I LEAVE NORFOLK, VA on U.S 13 in an Army truck and head for Cape Charles. In my mind I see the three bridges and two tunnels connecting this magnificent twenty-three-mile feat of highway engineering over and under the Chesapeake Bay ahead of me, scary miles, not for the distance, but because of my mission.
I’m carrying U. S. Government Issue ADY. It’s ten times more explosive than dynamite. I’m talking high grade, kid glove, super volatile stuff.
Every part of the route has been checked out by the Secret Service. Now, I know no commercial truck can carry explosives or other hazardous materials through any tunnel in America. Government says it’s an invitation to terrorists.
I can, though. I’m in the middle of an Army convoy, one cog in a larger wheel. Ahead and behind me serious minded military personnel escort me. They don’t appear scared, but they should be.
Bizarre? Yeah. You read history and you’re going to know that strange things happen, but people mostly forget in the crush of trying to get through their own lives. If it doesn’t touch them or family, it’s not important. Sure, something hits the front page; they’re interested. Who wouldn’t be, but for the most part, it’s business as usual and somebody else can figure it out, put it out or fight it. Know what I mean?
I’m driving a twenty-four foot straight truck, no markings except for the olive drab camouflage paint the Army likes so much. It sure as hell doesn’t say “Explosives” on it, but it’s heavy duty rigged and specially sprung so’s not to catch a pothole hard. I’m to avoid them. Humpty-Dumpty…all the King’s horses…you know?
You’ve seen the movies. Fill a truck like mine up with dynamite and plan out a scene with cameras at different angles and they can use the same scene over and over. The Director says “Action!” and off they go. Some daredevil stuntman starts the truck and at the right moment bails onto a soft air-filled pillow out of camera range and the truck goes on and suddenly there’s this tremendous explosion and the truck disintegrates and there’s fire and commotion and the leading lady faints-you know-and then you hear, “Cut! Print!” and that’s that.
It’s fun for moviegoers-what, they spill their popcorn-but in this convoy you got to know the soldier I can see behind me in my side mirror hanging back as far as his lieutenant will let him. He doesn’t know anything, but he thinks he knows something.
As for me, Uncle Sam is persuasive. I’m the inventor, the explosives expert who knows this particular nastiness my company sold to the Army. It’s why I got this gig.
We’re going thirty. Colonel tells me it is regulation speed.
Regulation! Good God! All you can think of?
He’s the boss. He’s thinking, GD civilian…are you a MAN! I see it in his eyes.
All they tell me is it’s my job to get the stuff to the new hush-hush site twelve miles over the line south of Oyster today. It has to be today, not tomorrow when I say it’ll be safer, but today.
After that I guess they’ll wipe my memory or something. National Security…? What the hell are they up to?
I’m to cross the bridge, shoot up Lankford Memorial Highway, pick up Seaside Road off Plantation and turn off when the Army tells me. Side roads mostly. Keep the public safe…or in the dark. One of those.
The plan’s easy, but I gotta get there first and I’m sweating it. Here’s why. I told the Army brass that ADY goes through an unstable period forty-eight hours after it’s manufactured. I explained that the mix settles down in about an hour, but that during that hour it heats up and it doesn’t take much to set it off. I say it’s a delayed chemical reconfiguration and once that’s done it’s as good as C-4 until you fire it off. The Colonel doesn’t want to hear it. He looks at me with disdain.
I cough up his words; I hear him say, “We have a schedule. You will drive at thirty miles per hour. You will not deviate. Nothing will happen.”
Thinks he knows more than I do. Well, Colonel Smart-ass, I made this stuff two days ago and guess what? Two days is the same as 48 hours. You knew that. What the hell’s your rush?
Anyway, what’s he care? He’s riding way up front. If the truck goes up, I stop worrying. I stop everything. I sure won’t give a damn about how the Colonel tries to explain it to his superiors. Those silver leafs must suck brain matter from your head.
The first segment of the long complex is fine. We get to South Thimble Island, pass the fishing pier and dive just after the Chesapeake Grill. This part I dread. I don’t like the idea of millions of gallons of water over my head. I keep it at thirty as we head down the ramp. The lights seem dim, but I accommodate quickly. After some eternal moments we’re heading up the ramp and back into the sun.
The second segment is like the first and the three vehicles ahead and behind me seem part of a dream because I’m concentrating and I’m listening and I’m sniffing the air. So far okay. I see the second tunnel ahead. More water over my head coming, but you don’t do explosives if you’re a wimp, so I keep it shut and drive.
I glance at my watch for the fortieth time. Sweat’s pouring off me now. When the long ramp levels out I’m a hundred feet under the damn ocean. I’m trying to think of something pleasant when a hot chemical smell wafts in through the window grate behind me. It’s starting to cook. I want to stop but I don’t dare. First, I’m in the tunnel and second the military has no sense of humor.
I key my radio. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. With a curse I throw the radio on the seat. The road is smooth, but I slow down. Anything could set it off now. Horns begin to blare. The message is keep going. Bastards!
I ease back up to thirty. The up ramp is gradual. I watch for any ripple in the road. I play the wheel gently, like a musician, anima delicato. I’m in third and I don’t care what they say, I’m not going to jolt the truck by changing gears. Let the transmission whine.
Steady…steady… I keep going and see light ahead. Maybe I’ll make it…maybe I will. The smell gets acrid. It’s going critical. There’s one sound I haven’t heard yet. Maybe…
With a sigh of relief, my truck clears the tunnel and I’m in bright sunlight again. Then I hear the hiss. It grows and I know I have ten seconds to live.
To hell with it! I’m Reserve. I have a family. They can keep this chicken Army. I ease to a stop as fast as I can, drop it in neutral, open the door and bolt toward the opposite rail. I dive over it and head for the dark blue water below.
As my feet leave the ground I yell, “It’s gonna BLOW!” I imagine I see open-mouthed soldiers just beginning to grasp the idea that something’s gone as wrong as it can get.
Just as I clear the roadbed heading down, a huge explosion arches over my head. I feel the heat, but I’m not going to incinerate. I’m falling, falling, end for end, trying to remember how skydivers right themselves. I’m fifty, forty…ten feet above the cold water and I’ve got my feet under me. I slam into it and it feels like cement. I go under, deep.
I’ve knocked most of the breath out of me, but I open my eyes and I can see bubbles rising toward the light. In the bubbles I see fish-eye glimpses of my life.
In my moment of panic, I forgot I can’t swim.