Wednesday, July 20, 2005
It was kind of fun to watch the crew breakdown the camp, because, of course, as they progressed it meant he was closer and closer to a rescue.
The cook made everyone a big, sit-down breakfast at sunrise; then, after preparing sandwiches for later, began packing up his kitchen gear.
Meese was right, the two Sherps and a few final crates were loaded onto the Chinook at a little after one o’clock. It soon took-off and in its familiar nose down position moved up the valley; he watched it with the monocular until it finally disappeared in the distant haze.
He called in to Irwin they could now move to phase two but knew there were still several more hours to wait, because one part of the plan included a built-in cushion, to make sure the transport didn’t circle back, having forgotten something.
The other part, the more crucial part, was that if the Russians followed their regular patrol pattern, one of the Hinds would overfly the valley later in the afternoon, heading west. To cover this contingency, an Air Force high altitude spy bird was circling above the Wakhan Corridor in Afghani air space, but still able to spot the Russian helicopter taking off from the base at the east end of the lake. They also wanted to wait because with the westbound patrol on their schedule, Russian radar operators would be more focused in that direction, and even though the Pave Low planned to fly nap of the earth to reach Meese’s position, hopefully well below any radar, they didn’t want to take any chances.
Irwin and Meese were birds of a feather in their thoroughness and attention to detail.
The Hind did overfly Meese’s position at a little after three, as expected. He didn’t call it in, though, because he knew “they” already knew from the aerial surveillance. But he did celebrate by squeezing the last couple of ounces of his peanut butter into his mouth, letting it slowly dissolve, for the moment quieting the growling from his stomach.
Twilight was an hour away. The Russian Hind had to be at least a couple hundred miles to the west by now and the radar spotters at the Lake Zorkul base should be getting bored and less attentive. Meese’s sat phone vibrated. He activated it and heard a single word, “Go.”
He didn’t have to say anything, but probably couldn’t have even if he’d wanted to, as his throat was choked with emotion; his rescue was underway for real.
He heard the unique thrumming of the Pave Low’s six-blade main rotor coming up the Pamir River gorge for twenty minutes before its grey and tan bulk swung into view out over the valley from the right. In contrast to the sleek lines of the Eurocopter, or the menacing quality of a Hind, the Pave Low had a strictly no-frills, utilitarian aspect. Meese had never seen anything so beautiful.
It flew a short way up the valley, then did a one-eighty, its windowed cockpit now facing the ridge he had been hiding on top of for nearly a week. Using his elbows, he scooted forward to the edge and waved; it was all the effort he could manage. He didn’t need his monocular to see the pilot wave back.
The pilot then jerked his thumb to the right, telling Meese they intended to land on the valley floor at the base of a manageable upslope a mile to his north. It was as close as the big bird could safely get to his position.
After setting down, its nose now facing south, toward their escape route, he watched the helicopter’s side doors slide back and six men jump out, all wearing tan jumpsuits with the squiggly brown camo pattern, like worms were crawling all over them. Two had their M4s in the across-the-chest position; they moved away from the helicopter and did a three-sixty visual survey to secure the landing zone.
The other four, their carbines slung over shoulders, pulled a basket stretcher from the helicopter and started up the side of the valley at double-time.
One of the rifle-at-the-ready PJs stayed with the helicopter, the other followed the rescuers, guarding their six.
Meese watched until they disappeared from his line of sight behind the rocks three-quarters of the way up, confused because he was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.
He knew it wasn’t from the cold, as the “summer” temperatures up here were usually in the upper-teens and low twenties and his cold-weather jump suit, sleeping bag and tarp had been more than enough to keep him warm.
So, maybe it was just a low blood sugar reaction from lack of food.
Or maybe he was simply overcome with excitement over his impending reprieve from what could have been – should have been? – a death sentence.
He waited until he heard the crunching of multiple boots approaching in quick time on the path behind him. While he was successful in rolling over onto his back, he failed in trying to sit up to greet his rescuers; his joints were stiff and uncooperative, his muscles weak and unable to support his weight, and there was no feeling below the knees.
A moment later one of the PJs appeared between the rocks a few feet from the bottom of his tarp, looking down at him.
He had a big smile, “You the guy who called for a taxi?”
It was so typically PJ-low key… It was so unbelievably absurd under the circumstances… And it was so amazing to hear… Meese lost it. He cried and laughed and shuck, all at the same time, choking on sheer joy, wanting to, but unable to say anything.
The PJ knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.
“We gotcha, man. You’re gonna be okay.”
All Natty Bumpo could manage was to grin and nod…
Next: Personally, I’d prefer a ham on rye with mustard and Swiss cheese, and a cold beer
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