Dedication for this article goes to SOFREP writer Luke Ryan.
Part 1 of 2.
Aw yeah, dusk all ahead full. There’s that big ol’ weepy saggin’ eyelid of a sun, a bright and confused melee of crimson and orange and swollen four times its noontime size. That sun gets to pouting long after dinner. He gets his belly full and gets too cranky, then takes a dive for a long evening nap, at least until morning.
So long ago as a boy it only ever meant beddy-bye time and end o’ day. Now as a man it more so often meant stand to; to make ready to own the night. The enemy might know we’re a-comin’ but it’s not to fear because we own the night!
You’ve heard of the Blood Moon; the Cajuns talk about the Blood Sun, oh yeah you talk about … I like of the Blood Sun once in a blue moon. This evening was a Blood Sun sure enough, as bloody as it comes. But when the Blood Sun comes, often times it portends of stormy weather; heavy weather as the Coast Guards typically called it in the day.
There were rhymes and ditties that help a sea hand straight on the signs of heavy weather:
Red sky at night,
Red sky at morning,
Sailors’ take warning
Mare’s tails and mackerel scales
make tall ships carry low sails
But what did it all mean?
Nothin’! Just fun to make up and fun to say, otherwise not a shred of wisdom or consistency. I pride myself with my own composition based on oh, what a night I once had:
Crackin’ thunder and éclairs at night
boast the spectacle of Saint Elmo’s light
This is how it all went down my one and only night experience with Saint Elmo’s fire:
The sun was only showing half its disk above the horizon; the other half looking like it was splattered flat and spread out on either side. I gawked in a captive sort of way as the solar zenith sank to the last line of the horizon, and I hoped to God I might glimpse after all the almost impossible atmospheric green flash if the conditions were perfect.
No green flash.
Well, I’m not dead yet so there is still time. Poor me, never seen a green flash … ah, but I have seen St. Elmo’s fire, as God is my witness I truly have seen it. It was out at sea that I saw it my one and only time. How I would ever manage to forget it I could never tell you; it was just that impressive and terrifying. Yessir… it was out at sea at night that it happened.
We two motored along in a low-profile hardshell boat, very small and with the crew of two; my “first mate” and I. In the water a bean of port slipped along eight men of the Green Berets in two-man Klepper Kayaks, totally black and opaque to the sea. The stroked rhythmically with their paddles, making good headway, making no sounds, revealing no image.
Heavy weather made for an especially dark night, a great night for these brothers to slip onto shore undetected. My LORAN-C navigation system showed I had only 30 minutes left to remain on escort with these men before I had to break away and let them move to their Beach Landing Site (BLS) on their own.
Wind and waves pick up smartly. The swell lifted our bow up high out of the water then let it fall, our hull slapping loudly against the water. I didn’t like that. I commenced a zig-zag pattern behind our kayaks to keep my bow from riding up and slapping me down. That kept things quiet again. Our kayaks were like knives slipping through the water. They were like long razor-sharp knives slicing their way forward. Damn, but I was proud of them.
I recall distinctly when the starlight faded some 30 minutes ago as the sky thickened. There was a storm a-brewing, just didn’t know how really nasty it was going to be. I didn’t know, that is not until the first éclair struck hard and bright on the water, followed immediately with a thunderous… thunder!!
“Well phuq me to tears!!” I shouted and my first mate looked at me with legit concern on his face. The sky overhead was filled with the constant strike of éclairs so vivid and bright we two were damned to fail to look away. The ear-splitting thunders were so near to the strikes that we knew it was all so very close to us. The formation of kayaks off port beam began to falter.
By the heaven that bends above us and by the God we all adore … I swear that I felt the convective heat from the lightning strikes; my first mate did too. This was our finest hour, the first mate and mine. The formation had halted their progress and they had rafted up. That piled the onus heavier on my shoulders.
My boat’s antenna I had lowered at the first strike of éclair. I was horrified to see that within the rafted formation of kayaks some of them began to erect their masts with sails on them. “Noooo” the First Mate and I screamed at them as loud as we could that they should lower those lightning rod masts of theirs. My voice simply would not carry. With a last blazing strike of éclair, I turned the helm to my first mate and jump overboard into the churning sea. I stroked spastically to the raft and grabbed one of the men in the kayak with the sail up and ordered him to take it down lest they attract a death stroke… and they lowered their sail.
Back to the rigid hull boat, my first mate hoisted me back aboard and I felt the necessity to make a radio transmission to our Forward Support Base (FSB) to report out impending distress. As I hesitated to think the call through, one of the kayaks capsized, its crew clinging to the overturned hull. Yes, time to make the call.
I grabbed the antenna and raised it up but … as I did … the higher I raised the antenna the louder the whirring and buzzing noise grew in my ear. I looked up at the antenna where the noise was generated and, there I saw it, St. Elmo’s fire … it was magnificent I assure you; in its own right, it was utterly magnificent.
It howled and buzzed and shrieked its existence at the tip of my antenna. It spilled off of the end of my antenna like an azure fountain.There it was. It was there, you know … it spilled from the end of my radio’s antenna like a fountain blue of flowing water, water with all the motion of water. Rain was beating down hard in near-solid sheets almost laboring my breath.
I froze in my attempt to raise the antenna just long enough to realize that the higher I raised it, the louder the hum and the clearer the fountain that emanated from the top of my antenna grew. I locked the antenna full upright and hesitated momentarily to take in the horror of Saint Elmo’s fire that poured from the top of the mast and hissed so beautifully.
Good Saint Elmo compensated my strain with a splendid display of gushing green in the form of a halo that looped the mast pinnacle spitting a ring of cascading emerald photons. Rising just slightly above the antenna rod the fire arched over and pour back down toward the boat but dissipated well before reaching the deck.
I caught my senses and quickly unlatched the antenna at its base and eased it back down along the hull of the boat. The fire and noise subsided in a measured decline the more I lowered the antenna mast. I watched my First Mate struggling at the helm to hold his cast azimuth all the while keeping with the rafted troop yet guarding not to approach them too closely.
There would be no radio call back to the FOB in this storm.
I grabbed a handhold on the steering column and put my other on the shoulder of my First Mate. We shared a look indicating to each other that we were both on point with the situation.
First Mate squinted hard in the beating rain and ejected a single pair of words: “Jesus Christ!”
“This is a good position, just try to keep them 45 degrees and 15 meters off port bow!”
That remark of mine was a no-shitter but I had nothing left clever to say but felt strongly that I had to say something. I tried again to justify my presence to him:
“My cat’s breath smells like catfood!”
First Mate grinned … or was it a wince from the sting of rain?
And then it happened …
By God and with honor,
Continued in Part II