Thursday, October 17, 2019
Corpsman Chronicles XXIV: Beer and circuses
It was early September, 1982. It was a Friday, and in Virginia Beach the weather was just gorgeous. It was warm and balmy and humid, but the oppressive heat of summer had taken a few days off. For the moment it was simply a wonderful day to enjoy existing. In only a few days I'd be off on deployment.
On this Friday I had the duty at NAS Oceana's Branch Medical Clinic. I was just one of the duty section, somewhere in the middle of the stack rank-wise. Having decided to straighten up and fly right I was an E-4 and had just learned that I'd made the cut for promotion to E-5. I'd be frocked a day or two before we hit the boat.
The Chief of the Day was an HM1 named something like Smart, only different, and who, IIRC, had just made the cut for Chief Petty Officer. He was therefore in possession of a special log book, called a charge book, which was chained to his body, and on this day he was pulling a little wooden toy duck around on a string. In those days it was called CPO Initiation. As I understand it, CPO Initiation was found to be murder-death-kill at some point and therefore is no more. Which is fine, I suppose, seeing how I'm no longer in charge of the entire navy. Butt I digress.
BTW, HM1's unofficial super not-so-secret call sign (which would be a nickname anywhere but on a Naval Air Station) was "Notso."
Ahem. Back to the facts, ma'am.
This duty section was loaded with medical skill and talent. We actually had three Aircrewmen/Paramedics. Jim was senior and had just made E-6. Which was a bit of a waste in a way because he'd be off in a few days to AOCS. In a couple of years time he'd be flying Intruders. The junior Aircrewman/Paramedic was an E-3 who had just made E-4 and was an Aircrewgirl, though the proper name for the position remained Aircrewman. Her call sign was High-Beams, and there's a reason for that which I won't detail. It wasn't anything bad, but, well, stuff. And there was me.
High-Beams had only just bagged her Paramedic certification. As Jim had done with me, I'd rather taken her under my wing and she'd proved to be a crackerjack. She was so way better than me that it's hard to describe. Much smarter, less apt to brute force problems, much more open minded and with a lot more situational awareness.
The Flight Surgeon on duty was an O-3 Lieutenant called "Blinky". He was a tall, thin drink of water in spectacles which magnified his eyes a great deal, to the point where most people noticed that he seldom, if ever, blinked. It freaked some people out. He was sharp though and a very good Flight Surgeon. I liked him a great deal, and I was always pleased when he was the duty doc.
The only other guy I remember from this particular duty section was a fellow with a Hispanic-sounding name. He claimed to be 100 percent Chicagorican and got really irate when the clinic nurses tried to assign him as the clinic's Spanish translator. "I ain't a Mexican, Lieutenant, and I don't speak Mexican!" His "polite-company" call sign was Super Mex (shortened to Super, of course. Or was it shortened to Mex? I fergit.). When it was just beers and friends he answered to Belly, which was short for Pepper Belly. Remember, it was 1982. The world wasn't completely awash in psychotic NPC's. No, seriously! It wasn't. Belly was an FMF Corpsman and was on orders as well. He'd soon be heading South to join 1/8 at Camp Lejeune.
Other then the people I've mentioned, two events stand out in my mind from that Friday night. The first one was chow.
Some folks brought their own chow from home. Notso, for instance, usually brought a kid's lunchbox stuffed with sammiches and ding-dongs. Occasionally people would throw coins in the gedunk machines back in the staff lounge. Sammiches, chips, canned soup and pasta, microwave popcorn, candy, soda pop, etc. It wasn't all that horrible, and believe it or not, those gedunk machines were my first introduction to the physical and gustatory reality of the bagel ("what the fuck is wrong with this doughnut?"). Very rarely someone with a chow pass would actually venture over to the Galley. Quite often we'd all pick a place close by and send someone with a list and cash to buy chow. BK or Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, etc. Other times we'd call for delivery. White Lotus was fantastic but took a looooooooooooooong time. Worth the wait though. There were also local Mom & Pop sub shops that delivered, and of course the perennial favorite, Dominoes.
This night it was Dominoes. I remember being very hungry and so very pleased when the pizza arrived. I believe Jim and I each ordered a large pizza (leftovers for breakfast), and I rather imagine I ordered pepperoni and mushrooms. Pretty sure that's the only thing I've ever ordered from Dominoes. When the driver had finally been paid and lavishly tipped it was time to chow down.
The tower radio erupted with the Crash and Smash song.
"OCEANA C&S, OCEANA C&S, OCEANA C&S, ROLL-EM OUT ROLL-EM OUT ROLL-EM OUT, RUNWAY FIVE RIGHT!"
A precautionary roll out meant we had to respond to the base of the tower in a field ambulance, and by "we" I mean me and a driver. So much for chow. Shit!
However, something cool happened. Jim grabbed the keys and both of our pizzas and shouted, "C'mon Evert, let's go!"
So we did. Before we pulled out of the parking lot though I realized we had no drinks.
"Stop by my car!", I shouted, and Jim did so. It took me no more than 10 seconds to pull a six pack of Meister Brau out of a cooler in the back. It was warm, and it was Meister Brau. As if that was a problem or something. Two minutes later we were eating pizza and drinking beer at the base of the tower. Before we'd finished our first beers an F-14 suffering from a combined hydraulic failure took the short field gear on 5R.
We finished the beer and pizza about the time the crash alert was rescinded and we tooled on back to the clinic well satisfied.
By our interpretation of regulations, which stated that one could consume 1-2 beers with chow at the club when in duty status, we determined that we weren't in violation. And quite possibly we weren't, however, it might not have been the greatest head work of all time. That said, we got away with it, and that simple thing often defines operational reality in Naval Aviation. Or it did, back in the Glory Days.
A couple of hours later it was getting close to rack ops time. Over night everyone in the duty section would pull a two-hour watch in rotation so that there'd always be a pair of corpsmen awake and at the desk while everyone else was racked out. Everyone was subject to instant (more or less) recall if needed, and it was usually needed on a Friday night. Breaks of naval air. But every once in a while, if the stars lined up correctly and you were in the proper place in the rotation you could get 6-7 hours of real shuteye. You could never count on it but it was a nice surprise when it happened.
So, time to hit the rack.
The phone rang with an ambulance call. Motorcycle accident on Dam Neck Road, not far from the main gate of the Dam Neck Fleet Training Center, no more than about four miles down the road.
This time Belly was the driver and High-Beams was the Paramedic. IIRC the call had come from Virginia Beach Dispatch, which was a civilian agency. We were closest and had a pretty tight working relationship with our non-military community partners, so such calls were far from unusual. The MVA sounded awful though, and police on scene had called for Nightingale (Norfolk General's medevac helo, an MBB-105 iirc), so I hopped in the back of the ambulance to provide extra hands.
When we got there it was a real bad deal. The motorcycle rider (a sailor stationed at Dam Neck) had been travelling westbound at a high rate of speed and had failed to make the very slight curve in the otherwise straight road. He hit a tree head on right where a small creek exited the woods and flowed under the road. The bike bounced off the tree, the sailor did not. Somehow, some way, he was stuck to the tree. He wasn't impaled on anything, he was just stuck there, as if glued in place.
I briefly chatted with the cops while High-Beams and Belly checked the victim. The cops were a bit shaken, and were convinced that the victim was still breathing and therefore still alive. I could tell by the way my partners were behaving that the victim was not, in fact, still alive.
I walked over to where Belly and High-Beams were carefully examining the dead guy. He wasn't terribly disfigured, but most of the blood his body had contained had come out through his nose and mouth. Given that, it's possible that he was in fact alive when cops arrived at the scene. But he was not anything close to alive now.
The police radios squawked and the cops suddenly needed to set a landing zone (LZ) for Nightingale. I looked at High-Beams and nodded toward the cops. She instantly figured it out. The victim was dead, and this was a horrible place to land a helo. Darker than the inside of a cow, thick woods all around, power lines hard by the roadway.
"Guys," High-Beams said, "you can call off Nightingale. This victim is deceased."
And of course they wanted to argue with her. They were pumped up to do something, only a physician can pronounce, once dispatched the helo has to transport a patient, yada-yada. The problem, of course, is that it's a very bad idea for live guys to land in a terribly marginal and risky LZ to pick up a dead guy. Nevertheless, the cops had it all figured out. Plenty of room to land just up the road at the farm. Except not really.
I motioned High-Beams to follow me over to our ambulance. "Lemme show you," I said, "a trick I learned in the Army." It was a line I'd stolen from Jim, who used it to great effect whenever he'd show me a non-standard solution that worked. I grabbed the radio and called the clinic, asking for the duty doc.
I didn't want to broadcast specific details over the air. This was a tragedy, and the whole world didn't need to know before the poor guy's wife or parents got the awful visit.
When the doc rogered up I sent my message.
"Blinky, Mikey. DRT. Recommend air RTB."
"Concur," answered the doc, Wilco."
DRT is (was?) a sort of slang brevity code. It doesn't sound like anything important or thrilling or titillating. It's just some letters. The letters mean Dead Right There. I know the words sound awful, but they're not meant in an awful way.
Within a minute or two the police radios squawked again and that was it. We peeled the dead guy off the tree, put him on the stretcher and covered him with a sheet, then loaded up and headed for the clinic. He was a sailor, so he was our responsibility.
At the clinic we had to wait for the coroner to arrive. High-Beams was pensive. It wasn't the first death she had seen, but the first death in the field she'd seen, and she was the Paramedic of Record. We sat in the ambulance with the dead guy, back doors open, and listened to the backdrop of night bugs popping out of existence in the bug zapper. It was a quiet and solemn time. It's also 30 minutes that I cherish.
I've thought about writing this for some time. It's been extremely hard to figure out how to write, and even harder to write.
And that's because the postscript is so awful.
Belly was dead just over a year later, vaporized in Beirut with 240 other guys when the Marine Barracks was bombed.
Not long after that Chief Notso was dead of lung cancer.
Blinky was killed in early 1986 in a TAV-8B crash at Cherry Point. Less than a week later Jim and his B/N flew into the water in the far Western Pacific.
High-Beams was the first to go, though, lost at sea in a Sea King crash north of Hawaii a bare three months after we'd spent a quiet half hour together with a dead guy.
I've had my soul smashed a bunch of times. The day I got the letter in December, 1982, though. Yeah, that was probably the hardest day of my life.
We never get to know the answer to the "why" question. It's far, far above our pay grade. And that's okay. It's the way of reality, the way of life.
I have such a bag of inarticulable emotions about my long-lost, hard-charging, aircrewgirl shipmate. I didn't know her for all that long. We didn't hang out or pal around. By many standards you would hesitate to say we were anything more than acquaintances. That said, there's no doubt that simply knowing her made me a better person, a better sailor, and maybe even a better man.