Helo by Night
Staff Sergeant Miller drops me off at the terminal at four forty-five. I’ve just woken up from a jetlag-induced afternoon sleep and still feel groggy, my eyeballs par-boiled. The tent is large and cylindrical and the dozen people there seem half-comatose themselves. I collapse onto a seat and try to read some of the great gonzoist but can’t keep my eyes open. I don’t know enough about the 1972 election cycle to follow what he’s saying anyways.
An hour and a half later they call us up and we slug into our flak jackets and helmets and stumble in a line through the door. There are no other civilians on this flight, a first for me. Usually at least a contractor or two, which pretty much everyone takes me for most of the time. It is already full dark.
Two dim green lights drift in through the black and the whum of their blades is soft and rippling at first. As they come closer it takes on a jagged edge and they come down in scrolls of dim grey dust just behind a blast wall. I stare at the straps of the marine’s pack in front of me. We stand shuffling gently in our line of silhouettes and you can smell the dust rising and mixed within it a thin bright trace of fuel.
I think I am imagining things when the whum grows louder and more chopped, like a lawnmower sawing at a pile of old leathers. Surely they can’t be flying so low but how else would they approach us. The noise is deafening and I take my ear plugs from my pocket and dig them into my ears and still it seems to fill the world.
The sergeant waves and the head of the line begins to trot forward. We cross the tarmac and now I can see that of course the helicopters have wheels, somehow the idea of landing pontoons had seemed so ingrained in the Platonic ideal of helicopter taught to me by so many Hollywood blockbusters that it never occurred to me. But these are enormous beasts, no traffic monitors but brawny hybrids of helicopter and fighter jet with carapaces bubbled and sleek and grey.
The marines waste no time on runways. We stand in the wind of their still-spinning blades while forklifts unload pallets in the puddles of their yellow headlamps and when the last is still being lifted we are sent jogging forward in our file to clamber up the ramp.
I am second last and add my bags to the piled column down the center and unfold a seat against the wall. The bulk of our flak jackets makes it hard to fit but no-one seems to mind the jostling and I find my seatbelt and clip in. In its guts the helicopter is all steel girders and bundles of wiring like nerves that twist from wall to wall. At the fore I can see through to the cockpit and its sea of glowing green instruments. It reminds me of those documentaries of the phosphorescent deep where jellyfish swarm by the hundred thousand.
A crewman checks links and settings as we sit rocking back and forth as though all perched on an enormous washing machine. The helicopters begin to taxi and we roll out to the airstrip with the ramp still down and the crewman perched at its edge with a safety strap around his armpits, gazing through a scope into the receding darkness. The lights inside blink out and the darkness suddenly catches up and swallows the helicopter’s insides whole.
Every marine inside has turned their head to gaze out the open ramp. The camp we are leaving glows like a city and the second helicopter behind us pulls up so close I worry that our blades will cross and send each other shearing through the night in howls and flame. Something strange begins to happen to its landing gear, the nose rises—adjusting, I think, we had been tilted forwards—but then the wheel strut buckles down then up again, coltish, and the read struts do the same and it looks as though the pilot is drunk and I realize he is trying to take off.
He is taking off as are we, our ramp still open to the night air, and I grin like a child. I had hoped they might but never thought they would. The crewman is still crosslegged at the lip and seems unperturbed by the wild bucking of our steed. Both beasts rise to a few feet wobbling still and I worry at the lack of stability but then their engines kick out strong and we ascend.
It is unearthly. I stare out the open maw at the world tilting and receding beneath us and feel like a spirit risen. The camp dwindles and vanishes to one side and what was fields and fences becomes an endless, enormous ocean, the color of a dying turtle and dotted by the sparse electric stars of a universe on its last legs. Scale becomes absurdity; ridgelines a mile wide seem like wavelets, we have passed into some other earth built for giants in which time passes infinitely slow.
Helmand has few lights at night. There are none of the suburban constellations and glowing highway gridworks I have seen when flying from airports in the west. It is all darkness and there is no horizon so it is difficult to tell what is star and what is lonely outpost in the nighttime earth. I admire the crewman’s fearlessness. I thought myself a courageous one for heights but for him to sit so calmly on the lip of a kilometer of air with no parachute on his back seems closer to a madness.
The moon gives just enough glow through the desert’s haze to make out the largest landforms. We all turn our heads and watch them slide by. No one speaks; if they did no one would hear between the earplugs and the growling of the engines that has taken up its place inside our bones.
The night is very calm. I could stay up here for hours. A cool breeze pushes at my neck from an open side door near the cockpit, which is good because under my flak jacket and normal jacket and wool fleece and t-shirt I have grown quite hot.
Something moves sudden and fast as an arrow from near the cockpit, towards the open stern. Small and dark and flittish like a bat. It pauses, just a foot in front of the crewman’s face, at the lip of the void and the great dark motionless ocean. A scrap of paper, caught and curling upwards between the currents. Then it is caught, flicks forward and is gone.
I think about that descent. Slow twists and curls and upward swoops, a pattern long and complex as a ribbon of lightning. We come in lower now and the unmarked desert turns to field, long straight lines where irrigation canals mark this farm from that one and here or there the dark black smudge of a compound. I had not realized how fast we travel. They appear and vanish before there is time to count them.
As we come in to land the crewman swings his legs over the edge like a child eager to be off the ski lift. I worry for him. What if we come in at the wrong angle. Would his feet be crushed. But we do not and before the helicopter has even settled he leaps from it and begins waving over forklifts with new pallets for he and his pilots to ferry. We unbuckle and grab our bags and hop down from the ramp and I nearly roll my ankle. A marine from this base waves us over with a flashlight and we trudge across a field of stones the size of skulls.
What was on that slip of paper. Has it landed yet. Will some farmer find it, leading his donkey before the plough across his fields. Will he sell it to the insurgency or save it as a keepsake or perhaps use it to help light a fire some cold winter night. Stranger still that after falling alone through all those empty darkened and airy leagues, it will land whole and unharmed.