It had been a long night for Bruno McAlton. Old man Devonshire, from right here at 1st Presbyterian, had checked out for good, finally succumbing to emphysema. The young Baines girl, Kimberly, the nice one, finally had her baby. Amazing what being that long overdue can do for even the sweetest personalities.
Ordinarily, those two events – a birth and a death -- might tend to balance each other out, at least in the big picture. Maybe even more for the better – Mr. Devonshire had been a long time in going, and had suffered greatly. He was glad to be released from life’s struggle, and he was sure that he was going to an infinitely better place.
But the America of 2003 was far from ordinary. That same evening, Bruno had also lost the Mills kid to an infected leg wound. Scarce antibiotics, no anesthetic or antiseptic save for some wood alcohol, and an amputation done with a hacksaw. The kid had been strong in his prime, but the infection must’ve traveled to his heart, and that was all she wrote. Only a few years earlier the kid had been running touchdowns for Montoursville High. Now he would be buried along with the loudmouth girl in the Militia who called herself Little Moe Z, and the rest of the casualties from the recent Bucktail raid.
Bruno tried to remain objective with respect to the area politics of PA in 2003. It was well known that sometimes the Williamsport City Militia made hunting trips up north along RT 15, well into the lands claimed by the Northern Tier Militia, or “Bucktails”. Food was scarce, and the mountains were still well-populated with deer, the occasional elk, and plentiful small game. So was it much different when the Bucktails came south, scrounging through the scrap yards at the edge of Williamsport?
The Bucktails had erected a frontier-style fort smack in the middle of RT 15 at English Center, along with plenty of signs convincing any “foreigners” – those not from the Northern Tier Counties of Potter, Tioga, Bradford, or Susquehanna – to turn back. Williamsport hadn’t completed the sandbag wall around the city since they started nearly a year ago, and they wondered why people were digging around for whatever they could find. Both sides had spilled each other’s blood, and neither was willing to extend a helping hand in cooperation. So the losses on both sides mounted, and Bruno tried to come up with what he could to solve the various health-related results of these encounters.
Bethlehem Steel had several huge stills running around the clock, but the volume of production couldn’t keep up with demand, therefore, the price was still quite high – about $8 a liter for ethanol, and $4 for methanol. If that was the only game in town, well, there were other ways to play. Bruno and the Rev. Dr. Edwin Mathias had cobbled together a little still to fill the Church’s medical needs. Dr. Mathias had always been a “results over methods” type, and he could really care less what the congregation said about a minister brewing white lightning in the backyard of a House of the Lord. Anyway, in his words, he “just helped build the still – it was up to Bruno to run the damn thing”. Sometimes Bruno had no choice but to deal with Bethlehem Steel, like when he had put in a special order for some surgical tools. It was about time those boys were done with them – they had asked for and received cash in advance…
Bruno decided no matter how late he had worked into the night, he might as well get up. The still… yeah, the still needed tending, and the dispensary needed cleaning, what with a baby being born there, and two casualties bleeding all over the place. Bruno rolled out of his sleeping bag, and looked out the small rosette window in the attic of the massive building that was his home. He didn’t have a lot, but by some great stroke of luck, he had much more than most people. Dr. Mathias had worked it all out with the Town Council, and then with the Church Elders – Bruno could stay at the loft in the 1st Presbyterian for free, with 3 meals a day, and a modest stipend, just for providing care for whoever would show up at the door. Sometimes the case load was heavy, but more often than not it was just routine stuff – a real 9 to 5 job in this day and age. That was hard to imagine.
His old gig at Penn Tech had not been pleasant – on call 24-7, heavy trauma cases more often than not, no rest, no thanks, little pay, and no end in sight. It had been a miracle, of sorts, when Dr. Mathias approached Mr. Witmer, Dean of Health Services, and bought out Bruno’s contract. Granted, the Church could not match the facilities of the College, but Dr. Mathias had kept every one of his promises to Bruno regarding space, equipment, time off, and compensation. Bruno was about as happy as someone could be, given the shitty state of affairs in the world currently.
So Bruno pulled on his coveralls, trudged down to the dispensary, and was surprised to see Dr. Mathias there, dressed in jeans and sweatshirt, down on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor. He smiled when he noticed Bruno, and continued scrubbing. “I know what you’re about to say, Bruce. So don’t. I’m here out of practicality this morning, rather than kindness. But I do have a favor to ask of you. Well, it’s really a directive from the Town Council. For now, get some breakfast, and we’ll talk some more when I’m done here.”
Bruno went downstairs, into the sanctuary, where Mathias’ son Ernest was quietly practicing on the lavish pipe organ that dominated half of the end of the place. Ernest nodded a “G’morning”, and kept on playing. Down the hall, and into the parsonage, Bruno came upon Mrs. Mathias and several of the women of the congregation, already busy preparing lunch. The women got very quiet when Bruno entered, but they resumed their work with a stern look from Mrs. Mathias. Apparently there was some resentment toward Bruno from many within the congregation. He easily made 4 or 5 times what the average person in this city did, since TSHTF. It probably didn’t help that here it was 11 o’clock, and he was just rolling out of bed, but they’d have to get over it. Bruno had worked on the three patients well into the first light of dawn, when those old biddies were snug in their beds, so pass me my oatmeal and bread thank you and leave me alone…
Dr. Mathias had caught up with Bruno as the latter was feeding his still, located in the garden, in the L shaped plot of land formed by the parsonage and the back of the Church. The still was important, but Bruno was also after some peppermint from the herb garden. That “coffee” the church ladies had given him was really burned acorn sludge, and now his stomach was retaliating against Bruno for the assault. Bruno tapped off two Mountain Dew bottles full of the clear but volatile brew, and then filled several of the little 8 oz. bottles for the dispensary. The Dr. joked about it being a little early for the hair of the dog, and got down to business.
“Bruno, the Town Council has directed me to send you on a little errand to South Williamsport. They got hit last night about the same time we did. They say they have a sizable amount of medical supplies, stuff an ambulance company was hoarding, but they have no one with any skill to use them. They don’t even know for sure what all it is that they have. One thing was Erythromycin. That I know is valuable. Rather than waste any of the lot, they’re offering half of it to us, if someone with the know-how will go and patch up some of their people. It seems their ambulance crew was among those that got zapped in the raid.”
Bruno thought it was funny that a retirement age Doctor of Theology would use that term. Only this Doctor of Theology had been a private in the 173rd Airmobile during Vietnam. Bruno figured this had something to do with his “results at any cost” way of doing things. Yeah, Dr. Mathias was probably a pretty serious Hell-raiser when he was Bruno’s age. And if he made it home from Nam, then he could speak however he wanted.
Mathias whispered, “Now, Bruno, I know this is asking something damn difficult. The Town Council would like to see us open up better relations with our brothers across the river. They think that this might be the first step in the right direction towards that end. Don’t worry, you’ll not be going it alone. You’re only part of this goodwill delegation. LT Erickson will be going along to suggest some possible upgrades to their defenses. You know LT Erickson, don’t you?”
Know him? Bruno had worked, played football, and partied with Lance Erickson for the last 4 years. Lance was a LT with the Williamsport Police Department, number two man in the organization, a no-nonsense professional in every sense of the word. Lance and Bruno usually ended up working many of the same areas of the city before everything went to Hell, and it was even more so now. If this little jaunt across the river had potential for danger, Bruce would want no one else to back him except for LT Erickson.
Bruno’s benefactor continued. “When you were at Penn Tech, did you meet Jimmy Elkhorn? He will likewise be accompanying the group. I really don’t have much information on him, so anything that you can think of will be helpful. All that the Town Council said was to include him in the delegation. It seems he’s good at fixing things, and anything that he might accomplish there would help bolster our position with our neighbors. LT Erickson will do the negotiating, you two will just provide care and services. Follow Erickson’s lead.”
That would be fine with Bruno. While he knew this Jimmy character, Bruno didn’t exactly think of him as reliable, or as someone good when the lead started flying. Hey, Jimmy was smart. But he was one of those protesters. Well, that was putting it mildly. Face it, Jimmy was a freak. He played guitar very badly, belonged to some fringe religion, never ate meat, looked to the stars for answers, and stray cats for companions. He was unwashed, unshaven, and unregistered for the draft the last time Bruno saw him at college. Was he still around? And no one had killed him yet?...
The Rev. Dr. motioned for Bruno to sit at the bench in the tranquil and fragrant garden. “We’re not recommending that you stay overnight, even if they insist. And of course, I don’t need to remind you of the possibility of cholera in that town. So don’t drink or eat anything while you are there, other than what you yourselves take. Just as an additional precaution, I’d take some of your gauze surgical masks for each of you.”
The Rev. Dr. glanced at Bruce, and made brief eye contact. “So by now I’m sure you are thinking all sorts of things – a trip through potentially hostile territory, with a stopover in a disease-ridden Hell hole, and then back across the potentially hostile territory, to our own little hunk of dirt that’s only slightly better than downtown Saigon was during the Tet Offensive, just to help a bunch of people who’ll probably be at our throats next week.”
“You must wonder what’s the sense in that? Well, I’ll tell you. There is that possibility, no matter how slim, that this act of cooperation will lead to other acts of cooperation. And compassion. And kindness. We both know we have enough enemies just a mile or so outside the city – a few more friends nearby could only help. And frankly, the medical supplies might help us save lives. Who knows… maybe mine, maybe my son’s, maybe even yours…”
“While you are currently employed by the Church, the Town Council does pay half of your stipend. You could refuse, but I believe they have discussed ending their part of the stipend if you refuse. I don’t agree with the squeeze tactics they are known for, but I am just one voice among seven. I must do what I can from within that organization to help everyone in this city. They’re not such a bad bunch really, but power can be a potent drug for many. I will always be honest with you. I will always look out for you. Your talents do not need distractions such as the rights and wrongs flung back and forth across political lines. You will always have a place to stay and food from my table as long as I am here at 1st Presbyterian. I realize the value of your services, and I appreciate the kind and professional care you have given all you have treated.”
The Dr. pulled a sprig of parsley from the herb garden and munched it. “I reasoned with them as best I could, and… here’s an up-front bonus. A like amount awaits you when you return.” He handed Bruno a worn envelope, thick with bills. “A dishonest man could, I suppose, take the money and run, as the old song goes, but then what? He would certainly have to live with the reckoning of Man, and eventually, that of God. Complete this task, return later tonight, and the other half of the money will be yours, along with the respect and gratitude of myself and the members of the Town Council.”
Bruno opened the envelope partially, and thumbed through the wad of money. It was quite a lot. Enough for, well, enough for almost anything he could think of that Williamsport had to offer, maybe even some wheels or something. The Rev. Dr. Mathias was in the right profession – saving lives and saving souls, and convincing the weary of which path they should travel, even if that path was straight through the Valley of Death, fear no Evil, doan worry, beee happy.
Bruce soon found himself asking Dr. Mathias, “When do we leave?”
09 MAY 2003 / 1300 hours
Crossing Susquehanna River
Overcast, w/ low fog cover
The old RT 15 bridge area of the river was hard to navigate—there had been many cars on the structure when the charges on the main pilings were detonated, and this scattered debris in and around the wreckage that resulted. Sometimes there was sniper fire from the jumble of concrete and steel. Some were crazy enough to brave the snags and other unseen dangers just to chance a head shot against someone on the other side of the river. So it was much to the two other men’s relief that an alternate crossing was used – the one further upriver near Arch Street. The reception committee was visible on the other side. Now it was just a question of whether or not they were hostile.
The Rev. Dr. Mathias was there to see the little delegation off, and none in the group was sure how they felt about him praying about their mission—praying was generally a good thing, but it also made one’s mind go. Perhaps a little too much…
The three were deposited some minutes later on the South Williamsport side of the river, their gear intact, their heads without a small hole in the front and a large one in back. All seemed to be on the up and up. The party of three men were all old – at least 60 or so, and thanked the LT, Bruno, and Jimmy for making the journey. One, dressed perhaps a little better than the others, introduced himself as Thomas Faros, Mayor of South Williamsport. He offered the trio something to eat and drink—they had just roasted a pig, and there was a little left over.
Looking around, gathering in his surroundings, making sure everything is as it appeared to be, Bruno leaned back a little, looked at the group, and smiled, "Don't mind if I do!"
Bruno took a couple of bites of some food.
The pork seemed OK, even if a little greasy. There were also boiled potatoes and some fair approximation of wheat bread. A woman offered a plateful of food, along with a smile.
There was a lot to be done. The place was in a shambles. A quick glance around spoke volumes as to how fortunate Bruno was to live at 1st Presbyterian in Williamsport. The southern neighbor was filthy—dead animals lying in the street, garbage seeming to spill from every window and door of some buildings, and mud, mud, mud everywhere. Mr. Faros led the group to a horse and wagon, which took them to the Liberty Fire Station, Riverside and Maynard Streets. Along the way they passed numerous roadblocks, sandbagged walls and emplacements, and a body sprawled in the street every so often. Finally they reached the place. This building was apparently the hub of the town. The front of the place was totally sandbagged in, and it looked as if it were ready to fall in on itself. The mayor directed the horse cart around the back, where the building looked more substantial, but there was another sight to take in. Perhaps 20 bodies were laid out in a jagged row, like dominoes that had toppled. A few were covered with sheets, tarps, or the odd scrap of vinyl flooring, but many were fully visible. They ranged in age from small children up through elderly adults, although most were middle aged, people cut down in the prime of life. Bruno glanced at his watch. It was nearly 1:30 PM.
I rolled for you here, and Bruno remembers the best guess of population of this town was about 300. So if there are 20 dead, that is pretty substantial casualties. And he hasn’t seen the wounded yet…
9 MAY 2003 / 1330 hours
Liberty Fire & Rescue
South Williamsport, PA
Overcast, w/ low fog cover
Inside the building, things were perhaps a little better. It was a fact of life in 2003 that if you were seriously hurt, and did not receive prompt medical attention, that your condition could rapidly deteriorate. Which explained the 20 dead outside, and the 5 serious wounded inside. Bruno could only speculate as to how many of those people lying very still outside he could have saved, if only he were here earlier.
The Mayor offered 2 men (Bill and Ben) to serve as orderlies or assistants to Bruno. He then turned to LT. Erickson, and all but pleaded on hands and knees. “We lost most of our seasoned fighters last night. Military matters and tactics are way beyond the scope of my abilities, or anyone else’s for that matter. Would you… I know our relations have not been the best over the past few months, but could you have a look at our defenses and make some recommendations?”
Erickson was taken aback. These people, who probably just last week were taking potshots at his men from across the river, would actually ask *him* for advise on their security? Bruno saw the look in Erickson’s eyes which seemed to say, a lesser human being would scout your positions, take careful notes, deploy your people in the completely worse possible places, and then go home and rain mortar rounds down on this miserable damn dump. But Bruno knew Erickson was made of far better stuff, and was not surprised when Erickson nodded in the affirmative.
"You alright, here, Bruno? I'll be around if you need me. Just give a holler."
"Sure am" Looking around, a little amazed, and still astonished about them asking.
Jimmy had just sat down in a wheelbarrow, reclining way back as if this were an afternoon for beer, pretzels, and football, or better yet a siesta. His hopes were dashed when Faros returned, mentioned something about having a look at their radio gear, and off they went.
Bruno’s patients were waiting, so he got down to business. There were 3 people with gunshot wounds—two guys were winged, and a third had several stitched right up his leg. While the bleeding was more or less under control, the leg already was starting to smell like it had gone south. A fourth person had been near a grenade that exploded. It might have been a concussion type—only minimal fragments in his back and legs, but he was stone deaf. The poor guy couldn’t even sit up slightly without getting dizzy and puking his guts out. Blown out eardrums had a way of doing that and were not fixable. The last patient was one of the local militia who had a nasty encounter with her own Molotov cocktail. She had severe burns up her left arm, and across her chest, side, and face. She was in a great deal of pain, and her screams made Bruno want to be almost anywhere else.
"Well, boys." looking at the 2 orderlies "Time to get to business"
Bruno, moves to the young lady, and gives her a large dose of morphine to calm her down, and ease the pain, IM through the buttocks, making sure it hits fast.
The injection was effective in mere seconds, and the woman calmed down, and was able to rest while Bruno moved on to the other patients.
He then walks over, grabs something to write with and on, and moves to the man with the concussion blast, that is deaf. Writing on the tablet, hoping he can read, to lay still, I will be right with you.
The man nodded, then yelled in response, "Yep, I ain't got noplace to go. You gotta name?" For the moment, the pencil and paper routine was the best idea Bruno could come up with for the person with the damaged eardrums. As Bruno finished his treatment of this patient, the man rolled on his side and power-puked into a bucket that was thankfully beside his bed.
Moving on to the 2 men that were winged, he looks at them, and provides the assistance needed to clean and treat the wound, if the bullet is still in the wound, he will try to extract them, after giving morphine to everyone.
The first man, a civilian, appeared to be in good shape. While he was in moderate pain, and had lost some blood, he had gotten immediate care for the wound, and shock and bloodloss were minimal. The bullet went right through his left arm at the bicep. The round missed the bone entirely, and it was a small entry and exit wound -- perhaps a .22 from the looks of it.
The second person was a militiaman who had been shot thru the left forearm. The arm was immobilized, although poorly, and was obviously broken. He had been shot at close range -- "Damn big assed pistol, the guy had. Think the slug's still in there, Doc..." -- and was pinned down under fire until dawn broke. Blood loss was substantial, and the man was sweating even in the cool of this overcast afternoon. Upon checking his temp, it was at 103..."
The man with the bad leg, he examines it, and wonders if he has the training to make it right. Praying to the almighty to help him here, he examines the leg, ask the orderly for penicillin and injects it into the man.
Bruno examined the leg thoroughly. It was not a pretty sight, and the smell spoke volumes about it's fate. A first round had entered near the shin, and smashed the limb to bits at that point before exiting. A second had entered the knee, pulverizing the kneecap and then banging around in the tough connecting tissue of the knee joint. The third and final round had gone in almost parallel to the leg, entering just above the knee, and exiting near the groin.
As much as Bruno hated to think about it, this man was a candidate for an amputation. There just was little else he could do, considering the severity of damage, and the medical state-of-the-art available. The man probably wouldn't survive the move, even if the other nearby facilities could do anything different than Bruno could. The leg was obviously infected, and beyond. The look in the man's face was one of resolved understanding. He slipped in and out of consciousness, asking about his mother and father...
Moving back to the burn victim, he examines her noting where the severity of the burns are, working his hardest and fastest to get them covered.
The burns on the woman's side and arm are the most severe. Bruno had seen more than his share of burns, recently, and attempted to prevent infection and slowly replace some of the patient's lost body fluids.
And lastly, the man with no hearing, he looks into his ears to survey the damage, and checking them out, if the ear drums aren't to bad, he informs the man, he might be able to help him. If they are all the way gone, he instructs the man, that he has lost his hearing, and will need to learn how to read lips or carry a pad of paper and pencil around.
The damage appeared to be moderate to severe. For the moment, the earlier treatment seemed to be the best Bruno could do for the man.