In 1990, I was a senior in high school, planning my future in college, working a couple jobs, and spending my spare time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Somewhere in there, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Many of my friends who had graduated in the years before me had gone into the military. Suddenly, they found themselves in the middle of a war, and I found myself sincerely caring about world events on a whole new level.
When our military put boots to the ground and countered the Iraqi forces, I had friends and family members on the line.
While my main worry centered around those loved ones, a large part of my concern was with the 24×7 televising of bombings, strafing runs, troop movements, and sorties.
I never thought it was a good idea to televise a war. I knew it was a “clean and tidy” version of events, filmed on a time delay with the worst bits filtered out. The war effort became reality TV, minus the reality. I often wondered about the additional psychological effects on our troops, knowing that their every move was being televised and viewed across the world.
There has been a story brewing inside me ever since I saw the first bomb drop on national television. When I got my prompt for the NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge a couple weeks ago, Radio Silence poured out of my soul as if the flood gates had finally opened.
My prompt was:
Genre: Historical Fiction. Subject: Cryptography. Character: A Personal Chef.
The resulting story is a deep-dive into the mind of a young sailor on a Navy destroyer as he attempts to reconcile the orders he followed with the aftermath that the world witnessed – but didn’t.
Radio Silence is available on my blog for a very short time. In the coming weeks, it will become part of a short story anthology that I will be selling on Amazon to benefit Operation Homefront.
If you like this story, and you want to own the Kindle version (plus 5 other stories), please consider purchasing my anthology once it comes out. All proceeds generated from the sale of this publication, from now until the end of its days, will directly benefit Operation Homefront.
I give you…. Radio Silence.
It wasn’t until Chief Brown put a bullet in his own head that I questioned his orders to withhold information.
I leaned back in one of the ship’s flimsy dining chairs wondering which would buckle first, its legs or me. The Navy decided I was fit for duty no more than 48 hours after we found Brown in a pool of blood in the radio room.
I’m surprised they didn’t make me clean it.
I popped a warm, sweet bite of cinnamon roll into my mouth and savored the taste of home. Desert Storm played out in real time on the small television bolted to the ceiling.
“Who the hell thought twenty-four-by-seven news coverage of a war was a good idea,” Learman asked. He flipped a stained towel over his shoulder and picked up the plate and cup the Admiral left behind.
“President Bush? Bernard Shaw? Dunno,” I said with a shrug. “Not like they show what’s really happening anyway.”
“Candy-coated war. Tasty!” Learman laughed at his own joke and stashed the dishes on the counter.
“Not like these, though,” I pointed my fork at my last bite of pastry, “who the hell thought anyone could make fresh cinnamon rolls from a ship’s galley?”
“Powdered everything!” Learman’s smile framed his round cheeks. “If the Navy could figure out a way, they’d make me use dehydrated water.”
“Still, though, these are fuckin’ awesome.”
“Thanks. Admiral Swift likes ‘em.” Learman wiped crumbs from the table. “I just follow him from ship to ship, cook what he wants, and clean up his mess. The rest of the crew reaps the benefit of decent chow—even us enlisted grunts.”
“A worthy duty.” I scraped icing from my plate and licked it off the fork.
“Worthy?” Learman ran a hand over his buzz cut. “Sometimes wish I’d made a better school. Being a galley cook is fine, but cryptography, man.” He nodded toward the screen. “You guys make a difference. Must be intense.”
On the TV, white-hot flame blinded the camera for a split second and faded, leaving a crumbling building in the bomb’s wake. The ship rocked gently as if in response to the blast.
My jaw clenched. Brown said Schwarzkopf had already ordered the strike. Nothing we could have done.
He watched me like a kid waiting to hear a story. We’re the same age. Same rank. He seems so young.
“Yeah, intense.” I shoved the chair back, grabbed my tray and pushed it onto the counter.
He shook his head and wiped down my table. “Have a good one, Cardiff.”
I waved a wordless goodbye.
An armed MP stood guard outside the radio room as always, one hand on his sidearm and his M-16 slung over his back. He gave me a curt nod, acknowledging my clearance to enter the room.
Brown’s replacement, Merrick, sat at the desk watching the dot-matrix printer scroll back and forth. He flicked a pencil in quick circles across his forefinger. The sight of the new Chief; the clack of the printer’s gears; the incessant flip-flip-flip of the pencil; it all grated on my nerves. I glanced at the wall calendar where thick, black Xs counted down the days until the end of deployment. Those marks can’t appear fast enough.
“Welcome back.” Merrick didn’t look up from the printer. “Got cleartext coming across. Just started.”
The lingering cinnamon went rancid in my mouth as déjà vu crept through me. Brown sitting in that same chair greeting me with missives from the enemy. Same job; same printer; different Chief.
Faint, thin lines became printed text with all the speed of a snail. I leaned in for a glance. “Troop movements, looks like. Probably nothing we don’t already know.” I turned and knocked into a framed picture on the desk, quickly steadying it before it crashed to the floor. My hands trembled at the sight of Brown’s wife and daughter nestled safely behind glass.
Merrick waved his pencil at the printer. “If it’s encrypted, it’s important.”
I shrugged and grunted, flexing my fingers to unclench my fists.
“You need to take everything that comes across this machine seriously, Cardiff.” He puffed out his chest. “What you’re ignoring could be the information that saves the lives of your brothers.”
Tiny beads of sweat sprouted on my brow. Chief Brown’s voice echoed in my head. This is going to save so many lives.
“You got a problem, Cardiff?”
My jaw tensed. “No problem, Chief.”
The whirring of the printer filled the silence between us. I glanced through our newest copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly, picking out published information that was supposed to be classified.
Flip-flip-flip. The continuous motion of Merrick’s pencil caught the corner of my eye, and I turned pages in a vain attempt to distract myself. Keep your cool, man. He’s a new Chief. Just trying to assert his authority. He has no idea what happened.
Merrick’s pencil clattered across the desk. He leaned over and snatched up the printout. “This is big.”
The hairs at the back of my neck stood at attention.
“What’s that?” My feet itched to run, but I forced myself to look.
23 February 1991
Weapons trade, 2100, 30°13’24.5″N 46°42’57.0″E.
“We need to push this up the chain.” Merrick reached for the phone.
“Not yet.” I fiddled with the cipher device next to the printer. “Let’s wait. See what else comes across.”
“There is nothing else. Just that one line.”
Heat rose in my cheeks. “Give it a minute. There could be more.”
Merrick waved a hand toward the door. “Our boys are hours away from crossing the line from where this shit’s going down. You want to send them up against a bunch of heavily armed enemy?”
“But what, Sailor?”
The image of a precision-guided missile on worldwide broadcast flooded my mind. Down the ventilation shaft; punching through the wall; bright-hot fire taking down the hospital that Brown and I identified as the weapons cache.
The whole world watched. We were so eager to make that call. We should have waited.
“I just think we shouldn’t make snap judgments.”
“It’s 1900 hours out there. They need to scramble. We don’t have time to pussy-foot around.”
A vision of Brown’s decimated skull crashed through me like a Tomahawk. Iron scent of blood. Brain tissue on the racks. “Goddamit Chief, this piece of shit crypto-modem could’ve hung. We have to wait.”
Merrick rocketed from his chair and brought his nose right up to mine. “Send it up, Sailor. That’s an order.”
I grabbed the photo of Brown’s smiling family and slammed it back down onto the desk, shattering the glass. “Fuck your orders!”
Did those words come from my mouth? My open palms met with Merrick’s chest, but all I could feel was my pulse pounding against my eardrums. Merrick flew backward onto the desk; papers scattered and the printer smashed against the wall.
You send it. I wasn’t sure if I’d spoken the words as I ran out the door.
The MP outside the radio room clutched my shoulder with a meaty hand and yanked me backward. I latched on and dropped to one knee, using my momentum to propel him into the bulkhead. He reached for his sidearm, but I beat him to it. I wrestled his gun from its holster and bolted down the hall.
“Cardiff! Stop! Now!” Merrick’s hardened voice bounced off me as I scaled the steep ladder to the quarterdeck.
“That’s an order, damn it!” Merrick’s demands faded into the wind as I sprinted aft down the starboard gangway.
“Orders,” I muttered. “Sailors follow their Chief’s orders.”
I slowed to a stumble as the cool ocean breeze washed over my flushed face. The ship rocked beneath my feet as it plowed through the chop. I didn’t realize I’d closed my eyes until I collided with the Admiral’s chef.
“Hey, watch it!” Learman’s cigarette flew over the rail.
“Sorry.” I felt a weight in my hand and looked down at the gun. When did I get this? “I just—I need to—”
“Petty Officer Cardiff, freeze!” The MP’s baritone resonated down the gangway.
Learman held his hands up and took a step toward me. “Card, man, give me the gun.”
I spun, looking from the pistol to Learman to the guard. Merrick emerged from behind a bulkhead, his sidearm drawn.
The ship heeled and I stumbled into Learman. I wrapped an arm around his chest and backed up against the rail, using him as a shield. The guard and Merrick stopped. Several more guards filed in behind them and fanned out, blocking any hope of running.
I pulled Learman close, heaving breaths against his neck, and shoved the pistol barrel against his chin.
“You lucky sonofabitch,” I said through thick spittle, “following an Admiral around, whipping up pastries and cleaning up after his coffee breaks. You want to know what it’s like to be worthy in this Navy?”
“You’re crazy, man.” Learman dug his fingernails into my arm, struggling against my tight hold.
“Drop your weapon,” the MP shouted, settling into a wide stance with his rifle trained on me.
I pressed my mouth against Learman’s ear. “The hospital? The one with all those chemical weapons y’all were so happy we blew up on Brown’s orders?”
“You and Brown are heroes because of that. Your call destroyed ‘em before the Iraqis could move ‘em. Or use ‘em!”
No one knows but me. I barked a single laugh, then dropped my voice so only Learman would hear my words. “The hospital. Wasn’t. Empty.”
Silence hung in the wind. Learman craned his neck enough to make eye contact. “What are you saying?”
“The modem glitched. We didn’t know until after tech was called in. Found out right as the whole fucking country watched us bomb that empty hospital. The PGM that took out the arsenal on the abandoned second floor… destroyed everything above it, too.”
Tears stung my eyes and my voice cracked. “It was full of injured. Civilians. Kids, for fuck’s sake! That’s why they were moving those weapons out.”
“Let Learman go,” Merrick shouted. “It’s over.”
“Brown,” Learman whispered. “That’s why he—”
I nodded. “Right in one. He ordered me—ordered me into silence. Said it was best if no one ever knew. But he couldn’t take it. He blew his own brains out.”
Learman exhaled hard and slacked under my hold. “It’s OK, Card. We can work this out. Come on, just let me go. I’ll make up a batch of cinnamon rolls. We’ll talk it over.”
He’s so young. Acid coursed through my muscles and my ears rang. Brown said no one can ever find out.
“Ben Franklin.” My mouth filled with bile.
“What about him?”
“He said three men may keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead. Brown. Me. You.”
I shoved Learman away and raised the pistol. Gunfire erupted over the sound of the wind, but my finger hadn’t found the trigger. The concussive force of the multi-shot burst reverberated across the metal deck.
The gun dropped from my hand as my body jerked backward. My last vision was of Learman. Confusion and anger etched new lines on his face that made him seem much older than just moments before. I almost felt guilty for stealing the man’s peace.