“Holy shit stains! Hey Dickey, is that a fucking foot floating towards us?”
Petty Officer Dickerson panned the barrel of the mounted .50 caliber machine gun in the direction of the security patrol’s pointing finger. He pushed his dark sunglasses up to his forehead and squinted hard as he peered through the severe metallic glare shining off the stewing and steaming harbor. Once a fix was made on the floating object in question, he slapped his sunglasses back into place.
“Better report it,” he said to the patrol.
Attention on deck was called. Lieutenant Commander Henry Sterner rose from leaning on the rail and locked himself straight.
“Where is it?” the commanding officer demanded as he walked out onto the bridge wing.
The lieutenant commander pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “Straight down, Captain.”
The commanding officer looked over the side of the ship and quickly confirmed his executive officer’s report. “What kind of fucking place is this shit hole, Hank?”
The lieutenant commander didn’t answer. Instead, his mind involuntarily conjured up a recent news story of a bloated, one-month-old baby that was fished out of the Hudson.
“Fuck if I know,” the commanding officer said in answer to his own question. He then turned and walked off the bridge wing.
The lieutenant commander followed his superior officer into and through the pilothouse – junior officers parted before them like the nearby biblical sea once parted for a holy man – and out onto the port bridge wing.
The captain leaned over the side and looked aft. “What in the fuck is taking so long, Hank?”
“Port Authority has its head up its ass as usual, sir,” the lieutenant commander answered as he positioned himself alongside the commanding officer. Below, three dark-skinned men, moist and shiny, leaned casually against various pipes and equipment on an ancient refueling barge. On the ship, sailors scurried everywhere like caffeinated ants, bellowing and conveying and carrying out their precise and practiced orders. “But the Officer of the Deck did just report that we should be topped off within two hours. It’s a good flow rate.”
The commanding officer let out a deep sigh in response.
“We should have this place in our rearview mirror no later than 1400, sir.”
“What do you say we push real hard for no later than 1300 instead? You know how these stops for fuel creep me out.”
“Our force protection’s tight, sir.”
Both officers couldn’t help but think about all the death and injury and destruction that resulted from when the USS Cole had mistakenly assumed its force protection was “tight.”
“Yeah Hank, I know. I know it is. The commanding officer reached into his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He began wiping sweat off his face and neck.
“What about the plastics?”
“The Husbanding Agent said he’d have a trash crew out to us within the hour. We’ll have it all off loaded well before we’re done refueling.”
“Good. The faster we get the hell out of here and back to hunting pirates the better. They coming out with another barge?”
“Negative. We were told it would be a skiff, sir.”
The commanding officer nodded his head in approval as he leaned on the rail and tracked the work below.
In the distance, a discordant parade of boats and other vessels large and small made their way through the crowded harbor, a harbor crowded even more than usual due to the traffic flow restrictions put in place to meet the warship’s security requirements.
“So, what do you want us to do about the foot, sir?”
“You see all those crazy looking dhows out there, Hank?” the commanding officer asked without taking his eyes off the activity below him. “I tell you, it’s as if somehow we warped back into the Dark Ages.”
The lieutenant commander looked out across the water and focused in on one of the many dhows making its way through the harbor. Its wooden hull was long and its beam narrow. Its single lateen sail was full, even with the slack wind. Its two-man crew looked like haunting, seafaring wraiths through the heat rays shimmering off the water.
“The good old Dark Ages. Back when men were made out of iron and ships were made out of wood, right sir?” The lieutenant commander immediately regretted his attempt at humor.
The captain looked at his subordinate and smiled. “You know, XO, these days it would be better for your career if you were to stop using the word ‘men’ and replace it with a less sexist word like, oh I don’t know, sailors, perhaps.”
The lieutenant commander looked over his shoulder at the watch team manning the pilothouse. Of the three, two were female. He chuckled and said, “Yes, sir.” Then his smile faded. “But what about the foot, boss?”
The commanding officer looked confused. “The foot?”
“The one floating off our starboard bow. Shall we notify Port Authority?”
“Port Autho— For some foot? Fuck no, Hank,” the commanding officer said as he began marching back toward the starboard bridge wing. “The last thing I want is those idiots out here jerking us around over some goddamn raggedy ass sweaty pirate’s missing foot. Call those assholes and it’s guaranteed we’re stuck here all day.” He leaned over the starboard bridge wing and located the floating body part. “Hell, could even turn into an international incident.”
“Roger that, sir.”
There was silence as the lieutenant commander watched his commanding officer stare down at the foot.
“Goddamn it, what is it Hank?”
“Well sir, I was just thinking. What do you say I discreetly call a ship-wide muster to, well, you know, just in case?”
The commanding officer looked back at his executive officer. “You know damn well that foot isn’t one of ours, Hank.” He let out a short, sardonic laugh and then said, “But sure, go ahead. Go ahead, XO, and call muster. But I tell you what, if that goddamned Husbanding Agent gets wind of it and we end up in this shit hole for one extra minute because of that goddamned foot, it’s your ass.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the lieutenant commander said as he dismissed himself from the bridge wing.
The commanding officer called out before his executive officer could exit the pilothouse. “XO!”
Lieutenant Commander Sterner made his way back to the bridge wing and stuck his head through the open hatch. “Sir?”
“You’re right, Hank,” the commanding officer said as he stared down at the foot lapping against the side of the ship. “You’re right, goddamn it, and we both know it.” He stood up and turned toward the executive officer. “Go ahead and notify Port Authority about the goddamned foot floating off our starboard bow.”
“And get a message out to the goddamned admiral and let him know about the goddamned foot, too.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
In the distance, off the destroyer’s port side, a small skiff powered by three oversized outboard motors, broke clear from the restricted flow of traffic and sped directly toward the ship – and the barge full of JP-5 fuel that lay alongside it.
The Officer of the Deck passed the word over the 1MC, the ship’s public address system, that a possible hostile craft was inbound at high speed on the port side. The security action team was ordered to load their weapons and to standby for firing orders. All roving security patrols were to report to the quarterdeck on the double. The picket boat crew was to launch away. The urgent, ship-wide announcement was followed immediately by the sounding of the alarm for general quarters. Sailors raced to their battle stations. Material Condition Zebra, the most water-tight, battle-ready condition possible for a ship, was set.
On the refueling barge, two of the laborers, immediately comprehending the situation onboard the ship, jumped into the oil-filmed water and began swimming for their lives; the third began screaming up to the sailors in an incomprehensible language distorted from confusion and fear.
As Petty Officer Dickerson loaded the ammunition into his machine gun, he had to fight hard to suppress the desire to abandon his position on the starboard side so that he could take up a fortifying position on the port side. But even though the desire was strong, he knew he wouldn’t give in to it. He couldn’t. It wasn’t proper procedure. To reinforce what he already knew so well due to the constant repetition of instruction and drill, the commanding officer, himself, got on the 1MC and ordered all starboard-side security stations to maintain their current posture. While the known threat was fixed on the port side, everyone had to remain vigilant for any possible additional threats.
Petty Officer Dickerson would not allow himself to look over his shoulder to the port side where the action was. He focused his concentration and kept watch for anything out of the ordinary within his line of site. He scanned and rescanned the waters off the starboard side, his side, the side where the hazy hot harbor opened to the wide expanse of the sea; the wide, empty expanse of no threats, of no action to be found anywhere. He could hear all the guns being loaded and cocked and readied on the port side. He could hear the excited voices of his shipmates as they prepared themselves for combat. He continued to keep a reluctant watch on the waters off the starboard side while the frantic preparation for battle, for all that he desired, happened behind his back. He concentrated harder. Sweat ran down his face and into his eyes, blurring his vision. He heard the Officer of the Deck holler up to the commanding officer on the port bridge wing to tell him that all battle stations were manned and ready. He pushed his sunglasses up to his forehead and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his sweaty hands. He looked hard at the glaring sea. Something was out there. He swung his machine gun away from him and rushed over to the side of the ship.
The commanding officer was back on the 1MC; his voice boomed with authority. He authorized weapons free and ordered all port-side security details to commence firing on the inbound hostile target once it entered each weapon’s effective kill zone. He then ordered the rest of the crew to brace for shock and for the medical team and all damage control parties to be prepared to respond should there be casualties and damage.
Kill zones were violated. The respondent fury from the port-side’s arsenal of countless M9 pistols, eleven M16 rifles, seven shotguns, two M60 machine guns, one .50 caliber machine gun, and one M79 grenade launcher was unrelenting. The noise – the soundtrack of battle – was deafening, numbing. Sailors on the port side fought for their lives, for their ship, for their country. Amidst it all, all the noise, all the apocalyptic fury, all the soon-to-be-told heroics, Petty Officer Dickerson was firing round after relentless round from his .50 caliber machine gun at the swollen severed foot that floated off the destroyer’s starboard side, the side where the hazy hot harbor opened to the wide empty expanse of the sea.