A novel of romance and adventure. A love affair is shattered when a Naval Intelligence Officer finds himself in North Korea.
1 CNN Washington DC – 2007
Christiane Amanpour: “Okay, Brandon, cameras are rolling. I know these lights are bright. Just look at me or into the camera and you’ll be fine. In a few seconds, I’ll get a signal to start. I’ll make a brief introduction and then give you a chance to tell your side of the story. Are you ready?”
Brandon: “I think so.”
Christiane: “All right. Here we go: … Good evening, I’m Christiane Amanpour with a CNN exclusive interview. I’m sitting here with Brandon McCarty, brother of Lieutenant Christopher McCarty.
“Despite everything we’ve seen and heard about Lt. McCarty this month, Brandon remains convinced of his brother’s innocence.
“Brandon, there’s every indication your brother betrayed our country. Why should we believe what you have to say is anything other than family loyalty in the face of overwhelming evidence? How do you respond to that?”
Brandon: “Look, I understand why people are angry, I’ve seen the same footage, but they’re wrong. They don’t know my brother; they don’t know the half of it. I know his heart, and I can tell you Christopher McCarty loves America and would never to do anything to harm it.
“Suddenly, he’s accused of treason, his career and reputation are ruined; his wife and child are under siege. Our own mother can’t even leave the house without reporters converging on her like a pack of wolves.
“It’s completely unfair. No matter what you see in those videos. It’s snap judgment, and it’s wrong. I just wish people knew his side of the story.”
2 September mourn – 2001
Christopher McCarty’s second class at Darien High School had just started. The clock on the pale blue cinderblock wall read nine-twelve when three shrill blasts sounded over the PA system. An assembly was announced with attendance mandatory, no exceptions. “Good,” he thought, “I’ll miss calculus.” He grabbed his backpack and joined the stream of students heading to the auditorium, surprised to see two teachers running to the theater. He stood taller, extending his six-foot height, scanning over other students’ heads, then picked up his pace, weaving in and out of groups of classmates, feeling tension roll through the hallway.
Students were barely inside when Principal Hanley spread his arms, hands flapping, urging silence from the podium.
“I know many of you have family working in the city. You should know there’s been an attack on the World Trade Center.”
Hanley explained what little he knew about the planes and the towers, and announced school was closed for the day. Chris sat for a few seconds, letting it sink in. He wasn’t sure how close his father’s office was to the World Trade Center, but he knew the Financial District had to be near enough. He launched out of his seat, running into the hallway, looking for anyone who could give him a ride. Mark Herndon had almost reached the parking lot when Chris poked him on the shoulder.
“Can I get a ride? I need to check on my mom.”
Mark laughed. “Dude, relax. It’s a day off! Let’s go someplace fun.”
“No! I can’t. My dad works in Manhattan. I really need to get home.”
“Sorry, I forgot. Come on.”
A faint scent of breakfast still lingered when Chris opened the kitchen door: a mix of coffee, toast, and bacon. Scooter bounded into the room, skidding across the tile floor, wagging his tail and jumping up for his usual hug. It all felt comforting, until he saw his mother in the den staring at the television, a phone to her ear, her voice wavering:
“But somebody must know something!”
After a pause, she said, “Call me as soon as you know. I’m switching to my cell to keep our landline open.” She looked up at Chris and beckoned him to her side.
“Oh, God,” she said, reaching out, giving him a long tight hug. She stepped back, resting a hand on his shoulder, her eyes darting past him, as if willing her husband to walk through the door. “I’ve been calling him, but I can’t get through.
“We don’t know anything yet” … still staring at the door. “His office is closing; everyone’s being evacuated. They aren’t sure were your father is. He’s scheduled for a meeting at Cantor Fitzgerald.” Her head turned toward the television, then snapped back to her son. “Christopher … their office is in one of those towers.”
Chris swallowed hard as he realized the implications. The room squeezed in. He looked at the expression on her face, clenched his fists and thought: This is insane! Why would anybody do this? Who’s doing this?
He watched his mother sink into a chair, her eyes fixed on the television. She leapt when the phone rang. Chris thought it must be his dad. But it wasn’t him, or his office. It was his aunt in Illinois calling his mother to see if she’d heard the news, calling to see if Tom was safe. His mother rushed the conversation to clear the line. It suddenly occurred to Chris that she’d get several such calls, and all he wanted was an open line so his dad could get through. He checked to make sure his own cell was fully charged, then called his dad’s number. No answer. He tried again.
They waited forty-five minutes, with no word. A reporter said people had been seen leaping from the upper floors. His mother stiffened her back and stood directly in front of the television, her fingers over her mouth, her eyes fixed. She reached back awkwardly, grabbing her son’s hand without taking her eyes off the screen. Chris moved beside her, looping an arm around her shoulders, feeling helpless, not knowing how to comfort her, not taking his own eyes off the set.
Thick gray-white smoke streamed from the towers, billowing high overhead, while rescue crews rushed urgently about. Church bells tolled in the background. More news: The Pentagon had been hit. An airliner was missing over Pennsylvania and presumed down. All flights were grounded. The President was in Florida, reading to children at an elementary school. It felt surreal. Nobody seemed to be in charge; no one could explain a reason for the attack or even who the attackers were. He should be in high school preparing for gym; now he watched a nation under attack, perhaps preparing for war.
Just before ten o’clock his mother let out a shriek. The first tower collapsed, floor by floor, until its entire mass hit the street, spewing enormous clouds of heavy gray smoke. Concrete dust and debris flashed in concentric circles, encasing everything under a thick pulsing blanket, choking off air. Terrified people emerged from the smoke: gray ghosts, gasping for air, running for their lives. A woman fell onto the street. No one stopped to help.
Christopher’s mother squeezed his arm tightly, turning to him, her mouth open, her eyes wide in horror. Flames and smoke streamed from the upper floors of the second tower. A reporter said, “There’s incomprehensible mayhem in the streets; it looks like New York is in the midst of a nuclear winter.”
When the second tower collapsed, his mother collapsed with it.
Noon came without a word. Christopher’s brothers had each called. Ted, a doctor in Madison, Wisconsin, called from his office. He offered to drive straight home, since flights had been grounded. “Not yet,” Christopher said. “I’m sure we’ll hear something soon.” Brandon, at the London School of Economics, hoping to follow his father into finance, called, expecting to hear his dad was fine, and was shocked to learn that might not be the case. Again, Chris said, “Let’s just wait. I’ll call as soon as I know something.” Each brother spoke briefly with their mother, but she was too fragile to carry on much of a conversation.
Chris couldn’t bear waiting. He grabbed a photo of his father from the grand piano, sliding the picture out of its frame, intending to run copies on the home printer. His hands shook; an image of his father lying trapped under concrete flashed in his head.
“Christopher, what are you doing?”
“I’ve got to find Dad. If he can’t reach us, I’ll find someone who’s seen him.”
He thought his father must be helping people, too busy to call. Besides, most phones were still down. Of course he’d be helping others. If nothing else, Tom McCarty had a strong sense of Catholic guilt that fueled a willingness to help others. He believed in the rewards of heaven.
She stood up, wringing her hands. “No. Stay! Please wait. He’ll call.”
“I can’t just sit here, Mom. I’ve got to do something!”
He turned toward the door, but she blocked his way, putting both hands on his arms and locking his eyes with hers.
“Please, I need you here. I can’t wait by myself.” His mother sagged, and Chris had to keep her from falling. She steadied one hand on the piano as he helped her to the sofa. Scooter placed his head on her lap, his brown eyes looking up at her, concerned, his tail slowly thumping the floor, offering encouragement. She absently stroked his fur.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll stay. I’m sure you’re right. Dad will be fine. He’ll call as soon as the lines are open.”
Something fundamental had changed. It hadn’t occurred to him that his mother might need him. It had always been the other way around. Of course, he would wait with her for the call.
At six o’clock Chris knelt beside his bed, praying earnestly through tears, prayers interspersed with sharp bouts of anger, his fists pounding the bed, while light drained from the room. His mind swirled with images of his father trapped under twisted steel or, worse, scattering as ash, drifting over the city.
The call never came. His brothers returned home to Connecticut. His aunt flew in from Chicago and stayed nearly two weeks. His mother was too fragile to cope with even the smallest daily task. The memorial service was held at St. John’s Parish. Tom had been an usher there every Sunday, and Chris had been an altar boy in middle school. Their church overflowed with mourners.
Monsignor gave a warm eulogy, speaking from the heart, of Tom’s devotion to family and to the Lord. Chris was taken aback when the priest actually used the words, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” He didn’t appreciate the phrase in this case. He thought of the enormous clouds of ash and dust spewing from the towers and thought, “Part of that was my dad.” But then the priest said, “Take heart. We will all see Tom again. He is gone but a little while. As Jesus said in the Book of John, ‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I go there to prepare one for you.’ We will see Tom again, waiting for us, fully restored, in the complete joy of heaven.”
Of all the souls who lost their lives that day, 156 were from Connecticut. There were two services in Tom’s memory and a host of group services in both Connecticut and Manhattan for all the victims. Christopher wished they would stop. He wished his family didn’t have to be reminded of their loss every day. Not that he could ever forget, but they all needed space to recover.
He felt hopelessly lost. The sound of his father’s voice came to him at odd hours, every day, like a tape recording playing endlessly in his head:
“Christopher, there’s a reason people get discouraged with the world. They expect great things from it, and when it doesn’t happen they give up. Don’t assume the world will do great things for you. Expect great things from yourself, and make your world great.”
His father’s death created a deep void he began filling with anger and determination. Within days, one clear, overpowering resolve formed in Christopher’s heart. He would not let this stand. He would devote his life to protecting his country. He became fully committed to getting into a military academy. West Point was closer to home, but he preferred the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
He began a new physical regimen. Already in decent shape from soccer, he dedicated himself to peak performance, waking up at four-thirty each morning Monday through Saturday. At first, he ran four miles, increased it to five and finally six miles a day. After school, he used the gym to bulk up, lifting weights, doing sit-ups, leg lifts, and push-ups. Each week he increased the number of reps, feeling his strength and endurance grow. If he made the Academy, he wanted to be prepared for all its physical demands.
Leaving the house early on dark, crisp mornings while the stars still sparkled made him feel alive. Scooter ran at his side, pulling the leash sideways whenever rabbits or squirrels darted from bushes. Toward the end of his run, lights would appear in some of the homes. Husbands and wives shuffling into the kitchen to start coffee, parents waking sleepy children. He felt the presence of his father, and a fierce determination to make him proud.
Principal Hanley, and half the faculty at Darien High, wrote glowing letters to their congressman and two senators. Nothing pleased an elected official more than nominating the son of a 9/11 victim to a military academy. Competition arose to nominate Christopher. Senator Blumenthal’s staff was more efficient, and Christopher’s nomination formally came from his office.
The senator made a special trip to Darien, appearing with Chris to announce the Naval Academy had officially accepted his nomination. Soon, Christopher McCarty would be a midshipman on his way to becoming either an ensign in the Navy or a second lieutenant in the Marines. Everyone felt so proud. No one could have predicted the path his life would take.