The Dragon and Me: How I Quit Smoking and Survived The Bomb

AT SEA, TUESDAY, 20:00 HOURS: Smoking a last cigarette before turning in I called the Messenger of the Watch on the bridge. “This is Petty Officer Sterling,” I said, “in compartment Bravo-37-87. I need a wake-up call at 03:30 tomorrow morning.”

“Why so early?” the messenger asked. “You got some early lookout?”

“Yes,”I lied.

Then I called Corporal Durum of the ship’s Marine Corps detachment. “I need the usual guard at the Special Weapons room at 04:00 tomorrow.”

“Till when?”

“About 04:40.”

“And who’ll be with you?”

“Seaman Henderson.”

“Very well.”

The marines never ask why, they just do. I had made these arrangements because I had to take the Dragon’s temperature. Periodically, we in the missile battery had to measure the temperature and humidity of the nuclear warhead magazine, and it was my turn. We usually did it in the wee hours because the Dragon’s presence on board was top secret. I was taking Ricky Henderson with me because a nuke magazine is a No Lone Zone; the Two-Man Rule is in effect. No one is supposed to be left alone with the Dragon.

WEDNESDAY, 04:00 HOURS: We arrived at the special weapons room door and found the two marines already posted; their boots, buckles, and weapons gleaming. We showed them our access passes, pinned on our film badges, and signed the log. They passed us through the portal, and the door closed behind us. No one else would enter.

“You really need me to go down with you?” Ricky asked.

“Nah. Stay here and read your skin mag. Just don’t answer the phone if it rings. And don’t make any noise.”

We moved the office desk and exposed the scuttle – a small circular hatch just wide enough to allow a man to pass through. Pausing to remember, I dialed the combination on the lock, opened the scuttle, and looked down the shaft that sank three decks to another locked scuttle. Beneath that lay the magazine, three fathoms below the waterline, at the very bottom of the ship.

I slipped down the hole, and Ricky closed the scuttle after me. Descending, the hard soles of my safety shoes rang on the flat steel rungs of the ladder, echoing in the shaft. Only a dim shaft of light from an electric lantern shone from above. By the time I reached the next scuttle, I was in half-darkness. I noticed that the roll of the ship was reversed now, indicating that I was below its fulcrum, the waterline. The scuttle had been battened down tightly and I had to use a dogging wrench, a lever, to break the closures. Straining, I lifted the heavy portal and eye-squinting light shot through the hole, driving a column of it up the shaft like a fountain. I held my face over the streaming light for a moment to adjust my eyes, and then dropped down inside.

Everything was white: the deck, the bulkheads, the overhead, the lights, the fixtures…and the warheads.  All were white, white, white; pure white, cold white, death white. Melville would have known this shade of white. Twenty-four nuclear warheads rested in two rows of six on the port side and two rows of six on the starboard with a four-foot-wide aisle between them. Each one was lying on its side in a steel cradle frame, strapped in with a steel belt. They looked like eggs, three-foot-long eggs, Embryos of the Apocalypse. A few of them had thick, black electrical monitoring cables snaking out of their aft ends, giving them the look of huge spermatozoa, perhaps the gametes of Mr. Melville’s leviathan.

I stood at one end of the aisle and regarded them for a moment. Then I listened to the silence. A warship is usually a noisy place. Engines  thrum, chains clank, men shout, machines whir, and wind and wave sing their song or roar their anger. But the magazine was a quiet place. The only sound was the soft whisper of the water slipping past the hull a fraction of an inch below my feet. And although Death slumbered here, it was not the quiet of the grave. This was a womb. This was a holy place. The End of the World slept here. This was Destruction’s chapel, and we were his altar boys. At the other end of the aisle, a shelf jutted out from the wall. On it lay the open, black-bound logbook. Above the shelf, like two candles mounted on the wall, were the thermometer and the humidity gauge; a pulpit for this worshipful cure of nukes.

Walking down the aisle to take my readings, I stopped at warhead number W-18. It was a tactical device, small by nuclear standards, its power in the kiloton range. In it were half, maybe three-quarters of a million kills. A Nagasaki. I ran my hand over its perfect, seamless skin. It was smooth like pearl and perfectly symmetrical. The thing was superbly designed to slice through the atmosphere at two and a half times the speed of sound at the tip of a surface-launched guided missile, one that even I might be called upon to fire. I admired the magnificent craftsmanship, the skill, the talent, the care – yes, even the love that had gone into the making of so perfect an artifact. “Who are the gnomes,” I wondered, “who hammer away in the secret smithies of Bendix and the nuclear agencies? And what should they be called? Armorers? No, too archaic and not powerful enough. Nuclear Device Technicians? No, too clinical. Death Smiths? Yes, that’s what they are, Death Smiths.”

I took my readings, and as I was writing them in the log I noticed a bit of ash at my feet. I picked it up and smelled. Correli and Morgan had been smoking dope in here again. I checked the electronics aperture in the rear of a few warheads to see if they had stashed their supply in one. It was, after all, the safest place board. The only people besides us Missile Men that even knew this place existed were the captain and a few of his officers, none of whom ever came here.

My search yielded a pack of Salem cigarettes (had to be Arnie’s; he was the only one who smoked them), a lighter, and a deck of cards. Some of the guys liked to play cards here.  They would place a board across two of the warheads, then sit on the adjacent ones. Arnie always made it a point to fart on the one he sat on. He said it was how he showed his “contempt for war.” A.K. Douglas and Ricky Henderson would rub their groins against a couple of Doomsday’s Children and then pretend that they “glowed at the gonads.” They’d say things like, “Look out wimmen! Nuclear love!” or “Ooh! A 120-kiloton orgasm , comin’ at ya. Yahoo! Measure my virility on the Geiger counter.”

I pocketed the goods, took one last look at my charges, and ascended, out of the light, through the darkness, and up to the light again. Ricky and I closed and locked the scuttle and replaced the desk that covered it. We secured the room and notified the corporal of the guard that he could dismiss his two marines. On Friday we would return. In obedience to the faraway councils of naval command, our ship would rendezvous under cover of darkness with an ammunition ship at some secret point on the map of the Philippine Sea. There we would haul Death’s Cocoons out of their chamber, pack them in individual drums, and send them by the highline across the water to the other ship. A very delicate operation. What a time for me to quit smoking.

*****

WEDNESDAY, 10.00 HOURS: After breakfast we met in the Missile House to confer on the warhead movement. We assigned stations and duties to every man: magazine, ammunition lift, topside, and so on. We would prepare the goods for shipment, then turn them over, one at a time, to the chief bosun’s mate and his deck crew for highlining.

During a highline operation, two ships, displacing, say, fifteen thousand tons each, steam alongside each other, close enough for crews to yell out to each other when they see old buddies on the opposite deck. When the ships are in position, a bosun on one vessel fires a shotline to the other. The shotline gun is like a shoulder-held flare gun. It fires a tennis-ball-sized wad of compressed nylon cord trailing a slender, white line. It looks like a big, white tadpole, or a sperm cell. The men on the other ship dodge the speeding head and grab for its tail. When both crews have a hold on the line, one crew ties a heavy line and a smaller line to it. The other then pulls the two lines back across. The heavy line is wrapped around a pulley on each ship, and ten to twenty men grasp it at each end, as though in a giant tug of war.  As the ships roll and pitch, straining or slackening the highline, the men pay it out and haul it in, keeping a constant tension on it. A hook and pulley are hung from the highline, the smaller line is tied to that, and both crews can pull it back and forth like clothes on a line. You can hang anything from the hook: pallets, drums, bags, people, even a flexible pipeline to carry fuel or water; or as the navy saying goes:”Beans, bullets, and black oil.”

Highlining is a complex and delicate dance in which every man and machine has to perform without error. Even the elements have to cooperate. Crosscurrents, rogue waves, or sudden gusts of wind can carry as much disaster as faulty mechanisms, inattention on deck, or a twitch in the helmsman’s arm. Ships that carry bands usually muster them on deck and have them play during highlining. It’s a tradition, and it calms nerves.

On one memorable occasion we were alongside a thirty-thousand-ton replenishment ship. She suddenly lost command of her rudder, and it jammed left. The movement ripped apart the highline tackle and threw its handlers to the deck. She bore down on our starboard side like a moving mountain of grey painted steel. Many of our men ran like hell for the port side. On the flying bridge, the Captain and his seventeen-year-old-phone-talker stood fast as the runaway monster loomed. Relaying orders to helm and engine room through the cherub-faced phone-talker, the Captain masterfully conned the ship out of danger. Everyone one deck cheered. It was a very close call, as the two ships nearly kissed. We liked to say that the plucky young phone-talker’s beard grew out the next day.

WEDNESDAY, 21:00 HOURS: That evening I lay out on the main deck near the anchor chains, smoking.  The month was July, and we were in tropic seas. The wind was abaft, about the same speed we were making, so the relative air drifted slowly. The moonless sky was clear but dazzling with stars that swung back and forth with the slow rolls of the ship. They glistened and twinkled as if alive, inviting me to linger. The ship yawed, and the stars spun on the axis of the zenith, as though changing partners in a cosmic dance. I heard the splash of flying fish as they leaped out of the water and raced ahead of the prow. The warm and fecund smell of the sea spoke its countless living things. And the ship, as all good ships, felt alive with the low thrum of her engines and her quickening shivers as she met the sea swells. The bitter smoke of my cigarette smelled of ashes and death.

I had been smoking since my early teens, and I was thoroughly addicted to tobacco.  I smoked two packs of cigarettes a day while aboard ship and up to three ashore where I had plenty of beer to cool my burning throat. In the mornings, I lit up before heaving out of my rack, and it was the last thing I did at night before getting into it. I smoked between courses in restaurants, and I smoked before and after sex. I smoked in my dreams.

For the last year my health had been deteriorating. I couldn’t walk far without wheezing badly. I often had a cold. Lately my heart had been “fibrillating,” as the doctor said. To me, it felt like an engine freezing up for lack of oil, trying to continue but stripping bearings in the effort. I was always tired. I took up cigars and a pipe to wean myself away from cigarettes, but I ended up smoking those and cigarettes. I would smoke a satisfying eight-inch Manila cigar and as soon as it was out I would light up a butt. Like most smokers, I had already quit many times – but only long enough to know what nicotine withdrawal was like. Ricky Henderson would laugh and say, “Anybody can quit smoking, but it takes a real man to face up to cancer.” I feared I wouldn’t live long enough to face cancer.

I knew, I had known, and on this starry night I accepted, that I would die of tobacco if I did not forswear it. I held my cigarette close to my face and gazed at the blushing ember. I did not want to quit smoking. I loved tobacco. My body demanded it. I loved the mellow tar and honey smell of cured pipe tobacco and cigars. A cigarette in my hand fiddling with it, rolling it between my fingers, had the same effect on me as worry beads in the hand of an Arab. I loved to take a great lungful from a Marlboro and then let the smoke curl slowly out of my nostrils and form a wispy, gray wreath around my head. After smoking, I often smelled my hands, and they smelled good to me.

Tobacco soothed, like a friend. It was sharp and pungent and masculine and familiar, a constant companion. And sucking on the instrument, whether pipe or cigar or cigarette, was as good as nursing at a breast. A good cigar was better than a kiss. “A woman is only a woman,” Kipling wrote,” but a good cigar is a smoke.” With the effusive and aromatic stem of a pipe, I could tease the nerve endings of my mouth as well any lover’s tongue. And it would never say no. Tobacco was another kind of Dragon, and we had each other by the throat.

But this Lover/Dragon would kill me. I would consume me even as I consumed it. And all the fine nights of dancing stars would be darkened and made void. I reached for the metal navy-issue ash receptacle, the kind that looks like a funnel set into the top of a beer can. I looked at my glowing Marlboro one more time. Without taking another puff, I crushed it out against the side of the funnel, smashing its cherry head into tiny sparkles that sifted down into the hole and disappeared. The crinkled butt followed. “That’s the last one, I said lowly. I did not feel very good.

I told no one I was quitting. If I did there would always be some asshole who would blow smoke at me and say, “Sure you won’t have one?” I went to the berthing compartment, let down my rack, and crawled in. I was hoping I might sleep through the worst of the withdrawal. Since I had already been up since 03.30, I managed to force myself to sleep, but not without my head beginning to buzz for want of nicotine.

THURSDAY 20:00 HOURS All day I fought off thoughts of smoking. Every time my hunger for tobacco gnawed, I found something to do, something to read, someone to talk to, something to eat, something to think about. Repeatedly throughout the day I automatically reached into my empty shirt pocket for a cigarette. Several people offered me one, and I made excuses. By evening all my mental energies were occupied with keeping my thoughts away from smoking. My eyes began to blink spasmodically; I had vague, unpleasant contrary feelings, like the cold chills that accompany a high fever. I felt at once drowsy, as though from barbiturates, and wired awake with amphetamines. I felt no single discernible physical sensation and yet I felt profound discomfort. I went wearily to bed, hoping for and dreading my smoky dreams.

FRIDAY, 02:00 HOURS: Typhoon Sally had been running a course parallel to ours. By midnight she had shifted our way and soon engulfed us. I awoke with the sea change. I assumed the highline operation would be rescheduled due to the rough weather. Just sending a pallet load of groceries over a calm sea is risky enough business. But to sling a thousand pounds of Doomsday under a single line in the midst of a gale would be folly, I thought. I went back to my feverish sleep, and dreamed of tobacco.

FRIDAY, 04:00 HOURS: A messenger woke me up. I was in a sweat, both from the weather and from withdrawal. The brass had decided to go ahead with the operation. We were keeping to the edge of the storm where the winds and the seas were lower. The weather would give us the cover the brass wanted for what was, after all, a secret operation. The deck crew boasted some of the finest practical seamen in the navy. They wouldn’t know what they were transferring, and they wouldn’t ask, but they were confident they could do the job. They respected Howling Sally, but they did not fear her.

FRIDAY, SUNRISE: The winds and seas were high, the temperature a steamy eighty degrees when the ammo ship hove into view. She was coming up from behind us, her fat prow plowing through white water and rain. The eye of her blinker fluttered on the signal bridge, telling us to keep steady, and she would come alongside. She moved gradually through the froth, giving us a coy, wide berth at first. Our ship drove its prow into a wave, shipped eleven tons of water and hurled it skyward in a tower of spume.

We, and the opposite crew, stood on deck and watched each other through the twilight and flying foam. We watched to gauge the roll and yaw of the two ships to see how closely they would swing toward each other in the sea’s churning. The ammo ship yawed and swung her stern teasingly away and then dangerously toward us. We adjusted our courses to put the oncoming sea more closely behind us to even out our keels. Gingerly rolling, yawing and pitching, the two big ships eased closer together, narrowing the froth between them.

When the two ship masters judged that they were as close as they dared, they gave the signal. Our bosun stood on the rolling deck and aimed his shotline sang out. It streaked across the abyss and draped itself over the deck. A perfect shot – the bosun had laid his line right between her stacks. The two ships were coupled. If all went well, they would remain in their tenuous, thrashing embrace until the one had emptied its terrible seed into the other. The deck crew sprang to their tasks. The marine guards took up their posts. We, the Missile Men, struck below.

We prized opened the warhead magazine. We opened up the ammunition lift shaft that ran from topside all the way down to the magazine. A squad of our men took the lift topside and rolled out the specially designed, nondescript-looking drums that would each hold one nuke. Three men handled the lift. Others stood by as runners and relief. Gunner Cassidy, Ricky Henderson, and I manned the magazine.

The end of a seesaw travels much farther than that part closer to its fulcrum. A rolling, pitching ship is like two see saws, one across the other, with its fulcrum in the middle at the waterline. The farther from the middle, and the farther from the waterline, the more travel when the ship rolls or pitches. The magazine was as far down from the waterline as it could be. And it wasn’t very close to the middle. That day the magazine traveled like some nightmarish amusement park ride. It could have been mocked up as a huge box of dice being shaken and tumbled by a gambling titan: “Come ride the Giant Nuclear Crapshoot.

Our first task was to attach the warheads’ nose cones. Each warhead comes equipped with two, and while in storage, they are bolted to the rear of the cradle. For launch or transit, one is removed and attached to the leading end of the head. In transit the spare is packed along in the drum. The nose cones are extremely sharp and smooth, as they are designed for supersonic flight. If a man were to fall on one, it would pierce like a spear. The task of attaching them was simple, but I had a hard time concentrating. My nicotine withdrawal was fast approaching its worst stage.

After the nose cone attachment, we began the warhead movement. To facilitate this, the ceiling of the magazine was crisscrossed with slotted tracks. The central track ran fore and aft down the center of the room. Branching out from the central track ran shorter ones. They each hung over warhead locations. Into the slotted track we fitted a hoist that we could slide to a position over any single warhead. Once the hoist was in position, we could unbolt the steel strap that held the nuke down, lower the hoist, pick up the monster, and slide it over to the lift shaft. There we could transfer it to the lift, send it topside and the men there would secure it in its drum. The drum would be rolled out past a cordon of marines and highlined to the ammo ship, which was named after a volcano – I won’t say which one.

Ricky and I took ratchets and began to unbolt the strap of the first warhead. Gunner handled the hoist. A buzzing sound penetrated my ears. It circled counterclockwise around my brain and made me dizzy. The dizziness moved like a slow current down to my stomach and nausea flickered; the nicotine withdrawal was taking my sea legs.

“How embarrassing,” I thought. “They’ll razz me for sure.” A seasick sailor is like a cowboy afraid of horses. A slow fire burned in my lungs and they demanded nicotine to quench it. I took huge breaths and held them, hoping to fool my lungs into accord, rose up to my face and covered my nose. I sniffed hungrily for the aroma of tobacco, but smelled only soap.

We loosened the bolts, and through the buzzing sound in my head the ratchets sent their raspy clicking. The hoist whined when Gunner lowered it. The hooks clattered as we attached them to the warhead. The hoist whined again, the chain rattled as the little behemoth arose from its resting place. It cleared the cradle, and Gunner stopped the hoist. The inchoate thing hung three feet off the moving deck, smooth and white – its nose cone glistening. Its nose bobbed up and down slightly, like a hound picking up a scent. It began to swing, straining at its chain leash, a dog of war eager to be let slip. But we were taking this one to kennel.

We drew it out to the middle track. In my distractions and dizziness, I failed to note the arc of the warhead’s swing. The ship gave a roll. The heavy weapon swung my way. The tip of the nose cone hit me in the right thigh, just below the hip, all one thousand pounds of its terrible weight concentrated behind that one, tiny point. It pierced the skin to an eighth of an inch, and withdrew. Blood seeped from the wound and made a purple stain on blue cotton trouser cloth.

We regained control of the weapon and slid it to the forward bulkhead. We slipped it onto the lift and secured it, then sent it topside. The process took about ten minutes. Twenty three warheads to go.

“Is that a ‘Broken Arrow’?” Ricky joked. That was one of the code words we were to use in the event of an accident. “Broken Arrow,” if we dropped a warhead and cracked it open; “Bent Spear,” if we just dropped it. Who in blazes thinks up these code words, anyway?

Ricky and Gunner walked easily by me on fluid sea legs, their bodies never deviating from the vertical, as though they were hung from gimbals. I steadied myself by grasping onto protruding nose cones and followed. We worked mechanically for a long time, one weapon following another and another and another. In the process I got stabbed again, this time in the left leg. It was a glancing blow, leaving more bruise than wound, but it tore my trouser leg. I didn’t think about it. I couldn’t think about anything except standing up straight on a heaving deck and the maddening craving for a smoke. A smoker’s longing for tobacco is like thirst – insistent, unceasing, and steadily worse. I swallowed repeatedly, hoping to satisfy the clutching in my throat. I clenched my teeth and bit down hard. I pinched myself. I sweated. My eyes ran. I sucked in air like a man who could get none. I suffered, goddamn it.

As we were setting another warhead into the ammo lift, I heard a loud sophomoric giggle from above. I looked up the shaft to the next deck and saw A.K. Douglas, Ricky Henderson’s “nuclear love” mate from Arkansas with a silly grin on his face. He had just opened his fly and was shaking his “glowing gonads” at us. “You want some of this?” he asked with a “Yuck,yuck,yuck.” He was inordinately proud of his tool, and I have to admit it could take your breath away seeing it for the first time. It hung in elephantine fatness halfway to his knees, and the bulbous crimson head resembled nothing as much as a big meaty strawberry, ready for plucking.

A.K. never referred to his unit as his penis or his tool or any of the many Anglo-Saxon appellations for the male equipment. He called it “the Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry.” And he never said he made love to a woman, or fucked a woman, or enjoyed female embraces. He always said, “I took her to bed, you know, and then I give her the Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry. And she liked it real good, too. Yuck, yuck.” He always made a sharp jabbing motion with his arm when he said, “I give her the Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry,” and he ejaculated the words rather than spoke them.

As I stood there looking up the shaft in my misery he repeated, “You want some of the Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry there, Petty Officer Dick? It’s nukified. Yuck, yuck.” Ordinarily I would have made some pat remark, like “Don’t point that thing at me when you don’t know how to use it.” Then he would have proudly holstered his gun having once again demonstrated its mighty caliber and that would have been that. But I had no sense of humor at the moment. And A.K. saw I had no sense of humor. He wagged the Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry at me every time I brought a nuke to the shaft. I knew if I told him to zip up and shut up it would just encourage him.

So I began to think about strawberries. I thought about my grandmother cutting them up to make jam. I thought about the robins and other birds that used to peck at the strawberries we grew at home in Mendocino, California. Their sharp little beaks left deep wounds in the flesh, which turned an unappetizing brown. My frustration with A.K. began to subside. Finally, I thought about the piña coladas and margaritas I had seen bartenders make with strawberries – how they whipped and beat them in a blender till they were reduced to a blood-red puree. In my mind, I concocted such a cocktail, and called it an Ol’ Arkansas Strawberry. My agitation with A.K. disappeared and he noticed and finally repackaged himself. I was free to go back to being merely miserable.

Halfway through the operation, word came down from topside to hold up for a while. Packing a warhead is not simply a matter of sticking it in a drum and putting a lid on it. Everything has to be done by the book, and it takes time. We were stacking them up, and they didn’t want them rolling around on deck.

“Jesus Christ, let’s put some hustle on it and get this thing over with,” Ricky bitched. Gunner calmly sat down on an empty cradle. I, wobbly at the knees, made my way over to W-18, the small tactical device, sank to the deck next to it, and lay my head against its smooth side. I held on to the cradle to steady myself and curled my knees up to my chest.

“You seasick, Dickie?” Gunner asked with some surprise. Still, no one knew.

“Uh huh,” I moaned.

“Ha!” Ricky hooted. “What a nonhacker. Ho ho.”

I didn’t care. I was, indeed, a little queasy, though I wouldn’t call it  mal de mer. I was just plain miserable. A taut string ran inside my skull from top to the bottom. At one end a screw turned and with each passing minute tightened that strainful cord. It was now so tight it began to sing in a piercing, painful note. The ship kept rolling. The deck rose and fell. I pressed my head against the bulbous Death of a City and hung on.

We had had no breakfast that morning. Because it was so early, we hadn’t bothered. Somebody sent down a couple boxes of C rations to snack on. They were the kind where all the food comes in a can: canned meat, canned vegetables, canned fruit, canned pound cake, canned bread, canned peanut butter and jelly and canned crackers. Also a pack of instant coffee and sugar, six matches, one stick of gum, a little P-38 can opener, a wad of toilet paper, and a pack of three cigarettes, all packaged in olive drab. “You want anything, Dick?” Gunner asked, as he and Ricky went through the contents.

“Nah, I’m not hungry,” I said through a now-snotty nose. I sniffed and thought about those three cigarettes. The string in my head strained to perilously near the breaking point.

Well, here. Take these then,” Gunner said. From one of the boxes he handed me two thick, round soda crackers – the kind you’d see in a cracker barrel.

“Ha!” Ricky yelped again. “Nonhacker!” Nibbling on a soda cracker is a remedy for ordinary seasickness. Gunner was doing me a kindness in giving them to me, but still it was embarrassing.

Determined to put my best face forward, I said, “Well, gimme the goddamn peanut butter then, too!” Gunner handed me the flat can of peanut butter, three inches in diameter and three-quarters of an inch high.

With shaky hands I unfolded the can opener and removed the lid. The roasted peanut smell rushed into my nose. The roasted, slightly burned, almost smoky smell filled my nostrils and half-clogged nasal passages with a swirling cloud of relief. To my smoke-starved senses the rich, mellow, sometimes sweet aroma was almost like pipe tobacco. I sucked it in like snuff. I snorted it like cocaine. Like a diver who breaks the surface after staying too long under water, I gulped in the smell as though it were life-giving air.

With a forefinger, I dug into the peanut butter and scooped out a gob. I scraped it off onto my lower teeth. With my tongue, I maneuvered it to the middle of my mouth and pressed it against my palate, gluing my mouth closed. A buzzing, tingling feeling spread through my lips, as though sensation were returning after a long absence. As I breathed, the air in my windpipe moved past the back of my tongue and picked up the roasty, toasty aroma and channeled it back and forth through my nose. With my tongue, I smeared the peanut butter in circles against the roof of my mouth, melting it, dissolving it, driving it into my taste buds, and intensifying the flavor and making my salivary glands gush. The whining string in my head eased ever so slightly.

I used one of the crackers as a knife to scoop out the peanut butter and spread it on the other cracker. I put the two crackers together and made a thick sandwich. I took a crunchy, creamy bite. I held it in my mouth and sucked on it like the end of a good cigar. In time it dissolved into a starchy, sticky paste, which I tucked into my cheek like a great pinch of Copenhagen snuff. That one bite lasted several minutes. It didn’t satisfy any of my body’s craving for nicotine. It didn’t quench the fire in my lungs, nor still the buzzing in my ears. But it gave me just enough of a tobacco-like sensory fix to keep the brain string from snapping. It would be my Marlboro sandwich; my Nuclear Marlboro sandwich.

I sat there holding the cradle with one hand and my pacifier with the other. I heard Gunner and Ricky start to work again. They let me sit it out for a while. Finally, they came over my way. Standing over W-18, Gunner said, “It’s time for this thing to go.” I took another chaw of my plug and stuck the remainder into my shirt pocket. I chomped down hard and pulled myself up. I took a moment to steady myself, then held out an open hand to Ricky who handed me a ratchet. I took a strain on one of the strap bolts and broke it free. We uncradled W-18, hoisted it out, and sent it topside. We continued working, and I kept a piece of my Nuclear Marlboro sandwich in my mouth at all times, making sure to pass the aroma through my nasal passages often. Sometime during the remaining hour or so of the operation, I got nipped again by the Great White Beast, in the right knee. It hurt and it bled but I ignored it as best I could.

When we had sent the last of the Dragon’s children topside, we unhooked the hoist and put it in the lift to send it to its storage place above. I was about to activate the lift when Gunner said, “Dick, you look like death warmed over. Go ahead and ride up with the hoist. Get those punctures on your legs bandaged. Me and Ricky’ll secure.

“Thanks, Gunner,” I said, and climbed into the lift and sat down next to the hoist. As I reached for the “Up” button, Ricky got in one last jibe.

“Just a nonhacker,” he said grinning. “Just a nonhacker. Ha!”

“Oh yeah?” I challenged him, indicating the three bloody spots on my trousers. “How many guys do you know who have been wounded three times by nuclear weapons and lived to brag about it? I punched the button and rose up. And I never smoked again.

fire_s

Comments are closed.