Tuesday, July 12, 2016

2001-2003: Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano I
Motta, Sicily
16 December 2001
I awoke on a bone-shakingly cold Saturday morning, my breath clouding the air as I struggled to burrow deeper into the too-thin bedclothes. I was wearing sweatpants, sweatshirt and even my navy-issue peacoat against the chill, but the creeping cold seemed an implacable foe, denying comfort to the weary traveler. Cursing in the dark, I arose to adjust the thermostat but its inexplicable notations and controls left me only more frustrated, as had the shower the evening before.

Only a day before I had been in the company of my dear wife Lucy as we left our small house in Newport News; the weather had been almost balmy for mid-December as she said goodbye as we had done so many times in the course of my Navy career. Then, the long trans-atlantic flight, the confusing and anxious arrival, and finally being shuffled ignominiously to this icy room in a tiny village had taken their toll upon me; I was tired, cold, frustrated and angry.

It was still dark outside, but I could sit shivering in my cell no longer. I let myself out, making sure I had my key and passport, and stared out upon shadowy buildings bordering a barren, stone-paved street across which the chill breeze blew paper trash and carried a dozen unfamiliar and unpleasant odors. Picking a direction at random, I started to walk uphill. It didn't matter, after all, where I wandered in my misery.

It was my first morning in Sicily, and I desperately wanted to go home.

The New Age
R/V Fairfield Explorer
11 September 2001
Everyone has a 9-11 story. Just as it was to our grandparents and parents with the Japanese attack on Oahu and the assasination of JFK, today we talk about where we were, what we were doing, and how we first learned of the events of 11 September 2001. My own 9-11 tale is pretty short; I slept through it. On that historic morning I was aboard the research vessel 'Fairfield Explorer', well out on the Gulf of Mexico, and having stood the eight-hour "midwatch" the night before I was blissfully unaware of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center until after I awoke at 1100 Central Time.

After rising I took a shower and returned to my small stateroom, then turned on CNN to catch up on the morning's news. As I dressed for lunch I thought that I had mistakenly tuned-in a horror film; my initial experience of the morning's madness was an image of a dust-shrouded street with zombie-like figures staggering toward the camera. There was also a recurrent image; footage of a commercial airliner plunging into the side of a skyscraper, but I was in a hurry and switched-off the TV.

By the time I wandered down to the mess deck for lunch, I could feel a difference in the atmosphere aboard ship. I ought to have noticed it even earlier--to awake at 1100 without the rattle of pneumatic tools or whine of winches on deck, or even the noise of steel-toe clad crew members pounding up or down the bridge ladder outside my room should have alerted me to a change in the vessel. Now, the shocked quiet belowdecks sent a clear signal that something was amiss.

The mess deck--where at that hour most of the crew could be expected to be gathered at the meal-hour--was empty, the ship's lounge however was filled standing-room-only with Shipmates and roustabouts, Deckies and Snipes together watching the same footage I had seen on my stateroom screen. Finally the reality, the enormity of images I had dismissed a few minutes earlier as world-class special effects dawned on me; I watched again and again as airliners collided with doomed buildings, as buildings I had once visited imploded on the screen. I listened in horror as a CNN talking head repeated the decade's most shocking headline, and realized that the world had changed whilst I slept, that nothing would ever be the same for any of us.

A Rumor of War
Newport News, Virginia
04 December 2001
When the news came that the space shuttle 'Challenger' had exploded upon launch I was busily constructing a plastic model of that very spacecraft. Likewise, news of the suicide of Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda came over the radio only minutes after I'd hung his eight-by-ten photo on the wall of my den. This is of course mere coincidence; I have no precognitive or prophetic powers. As proof I offer the following: when the telephone rang that morning I was in the middle of shaving.


"Hullo! is this Tom Epps?"

"Yes it is..."

"Petty Officer Epps, YOU'VE been mobilized! Come on down!"

And that was that. With a verbal game-show flourish an overworked Petty Officer at the Little Creek Naval Reserve Center had officially informed me of my new status.

The transition came quickly and easily.  By the time I had copied my reporting instructions down and assured the PO that I understood and would carry them out my mind had completed the switch from "weekend warrior" to active duty Sailor.  It would be several days before I was issued a new seabag and uniform items, but mentally I was already in Dress Blues.  I was back in uniform. Even if I did need to finish shaving.

And so it came to be that in the third week of December 2001 I found myself bundled unceremoniously aboard a chartered airliner and on my way across the Atlantic Ocean; the aircraft was filled with mobilized Reservists like myself; drawn from the deck and shipped to wherever the Powers That Be perceived a need for our services.  Citizen Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors; enlisted and commissioned, young and...not so young.

Under the Volcano II
Motta, Sicily
16 December 2001
The road I wandered rose in a shallow incline.  The cold wind cut through my jeans like an icy blade; only my heavy peacoat and watch-cap served to dull it's edge.  Dawn was coming, its glow visible above the rooftops and in the reflections of wet cobblestones.  Though I had little idea of where I was, I had been walking eastward through Motta fpr perhaps half an hour; I'd passed through the center of town and was now approaching the high end of the promontory it stood upon.

Ahead of me loomed the shadow of a high wall, and as I approached I found that I'd reached the castle that in centuries past had protected this village. In the growing light I could see the stairs and walkway leading to the parapet; the discovery did nothing to change my mood but gave me yet another avenue to wander in my state of gloom.

As I came to the eastern edge of the battlements the wind rose; raising my collar and lowering my chin I was able to shield my face from the worst of the zephyr.  The cold, driving air made me squint and turn my head away to the left...

My eyes opened wide; there, only a few kilometers away, loomed the great cone of Mount Etna, dyed pink in the light of coming dawn, a wisp of steam blowing westward from the volcanos crater. The slope of the great mountain fell toward the sea in the east; I could see the lights of a distant city at its base and another cluster of lights far beyond them.  To my right the sun was--there!--emerging from the Ionian sea in a rush of brilliant light and roseate color, the waters of the Ionian Sea shone with reflected fire, and I suddenly understood where I was...

I was standing on the high parapet of a 13th-century fortress, perched on a precipitous cliff-face and looking out over distant hills and fields; within my gaze lay the ancient and the modern, wonders both human and natural from Etna to the Strait of Messina far to the north to Augusta Bay in the south, even the air base where I would soon work was within sight.  I wondered at the view, and at my good fortune on being assigned, of all the possible postings in those chaotic early days of the War on Terror, to this remarkable Mediterranean island.

That dawn changed everything.  My homesickness evaporated; my miseries fell away in the excitement of working in and exploring this amazing place, gloom shattered by the beauty and hope I had discovered.  I knew then that I would plunge into my assigned duties but also take every opportunity to travel this island; Sicily was my new assignment and my new playground as well.

The Sun Also Rises
Motta and Sigonella, Sicily
Of course I had no idea, as I walked back down the slope of Motta toward my apartment, that at the end of my one-year mobilization to Naval Air Station Sigonella I would volunteer to extend for a SECOND year; that my Lucy would fly over twice in that time to explore the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland with me; that we would see the ancient cities of Selinunte and Segesta, and the temples of Agrigento, the ruins of Pompeii and the glories of Rome.  I also had no way of knowing that these two years would be not only the finale of my uniformed service but its apex, that I would never work harder, never lead better, and never be more proud of myself, the job I did, and of the active duty and reserve personnel on my team.

What better way to finish 24 years of service, what better climax to the roller-coaster ride of a long Navy career?  This "Lifer" certainly can't think of one!

The Temple of Juno in Agrigento
Lucy and myself in Taormina
Etna erupts!

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