A Surprise Visitor
Mountain Falls, Late Afternoon
The unmistakable sound of a big helicopter, "Whop, whop, whop, whop...", punctuated the air outside the cabin. Circling, it sought a clear landing spot near the road. Jason rushed out to meet it before it landed. Grandma Gail was close behind. The big Army Chinook was already kicking up grass and leaves in the clearing in front of the cabin by the road. Running full tilt, Jason arrived, the rotors' wind in his face, just as the helicopter was touching down. A big man in full military gear threw a large duffel out, and then jumped after. He ducked down while the big craft took off and then ran over to Jason standing at the edge of the prop wash.
Colonel James A. Forsythe grabbed Jason by the shoulders and stared him directly in the eye, his face bathed in the strong light of the copter. "Jason Forsythe! I'm so glad to see you. God, how you've grown since the last time I saw you! I prayed that you were okay."
Gail Forsythe arrived to wrap her arms around her son and grandson. She was shaking and crying at the same time, holding her dear ones close. There they were, standing out in the angling light, so glad to be alive. Finally, after what she thought was long enough, Gail announced, "Come on, it's cold out here. Come on, let's all go inside." Jason grabbed his uncle's duffel and threw it over his shoulder. It must have weighed 70 pounds, but Jason had enough adrenaline in him to carry the world.
When they got to the porch, the Colonel looked around, and then looked at Jason. His eyes narrowed. "Where's old Betsy? Did she get hurt in the blast? He kept looking back in the trees, as if she would be hiding there
"No, she didn't. I keep her in the shed out of the sun, leaves, and bird poop. Try to keep her the way she was when you gave her to me. She's got a few more miles, that's all."
"Oh, 32,000 now. Took her down to Florida for spring break in March. Otherwise, except for coming up here, I've just been driving around town." They had reached the porch and Jason was glad to prop the heavy duffel up against the step."
"Well, Jason, what are you waiting for? Let's go take a look... Oh, Mom, don't mean to ignore you. Jason and I are going down to the shed take a look at the Camaro, okay?"
"It's okay. You boys go play. I'll cook supper. Just be back before seven or it'll be cold."
"I remember like it was yesterday. In 1969, after my second stint at Da Nang where I made Captain, I got six months off and my bonus for signing back up. When I arrived at Dulles, I took a cab to Fairfax and bought her off the lot with cash. Charlie Chester, the owner of Chester's Chevrolet was shocked. She was sitting in his showroom with everyone fawning over her, and I just bought her, sight unseen. Didn't even bargain. She had 2 miles on her. They opened the door and I drove her right out of the showroom. A 396 with Tri-Power and a four-speed Muncie. Deep blue with white stripes and a white convertible top. Had a devil of a time finding a top when I gave her to you. The old one was all rotten."
They arrived at the shed, down the hill behind the cabin, and Jason raised the heavy wooden door.
"There she is! That's my baby, just the way I remember her. Brought her up here that day to show Mom and she was pretty upset with me spending $5,900 on a car. Guess it was a pretty good investment. What's it worth now?"
"Last time I checked on eBay, one in my condition was selling for $42,000. That's why I've been so careful with it. Haven't really ever taken her up to what the engine's capable of. Did take her up to 120 on the 495 for a mile or so. And then I was afraid of ripping the convertible top at that speed. With those new Michelin's I've got, she handled quite well."
"Well, I've had her there and more in the old days. Took her up to New York City for New Year's Eve and had her down at Daytona over spring break. What a time we had! Opened her up on the beach with two of my buddies and three bikini beauties we picked up. Had the top down, we were drunk, and all screaming bloody murder. I don't know how fast I went or any of the names of those girls, but I could've wrecked it and killed us all. Didn't find that out till three days later when I sobered up. Those were the days. Let's take her for a spin."
In five minutes they had the top down and the tonneau cover buttoned up. Jim Forsythe took the wheel. A couple of minutes more and they were turning onto Pifer Road in front of the cabin. It was already evening and a bit cool, but they didn't notice. The Colonel took it up through the gears and they were cruising on familiar territory -- both of them knew every curve and bump. Colonel Forsythe continued his story. "Well, anyway, after my six months was up, I drained out all the fluids, put her up on blocks, covered her up with an old tarp and said goodbye. Next thing I know, the commander has me doing intelligence in the Parrot's Beak checking out the DMV and VC's whereabouts before Nixon started bombing it into oblivion."
"Every time I wanted to drive her when I had a little break the thought of getting her down off the blocks and ready to roll was just too much -- so I never did. And then, when I was recuperating from an ankle injury two years ago, I decided that I'd give her to you. It was good therapy for me as I worked around in the boot and got her back up and running again. Got to thank old Charlie Parker and his garage in Winchester for finding parts from Chevy dealer stocks in these parts and from old junkers he knew of that we took parts from. Is he still open?
"Yes, I saw his shop on 50. Haven't stopped over for anything though. Now that you mentioned it, I will if I need to."
"A good guy to know. Anyway, had to wait a month for the top, and got it just two days before your birthday. Damn good thing it fit. Drove it down there that morning and parked it in the circle with that big blue bow tied around it."
"Yeah. I was sure surprised to see you at my breakfast on my 16th birthday, and shocked when I went outside and saw the car in the drive! Like I said, I've been taking very good care of it because I know it is now a classic and worth a lot. The guys in school are jealous that I've got such a nice ride. Don't have any trouble filling up when I go to games or school events. Have even had it in the shop in school working on the brakes. Got to drive it in the homecoming parade filled with cheerleaders."
"Got a girlfriend?"
"I did have. Erica and I were steady during my sophomore and junior year. But you know me, I was trying to pay attention to my studies and she was busy planning my life after we got married. She's rich and always wants to have her way. She thinks Betsy is silly. Her daddy gave her a new Jaguar to drive. I just feel uncomfortable with her friends. Now that things have really changed, I see myself up here, alone, in the mountains, not hanging out with her crowd in the city." He thought about telling Uncle Jim about Shauna, but didn't.
Jim turned her right, and Betsy's tires crackled on the gravel of the drive as she eased down the path like an obedient animal to her familiar parking space in the shed. Once the rumble of her engine had died in her lights flashed out, Uncle Jim said, "Thanks for letting me drive her again, Jason. She feels better than she did back when I remember driving her."
They were silent, but there was a bounce in their step as they hurried up the drive to the front door where Jason heaved his Uncle's heavy duffel over his shoulder once again and mounted the steps to the cabin.
The cabin was warm and inviting. Grandma had started a fire in the fireplace. After he dropped the duffel in the spare room, Jason joined his uncle before the fire. "James, would you like a beer?" Gail called out to her son from the kitchen.
"I sure would, Mom. Bring one for Jason too."
Jason didn't tell his uncle that he didn't like beer. He just accepted the can of Bud Light that his grandmother gave him and took a sip of it. She brought some pretzels too and that helped absorb the tang of the brew.
Jim Forsythe spoke first. "I don't know where to begin, except to say that I was lucky--damned lucky! You probably thought I was dead. Well, everybody else is, except those that were in the bunker with me. I had just been upstairs in a meeting earlier that morning, once again explaining to the Brass that we needed more money to make the bunker more secure and accommodating in the 21st century. Although they had reactivated the bunker after 9/11 and that plane hit us, they never really fully funded and restored it. They put me in charge six months ago and then never gave me enough to get it back in shape. It's a wonder that the automatic doors sealed when the bomb hit. That was one thing we were working on. The bunker was built in 1949 and was state-of-the-art at the time. However, all that heavy metal and mechanical equipment was subject to corrosion over time until it was declared inoperable and shut down in 1993. Unfortunately, only the few of us that were in the bunker, survived. Nobody upstairs had any warning. We all hit the floor. I tell you, it was like an earthquake. The ground shook and we were all thrown the floor. We knew instinctively what it was and grabbed our rad suits and put them on. There is nothing more confining and comforting than one of those suits. I immediately wanted to get out of it, but knew that if I didn't stay in, I could be getting too much radiation."
"My crew was top-notch, and we all got to work immediately checking the radiation levels and seeing if all the dust that fell down was radioactive. We were lucky, damn lucky, that the shock closed those doors automatically. After that, it was just a matter of waiting things out and trying to establish communication. First, I used the old long wave system to get in touch with NORAD. A few days later I was able to push an antenna up out of the mess above and reach the new Army headquarters at Fort Myer. We had plenty of food and good air. We were all lucky, so damned lucky..." He started to cry.
The Colonel caught himself, sucked in a breath of air, wiped the tears from his eyes, and continued, "After two weeks, being caught in that hole with all the radiation above started to get to us. But we never lost hope of rescue. Finally, four very brave guys in a specially equipped Abrams tank, came to us and got us out. I don't know how much radiation we got exposed to. Except for Thomas Roosevelt who got arterial bleeding after an accident in the escape tube, we were all very lucky to get out without injury. We stitched Thomas up and gave him a transfusion. He’s recovering at Ft. Myer"
Colonel Forsythe fell silent and sipped his beer. Jason sensed that it was his turn to talk. "Gayle was at Georgetown. You know she's been staying with her boyfriend. Mom and Dad didn't approve of it, but there wasn't much they could do since she's 21. We don't know if she survived. We haven't heard anything, so I don't think so. Mom got up early so she could beat the traffic to the Montessori school. Dad left soon after, so I expect he was in his office at the State Department. They were both within a half-mile of Ground Zero." He kept wiping his eyes and sipping on his beer, trying to be brave while he talked about it.
"I was in my physics class when the first shock wave hit us. Our teacher, Mr. Collins, was blinded by the flash, and some students were injured by flying glass and debris. We were able to get all the injured into one bus and it headed to the nearest trauma center. Our principal, Ms. Warner told us all the go home. I was expecting to graduate in May. We had already lined up a scholarship for me at George Mason. I don't know what's happening to me now -- whether I'll go to college or not."
"Oh, you'll go to college and be successful. I'll see to that." Grandma Gayle put her most persuasive coin in the box. If you can't go to George Mason, we'll find a place where you can go, like the Air Force Academy."
"I hate to interrupt where you’re going Mom, but I have something important to say that will affect Jason's future. I was going to talk about it later, but now is as good a time as any. When I got to headquarters at Fort Myer, they immediately tapped me to head a top-secret organization--an underground army. I'm here so that I can get some quiet time to read the plan they developed and figure out how I will carry it out. One of the things that I know about it is that it will make use of the most intelligent of our young people in a way that is like the Astronaut Corps. I'm not supposed to tell anyone, but I know that you'd be wondering what I was doing and that you can keep this secret. Jason, on the helicopter ride here, I could only think of one thing. That is that I'd like you to be one of our first recruits. You fit the profile and it would be a great honor for a Forsythe to participate. The rules for entry are very stringent -- I believe that you meet all of them. However, I will ask the Commander and the President for a special waiver to make sure that you get in. I've said too much for now. I'll tell you more after I've had time to read the plan and work up my response to the Commander. Please don't ask me any questions. I've told you too much already. This is top-secret. Promise that you won't say anything to anybody about it."
"I promise. It does sound exciting. There's nothing to lose the way things are now." Jason was exuberant at his uncle's disclosure.
"You know, son, your mother never reveals any military or family secrets. I don't want you getting Jason into any trouble or anything over his head now, you hear?"
"It's okay Mom. I'll look after him. From what I noticed so far, it looks like the program was made for him."
"We'll see." Mom Forsythe always reserved the last word.
The Colonel downed the last of his beer and said, "I'm bushed. I hope you don't mind if I hit the sack. I'm looking forward to a good night's rest." He got up and headed for the spare room.
"Goodnight, Uncle Jim. I guess I'll sleep in the basement tonight. Is that okay, Grandma?
"It's okay, Jason. Now, come with me to the kitchen and help me with the dishes."
The next morning Jason got up early and headed up the mountain. He didn't want to bother his uncle with what he had to do and thought he would give them time to talk without him being there. It was one of those days when the world seemed alive with expectation. He came upon a doe with two fawns. She didn't smell or see him, so he quietly watched as she grazed on some young twigs while her fawns explored nearby. He noticed that her nose was constantly twitching, testing the air for the smell of danger. Likewise, her ears. He wondered what it was like to spend your entire life on edge, constantly worrying about your safety. At least the twins were carefree. They would learn soon enough to sense when danger was near. For now, their mother had to do it for them. Before he left, both fawns had come back to their mother to nurse. It was a wonderful sight, one few people ever get to see. How to be lovingly generous and alert at the same time. There was a lesson in this. Jason hoped he had learned it. He moved quietly on his way, downwind. He didn't disturb the mother and her babies.
That day he made a wonderful find. While digging by some rocks, he saw what appeared to be some rusty metal. Digging it out, he had found a Civil War era cannonball. It was small, about three inches in diameter, and weighed about ten pounds--steel, he thought. Wonder what it was doing way up here? He couldn't wait to bring it back to show to his uncle. He loved these Virginia mountains, and they returned the favor. It was as though he was here before the Indians. It was a timeless place with a lot of history. He loved discovering it. While he was coming back down the mountain, he happened upon a hen turkey with about ten chicks. They were moving about so much it was hard to count. When he surprised them, the hen immediately flew up in his face while the chicks scattered. She flew to one side to divert his attention from them. And then she silently disappeared The chicks tried to follow, but couldn't. Instead, they dispersed in all directions. They were very adept at hiding, and hid among the grass and leaves, lying perfectly still. They were practically invisible. Even Jason's trained eye couldn't see them. He decided to wait them out. Propping himself up against a tree in the warm sun, he waited. After about ten minutes of silence, he started to hear a peeping sound. The peeping grew more until it became a chorus. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the hen turkey coming. Sneaking stealthily in from a direction different from where she had left, she gathered up her chicks one by one and moved on down the mountain. Jason waited until they were out of sight. There's a lesson here, too, he thought. He put it away for further reference.
The cabin was in the shadow of the mountain by the time he returned. Uncle Jim was making steaks on the grill. Jason was hungry, so he dug right in. It was just like old times when his family was there. Only they weren't. The thought weighed heavily on his mind. "I might as well tell you the whole thing." Uncle Jim suddenly blurted out as they sat silently eating. "You two can help me formulate my plans."
"President Knox formed a commission of military, civilian, educator, and theorist experts to come up with a new way to fight terrorism. The report spends considerable time describing how conventional Armed Forces are powerless to fight terrorism. The conclusion to all this was simple. Most of the methods we were using after 9/11 weren't working; hence, the tragedy we are now facing. The Commission believes that terrorism can be thwarted but we must begin to use unconventional means to thwart it. While the current focus is on the Muslim world because of al Qaeda and 9/11, the Commission believes that the problem is much more widespread than a single religion and terrorist organization. Where ever there are disenfranchised, disillusioned, neglected, or poverty stricken people, the seeds of hatred are planted that lead to terrorism. Modern society is faced with a dichotomy by its very nature. On one side we are open and free, allowing every kind of expression to exist. Our technology provides multiple ways to communicate and share ideas. On the other hand growing population and shortages of food and basic necessities for much of the world's population leads to the kind of hatred that breeds terrorism. People follow their leaders. If leaders lead them astray, they follow anyway. No matter what kind of technology we use to restrict and direct human expression, the terrorists will always find a way around it, leaving us vulnerable. They always have the advantage of surprise, of the first strike. They can wait silently in hiding until they have the sufficient resources and courage to lash out. We don't know who planted the bomb that blew up Washington, DC. We need to find out and find a way to prevent it from ever happening again."
"The Commission came up with an idea that goes back to the Peace Corps and similar programs like the Astronaut Corps. Our armed forces, without the draft, with low pay and little incentive for the everyday soldier, have largely become, I hate to say it, mercenary. Without a clear enemy and without a draft, we cannot raise a civilian Army like the one we did in World War II. When Germany was a threat to the world, people from all walks of life volunteered. For the rest, who hesitated, there was the draft. When we abandoned the draft and paid our armed forces so poorly, we ended up with mostly the dregs of society, those who couldn't get a job, couldn't go to college, or needed something else, like immigration status, from the government. As much as we trained them, they were only as good as their innate ability, and that basically, was poor. It came down to whether or not to take the risk of being blown up on the streets of Baghdad or ending up in jail or homeless on the streets here because of a lack of skill, education, behavior, or money. Believe me, I was glad when I was assigned to the Pentagon. To lead soldiers like that was a challenge, at my age, I was unprepared to face."
"Jason, you come from a long line of military people. Your father and I chose different paths. He chose college, and I chose the military. It was hard for us, because there were advantages to both. It was less hard for the generations that followed like yours. Except for the academies, the special forces and the astronaut corps, people with exceptional ability just didn't sign up. If we are going to defeat terrorism, that has to change. The armed forces must compete with corporate America for the hearts and minds of the best and the brightest. That's where you come in. I want you to help me hone this thing so that young people of your caliber will be willing to step up and join in the greatest challenge freedom and America has ever faced. There is no clear-cut enemy, except, maybe, al Qaeda. The underground army must be large to cover the territory, and it must be smarter than its enemy. The tragedy that we've both experienced so close at hand has steeled the nation. We have only a short window of time while young people are angry to get them to sign up. What do you think?"
"You must offer them an education. The best education. All of my friends had plans to go to college. Now, like me, they don't know. The offer of a top education would be a great incentive to bright recruits."
"My thoughts exactly. I was thinking of something like West Point and Harvard combined. It would have to be convincing. I thought the best way to do that would be to enlist the best faculty from the best schools. That too, would be difficult. How could we keep the program secret if so many faculty members left their institutions? It would cost money. But the President has assured me that she would write a blank check. Just doing the numbers, this program will be a bargain among other military programs. When you start figuring the cost of a nuclear missile, a nuclear submarine, a Stealth bomber, or just the hardware and software for the average GI Joe, it's a wonder that the military hasn't broken us already."
Jason was eager to add his two cents. "And they must have some sort of military training. Most of the guys, oh... and girls, I know who are very intelligent are kind of, geeky, and not very physical."
"That would be essential. We'd have to give them the whole nine yards from basic to special forces techniques. It wouldn't be easy, but we'd have to toughen them up to face the kind of real-world activity they would be up against. That's my specialty. It's a marvel how good training can turn a 90 pound weakling into 150 pound killing machine in as little as two short years. All it takes is determination. Still, some may be more effective if they look the weakling part. We'll have to work on that, too. ... So, you agree that a combination of military training and the best education money can buy will create the kind of individual we're looking for?"
"I guess so. Everything looks good in theory. So, once you've got them educated and trained, what do you intend to do? Have them all beat up the bad guys with karate?" He laughed.
Colonel Jim laughed too. Just what the conversation needed. He had been way too serious. He'd have to lighten up and start thinking like teenagers if he was going to do this right. "You're right, Jason. That's just the stereotype most people think of when they think about fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, the movies and virtual games have got most of our young people thinking it's all action, and best solved with violence at that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there is violence and violence is what we are trying to stop. As anyone in the intelligence business knows, the solution is information. The more one knows about the enemy, the more easily he is defeated. That is why we need many recruits, moles if you will, to infiltrate and learn the inner workings of all the cults in the world. Intelligence is 95% drudgery and 5% action. That's why we need intelligent recruits. We need intelligent people who think before they act and have the facts before they act on them."
Something bothered Jason. "Okay, so you train these guys and set them loose on all the cults. What if they don't like the work they're doing and quit?"
"You're right, I thought about that. That's why I'm thinking 20 years."
"Twenty years! That's half a lifetime! What do you mean?"
I mean that's the standard military career leading to a full, pensioned retirement. Let's say these kids enter at your age, 17 or 18. Even after their education and training, they can retire at 41 or 42. That still gives them 30 years or so to pursue another career. The Commission wants to set it up so there is a sizable reward for staying in the full term. If we pay them, say, like middle management, and put the money in investments for 20 years, they will come out millionaires, with the potential for much more from their full salary pensions. They will be able to do whatever they want and be totally free for the rest of their lives from any worry about money. The only people today with a better deal is a Congressman. Oops. I shouldn't have said that--most of Congress is dead."
"Now that you put it that way, the bright kids I know and their families will go for it. Except for the constant danger of spending your best twenty years in the service, it's a great idea that my friends would like. Moles. American moles. Right?"
"Absolutely. Total anonymity. That's why our training is so important. They will be totally on their own. No communication. We can't risk them and their families by having them found out."
Colonel Forsythe took another swig from his beer and paused for a moment. He stared off across the room as if in deep thought. Finally, he spoke again. "I've been thinking. You would be a good candidate. It would honor our family for you to be the first to serve. What do you say?"
"Gee, Uncle Jim, you caught me off guard with that one. I'm going to have to think about it."
"Take all the time you want. I'm leaving tomorrow. I want to intercede for you. After that, it will be up to the selection process and you may or may not make it based on the criteria that will be put in place. Sleep on it tonight, but tomorrow I need your answer. This thing is on a fast track. My honeymoon is short. Soon I'll be fully involved in it out of contact with both of you. Sorry, but the military life is that way. We've got little choice. Let's talk about something else. Did you say you've got pictures?"
Jason went and got the box of pictures that he taken from home. They retired to the fireplace and went through them one by one, commenting on the good times and the bad. Before long it was midnight. Everyone was tired, so they went to bed. Jason couldn't sleep. Thoughts of the underground army and what his uncle had said kept running through his mind. Before he knew it, the morning light was peeking through the window and he heard his uncle and grandma talking in the kitchen.
"Good morning, Uncle Jim. How soon is your pick up?"
"0600 hrs. About 10 minutes from now. Have you decided?"
"That damn bomb changed everything. None of my plans make sense anymore. If you can get me in, get me in. Who knows. I may just get a chance to make the Forsythe family proud. Hell, I might just find out who did it!" This speech was uncharacteristic of him. It was though it came from somebody else. Perhaps the person he would become.
Colonel Forsythe nearly spilled his coffee in his rush to hug his nephew. "That's my man. That's my man!" He kept repeating. Almost before he was through congratulating Jason on his decision, the distinctive sound of a helicopter coming interrupted their reverie. Jim Forsythe only had time to hug his Mom one more time before grabbing his duffel and running out front to beat the helicopter. As quickly as it had come, the Chinook rose from the flattened grass and accelerated over the trees. Jason and Grandma Gail waved furiously as he left. Their eyes were filled with tears when they returned to the cabin and Grandma Gail fixed Jason some breakfast.