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It’s Going to Be You, Jimmy
Roger and the boys greeted us planeside as we disembarked from the C-17 into the dusty world of Bagram Air Base, thirty miles north of the Afghanistan city of Kabul. A taut angular mountain of a man, at six foot eight, Roger stood out far above the rest of the team. We collected our gear and traded a barrage of loving insults. We were all far from home and in the middle of a war zone.
My good friend Chris Robertson came over to me and gave me a giant bear hug, saying, “Welcome to Afghanistan, Jimmy!” Chris, Roger, and the other PJs stood waiting for us outside the chain-link fence, just off the tarmac where we disembarked from the jet that had delivered us from Germany.
Chris and the other PJs had finished their deployment, and most would be back home in Alaska, eating a Moose’s Tooth pizza and sipping on a cold Pipeline Stout, before I’d even adjusted to the altitude and time zone of Bagram.
That fall, our unit had been split for deployment. We’d left our home base in Anchorage to participate in a joint military mission in the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan. My PJ team phased in over many weeks, and I was in the second phase of guys. Two more groups would follow. The team members who went before us had put our gear together at the Bagram PJ section and worked out all the kinks to get us fully operational. My teammates and I were replacing Chris’s crew for our own stint. They all were returning healthy, happy, and with mustaches. They had seen some action, but none of our PJs were injured or killed. The mission up until that point had been fairly routine: save the lives of soldiers and special operators requiring assistance in the rugged Afghanistan mountains.
It would be a few months of deployment, then we would return to saving civilian lives in the Alaskan wilderness.
I felt encouraged when I saw how great the brothers who had been deployed looked. They had been operating on the front lines for several months at this point, and these guys were salty. We were the fresh meat. The warm welcome felt like the opening moments of old friends gathering before a bachelor party. Once we got through the reception center, our buddies grabbed all our gear and loaded it on the team bus. We were off to get our on-base driver’s licenses and secure area passes. The basic IDs they handed us were straight from the 1980s, with a photo and paper laminated together. We would need this to drive vehicles and to get into the area of the base where our special section was located.
We were joking and making faces for our license photos. Chris asked how the trip from Alaska had been.
“Tell them about last night,” one of the guys said, elbowing me.
“He’s great in bed,” I joked, getting a quick slug for my always smart-ass responses.
“I am!” he said. “Last night in Germany.”
They leaned in, men who had been at war, away from their wives and girlfriends, suspecting a story of debauchery.
I began rattling off the tale. That was one of my jobs in the unit—unofficial entertainment—and practically my rank. Senior Airman Jimmy Settle of the Alaska 212th, storyteller, joker, and prankster. The way I saw it, the team that laughed together, stayed together.
I relayed the story of our overnight delay in Frankfurt.
We had hopped a taxi, rumbled down the cobblestone roads, and stopped at the pub closest to base. Inside, we just happened to bump into one of my buddies from another PJ team. He also was transitioning over to a unit, in southern Afghanistan. Since we just happened to run into each other, this was more than reason to celebrate the one night of reprieve before heading downrange.
I’m enjoying the good German beer, the big timber construction of the establishment, and appreciating the different look and smell from Alaska. We’re doing our thing, pounding beers and telling stories, when we meet a few fellow American service members, and after a few more drinks, I hear this one cat sitting next us trying to pick up a girl.
He said, “I’m an air force SERE specialist.”
PJ and SERE career fields tend to be interwoven. In the spirit of a good-natured ambassadorship, I tapped him on the shoulder. “Did you say you are in the air force? Did you say ‘spear specialist’? Is that what you air force guys call missiles? Spears? The air force is so weird.”
He leaned into me. Clearly not picking up on my sarcasm, and said, “A SERE is spelled Capital S. Capital E. Capital R. Capital E. And that stands for ‘survival, evasion, resistance, and escape,’ officer.”
So this guy was calling himself one of the elite trainers, a man with the knowledge of some incredibly complex and highly classified tactics. SERE specialists are adept at interrogation and information gathering, and as such they don’t go around offering up so much as the time of day, let alone their particular career field. But this clown? He didn’t look or act the part. We had all been around our share of actual SERE specialists. They, like most operators, don’t feel the need to advertise their presence.
I felt compelled to call his bluff.
“You’re no SERE specialist,” I replied, and added, “only special.”
And his response? “Well fine,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
I nodded and pushed back from the bar. “Well then,” I said, “why don’t we do this SERE style?”
By that, I meant slap boxing, like they do in interrogation resistance training. This is a stressor technique that employs an open-palm slap to the face, with the hand starting on the shoulder.
We took turns, one at a time, faster and faster. Slap. Slap. Slap.
I’m laughing the whole time, which only pissed him off more, and the next thing I know we’re all being thrown out.
The slapping continued on the cobblestones. I’m still laughing, and going to town on this pretend specialist. Pow! Pow! Pow! Until my PJ friend from the other unit steps between us. “Dude, you gotta stop,” he said. “You can’t do this.”
He was right. “Don’t ever pretend to be someone you’re not, dude,” I said to the guy, and held my hand out. He considered it for a moment and we shook.
We staggered off down the road, hailing a cab for the ride back to base.
* * *
Back at Bagram, I finished my story and took a few jabs from the guys about how I was lucky I wasn’t still in Germany, sitting in the brig. I nodded. It had been silly, even if it was just harmless slap boxing and not actual fighting.
In truth, the flight over had been uneventful. What was memorable on the round-the-world voyage from Anchorage to Afghanistan had been mostly internal. War was a new experience for me. After years of training, I’d finally become a PJ. I was new to the career field. I’d never been deployed. I’d never been on an overseas base. I’d never seen battle. From the moment we met at the section in Anchorage and loaded all our gear onto a flatbed truck with picket sides, I felt I was embarking on a life-changing journey. I could already feel a change in the way I felt about myself, my team, and my family, and toward life.
There were ten of us traveling together. We took up the whole bed of a big old double-deuce two-ton. We wore khaki-tan flight suits. Mine fit like a condom one size too small. We drove across Anchorage, toward the civilian airport on the other side of town. At the Alaska Airlines counter, we checked our gear bags and carried our rifles to the security point. Our weapons were locked in heavy-duty black cases. We traveled with our own weapons because we had time on them. We knew how they worked. Each PJ has his choice weapon tuned in to specific personal preferences.
I have traveled through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport my entire life, but this time I strolled through the concourse with the guys from my unit. In uniform, with a rifle in my case, the experience felt a bit surreal. I was seeing a whole different side of my relatively new career as a PJ.
We traveled cross-country in civilian aircraft. Anchorage to Baltimore, and then over to Europe on a military jet. Before Germany, all I had on was the skintight tan flight suit, and that damn thing wasn’t comfortable. The uniform made me feel fat and claustrophobic. None of us wore our regular green PJ suits, which fit us perfectly. Instead, they supplied us a general issue, horrible-fitting thing.
The flight from Germany to Bagram reminded me of a cattle car. We couldn’t have been packed any tighter into the C-17. The flight was uneventful, until we began our final approach into Bagram. The jet began the approach and headed right toward Bagram. The timer in my head starts to tick down with the realization that I’m not merely on a long, painful flight. I’m actually about to step foot in a place where violence thrives and real danger is the norm.
Just as we descended for our landing—with the gears dropping out and the flaps adjusted with a familiar, high-pitched hum, the airplane coming down, settling in, sinking—the engines revved, just a little bit, and then I heard a series of small explosions. Pop! Pop! Pop!
With my experience in aircraft, I recognized the sound. It was a sequence of flares, shot out of the back of the jet, countermeasures against missiles and RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. Right away I’m reminded that not only is this aircraft prepared to deter a ground-to-air enemy attack but also those deterrents had actually just deployed. I was flying into a place where a very real enemy would be shooting at me.
Odds are, a large cooking fire or burning trash from a village home beneath the approach path ignited the countermeasures. The flares don’t know any better. But whatever set off those mini explosions seconds before landing served as a great final wake-up for me: Oh-hey! This isn’t summer camp, Jimmy!
One of the other first things I noticed, as Roger, Chris, and my teammates greeted us, was that everything about this place was arid. This part of the world was dry, and super dusty. I could feel the air suck the moisture from my skin, my hair, my mouth, and my clothes. My lips were instantly chapped. I had to fight the urge to lick them. Then there was the thirst. The thirst was immediate and unquenchable.
Roger Sparks, Chris Robertson, Aaron Parcha, Koa Bailey, Jonny Davis, Paul “Bear” Barendregt, and a couple other guys gave us a nice five-star tour of the base and took care of all the military hoop jumping that happens when you first begin a deployment. None of us were particularly fond of that crap. PJs succeed because of a flexible mind-set, which can typically be too restricted when held to the confines of a regimented, by-the-books type of military leadership. PJs operate best when we’re left to our own skills and our own judgment calls. So, with our friends showing up and rescuing us from the reception center line, we got to skip out on all the garbage, all the official tours and boring, dry-as-Afghanistan-air instruction and information. Our team told us the important stuff—talk to this guy if you need this, and go here for that. Their tour made the apprehension of coming into the combat zone much easier to bear, almost making that war zone anxiety nonexistent.
Seeing our friends again and listening to their stories put me at ease. They had been having a good time, and there wasn’t anything to really be alarmed about. They were doing all sorts of cool missions and got into a couple close scrapes, with some really neat high-profile rescue stuff, but nothing where they were dancing with death on a high frequency. Knowing this gave me some space to breathe.
During the first few hours on base, I felt inundated with people, vehicles, and military aircraft. The base seemed overly crowded and ridiculously dusty. One of the guys explained that the Russians originally built and operated out of Bagram. This base was one of the first places our Special Forces deployed after 9/11. As we cruised around, I could see the different layers and ages, how the place was built and where the base expanded, like rings in a tree, war upon war. Bagram was in an unorthodox place, surrounded by steep mountains and, by my estimate, not at all that secure, but it was to be my new home and I needed to get comfortable.
We bounced down a road that circled the perimeter of the base. All sorts of up-armored vehicles, buses, and small trucks kicked up more dust. Right away I inquired about the crazily decorated trucks and learned that these were what the locals called jingle trucks. Jingle trucks are beautifully decorated, like nothing I had ever seen in America. Imagine a dump truck painted like the Sistine Chapel and you’re not even close to what a jingle truck looks like.
Finally, after doing the tour, meeting people, getting some lunch, and finishing the last of our paperwork, we got to go to our section. The not-so-subtle code word for our little headquarters: the PJ section. We like simple.
Chris and the other guys helped us hump our gear and our weapons into the nondescript metal structure. An average soldier on deployment would have a standard issue duffle, but like other special operations teams, the standards aren’t always enough for PJs. I carried a half dozen duffle bags full of my own specialized gear. Parachutes, diving equipment, medical equipment, climbing gear. You name it, I had it stuffed in a sack somewhere.
The PJ section was a basic two-story metal building built on a concrete pad. The walls were thin. They sheltered us from the elements but provided no protection from the constant roar of afterburners screaming down the runway. The atmosphere of the section was rowdy, which is often the ambience PJs cultivate. The place bore the weight of a history of the war. Each PJ unit that rotated in and out had been there, so it was like sharing a locker room with a bunch of family. It came with materials handed down from team to team; each crew left their own personality behind, their own little artifacts that gave the space flavor. Without this history, the building would have had that cold military feeling to it, but the previous teams had created a home away from home with all the hilarious and raunchy stuff they plastered to the walls, the goofy items they left, and the traditions they started.
This was what I had devoted the past few years of my life to, and I was there. Boom. The transition seemed so fast it was kind of scary. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was green. I was the FNG, the fucking new guy. I’d been playing with my gear for months. Putting pouches here and there and playing with my weapon and my med-ruck, and I still didn’t feel like any of it was in the right spot. Everything seemed awkward. Once I hit Bagram and started using my gear for real and not for training, a few degrees of perceptible change began. At first I felt sloppy, rickety, and scared. I was the new guy in all those war movies. Scared out of my mind. Like I’m going to get shot any time or blown up, scared I would have to get into a firefight. I had no shortage of anxiety, but having my friends there at Bagram helped ease that transition, for sure, and drew the focus away from the oneness of self and toward the collectivism of the team. The team is the key to survival. Teamwork is paramount to success as a pararescueman. This notion is ingrained so deep that each team has a team room. At Bagram, ours was called the Opium Den.
The Opium Den served as our main muster point for the duration of our stay. I didn’t question why it was called the Opium Den. In a strange way, the name made sense. Of course PJs would be housed in a place with such a nonmilitary name. Perhaps it was because we were field paramedics, packing a fair share of opiates for the wounded—or, for the outside perspective, a man would have to be smoking something in order to do what we did for training alone. Whatever the case, we had our own little shack to set up shop.
I stowed my gear in the locker, across from Roger, and joined my team for our orientation and debriefing, which included what to do if our area came under enemy attack, where to take a shower, and most importantly, where to “get huge” (our workout area).
We stood around a big makeshift table, created by rolling together two big cabinets with thick wood tops. Exhausted from the jet lag, I found myself half-listening to the explanations of our new day-to-day operations and the facilities, until the commander pointed out that the base could come under mortar attack at any moment. I snapped to attention. I wasn’t in Alaska anymore, and this was war.
Our alert status began right away. We were on standby for any emergency evacuations in the northeastern region of the combat theater, including the nearby mountains, which was why we were there. After the debrief, I stepped out into the blinding Afghan sun and surveyed the surrounding area. Mountains rose up all around, giving the place a familiar feeling. The high peaks reminded me of the mountains buttressing my home city of Anchorage. The comparison stopped with the rugged terrain. These mountains were dry and barren, strikingly less like the mountains of my beloved home and more like the mountains of New Mexico, a place I’d spent a good deal of time training to become a PJ. Vegetation was sparse and trees rare. I grew up playing in mountains covered in green and white. The land in Afghanistan, for as far as I could see, was tan, brown, and upon my initial inspection, it looked almost devoid of life.
I rejoined the team and we spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking and readying our gear for action. The crew we were there to replace wanted to go home as soon as possible, so they helped us get settled in quickly, get our gear all dialed in, and brought us up to speed on the standard operating procedures.
After the evening brief, we gathered around the table in the Opium Den, as Chris handed out letters and packages from home.
“Mail call, everyone!” He hollered out names as he tossed letters and boxes to various team members.
“Jimmy!” He lobbed me a rectangular box.
I set the box on the table. I was genuinely surprised and excited to already be getting a package from home. I couldn’t believe it. Mail is notoriously slow. The entire team watched. My prankster feelers began tingling. The address label was unlike one I had seen, but I had never received mail in a war zone. Maybe things were different here? I pushed aside any thoughts of caution and cut open one end of the box. I folded out the flaps and held my hand out as a clear, open-ended cylinder with a black rubber suction pump tumbled out. I held in my hand … a penis pump. A giant one. Laughter erupted around me as I hefted the two-inch-diameter, foot-and-a-half-long plastic tube into the air for all to see.
This was my welcome to the Opium Den. Those who work in emergency medicine know dark and dirty humor is often essential to the job. PJs are no different. As medics, we know a little about laughter and medicine. The team didn’t waste any time pranking me, because they knew I would be a good sport. I suspect they also knew I would find a hilarious way to use the “package” to keep up the spirits of the team.
I was never one to pass up an opportunity, and a few days later we came up with a way to break in the flight doctor. He was new to the pararescue community and to our affinity for tomfoolery, but he had been around enough PJs to know we were constantly experimenting with cutting-edge medical equipment. We noticed and appreciated his interest in how we operated and in the equipment we had at our disposal. This made him the perfect target. I removed the labels and put the penis pump back into the box. The next morning I brought the box and a liter of saline in an IV bag up to the flight doc.
“Sir,” I said, “I received this new high-altitude IV bag pressure infuser. I just can’t seem to figure out how to set it up, and it didn’t come with any directions. Do you think you can figure it out?”
“Sure thing. Just leave it on the chair and I’ll look at it after I’m done with the paperwork,” he said, without looking up from his computer. I placed the cardboard box and bag of saline on an empty chair next to the door and did my best disappearing act.
That evening, I finished a workout and walked from the darkness outside into a brightly lit team room. The flight doc stood at the table in the center of the room, chatting away with Chris. The doc had his back to the door as Ted and I strolled into the room. The cardboard box and bag of saline sat on the table between the two. I made eye contact with Chris as the doctor turned his head to see us enter. When the doc could not see him, Chris smiled ear to ear at me. The doc also smiled at me. A nice guy, and fresh into the military. He was happy and eager to help the mission. He also possessed an active and open mind. Perfect scenario for shenanigans.
“Sorry, Jimmy, I can’t seem to figure this thing out,” he said as he opened the box and pulled the plastic cylinder out. “I think I understand how this thing is supposed to work, but I just don’t think we got the right size.” He started to stuff the liter of IV fluid. “There is no way we can get a bag of saline in this thing.”
Chris, standing in the doctor’s blind spot, turned purple-faced, and barely made it out of the room before he lost it.
Cool as ice, Ted said, “I don’t know. Maybe we aren’t doing it right, doc. Maybe you gotta lube it up first?” Ted dug in one of the supply bins and tossed the flight doc a single-use packet of petroleum jelly. The doc tore off the top of the foil packet and squeezed a glob of translucent jelly onto his fingertip. Around this time, the door opened and one of our female pilots walked in.
“Holy shit, doc! Is that a penis pump?” the female captain blurted.
We doubled over in laughter.
The doc turned bright red and looked down in shock. Penis pump in one hand. Petroleum jelly in the other. He smiled. He got it. We only messed with people we liked.
* * *
With the transition complete, we said our good-byes. Chris walked up to me one last time as he was about to depart for Alaska. He gave me another big hug. “Have a good deployment,” he said. A head taller than me, he tilted his chin down, stroked the silly-looking Magnum P.I. mustache he’d sprouted during his deployment, and made his prediction: “You know, if anybody is going to get shot here, it’s going to be you, Jimmy.”
“Thanks, Chris,” I said with a laugh, nodding in a silent agreement that he was probably right. I gave Chris a big hello-and-good-bye hug, all at once. The cloud of dust and the raw smell of humanity from his uniform captured the moment of reality, that what we were doing in Afghanistan wasn’t training.
Of course, Chris was joking about me getting shot, but we both knew that I had the market cornered on crazy luck. That was day-to-day living for me. The more unusual the occurrences in life, the more normal. If life was a lottery of long odds and desperate situations, I drew the winning number every time.
What neither of us realized at that moment, as we said our good-byes, was that Chris’s statement was a portent of the things to come. Here is Chris, the first guy who introduced me to the special world of the busiest pararescue unit on the planet, being the first to welcome me to Afghanistan and the war zone, with no way of knowing how close the two of us might come to never seeing each other again.
I’d known this strong-jawed, strong-legged, extreme-endurance mountain racer from my early cross-country running days in high school, before we were PJs. Chris was a country kid from the Susitna River valley, and I was a city kid from the big, sprawling metropolis of Anchorage. Despite being from rival schools, we met because of a Beastie Boys Check Your Head album cover sticker on my water bottle. With similar tastes in music, and being kids who didn’t take ourselves too seriously, we hit it off and became friends. We battled as competitors on the ski and running trails, but we were always buddies after the meets. Back then we were just two scrawny runners trying to outdo each other on the racecourses that twisted through the thick birch and spruce forests of Southcentral Alaska. And there, at Bagram, stood Chris, just as he should be, welcoming me to war.
Seeing him in the theater seemed to bring my whole career and life full circle. If anyone was qualified to say I’d be the one on our team who might take a bullet, it was Chris Robertson. He knew me best. Chris witnessed my transformation from pre-PJ all the way to fully operational downrange PJ. He’d seen the whole Jimmy.
Son of a Survivor
I tossed and turned on the hard black medical cot, trying to keep my eyes shut against the blinding light. Four glaring halogens shined on me from the four corners of the makeshift emergency room. The backs of my eyeballs ached from the synthetic suns that surrounded me. My skull burned with the intensity of a fire poker. I couldn’t get comfortable. I heard shuffling around me, and through half-closed eyes I watched the shadows of several medics as they placed a bloodied soldier on the cot beside me.
“Are there more?” I asked, pulling myself to a sitting position. Before I had an answer, I lifted my legs to the edge and steadied myself. “Put the next guy here,” I said. I held there for a moment, my hands gripping the side of the cot, my eyes struggling against the floodlights.
My head ached. Each time I opened my eyes, the skin along my forehead screamed with a horrible burning sensation. I lifted a hand to my temple but resisted touching the bandage. The pain surged, intense, searing, as if my scalp was engulfed in fire and someone constantly tore at my hair. The fog of the field surgeon’s words echoed in my mind. He said something along the lines of “We stitched it in there. Five stitches. You can get the fragment removed back at Bagram. Make a necklace out of it. You’re damn lucky, bro.”
I forced a yawn and stretched my jaw, trying to relax the muscles. I stared down at the gray concrete floor covered with boot tracks, marked in blood and grime. Then I saw the big round drops of dried blood on the tops of my shoes. My own blood.
I slid off the cot and stood up. Except for the pain, I felt disconnected from my whole body. I looked around the room, taking in my surroundings. There were rectangular halogen lights on black stands along the sides of the walls. IV poles. Medical cots. I could feel the rush of medical trauma whirling about.
I slid my hands into the cargo pocket on my right leg and pulled out a pair of surgical gloves as they brought the next guy in. “What can I do?” I asked. I sat on the cot’s edge. I had a ripping headache, but at this point I knew I wasn’t going to die, and I saw them bringing these men in, three of them, and I said, “Bring them right here!” Bandaged and still bloody, I started triaging, working people, getting after it.
“You’re supposed to be laying down,” one of the navy corpsmen said to me.
“These guys need my bed more than I do,” I responded.
* * *
I dove in to help with the wounded because this is all I’ve known in life. I had to help. I was born into a very dynamic situation, to a single mother of two—my younger brother and me. We lived all over the place in Anchorage. Mom went through the men in her life like they were winters. She was a recovering addict, and I grew up tagging along with her to recovery meetings. I was the skinny little towheaded kid sitting in the back of those meetings, usually bored, but quiet. I had no choice but to listen to the struggles and horrors that those unfamiliar adults in the circle persevered through. There was nothing for kids in those smoky meeting halls, and my only source of entertainment came from sucking on the sugar cubes I stole from the blue box near the coffeepot.
It was at those meetings that I heard my mom’s horrible, yet incredible, survival story, over and over again. But this wasn’t just her story; it was also my grandmother’s. And, later in life, I would learn that their story and their strength had become my own. The apple, as it turns out, only took a few bounces from the tree.
Like so many stories told in circles at substance-abuse recovery meetings, there were bits left out. My mom’s version was but a sliver of her horrific tragedy, a canned, fifteen-minute summary of an event that lasted hours and changed her life forever. She would have to learn to move forward with her life or allow the haunting memories and survivor’s guilt to swallow her. Her story was the kind of tale that, when she told it, anyone in the circle who heard it could nod in understanding of how such an event could lead to drug and alcohol abuse.
My mom had lost most of her family in a boating accident. Her dad, a stepbrother, a brother, a sister, and a best friend. But there was more to the event than just the loss of most of the family.
The real story, the one my grandmother Marian tells, is much more dramatic, one of those classic Alaskan disasters that played out on the front page of every major newspaper in the state at the time. It was only after I returned from Afghanistan that my grandmother shared her version of the day that created the survivors in our family.
One sunny summer day in July 1974, my grandma and her husband, Fred Schultz, were on their twenty-four-foot riverboat with their children, some friends, and their kids. Ten people in all. They were all camped out on the shore of Skilak Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula, and had gone out for a boat ride, when the wind picked up.
The famous Kenai River, with monster king salmon and huge trout, pours into the northeast side of the lake and drains out the northwestern end. The lake, shaped like a body of a giant helicopter, is fifteen miles long, two miles wide, and more than five hundred feet deep in places, with mountains and a glacier at one end. The waters of Skilak are notoriously cold and turbulent. It isn’t unusual to have water temperatures hovering around thirty-eight degrees, even in the summer. The mix of cold water and the glacial ice of the massive Harding Icefield, along with the high mountains that support it and work like a giant wind tunnel, make for a deadly combination that can turn a mirror-smooth lake into the frothing mouth of a monster in an instant. Within minutes, summer warmth combining with the cold can create winds that explode off the ice field in what Alaskans refer to as williwaws—strong gusts that tear down from glacial valleys, often wreaking havoc.
The families were camped where the Kenai drains into the upper part of the lake in a series of gravel bars and fast moving braids. They had been boating up the river to fish. This is my family. My roots. The generation before me, spending a beautiful sunny day together as a healthy, happy Alaskan family.
They fished all day long up the river, and around six that evening called it quits. As my grandma recalls, she wore only a T-shirt, jeans, and hip waders. After a great afternoon of fishing, they packed their gear, donned their life jackets, and boated back down the Kenai. The agile riverboat slipped out through the flat water at the mouth of the river and into Skilak. At first, the lake’s surface was only a little choppy, but in mere seconds their fun family outing turned serious and dangerous. The surface of the lake began to boil with huge, rolling waves. Fred, thirty-five and just named officer of the month by the Anchorage police force, had little choice but to try to turn the boat so they could stay closer to shore. The waves built and were soon five and six feet high, cresting and breaking and pushing and lifting. The flat-bottom boat wasn’t designed for ocean-sized waves. Before any of them could react, one monster wave hovered over them and another surged at the bow.
“We’re going to lose her!” Fred cried as the first wave crashed over the bow and thrust the boat downward. It was one of two things my grandma can remember him saying.
In an instant, everything went under. The next thing she knew, she was plunged into the water. The cold hit her with a jolt. Her rubber hip boots filled and began pulling at her legs like giant tentacles, sucking her down. She kicked off the boots and flailed for the surface. When she erupted from below, everybody was spread out and there were waves, giant waves.
My grandma spotted my grandfather and swam to him. He had been the only one of the ten not wearing a life jacket. She wrapped her arms around him, trying to float and hold him above the water. Fred gurgled and choked. Foam bubbled out of his mouth. He had only the strength to say one last thing to her, these words she would forever carry with her.
“I’m dying. Let me go.”
She had to do the unthinkable. With no choice but to free her grip on the man she loved, she let go and began swimming.
The crests rose high over her head, and in the deep troughs she couldn’t find the others. The situation was all terror and confusion.
At first, my mom and her best friend, Betty, held on to each other. When my mom saw Fred drown, she realized the severity of their situation. She held on to Betty until her friend slipped from her hands, and she could feel herself slipping away, too.
My grandmother found Justin Koles, a family friend, holding my mom, who was sixteen. The young girl in his arms was unconscious, and Justin held her afloat and swam toward my grandma.
“Take Diane with you,” my grandma, always in charge, yelled over the wind and breaking waves. “Swim for shore, and get help.”
Justin, twenty-seven, also a policeman, kicked toward the shore, towing my mom.
The cold was taking its toll. Grandma knew she didn’t have much time left. With the last of her energy she made her way toward the rocky shore in order to save her own life. She had no idea what had become of their other two boys. All she knew was that her only chance of survival was to get out and find a way to get warm.
She struggled through the waves, her arms and legs so numb she couldn’t even feel herself kicking.
When she reached the shore, the waves broke over the top of her and slammed her up against a steep cliff that rose straight up from the water. Her arms and legs barely held enough strength to keep her upright, but adrenaline and fear surged through her. All she could do was begin the steep climb. At this point she wore only a tank top, socks, and jeans, all soaking wet in the wind.
While Grandma was climbing, Justin swam hard, with an arm around my mom. He fought the waves all the way to shore, and by luck he reached a small cove instead of the cliff face. He left my mom on the shore and ran. He sprinted along the shoreline to try to get help. In the meantime, my grandma reached the top of the cliff, not knowing if anyone else had made the swim to shore. She was hypothermic from the extended exposure to the frigid waters, and was trying to get her bearings. The shore of Skilak Lake in that area is rugged, with a dense forest of spruce, birch, and tangled alder brush. She stripped down out of her clothes, wrung out her wet jeans, put them back on, and stuffed leaves and grass inside her clothes to try to stay warm. She continued exploring the terrain until she finally reached an overlook above the cove. Below her, she spotted her daughter lying in the sand. She sprinted madly through the brush to reach my mom. When she arrived, she found my mom still unconscious, with foam bubbling out of her mouth, just like Fred.
Grandma started doing chest compressions on her, yelling over and over, “You’re not going to die! You’re not going to die!”
With all the carnage on that day, Grandma felt she had to keep Diane from dying, and this was something she could do. She would do something about this. She wouldn’t lose her girl, too. She worked until my mom’s eyes fluttered and she started breathing on her own. But Grandma’s daughter still would die if she couldn’t get her warm. Grandma found a Zippo lighter in her jeans pocket. The lighter was all wet and wouldn’t work. She sat there, holding Diane in her arms, trying to warm her, and then an idea hit her.
She remembered a survival tip she had learned while watching an old show that aired in the early seventies in Alaska, a short program about how to survive if you were caught in the Alaska wilderness. The fifteen-minute segments gave people all these little survival tips, and she realized the episodes kept flashing back to her. That was how she knew to use the grass to stuff into her clothing to create a barrier to keep her warm. The next thing she recalled was how to start a fire with a wet Zippo.
She collected a small pile of tinder. With her trembling hands, she somehow managed to get the lighter apart. She blew on the flint and wick to dry it a bit and then used the sparker to ignite the fuel sponge inside the lighter. Fire. Soon she had my mom warming up by a big burning pile of driftwood, and then she ran down the beach and picked up life jackets that had floated ashore. She hung these up in a tree, so that boaters would see them.
Then, with the fire blazing, she took off on her own to try to find help. She bushwhacked for what felt like hours until she broke out on a rocky overlook where she could survey the lake. She couldn’t see any signs of humanity. For a moment she lost it and began to shriek. She screamed into the roaring winds, and the way she tells the story, it felt like her screams were being shoved right back into her mouth. As if the wind that had already swallowed most of her family was just throwing her screams right back at her.
She wailed for a while and then started exploring again, until she realized she had just been walking in circles. Frustrated, disheartened, and exhausted, she sat down, only to feel the vibrations of what she thought was an approaching boat motor. She raced over to the rocky overlook, hoping for help in the form of a fisherman, and she began to get excited. At first she didn’t understand or believe what she saw. Instead of a fishing boat, there it was, nearly twelve hours after their boat sank: a giant green helicopter.
Frantic, she waved, and they spotted her. The helo hovered and a man in an orange suit jumped out of the bird, into the lake, and swam over to where she was. He checked her out and said, “We can’t hoist out right here. We’ve got to hike a bit.” So they hiked up above the prominence she was on and then they sent down “the bullet,” the forest penetrator, a metal seat attached to the hoist cable, and hoisted her up into the helicopter.
Sitting inside were Justin and my mom. They were the only three survivors among the ten souls on that boat. The aircrew flew them to the Soldotna hospital. My mother picked up pneumonia from the water that had penetrated deep into her lungs. My grandmother was treated for hypothermia. It would take a long time for either of them to warm up, an experience I would later share.
“It’s really crazy that we got saved by the rescue guys and you went on to become one of them,” my grandmother exclaimed, after sharing her version of our story. At first she had a hard time coping with the loss, but she said that what helped her move on was realizing that it’s just life, and if you choose to live in Alaska, these things are going to happen.
The remains of my step-uncle, Harold, eight years old, were buried according to his living mother’s wishes, and the remains of my aunt Kathy, also eight, were scattered over Sleeping Lady, a mountain north of Anchorage. To this day, my grandmother’s husband, Fred, and their nine-year-old son, Danny, remain unrecovered.
The incredible thing is that during this whole struggle, my grandma never once thought she was going to die, never thought about giving up. According to my grandmother, smiling through the hard knocks and embracing the challenges in life are a family tradition. “We’re not boring people,” she says. “Nothing is ever boring in our family.”
I grew up with two notions as the only certainties in my life: nothing is ever boring, and, since that fateful day in July, that I come from a family where hardship and survival go hand in hand.
Copyright © 2017 by James Charles Settle and Donald Joseph Rearden