New Year’s Day, 2015. Somewhere in the great white southwest.
I didn’t celebrate last night, and I didn’t wake when the neighbors launched what remained of their New Year’s arsenal. Instead, I read parts of James Wright’s Collected Poems (again) and nodded off early. This morning, to my surprise, a thin layer of snow covered the yards, so I took a small drive to a hill overlooking Pantano Wash to wait for the sun. It was cold, and for some reason I thought of Amber Hall, the building on Eielson Air Force Base where we pre-briefed our reconnaissance missions.
Winter missions out of Eielson, located 25 miles south of Fairbanks, were magical. The temperatures were always somewhere below zero — no wind factor — and the metal engines of the RC-135s would groan to life during engine start and taxi. Prior to boarding, we’d sit on a blue bus in parkas and fur hoods over flight suits, some in mukluks, others in the mountain boots we’d been issued. For the Pacific missions it was always dark, but for the Arctic missions we’d arrive at the aircraft during the few meager hours of sunlight that define the Alaskan tundra.
Leaving the bus, a brute cold invaded our nostrils and eyes. It froze the hairs in our noses and mixed with the smell of JP-4 jet fuel. The mission aircraft, either an RC-135 V- or W-model, looked cold and ready, its telltale hog nose and cheek pods somehow magical, steam rising from any cracks or openings in the fuselage from the large yellow heating tubes attached. We’d board excitedly, wondering what it was we’d confront on that particular mission, pre-flight our parachutes and butt boats (survival kits), and run through each checklist until takeoff.
Engine run up, brake release — 60 seconds later (these were heavy aircraft) someone would announce “S-1,” the speed of no return, then “rotate” and we were airborne. 40 minutes after, for the arctic missions, we were bearing down on the beacon at Dead Horse, Alaska, near Prudhoe Bay, getting ready for the first of two aerial refuelings. Many years earlier, the choreography of launching our mission aircraft and two supporting tankers must have been a challenge. By my time it was routine: we took off first, then the tankers, all three heading north, over the top of the world toward the Soviet Union. Refuelings were conducted in radio silence (to hide that we were coming), and the tankers returned to Eielson without getting near the operations area.
But it was the cold I remember most. That and the dull white turtle necks of nomex long underwear rising from the tops of everyone’s flight suits. And the Arctic ocean en route to the area. And the notion, once on orbit, that no one could possibly survive in the Barents Sea for long. Bailout seemed ludicrous — you’d just extend your misery. The sea below was dull and uninviting, dangerous.
All told — from pre-mission brief, taxi, takeoff, two refuelings, a fur ball of Barents Sea activity, and finally landing at Mildenhall Airbase, in England — the duty day lasted about 21 hours. 17 of those were in the air. Amazing, in hindsight.
And that’s what Tucson’s paltry amount of snow reminded me of this first morning of 2015. It seems useless to me to consider the past all that often. And yet, sometimes, it seems like parts of my past were so monumental that I can’t help returning to them from time to time. It’s too bad I didn’t always understand just how monumental they were.
Get lost 2014, come on in 2015. Let’s hope this year treats us well, and that we find time to laugh and love together. Now, back to James Wright . . .