Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Piper

My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore. I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny. I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time. My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off. The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh. During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls. “You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit” I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else. There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh. By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight. As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck? So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything. The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space. The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe. The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it. A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation. Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him and get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds. What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight? Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet. During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig. I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British military, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers. The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once. Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand. Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well. I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back. On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return. As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile. What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore. The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch - 22. The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it. The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn. I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with two hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed. Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig. As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers. Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore. The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way. There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha. When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes. I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged. I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life. A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’. Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to. Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back. The final count was 164 dead.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Hitching to London

I was leaving Matala with Anne and Thomas, the dedicated communist German from Ulm, who owned the French Peugot which elevated and lowered its suspension at the flick of a switch. He and I had argued about communism and democracy for a week every night in the taverna. My strongest argument, the one which he couldn=t answer, was to ask him where all the communist travellers were? Why was he the only one from a communist country who was free to travel where he liked, do what he wanted? Thomas= idealism was admirable. We agreed, at least, that the rich, communist or capitalist, were still screwing the poor. He owned a car and offered me a free ride to Iraklion when he learned I was leaving. Anne was leaving Greece, too. She was from England, I was heading for London. She had seen me around Matala, decided to accompany me. I collected the drachma which were saved for me by my boss, Costa, the young, local godfather in Matala. He gave me an allowance each week, kept back a portion of my pay. I worked on various construction jobs he had, was hardened, tanned and strong when he paid me off. He held back a bit for himself, just to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. If he hadn=t saved some of my pay for me, we both knew I would have blown it all. The ferry from Iraklion to Piraeus was boring and uneventful. Just as well. After living for six months in Matala, on the southern coast of Crete, never leaving, it was a slow emergence into the outside world. One of the most embarrassing occasions in my life occurred just then. I had the crabs. I got them in Matala and was at the stage of exterminating them which required sexual abstinence. There was to be no carnal contact, not even snuggling, in case of infection of another and a rebirth of the cursed bugs. But I was ashamed. I was too embarrassed to tell Anne. God knows what she thought. Anne had lived in Matala long enough to know that I wasn=t gay. She was attractive enough, the ex girlfriend of a guy who was the grandson of Robert Graves, the poet. But I passed up perfect opportunities and situations which thrust us together. You don=t get much closer together than when you hitchike together. I had recently been through hell, living in my makeshift tent in the campground, scratching at myself. I wouldn=t have wished it on anyone. But I couldn=t bring myself to tell her. It was bad enough telling Costas and the boys in Matala. They all took a step away from me. Costas wrinkled his nose when he asked why I didn=t tell him sooner. Later, he admitted that when he got them, he separated himself from his family home and friends until he got rid of them. After a few smog filled days in Athens during which we were treated as fair game, ripped off everywhere we turned, we concluded that the air fare to Britain was too costly. There was an election on in Greece, something catastrophic was happening in Northern Europe, living in Athens, even on our skimpy budget, was too expensive. Reaching London could be done, cheaper, by hitching most of the way. Anne was fighting with her parents, proving her independence. She could easily get the required air fare home but refused to make the call, thereby signalling to her family that she was dependent upon them. I thought she was crazy. A guy seemed to meet us in Brindisi, when we landed in Italy. He appeared, smiling like a long lost brother, gave us pizza and a room for the night, ostensibly, for free. He finally demanded payment in sexual favours, from Anne, but too late. By the time he sneaked away from his wife, it was morning and we fled. On the motorway, heading north, it was easy to see why veteran travellers advised always to hitch with a woman in Europe. Even eighteen wheelers with full loads stopped for women. The first big rig which came by, skidded to a fishtailing halt, up the highway. The driver didn=t care about the truck, the load or the other high speed traffic. We had travelled most of the day when he caught me dozing, told me to climb into the bed behind us. Everything looked fine. I gratefully passed out in the bunk after Anne and I oohed and ahhed over the pictures of the driver=s family. I wasn=t expecting to be awoken by Anne=s kicks as she scrunched herself up against the passenger door and yelled at the driver. We were shocked that the friendly family man was so intent on groping Anne that he nearly ran the big Volvo off the road. We got him to pull over and let us out. The next driver who picked us up in a big rig on the freeway which runs up the spine of Italy, showed us his automatic revolver which he pulled from under his seat. We were thinking furiously, Anne prodding me in the side, our eyes glued to the weapon as he casually handled the pistol while driving. He explained, near the turnoff to Milan, that every truck driver who stopped in Milan carried a weapon to defend against hijackers. He smiled, checked out Anne=s body openly, when he let us off at a truck stop. We clambered down from the cab, grateful for the lift, glad to be getting away from his aura of danger. Anne and I finally separated in a train station in Switzerland. By this time we were barely speaking. I was irritated at her stubborness. She was frustrated at our slow progress. I didn=t have anything to prove to anyone so she seemed, to me, to be involved in a frivolous game. I had given up hope that she=d call home for money enough for two flights back to England. The Greek bread had hardened in our packs. We could barely afford coffee and chocolate bars. The tension between us grew every hour. We stopped, at night, in the little station where we got some sleep on benches, warm and dry. When we awoke, we were greeted by backpackers with English accents who got along famously with Anne and onto whom she latched. She went their way and I went mine. We were glad to part. I headed for Shaffhausen, on the German border. In Matala, some of the German visitors had given me addresses and phone numbers for places to stay and jobs. If I could get into Germany, it seemed worth checking out. My resolve to reach London didn=t waver, but I took a detour. It seemed logical that I should see a little of Germany while I was so close. Some of the jobs were even on Canadian bases. The Alps were truly breathtaking. Some of the rides were with young, Swiss natives who pointed out that many of the idyllic scenes in the postcard mountains contained, in reality, many poor people struggling to get by. The underside of Switzerland was obvious to them, never explained to the tourists. When I arrived, I called the number I had in Shaffhausen, knocked on the door of the address I was given, but there was no response. I stayed around for two more days but never found anyone. I couldn=t find a youth hostel in Shaffhausen and I couldn=t afford a room so I used the only shelter I could find, a public toilet, in a park. The place was clean. If I laid in a certain position I could manage a few hours of sleep in the glare of the all night lights. I waited, for two days and nights, walking around, looking at windows full of displays of Swiss chocolate for the tourists, living in the public restroom, eating my loaf of bread with the last of the jam I had carried from Greece. Finally, I couldn=t wait any longer. I approached the border crossing between Switzerland and Germany. The early morning traffic was travelling slowly, I got a lift with a young businessman who lived in Shaffhausen, crossed the border, every day, for work, in Germany. The German border guards ordered me out of the car, searched my pack, studied my passport, ordered me to take off my cowboy boots. They studiously examined the Greek sand which fell out, presumably for drugs, counted my little wad of American bills, rejected me. I had to shoulder my pack and walk back across the border beside the line of cars going to Germany. The Swiss guards shrugged and laughed when they saw. AGermans@ they said with a gesture that was meant to explain that they were as baffled as I. I consulted a map, took the rest of the day to hitch to Basel. On the side of the highway, at an intersection, I talked to a hippie looking couple who were hitching in another direction. They said they had slept in a park last night, had awoken to find food and coffee in the grass, beside their sleeping bags. Through Basel I would get to France, then England. If I had stuck to my original plan, with good luck, I=d probably be there by now. The day was ending, darkness approaching, the sky spit rain. I stood on the side of the freeway outside of Basel, watched the lights of the comfortable houses, wondered how many cities I=d stood outside of, how many hours I=d spent waiting for lifts on freeways.. Then Bernt stopped. At first, I thought he was gay, picking up a hitchiker in the dark. But his simple reason for helping me out was that once, on a motorcycle trip around Germany, someone had helped him out. He asked only that I do the same for some other stranger when the opportunity presented itself. Bernt took me home to his comfortable, modern apartment, let me use his shower and phone. I called Canada to borrow a little money. It was sent by American Express. It meant nothing in Canada, the world to me. Bernt and a friend wined and dined me. We ate and drank in the tavern which Hermann Hesse frequented while he wrote Steppenwolf. We ate Swiss rosti, drank wine, tried to remember which parts of the tavern Hesse described in his book. Perhaps from outside the window. They took off for a weekend, left me with the house after Bernt showed me his copious wine cellar. I used the Basel trams to get my money from the American express office, left Bernt a thank you note, hitched to France. From Basel I was lucky to get a lift all the way to Strasbourg where I stood on the freeway with my thumb out until a funky looking, old, walk-in van pulled over and picked me up. The driver was French, returning from Poland where he worked with Solidarity to press for democracy. The paintings and slogans which decorated the van were encouragement to Solidarity and its cause. He had installed a finely tuned, powerful engine in the old van. He laughed at the system the Poles were overthrowing as we sped toward Paris. When he let me off at the suburban metro station, I consulted my address book, called Frank. He had given me his number when he visited Matala, insisted that I call him if I ever got to Paris. I spent the next few days in Frank=s family=s expensive apartment. Frank, a handsome blond Frenchman, was an expert in judo. He had trained for most of his life, had awards, could truthfully say that it saved him once when he was attacked by a gang in a metro station. He was about to join the French army. Frank had lots of girlfriends. We sped around Paris in someone=s car, visited expensive restaurants and cafes. Of course, I started out nearly broke and that finished it. I thanked Frank and hitched to Calais. One way of avoiding the fare from Calais to Dover and London was to get a lift with a trucker. I canvassed the truckers I saw waiting for the ferry. There were dozens of big rigs heading to London. Most of the drivers wouldn=t risk picking up a hitchhiker because of the travelling insurance inspectors. I was looking as desperate as I felt. Finally, a driver with an English accent told me to wait by the dock, then to get into his truck, quick, while he was loading. That way, he passed the custom inspections before picking me up. Once we rolled onto the motorway, he checked the mirrors, installed me in the cab so that I couldn=t be seen from outside. He told me of his life driving regularly all over Europe. He worked shifts which allowed him some time with his young family in the north of England. He let me off with a cheery AGood luck@ at the southernmost tube station in London. By the time I reached Rob=s co-op flat in Finsbury Park, I was exhausted. I had been thoroughly shaken out of the dream I had lived beneath the Matala moon. We sat around his kitchen, drinking tea, reading newspapers, one drizzly morning. That was when I found the article on the shortage of rig workers in Scotland.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spinners

He felt like a father figure when they talked on the morning bus from Kanata. They usually got a seat together because they were first at the park n ride which took them downtown, he to the headquarters of National Defence, she to the waitress job at the hotel. They were actually close in age, he, the married father of two, almost bursting his uniform buttons from the desk job, she, the single mother of three, a kind of speed freak, the kind of person who couldn’t gain a pound if she tried. Lady Madonna. His was an understated importance in the military. He got used to deflecting direct questions about it. The odd time it required a quiet “secret” to a persistent questioner, but mostly “bureaucratic stuff” or “paperwork” covered it. She diplomatically changed the subject when she felt they had entered forbidden territory in their morning conversations. Her son, Chris, was the usual topic of conversation anyway. He had just joined the army. The other kids were still in school and she was glad to see Chris do something. The dead end jobs and bleak prospects were too much. Even if it seemed crazy once, now it made more sense for him to join the army. He highly recommended it though he was privately glad that Danny, his eldest son, had avoided the army and gone on to play football for the university. She felt better when he praised the discipline and character the military instilled in young men. And she did see a difference in Chris when he came home on his first leave. In fact, he looked better than he had in years. She still couldn’t imagine anyone getting him up at 5 AM never mind all the other stuff they made them do. Some mornings, especially in winter when the outside world was still dark, they lapsed into long silences, each contemplating the day ahead as the bus carried them into the city. When spring turned to summer, the sun rose every morning over the fields on either side of the six lane highway and they chatted about Chris’s latest adventure in the army. One day that summer he had endured a hard shift at his computer, fielding access to information requests, filling in for annual vacations being taken, when she saw him on the same express bus going home to Kanata. They stood all the way, hanging on, the bus packed with people. She told him that Chris’s unit was going to Afghanistan next month. In herself, she wasn’t sure about Chris’s gung ho attitude and she definitely didn’t trust the government mouthpieces. The more they praised it, the less confidence she had. But Chris said when you sign up, that’s it, no more choice, you have to do what you’re told. So he was going. She allowed herself a little touch of pride when she told him, grateful to see that he was impressed. He made a mental note to see which units were about to be rotated to Afghanistan as he walked across the lobby of DND. Captain Rogers, that little bastard from RMC. will be there this afternoon. Everyone will think the superior officer is monitoring his new crew but the jumped up little bastard will really be there to learn something. He knew nothing about public relations and the information wars. And they had put him in command of the whole bunch of them, the information warriors. Not a clue, hadn’t ever worked behind the scenes where the real fights were fought. Someone had enough drag to promote him fresh out of university, young and confident, but lacking the one thing necessary in this business, experience. You had to know the law to a point, but it was mostly experience. Almost a gut instinct. What the public will swallow, what it won’t. What to hide and what to offer. Only learned by experience. He could see the little bastard at the back of the room, watching while he led the classroom full of future intelligence officers through the basics of the trade. It was policy now to immerse the new ones in as much of the machinery as possible before they were sent out into the world. “Embedded reporters are no problem” he crossed out the words on the blackboard. “A one way ticket home will not be questioned by headquarters if it is necessary. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, they get out there and go a little crazy. Not sure if it’s too much of that Afghani hash or what” It brought the usual chuckle. “Anyway, ‘operational security’ is a good enough reason if they get out of line. If we see bad news here, news that hasn’t been approved, they’ll be on their way home and somebody over there will be in deep shit” He enjoyed using the word because it always brought a further chuckle from his audience. It also drew a silent, disapproving frown from the little bastard at the back. He was good at what he did so he was given free reign in these sessions with intelligence officers, diplomats and spin doctors of the future. The younger people related to his intelligent but homey style. They loved his forays into irreverence. “This” he held the paper up between two fingers, at arm’s length, with a distasteful expression “is an access to information request form. There is a standing order, unspoken and unwritten, of course, that the first one gets shitcanned. Maybe even the second one. If they’re persistent and keep after the information, there are a whole bunch of lawyers who you’ll probably meet later, who’ll take over. They have lots of ways to delay it. But if they’re that persistent, hey, my personal advice to you is, cover your ass first. Get your commanding officer or somebody above you to contact the lawyers. Believe me, when they’re really persistent, really determined, it’s best to get away from it” An appreciative grunt came from the audience as if they’d suspected that all along. The little bastard’s frown deepened at the back. He got up and slipped out. She sat with him on the express downtown on the Friday before Labour Day. They chatted mostly about her job, some of the crazy tourists she saw, how glad she was that the busy season was almost over, the restaurant was always so hectic. She had to work through the weekend. The busiest time, the most tips. The tips paid for the sitter and more. He admired her pluckiness and inexhaustible energy. He had Billy to register in his hockey league, his wife had Becky. He also had the shopping to do and the lawn to cut. And maybe a little time for some beer and CFL football. They said goodbye when he stood up so she could get out on Laurier Ave, one stop before his. He awoke with adrenalin coursing through him, his heart beating fast. The phone. His wife interrupted her snoring with a complaining grunt. He picked up the receiver. “Hello” “Deaver?” “Yes, who’s this?” “It’s Briggs, Deaver” General Briggs. What the hell did he want? “Sorry to wake you, Deaver, but we’ve got a problem” “No, no, it’s okay, sir. What problem?” “There’s been some soldiers killed and wounded in Kandahar. We don’t have all the details but it’s bad. We need someone senior in the office. Now. Tonight” A pause. “The press has some of the story, Deaver. They don’t have all of it and we need time” “Ok, sir. I’ll go down in my car. It’ll take me about an hour” “Good man, Deaver. Everyone’s on vacation. We can’t have the press talking to that crew that’s there now. They’re all recruits or temps. Call me at home when you’re there. You might have to write a press release but use operational security as much as you like. Talk to you soon” “What about Captain Rogers, sir?” “I’ve already talked to him. I know you guys were pissed off that he got made up to your commanding officer right after graduation. He’ll stay out of your hair. I made it clear that you’ll be in charge for this crisis. We’ll probably have to give details by Tuesday, after we tell the families. You know what to do. Don’t give em a thing till you hear from me. I’ve got to go, Deaver, call me” He showed his id to the soldier at the entrance to the underground parking where a burly sergeant with a sidearm met him. Another soldier parked his car and he was escorted by the sergeant up to the ninth floor office. If the man had heard anything, he showed no emotion, said nothing. Mayotte, Ryan and Dupuis, three raw recruits who were manning the office for the long weekend, looked up as he walked in. He wasn’t in uniform and they didn’t have their hats on but they stood up as he entered. “As you were, gentlemen,” They sat down and watched him as he turned on the screen on his desk and read. When he twirled around he spoke directly to Dupuis in a low, steady voice, “I want the numbers on how many allied forces have been killed by the American Air Force in Afghanistan. Injured too, if you can get it.” Dupuis looked up from writing on a pad. His stubble cut was growing in. He spoke with earnest young eyes, “It’s not the kind of information the US military is likely to give up, sir” His mind was racing as he called General Briggs. “No, you probably won’t get anything out of them, try NATO, try the armies, try the governments, see what you can find. We may not need it right now, but I want it, in case” “Briggs” “Hello sir, I’m here. It looks bad. Two killed, a couple seriously wounded and some walking wounded. They’ll be out of commission for a while. The report says friendly fire” “Shit. Americans?” “It looks like it, sir” “What the hell are they doing? Something’s wrong there. This is ridiculous” “Some good news though, sir, no reporters” “Good, that’s a relief. There are some press reports but they’re vague. Ok, Deaver, I’ll be in touch. You know what to do. I’ll get back to you when I hear how they want to handle this. Good luck” “Thanks, bye sir” He turned to address the others. “Ok. We’ve got a few hours. Then the phones are going to start ringing. It’ll be the media. I’m going to write down five talking points. Make a copy and as you answer the calls, stick strictly to the script” Mayotte and Ryan watched him with expressions like Danny’s, wide eyed, almost innocent, respectful. They were Danny’s age or younger, Ryan still with a bad case of acne. He wrote out the points he wanted them to follow when dealing with the media...basically, tell them nothing. He gave them a lecture on the importance of shitcanning the first access to information requests about this incident and told them to pass it on to whoever relieved them. Who knew how long this would go on? The first few days of vagueness and saying nothing were necessary in order to give them time. It looked bad but maybe it could be massaged, manipulated, fed to the public slowly so it didn’t look so bad. He spent the rest of the night answering nervous phone calls from General Briggs and drafting a press release which showed the military was on top of the situation. When the day shift, such as it was, arrived, called in from cottages and parties celebrating the end of summer, he ate breakfast alone in the food court across in the Rideau Centre and called home to rearrange his schedule. His wife was angry but she would cope. He might be home in the afternoon. He and his counterpart, Captain Shields, were constantly busy talking to officers who called or showed up when they heard. Their computer reports didn’t really communicate the tragedy like talking to another person did. Especially someone like him, someone right in the heart of the crisis. Finally, after innumerable conversations which he couldn’t avoid and two meetings with the staff at which he emphasized the importance of secrecy, General Briggs ordered him to go home, get a shit, shower and shave, and return to the office, in uniform, for however long it took. So far there were no big problems but a situation like this could turn volatile at any time. He resigned himself to a lost weekend as he pulled out of the parking garage and adjusted the radio. When he stopped for the light at Laurier and Elgin, there she was. She was looking straight at him from the bus stop. He pulled over when he was through the light and waited until she ran to the car and jumped into the passenger seat. She was surprised to see him downtown on a weekend but glad for the lift. The shift had been exhausting and she was ready for a rest. She chatted on as they approached the Queensway, quieted down while he negotiated the ramp and speeding traffic. When they were safely traveling in the middle lane, she told him that she had just gotten an email from Chris, that he had been made a corporal. “Corporal Chris Defalco” she said with a laugh. “Defalco? That’s not your name. Isn’t it Mackenzie?” he said with s glance at her. He could feel it burn through his breast pocket. His hand involuntarily rubbed it. He felt sick. She stared at the line of cars ahead, said that Chris had kept his father’s name and that she had gone back to her own. She looked over at him. “Your eye. Something in it?” she watched the tear run down his face. “Yeah, yeah” he reached blindly for a tissue below the dash. She handed him a tissue. He wiped his eye. “Something blew in the window...” he rolled up his window a few inches. They drove in silence as the Queensway climbed the hill to the Kanata park n ride. “Thanks for the lift, Captain Deaver, see you Tuesday morning” she shut the door and walked to her car. “See you Mrs Mackenzie” He pretended to look into his eye in the mirror as her car passed behind him. They waved goodbye. He turned the key. The car stopped, the radio played. Lady Madonna. He fished the list out of his breast pocket, unfolded it slowly. At the bottom. Names of the dead. Corporal Chris Defalco. He leaned his forehead on the steering wheel and wept.