A Roar in the Darkness

It is difficult to describe the sound made by a turbojet engine, but I’m a writer; I can do it.

Imagine a couple of little girls clowning in the bathroom, screaming at the top of their lungs as only little girls can do, their screeches reverberating off the tile and running together like a skewer through your eardrums. Now imagine that as a steady sound, modulated by a fan spinning a thousand revolutions a minute and amplified by six foot speakers of the sort employed by a well-funded heavy metal rock band. Now multiply that by eight, one for every engine on a B-52 bomber, and by the six steel and concrete interior surfaces of a military hanger, and if you imagine for a moment that a rabid ice pick is grinding its way up through the fractured remains of your vertebrae and into your skull, then you’ve got the picture just about right.

When I was five or six, my mother pulled me out of bed one night and whisked me and my brother and sister off through the moonless darkness to pick up our daddy. He’d been gone a long time, and though I didn’t quite understand it at the time, he had been on temporary duty in southeast Asia, dropping cluster bombs and napalm from a machine engineered to save the world from godless commies or kill us all in the effort.

Men in blue uniforms and green nylon flight suites met us at the car and ushered us into the darkened hanger, a big, gray building on a big, gray sea of concrete. My mother put me down and conferred with one of the uniformed men and led me to believe that daddy had just landed. We were in one of the original hangers built during the forties when the base first opened, a line of which stood as a sort of bulwark between the streets and buildings where the people lived and worked and the tarmac where the flight machines strutted and preened. I knew the hanger was much too small for Daddy’s Stratofortress, but I expected any moment that the great jungle-green beast would poke its nose under the roof and the door would open and down would come a yellow adder and daddy’s leather boots and a trunk full of coconuts and gifts from Japan and Thailand. What I didn’t expect was the sound.

Presently, we heard the sing-song whine of the jet approaching through the ubiquitous backdrop of aircraft engines in motion, at idle, and lumbering on their test stands. Outside the giant telescoping doors, an airman waved flashlights with colored plastic signal cones. Another stooped to retrieve something from the shadows. Still others ran about purposefully, then darted back into the hanger. All of these men wore hearing protection, and not mere earplugs or the meager earmuffs one might see on the shooting range, but serious, bulky units in military gray.

The whine shifted and moved, then rose in pitch and broke into the coarse, disharmonic roar of jets under power, as if Niagara falls had gone on a bender and come to tell us off, shouting from the parking lot till the ground shook and the metal walls rattled—or perhaps my eardrums did. Then a flashing red light cleared the rolling doors and the sing-song whine returned, reverberating through the suddenly tiny hanger till the black shadow of the airplane came to rest and the engines spun down, all but one, and finally, through I felt I must have blood pouring from my ears by then, the last engine spun to a stop.

We were glad to see daddy, and I think he was touched, though he still had paperwork to do and was too exhausted from the flight to show much emotion and would probably just as soon have swung by the O-club for a drink before heading home. When we pulled back into our driveway after midnight, the neighbor had set out a great illuminated sign: “Welcome home Maj. Hardwick,” and I could still hear the turbines drilling through my head.

I’m not sure whose bright idea this all was. It is distinctly possible I suffered permanent hearing loss. For as long as I can remember, I’ve avoided loud noise and worn hearing protecting around machinery. When I was in college I carried ear plugs in case I got invited to a club or party.

That was a long, long time ago, but I’ll never forget the grating feel of the jet roar conducted through my bones. We called it a cold war, but it was fought with real jet fuel and explosives. It was fought by real soldiers, tired men and women whose families waited just beyond the flight line, the front line in a new and endless kind of war.