It probably all started with the Gray whales. I mean, if you have to lay down what was absolutely, positively the causal chain.
Actually, no, that's not true.
It probably all started the day Owen 'Ripcord' Randall was born.
See, Ripcord served with me on the Big E. That's the U.S.S. Enterprise to you people, CVN-65. He came on board back in...well, let's just say it was the Eighties. We were in WESTPAC at the time, and he rotated aboard as a Machinist's Mate (Aviation) with an electronics sub-spec. I was an Aviation Structural Mechanic at the time, bending 'luminum on Tomcats, Vikings, what-have-you.
Why Ripcord? Oh. Ha. Well, Ripcord, y'see, he just had this problem. Once an idea occurred to him, no matter how daft, he just hadda try it. Didn't matter what it was. The only ones I think he managed to restrain himself were the ones he hadn't talked about with the guys. Once a stupid idea was brought up, Ripcord made it his mission in life to give it a shot, so long as nobody'd tried it before.
What happened was that we lost a Tomcat the week after he came on board. Flamed an engine, lost hydraulics, and both the boys in it rode the rocket outta the bus. They came down maybe fifteen miles from the boat, all shook up - the RIO had a broken arm. Launched the ready helo, had 'em back in twenty-five minutes. Everybody gave 'em a cheer as they came off the bird - the Old Man was there, and he gave 'em each a cigar and a salute. I swear, the pilot stood there, soaked and white as a sheet, and he lit that cigar before he saluted the Old Man back. Old Man held the salute the whole time. That pilot, he never bought a drink with that crew again, and the Old Man still talks about him with a grin even now, never mind the look he gave him at the time.
Anyway, there was a debate whether the RIO had broken his arm because he was tumbling when his chute opened. The debate made its way down to the mess decks, as usual, and somebody said that the best thing to do would be to trail a line before opening the main chute, that it'd stabilize you. Well, Owen had asked if the line would do it even if you weren't moving that fast, and nobody knew, and one of the Chiefs told him he was welcome to stand up on the for'ard deck and drag a line behind him during transit - the boat's pretty fast, after all. How fast? Aw, well, mumblemumblemumble, you know how it is. Anyway, the Chief was totally blowing it out his ass, but Owen got this look on his face that all the rest of us got to recognize later. We learned to tackle him and sit on his stupid ass when he got that look, but nobody knew it at the time.
So the next watch, he walks up to the front of the flight deck, wearing an emergency chute pack, and ties thirty feet of line behind himself to see if it actually makes it harder to turn 'round left or right with it out behind him. He's standing up there, all this line flappin' out behind him, and some deck chief sees him and runs over. Starts into the reaming, you could see it (oh, a few of us were back by the for'ard lift, just 'cuz we couldn't believe he was dumb enough to do it). Anyhow, Owen's nodding like his head's on a spring, and I guess the Chief told him to take the silly rope off RIGHT FUCKING NOW or some such, 'cuz he just reaches for the slipknot he's tied 'round his waist and yanks.
You can guess, right? Yeah. Grabbed the chute cord, yanked it - we were going maybe forty knots, maybe even more (hey, I never said that, okay) and before he can even turn around the chute's out behind him. I dunno if they'd normally inflate at that speed, maybe the stars were right or something, but this one did. He went back down the deck on his ass. Slid right past us with the chief in hot pursuit. We fell over ourselves laughing. Lucky for him, he ran into one of the spotting carts and caught hold, and managed to retain enough sense to cut the chute lines. That thing kept going. I guess it's down there now, some crab using it as a tent.
So yeah, he was 'Ripcord' from that moment on.
The whales, right. See, sometime in the Seventies, I think, some scientist types had found some whale in the Pacific that they thought was extinct. Gray whale, something like that. There was all this argument about where these whales were, really, and some of these scientists had convinced the Navy to lend them a hand, since there were Navy ships crossing the Pacific all the time - especially carrier groups transiting to and from WESTPAC stations. The Big E was a warm-water carrier at the time, and after we worked up, we were due to head across the Pacific to do, well, you know, what we did.
I dunno when Ripcord got the idea. That boy got ideas all the damn time, all day, every day. Some of 'em he'd tell us about. Some he wouldn't. Some he'd just up and try out, and I guess you gotta give the boy his due, most of 'em didn't get him in trouble - he didn't like getting in trouble unless it was, as he said, 'worth it.'
None of us ever figured out how he figured if it was 'worth it' or not, but most of the times he got in trouble ended up as sea stories. Maybe the boy was trying to be a legend. Maybe he was just obsessed.
Anyway, part of this transit was from the exercise area off San Diego, where we picked up the rest of the battle group, out to Pearl. We were supposed to go on out from Pearl after a one-week alongside, maintenance, resupply, all that. And these scientists, three of 'em, came on board before we left sight of the CONUS, by helo. They had a bunch of gear with them. The Navy, it turns out, had given them permission to trail a bunch of expensive recorders and sensors behind the boats to see if they could either hear these whales or figure out if the Navy sonar was on the same frequencies these whales were.
I was with Ripcord when he first met 'em. They were standing at the fantail, and they had their gear hung over the back so it was bobbing in the boat's wake, maybe fifty yards back. They had it connected to one of the winches near the rail, and they had headphones and other such stuff and were talking away with each other - well, shouting, really. He got that look on his face, and I was thinking of just decking him right there, but one of the scientists was a lady - good looking one, too - so I couldn't tell if he was having an Idea or if he was just hot on her. Can't deck a man for staring at a woman, not on a boat with five thousand guys on it.
So he goes over and starts talking to 'em all. I guess it worked out - they needed help getting some gear, and he was an expert in scrounging gear on the boat; by that time, he knew most of the chiefs if only because they were so used to shouting at his ass. So he ended up taking over as their unofficial guide. He got permission, somehow, to be 'liaison' with them, which meant so long as he got his work done, he wouldn't get yelled at if he was hanging out with them, helping out.
A few of us talked it over, but we couldn't see anything he could really screw up, other than maybe make a pass at that lady egghead, and we figured if he did that, he deserved whatever he got, whichever way it went. So we kept an eye on him while he was workin' like we always did.
He started scrounging stuff, which always made us nervous, but as far as we could tell, it was all stuff for the scientists. He got them an inflatable life raft when they wanted to try keeping their gear just below the surface, and worked up a harness to drag the stuff below the raft. He had to get an aluminum frame worked up to hang the gear from which attached 'around' the raft - two long thin pieces of wood and metal with a few crossbraces, and the gear package hanging from two mounting rings off the middle crossbraces. The middle crossbraces and the side rails locked together using sockets with quick-releases, and he spent a few days machining the whole thing up with my help. He even had written permission for time and materials, so it made a change, working with him on gear that didn't make me wonder how it was gonna get me in trouble.
Sure enough, he got that rig assembled around a life raft, and it did a great job of holding their gear the two meters below the surface they wanted. They had to trail it farther back, to get it out of the worst of the wake, maybe a hundred meters, but it worked okay. They sent it out a few times, brought it back with the winch, no problems. I know they left it out there a few nights, just listening.
We were busy giving Ripcord crap about the girl, but he kept shaking his head. After we had a particularly big pile-on about it, he sat there in the mess with this pair of deck boots that he was working on and finally admitted that he'd made a try and she'd cut him off, but in a nice way. So we stopped giving him crap about it. He just sat there, carving on the heels of the boots. He'd been playing with them for a few weeks, trying to reduce their weight without reducing the contact surface, after we'd had a bitch session about how heavy they were.
Finally, a couple of days before we were supposed to hit Pearl (it had been a lazy crossing, and we'd been doing a bunch of working up exercises on the way, zigzagging north and south for flight ops) we were all sitting around the table forcing down the day's attempt at lunch, and I noticed Ripcord was sitting kind of quiet. I leaned over and punched him one, and he came back, grinned at me, and ate a bit, but I was already reminding myself to tell the boys to keep an eye on him. Turns out I didn't have to, though - a few minutes later, he casually asked the guys how fast they thought we were going. All of us turned to look at him. Last time he'd asked that, he'd ended up shooting down the flight deck on his ass attached to a chute. He saw us all looking at him and put his hand over his heart and swore this had nothing to do with anything like that. He didn't have another chute, and he wasn't going near the flight deck, he was just curious when we were gonna make dock at Pearl because he had family on Big Island.
Well, we hadn't known that, and we relaxed a bit. He dug up a photo of his cousin, and she was a looker, let me tell you. A few of the guys tried to recall on favors for an intro, but he was too smart to fall for that. She wasn't his sister, but was as close as he had, and he wasn't gonna put her in harm's way, nohow.
So we all split from lunch. As we did, though, he grabbed my arm and told me he wanted me to give him a hand. With what, I asked, suspicious. Oh, he said, he had to run the gear raft back out before dinner to check and see if some work he'd done on the frame would make it run smoother. I gave him a fishy eye, but he sure looked straight, so I said sure. We went back to the fantail and he hooked the raft up to the winch. He showed me how he'd reshaped the front of the side rails so they were more streamlined, and I nodded. It was a nice piece of metalwork. So anyway, we tossed the raft over the back and started winching it out. I asked him if the gear package wasn't supposed to go over, and he said no, he wasn't supposed to mess with that unless the scientists were around.
I lit up a smoke as we waited for the winch to pay out the hundred meters of thin cable holding the raft on, and we watched it slowly edge back away from the rear of the ship. We used to stand back there during flight ops if we were off watch, sometimes, watching the planes float down towards us as they aimed for the offset huge yellow stripe painted down the back of the ship. Somehow, watching from the fantail rather than the hectic mess of the flight deck made the whole thing even more surreal - jet planes sliding down a hill in the sky, landing on a boat. There would be the quiet whine as they passed just out of view overhead, then the roar as they went to max military power just before slamming down onto the deck, and finally the enormous groan of the arresting gear bleeding off their speed - and then, at the end, the noise level would drop again, and another bird was home.
So we're standing there shooting the shit, waiting for the raft. No planes in sight - were were on transit, not doing flight ops. Off to the port and starboard you could see a couple ships of the battle group - a fast oiler, and a cruiser, this close in. The winch reaches a hundred yards and stops.
And as I'm sitting there looking back at the raft bobbing in the wake, I see something wrong out of the corner of my eye, and I turn to look - and there's Ripcord, standing on the railing. He's got some kind of cable loop between his hands and it's thrown over the winch cable, and he's grinning like a loon. I think about grabbing him, but don't want to risk it, I'm just too far away, and he shouts something about how somebody should see it, and then the little fucker jumps.
I swear to God, jumps off the back of the ship.
I spat my butt out and grabbed the rail, and looked down - and there he was, sliding down the cable. He'd stripped his jacket off, and it was on the deck by me, to reveal a float vest, and it took him maybe half a minute, and then the little bastard had climbed into the raft. I shouted my head off, which was stupid because you couldn't hear me past maybe ten or fifteen yards, and went tear-assing over to the watch stand to pinch some binoculars. Two or three guys who had been back there smoking had gathered near the winch, pointing at the raft, when I got back with the specs. I put them to my face and looked, and there was Ripcord, kneeling in the raft and leaning over the side. He's working something, and after maybe a minute the raft shakes and I see him pulling one of the damn frame rails over the side. Then he does it again, so both of 'em are sitting in the raft, and then he's messing with the boots he'd been playing with, which are on his feet-
Around then I figured it out, and went tearassing into the hangar where some of the guys were playing basketball, and screamed my head off. Five of 'em came running, and we got back to the fantail just in time to see the lunatic bastard hop out of the raft, holding onto his little cable loop which was attached to the back of the raft itself.
There was a second when we all considered running for the intercom to shout for 'man overboard' and then-
-then the bastard came up out of the water, standing up, holding on and waving his stupid fool head off. The guys were shouting and laughing and one of 'em had a camera, and guys were showing up all the time, proving that gossip on the boat was faster than sound, and soon there were fifty or a hundred guys jumping up and down and pointing back there.
Back to where Ripcord, a blissfully satisfied expression on his face, was finally proving to himself that yes, you can waterski behind an aircraft carrier.
Well, he was back there maybe ten minutes before some of the chiefs reeled his ass back in. He skiied up nearly to the stern platform before he hooked the cable to his vest, and the thing hauled his ass back up onto the boat. He was grabbed and brigged so fast his feet didn't touch the ground.
They took him off the boat at Pearl, and I never saw him again. But he was grinning as he went, and I knew why - that camera had never surfaced, even when the chiefs swore up and down they'd make life hell for whoever had it. And sure enough, about two weeks later, copies of pictures of him back there started showing up throughout the fleet, no matter that they tried to stomp 'em out.
A few months later, just before I rotated off, I helped fight a fire in the hangar spaces. Not a big one, but I pulled a chief out from under a Tomcat that was nearly involved, and the Old Man had me and a couple other guys up to give us the good-job speech.
Over his desk, I saw a Polaroid tucked behind a wiring conduit, half of it showing. You could just barely make out Ripcord's shit-eating grin.