Flight or Fright, Page 2Stephen King
I was looking forward to another Panamanian Thanksgiving at Howard Air Force Base—eighty-five degrees, turkey and stuffing from the mess hall, football on Armed Forces Radio, and enough time out of flight rotation to get good and drunk. The in-bound hop from the Philippines went by the numbers and both the passengers and cargo were free and easy. Now this.
Interruption was something you grew accustomed to as a Loadmaster. The C-141 StarLifter was the largest freighter and troop carrier in the Military Air Command, capable of carrying seventy thousand pounds of cargo or two hundred battle-ready troops and flying them anywhere in the world. Half as long as a football field, the high-set, swept-back wings drooped bat-like over the tarmac. With an upswept T-tail, petal-doors, and a built-in cargo ramp, the StarLifter was unmatched when it came to moving cargo. Part stewardess and part moving man, my job as a Loadmaster was to pack it as tight and as safe as possible.
With everything onboard and my weight and balance sheets complete, the same airman found me cussing up the Panamanian ground crew for leaving a scuffmark on the airframe.
“Sergeant Davis! Change in plans,” he yelled over the whine of the forklift. He handed me another manifest.
“New passengers. Med crew is staying here.” He said something unintelligible about a change of mission.
“Who are these people?”
Again, I strained to hear him. Or maybe I heard him fine and with the sinking in my gut, I wanted him to repeat it. I wanted to hear him wrong.
“Graves registration,” he cried.
That’s what I’d thought he’d said.
TIMEHRI was your typical third world airport—large enough to squeeze down a 747, but strewn with potholes and sprawling with rusted Quonset huts. The low line of jungle surrounding the field looked as if it had been beaten back only an hour before. Helicopters buzzed up and down and US servicemen swarmed the tarmac. I knew then that things must be bad.
Outside the bird, the heat rising from the asphalt threatened to melt the soles of my boots even before I had the wheel chocks in place. A ground crew of American GIs approached, anxious to unload and assemble the chopper. One of them, bare chested with his shirt tied around his waist, handed me a manifest.
“Don’t get comfy,” he said. “As soon as the chopper’s clear, we’re loading you up.” He nodded over his shoulder.
I looked out over the shimmering taxiway. Coffins. Rows and rows of dull aluminum funerary boxes gleamed in the unforgiving tropical sun. I recognized them from my flights out of Saigon six years ago, my first as Loadmaster. Maybe my insides did a little flip because I’d had no rest, or maybe because I hadn’t carried a stiff in a few years. Still, I swallowed hard. I looked at the destination: Dover, Delaware.
THE ground crew loaded a fresh comfort pallet when I learned we’d have two passengers on the outbound flight.
The first was a kid, right out of high school by the look of it, with bristle-black hair, and too-large jungle fatigues that were starched, clean, and showed the rank of Airman First Class. I told him, “Welcome aboard,” and went to help him through the crew door, but he jerked away, nearly hitting his head against the low entrance. I think he would have leapt back if there had been room. His scent hit me, strong and medicinal—Vicks VapoRub.
Behind him a flight nurse, crisp and professional in step, dress, and gesture, also boarded without assistance. I regarded her evenly. I recognized her as one of a batch I had flown regularly from Clark in the Philippines to Da Nang and back again in my early days. A steel-eyed, silver-haired lieutenant. She had been very specific—more than once—in pointing out how any numbskull high school dropout could do my job better. The name on her uniform read Pembry. She touched the kid on his back and guided him to the seats, but if she recognized me, she said nothing.
“Take a seat anywhere,” I told them. “I’m Tech Sergeant Davis. We’ll be wheels up in less than a half hour so make yourself comfortable.”
The kid stopped short. “You didn’t tell me,” he said to the nurse.
The hold of a StarLifter is most like the inside of a boiler room, with all the heat, cooling, and pressure ducts exposed rather than hidden away like on an airliner. The coffins formed two rows down the length of the hold, leaving a center aisle clear. Stacked four high, there were one hundred and sixty of them. Yellow cargo nets held them in place. Looking past them, we watched the sunlight disappear as the cargo hatch closed, leaving us in an awkward semidarkness.
“It’s the fastest way to get you home,” she said to him, her voice neutral. “You want to go home, don’t you?”
His voice dripped with fearful outrage. “I don’t want to see them. I want a forward facing seat.”
If the kid would have looked around, he could have seen that there were no forward facing seats.
“It’s okay,” she said, tugging on his arm again. “They’re going home, too.”
“I don’t want to look at them,” he said as she pushed him to a seat nearest one of the small windows. When he didn’t move to strap himself in, Pembry bent and did it for him. He gripped the handrails like the oh-shit bar on a roller coaster. “I don’t want to think about them.”
“I got it.” I went forward and shut down the cabin lights. Now only the twin red jump lights illuminated the long metal containers. When I returned, I brought him a pillow.
The ID label on the kid’s loose jacket read “Hernandez.” He said, “Thank you,” but did not let go of the armrests.
Pembry strapped herself in next to him. I stowed their gear and went through my final checklist.
ONCE in the air, I brewed coffee on the electric stove in the comfort pallet. Nurse Pembry declined, but Hernandez took some. The plastic cup shook in his hands.
“Afraid of flying?” I asked. It wasn’t so unusual for the Air Force. “I have some Dramamine …”
“I’m not afraid of flying,” he said through clenched teeth. All the while he looked past me to the boxes lining the hold.
Next the crew. No one bird was assigned the same crew, like in the old days. The MAC took great pride in having men be so interchangeable that a flight crew who had never met before could assemble at a flight line and fly any StarLifter to the ends of the Earth. Each man knew my job, like I knew theirs, inside and out.
I went to the cockpit and found everyone on stations. The second engineer sat closest to the cockpit door, hunched over instrumentation. “Four is evening out now, keep the throttle low,” he said. I recognized his hangdog face and his Arkansas drawl, but I could not tell from where. I figured after seven years of flying StarLifters, I had flown with just about everybody at one time or another. He thanked me as I set the black coffee on his table. His flight suit named him Hadley.
The first engineer sat in the bitchseat, the one usually reserved for a “Black Hatter”—mission inspectors were the bane of all MAC aircrews. He asked for two lumps and then stood and looked out the navigator’s dome at the blue rushing past.
“Throttle low on four, got it,” replied the pilot. He was the designated Aircraft Commander, but both he and the co-pilot were such typical flight jocks that they could have been the same person. They took their coffee with two creams each. “We’re trying to outfly some clear air turbulence, but it won’t be easy. Tell your passengers to expect some weather.”
“Will do, sir. Anything else?”
“Thank you, Load Davis, that’s all.”
Finally time to relax. As I went to have a horizontal moment in the crew berth, I saw Pembry snooping around the comfort pallet. “Anything I can help you find?”
“An extra blanket?”
I pulled one from the storage cabinet between the cooking station and the latrine and gritted my teeth. “Anything else?”
“No,” she said, pulling a piece of imaginary lint from the wool. “We’ve flown together before, you know.”
an eyebrow. “I probably ought to apologize.”
“No need, ma’am,” I said. I dodged around her and opened the fridge. “I could serve an in-flight meal later if you are …”
She placed her hand on my shoulder, like she had on Hernandez, and it commanded my attention. “You do remember me.”
“I was pretty hard on you during those evac flights.”
I wished she’d stop being so direct. “You were speaking your mind, ma’am. It made me a better Loadmaster.”
“Ma’am, there’s no need.” Why can’t women figure out that apologies only make things worse?
“Very well.” The hardness of her face melted into sincerity, and suddenly it occurred to me that she wanted to talk.
“How’s your patient?”
“Resting.” Pembry tried to act casual, but I knew she wanted to say more.
“What’s his problem?”
“He was one of the first to arrive,” she said, “and the first to leave.”
“Jonestown? Was it that bad?”
Flashback to our earlier evac flights. The old look, hard and cool, returned instantly. “We flew out of Dover on White House orders five hours after they got the call. He’s a Medical Records Specialist, six months in the service, he’s never been anywhere before, never saw a day of trauma in his life. Next thing he knows, he’s in a South American jungle with a thousand dead bodies.”
“Count’s not in yet, but it’s headed that way.” She brushed the back of her hand against her cheek. “So many kids.”
“Whole families. They all drank poison. Some kind of cult, they said. Someone told me the parents killed their children first. I don’t know what could make a person do that to their own family.” She shook her head. “I stayed at Timehri to organize triage. Hernandez said the smell was unimaginable. They had to spray the bodies with insecticide and defend them from hungry giant rats. He said they made him bayonet the bodies to release the pressure. He burned his uniform.” She shuffled to keep her balance as the bird jolted.
Something nasty crept down the back of my throat as I tried not to visualize what she said. I struggled not to grimace. “The AC says it may get rough. You better strap in.” I walked her back to her seat. Hernandez’s mouth gaped as he sprawled across his seat, looking for all the world like he’d lost a bar fight—bad. Then I went to my bunk and fell asleep.
ASK any Loadmaster: after so much time in the air, the roar of engines is something you ignore. You find you can sleep through just about anything. Still, your mind tunes in and wakes up at the sound of anything unusual, like the flight from Yakota to Elmendorf when a jeep came loose and rolled into a crate of MREs. Chipped beef everywhere. You can bet the ground crew heard from me on that one. So it should not come as a shock that I started at the sound of a scream.
On my feet, out of the bunk, past the comfort pallet before I could think. Then I saw Pembry. She was out of her seat and in front of Hernandez, dodging his flailing arms, speaking calmly and below the engine noise. Not him, though.
“I heard them! I heard them! They’re in there! All those kids! All those kids!”
I put my hand on him—hard. “Calm down!”
He stopped flailing. A shamed expression came over him. His eyes riveted mine. “I heard them singing.”
“The children! All the …” He gave a helpless gesture to the unlighted coffins.
“You had a dream,” Pembry said. Her voice shook a little. “I was with you the whole time. You were asleep. You couldn’t have heard anything.”
“All the children are dead,” he said. “All of them. They didn’t know. How could they have known they were drinking poison? Who would give their own child poison to drink?” I let go of his arm and he looked at me. “Do you have kids?”
“No,” I said.
“My daughter,” he said, “is a year-and-a-half old. My son is three months. You have to be careful with them, patient with them. My wife is really good at it, y’know?” I noticed for the first time how sweat crawled across his forehead, the backs of his hands. “But I’m okay too, I mean, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing, but I wouldn’t hurt them. I hold them and I sing to them and—and if anyone else tried to hurt them …” He grabbed me on the arm that had held him. “Who would give their child poison?”
“It isn’t your fault,” I told him.
“They didn’t know it was poison. They still don’t.” He pulled me closer and said into my ear, “I heard them singing.” I’ll be damned if the words he spoke didn’t make my spine shiver.
“I’ll go check it out,” I told him as I grabbed a flashlight off the wall and started down the center aisle.
There was a practical reason for checking out the noise. As a Loadmaster, I knew that an unusual sound meant trouble. I had heard a story about how an aircrew kept hearing the sound of a cat meowing from somewhere in the hold. The Loadmaster couldn’t find it, but figured it’d turn up when they off-loaded the cargo. Turns out the “meowing” was a weakened load brace that buckled when the wheels touched runway, freeing three tons of explosive ordnance and making the landing very interesting. Strange noises meant trouble, and I’d have been a fool not to look into it.
I checked all the buckles and netting as I went, stooping and listening, checking for signs of shifting, fraying straps, anything out of the ordinary. I went up one side and down the other, even checking the cargo doors. Nothing. Everything was sound, my usual best work.
I walked up the aisle to face them. Hernandez wept, head in his hands. Pembry rubbed his back with one hand as she sat next to him, like my mother had done to me.
“All clear, Hernandez.” I put the flashlight back on the wall.
“Thanks,” Pembry replied for him, then said to me, “I gave him a Valium, he should quiet down now.”
“Just a safety check,” I told her. “Now, both of you get some rest.”
I went back to my bunk to find it occupied by Hadley, the second engineer. I took the one below him but couldn’t fall asleep right away. I tried to keep my mind far away from the reason that the coffins were in my bird in the first place.
Cargo was the euphemism. From blood plasma to high explosives to secret service limousines to gold bullion, you packed it and hauled it because it was your job, that was all, and anything that could be done to speed you on your way was important.
Just cargo, I thought. But whole families that killed themselves … I was glad to get them the hell out of the jungle, back home to their families—but the medics who got there first, all those guys on the ground, even my crew, we were too late to do any more than that. I was interested in having kids in a vague, unsettled sort of way, and it pissed me off to hear about anyone harming them. But these parents did it willingly, didn’t they?
I couldn’t relax. I found an old copy of the New York Times folded into the bunk. Peace in the Middle East in our lifetimes, it read. Next to the article was a picture of President Carter and Anwar Sadat shaking hands. I was just about to drift off when I thought I heard Hernandez cry out again.
I dragged my ass up. Pembry stood with her hands clutched over her mouth. I thought Hernandez had hit her, so I went to her and peeled her hands away, looking for damage.
There was none. Looking over her shoulder, I could see Hernandez riveted to his seat, eyes glued to the darkness like a reverse color television.
“What happened? Did he hit you?”
“He—he heard it again,” she stammered as one hand rose to her face again. “You—you ought to go check again. You ought to go check …”
The pitch of the plane shifted and she fell into me a little, and as I steadied myself by grabbing her elbow she collapsed against me. I met her gaze matter-of-factly. She looked away. “What happened?” I asked again.
“I heard it too,” Pembry said.
> My eyes went to the aisle of shadow. “Just now?”
“Was it like he said? Children singing?” I realized I was on the verge of shaking her. Were they both going crazy?
“Children playing,” she said. “Like—playground noise, y’know? Kids playing.”
I wracked my brain for some object, or some collection of objects, that when stuffed into a C-141 StarLifter and flown thirty-nine thousand feet over the Caribbean, would make a sound like children playing.
Hernandez shifted his position and we both brought our attention to bear on him. He smiled a defeated smile and said to us, “I told you.”
“I’ll go check it out,” I told them.
“Let them play,” said Hernandez. “They just want to play. Isn’t that what you wanted to do as a kid?”
I remembered my childhood like a jolt, endless summers and bike rides and skinned knees and coming home at dusk to my mother saying, “Look how dirty you are.” I wondered if the recovery crews washed the bodies before they put them in the coffins.
“I’ll find out what it is,” I told them. I went and got the flashlight again. “Stay put.”
I used the darkness to close off my sight, give me more to hear. The turbulence had subsided by then, and I used my flashlight only to avoid tripping on the cargo netting. I listened for anything new or unusual. It wasn’t one thing—it had to be a combination—noises like that just don’t stop and start again. Fuel leak? Stowaway? The thought of a snake or some other jungle beast lurking inside those metal boxes heightened my whole state of being and brought back my dream.
Near the cargo doors, I shut off my light and listened. Pressurized air. Four Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines. Fracture rattles. Cargo straps flapping.
And then, something. Something came in sharp after a moment, at first dull and sweeping, like noise from the back of a cave, but then pure and unbidden, like sounds to a surprised eavesdropper.
Children. Laughter. Like recess at grade school.
I opened my eyes and flashed my light around the silver crates. I found them waiting, huddled with me, almost expectant.