Short Story What We Don’t Know

Brian Ratty

Brian Ratty

What We Don’t Know
by Brian D. Ratty


Recently, I returned to Ketchikan, Alaska, with some pals for a salmon-fishing trip. It had been over twenty years since my last trip up, and I was curious to see how the little fishing village had changed.

On the first morning out, Skip, our charter boat guide, turned east into one of the many pristine bays of the Inland Passage. The steel-gray misty morning looked promising as our twenty-one-foot Bayliner sped past craggy shorelines and the many small islands that dot the seascape. I had been surprised to find that Skip Pattison of North-End Charters was still in business, and still using the same boat he had purchased over twenty years before. While the boat looked as fresh as the day he had bought it, what had changed was the gear that now hung on its superstructure. GPS, depth- and fish-finders, and downriggers were now part of his arsenal for catching the elusive silver salmon.

While Skip might have put on some new gear and a few pounds, his instincts for catching fish was just as I remembered. Coming to stop in a particularly beautiful cove, he soon had the lines baited and the motor trolling.

As we bobbed in the calm, deserted waters, waiting for that first fish strike, I watched the morning mist begin to roll away from the mountain tops and shorelines across the bay. Soon, out of this vale, arose two gigantic gray ghost-ships at anchor, some two or three miles across the water. Turning to Skip, I inquired, “What are they doing out here?”

“It’s a submarine base, and those are sub tenders.”

USS Virginia
USS Virginia (SSN-774) Attack submarine

He went on to explain that the Navy had built the base many years before. The government liked the location because it was so isolated and, with cloud cover 350 days a year, enemy satellites couldn’t pry. Many of our nuclear submarines traveled up into these waters to have their ‘acoustical footprints’ tested, among other things. Fishing boats were restricted from getting too close, and the base was heavily guarded.

Gazing across the water with my mind racing, I thought, What we don’t know…

But then, what we don’t know is always surprising. In 1960, when I was attached to the Air Force, learning ‘Aerial Photographic Reconnaissance,’ I worked on the Top Secret U2 spy plane. Before the days of satellites, this aircraft was our eye in the sky. She had a camera system that could produce razor-sharp images from a cruising altitude of over 80,000 feet. Years later, when the plane was finally announced to the general public, the government said its top cruising altitude was only 60,000 feet, and that she could only produce fuzzy images from those heights. Misinformation…What the public doesn’t know can’t hurt them.

Years later, on a September morning in 1981, I was driving south on Highway 95, just outside of Fallon, Nevada, heading towards Las Vegas. On one particular long, straight stretch of deserted desert roadway, my SUV became the target of two jet fighters. The planes appeared out of nowhere and dropped down to the valley floor, causing a rooster tail of dust as they came straight toward my speeding car.

With my heart in my mouth, I actually ducked behind the wheel as they swooped over my car, chasing each other. The sounds were deafening, and I could feel the heat from their engines as they roared over me. With my hands shaking, I watched them gain enough altitude to do a few barrel rolls and then disappear over a distant mountain top. Stunned, I pulled off the road and closely checked my roadmap. There it was, in bold print: Highway 95 went right through what the map called the ‘Fallon Naval Range.’ The Navy’s TOPGUN training facility was just outside of town, and my car had just become a target of opportunity.

Some years after that, while driving that same highway to Las Vegas for another trade show, my wife and I stopped for lunch at the old hotel and casino in Tonopah, Nevada. The old building is a grand monument to the mining days of yesteryear. While waiting for our sandwiches in an almost deserted dining room, we overheard two guys talking at a table next to us.

One said to the other, “Did you see that sunrise over Moscow this morning? It was spectacular!”

“Yes,” the other guy replied, “I was right behind you, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful Moscow looked, glittering in the snow.”

Finally, the first fellow sensed our meddlesome ears and lowered his tone. When my wife and I returned to our car, I asked her if she had heard the same conversation, and she confirmed it, word for word! How could two men sitting in a restaurant in Tonopah, Nevada, have seen a sunrise on that very day, on other side of the world? We found out the answer to that question a few years later when, in 1988, the Air Force introduced the general public to the F-117 Nighthawk. This Stealth attack aircraft had been manufactured by the infamous Lockheed Skunk Works, with flight crews trained at a secret air base just outside of Tonopah, Nevada. Again, what we don’t know!

F-117a Nighthawk
F-117a Nighthawk

“Fish on!” Skip yelled. His shouts brought my mind back to reality, and to the pleasures at hand. Soon, with a great deal of excitement, I had my first salmon in the fish box. At the end of three days, my pals and I flew home with freezers full of fish and cameras full of memories. But I won’t soon forget those two gray ghost-ships moored in that mysterious bay. How fortunate our country is to have men and women standing guard in these remote and isolated bastions of freedom. And there’s one thing I do know…Alaska is truly a unique, beautiful and bountiful place to fish!