Once he was beyond the breakwater at Crescent Harbor, the man steered his new boat to starboard, idling along the slow speed channel. As he passed the lighthouse, the boat rocked in the swells that rolled in from the ocean. Whitecaps bloomed at the peaks of the waves farther out to sea.
At his back, the town of Sitka looked ghostly, the steeple of the old Russian Orthodox church and the stately façade of the Pioneers' Home receding into the fog. The clouds stuck like a wad of cotton between the mountains and the water where the buildings clung to the thin edge of coast.
From his vantage point on the boat, the man could almost see to the end of the road to the north. It only stretched seven miles in either direction where it ended abruptly, Western hemlock and Sitka spruce rising suddenly from the hillside as if the road crew had left work one day and forgotten to return. If you wanted to get anywhere from Sitka, you needed a boat or a plane.
As the stranger headed out to sea, he rounded Japonski, a small island about a mile long, connected to the town by O'Connell Bridge. It housed three vital parts of the city: the hospital, the airport, and the Coast Guard station. The stranger glanced over as he passed by the Coast Guard's squat manila hangar, perched on the northern tip of the island. Then he pushed the throttle forward and the bow of the Bayliner lifted out of the water as it accelerated away, toward the open ocean.
The hangar that the stranger passed housed three H60 Jayhawk helicopters. With those three aircraft, Air Station Sitka was responsible for the expanse of shoreline stretching from the Canadian border to the northern village of Yakutat, a span of twelve thousand tidal miles of mountainous terrain. It also presented some of the most difficult flying a Coast Guard pilot would ever see.
The weather in Southeast Alaska was famously changeable and powerful. Storms coming up from the south had thousands of miles of ocean to gather force. Occasionally, violent bursts of wind would flatten a whole mountainside of trees. Icing conditionsdeadly to aircraftwere worse in the clean Alaskan air, and visibility was often nonexistent, especially in winter when it was dark twenty hours a day. No one but the Coast Guard flew after dark.
In the Lower Fortyeight, the Coast Guard's mission was restricted to emergencies over water, but in Sitka the air station did double duty, also covering all inland emergencies: lost hikers, stranded hunters, anyone injured or sick in any of the hundreds of remote villages that lined the Inside Passage. Sitka itself was remote enough to be considered an overseas posting, and to qualify for the assignment, a pilot needed at least one tour of dutyfour years of flying.
But in other ways, the air station was like any other in the country. The helos were manned around the clock, with a fourman duty crew always on base and ready to go out. Semper paratus was the official motto of the Coast Guard; it meant "Always ready," but being "always ready" meant a lot of waiting.
That evening two members of the four man duty crewTeddy McDonald and Dave Lazurewere passing the time after dinner shooting pool. Teddy was losing, and now he started goofing, threading his stick behind his back to line up a shot. He was only fivefootsix, so he had to stretch up on his toes to manage it. He pulled back smoothly, but as he shot, the stick went wild and smacked the side of the cue ball. The cue ball careened off the bumper and into the four ball, which spun sideways into the corner pocket.
"Yes!" Teddy pumped his fists over his head. "I can't lose."
"Well, yes, actually, you can," Dave said. "I'm solids."
Teddy froze, his fists still in the air. "Oh." He dropped his hands. "Right. I forgot."
Struggling to hold back a smile, Dave moved around the table to line up his next shot. He bent over so his face was eyelevel with the felt. Then he straightened, took a few steps back for a better view, and stood combing his moustache with his fingers while he studied the table.
Teddy positioned himself behind Dave to mimic him, raising his own hand to stroke his smooth upper lip and drawing a guffaw from Mike Hoffman, who was standing against the wall watching the game.
Teddy loved any audience, but his clowning was intended for the fourth person in the roomEllie Somers. Ellie sat in one of the oversized leather recliners, trying to listen to the weather report on the radio, but Teddy, as usual, had managed to distract her, and she was shielding her face with one hand to keep Dave from seeing her silent laughter.
Outside the wind blew the rain up against the window. It sounded like handfuls of sand thrown against the glass.
"What are you hearing on the radio?" Dave asked, and Ellie tried to compose herself to answer.
"Oh, the same," she said, though she hadn't heard the last report.
"This squall sure blew in fast."
"I could have told you it would," Mike said.
They all ignored him.
"You'd think that there'd be someone stupid enough to get caught out in it." Picking up the cube of blue chalk, Teddy ground it on his cue.
Dave wrinkled his nose in distaste. "What's wrong with you? We're here to get people out of trouble, not wish them into it."
"Excuse me, Lieutenant," Teddy said. "But I think that you feel exactly the same, you just won't admit it."
"You're disgusting," Dave responded.
"Somers?" Teddy appealed to Ellie. "Make him admit it."
She raised her arms over her head in a lazy stretch and shook her head. "No can do, Teddy."
"You could if you wanted to."
"Maybe," Ellie shrugged, "but I'm with Dave on this one. Sorry."
Teddy clutched at his heart. "Traitor. Turncoat. Twotimer. I can't believe you're agreeing with him."
"How can I not?" She smiled. "He's got a pointyou are kinda disgusting. I mean, have you gotten a good whiff of your locker recently?"
Teddy grinned back. "Hey, but it's just gettin' good."
"Is there anything either of you wouldn't turn into a joke?" Dave wondered.
Teddy and Ellie looked at each other.
"No," they said at the same time.
"For Christ's sake," Dave said, but this time he couldn't hide the twitch of a smile. He tried to cover it by snapping, "Take your shot already, Teddy."
"Okay, okay, don't get your panties in a bunch." Teddy crouched in front of the table to line up his shot.
The door to the lounge opened and the CO, Commander Traub, stuck his head in. Teddy stopped just as he was drawing back the cue and straightened, Dave swung around on his heel, Mike pushed off the wall, and Ellie got up out of her chair.
"Good, you're all here," Commander Traub said, glancing around. Usually the enlisted officers, Teddy and Mike, would be in the crew's lounge, but he had asked them all to gather in the ward roomthe officer's loungeso he could talk to them together.
Traub stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. "That reporter who's doing the feature is here."
He looked at Ellie when he said it, but Teddy set aside his cue and dusted his hands against his chest, leaving streaks of light blue chalk on his flight suit. "Wants to talk to me, I imagine. I'm ready for the spotlight, Skipper. I won't deny my public."
Traub glanced over and said, "Be quiet, McDonald," then turned back to Ellie. "I don't know why I'm letting this go through after the last one. This time I don't want to be reading your little jokes about how, for practice, you fly blindfolded, or that if people aren't grateful enough when you rescue them, you toss them back in."
"That was pretty good, wasn't it?" Ellie said.
"The thing about throwing them back in, that part was me. I came up with that one, sir," Teddy said.
"All right, enough. Haven't I requested that you both be a little more professional?"
Traub wasn't only talking about their jokes; it was also a veiled reference to Teddy and Ellie's unusual friendship. It wasn't unheard of for officers and enlisted men to go fishing together, maybe have a beerespecially if they flew togetherbut there was usually a reserve, an acknowledgment of the barrier between them. However, Teddy had some trouble with the formality of rank to begin with, and Ellie didn't make any effort to maintain the distinction between officers and enlisted.
They'd hit it off the first week Teddy arrived. That was almost a year ago now, and although Traub occasionally mentioned something about their conduct, he mostly let it slide. Before Teddy came, Ellie had not been settling in well. On the surface she seemed to get along with her fellow officers, but they were almost all married with families, and she had made no real friends among them. In Traub's estimation, she had been disturbingly isolated. Teddy's arrival had changed all that.
"Lieutenant Lazure, will you try to keep these two in order?" Traub said to Dave.
"I'll try, sir. I can't say that I generally have much luck."
Dave had arrived a few months after Teddy, and he had become the incongruous third in a strange threesome. He had a high sense of propriety and responsibility, so his friendship with the other two was puzzled over. However, he did try to maintain a semblance of rank, and he usually managed to keep the other two from stepping too far over the line. For instance, Teddy never actually dared to use either Dave's or Ellie's first names, though he often called Dave "Lazure" instead of "Lieutenant Lazure," and Ellie was almost always just "Somers."
Traub said, "This reporter requested that he be able to speak to you all together while you were on duty, and I don't see the harm in it. I want everyone to help Lieutenant Commander Somers out."
"Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," Teddy sighed.
"He wants to talk to you too," Traub assured him.
"Really?" Teddy perked up, looking hopeful.
"He wants to know what it's like to fly with Somers."
Teddy's face was a comic picture of disappointment, but he recovered quickly. "That's an easy question to answer. Terrifying."
Traub pointed a stern finger at him. "None of that."
"You mean none of the truth," Dave muttered.
"How are all three of you on duty together, tonight of all nights? Did you rig the duty roster or something?" Traub said.
"Don't you believe in fate, sir?" Teddy asked.
"Then someone up there doesn't like me. At any rate, I think I've made myself clear. I'll go bring him in."
When the door shut behind the CO there was a moment of silence. Ellie sat back down by the radio, but she could feel Dave's stare without even looking. She tried ignoring it, but finally she turned and demanded, "What?"
"I was just wondering, why do you think this reporter wants to talk to you specifically?" Dave said.
Of course Ellie knew why, but it galled herboth the reason, and the fact that Dave felt the need to bring it up. Most of the time Dave's tirades didn't bother her… with the exception of this one subject: the special treatment she got because she was a woman. It was like getting a finger in the ribs in the exact place she'd been poked a million times before. It didn't hurt so much the first time or the second, but after the millionth it was sore as hell. If she'd thought about it she might have figured out that it had more to do with Dave than with her. They were the same age, had been in the service the same amount of time, and Ellie was a lieutenant commander while Dave was still a lieutenant. Dave was looking for excuses of his own, but all Ellie heard was the challenge to her ability, that old refrain she had been hearing ever since she could remember. She didn't show that it affected her; instead she did what she always didshe made a joke of it.
She said with a grin, "It's obvious why. 'Cause I can fly circles around all you boys."
Dave snorted. "Right."
"You think I can't? You don't want me to bring up what happened when we went down to Mobile for training last year, do you?"
"I didn't say I was better," he admitted, and Ellie felt a tinge of remorse for mentioning what she knew must be a painful subject. Dave had panicked during a test in the flight simulator. His confidence in his skills had suffered a blow, and he hadn't yet recovered.
However, Ellie didn't feel sorry for long because Dave said, "There's one man on this base that makes us all look like rookies. He's what I consider a real pilot, and don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about."
Ellie glared at him. This was one thing she had trouble making a joke about. The base was too small, she thought. You couldn't leave behind your mistakes. However, even if she couldn't joke about it, at least she didn't have to show Dave that he had scored a hit. She merely acknowledged, "I know who you're referring to."
"I don't know," Mike put in. They all looked at him, and there was a short silence before Dave answered.
"Sam's the best. Sam Pantano."
"Shame on you," Teddy said. "You know better than to say that name."
Dave defended himself, saying, "I don't believe in coddling people's feelings. I tell it like it is."
"Like it is?" Ellie said. "Give me a break. The truth is that your hero, Sam, hasn't got any guts. He's a textbook pilot."
"He's got the Distinguished Flying Cross," Dave countered. "Where's yours? Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. They don't give those out just because you happen to be a woman, do they?"
"Low blow," Teddy said, wincing in exaggerated pain.
But Ellie knew Dave had a point. They wouldn't show any favoritism in giving that medal out. It was the highest honor a Coast Guard pilot could be awarded. That's why she wanted it. If anything would prove that she was just as good as the boys, getting the DFC would do it.
"It's only a matter of time, Davey." She knew he hated it when she called him Davey. "I should have had it already for a couple of missions. The only reason I don't have one is that the stiffs up top love good little boys like Samsooo serious, sooo dedicated. Who do what they're told."
"No wonder they haven't given it to you," Teddy said. "You're not too good with that last part."
"Maybe you just haven't earned it," Dave suggested. "Ever think of that?"
She had thought of it, but she wasn't about to admit it. "Then why is this reporter coming across the country to talk to me?"
"You're right," Dave said. "As far as that reporter's concerned, you are the best pilot. The best female pilot." He didn't need to add that there wasn't a large supply to choose from.
Ellie gave him the finger and turned away, as if she were listening to the radio.
"You're pissed off because you know I'm right."
Ellie ignored him, but Teddy jumped into the fray. "Poor baby, nobody recognizes your genius and all because you have a"
The door opened and Traub said, "Mr. Whalen, come in and meet the crew."
The reporter stepped into the room behind Traub. They sized him up. The reporter wore new hiking boots, faded jeans, and a North Face jacket that cost as much as they made in a week. He reminded them of a world where you had more clothing choices than a flight suit, where work was done behind a desk, and where the biggest risk you took on a regular day was deciding whether to switch phone companies.
As they studied him, the reporter stared back. He saw two men with pool cues. One looked like a young Mickey Rooney. The other had a bushy moustache and lantern jaw and was goodlooking in the style of a seventies' movie star. There was a husky, cornfed kid with a blond crew cut against the wall, and then, in the armchair beyond the pool table, the only woman. He had expected a stern, masculine woman, squarefaced, shorthaired, and thinlipped to match the fact that she had what was usually a man's job. She wasn't very feminine in the sense that she wore no makeup and her shoulder length hair was raked back in a ponytail that looked a bit limp and greasy, but she had a wide heartshaped face, and her features were almost delicatean impression strengthened by the contrast between her dark hair and pale skin. However, there was nothing delicate about the broad grin he'd glimpsed briefly as he entered the room.
Traub made the introductions, pointing them out as he named them. "This is Petty Officer McDonald. He's a flight mechanic. And this here is Lieutenant Lazure, pilot. Over against the wall is a new addition to the team, Petty Officer Hoffman. He's a rescue swimmer. And finally, Lieutenant Commander Somers, pilot." He paused. "Well…" he clapped his hands together. "I guess I'll leave you all to talk. Let me know if you need anything else."
As he was leaving, Traub glanced at Ellie sitting by the radio, still listening to the broadcast. He frowned, caught her eye, and drew a finger across his throat. Reluctantly, she reached over and turned the radio off. Traub nodded approval and closed the door behind him.
The reporter fit his hands casually in his pockets and looked around the room. He had ten years of hardcore news reporting behind him, and even some wartime coverage. It was only recently he'd switched to magazines. He was getting more money, but he'd found that feature writing bored him. He missed the rush of the onthescene news, the deadlines, the immediacy of tragedy. Now he was doing feelgood fluff about some woman pilot out in the Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, who, it looked like, spent most of her time sitting around.
"You guys play a lot of pool?" he asked.
Teddy answered him, confessing, "I'm thinking of switching over to the professional circuit."
Dave explained. "We do a lot of waiting to get called out."
"How about you?" Whalen asked Ellie. "Do you play?"
"Only for money," Ellie said. "I'm not going to strike it rich in this job, so I need to supplement my income somehow."
"She could retire on the money she's won from me," Teddy said.
"I've beaten her," Dave told the reporter.
"Yeah, like once," Teddy added.
"Three times," Dave corrected.
"Out of how many?" Teddy asked.
Dave didn't answer.
"And you?" the reporter asked Mike, who stood silent against the wall.
"I just got transferred," Mike said. "But I could probably beat them if I wanted to."
"Oh really?" Teddy turned to look at him. "Is that why you've been here a month and haven't asked for winners? Because you didn't want to embarrass us? Do you want to humiliate him, or should I?" Teddy asked Dave.
"I'll flip you for it," Dave said.
"What about me?" Ellie demanded.
"You only play for money, remember?" Teddy said.
"I sometimes make an exception when there's an opportunity for extreme embarrassment."
"I'll take you all on," Mike said.
"There we go." Teddy clapped in appreciation. "Those are the qualities we like in a rescue swimmer."
"And what are those?" Whalen asked dutifully, taking out his notepad.
"A little bit of bravery and a big serving of stupidity," Teddy replied.
"Stupidity?" Whalen said. "Why stupidity? Where does that get you?"
"Dead," Dave interrupted. "Don't listen to Teddy. He likes to run off at the mouth."
The reporter was interested in this line of discussion. "Does that happen often?" he ventured. "I mean do you lose a lot of people in your line of work?"
"More than we'd like," Dave answered evasively.
The reporter tried again. "One is more than anyone would like," he pointed out, trying to elicit more information.
But Dave simply said, "Exactly."
Whalen figured he wasn't getting much out of the guy with the moustache. He turned to the new kid. "Have you been on an S.A.R.?" When he asked the question, he spelled out the three letters that stood for "search and rescue."
"You don't spell it out. You say ‘SAR,' like it's a word," Mike told him. "And no, not yet. There've been a few calls, but they've mostly been medevacs. We also had to deliver some pumps to a fishing boat that'd grounded, causing flooding in the ship's lazarette, but you don't need a rescue swimmer for any of those."
"So do you think you'll be going out tonight?"
All four looked toward the window, the rain still beating against the glass. He'd asked the question that had been on all their minds since the storm blew in.
"Maybe," Mike said.
"And when you get called out, do you ever think that this time might be the time that you don't come back?"
There was another uncomfortable silence, but Ellie saved them this time. She said, "Doesn't make a difference. You have to go out…"
The other three joined in to finish the sentence with her, "…but you don't have to come back." They all shared grins, even Dave.
"Sort of a motto," Dave said. "Unofficial, of course."
"Sounds more like a death wish than a motto," Whalen observed. "What actually happens when you get called out? I mean, how do you know that there's an emergency?"
The reporter was looking at Ellie, hoping she would answer, but it was Dave who spoke again.
"Well, the distress call comes into the command center in Juneau, and they check the position. If it's in our area, they call our operations center and"
They heard the click of the speaker systems switching on. Their ears had become so attuned that they were all moving toward the door before the first rising note of the whoopee. Just as the first wail was dying away, the announcement came over the intercom, "Put the ready helo on the line. Put the ready helo on the line."
"That's how," Teddy said over his shoulder as he headed out.
"Wait, where…" but they were out of the room before the reporter could finish his question, and not one of them, despite their unofficial motto, considered the possibility they might not come back.