The Huey was not heated well. Inside the helicopter, the temperature was 38°F at ground level and at least 10-degrees colder when they were airborne.
“Bullshit to Merry Christmas,” said Santa Claus, a.k.a. Army Staff Sergeant Alberto Flamingo. He doubted he would have any “Ho-Ho-Ho’s” left when they arrived at the Naval Hospital. His natural red nose or rhinophyma from his daily half bottle of scotch was enhanced by the cold. His reddened cheeks were also a product of his ethanol consumption. The condition was referred to as Acne Rosacea. His protuberant abdomen was just from over-deposition of pre-peritoneal fat at this point in time. In a few years it would be a belly filled with ascites fluid from cirrhosis of the liver. But not today.
“Cool it Al.” Warrant Officer Jason Fatnass sighted the Naval Hospital off to his left. The Huey was at 3,000 feet. An Army Warrant Officer was a rank between the highest enlisted Sergeant and lowest Commissioned rank of Lieutenant. The Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard all had Warrant rank. Commissioned Officers had to have a college degree. Warrants did not and many military helicopter pilots were Warrant Officers. Fatnass had received his training at Camp Pendleton in California and went straight to Vietnam in 1969. He flew mainly Hueys but had over a dozen missions in the Chinooks and Jolly Green Giants where he sometimes served as chief pilot but mainly was copilot. In the States every helicopter had a copilot. Fatnass motioned to his copilot to circle the Naval Hospital compound and establish radio contact.
“Queens Naval this is Santa Huey. Santa Huey to Queens Naval. Do you read? Over.” Constantine Pollogopoulas was a junior grade Warrant Officer. He was also a primary Huey pilot but on this Christmas his assignment was to be second officer to Fatnass. His self-appointed second job was to make sure that Sergeant Al Flamingo did not fall out of the chopper.
“Are we there yet Polly?” Flamingo screwed the cap back onto his white plastic flask of scotch whiskey and shoved it into the right side pocket of his Santa jacket.
“We’re here. Keep your seat belt buckled until we land Al.” Everyone called Pollogopoulas “Polly”.
“What about the presents?” Flamingo stared at Polly with his blood-shot eyes encased in slightly swollen eyelids. “Where are the presents?”
“They’re at the hospital so just stay seated. Tighten your safety belt Al.” Polly reached over and tugged on his strap to make sure Santa was secure. The smell of alcohol overcame the odor of helicopter diesel fumes.
The radio came to life in the Huey’s earphone system.
“Santa Huey. Santa Huey. This is Queens Naval Security Operations. We read you well. Acknowledge. Over.”
“Queens Naval, Santa Huey receiving you. Santa is ready for touchdown. Is the LZ ready?” Fatnass and Polly looked down at the large red cross on the Navy blue circle which was their Landing Zone surrounded by mounds of snow. The altimeter read 900 feet.
“LZ is ready. All vehicles in position. Proceed.” LT Potska was the acting communications officer. He signaled activation of all visual indicators.
“Here we come.” Flamingo looked down as the LZ circle was rimmed with blinking red lights. The military ambulance had its rotary red lights on and the mandatory fire engine was similarly blinking both red and white.
“Hux.” Forno sent the single I.D. from his radio. He and the others were blowing steam from their mouths into the cold air. They were outside the train depot gate again. There was no answer. He tried again and spoke louder into the radio as if this maneuver would bring about a response. “Hux?” It did.
“Hux, here. Keep it down.” Huxley’s marginal tolerance for Forno was developing into a feeling of irritation, stress and anger. He had to watch out for these kinds of feelings. They could impair his judgment.
“Well for Chrissakes Hux, we’re here too. We’re at the fuckin’ gate again and it’s chained with two fuckin’ locks.”
“Didn’t you bring the bolt cutters?” Huxley implied lack of common sense which was typical Forno behavior.
“They’re in the Van. We thought the gate would be left unlocked.”
“You were informed that Norton’s Security checks are every hour. What’s your plan?”
“We’re goin’ to check the timers. I can’t understand why at least one of the fuckers didn’t detonate.”
“There must be something common to all of them. Do it right this time. If we don’t get some chaos going soon, the whole day will be wasted. Our mission is to help end the war remember? We couldn’t do it shooting at the enemy because the enemy is us. We’re still at war. Blow the train station, do you hear me?” Huxley was in the same inhalation therapy equipment room he had caught Zettler eavesdropping in. The door was closed and he had left an “away for IPPB treatment” sign on the outer doorknob. He wondered where Zettler was now.
“Iggy’s gettin’ the cutters. You don’t have to be so sarcastic,” Forno answered.
“Get on with it. I’m going to mingle and be seen with the staff and the patients when the boom happens. Don’t call me unless it’s an emergency. Understand?” Huxley noticed they were already getting sloppy. They had abandoned the usual military transfer of voice response. They no longer said, “Over”.
“Understood.” Forno terminated the conversation without the “Over-and-Out” sign-off.
Huxley waited for more words from Forno. Nothing further came over the radio. “Shithead,” was the only expletive Huxley could verbally expel at the radio. He said it again looking at one of his Mini-Byrds. He smiled. He actually liked the Mini-Byrds. Huxley liked his inhalation therapy equipment more than he liked people. The small square green box, when connected up to a compressed air or oxygen cylinder, was used to help the post-op patients take deep breaths the first few days after their surgery. The IPPB treatments prevented pneumonia by creating a yawn. He remembered his training about “yawning”.
“Everyone yawns to pop-out the areas in the lung that do not get air during routine breathing.” Dr. Feldman, the Chief of Anesthesiology and Inhalation Therapy made this opening statement to his class. It was part of his indoctrination at Queen’s Naval after his return from Vietnam. “If that doesn’t happen we would all get pneumonia. As a result a reflex ‘yawn’ occurs to aerate the areas of lung ‘micro-collapse’. Narcotic pain-relievers eliminate this reflex. Anyone taking opiates for any reason will not ‘yawn’. This 6-inch-by-4-inch Green Mini-Byrd with a disposable breathing circuit will replace the yawn.” A demonstration of the device, its care and maintenance ensued. He was looking at the Mini-Byrd shelf in his workroom. He had a dozen of these out on the floors being used by patients and another six here on the shelf. One Mini-Byrd was destined for a special mission. He tuned his radio to the hospital frequency and caught the Santa Claus helicopter dialogue.
“Hello Santa Huey, Duty Crew ready to receive. Over,” LT Potska advised the Huey Pilot.
“We read you. Here comes Santa. Over-and-out.” Chief Warrant Officer Fatness cut off radio contact and concentrated on landing on the red cross in the middle of the blue circle. He knew his downward rotor-wash would send the snow around the area to swirl like a small tornado. He knew that the Duty Crew knew it too and would be prepared.
Huxley returned to Forno’s frequency and none too soon.
“Hux. Hux. Where the hell are you? We got a Huey circling. They can see us. We’re getting’ the hell outa here. Over.”
“Hux here. Stay on mission. I repeat. Stay on mission. The chopper is delivering Santa Claus for Christmas lunch. It’s not a surveillance or attack Huey. Do you read me? Over.” Huxley’s pulse was racing. The adrenalin was pouring out. Forno had panic attacks in Nam too, Huxley recalled.
“I read you. Santa Fuckin’ Claus? No shit? It was circling just like in Nam.”
“The Duty Crew is clueless as to anything abnormal, so far. Your blast is going to be a wake-up call. Re-set your timers for 15-minutes and then get the hell outa there. Over.”
“Back on track. We’re already at the depot framework. The bolt cutters worked like a charm. Santa Claus! For Chrissakes. Why didn’t I think of that? Over.”
“Because I’m thinking combat and they’re thinking ‘Christmas’. Keep your cool. I’m signing off. Give me a big bang as my Christmas present. Over and Out.” Huxley felt relieved that the military radio protocol was again being used. Forno and his crew were back to being “mission oriented”. He’d wait 5-minutes and then head over to the post-op dirty surgery ward to give a Mini-Byrd treatment in front of witnesses. Huxley wanted no association with the train station explosion. He still wasn’t certain what Zettler’s suspicions were.
Vilth held his Christmas-wrapped Phantom gift of colonic contents under his left arm. The sign dangling from the doorknob of the inhalation therapy office was deliberately off center. Huxley felt it would get more attention that way.
OUT GIVING IPPB TREATMENTS.
PAGE INHALATION THERAPY WATCH FOR DUTY TECH.
If Huxley’s out on the floor then what am I hearing inside. Vilth was considering the situation. The Phantom could not strike yet. But why was Huxley sequestering himself and advertising his absence when clearly he was behind this door? Was he a goldbrick and a lazy bastard? But who was he talking to? What was this “big bang” Christmas present? Was Huxley going to get laid? He wouldn’t put it past the sneaky bastard to get a hooker into the compound for his own perverted needs. The Phantom could wait. It was only 1225 hours. He heard the Huey with its signature “WUP-WUP-WUP”. Santa is arriving and so will Priscilla’s parents. Vilth headed back to his ward to stow the specimen.
“I got it. It’s a great shot.” Thule Thornbush shouted to LT Potska through his opened security pick-up truck’s window. She was blowing cold white breath standing shin deep in the soot-colored snow.
“Ma’am? Please get back into the truck now. Wait until the helicopter lands and the engine’s shut-off for your other pictures.” Potska didn’t like the reporter. She was too pushy, like his mother. Norton didn’t like her either but that’s because she was the “Press” and he was paranoid with media people. Norton infected everyone else with this paranoia–except maybe Pinino. He seemed to like Thornbush.
“I’ll be okay Lieutenant.” Thornbush waved Potska’s order off with an arm gesture and got closer to the LZ.
Potska should have gotten out of the pick-up and dragged her in. But fuck-it, he thought. He’d let her learn just like his mother learned. Charlie Potska’s mother had told him not to go college because it wouldn’t offer him any advantages in life. Mrs. Potska had told her son not to enroll in the Navy Officer deferment program and that it would not help him in his career. He could also get killed in combat. The bottom line was that mother didn’t want her only son Charlie to leave the nest–to leave her. He had proved her wrong. He finished his pre-Law program and entered the Navy. His position as a Security Officer would help him in his chosen law career, which would be paid for by the Navy. He’d shown her. He would show this pushy newswoman too.
Thornbush was indeed happy with the shot of the Huey as it descended from less than 600 feet. She used a wide-angle telephoto lens on her Leica. In her mind she had programmed the sequence of scenes which would be a part of her masterpiece report on “A Wounded Christmas”. Her title had changed. It could change again before Christmas was over. But for now, she envisioned her journalistic achievement would be both an historical document and a Pulitzer candidate. She readied her Leica. The throbbing pulsations of the Huey got closer and then it dropped directly toward the landing circle with its blinking red lights. Except that now you couldn’t see the light anymore. In fact you couldn’t see anything but white. There was snow blowing up everywhere with gale force.
“Shit. Goddamn it to hell.” Thornbush was caught in the midst of the Huey’s rotor-wash. Snow was blown upward like a reverse tornado snowstorm. She had framed her Leica directly on the landing platform when the white stuff hit the fan. The lens and Thornbush herself were completely coated in soot-covered snow. It was soot-covered because that was what happened to snow in New York City and its immediate environs like the borough of Queens. She also should have kept her mouth shut. Thornbush received a mouthful of the unclean precipitation and because the blast of snow had timed itself to occur at the end of her last statement, her next oral effort was one of inhalation. She inhaled the unclean snow.
Good, Potska thought. Perhaps it was punishment for her blaspheming God. In his mind it was his mother coughing and sputtering. He felt good as he watched Thornbush scraping the gray snowy crust from her face, around her neck and her entire front. She had worn appropriate winter clothing of a dark color. Now her front was entirely white like off-white wedding cake icing. That was another thing. His mother didn’t want him to ever get married. Except for her, her boy Charlie should not go out with any women. Except for her, women were evil of mind and body. Potska had not found that to be true–just the opposite. He had experienced several girls in college and two in the Navy that were very nice and one he had developed a definite affection for. A relationship was indeed possible except her orders sent her to California and his orders were cut for New York. Any woman who reminded him of mother was a target for indifference, scorn and humiliation. His thoughts were brought back to the present as the Huey’s rotors stopped turning. The Duty Crew dismounted their vehicles.
“Santa goes to the ambulance.” LT Potska ordered. He motioned the ambulance corpsman to get to the chopper. He went over to Thornbush.
“I tried to warn you.” Potska had no regrets and no remorse.
“I missed…” She coughed out words and snow. “… my shots. It would have…” more wracking cough and iced sputum. “… been great copy.” She was almost in tears but her snowy facial crust obscured any facial emotion. Thornbush was still coughing up lung snow and looked at her Leica through a veil of eyelash icicles. “My other camera… is in the… bag that I left… at the Security Office. Will you… take me… there?” Her speech was getting clearer but the coughing was uncontrollable and persistent.
“First things first Ms. Thornbush. Santa Claus has to get to the mess hall.” He smiled inwardly at the woman in obvious respiratory difficulty from the aspirated dirty snow. “You can ride with Santa in the ambulance. I have to take the Huey Pilots. You might better see the JMOOD about your coughing. Inhaling that snow can’t be a healthy thing.”
“All right.” Thornbush coughed out the reply. “Damn…” She hacked out more soot-tinged sputum. “… a … missed… opportunity. This…sucks.” She watched as the corpsmen helped the corpulent Santa from the chopper. They practically held him up and lifted him into the ambulance. Her thoughts immediately went back to her respiratory distress.
Thule Thornbush stared at the others who were not falling down into the snow like Santa. The slush underfoot was not the reason for Santa’s need for assistance. He’s drunk. In spite of her current breathing problem Thornbush did not have a thinking problem. She could add this tidbit of juicy “anti-war” data to her Queens Naval profile.
“ER this is Ambulance One at the Helo-LZ. Over.” The ambulance driver was also a corpsman.
“Go ahead Ambulance One. Corpswave Gassly, Over.” Lowena Gassly released the button on the hand held microphone of the small radio unit at the ER log-in desk.
“Merry Christmas Lowena. I have the civilian news reporter choking on soot and snow. She’s gonna need Inhalation Therapy. Give Huxley a heads-up. Over and out.”
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