This story and format probably require a little explanation. During a course at Hopkins, I was exposed to George Saunders for the first time and was to to write a story that mimicked the setup from one of his books.

If the format looks odd or is hard to read, I apologize. This was my first attempt at this.

The story below is an account of how I found out about the attacks of September 11, 2001. I was onboard USS Constellation (CV 64) and we’d just left Pearl Harbor the night before. We were on our way back to San Diego with 2,000 civilians onboard for a Tiger Cruise.

My name is the only real last name here. Every other last name here is fictional.

On Watch

I watched, closely, as Machinist’s Mate Fireman Hughes examined the plastic label plate on the handwheel of the fuel oil suction valve for one of the four massive tanks of diesel fuel that my two boilers could feed from. I watched, even more closely, as Hughes verified the number on the label plate against the number listed on the laminated page of the procedure titled “Shifting Fuel Oil Suction-SFOS”. Once the both of us were completely satisfied, Fireman Hughes placed his hands on the handwheel and began opening the valve, turning the bright yellow handwheel counter-clockwise until it stopped, the disc inside the valve body seated tightly against the bonnet. Hughes looked at me and gave the handwheel a quarter turn clockwise, unseating the valve so that it could be closed quickly in an emergency. With that step complete, and the boiler on a full tank, Hughes repeated the procedure in reverse for the nearly empty tank, closing the valve for the empty tank very slowly. This was the delicate part. We knew that. When shifting suction, it was always possible that the pumps were still drawing fuel from the tank you were getting ready to isolate. If that was the case, and you closed the valve too quickly, the boiler would abruptly run out of fuel. So, you closed the expended tank in super slow motion, an almost cartoonish process that took minutes from your life and induced bouts of paranoia. That’s what we were suffering from right now as Hughes rotated the handwheel clockwise and we both watched the fuel oil pressure gage mounted just above the suction manifold.

Three turns left. Still good.

Two turns remaining. Good.

Last turn. Good.

Closed. Done.

I patted Hughes on the shoulder and climbed up a ladder to the upper level of the fire room, heading around the screaming high-pressure steam turbines used to drive the massive aircraft carrier through the ocean and into the control booth. Once there, I picked up the phone and called Central Control, a space nearly one-hundred yards away, and reported the successful fuel oil suction shift.

Central. Three Main. Shifted fuel oil suction for three bravo boiler. Sierra-foxtrot-oscar-sierra.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Shifted fuel oil suction three bravo boiler, sierra-foxtrot-oscar-sierra, Central aye.

The Engineering Officer of the Watch

I hung up the phone, noted the time for the fuel suction shift, glad to be on a full tank, and made the entry in the log book. Then, I watched all of the gages on the boiler control console, paying particular attention to the one labelled “Fule Oil Pressure”, irritated at the misspelled word, but not wishing to change it. This was my boiler room. These were my boilers and at their age, they’d developed their own personalities. These two boilers, part of a ship which had completed six deployments to Vietnam before I was even born, were persnickety and quirky beings, prone to the laws of physics and those of Murphy. In deference to the latter, we never corrected the misspelled label. It was a part of a living, breathing organism, much like an out of place freckle…or maybe a wart. I looked at Petty Officer Andersmith, sitting right next to me.

            Looks steady

MM1(SW) Andersmith

            Don’t fuckin’ jinx it, asshole.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            I’m just sayin’…

MM1(SW) Andersmith

            Shut up dude. Seriously. Don’t jinx it. I’ll talk shit about vacuum leaks on the main.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Fuck you Matt.

MM1(SW) Andersmith

The throttleman laughed briefly at the both of us. He stood eight feet away, on his little step stool, looking out of the control booth window at a mirror which showed him an inverted view of the spinning shaft. The shaft, a barber-shop pole painted piece of gear nearly three feet in diameter and more than a hundred feet long, led from our main engine set to one of the USS Constellation’s four massive propellers, each bronze-manganese iteration measuring more than twenty feet in diameter and weighing in at several thousand pounds.

            And what the fuck are you laughin’ at you goddamned midget?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Yeah. What’s so funny?

MM1(SW) Andersmith

You two jackasses are so damn superstitious. Its machinery. It runs because we fix it and it breaks when it wears out. There ain’t nothin’ magical about it. There’s no jinxing it.

MM3(SW) Larryson

            This guy…

MM1(SW) Andersmith

You’ll understand when you qualify top watch…or maybe not. Murphy’s law is just as real as those throttles your tiny ass hands are resting on.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Ain’t that the truth. I ever tell you about the time that we lost vacu…

MM1(SW) Andersmith

The speaker above my head crackled to life as the voice of Three Main Machinery Room’s upper level watch boomed inside the tiny control booth.

Top. Upper Level. Chief’s coming to the booth.

MMFN Browning

I looked at my watch. Almost three in the morning. What in the hell was my chief doing up? We were coming back from a deployment to the Persian Gulf. We’d been gone seven months and were just a few days out from San Diego. We’d left Pearl Harbor the day before. All of the maintenance was caught up and we’d already prepared for all of the maintenance and repairs that would happen during our post-deployment stand-down. So, what the hell was he doing up? This was Chief’s tenth or twelfth deployment. He was immune to this channel-fever shit. Right?

BTC(SW) Canford flung the door open and barged into the booth.

Hardman! You’re relieved. Get your ass up to the training classroom and call me every five minutes. Move it son!

BTC(SW) Canford

            What the hell did I do?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Never mind that shit. Get your ass moving right the fuck now!

BTC(SW) Canford

            But Chief…

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Now Hardman. Move it.

BTC(SW) Canford

I walked out of the booth, slamming the door shut as I tried to figure out why I’d just been relieved. I heard Chief Canford pick up the mic and announce to Central Control that he had assumed all duties and responsibilities as Boiler Technician of the Watch in Three Main Machinery Room. I thought about the half of the watch I’d stood. I’d never been relieved of my duties before. Ever. What in the hell was going on?

I crossed the upper level and turned sideways to slide between the boiler gage glasses, each of which could, and did, leave massive welts on any portion of the human body it might touch, covered or not. The space was loud, more than one-hundred and twenty decibels of screaming turbines, whirring motors, and high-pressure flames. The smells were so familiar. Lubricating oils with their heavy, dirty stench. The clean scent of low-pressure steam escaping from drain ports behind the shut-down alpha boiler. The headache-inducing aroma of diesel fuel wafting up from the burner front to mix with the smell of exhaust gases that leaked from defects in the forty-year old boiler casing. As I approached the ladder leading up and out of the space, the announcing system crackled to life, struggling to be audible against the noise of a superheated steam plant.

            In the space. Make preps to light three alpha boiler.

BTC(SW) Canford-over the loudspeakers

What the hell? I began walking back to the booth. Chief was coming out of the booth and heading to the burner front to help set-up for light-off. He saw me.

Hardman! Get your ass to the training classroom right now or, so help me God, I will shove your ass in the fuckin’ boiler before I light it off!

BTC(SW) Canford-from a distance of one inch away from my nose

            Alright. I’m fucking going.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I turned around and watched Fireman Browning pick up his red book of procedures while I headed back to the ladder that led up and out of the fireroom, again turning sideways mid-stride to avoid touching the hot-as-hell gages. Now I was mad, although I didn’t really know why. Yeah. I was young to be qualified as a Boiler Tech of the Watch. I had three years in the Navy, two on this ship, and only a year in this fireroom. All of the other top watches were guys in double digit years of service. So, I was young. So what. I didn’t do anything wrong. Had I?

I climbed the steps to the second deck, pushed my way past two self-closing doors and stepped into the main passageway on the starboard side of the ship. It was dark. And red. Darken ship was still in effect. Most of the white lights throughout the ship extinguished in favor of red ones, just in case a ray of light snuck out through an open hatch. The mess decks were still lit with white lights and, I noted, still serving leftovers from dinner. I went there first and collected two pre-packaged burritos and a bottle of hot sauce before stopping by the soda machines and buying a cola. Still the gulf sodas I saw, everything on the iconic red and silver can illegible to me.

Yeah. I was taking my time. Yes, Chief had said right now, but I was pissed at Chief and I was being self-indulgent in my own little pity party. Screw him. He can wait a few minutes. I’m hungry. I headed aft towards the engineering training classroom. I reached the right scuttle and dropped down through the hole, holding on to the rail with one hand while clutching my breakfast in the other. I walked in to the classroom. It was empty. Not knowing what else to do, I turned on the television and dropped into a seat, putting my breakfast on the desk in front of me and wincing as I sat on the can of soda that was tucked safely into the back pocket of my coveralls. As I waited for the television signal to come in, I attacked my breakfast with gusto and thought about Hawaii, the port we had left roughly twenty hours ago to begin the last leg of a seven month cruise from San Diego to the Persian Gulf. The television flickered briefly to life, filling the room with a blue light, contrasted only by the word “Loading” in white, 1980s video game lettering across the screen. As I waited and ate, I tried to figure out why I was watching television while my Chief stood my watch. This had better be good.

The television finished loading the channels downloaded by a satellite dish somewhere near the aft, starboard portion of the flight deck. When the signal came, I used a remote to find a news station and watched as the channel changed. CNN was on the air and the television showed a view of what looked like New York City. Except, something was wrong. There was a fire or something coming from the World Trade Center. That sucks. I took a drink of the cola and turned the volume up.

…For those of you just joining us, let me recap. An airplane, possibly a small aircraft, has crashed into the World Trade Center. It is unclear right now what caused the crash. We have no word on casualties or injuries. We have not received comments from…

Anonymous Male Anchor

I spit soda halfway across the room and jumped out of my seat, grabbing a nearby phone and calling the fireroom.

            Chief. Someone crashed a fuckin’ plane into a building in New York.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            I know that. That’s why I sent you to watch. What else? Anything else?

BTC(SW) Canford

No. Nothing else. Air traffic control problem or something. That’s what the announcer just said.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Bullshit. No pilot just flies into a building because a controller says to.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Well, I know. But. Wait. This was on purpose?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

Just keep watching. Call me back in five minutes.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Yes Chief. Anything else?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Hold on a second.

BTC(SW) Canford

I looked at my watch while Chief leaned away from the phone and told a watch in the space to make sure to lay out the firefighting gear on the lower level. It was three minutes after three. I waited for Chief to come back to our conversation and looked up at the television.

A plane crossed the screen, going from right to left until it collided with the second tower of the World Trade Center. I watched as a ball of orange flame shot out of the left side of the building. On live television. Someone flew a goddamned plane into one of the tallest buildings on the whole goddamned planet! What in the actual fuck was going on here?

            Chief!

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

Hold on Hardman.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Chief!

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Hardman, I said…

BTC(SW) Canford

Chief! A fuckin’ second plane just hit. I mean another plane hit the other tower. Two planes! 

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            What!?! You mean they showed the replay of the….

BTC(SW) Canford

No! I mean two fuckin’ planes. One hit each tower. Both towers are burning. Both of them. I just watched the second one hit live on TV! What the hell is going on?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Are you sure?

BTC(SW) Canford

            Fuck yes, I’m sure! What the hell!?!

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Keep watching. Call me back every five minutes. You got that?

BTC(SW) Canford

            Back in five. Aye Chief. Got it.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I kept watching. Within minutes, others began to trickle into the room. There were comments about who-done-it and what not, but mostly, the room stayed silent. We sat there with our thoughts, our anger and sadness growing exponentially. In one corner, three young sailors, all from New York and all on their first cruise, sat dumfounded. I’d just ended another call with Chief and was sitting down when the disembodied voice on the television came on.

We are breaking into this live report from New York to inform you about events unfolding here in Washington. The picture you are looking at is of the west façade of the Pentagon where, initial reports indicate, that an aircraft has crashed into the building.

Anonymous Female Anchor

            Fuck.

Random Sailor

            Those mutha’ fuckers.

Another Random Sailor

            Sonsabitches.

Third Random Sailor

I got on the phone as we watched and called Chief. He answered on the third ring.

            A third plane hit. Pentagon. Washington.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Are you sure?

BTC(SW) Canford

            Yeah. They’re showing a split screen of DC and New York. Three planes Chief. Three.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Three. Shit. Keep me posted. Bringing up steam pressure now.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Aye, aye Chief.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I sat back down. You could feel the anger in the room. Every sailor in that classroom knew perfectly well who had done this. The name had been lurking out there for a few years, just a whisper of a threat, especially to a bunch of young kids. Al Qaeda. We all knew the name. We all cursed it then. We all shook with a mixture of rage and panic. My hands trembled as I tried to take notes in my pocket notebook, a green-covered, sweat-stained pad of paper which usually stayed in the left breast pocket of my fire-retardant coveralls.

            Landlines are down.

Another Random Sailor-a native New Yorker

            Yeah.

Third Random Sailor

            Jesus guys. Three planes? Three? What the hell?

Random Sailor

We continued to watch. I continued to take notes. The room stayed pretty silent, comments restricted to one or two syllables, and those mostly expletives. I looked at my watch. It was almost four in the morning. I got up to make another call. I froze in horror as I watched the screen.

On the screen, through the roiling smoke and haze, everyone in the room watched as one of the towers of the World Trade Center shimmied for a brief second and then collapsed straight down on itself. We watched in horror as something slightly bigger than the ship we sat on crumbled to the ground in a violent storm of dust and debris.

            Oh fuck.

Random Sailor

I got Chief on the phone.

Chief, one of the towers collapsed. Just fell right down on itself.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            What?!?

BTC(SW) Canford

One of the towers fell. Its gone. The whole tower. Like it wasn’t ever there. We just watched. Still watching. New York is covered in smoke and dust. Its gone.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Jesus. Anything else?

BTC(SW) Canford

Not yet. People saying al Qaeda did this. New anchors mostly. Everyone here thinks the same thing.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Yeah.

BTC(SW) Canford

We are receiving reports that a fourth plane was hijacked and that it has crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Anonymous Male Anchor

           Chief. The news just said that a fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Another one?

BTC(SW) Canford

We are trying to confirm reports of a fourth hijacking. Early indications are that a fourth plane, United flight ninety-three, was hijacked and has crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Anonymous Male Anchor

Chief. Yeah. They’re trying to confirm the reports of the fourth plane now. They do know that a plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Alright. Keep calling.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Aye, aye Chief.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I sat back down, thoughts racing through my head. My hands still shook and I had to tap the heel of my well-used, black leather boots on the tiled floor to expend some of the nervous energy that had built up over the last eighty minutes. I had watched the world change. Live. On television. Not in the abstract way I had watched it change during the Gulf War. I had been in middle school then. Watching those events unfold hadn’t had all that great an impact on my life. This would. How surreal was that? Knowing that your whole way of life had just been changed through the actions of men you’d never met. Forget surreal. This was unreal. It was maddening. It was crazy. But it was there. Live. On television. On. Every. Damned. Channel.

I continued watching with everyone else. Announcers tried to give commentary to go with the live pictures. They tried to make it make sense for all of us. They were still trying when I got up to make another call to the fireroom. I glanced at my watch. It was twenty-seven minutes after four in the morning. I dialed the space. Chief picked up after the first ring.

            Anything new?

BTC(SW) Canford

            No.

            MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Hardman?

BTC(SW) Canford

            What?

            MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            You okay?

BTC(SW) Canford

            Yeah. What the hell though?

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I got distracted by yelling behind me in the room. I turned in time to see the second tower collapse in on itself, almost a perfect repeat of the first collapse.

What the hell was all that yelling?

BTC(SW) Canford

            The other tower fell. Both towers collapsed.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Are you serious? How?

BTC(SW) Canford

            How in the hell should I know? Planes fucking hit them!

            MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Alright. Settle down. Sorry. Anything else?

BTC(SW) Canford

No. They’ve had to take back some false reports. Like a bomb at the State Department and stuff like that. Panic stuff. Nothing else though.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Alright. Keep calling.

BTC(SW) Canford

            Will do.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

I sat back down and stared at the television. Not really watching. Just thinking. Three days ago, we’d flown most of the air wing off and pulled into Pearl Harbor. Two days ago, I’d gone surfing on Oahu’s north shore, near Hale’iwa. Yesterday we’d gone back out to sea with half of our normal crew and only four days left on deployment. A thought popped into my head. Oh, my fucking God. I jumped at the phone and dialed the fireroom.

            Something new happen?

BTC(SW) Canford

            No. Just…well…Chief. We have two thousand civilians onboard.

MM2(SW/AW/SS) Hardman

            Oh. Shit.

BTC(SW) Canford

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