Shannon, Ireland - Spring 2008
Ed Connolly lifted the binoculars to his eyes, and leaned against the airport fence.
“I did a lot of this in Sinai,” he said. “Kosovo too.” He moved an inch to the right, so the lenses fit between the heavy fencing.
He was watching a medium size jet taxi toward the refueling dock. Through the smaller binoculars he’d loaned me, I could see the words “Evergreen International” painted on its side.
“Can you read the numbers?” Ed asked.
I squinted. The binoculars seemed to shake and tremble in my hands, jerking the plane’s image up and down, no matter how hard I tried not to move. “I can make out the N,” I said, “and then, let’s see . . .”
I held my breath. For a brief moment, the lenses obeyed, and the numbers came into focus.
“Yes!” I shouted. “It’s N-2-2-4-6-E-V.” The lenses were jiggling again by the time I got all the numbers out, and the motion started to make me feel dizzy. I glanced away from the plane, at Ed.
He already had the cellphone at his ear, talking to his friend Thomas. “Can you check them now?” he said, then listened. His dark brows were furrowed under salt-and-pepper hair.
He turned in my direction, started to speak, but was stopped by something he heard. “Yes?” he said to Thomas. “That’s it! I knew it. Thanks.”
“What?” I asked.
“Just what we figured,” Ed said. “That plane is CIA. Probably carrying cargo for one of its secret prisons. I think it’s been here before. Come on.” He headed for his car.
The Shannon International airport is in southwest Ireland, on the edge of the Shannon Estuary, a broad riverbed that meets the Atlantic a few dozen kilometers away.
I had read that early transatlantic airliners called Flying Boats used to splash down gracefully on these waters after their long haul across the ocean from America. I wanted to hear more about that, and other local history. In fact, we were supposed to be headed for lunch and a good long, get-acquainted chat. I especially wanted him to help me sort out some of the unpronounceable-looking Irish-language names that were under the English on all the Irish road signs.
But Ed couldn’t leave the airport without doing a bit of plane-spotting first. He’d been doing that ever since the Iraq war started, he said, and couldn’t stop today.
And now Ed Connolly, who was as proud an Irishman as you’d want to meet, wasn’t interested in talking about history, or Gaelic signs. As we got to his car another large jet skimmed down to the runway beyond us. Puffs of white smoke squirted from its wheels as they scraped the runway.
I craned my neck to follow it, but Ed shook his head. “It’s just another Ryanair passenger run, like the one you came in on,” he said. “We’ve got other business.”
“I guess so,” I said, watching an airport police car pulling to a stop a few yards from us. “We sure do.”
Of course, Ed was parked illegally. He’d pulled over at this spot to get a better view of the taxiing Evergreen plane. I knew he’d been arrested several times here, protesting CIA flights in and out of Shannon.
Watching the uniformed cop climbing out of the patrol car made me nervous; I wasn’t in Ireland to cause trouble. My mission was to give a talk about working for peace, at the Limerick Friends Meeting, and maybe do a little sightseeing. Talking, looking, taking it easy for a day or two. That was all. Getting arrested, especially as a foreigner, was not on the schedule.
But Ed was completely unintimidated by the officer’s approach. In fact, he walked right up to him and launched into a speech.
“Officer, that aircraft is violating Ireland’s neutrality,” he said. “It’s carrying supplies and personnel for the illegal and immoral US war in Iraq. And it’s probably taking weapons and cargo to support the torture of thousands of innocent people. Either that or a bunch of American soldiers on one of their secret missions. This is a human rights complaint,” he said. “I insist you board and search the plane at once, and seize any unauthorized persons and unlawful war materiel.”
The policeman was obviously familiar with Ed. He put up his hands, waved away the paper, and took a few steps backward, as if he was the one in trouble, while Ed continued to browbeat him.
Within a minute Ed was jabbing a finger, now at the officer and now toward the CIA airplane, and saying something about international treaties and the shameful corruption of Irish politicians who let this illegal, blood-soaked traffic continue.
“All right, Mr Connolly, all right then,” the policeman said helplessly. I could see that he knew Ed’s charges were probably correct – and that Ed knew the Shannon Airport police were not about to do anything about them.
“Just could you just move your vehicle now,” the cop added, “so’s it won’t be disrupting any traffic. Please, Mr. Connolly?”
“Okay, okay,” Ed said, yielding just a bit to the matter of local public safety. We were finished there anyway. He walked to the back of his weathered Toyota.
“But you go search that plane,” he called after the retreating police car, and popped the trunk, to put away the big binoculars. I came up to hand him mine.
Glancing into the trunk, I saw what looked like a costume of some sort, dark green, with a round hat on top. “What’s this?” I wondered.
“My army uniform,” Ed said. “Just back from the cleaners.” He slammed down the lid and we moved to the front seats. “Wore it for twenty-two years,” he said, peering up into the rear-view mirror and backing the car onto the roadway.
“Really?” I was curious. “Where did you serve?”
He snorted. “Where didn’t we? The Irish army sent peacekeepers to Lebanon, East Timor, even Cambodia.” He shook his head. “I was called back just last year, to go to Chad, in Africa.”
Now he squinted down the roadway ahead. “They call it peacekeeping,” he said, “but don’t kid yourself, it’s dangerous. You have to be able to think fast and improvise.”
His cell phone beeped. “I lost some good men out there,” he finished, putting the phone to his ear.
“Yes, Thomas,” he barked. Then he stepped on the brake, stopping the car dead in the center of the road to concentrate. “When?” A different kind of urgency crept into his tone.
“In the hotel? Now? Why do you need me? All right. Be right there.” He flipped the phone shut.
“What’s this?” I wondered.
“At the airport hotel,” he said, pulling the Toyota into a U-turn. “We have an immigration issue to look into.”
We sped past the police car, back on its routine rounds, toward the main terminal and the motel just behind it. “We get a lot of undocumented people in here,” he said, “and some of them are escaping from some pretty bad places. Thomas and I work with Amnesty International to get them refuge here.”
“Is that what the call was about?”
He nodded. “Yes, but this one is something a bit different.” He grinned at me. “I think you’ll be interested in it.”
Shannon, although it is an international crossroads, is not that big an airport. Its hotel was more like a medium sized motel you might drive past in any middling American town. It had two wings of two levels of rooms, with restaurant and bar in the middle. Maybe there was a pool and an exercise spa, but I didn’t see them.
Ed jerked to a stop in the motel lot and then was out of the car almost on the run. He headed through the lounge, up the stairway and down the hall to its right, in the west wing. I had to hustle to keep up with him.
Near the end of the hallway, at room 223, he knocked quietly on the door, three times, then after a pause, three times more. The door opened.
I followed him in, and saw nothing more exotic than a young couple: the man was thin, his hair cut so short that his scalp gleamed. The woman was a brunette with a pretty face, marred by circles of fear around her eyes.
“Are you Thomas?” the youth asked Ed.
“Close enough,” Ed said. “Thomas will be here shortly. He’s on his way, and asked me to stay with you til he arrives.”
The youth sat down on the bed. The woman followed and huddled against him.
“Tell me about it,” Ed said.
“I’m Roman Jackson,” the youth said. “Sergeant Jackson, United States Army. I did two tours in Iraq. Can’t go back there again.”
The woman looked up. “I won’t let him,” she said. Her voice was quiet, but there was steel in it.
“And you are?” Ed asked.
“Cynthia,” she said. “We’re married.”
Jackson smiled a little at this. “Yeah,” he said, “as of a week ago. Outside Ramstein.”
He kept talking. Ramstein is a big U.S. base in the German Rhineland. Many U.S. soldiers are sent there for a two-week break in their Iraq combat tours.
“It’s closer to Iraq than the US mainland,” Cynthia put in, “and they figure the soldiers won’t go AWOL from there, because it’s a foreign country.”
But it turned out that Cynthia knew some German, and had been saving money. “When I got word that Roman was headed there, I took a flight a week ahead and met him. I knew how he was feeling.” She shrugged. “This war is stupid,” she said, “it’s not worth dying for. It was time to get out.”
Their plan was simple: Roman had four days of leave. They rented a car, drove from Germany across France, and took the Eurostar train from Paris to London. There they caught a cheap Ryanair flight, and were in Shannon before anyone in Ramstein noticed Roman was gone.
“And now — what?” Ed asked.
“Ireland’s a neutral country,” Jackson said. “We figure they’ll let us stay here as refugees.”
Cynthia shrugged again. “It was worth a shot,” she said, trying to seem light-hearted. It didn’t succeed; she sounded scared, if determined.
I was about to make a cynical wisecrack about Irish “neutrality,” when more quiet knocks came at the door.
Ed opened it. “Thomas,” he said.
Thomas turned out to be a tall gangly fellow with a bushy black beard and sparkling eyes. His face looked designed for smiles, but his expression was dead-serious. “Ed,” he said, “we’ve got a problem. There are two American MPs here. They’re going through the hotel. I think they’re looking for –” he pointed. “Them. Or at least him.”
Cynthia clutched at her husband, holding him tighter. “He’s not going back,” she said.
Ed was peering with narrowed eyes, first at them, then me, then Thomas. Thomas began to speak, but Ed held up a hand. “Thinking,” he said.
We were all silent for what seemed like a long time, but was probably not more than ten or fifteen seconds.
“All right, then,” Ed said finally. He turned first to the couple. “Sergeant Jackson, you and your wife stay here. Thomas, you and our guest here,” he pointed at me, “your job is to find those MPs and slow them down. I’m going for help.”
With that he strode out of the room, and we heard his feet clattering quickly down the stairwell at the end of the hall. I stood there for a moment, uncertain what to do.
Then Thomas grabbed my arm. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get busy.” He hurried into the hall.
He walked quickly back toward the lounge, stopping to look down the hallways of each wing as we got to the central stairway. When he glanced to the east at the bottom, he stopped me with an elbow to my ribs.
Peering over his shoulder, I saw two uniformed men coming down the hall toward us, pausing to knock on room doors as they came. Thomas hesitated a moment, then straightened his shoulders and walked up to them.
“Excuse me, lads,” he said, with a more pronounced Irish accent than before, “but I think the bloke you’re looking for is in the gym. Either there or up in his room – Number 203, I believe he said.”
“Excuse me?” said one of the MPs, who was half a head taller than the other.
Thomas smirked at him. “Now then,” he said with a chuckle, “there’s no secrets ‘round here. I heard you were lookin’ for some Yank. He’s been here a couple o’ days, he has. Got a gal with him; a fair lass she is too.”
“What was that number?” the taller MP said. I saw a nametape with “Sampson” on it above his shirt pocket.
“203,” I spoke up. “Or was it 201, Thomas? Anyway, he was in the gym a few minutes ago.”
MP Sampson was scowling at me. “You an American?” he said, noting my accent.
“Yep,” I said, “I’m Thomas’s cousin. Come back here every year to visit the ancestral sod. I have many O’Briens in my lineage, and there are lots of them around here. In fact, Bunratty castle not far from here is an old O’Brien stronghold. Have you been there?”
MP Sampson shook his head, then turned to his partner. “You check the gym, Clark, and I’ll go up to the room. Call me on the cell if you spot him.”
He brushed past me, while the other MP strode toward the stairs at the far end of the east wing.
“‘Well, ‘cousin’,” said Thomas, “how about you and me get another Guinness in the lounge?”
We did head for the lounge, but not to drink, taking up posts outside the door where we could watch the hallways. And before long the MP named Clark came hurrying back, talking on his cell. We stepped inside the lounge, just out of sight, as he went past.
“Sir,” I heard him say, “the gym is closed for repairs. I think we’re being flim-flammed. Second floor west? Right.”
“We better get back up there,” Thomas whispered, and we were soon clambering up the steps at the far end of the hallway.
But the MP s were ahead of us. Just as we came into the hallway they were knocking on 223, and the door swung open.
I saw Cynthia peeking through a crack. But the MP pushed her aside and went in. We crept forward, but didn’t know what to do.
“Sergeant Roman Jackson,” the MP said sternly, “I have a warrant here for your arrest, for unauthorized absence and attempted desertion.” There was a rustle of paper. Then he said, “Surrender your passport, Jackson, and you too, Mrs. Jackson. Clark, get the restraining cuffs on him, and then go prepare the vehicle. Bring it to the side entrance.”
I heard Clark say “Yes Sir,” but then someone was brushing past me, shoving Thomas and me roughly aside.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” said a loud voice, “I’ll take those if you don’t mind. And Sergeant Clark, I suggest you stay right there.”
What the– ? I pushed in behind Thomas, just as the MP said, “Who the hell are you?”
“Commandant Connolly, Irish Army.” It was Ed, in his dark-green uniform. But he also had a white leather belt across his chest, attached to a large holster, from which a pistol butt protruded. One of his hands was on the belt, right next to the pistol. In the other he held the two American passports.
Neither of the MPs, I now noticed, had a weapon.
Ed glanced at the passports, then stuffed them into a breast pocket and retrieved a sheet of paper. “Thank you for locating this man Jackson, er, Lieutenant - -”
“Sampson,” the MP said.
“Very good, Sampson. We’ve had a notice from Ramstein via Interpol about this fugitive, and instructions to take him in.”
Now Thomas spoke up.”But wait a minute,” he protested, “you can’t - -”
Ed rounded on him, eyes flashing. “That’s enough from you right there,” he shouted, “you and your damned interfering Amnesty do-gooders. Another word from you and I’ll run you in as well. This is a military matter.”
He glared at Jackson. “As for you, young man, Ireland may be small and neutral. But we have a real army here, and we know the meaning of duty and discipline. We want nothing to do with deserters and malingerers.
“That’s right,” Sampson murmured approvingly.
At this Jackson slumped, and Cynthia began to cry.
Ed faced the MP lieutenant again, and handed him a card. “Sampson,” he said, “my instructions are to convey this man to the Curragh Camp stockade, for initial processing. That shouldn’t take more than twenty-four hours, and then we’ll be ready to turn him over to your men.”
“Curragh Camp,” said Sampson. “Where’s that?”
“Not far,” Ed said, and picked up a phone book on the bedside table. He shoved it at Thomas. “There’s detailed road maps in there, so why don’t you make yourself useful for once, and show him where it is.”
Thomas looked resentful, but started paging through the book. Sampson looked over his shoulder.
“The rest of you come along,” Ed commanded. “You too,” he said to me. “I want a word.”
Once in the hallway, he pushed us toward the stairs, and hurried down.
“What’s going on?” Roman asked.”
“Just shut up and move!” Ed muttered.
His Toyota was there, illegally parked as usual, with the engine idling. The four of us filled it up, and he sped out of the parking lot, down the airport road, then veered to the right at the first intersection.
My eyes widened when I saw the “One way - - Do Not Enter” sign, but it was only for a block or two, then he turned left and abruptly pulled into an empty lot surrounded by trees.
As soon as we stopped, Ed tossed his hat in the back. “What is this?” Roman asked. “Was that uniform a fake?”
“Never,” Ed snapped. “It’s as real as Ireland’s neutrality is supposed to be. All,” he added, “except this.”
He pulled out the pistol, pointed it at the windshield, and pulled the trigger.
Cynthia started to scream, but all we heard was a tinny click.
“Plastic,” Ed shrugged and tossed it in the back too. “Real guns are too dangerous for grown men to play with.”
Twenty minutes later, we were on the N18 highway past Ennis, headed northwest. “As soon as we get to Galway,” Ed was saying, “we’ll file your applications for asylum. That will put a stop to Lieutenant Sampson’s mischief.
“Do you think the government will let us stay?” Cynthia asked.
“There’s a fair chance,” Ed said. “Thomas and his Amnesty friends have had good luck. But if they don’t, we’ll find you another place, in the European Union, or one of the other neutral countries.”
His cell phone was beeping. “Thomas!” Ed said, “you were magnificent.” He laughed. “And did you fix up our American friends there?” Another chuckle, and he said, “Good work. We’ll meet you in Galway, at the usual,” and shut the phone.
He gave Roman and Cynthia a smile. “I think your Lieutenant Sampson is in for a disappointment,” he said. “It seems Thomas has given him directions, by a long and winding road, to the County Clare Central Landfill.”
“But,” I objected, “won’t he figure that out?”
“Not for awhile,” Ed said. “You see, all the signs there are in Irish.”
- - - -
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager