Caleb, a US Air Force A-10 pilot, calls me at 1:00 a.m. Tallahassee time. It’s early October 2014. I know better than to ask where he’s calling from. He begins, as always, with the point.
“I killed twenty-three Taliban,” he says. “But it’s hard to tell the exact number.”
He pauses. We’ve done this enough times at this hour of night, and he knows I need to move. Sarah and our kids are asleep.
I keep the lights off, slide out of bed, and tiptoe out to the garage. The cluttered space barely contains our two cars, kids’ bikes, mounds of sports gear, gardening tools I rarely use, and unopened boxes from our last move. Somewhere in here, an old Air Force Academy jacket. Caleb would have his, too. He lets nothing go.
“I’m here,” I say.
“It’s better when I fly at night,” he says. “Even with night vision, it’s still mostly dark. Easier to stay calm.”
I think, but don’t say: Where are you, my dear friend?
On the flight line?
In your bunk?
When’s the last time you’ve had a good meal?
“I’m not tired,” he says. “That’s the thing. All the training and warnings and shit. Everyone says, ‘You’ll get tired. Be careful when you’re tired.’ I’m wide awake. And it’s not the ‘Go Pills’ they give us. I’m just awake.”
“You’re getting some sleep?” I say.
“So much of the land out here looks like Nevada. It’s amazing. If you didn’t tell me otherwise, I’d think I was in the Ruby Mountains.”
“Caleb?” I say.
“Duke is going to suck this year,” he says.
I don’t question the abrupt transition. We often escape to the subject of college basketball, the spectacle that has pulled us in for years with its young giants and imaginary stakes.
He curses Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devil program, and “drastically overrated” freshman Jahlil Okafor.
Caleb grew up poor in Nevada, but he roots for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“Sure, John Calipari is a criminal, but he doesn’t hide it,” Caleb says.
“Krzyzewski’s a West Point grad, lest you forget.”
“Just stop,” Caleb says. “You think his assistants aren’t doling out money? You think Okafor is there for the education? Stop.”
“You sleeping?” I say.
“Calipari doesn’t hide it,” he says. “He isn’t scared of the NCAA or punishment or giving back titles. And guess what? Not one Kentucky fan cares. Calipari knows his audience, man. I love it.”
“I hear you,” I say. “When’s the last time you slept?”
“The sun’s out.”
“Okay,” I say. “You got some ‘No Go’s on you?”
“Blue Devils suck,” he says.
In the late 1990s Caleb and I endure military survival training together in the Colorado Rocky Mountains: 9,000 feet above sea level, little food, little sleep, cold nights, rudimentary navigation skills, and obscenities. The training supposedly prepares us in case we’re ever shot down behind enemy lines.
The third member of our trio is from Houston and has never been camping, let alone read a map. We call him Houston. He keeps hugging himself.
After some instruction on the foundations of staying alive and keeping quiet, we’re on our own. The goals are fairly simple: survive for a few days and don’t get too lost.
“If you hit Canada you’ve gone too far,” an instructor says, a joke we’re too tired to acknowledge.
Before they leave us, the instructors provide our small group a single rabbit.
“It’s up to you,” one instructor says, with a bit of last-minute advice, “but I wouldn’t name it. Soon you’ll be hungry enough.”
The instructor shows us how to kill the rabbit with a broken-off tree branch. In her left hand she holds the rabbit by the hind legs, head down, and strokes the rabbit’s back with the branch.
“This calms it. You see how the body stretches out? There, there, rabbit. Now, the strike must be fierce and to the back of the neck at the base of the skull. Listen, dumb shits, we’re not barbarians. One hit on target and it’s over quick.”
She mimes the strike.
Houston steps back.
“There’s a lot of ways to fuck this up,” she says. “Don’t be that person.”
Air Force vernacular:
“Go Pill” = Dexedrine
“No Go Pill” = Ambien
The Chasseurs Alpins—nicknamed “les Diables Bleus”—were renowned, alpine-trained French soldiers during World War I. In the Vosges campaign in March 1915 the Blue Devils won accolades for their courage, though the campaign, relied upon to break the bleak stasis of trench warfare in their native region of the French Alps, failed to change the status quo.
The Blue Devils’ distinctive blue uniform with flowing cape and jaunty beret captured the public imagination. When the United States entered the war, units of the French Blue Devils toured the country helping raise money in the war effort.
Duke University adopted the mascot name in 1922.
Caleb is in ninth grade. He’s eaten Saltine crackers and peanut butter for his last three meals. His mother, long gone to Mississippi. His father, becoming more unhinged, drives Caleb to an abandoned silver mine outside Austin, Nevada. This is not unusual. They both carry hand axes and 5-gallon buckets. The wooden braces of the mine have splintered over the years, but it’s a place they both know well. Their small headlamps project onto the rock walls. They work hard for three hours, then Caleb’s father hands him a Snickers bar, a rare luxury. The chocolate, nougat, peanuts, and caramel intoxicate him.
As Caleb tells it, he is in mid-Snickers-bar chew when his father shouts, “Shithellbitchhell!”
Not “shit.” Not “hell.” Not “bitch.” Not “hell” again. One word, “shithellbitchhell.”
His father’s tone is feverish. Caleb runs to his father, who is bent over, already hysterical.
Afghanistan. A radio call from ground troops in trouble. Taliban fighters with the high ground. Amphetamined up and ready, Caleb banks hard and fast in his A-10 aircraft, unleashing rounds from the herculean 30mm cannon. Three firing passes in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, then cheers from the radio. American and Afghan soldiers will live tonight.
Later, Caleb’s commander tells him the subsequent ground patrol and daytime satellite photos can’t accurately capture the carnage. “As close as we can tell, the number is twenty-three,” his commander says. “Beautiful and horrible, but more beautiful.”
Gold in a silver mine, that’s what Caleb’s father finds. The ore is as big as his fist. He names it Shithellbitchhell.
We don’t listen to our survival instructor. I name the rabbit Laettner. Caleb names the rabbit Wildcat.
It takes twelve hours without food before Houston asks if it’s time to get a tree branch.
“Not yet,” Caleb says, knowingly. “Hunger doesn’t kick in for forty-eight hours. Anyways, there’s plenty of wild onions.”
“Maybe we can fatten him up,” Houston says. “What do rabbits eat?”
“For being so stupid,” Caleb says, “you’re killing Wildcat when it’s time.”
“Laettner,” I say, secretly relieved no one has fingered me as the killer.
Caleb’s father has the ore appraised.
Sixty-five hundred dollars.
For Caleb, it’s too large a sum to fathom. He can’t fight off visions of subjective grandeur: a new mobile home, maybe, enough propane to keep them warm through the winter, steel-toed boots he’ll keep forever, pants that fit, laundry detergent whenever they want, unexpired food.
But then something staggering occurs—the ore sits on his father’s bedside table for a week, then two, a month. Caleb’s father stops shaving, sips Old Crow whiskey, snacks on microwave popcorn, watches and rewatches VHS recordings of The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune. Caleb questions his father once and is told to stay quiet about the damn gold. The second time Caleb presses—What are you doing? Why don’t you cash it in? What the hell is wrong with you?—and he begins to sob.
“Next time you ask about it,” his father says, “you got no place to live.”
“You saved dozens, my friend,” I say into the phone.
It’s 1:17 a.m. Caleb has taken a brief pause on his Duke hating.
I walk around inside my garage as I listen to him describe the engagement.
American and Afghan ground troops pinned down.
Only 25 meters from the Taliban fighters.
Four of ours already injured.
Can’t hold out much longer.
Circling in the plane.
Only 25 meters.
No room for error.
Radio transmission: Where are you? and the pop pop pop in the background.
This is real.
It’s easy to know it’s real.
Anyone says it’s like a video game is full of shit.
Trained, yes, but thrilled, calm, nervous, thrilled, calm, nervous.
The Gatling gun shakes the plane.
The sound, God’s zipper.
Radio transmission: On target! Again! Again!
That radio voice.
You can’t imagine.
That voice in my ear.
I find a new scratch on our Honda Pilot. My fingernail catches as I inspect the gouge.
“It’s fucked up how something you’re proud of can mess with you,” Caleb says. “It’s not like I regret it at all. Hell, I’m lucky. This was a clear bad-guy situation. I wouldn’t do anything different.”
“Twenty-three,” I say.
“Yeah,” Caleb says. “Michael Jordan’s number.”
“That’s one way to think about it.”
“The easiest way,” he says. “I’d do it again. I’m glad it was me. And you ask me if I can sleep. You wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
Duke will win the National Championship in the 2014–15 season. Okafor immediately enters the NBA draft. He is selected third.
Randy Gardner is the holder of the record for the longest a human has gone without sleep. In 1964, Gardner, a high school student in San Diego, California, stayed awake for 264.4 hours (11 days 25 minutes).
Caleb has Shithellbitchhell. He stole it a few weeks before his father died, not that his father would have noticed at that point. He was too far gone into some horrific combination of dementia and liver-pancreas cancer. Caleb keeps the ore in a small safe beneath his bed.
Once, when I’m visiting him in Arizona, he shows Shithellbitchhell to me. His hands can’t stop shaking, but he won’t let me hold the gold.
“Don’t ask me how much it’s worth,” he says. “I don’t know.”
The ore is dark gray with fantastic, thick veins of gold spidering everywhere.
“In a silver mine,” I say, and shake my head.
“I was eating a Snickers,” Caleb says.
We stand in his bedroom for a few minutes, looking at the ore. He turns it in his unsteady hands.
After the Air Force Academy I begin a job in logistics. Training in Texas. An assignment in England, then New Mexico. I’m in Albuquerque when I open an email from Caleb. He has just graduated from the latest phase of pilot training and has discovered which aircraft he will fly.
The subject line: Warthog!
After two and a half days of eating wild onions in the Rockies, Caleb says it’s time to kill Wildcat. We already have the broken tree branch. Houston has been holding the branch for half a day.
It’s near dusk, and we’ve found a granite overhang where we can spend the night. We’re safe and concealed and tired. We put down our gear, and I start a small fire. I don’t want to be close to this.
Caleb hands the rabbit to Houston. He’s surprisingly eager. It’s the hunger and fatigue.
“Thanks, Wildcat,” Caleb says. “You will fill us with energy.”
Then, to Houston, “You can do this. Swing hard.”
“I can do this,” Houston says.
With his left hand Houston holds the rabbit by the hind legs, and the rabbit jolts twice. Houston takes the branch and strokes the rabbit’s back. Once, twice, and again. The rabbit lengthens and calms.
“Hard,” Caleb says.
Houston lifts the tree branch high in the air. He swings and turns his head and groans, and he lifts the rabbit. The branch rushes below the rabbit’s head. A miss.
“Shit!” Houston says.
“You can do this,” Caleb says. “Again.”
Houston exhales and grimaces. He walks in a small circle, still holding the rabbit by the hind legs.
“Do it,” Caleb says. “You got this.”
“I got it,” Houston says.
“Again,” Caleb says.
Houston strokes the rabbit. Once, twice, along its spine. Again, he swings with his right hand and groans and yanks the rabbit up and misses low.
Caleb steps forward and grabs the rabbit. Houston trudges to the fire.
“Don’t talk to me,” he says.
“Jesse, you got to hold it,” Caleb says. “Get over here.”
“I’m not holding it,” I say. “Come on. Just do it.”
“Get over here,” Caleb says. “Please.”
It’s the “please” that makes me stand. I walk over to Caleb, and although it’s getting dark, I see his eyes well up.
“That guy’s never been hungry,” he says. “Never.”
“Caleb,” I say.
“You’ve got to hold it,” he says. “I wouldn’t ask . . .”
Caleb hands me the rabbit.
The rabbit is heavy in my hands.
We shouldn’t have named it.
“Houston’s never been hungry,” Caleb says. “When’s he been hungry?”
I hold the rabbit away from my body.
“Never,” Caleb says. “Never. Never.”
Caleb strokes the rabbit with the branch.
“We’re not hungry,” he says.
I wait for him to stop, to raise the branch and swing.
“Not hungry,” he says.
Again and again, he soothes the rabbit.