The Pirate’s Eye

And A Guy Who Had It

By John Connor

Back in the days when Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack Rackham, Cheung Po Tsai and other swashbucklers raided and plundered over the 7 Seas, a crewman who had “the pirate’s eye” was a treasure greater than Spanish gold.

This was a man or woman who could casually stroll the docks of a port, or row a small boat through the anchorage roads posing as a provisioner’s agent, and spot a ship lying too low in the water for their declared cargo; posting too many men on watch or lighting too many lamps at twilight; jumping too quickly and loudly to warn approaching boats away—ships with secrets.

A scallywag with the pirate’s eye could also see a targeted ship’s blind spots; the best avenues for approach and boarding; identify a watchstander too lackadaisical in their duties or given to snoozing; what distractions could be employed to turn attention away just long enough to cost a ship’s master his cargo and maybe his life. The pirate’s eye was a specialized skill, part intuitive, part pointedly honed, and oh, Jimmy had it. In fact, he still has it, as I learned to my delight—because Jimmy lives!

Few of my old comrades are still around—age and vocational hazards, y’know—and past means of communication, like The Sisters, who ran both a legit phone answering service and a discreet international message center for people runnin’ under the radar. The Lemon Pie Man with his photographic memory and suitcase full of notes for itinerant weapons operators, well, they’re long gone. Maybe a few of you know about them? But still, sometimes news reaches me via strange sources, and when it’s about a Good Guy who beat the odds, I get pretty snickery-giggly about it.

Many Look—Few SEE

Jimmy served with an Air Force surveying crew in Vietnam. On one job they were assessing expansion of a small outpost and dirt strip to handle C-130’s. The Army provided security. Jimmy’s crew had more and better optics than most US battalions, and 19-year-old Jimmy loved peepin’ through ’em in every spare or stolen moment. It infuriated his boss, but… he caught the attention of an Army captain.

Jimmy was trying to explain the “dead ground” he had spotted; a series of narrow connected breaks in the terrain offering cover for infiltration; how enemy troops could use it to get dangerously close to the base. He was being chewed out for skylarking when that captain overheard the conversation. Jimmy’s boss told him to shut up; it was the ground-pounders’ problem. But the captain intervened.

“Tell me what you see, Airman,” he said, listened, and then, “Show me—now!” Among other noisemakers they found pre-positioned Chinese-made 82mm mortars and piles of ordnance. Somebody was planning a housewarming party. The captain asked, and Jimmy explained he’d found the dead ground by changing angle and perspective, also watching the fall of shadows and disappearing-and-reappearing birds. There’s much more to the story, but after some long talks, the captain told Jimmy, “I like the way you see things.” They kept in touch.

He repeated that line a few years later when Jimmy returned to the civilian world and the former Army captain was working for a certain “alphabet agency.” Jimmy proved he could see a lot more than dead ground. Rather than rolling out a buncha stories we don’t have space for anyway, how ’bout a few vignettes and Jimmy-isms?

“You’ve dropped something small on the ground, and can’t find it. You’re standing, looking down. You know it’s gotta be there, but can’t see it. Best way to find it? Start changing your angle and distance; squat, lie down, get further away then close in. Scan slowly, then even slower. Change your angle to the light. Apply the same principal to terrain, structures, streets, traffic, anything. Remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It can mean your opposition is smarter than you assumed, or you haven’t looked smart enough. While scanning, you’re establishing what’s normal. When you focus, you’re looking for exceptions. Spot just one exception and you’ll likely find more.”

One example: Large buildings commanded a big plaza and traffic roundabout. All were spattered by gunfire and cheeseholed by RPG’s and tank rounds. Intact windows were opaque with dust and grime, and some groundfloor windows front and back were boarded over. The buildings were “abandoned,” yet civilians venturing out a few blocks away were being cut down. Echoes defied location efforts. Indigenous troops had scoured the area, including those buildings.

Jimmy wandered about in mufti. In minutes he spotted two “cheeseholes” which had been enlarged from the inside, making perfect firing ports; palm-sized splotches on windows, wiped just clean enough to allow viewing. In back, the door was nailed tight, but two ground-floor windows only appeared to be boarded over. They were convincingly faked—and hinged on their top edges, to swing out and allow quick entry and exit. To his pirate’s eye, a glint of brass hinge told the tale. Evidence piled up, and the snipers went down.

Another time Jimmy pretended to stumble and fall, just to get a low-angle glimpse at the underside of a decrepit, rusty cargo van he’d gotten a twinge from. Yup—the suspension system had been freshly beefed up, painted black and poorly camouflaged with thrown fistfuls of dirt; unnatural to a trained eye. That stumble netted cases of ammo and explosives, a clutch of terrorists, and invaluable info.

There’s looking—and then there’s seeing with a pirate’s eye.

Shiny Coins & Bright Balloons

Jimmy not only had a refined pirate’s eye, he knew intuitively how other people see things—and what gets their attention and distracts them. Let’s say your enemy’s standard practice is moving in single file, well-spaced, hugging narrow trails in the dead ground of deep ravines. To plan ambushes and effectively employ party favors like Claymore mines, you need them to stop and bunch up. Here are a few Jimmy-tricks:

In Singapore he bought a sack of pre-World War II Chinese coins, cheap. A week later, far away, he was planting them in a sandy pocket of a rocky trail recently flooded by rain. Only two stuck up visibly. A nudge with a toe would unearth a few more. Dig in several inches and you’d think you’d found a treasure. Discipline quickly breaks down and you’ve got a nice cluster of targets plunging their fingers into the sand and…

Fill a plastic squeeze bottle with pure Witch Hazel—the ultra-stinky variety—and seal it in a plastic bag along with a latex glove. At your selected “bunching” point, smear it liberally on overhanging branches and leaves, or in pockets in rocks, then take your ambush positions. It’s virtually guaranteed your oppo will be warily halted, stackin’ up and sniffin’ like dogs, snouts in the air, wondering “What the heck is that?”

One time his buddies were baffled when, stopping over in Taiwan, he bought several brightly colored uninflated balloons, some string and a shiny metallic Congratulations! ornament. Neat, flat and light, he slipped them into a shirt pocket, smiled and said, “Just wait. How many Taliban have ever seen a bouquet of balloons?” And the Congratulations!? “They win a prize; a noisy one.”

Final note: Perhaps the best thing Jimmy ever taught me was, when moving through strange terrain, to look back frequently and take mental snapshots of the route from a reverse angle, additionally imagining how things look in different light—or darkness. “Trails look very different going down ’em versus coming up ’em, especially if you’re running for your life.” That might seem simple, but when it has saved your butt twice…

I hope Jimmy’s relaxing right now, lifting a drink and enjoying the sunset framed by his cottonwoods. Lift one with me, grin, and whisper Jimmy lives! Connor OUT

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