooked them. She also insisted I bury the carcasses and as I grudgingly did, she made two Crosses and the Star of David out of the cardboard lids of some of the supply boxes.
We then had a funeral for them, with Satan insisting I say a few words over the lumps of snow. After the ceremony, she remarked that I sounded like a Protestant reverend, that maybe I should consent to the mainstream churches. I asked why as I was satisfied on my spiritual journey. She said I could be a better leader in those capacities and I gave her hope. She then cried over the dogs. It really got to her; it tore at me. From my perspective it was no different than hunting and an obvious act of desperate measures in desperate times. It made me look at myself, and I came to the realization why 'they' put me in command. Satan couldn't or wouldn't be able to make the hard decisions. It stunned me, that flash or serendipity. My sister is much smarter than I, she is a strong and capable woman, and a moral one.
We moved again, and immediately after setting up command sent us an urgent warning. A storm brewed up and we are in the path of it. Fifteen minutes warning. We hurriedly dug a trench shelter and moved as much into it before the winds became a lethal maelstrom. It lasted about twelve hours. When we emerged, the tent, the items left behind are level with the flat arctic wasteland of snow. I found seven out of ten dogs, still shackled to the stake.
The storm blew three dogs through their harnesses. The leather didn't break, the fasteners held. They were just gone. Disappeared, like most of everything we had, the radio antenna gone, the tent shredded, the anemometer pole bent, the guy-lines snapped. The anemometer paddles snapped and twisted. The tempest drove our sledge into an outcropping of ice and it took us ten minutes to dig it out with a folding snow shovel and a hand pick. Salvaging what we could, I jury-rigged the radio's portable aerial onto the bent weather station pole and we made contact.
No retrieval...No resupply. Bad weather. Mission orders; Carry on as best you can.
Over the next three days Satan and I acquired extensive skill in assembling igloos. The weather alternated between bright blinding white and fuzzy blinding white outs. During the middle of it all I acquired a case of snow blindness which Satan determined to be due to a poor choice of goggles. Mine were like those common to welders, hers are solid white lenses with slits cut through them. She bandaged my eyes and lead me around on a leash keeping me busy. She also tortured me with math.
Eventually on the last day there, I became her sled dog. Snow blindness hurts, my eyes were sore and burning the entire time. As I pulled her to our last location it 'broke'. She had me wear her goggles, and as I pulled the sled across this vast sea of bleached nothing my eyes stopped screaming bloody murder, then I was able to almost see through them.
By night, if a thing as night could exist, we built our last igloo. Supplies, zero, water, two gallons and half a jug of alcohol fuel. What was worse, I was down to five cigarettes, and three matches. We zipped our sleeping bags together, and snuggled in our union suits. Satan became amorous, again rocking my world. She confessed a fear of death and began crying. Satan scared? I never knew her to be afraid of much...That's how she got the name Satan, from the Russians and that's saying a mouth full. I held her close and listened attentively then uttered one of those famous movie hero statements; Don't worry little darling, I'll be afraid enough for both of us...Get some sleep. As soon as I said that she stopped blabbering and looked me dead in the face and called me on my verbiage.
She told me she couldn't see a trace of fear on my face. Then she asked if I were a human being. I lied. I imitated Lee Marvin when he interfaced with Angie Dickinson in Death Hunt, calm, smooth and hard as iron, that I was scared I was just better at hiding it than most.
She knew I was lying, and so did I.
I'm not going West Virginia in an igloo. I'm not afraid. I put my Pac-boots on and drape my coat over my shoulders, then crawl through the tunnel outside with three matches and five cigarettes. The first match blew out in what seemed like a cosmic joke as the air is still and clear as glass. I smoked four cigarettes and admired the scenery. It was first time in two weeks I witnessed anything of authentic value.
The sun never really sets this time of year, it is a small lip of simmering gold about half a fingertip beneath the horizon, embracing the edge of the earth maternally. The atmosphere is diamond hard clear, no rays of sun reaching into this cold deep void. That void tarnished with jewels of stars glittering gold, yellow, red and white. All entertained by the shimmering lime green snake of aurora borealis.
True value. The only good thing that happened there.
In the morning we packed up and she insisted on pulling the sled this time, said I needed a break. I asked her how she got off to sleep so easy after her emotional display. A simple answer, since I wasn't afraid, she wasn't going to be. Then in satanic fashion, she slips twisting her ankle. I end up pulling the sledge to the pick up zone at first through rough rolling terrain of jagged cracked ice than onto a flat endless plane. We dumped all our belongings by an outcropping of sheet ice and marked it with the small hand pick.
As I began pulling her toward the landing zone, I heard it, the helicopter from the Norwegians. At first, I about had a heart attack, I mistakenly assumed they'd use a Chinook or something like that. What they brought at first glance resembled something of Soviet origin. The Norwegians couldn't believe we ate the dogs.
During my debriefing I learned more about arctic radio warfare. The last team took massive casualties, one man starved to death the other nearly, because they wouldn't eat the dogs. They told me the Norwegians did a genealogy on my sister and I, asked if I knew what my last name meant. Naturally, I answered with the singular word 'Viking'.
My debriefing officer smiled deceptively and replied, 'That's what they say too. Would you like to go back?' He asked if I thought that had anything to do with our remarkable performance. I didn't know, I never considered it.
A week later Satan and I meet in Hamburg, at a café someplace along a sidewalk. We talk, make nice with each other and then stroll back to her rented flat. She asks if I had time to stay, and truthfully, I really didn't and didn't want too. She then kicks her heels off, sits on the floor and begins to scratch an ear with her foot, says she had strange urges like that since eating Huskey Flambé. I mention if she could bend in half, she'd never need a boyfriend again.
Her answer, isn't fit to print.