Union Atlantic - By Adam Haslett


You Are Not a Stranger Here

For support during the writing of this book, the author wishes to thank the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, as well as Nan Talese, Ira Silverberg, Robert Millner, Ruth Curry, Luke Hoorelbeke, Amity Gaige, Jon Franzen, Julia Haslett, Timothy Haslett (1966–2008), Nancy Haslett, Sarah Faunce, Jenn Chandler-Ward, Andrew Janjigian, Melissa Rivard, Adam Hickey, Brett Phillips, David Grewel, Daniela Cammack, David Menschel, Joe Landau, Mark Breitenberg, Julian Levinson, Michael Graetz, Richard Eldridge, Brendan Tapley, Josh Cohen, and Daniel Thomas Davis.

For my mother,

Nancy Faunce Haslett

July 1988

Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each. The gesture went over well until the canteen ran out and then the dispensing machines, leaving fifty or so enlisted men and a few petty officers feeling cheated of the one recognition anyone had offered of what they had been through. A number of them, considerably drunk, had begun milling outside the commissary, suggesting it ought to be opened up to make good on the promise. Realizing he had a situation on his hands, the admiral’s staffer pulled Vrieger aside, handed him an envelope of petty cash, and told him there was a jeep and driver waiting for him at the gate.

“That place on Al Budayyai should still be open. Get whatever you can. Get menthols if you have to. Just make it quick.”

“Come on, Fanning,” Vrieger said. “We’re taking a ride.”

“But I’ve got mine,” Doug replied, holding up his half-smoked pack of Carltons. Three or four beers had done their sedative work and set him down here on this bench by the officers’ mess, where he sought only to rest.

“It ain’t about you.”

Hauling his gaze up from the linoleum floor, Doug saw the lantern face of his lieutenant commander bearing down on him. He wasn’t a handsome guy, with eyes too small for the broad circumference of his head and a big jowly mouth. The square metal-rimmed glasses added to the look of middle age though, at thirty-one, he was little more than a decade older than Doug. Vrieger was the only guy in the navy who knew more about him than the town he came from and the bases he’d trained at, and this counted for something.

Lifting himself from the bench, he followed Vrieger out the rear door of the mess.

Outside, the temperature had dropped into the eighties, but the air was still humid and laced with the scent of diesel fumes. A mile in the distance, across the desert plain, the white needle towers and minaret of the grand mosque rose up spotlit against the empty night sky. This forward base at Juffair, a small, island pit stop in the Gulf, consisted of a few acres of outbuildings strung along the port southeast of Manama. If the tour had gone according to plan, Doug would have returned to the States from here. But who knew what would happen now?

He shuffled into the backseat of the jeep, not quite lying across it, not exactly upright either.

“Where to?” the driver asked, as they rose onto the rutted two-laner that led into the capital.

“Just head into town,” Vrieger told him.

“That was some dogfight you guys were in, huh?”

“This kid sounds likes he’s fifteen.” Doug called out: “Kid, you sound like you’re fifteen.”

“No, sir. I’m eighteen.”

“It wasn’t a dogfight,” Doug said. “No dogs, not much fight.”

“Shut up,” Vrieger said, leaning into the driver’s face to ask if they were obeying some kind of speed limit. The jeep leapt forward. Slumping lower across the seat to escape the wind on his face, Doug closed his eyes.

All morning he’d been on the phone with a staffer at the Naval Weapons Center back in Virginia going over the Vincennes’ tapes and then all afternoon with the investigators, the same questions again and again: When the plane first popped on Siporski’s screen, what did Lieutenant Commander Vrieger do? Asked for a tag. And it came back what? Mode III. So the first time you tagged the plane it came back civilian, is that right? Yes. On and on like that for hours, every answer rephrased into another question, as if they didn’t understand a word he said. Not even so much as a “must have been rough,” nothing, not even a handshake at the beginning. He’d told them the truth. To every question he’d told them the truth.