The Prisoner


The Prisoner

For those who serve in secret

Even through Prisoner Number 1442 lay wracked in indescribable pain stuffed in a six by three by two feet concrete box with an inch-thick iron lid fastened with shackles covering the entire top with only three air holes located somewhere in a god-forsaken desert in a small village where shouts of angry men and grunts of camels were all to be heard, he refused to die. His dreams did not cease, and his hope never failed hm. Perhaps more importantly, his faithful memories sustained him even when delirium would invade his consciousness. The splattering of his blood during horrific hours of inhumane torture reminded him of a red rose in his mother’s garden so many long years ago when he was young and wholly innocent of geo-political intrigues.

He wanted to pick one perfect red rose for his mother to place in the old vase which she kept so carefully on the mantle above the fireplace.

He cut the red rose with a long stem, removing the thorns so that his mother would not be pricked, early one morning. The dew on the rose made the fragrance even more enhanced.

He took it into the kitchen lean-to where his mother was making biscuits for breakfast. When he gave it to her, she hugged him tightly with her floured hands and thanked him over and over.

She poured water from the drinking bucket into her old vase and carefully placed the red rose on the mantle above the fireplace in the log cabin.

The red rose lasted, with its pervading fragrance, for many days.

He had been given an almost impossible assignment: he was to infiltrate a large terrorist cell; assassinate the cell’s leader and his chief lieutenant; seize computer files; and leave undetected back to the one square kilometer pickup zone which was approximately 20 kilometers away from the cell’s encampment. The satellite photos he had carefully memorized clearly showed the size of the compound, the heavily guarded perimeter, the mud brick building where the targets and computers were, and the two small villages between the drop-off and his destination. The houses of the villages were simple abodes. Each village had a water well around which dogs lay.

The hand-dug well supplied his family with abundant water year-round. Everyone took their turn at drawing a bucket of water for the house. The water was clear and cold. Milk and cream from their Jersey cow were lowered into the well until they just touched the cold water. Without electricity this was their refrigeration

When his mother did the weekly washing, many buckets had to be drawn in order to fill the outdoor wash pot under which a fire was built to heat the cold water of the well. All would help her empty the hot water into a wash tub where his mother would laboriously clean the patched jeans, shirts, and other items with a rub board.

The cleaned clothes would then be rinsed in a smaller wash tub and hung out to dry on the clothes line. Being dried outside even on cloudy days, imbued their laundry with a fresh fragrance.

The helicopter used to drop him off had advanced noise-cancelling equipment both for the rotors and engine; it had flown low from its base some 200 kilometers away without being seen or heard. The landing was soft and uneventful – and on time at 12:30 a.m. The crew said nothing as he exited the ship. He did not watch as it flew silently away. By the time it had gained its low operating altitude, he had already sprinted almost a kilometer into the moonless desert toward the first village. He had to get past both villages during the very early morning when all would be sleeping, and the night’s temperature in the desert caused the inhabitants to sleep deeply.

The fireplace and cook stove were the only sources of heat in the full-of-wind-entering cracks in their house during cold winters. Ice always formed in the drinking bucket overnight where a long-handled dipper for communal use was placed. Only after the embers in the fireplace and cook stove were used to start the day’s fires would the ice melt.

He was armed with a well-silenced Uzi pistol with a large magazine and a 12-inch sheathed knife. Both were fastened tightly around his waist and tied to his thighs so that there would be no movement of either as he ran relentlessly toward his target.

He wore black form-fitting pants and shirt both of which had no pockets. He shoes were ankle length, lightweight and also black. He knew he had to move quickly and quietly taking advantage of the darkness and the early hours of the day. His night vision goggles helped him immensely. He had to be at the compound by 2:30 a.m. He had been given one hour to infiltrate and two hours to return to the landing zone.

The two small villages would have to be skirted cautiously, even though there would be no armed patrols near them, because of the constant presence of dogs. He hoped they would be asleep lying around the wells of the two villages near the drinking troughs.

He easily ran past the first village without being noticed. By the time he had gone past  the second village he noticed that the morning’s cooking fires had not yet begun; so, he knew the inhabitants were still asleep.

The wood-burning cook stove in the small lean-to attached to the log cabin served the family of five both as a stove where simple but filling meals were cooked and as a heating source.

The lean-to was used as a kitchen and dining area. In the small room was a round pedastalled wooden table around which were three old cane-bottomed chairs where his mother, brother, and sister sat. He and his father sat on a home-made bench fashioned from a one inch thick by one foot wide by six feet long slab gotten from the local sawmill.

The table was also used as a place where his mother would prepare meals and wash dishes in a wash pan after meals. It additionally was where he did his homework in the evenings.

He knew from the sat photos that, approximately 50 meters from the compound, there would be two armed guards in each quadrant around the entire area. There would be in addition two armed guards at the door of the target. There would also be as usual several dogs by the well which was about 30 meters form the entrance of the house.

As he approached the eastern quadrant, he slowed down to a careful, quiet, and measured walk. He became acutely aware of what was on the parched ground. He could make no noise which might arouse the two-armed guards who were about 20 meters apart. He found them, as he thought, sound asleep. He waited only a few minutes observing them before moving silently toward the empty space around the building.

He knew that the empty space would be the most difficult part of his approach. The area around the target’s house was devoid of everything with the exception of four scrub bushes somehow living in the dried soil. He quickly noticed that the three dogs were asleep near the well. With the exception of the rustling of the tethered camels, there were no sounds anywhere.

He began his slow and cautious move across the barren space being especially certain he did not step on anything which might make a sound. The dogs were to his left about 20 meters away. They remained asleep as he took in the sight of the two-armed guards. They were about 10 meters each from either side of the door. They were slumped over asleep with their backs against the wall of the house. Their AK-47s were propped at arm’s length against the house.

Both guards were young and very thin. He did not want to kill them. They had been conscripted into a thankless job. They would remain as guards until they were captured, killed, or dismissed by the leader. He knew they had little hope for a good future. He wanted them to remain asleep as he approached the door.

The house was a low-slung square building perhaps three meters high made of large rocks and small stones over which was a dirt plaster which had faded to a bland brown which caused the small and windowless house to blend well with its surrounding. He knew from memory the landmarks of the façade of the house. What the sat photos did not reveal, however, was the stench of urine and feces near the building.

The door was about two meters high and perhaps one and a half meters wide. It was made of wood with metal bracings running diagonally across the door. There was no latch or handle on it. There were four wide leather hinges which supported the door. It could be opened from the outside only by pushing on it. There were openings at the top and bottom the width of the door of about five centimeters.

He was now very thankful for his night vision goggles. He silently was thankful for the invention. He could see the two guards and, if they had been awake, could not see him. Both were snoring and looked helpless. Their snoring would cover any creaks of the door when he opened it.

When he and his brother were nine and ten years old, they decided to walk approximately seven kilometers through the dense forest; cross a small stream; and approach their grandparents’ house through a field of wild sunflowers. They wanted to see if they could walk without disturbing any wildlife and eventually surprising their grandparents.

The route they chose included two steep hills on each side of the stream. They knew that squirrels, rabbits, birds, and perhaps a deer or two would be along their path. They would have to walk cautiously if they were to make the trip without the wildlife noticing them.

Going down one slippery hill, crossing the stream, and going up the opposite slippery hill was difficult, but they managed well and did not disturb any wildlife.

As he and his brother approached the clearing outside of the woods and just before the field of wild sunflowers, they noticed a doe with her fawn feeding perhaps 30 meters from them. The animals were in their direct path. They waited patiently without moving until the doe and fawn went back into the sheltering woods.

They then crossed the clearing and went into the field of wild sunflowers. The fragrance of the leaves and the buzzing of various bees filled their senses as they moved through the field toward the gate opening into their grandparents’ yard. They opened the gate without making any noise, and were able to cross the yard to the porch where their grandfather was sitting without being noticed.

He moved silently and swiftly to the door. He hoped the opening of it would make no sound. He pushed on the door, and it barely made a sound. He opened it enough so that he could both enter and leave easily.

The interior of the windowless room was surprisingly cool; however, the odors of sweat, urine, and cigarette smoke were truly fetid. The laptop computer was on a small table near the target’s cot. The room was utterly devoid of anything one might expect in a well-used living quarter.

The target was lying on his back with his right arm bent above his bearded face and unkempt hair. His left arm was down by his side. His lieutenant was lying on his side with his arms bent near his bearded face. Both were snoring and sound asleep.

He unholstered his Uzi pistol and shot the target in the center of his forehead. He died immediately making no sound. He shot the lieutenant in his temple. The only sound he made was a slight and harsh intake of breath.

He reholstered his Uzi pistol. He quickly placed the laptop in his black tote bag leaving through the opening of the door silently. The two young guards and the dogs were still asleep.

From the moment he opened the door until he left took less than 15 seconds.

When he was 15, his mother asked him to go squirrel hunting so that the family would have meat for supper. He took his single shot 22 caliber Remington rifle with one shell chambered and one more in the pocket of his jeans. He wore his well-used engineer boots. He wanted to go to a large group of oak trees with lots of acorns which he knew from experience the squirrels would be eating.

In order to get there, he had to traverse a craggy outcrop of flat and loose rocks which not only would make his footing difficult but also harbor lizards and other creatures which would startle less knowledgeable hunters. He had gone up almost to the top when he heard before seeing it a coiled timber rattlesnake ready to strike his left foot about a meter away.

He stopped and did not move until he knew where to place his feet back a few steps. He then chambered his shell and shot the rattlesnake in the head. While it was writhing, he quickly went around the area until he had reached the top.

He went quietly toward the stand of acorn-laden oak trees stopping only to chamber his remaining shell. Soon he saw a squirrel silhouetted on a limb perhaps 20 meters high. He shot it cleanly through its head, and was able to return home with the evening’s meat for his family.

He left the compound retracing the path he had entered it. He went through the same quadrant and found the two guards still sound asleep. He was able to leave the area totally undetected. He knew, however, that he had to get past the two villages before he could begin to relax mentally.

He sprinted toward the far outskirts of the nearest village being very careful not to go close to it even though doing so would save him precious time. So far, he was ahead of the well-planned schedule. His being at the LZ slightly before his pick-up would greatly assist the chopper’s crew. Everyone depended on his elusive abilities to carry out the very detailed operation.

He went past the first village’s guards and dogs without incident. As he continued to sprint toward the far outskirts of the second village, he knew there could be someone awake. Though the momentary temptation to go far outside his path was great, he knew that doing that would add too much time to his arrival and cause him to be late for the pick-up. It had been scheduled down to the minute, and any deviation from that would put all at risk. He continued sprinting along the same way he had come in. With his night vision goggles, he was able to see clearly any obstacles in his way.

Part of the well-rehearsed plan was for him to observe, find, and use any places where he could conceal separately his black tote bag with the important laptop and his Uzi pistol, knife, and goggles in the event he was discovered. It was vitally important that he could carry out these actions even as potential captors were approaching.

He saw as he came near the second village that the two guards had moved. This could mean anything from their going to the well for a drink to expanding their patrol radius. He knew he had to be very vigilant to sounds and movements the guards might make. He also began taking close notice of depressions where he could place and cover his very valuable possessions.

Suddenly he heard dogs barking, and then saw one of the guards 30 or so meters to his left. He was much more concerned about the dogs than the guard who could not see him in the darkness. He could outrun the guard; but the dogs would rapidly overtake him and attack him. He decided to continue sprinting hoping the dogs would have difficulty sniffing his presence in the breezeless early morning.

The other guard now appeared perhaps 40 meters directly in front of him. Both guards were moving slowly in a vector toward him without realizing that he was in their vicinity. The dogs were jumping about between the moving guards barking loudly in their frustration at not being able to smell anything out of the ordinary.

Even though he was more than three-quarters of the way past the village, he knew he could never avoid the dogs. The guards were stumbling in the complete darkness and would miss him if not for the dogs. While he hoped for the best, he knew that getting away from the dogs would be almost impossible. When the dogs found him, the guards would quickly arrive.

He would now have to hide quickly and well what he had with him. He remembered a depression a few meters back where he could place the tote bag with the laptop. He turned; found the depression; put the tote bag in it; and placed flat rocks over them. To his right 10 meters away was a small but long pile of sand where he dug a hole large enough to put the Uzi pistol, knife, and goggle in. He covered them as best as he could. He then sprinted faster than before to the right of the second guard who by now had closed the distance to about 20 meters. The first guard had fallen and was trying to get up all the while urging the dogs to run ahead of him toward the second guard.

He knew he would be unable to outrun the pack of dogs even with his track speed. When they attacked him, two of the dogs clamped down on his legs while the other three immediately jumped on his back pulling him down. They were relentless in their attack, and did not cease even when the two guards began beating him with their stubby AK-47s.

Barely conscious, he felt the tethering ropes being tied to his arms above his wrists. The two guards began pulling him on his back toward the village. As soon as they got him to the village, men came out and began beating him on his face, chest, stomach, and legs with the hardened prodding sticks used to direct their camels and donkeys.

Before he mercifully lost consciousness, he heard excited and angry shouts that the leader and his helper had been killed. This caused even more vicious beatings. What he could not have known because he became unconscious is that he was dragged on his back while being beaten and stabbed all the way to the compound. There he was dumped into the concrete coffin to rot in the suffocating heat lying in his blood.

When he was a senior in high school, he was the basketball’s team leader in rebounds, assists, steals, and second in points. He also had a 97.3 percent from the free throw line. His team, because of its outstanding record of 19-0, had been invited to an at-large invitational tournament where all classifications would be playing.

With six seconds remaining in the championship game and with his team one point behind, he got a defensive rebound. As he came down, he was elbowed in the face which split his lower lip and also caused him to bite his tongue. As he bent over still clutching his rebound, a player from the other team kneed him in his lower posterior causing him to fall to the gym’s floor. A third player pretending he was stumbling kicked him in his solar plexus.

He was given a one and one. His coach wanted to remove him from the game because of his injuries, but he adamantly said no knowing that none of the reserves could make the free throws. With blood flowing off his chin and the pain from the kicks coursing through his body, he made the first free throw which tied the game. He then sank the second one which won for his tiny high school (19 in his graduating class) the invitational tournament. The trophy and his MVP trophy still remain in the school’s trophy case.

His team won because he refused to quit. This characteristic was with him his entire life.

When he did not return to the designated pick-up area, a coordinated series of search and rescue plans were put together. He had to be rescued or his body retrieved along with the important laptop. New sat photos – well-enlarged – were made; a cruise missile was programmed to the coordinates of the compound; jet fighters were on high alert stand-by; a unit of the Delta Force would be inserted in a heavily armed Black Hawk copter with a medic on board.

On the 53rd hour of his entombment dying from loss of blood and lack of water, a cruise missile slammed into the compound followed by strafing runs by the jets. Soon the Black Hawk landed with the Delta Force unit laying down a suppressing and merciless blanket of heavy fire.

He was jarred into consciousness from his delirium by the unmistakable sounds of the attack. Pieces of shrapnel and rocks rained on and against the concrete coffin which, ironically, now protected him. His tortured body was willed by his mind and spirit to remain calm. He knew he would eventually be rescued.

As he fought to remain conscious, he thought he heard the shackles of the top being unlocked. Slowly with grating sounds, the top was pushed open at the end where his swollen head was. Finally, the top was pushed open about a third of the way in a diagonal. For the first time since he was thrown into the coffin, he smelled air that was not fetid with the odors of his lacerated body.

Then the face of what he thought must have been an angel appeared in the opening staring at him without saying a word. It was, in fact, the face of a young boy perhaps 12 years old. The boy showed mercy and strength far beyond his age. He then disappeared.

He wanted more than anything to summon his remaining strength and will to overcome the pain of his beaten body and pull himself out of the coffin. He managed with great difficulty to get one arm up to the edge and move his body so that he could begin pulling himself up one painful inch at a time. When he had turned enough to get his other arm onto the edge, he attempted to move his torso. He was unable to pull his torso up at first because of the indescribable pain.

With great difficulty he finally was able to sit up in the opening. Using his last bit of strength and will he pull his body up and out of the coffin. As his body passed over the edge, he fell out screaming in pain from his broken ribs. He then blacked out. When he regained consciousness, he began to pull himself on the ground one inch by agonizing inch.

He had pulled his tortured body about three meters when he became aware of someone bending over him saying that he is safe now because we are here. He remembered attempting to tell the figure that the laptop was in his black tote bag in a depression near the first village. He remembered little else of his rescue until he was in a hospital many hours later.

When he was growing up, he attended Sunday school in a one-room country church. On Sunday mornings he and a few other boys would take two old hand-made benches out of the building and place them under the tall pine trees in the unmown grass near the church. There ticks from the roaming cows would crawl up their legs. It was often difficult to pay attention to the old lady who taught them the Sunday school lessons.

One Sunday stood out, however, in his memory because of what the old lady, full of experience and knowledge, told the boys. Even though her dentures sounded like castanets clapping, her lesson this time made a profound impression on him.

She told the boys in a firm but kind manner that they would face problems in their lives from which there would seem to be no way out. She explained that they would likely encounter people who would be angels of whom they would not be aware who would help them.

She ended her lesson by saying slowly that God promised in Isaiah that He would cut in sunder the bars of iron which might occur in their lives. He never forgot that.

It was determined in the hospital that he had suffered seven broken ribs, lacerated liver and spleen, deep muscle contusions in his thighs and arms, and many other injuries. His black tote bag with the laptop and his Uzi pistol, knife, and goggles were retrieved.

His hope and his memories and his strength never failed him. He was successful in his assignment because he refused to give up.

W. Blaine Wheeler

I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Arkansas with degrees in languages and comparative literature. I have traveled extensively in eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico.

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