A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 9: The End of the Beginning
09 November 2002 – MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida
“You ready for this week?” Shawn Stevens asked Jeff while they ran along the base’s roads.
“Yeah. It’ll be strange being back on an ambulance after more than two years.”
“I’m sure it’ll be like riding a bike for you.”
“Like falling off one, more likely,” Jeff joked.
“You gonna be okay?” Shawn asked, seeing his running partner’s face and seeing through the joke.
“Yeah,” Jeff sighed. “I was only on the road for seven years, Shawn, but even still some of those calls built up. There are calls that you never really finish; there were some real doozies in those few years before I landed my operations manager position.”
“You were management? Did I forget that, or just not know? How old are you again?”
Jeff chuckled. “Older than your first platoon’s lieutenant will be, Shawn; I turned thirty-three in August.”
“Yet you still keep up with me at PT. I’m a decade younger than you!”
“Clean livin’, Shawn.”
“Right,” the younger man snorted.
“I expected more people to be looking at you cross-eyed, you know, since you’re wearing your Navy PT gear on an Air Force base. I guess with Special Operations Command being headquartered here you squids aren’t quite the novelty I thought you’d be.”
“That’s because everyone acknowledges SEALs are the penultimate warriors within the special operations community, Jeff. We’re being treated with the respect we deserve here.”
“Oh, here we go...”
“Hey, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up!”
“Anything you say, youngster,” Jeff commented before snatching Shawn’s baseball hat off his head and breaking away in a sprint. Shawn couldn’t back down from a challenge like that and ran to catch up.
Jeff and Shawn walked into Baystar EMS in southeastern Tampa the next morning; both cut imposing figures with their close-cropped hair, über-fit physiques, matching shades, black polo shirts, and tan tactical pants. People cast nervous looks their way while the pair walked into the building.
Despite the menacing image they projected, Jeff was warm and friendly when explaining the pair’s presence. The company hosted other USSOCOM ride-alongs over the past years so the receptionist got them where they needed to be without the stammering and nervousness they expected.
The same wasn’t true of the two young women Jeff would ride with that first day; they hadn’t evaluated military personnel before though they were experienced paramedics. In his usual manner Jeff put them at ease.
“Ladies, I’ve had my morning workout, coffee, and breakfast already so I’m in a good mood. Let’s go check out your office before we hit the streets, okay?”
“So you’re not gonna snap us in half is what you’re saying?” the woman who introduced herself as Tamika Granger asked.
“Be kinda hard for you to sign off on my paperwork if I did that, don’t you think? Plus, if word got back to my wife that I did something like that, she’d have my head! I’m far more afraid of her than the folks in the military.”
“‘Afraid?’” Stacia Fonteneau asked.
“My wife is a fifth-degree black belt in karate; she can kick my ass just by looking at me!” The two paramedics looked at each other like they were uncomfortable. “You ladies okay?”
“They told us we shouldn’t ask you any questions,” Tamika said.
“I’m riding with you for twelve hours today, right? Then we’ve got another shift together Thursday?” The women nodded. “It’s true there are some things I can’t answer questions about; there are other subjects I’ve been cautioned about volunteering information on because of what the military calls ‘PERSEC’ – personal security. You need to trust I can do the skills out there; how are you going to do that if I don’t let you get to know me a little?” That seemed to relax them. “Okay, so, in the time-honored tradition of third-riders around the world I’m buying the coffee.”
Jeff got set up to ride in the patient compartment so he wouldn’t disrupt Tamika and Stacia’s routine too much. Memories of ambulance shifts past came flooding back within minutes of leaving Baystar’s station; Paramedic Four creaked and rattled like almost every other ambulance Jeff ever worked in back home. Stacia gave him a long look when Jeff spun the airway seat around to face front without any effort.
Jeff smiled at his preceptor. “Stacia, I won’t bite. You want to know how I knew how to spin the seat, right?”
“That usually takes about five minutes of explanations and three demonstrations before our third riders can figure it out.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been working in ambulances for over ten years.”
Stacia’s jaw dropped; she shared a look with her partner. Jeff could see Tamika’s brown eyes staring back at him in the rear-view mirror.
“That’s why you looked so comfortable when you were checking the laryngoscope! You’re a paramedic already, aren’t you?”
“Yes, since ‘95.”
“Then why the hell are you wasting your time riding with us?”
Jeff shrugged. “It’s part of the program. And I don’t consider it a waste of my time at all, Tamika. While I’m off in foreign lands doing the King’s bidding, folks like you two – and the others in the public safety community – are watching over the home front; anything that reminds me that my family and friends will be in good hands while I’m away isn’t a waste of my time.”
The ambulance rattled down the street while the two Baystar medics considered his words.
“Okay, here’s the rest of it: I’m thirty-three, married, and have three kids. My wife is a high school English teacher. I’m the operations manager for an ambulance service back home, or was before I reenlisted; they’re holding my job under a federal law designed to protect those who join up or are already in the Reserves or Guard. I played hockey in high school, so I’m glad the Lightning have a half-dozen home games scheduled while I’m in Tampa. I played baseball, too, but I don’t think the Devil Rays have any games at the Trop this month. We good?”
“Yeah,” Tamika said. “Are you buying our lunch, too? We love it when management buys us lunch.”
Jeff agreed to buy lunch on one condition: no chain restaurants; the two Baystar employees agreed right away. After two easy ALS emergencies they drove straight to their favorite family-run sandwich shop in their service area. The people behind the counter greeted them warmly.
“We come in here almost every day we work,” Stacia explained. “Tampa’s got a huge Cuban community so the mixto is the most popular sandwich in the place; that’s what most people know as the Cuban sandwich. Our local variant has salami on it in addition to the other traditional ingredients.”
“I’ll get that, then.”
Stacia nodded before turning to the man behind the counter. “Mr. A, three Tampa-style mixto, please.”
“Right away, Stacia. Be just a few minutes.”
The trio backed away from the counter while the shop made their sandwiches. “We’ve been coming here since they partnered us together a few years ago,” Tamika said. “Man, did we get some strange looks back then, the black girl and the pasty-white, blonde Cajun over there coming into this neighborhood? The Alvarezes didn’t care though, especially not after we kept coming back.”
“Telling anyone who would listen that they have the best sandwiches in Tampa didn’t hurt, either,” Stacia added.
Tamika nodded. “We usually get the mixto, but their other stuff is great, too. The city really does have great food, and these folks know how to do it up right for not a lot of money.”
“Girls, you’re all set!” called the man who’d taken their order.
The three medics grabbed drinks and chips before Jeff paid for their food. “Thanks, Mr. A. We’ll see you on Thursday.”
“Inez will be here Thursday, Tam, along with Juan Carlos.”
“JC’s home?” Stacia asked, sounding excited.
“He’s coming home tomorrow. He graduated at the end of October but his lease doesn’t expire until the end of the month; he just finished cleaning the place and the landlord’s doing the move-out inspection in the morning before he drives home.”
“Well, we’ll definitely be in to make eyes at your son! He’s dreamy!”
“Uh, huh!” Stacia agreed.
“Go on! Get! You troublemakers go eat your sandwiches!”
The ladies laughed. “Bye, Mr. A!” they crooned while waving over their shoulders. Jeff looked back to the counter.
“Thanks, Mr. Alvarez. I might need it.”
They drove Paramedic Four around the corner to a city park and ate at a shaded picnic table.
“Oh, this is good,” Jeff moaned after his first bite.
“Told ya,” Tamika mumbled around hers.
“And I can’t believe it’s in the eighties here! There’s usually snow on the ground by now where I’m from.”
“We usually get lucky with the weather here,” Stacia added. “The bay keeps the temperature around eighty-five or so during the summer, though we sometimes see high nineties and hundreds. The ocean breeze is nice but we do have to contend with hurricanes once in a while.”
Jeff nodded while chewing on another bite.
Nothing else of note occurred during the rest of Jeff’s shift Monday. In fact, the trip to the sandwich shop was the last thing of note to happen during his shifts on Tuesday or Wednesday, too; the crews on those days were stand-offish and made no effort to engage Jeff in conversation at all. Once they waved him into the back of their ambulances they seemed to forget all about him unless they had a call.
Tamika and Stacia greeted Jeff like an old friend when he arrived for their shift Thursday. Jeff looked like he wanted to say something to the crew of Paramedic Four, but he waited until they left the base first.
“Thank God I’m working with you ladies today,” Jeff muttered once clear of the station.
“Why? What’s up, Jeff?” Stacia asked.
“I don’t think the other crews spoke more than a dozen words to me over the last three days, and barely answered when I tried to talk to them. What are the guys from my program who ride with your company usually like?”
“Honestly, Jeff, they’ve always seemed a little cold. We don’t remember hearing about too many others from your program making the effort to engage us like you have. Of course you’re the first from your program we’ve precepted.”
“And now you’re spoiled.”
Stacia laughed. “We’ve been spoiled for years! Just ask our families!”
Jeff shook his head; he was sure he’d understand exactly what they meant in a few more years. “So, are we headed back to La Boca Feliz for lunch?” The ladies were suddenly atwitter. “Did I say something funny?”
Stacia waved at Tamika to answer; she was laughing too hard.
“Stacia and I’ve been teasing JC – Juan Carlos – for years now, since his senior year in high school; he used to blush red as that fire hydrant over there when we’d get going. Then during his sophomore year in college he started teasing us back.” Tamika glanced at her partner in the driver’s seat. “I think Stacia’s sweet on JC, and vice-versa.”
Stacia punched the other woman in the shoulder. “Am not!”
“Right, and your face is doing an impression of a ripe tomato why?”
“Bitch,” Stacia grumbled.
“At least I acknowledge what I am, babe,” Tamika said with pride.
Stacia only frowned in reply.
Five hours later the P-Four crew walked into La Boca Feliz. A handsome young man behind the counter looked up, wiped his hands and stepped to the customer’s side of the counter. Grabbing Stacia he drew her into a long, deep kiss; she melted into it, wrapping herself around her admirer. The other customers clapped and whistled at the floor show.
“Told ya,” Tamika muttered to Jeff.
“Your partner seems okay with this development.”
“Yeah. Methinks the lady did protest too much.”
Mrs. Alvarez seemed happy with the scene in front of her also; Jeff and Tamika knew Stacia wouldn’t run into any resistance from JC’s family. Tamika and Jeff ate while Juan Carlos and Stacia mooned at each other at a different table.
Forty-five minutes later a flustered Stacia and her amused partners left the sandwich shop for another emergency. Stacia blushed again when the other two broke into song.
“JC and Stacia sittin’ in a tree! JC and Stacia sittin’ in a tree!”
“Knock it off you two,” she protested half-heartedly. “It’s only a date.”
“Goin’ to the chapel and Stacia’s, gonna get married! Goin’ to the chapel and Stacia’s, gonna get ma-a-a-a-arried!”
“STOP!” Stacia whined though she was smiling.
“Hey, up ahead,” Tamika pointed. “We’ve got someone signaling us like a third base coach.”
“Right,” Stacia replied. She pulled to the curb and the three got out.
“Come on! Hurry!” the man who signaled them complained while P-Four gathered their equipment.
Four’s call came in as an arm fracture so, as a result, there was no immediate police or fire response. The ambulance crew would be on their own for at least part of the call. EMS crews don’t run so despite the man’s protests the crew walked into the building; running raises the heart rate and releases adrenaline, both of which can lead to the shakes and are not helpful if you’re trying to start IVs right away.
They climbed to the third floor apartment. There they found a woman in her late twenties sitting at the kitchen table. Her arm was clearly broken; fading bruises on her arms and legs were just as obvious. Her nervous glances and his interruptions – answering every question for her – aroused the ambulance crew’s suspicions further.
Stacia began to examine their patient’s bruises and the man darted for the table. Jeff, who’d been retrieving a flexible splint from one of their bags, saw the movement. Keeping his head down while focusing on his target, Jeff stood and pretended to bump into the man by accident; in point of fact he finished his check the way his hockey coach used to drill him and his teammates – he stepped through his target and tried to put the man through the wall – causing the man to slump to the ground.
“Sir, are you okay?” Jeff asked while stepping over to help the man. In the process of being helped off the floor the man banged his head into the stove, a shelf holding cookbooks fell onto him, and he walked into a door frame twice.
The ladies carried the woman to the ambulance. Meanwhile, Jeff sat the still-stunned man on the couch; he handed him a bag of frozen peas as an ice pack for his head. The man thanked him as Jeff waved and walked out.
They didn’t transport the young lady to the closest hospital; they transported her to an ER twenty minutes further away from her apartment, in case the boyfriend went looking for her. Once in the EMS charting room Stacia closed the door and turned to Jeff.
“So what happened after we left?”
“Not much. I handed him a bag of frozen peas and came downstairs; he thanked me for my help and that was it.”
Both Baystar medics looked at each other and began rolling in laughter; they tried speaking a couple of times but that only caused more laughing.
“I don’t know how much ‘help’ you really gave him, but that’s damn funny!” Tamika said five minutes later.
“Yeah. The fact that he thanked you for kicking his ass and didn’t even realize it? That’s perfect!”
“Now, come on, ladies,” Jeff cautioned. “I did assist the man.” The other two raised four eyebrows at once. “I did! I helped him to see the error of his ways, but still!”
Jeff joined their laughter.
Jeff regretted not getting to work with Tamika and Stacia after that shift; the interaction between the two partners, and they with him, made Jeff realize how much he missed being on an ambulance. That was something he’d have to figure out when he got out of the Army again.
From a clinical standpoint his shifts in the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital were excellent; from a personal standpoint they were disappointing. The doctors, nurses, techs, unit admin staff – all were professional, competent, and completely afraid to engage him or Shawn in conversation.
“Christ, it’s a good thing they pair SOCM students when we’re working in the ERs. Other than you, I don’t think anyone said more than ten words to me over the past two weeks!” Shawn muttered over dinner two nights before they returned to Bragg.
“I know. If I hadn’t hit it off with those two ladies over at Baystar this would have been a pretty dry rotation.” Jeff took a bite of his food. “I wonder if the ‘don’t ask them any questions’ thing is being misinterpreted.”
“You think SOCOM meant no personal questions but that’s been lost in translation?”
“That explanation would make the most sense. It’s too bad, too, because the girls and I had fun working together.”
“I’d be careful calling them ‘girls.’”
“My nephew is almost their age!”
“See? That just proves you’re old.”
The SOCM students’ return to Fort Bragg heralded the approaching end of their class cycle. The cadre used the month of December to wrap up the class, and schedule the students for a final clinical rotation doing the Army’s version of family practice medicine. Jeff thought it was amusing to be doing a rotation in the same hospital where he’d been a patient in 1990.
During Jeff’s time in Tampa he learned that he passed the ATP exam taken the week before departing for his clinical rotations. In the eyes of the United States Special Operations Command he was now ‘good to go’ as a Ranger medic. He’d likely have to do one refresher cycle to maintain his Advanced Tactical Practitioner status before leaving the Army in 2005; the ATP certification was only good for two years. Jeff shook his head, thinking about the recert. He’d ETS in October of 2005, and a refresher for nine or ten months service didn’t seem to make sense.
That’s the Army for you, he mused.
Two weeks before Christmas Jeff caught up with a friend.
“Going stir crazy yet?”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Donal O’Brien replied. “They’ve loaned me out to one of the medic units that provides support for Airborne School while I wait for the next SOCM class to start CTM. I’m using the skills we learned in AIT, applying a little of what we learned at SOCM, and I’ll be ready to finish the class before I head to 2d Batt.”
“I’m glad they’re helping you stay busy. I was afraid I’d find you moping around, acting like a mushroom. You know: sitting in a dark room, pasty white, dirty, kinda spongy.”
“I see you still think you’re funny.”
“Looks aren’t everything, Donal. Did they let you have any leave?”
“Not yet, but I’m going back to Chicago for Christmas. Sarah’s taking me to her parents’ house to introduce me to her family; we’ll visit my parents and Chloe at the cemetery before I head back here.”
“In all honesty, Donal, I’m happy you’re doing as well as you are.”
“I’m not saying it was easy to wrap my head around being recycled, but Sergeant McNulty helped me keep my head up.”
“When are you leaving for home?”
“After the weekend; I report back here on 02 January. You?”
The difference between the weather in Tampa and Lancaster shocked Jeff; the difference between Fayetteville and Lancaster was noticeable, too. He shook his head at how fast he’d become used to the warmer weather. Like his young friend Jeff left Fayetteville on Monday, December 16th; unlike Donal, he wouldn’t have to report to his unit until January 6th.
The guard at the high school’s new security post waved Jeff along once he showed his active military ID. He looked down the long stretch of fence now lining Route 2A while he walked in from the parking lot. He shook his head at the sad necessity of all of it.
“Jeff? Is that you?”
Jeff looked up from the visitor’s sign-in sheet to see Principal Carl Hammond walking toward him. “Hey, Carl. How’s it going?”
“Good! Welcome home! Keiko told me you were driving home today, but that you wouldn’t get in until later.”
“I left an hour earlier than I thought I would and I made really good time.”
“Well, let’s not keep your bride waiting,” Carl said while motioning down the hall.
Carl escorted Jeff to Keiko’s classroom; the room reminded Jeff of his mother’s in so many ways, yet it was uniquely Keiko’s. Carl knocked on Keiko’s open door and stepped into the otherwise empty room while Jeff waited outside.
“How are you, Carl?”
“Keiko, I’m afraid I have to remind you not to let your guests wander the halls of the school, especially these days.”
Keiko cocked her head. “Guests? I do not have any guests coming to the school today, Carl.”
“She’s right, Carl,” Jeff said while he walked in. “As much as I’ve been in here helping her set up this room I should be considered staff and be on salary.”
If Carl was going to give a witty reply, Keiko’s mad dash around her desk and over to her husband interrupted it.
“My husband!” she whispered once she removed her lips from his.
Carl coughed and the couple turned to face him. “Your classes are all done, right, Keiko?” She nodded. “Well, get packed up and get out of here! I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Why don’t we pick the kids up early and take your folks out to dinner?” Jeff asked while they walked back to their cars.
“Where would you like to go, husband?”
“How about that Italian place? Not the chain place near the mall in Leominster, but the mom-and-pop one in Sterling?”
“That would be fine, Jeffrey. Mother and Father enjoy eating there as well.”
“And I can go dressed like I am.”
Keiko looked at him over the hood before getting into her car. “Yes, they allow the ‘don’t bother me, I’m on leave’ look there.”
Jeff watched Paramedic Three pull out of its bay and respond out of DMD’s parking lot. He stepped out of his car and heard the siren doppler away from him. Damn, I miss that sound, he thought, shaking his head. Jeff scratched at his unshaven face before he dodged the rivulets of dirty melt water from the snowbanks surrounding the lot. He smiled upon seeing the service flag on the flagpole below the US flag while he walked to the front entrance.
“Good morning! May I help you?” the woman at the desk asked when he stepped inside.
“Hi, Abby. How have you been?”
The young woman tilted her head and asked, “I’m sorry, sir. Do I know you?” Jeff smiled and passed her his DMD company ID. “JEFF!” Abby exclaimed while springing from her chair. She gave him a tight hug.
“Hey, hey, hey, lady! That’s gonna get you an invitation to a sexual harassment seminar! I’m a happily married man!”
Abby put her hands on her hips. “A happily married man who’s been warned about making jokes! Yours are terrible!”
“Everyone’s a critic.”
“With the jokes you tell, they should be!”
“I learned them from my dad!”
“Then God help your mother.”
“No respect I tell ya, no respect,” he said shaking his head. “Okay to go back and say hi to folks?”
“You’re my boss, remember?”
“Well, technically I’m not right now, but thanks. I’ll stop by on my way out.”
Jeff wandered down the admin hall, saying hello to the people he remembered. He did a double take at seeing his old office empty, but didn’t ask about it. He glanced through the window on the door to dispatch before swiping his ID through the card reader; he was surprised it still worked. The on-duty dispatchers and a supervisor looked at the door when it opened.
“Pete DiFranza, did you take a wrong turn on the Fellsway or something?” Jeff asked.
The supervisor and dispatchers shared a look before looking back to the stranger. “Who... ?”
“I guess I need a shave,” he muttered to himself. “I used to work P-Thirty-one in Malden with Shawna LeStrange before she became a supervisor.”
“Jeff?” Pete asked.
Jeff smiled and walked over to him with his hand out. “How are you, Pete?”
“Holy dog shit! How are you, Jeff? What are you doing home?”
Jeff shook hands with Sheila Klaussner and Scott Neumeier. “I just finished up a six-month training course at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; I’ve got a couple weeks’ leave before I report back to Fort Benning in western Georgia.”
“Six months?” Sheila asked. “What were they training you for?”
“I’ll be an Army Ranger medic when I get back to Benning.” Pete whistled. “Hey, how come my old office is empty? I thought Seamus and Sean were about to name an interim ops manager last time I was home in March.”
“They did,” Scott confirmed. “A pretty good guy from Pittsfield, Ed Berg, but six months in he learned he had cancer. He’s doing okay after his round of chemo, but he won’t be back as the manager.”
“They’re still looking more than a year after you left,” Pete added, “but they haven’t found anyone yet.”
The lights in the house were off other than the ones on the tree and the candles in the windows; his mom was a big believer in the small, white lights on the conifer that lit the room. The Christmas tree sat in the same spot he remembered when growing up in this house. He stood by the back of the couch looking at the kids’ spoils surrounding the tree and smiled.