The Phone Call of Cthulhu

Deployment of World Ocean Circulation Experiment buoy, one each.

27JAN2012 – I’m in an office on the second floor of a shoebox-shaped building on the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s raining; the background hiss is partially clouding my thinking. I can’t help but wonder if the static-based sound of falling water impacting like gentle ordinance on filthy concrete might have the same effect on the human brain as noise-cancelling headphones; impeding one’s overall ability to think or act clearly.

I wonder about a lot of things. I’m not saying any of the questions I ask are valid, or even that important in the greater scheme. In this day and age you can ask all the questions you want; the answers are probably out there somewhere. But what you do with the result is up to you.

There’s no one else here at the moment, so I’m listening to Pigface (rather loudly) and packing for my trip. I’ll catch a train to New London, Conn., and then a military C-130J south to Elizabeth City, N.C., before heading north again to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I’ll be flying further still out over the North Atlantic with a crew whose job is to spot icebergs orphaned from Mother Greenland and translate this information into assorted charts and helpful warnings. I’ll be taking photos, handling the media who’ve signed up to fly with us, re-reading Neal Stephenson’s fucking awes*me work of maximum geekery, Cryptonomicon, and fighting to stay awake whilst the vibrating tremors from mighty engines work themselves under my skin.

Camera bodies, batteries, cables, lenses, chargers and a MacBook Pro are shoved into my camera bag with all the enthusiasm of the “gear-up” scene from a Rambo movie. All that’s missing is a fuck-off big hunting knife in the sheath at my hip, a red headband made fast around my brow and some heavy-lidded mumbling about war, weapons and drawing first blood. I’ve got enough equipment in this bag to document a revolution and I’ve planned my trip to the nth degree. Nothing to it but to do it, and hope my planning reveals no signs of potroasticus cerebellum.

29JAN2012 – Amtrak 160 headed northeast, easy like Sunday morning. The shifting perspective of the countryside as viewed through the horizontal arrow slit of this shiny metal worm reveals a large-scale zoetrope of naked trees and pulsing bursts of sunlight. It’s giving me a fucking Japanese seizure is what’s it doing. That, and allowing me the rare opportunity to experience e-ink properties in my actually-analog book which I can’t seem to concentrate on, so I close my eyes.

Blood-red shockwaves inspired by the flashing sunlight pulse violently against my lowered eyelids, which keeps perfect time with the dated sounds of Ministry’s ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’. My ear goggles are flooded with the warm honey of crashing bass. Turns out I can’t sleep either, so I open my eyes and look around; first at the slumbering Asian girl with the British accent and gentle overbite sitting across the aisle from me, then back out the window again, and finally down to the much-abused notebook on my lap. The rocking motion of the train has transmogrified my commonly-careful cuneiform into a document prophesying the coming of what appears to be multiple earthquakes.

The landscape rolls and yaws like a fighter jet alongside our forward surging inchworm, affording the passengers on the right side of the car with fleeting glimpses of backyard wealth and modest prosperity; seasonally-stranded fishing boats, multiple modes of muddied transportation and sprawling houses with oversized windows, each overlooking bodies of water — no matter how insignificant. These are the outward symptoms of a fortunate soul in an uncertain economy. And where there is stability such as this, there is typically found the Bounty of Favor and the unspoken Marital Return On Investment.

What I’m trying to say here is that the MILF of a rich man probably fucks like she owns the place. She knows from whence her bread is buttered. With her primal needs and American dreams of food, shelter and matching drapes fully realized, her nesting instincts rev right into the red faster than a NASCAR Napoleon on nuptial night. She’s met a man she can depend upon; a steadfast sumbitch who can help to unclench her ovaries, change her flat tire, slap her up a spice rack from leftover floor shims and drive her to the hospital with one calloused hand tied behind his L.L. Bean red plaid shirt…

Where the passing riverbeds are revealed, the smoothed earth echo of mental mud is exposed as the individual folds of a great brain. This section of the Earthbrain’s purpose is to do x. A few miles over, that dry winter lakebed’s folds are designed to execute function y. The Earth is alive, its cognitive abilities spread out over its entire body like skin. (If someone cuts off your hand, you can’t think clearly. Follow?) People still wave at passing trains, swaying their limbs overhead like friendly flags of surrender, a gesture one doesn’t see much of inside the 11216 zip code.

30JAN2012 – I haven’t flown aboard a C-130 since my days in Alaska, but the sensation comes flooding back; I’m buckled into a row of surplus theater seats (my luggage is strapped to the deck about where the orchestra pit would be) and I’m facing a wall of tool chests that would make the eyes of any self-respecting hillbilly gearhead turn green with envy. The seats are bolted to a large slab of aluminum locked partway between a series of rollers, further attached to the floor of what appears to be an immaculate but highly complicated basement workshop during a long and gentle earthquake. You’d need a plane this big just to cart around the instruction manuals that go with it. There’s likely to be a jargon-rich chapter for each and every screw, bolt and wingnut aboard.

Warm wind blowing across my face from an overhead vent makes my eyes heavy for a time, and I remember nothing until our overfed tires punch the earth in the face and I am jolted from my slumber. Presently the engines wind down; the rear ramp of the plane performs a complex raising and lowering procedure and fresh North Carolina night air boards the aircraft, chasing away the sand of sleep. I blink myself awake and assist with the offload process inasmuch as it involves helping the other personnel with their luggage before jumping down to the tarmac for a look-see. The tail of the aircraft towers above me, lit in false moonlight generated by the white lights from the hangar. I can see the stars and you have no idea how happy this makes me… I gather my bags and we head for the gate, we head for the hotel, we head for dinner. Later, I head for a bed.

01FEB2012 – We stop off at a Food Lion for sandwiches and lunch supplies enroute to the airfield. The store is full of nourishing foodstuffs but my needs are specific, bordering on demanding.

The item must be small in size, marginally ruggedized and reinforced against accidental mashing. It must require minimal preparation (i.e. unwrap it), and offer maximum protein output when weighed against the aforementioned size and weight guidelines. After a considerable amount of clinical analysis, I select a turkey and cheese sub from the deli, although somewhat wary of biting into moist bread later…

Now for the important stuff. I carefully select my fuel cells; a pair of 355ml aluminum cylinders containing a highly-caffeinated and sugar-free substance, the packaging of which features a duel of blood-red bovine engaged in violent conniptions at the center of a burning star. (Red Bull doesn’t give me wings so much as it allows me to vibrate my way into other dimensions.) Just tell them, “I wanted to go higher.”

I score a Skor bar and a pack of gum while waiting in line. The man ahead of me is buying a case of Coors and a generous supply of Sparks. It is not quite 8:30 a.m. Shine on, you crazy diamond…

One hour later, our baggage and equipment is aboard and we’re at last preparing for our departure to St. John’s, Newfoundland. I’m seated closest to the door. It’s not by choice. It was the only pair of seats left available, and my camera bag requires a crush-free zone of its own. My legs are longer than Beowulf so I have to sit sidesaddle in order to keep my giraffe knees clear of the narrow aisle as the air crew rush back and forth shining their lights into overhead spaces and checking things off their lists. That’s what aviators do.

The engines kick in and the lonely patch of tarmac still visible outside the open hatch begins to flicker and blur as the props gain speed, turning faster and faster until their shadows fall away, dissolving to nothingness, evaporating in the sunlight. Suddenly the ground becomes crystal clear again. Wheels up at 1007. Time to read.

Welcome to Gander. Abandon warmth ye who enter here.

1700: Welcome to Gander, Canada. We’re here for a quick “how-do-you-do” with the local aviation authorities and a perfunctory conversation with customs officials, who give us the once-over for cash, knives and guns. (Fuck! I left my passport on the plane. I really wanted a new stamp…) We’re waved through regardless. The airport is deserted – and I mean literally. It feels like the setting for a video game. I pretend we’re being watched. It helps pass the time.

I ducked away from the group to use the restroom and as I stood there, imminently vulnerable, ejecting five degrees of my core temperature into a ready-made sculpture, the following thought crossed my mind: “This is it – this is the scene where the Red Shirt wanders away from the landing party and gets his face chewed open by a toilet-squatting zombie.” Figures it’d be the photographer who gets it first. The others will no doubt pilfer my supplies and reach the objective without me.

The waiting lounge, however, was sumptuous; a full-sized pool table, a full-sized coffee maker, a big screen TeeVee and a generous selection of video games, none of which we had time to enjoy–

“Say, how much time do we have?” One person answered five minutes; another replied with half an hour. Weighing the difference, I plopped down in a leather chair by the window and called AT&T to request a Canadian phone plan. (Or maybe it was a firing plan. Sometimes I have these unfortunate moments where I black out and ask Santa for what I really want:

“Come on, lady. The code is Almighty, coordinates 090264712. It’s all in here!”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t do that! I’m going to need to speak to my supervisor…”

The air traffic control center was a bit more populated; grizzled old men in tucked shirts with carefully trimmed beards and the look of church about them sat in glad adoration of enormous monitors bursting with crisscrossing neon lines. They spoke strings of alphanumeric incantations into headsets, pronouncing the magic spells necessary to guide multiple aircraft safely toward their destinations: “Alpha Charlie one Tango, I have you at two-six-seven, request you two-seven-five northwest at five-thousand…”

We were wheels up an hour later.

The runway at St. John’s, Newfoundland, was under attack by a squadron of tiny tornadoes of dry white snow reminiscent of hourglass sand, and the wind gnashed blindly at our props. Once we’d come to a complete stop and the hatches were open, I grabbed my camera and hustled to the hangar hoping to catch some shots of the plane being towed to shelter.

“This is the worst part of the trip,” said the pilot. He’d appeared behind me undetected while I was framing images in my viewfinder.

“Oh? Because you’re not in control?” I asked, turning to face him, realizing this might have been a presumptuous thing to say, and regretting it immediately. Sometimes I clear leather before I check the safety on my mouth.

“Exactly.” He either didn’t hear me or he ignored it. Or I was right about something for a change. “Last time we were here, a jet blew past us on the runway and the wash almost knocked an empty box into the side of the plane. The nose cone is where all the radar equipment lives and it’s worth at least $500,000. I love to fly, but this is really the only part that makes me nervous.”

St. John’s appears mostly deserted. Minimal traffic, fewer lights. A skewed yellow trapezoid announcing the Best place to Buy electronics burns bright like molten gold against the swirling mass of starry ice. Apparently Bryan Adams is playing a show here this week. Somehow this makes sense.

Once I’d checked into my room and changed into clean clothes, I headed for the hotel bar for a salad and a pint. I was tired and stretched a little thin but genuinely happy to be on the move again.

The waitress was wicked cute as waitresses go, but I think she hates Americans. (Hates. Present tense. Pay attention. She’s still out there… waiting.) I say this because I was the only person in the room she didn’t smile at. She smiled at the dopey guy with matching hair, a gold chain and no chin who was drinking white wine and reading a book at the next table. She smiled at the old codgers in ball caps talking about tractor parts. She smiled at the two older ladies in — I mean, she literally stopped smiling when she saw me! If she remembered me from a past life, I had no idea what I might have done to piss her off.

“Hello! I’d like a beer, please.” I placed my hands palms down on the table where she could see them. No sudden movements. She could probably smell fear.

“Well, we have sixteen of them on tap.” Her voice was frosty, her body language clear: Take your pick, fuckstick. I’ll personally pee in whichever pint you choose. Hesitantly, I glanced over at the bar. There’s no way I could read the labels from here and she didn’t appear to be forthcoming with name brands, so…

“Okay, I guess I’ll just wander over and pick one out…?” I was preparing to slide out the booth and review the selection myself if only it meant we could end this uncomfortable standoff. I was hungry and my brain was being unusual.

She repeated her previous statement but slower this time, as though she were addressing a partially-deaf dog rapist who suffered from a terrible learning disorder, and she couldn’t decide between abject hate, or burning pity. How could the number of beers on tap possibly apply to my inability to visually discern between the labels? On a whim, I asked for Guinness. The fates smiled upon me.

Presently my food and drink arrived. I sipped at my (pee-free) stout and devoured my salad, jotting impressions in my notebook and humming quietly along to The Clash’s “London Calling” when it came up on the jukebox.

02FEB2012 – Next Bat-night, same hotel Bat-bar. Today was all about gym, pale, and laundry. Clean clothes, quick workout. Read a lot, wrote more.

Somewhere to my left, the synthetic blue thunderbolt of a camera flash erupts in the brown wood darkness of the room. Morrissey howls piteously from the stereo. Just doesn’t fit the vibe of the room.

Spent all day alone. It felt good, like when your doctor and your priest and your boss and everyone else tells you the next drink is going to kill you, but you drink it anyway because what the fuck do they know? Solitude only hates you when you’re new to the game.

You know what’s weird? Accepting that a place like St. John’s is populated. It’s the edge of the world. I mean, sure it’s the year 2012 — people have to be born somewhere and I bet it’s drop dead gorgeous in the summer — but it feels small in a way I can’t properly describe. And it’s back-dated somehow, like maybe the city was founded by visiting aliens who’d gleaned all they could about Western Civilization from television signals they’d intercepted on the way here and thought it’d be a hoot to build their own ant farm, so they placed a sizable credit card order with some sort of aliens-only, Wile E. Coyote-based Acme City Store in order to bring their creation into lockstep with the 21st century:

“Oh, look! It’s finally here! Let’s open it!”
“Wait — do you think we should maybe do this outside?”
“Good idea!”

These far-born city planners eased their giant wooden baby onto a dolly and together they cart it to a nearby clearing, eventually dropping the handles with a joint huff of exertion. One of them slits opens a document pouch on the side of the crate with a trusty penknife, dons a pair of reading glasses, licks a thumb and begins reading the first page of instructions:

“Congratulations on your new future, it will bring you years of enjoyment… all new, lifetime guarantee… let’s see here… yeah, it says here we get a Best Buy, 2-for-1 pitchers of Budweiser and something called… Sirius XM radio?” He peers over the top of his reading glasses and licks his bottom lip, eyes full of question. “Does that mean it’s big?”

“No, dear. You’re thinking of XL.”
“Huh.” Reads some more, rubs hands together. “Well, here goes nothing!”

On the count of three, they tug hard on the bright red handle marked PULL ME and take a few careful steps back as the gossamer gold balloon begins to expand at a terrific rate… highway off-ramps, strip malls, strip joints, breakfast shops, lunch specials, fine dining, small businesses and hotel chains—all of it begins somersaulting its way free of the confines of the box and sliding into position, clicking and whirring and turning this way and that with a terrific amount of rushing wind and noise, finally locking into place with the imperfect click of casual Chinese craftsmanship, bristling mazes of big screen TeeVees, and clone-grown actors destined to run screaming for New York City just as soon as their legs finish cooling—

Did you want to order something, sir?” I’m jolted from my reverie by the earnest expression of the winner of the 2012 Cutest High-School Senior competition (Runner-up: Best Rack). I have no idea how long she’s been standing there and I’m taken aback by her display of sudden ninja trickery, but I manage to stammer out something that sounds an awful lot like ‘chicken garden salad with no dressing and black coffee with one sugar, please,’ but it could have been – well, it could have been anything, really

I glance up at the TeeVee screen while I await my repast: a sporting team consisting of giant people from the newer city of York are scheduled to engage in a mock land war across a mighty lawn with a group of patriots in the name of lucrative contracts. The winner of this contest shall be eligible to have their likeness displayed on cereal boxes across the land. Apparently these contests take place annually…

Huh.

03FEB2012 – Flew today. Somewhere along the line the plane became 250-plus-pounds lighter; minus the weight of a current-tracking WOCE buoy; minus the weight of foodstuffs and sandwiches purchased from the local Sobe needed to feed thirteen people; minus the amount of fuel burned; minus the amount of engine heat and carbon dioxide lost to the *fuck-you-cold of the North Atlantic (*that’s metric, by the way), but plus the infinitesimal weight gained across three flash drives by taking photos and videos of the aircraft. In another lifetime, I’d kick the shit out of pure math. Not this one. Next time, maybe.

So. Today. What a weird state of affairs. Three or so hours into the flight, the tail of the plane yawned awake with a high-pitched whine. One section raised, the other lowered and between them the cold air of the North Atlantic bum-rushed our show. I was about six feet back behind the buoy crate, one arm wrapped through a loop of cargo net, crouched low and braced for stability whilst trying not to fall against the leg of the CBC cameraman I’d positioned front and center of the action.

Seconds later, two members of the aircrew shoved the box into the wild blue yonder. A peppermint parachute snapped open and the box disappeared into the frigid waters below. A successful launch.

An estimated eighty percent of an iceberg is below the water line and, much like a sailboat, they are pushed along by ocean currents. These buoys, part of the World Ocean Current Experiment, will allow scientists to track said currents in the areas where icebergs are typically found, giving them a better idea of where to look and thereby keep mariners safe. But you probably knew that already.

04FEB2012 – There are no flights today. In fact, nothing is happening today. St. John’s is being audited by a blizzard. Or maybe it’s more of a snow transfusion; out with the old, in with more of the same shit. Knowing in advance that this was going to happen, I stayed awake till 5 a.m., writing and consuming Red Bull like it was my job. This morning, as I sat in the hotel restaurant, someone brought me a Denver omelet and a pot of black coffee.

Minus 24-hour access to the pool and an unlimited supply of fresh Alaskan halibut, brown rice and steamed spinach, this, my friends, is my American dream!

There’s a young boy sitting at a table across the restaurant with two older men. I can remember what it was like to be that kid; I’d rather have been outside playing tag until dark, riding my bike, reading a book or dreaming up reasons why a salt shaker would make an awesome spaceship (figure out the propulsion system, locate the bridge, decide upon a classification and determine if it was built on Earth or in orbit), versus wasting a perfectly good snow day being held captive to the natural ebb and flow of boring adult conversation. The nearer of the men appears to be the boy’s father, as he is looking down at the child with an unmistakable love and pride. The shortest member of the three is busy sipping different liquids through his straw, oblivious to the gaze of admiration.

I watch as a young girl loads a spearful of prostrated chicken bodies into Hell’s Ferris wheel. She performs a last rite of sprinkled herbs and spices before sealing the door of the inferno. Immediately, the tiny cube is filled with hot light and every aspect of the birds’ bodies is revealed. The slow orbit begins. In ten minutes time, the tender pink of their skin will turn a lazy golden brown, like the tan of a college girl with time on her hands and too much rum in her system…

To Be Continued…

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