Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bug Off!

I'm told the bugs in an Alaskan summer are fierce.  That seems odd to me; I mean it's Alaska, not Texas. But I accept what the locals and others who have been there tell me and I'm taking steps to prepare accordingly.  Hey, at least I don't have to get shots!

Years ago, I was in the Air Force.  I served seven years and spent the last few working indirectly for an organization some refer to as "No Such Agency". As such, I frequently found myself south of the border in some pretty interesting garden spots, all of which required numerous inoculations before I could operate there. I remember asking one of the medical techs what a particularly ominous-looking gel in a large syringe was supposed to prevent.  He looked at a piece of paper and then back at me, sighed, and said "You don't wanna know".  He was probably right.  I remember the needle was so long and thick that they had to inject me at the top of my butt pointing the needle straight down parallel with my leg.  It looked like a liposuction tool.  I limped for two days after that one.

One aspect that made these trips unique was the secrecy of the missions.  These events took place during the Reagan/Casey/North days, so use your imagination.  There were times when we didn't know where we were going until we got there, and even then we questioned it. We would often depart from known US operating locations in Honduras aboard helicopters and fly south to said garden spots.  The helicopters never landed (for plausible deniability?), so we always hopped out from a few feet above terra firma and sought out our targets.  We referred to ourselves as the "Noun Patrol" because our typical role was to search out people, places, or things.  We were rarely armed with more than a radio to call for extractions, a GPS receiver, and a satellite up-link kit. Even for military applications, this was some pretty weighty gear. Tools like these were smaller than their Vietnam-era predecessors, but were far from the electronic miniaturization marvels we enjoy today. Once we acquired our target, we would paint it with an electronic compass-equipped scope and its coordinates were collected.  Those coordinates were up-linked to a satellite and stored so that the target could be tracked if it moved.

On most missions, my team would receive location details only moments before our deployment.  We would collect the coordinates and the helicopter navigation system would be programmed by a technician operating a special console in the Intel office.  We would then carry the newly-programmed nav box to the waiting aircraft for installation and immediate departure. The aircrew was usually as clueless as we were with respect to the mission details and our destination.  I'm amused by the fact that the Garmin GPS unit I have today is probably more sophisticated than the navigation system on board those helicopters, especially since the government removed the induced error to non official receivers and eliminated Selective Availability.

On one particular mission, we were airborne well before dawn for an hour's flight "south".  It was still dark out, so the aircrew had to rely heavily on the navigation system and terrain following radar. This was always  a hair raising experience for me because we usually flew just above the jungle canopy.  Somehow, the aircrew always knew when we were near a village, despite the darkness and lack of prior knowledge of the flight path and ultimate destination.  On this flight, after hearing one of them mention it, I piped up and asked over the headset intercom "how do you guys always know that?"  The co-pilot shined a flashlight on the lower forward starboard window and replied "because of that."  The outside of the window was almost completely covered with a thick, deep red coating.  Before I could ask WTF, he spoke up again and said "the mosquito swarms we're flying through are full of blood. Gotta be people near by."  That image and explanation gave me more nausea than the roller coaster terrain following flights ever did.

I expect my Alaska trip to be at least somewhat less traumatic.  I've picked up a great tent and sleeping bag with mosquito netting.  I'm hoping a few citronella candles and some DEET will help do the trick.  One thing is for sure; I don't anticipate any liposuction needles.