I should be dead. The news of my passing was published in the newspaper. Dr. John McMahon – Paediatrician, was listed as one of the nine victims who perished in a helicopter crash. Yes, that was me. My name and title were both printed correctly. There was no mistake there. But I didn’t die.
The helicopter was from the Navy. I was a new recruit with the Army Reserve at the time. It wasn’t even four weeks into the appointment when the accident happened. That was my dream job too.
I came from a family steeped in military traditions. My grandfather was a founding member of the Royal Australian Navy. He was the pride of our family. Both my father and his brother went to Duntroon. Dad joined the army and worked his way up to a General before he passed away from a heart attack just before he turned 60. My uncle joined the Navy and was sent to countless deployments around the world before he retired a few years ago. My older sister worked in the terrorism unit of army intelligence. I had grown up seeing more people in uniforms than in civilian clothes.
I desperately wanted to join the military myself. I wanted to be like the rest of my family. But my severe asthma kept me back. I struggled with passing the fitness test. I had lost count of how many times I had tried and failed. None of the family members had ever expressed any disappointment in me. They told me to be myself. They said that everything was fine. But I could see the pity in their eyes.
I became a doctor instead. I ended up specialising in paediatrics because children always saw me as a giant. They didn’t see my skinny frame and spindly limbs as weak. They looked up to me and hung on to me. They accepted my authority. Another great thing about working with children was that they almost always get better. Their ability to recover was just astonishing.
Though I had already established myself in my own field, the dream of joining up had never gone away. When I learned that the army was looking for paediatricians to help out on a humanitarian mission, I knew that would be my chance. Paediatricians were very rare in the military. It was not a place for children. Perhaps they could overlook my asthma and let me in. And they did.
I got into the Army Reserve. They sent me to an army camp to receive training for a couple of weeks. I was then put on a naval ship and deployed abroad. The ship was huge. There were hundreds of personnel on board. For this deployment, engineers made up the majority of the personnel. They were needed to rebuild the infrastructure in a village that were shredded and crumbled into pieces by a recent earthquake.
Our ship was anchored off the coast to the village that we were assisting. Each day, personnel were flown by helicopters to the villages where we performed our duties. For my role, I would triage the children on shore and then bring the more seriously ill ones back to the ship where we had more facilities available. It was hot, hazardous and chaotic. Sick and injured people were scattered amongst a sea of destruction.
On the morning of the helicopter accident, I was rostered to go ashore to the village. I packed my backpack of syringes, bandages, medicines and other medical supplies. I submitted my pack to my supervisor for inspection as was the standard procedure. I then hurled it on my back to board the chopper. The medical team with me on the morning’s flight was a nurse and a medic.
On the helipad, the rotor on the chopper was already spinning. The wind was strong and the noise deafening. We stood in a queue to make our runs to the chopper door. I leaned forward with my legs pumped, ready for the dash. As I made my run up, I felt a force from behind pulling me back. I turned around to find a senior doctor grabbing onto my backpack. Over the noise of the chopper, he yelled into my ears, “I’ll go ashore instead of you today. Don’t ask any questions. This is an order. ”
Before I could figure out what was happening, he had ripped the backpack off my back and jumped onto the chopper himself. I was left behind stunned and confused. I cowered in the wind as I watched the helicopter leave without me. That was that. It was the military. Orders had to be followed.
I went back to my supervisor and was told to do the rounds on deck instead. There were rows and rows of patients waiting for treatments. There was no time to think about what just happened. Every little face in those beds were pale and scared. I started at the far end to work my way back. When I came to the third child, he was in a bad way. His little body was limp and his head was hanging on the edge of his bed. His lips were blue. I couldn’t detect a pulse and immediately started to resuscitate him. As I pumped and pumped with my hands on his little chest, I started to huff and puff. Damn asthma! I managed to hold out and brought the little boy back. My hands were shaking as I wiped my sweat, and yes, tears too, away from my face after the exertion. Then I heard a commotion behind me.
‘A chopper went down and people on board were killed,’ I heard one man yelled.
‘What? Where? ‘ Another person responded.
‘At the village. It happened just now.’
‘Who’s on it?’
‘I don’t know, but they say it’s the 9am group.’
Jesus Christ! That was my group. My name was still on the roster and I was supposed to be on that helicopter. I had heard of stories where people had cancelled their flight and then their plane crashed. But never in a million years did I think something like that would happen to me. Fuck, I just dodged a bullet.
The night was moonless and the streets dark. A car pulled up outside a substantial home in an affluent suburb of Canberra. Two uniformed men jumped out of the car. They wore a service cap and were dressed head to toe in white. The taller man pressed the door bell.
He pressed it again knowing that the residents would be sleeping inside.
“What the hell is that?” The man inside the house in bed was roused from his sleep.
“I don’t know, sounds like someone’s at the door,” his wife also awakened by the noise sat up.
“Far out, what time is it?” The man said and grabbed the alarm clock by his bed. He then got out of his bed to put on his robe.
“Be careful Darling,” the wife got up to put on her robe and followed her husband outside the bedroom.
The ringing was persistent. The husband took a look at the peep hole and blood drained out of his face. He hesitated for a few seconds before placing his hand on the door to open it. A sharp pain pierced into his heart when he saw two Navy chaplains standing in front of his door. He knew this was going to be bad. One of the chaplains spoke.
‘Excuse me Sir. Are you Mr. Chris Paterson?’
‘Yes, this is me. How can I help you?’
‘We’re very sorry to bother you at this hour. My name is Chaplain John McCain and this is my colleague Chaplain Rob Fulton. We are from the Royal Australian Navy. May we come in please?”
Chris knew who they were and what this could mean. He invited them in.
‘And you must be Mrs. Paterson? I am very sorry to disturb you.’ John said when he spotted the wife.
‘Yes I am, please, just call me Liz.’
John and his colleague took off their caps and gave her a cordial nod. Liz returned the nod. She then brushed her hair back with her hands and tightened her robe around her. Dread filled her heart.
Once everyone was seated, John spoke again.
‘Mr. And Mrs. Patterson, I am deeply sorry but we are here to inform you that your son Joseph was involved in a helicopter accident. Unfortunately, he did not survive. We are very sorry.’
“What? No, no no no…what are you saying? This can’t be true” Mrs Paterson gripped onto her husband’s arm and shook her head.
Chris tightened his jaw and remained silent. He stared at the two chaplains with his chest heaving in and out. His heavy breathing was the only sound in the room. It was as if he was holding back from lashing out at the two men in front of him. Her body started to shake. In response to her distress, Chris let out croaky sound and placed his hand over hers to steady her.
‘Eh hmm…was my son the pilot in command?’ Chris cleared his throat and tried to sound as calm as he could.
‘Yes Sir, he was the pilot,’ John responded with a soft voice.
‘What happened?’ Chris’s voice was weak and coarse.
‘Your son was part of a mercy mission to deliver humanitarian aids to a village in Papua New Guinea. He was carrying a team of medical and engineering personnel onto one of the islands. It was a routine flight. However, during the landing, it lost altitude and fell to the ground. An explosion ensued and we lost nine people on board including your son. There was only one survivor. An investigation is underway to find the cause of the incident. Unfortunately, we do not have any more information until the investigation completes. I am very sorry for your loss Sir.”
Liz held her free hand over her mouth as she listened. She started to sob uncontrollably when John finished. Chris took a deep breath and then said through his gritted teeth, ‘my son has been flying since he was a teenager. All he ever wanted to do was to fly. He had his pilot’s licence before he had his driver’s licence. He is one of the most skilful pilots you can find. He is the best pilot in the Navy. I will hold whoever is responsible for this to account.’ Chris fought to keep his rage from rising up in his chest.
‘Sir, an investigation is underway. It’s too early to know all the details and what caused the tragedy, but we will let you know as soon as we have new information.’
‘Please do that. I want to be kept in the loop.’
‘We have only one child. Joey is our only son and child. He’s the most beautiful boy. Oh God, why has this happened? Chris, it’s our fault. We should have stopped him,’ Liz sobbed.
‘No sweetie, Joey did what he loved. It was his dream job. Nobody could stop him. But he will not die in vain. I will not let that happen. I promise you that.’
John and his colleague then took their leave. The same process took place across the country for each of the nine victims in the crash.
THE LONE SURVIVOR
‘How are you feeling Peter?’ said Lieutenant Kevin Moffatt, the navy investigator. He was seated on a chair next to the hospital bed where Peter, the sole survivor laid.
Peter cocked his head slightly to try to understand what the investigator said. His ears were temporary deafened by the blast and he tried to tune out the constant ringing in his ears.
‘Are you okay?’ The investigator asked again.
Peter understood it this time. He shrugged and turned his head away. He wasn’t injured badly. Just a few cuts and bruises from being thrown from the helicopter. He kept his head down for a few breaths before turning back to he man with a pained face. His brow was furrowed and lips turned down. It spoke of sadness and bewilderment.
‘Hi Peter, my name is Lieutenant Kevin Moffatt. I am an investigator for the helicopter crash. Can you tell me what happened?’ Kevin spoke gently.
Peter looked at Kevin’s face and searched for his eyes. Once he found them, he stared straight into them without saying a word. Kevin had seen this before in other victims who survived when others didn’t. They called it the survivor’s guilt. They wanted to know why they got to live and people who were probably more deserving didn’t. Their eyes were always searching for answers. Kevin softened his own gaze and gently held it. He knew that he had to earn Peter’s trust. So he allowed Peter to pierce into his soul. He then broke into a gentle smile as if to say ‘I know, it’s okay, I know.’
It worked. Peter softened his face and mumbled ‘I don’t know, it all happened so fast.’
‘Can you tell me what you saw during the landing?’
Peter looked up to reach into his memory. He then turned back to Kevin and said ‘I saw people on the ground waving at us. I was waving back.’
‘Do you know the people on the ground?’
‘Some of them. I don’t really know them but I recognise them. You see the same people around and you smile and you wave at each other. Just being friendly you know. They were waiting for the chopper to take them back to the ship. ‘
“Where were you seated on the helicopter?”
“Right by the door.”
“They found you lying on the ground about ten metres outside the helicopter. You must have been thrown out as the helicopter came down.”
‘Probably. I don’t know. I don’t remember what happened. When I came to it, I was already on the ground. I felt a bit stiff and but nothing felt broken. I looked around to see where I was and I saw the chopper not far from me but sitting in a weird angle.’
‘Can you describe the angle?’ Kevin asked.
‘It was sitting lob-sided as if one leg was missing and one of the rotor blades was touching the ground,’ Peter explained.
‘Would you say that it was leaning at around forty-five degrees?’
‘Yeah, thereabouts. It wasn’t lying sideways nor was it upright.’
‘Thank you, that’s very helpful. What did you do after seeing the chopper?’ Kevin continued his questioning.
‘My instinct was to head back to the chopper to find the others. I managed to stand up but before I could make my first step, I heard the loudest bang and was flown backwards. By the time I could sit back up again, fire and flames had engulfed the helicopter. I tried to approach but there was just no way, the fire was too intense,’ Peter shut his eyes tight as he relived the moment. He shook his head and clenched his fists. Then he breathed and breathed to calm himself down.
Kevin sat quietly and waited. He knew that he had to be patient. The moment he upset the witness, the interview would be over. He has learned to moderate his own emotions. When Peter’s reddened face returned to a more natural colour, he knew he could continue.
‘How far off the ground were you when you waved at the people?’ Kevin asked softly.
‘Not far at all. Just a few feet I’d say. We were almost on the ground,’ Peter answered with a sniffle.
‘Can you tell me what you felt after the wave?’
‘I don’t know, I heard a loud clank and then the chopper suddenly lurched to one side. I tried to hold on to something and next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground,’
‘Can you tell me more about the clank?’
‘It’s a metallic clank of sorts. I don’t know what it is.’
‘Did it sound like a collision?’
‘No, it was more like a high pitch metal sound.’
‘Right, I see. Did you hear or see anything else when you heard that sound?
‘No, I think I just heard that one clank.’
‘Was there anything else that you can recall during the flight, starting from right after you board?’
Peter took a deep breath.
‘Hmm…not really. Nothing unusual. It was a regular flight.’
‘Did you smell anything unusual on the flight?’
‘No, not that I can tell.’
‘They found a 4kg butane gas cylinder on the helicopter. Do you know anything about that?’
Peter looked like he had just seen a ghost. He eyes widened for a fraction of a second and he quickly looked away.
‘No, I don’t know. Where did they find it?’
‘Remnants of it were found amongst the helicopter debris. The lab will need to confirm this but it’s likely to be on board the helicopter.’
Peter placed both his hands over his face.
‘Right, so when I saw the explosion, it wasn’t the chopper exploding. It was the butane gas bottle exploding, wasn’t it?’ Peter asked with his eyes shut after taking his hands off his face.
‘The evidence seems to suggest that. What do you know about the butane gas bottle?’
‘Nothing. Like I said earlier, nothing.’
‘Did you board the helicopter from the ship?’
‘Yeah, we all did.’
‘Did the helicopter travel directly from the ship to the village where it came down?’
Peter paused. He looked a little tense and uncomfortable. Then he said, ‘I don’t remember,’
‘Is there anything else that you could tell us about the helicopter ride?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Alright, thank you very much for your time Peter. Here’s my card. If you remember anything else later on, please contact me. Please take care and I wish you a speedy recovery.’
‘Thanks,’ Peter sighed.
Andy Heston, the Navy Commodore just got off the phone when Chris Paterson, the father of the deceased pilot stormed into his office. Chris slammed a report on Andy’s desk and said “Are you kidding me Andy? Is this how you Navy people do things? This is sloppy work.”
‘Chris, wait a minute. What are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about my son Joey, who was killed on your watch. And you’re not taking responsibility over this! I should never have allowed him to join the Navy. He should have followed me into the Air Force.’ Chris spoke with a tight jaw. His veins were thick and visible on his temples.
‘I’m sorry for your loss, Chris. I really am. You know how much I love Joey. He’s the son that I never had. Joey joined the Navy because of you. It was a place that he could earn his stripes on his own merits. He didn’t want to work in a place where his Dad is the General. He didn’t want people to think that he got a job because his dad was in charge. Don’t you understand?’ Andy stood up and barked back at Chris.
‘You said you loved him as your son. But why are you blaming him for the crash?’
‘No I’m not. What are you talking about?’
‘Your report said that the fatalities came from the explosion of a locally sourced butane bottle and not from the mechanical failure.’
‘That’s correct. The explosion that killed the nine people on board was caused by the butane bottle smuggled on board.’
‘What about the bolt that came loose?’
‘The bolt came loose at the final stage of the landing.It caused the rotor blade to rock and lose rotation. As a result, the helicopter lost its ability to hover and fell to the ground. Yes, there was a mechanical failure. However, as the failure took place at only eight feet off the ground, it was not fatal. The helicopter could well withstand the impact and maintain its structural integrity falling from such a short distance. It may cause some bruises and fractures, but certainly not death. What made the crash so devastating was the caused by the butane bottle that exploded on impact. Therefore, the cause of death was the explosion of the butane bottle.’
‘Is that how you’re going to get away with murder? So it’s not the dodgy aircraft maintenance but the butane bottle that found its way onto the helicopter.’
‘Chris, it’s a fact! It was the explosion that killed the nine people, not the fall from eight feet. Hazardous materials are not allowed on board without the pilot’s approval and special stowage.’
‘See there, you’re blaming the pilot, my son for causing the explosion!’
‘No, I’m not. We don’t know who or how the bottle made it on board. There were no witnesses.’
‘Well you need to find out who and hold that person to account.’
‘Chris, listen to me. This is a mercy mission. We have no enemies there. The people there need every bit of help they can get. It is almost certain that whoever brought the butane bottle on board was one of the people on board. For whatever dumbass reason that they smuggled the bottle on board, they had paid a heavy price for it. What good would come of finding out which one of them had done it? They were all good men and women that served their country. They were even helping others who weren’t their countrymen. What more could you ask of them? It’s more important that we put a stop to these stupid behaviours.’
‘It’s easy for you to say because it was not your child who had died. You can blame the dead by saying that they have brought this onto themselves. Well, my son is dead and someone has to take responsibility.’
‘Look, your son was the pilot. It would be his responsibility to ensure that there were no hazardous materials on board. You could make the situation worse by digging further. Isn’t it enough that people have died? Why do you want to shame the dead?’
‘You mother fucker! You are the one shaming the dead. You are making this about behaviours and make light of the failure to maintain the aircrafts properly. You just want to save your own ass. If you’re not going to find out who brought the bottle on board, I will just have to bloody do it myself! Joey was the pilot. If I don’t find out, everyone will blame the pilot. That’s my son!’
Chris wiped the spits off his mouth with the back of his hand. He gave his old friend a deadly stare followed by a finger salute before storming out of his office.
You know, after the helicopter accident, I was filled with equal measure of guilt and gratitude. I felt bad for the accident naturally but I also felt super lucky to be alive. I figured that my life was spared and I should do good with it. Each day, I worked to exhaustion as a way of giving back. Truth be told, it also saved me from have time to think or feel too much.
As a newcomer, I didn’t know a lot of people and spent much of my time by myself. But lately, I was feeling even more isolated. I almost never talked to anyone. I would walk into a room and people would leave. If I tried to make eye contact with someone, they would immediately turn away. It was strange. People were avoiding me.
I was interviewed by the investigation team about the accident. I told them everything that I knew, which was not very much. They had never accused me of any wrong doing in any shape or form. So I didn’t know why people gave me such a wide berth. It felt awful to be rejected like this. Were they jealous of me that I was alive and others weren’t? Maybe they thought that I should have been on board instead of the senior doctor? I could only guess but I definitely knew that I was treated differently than before.
Then one day, I found a note in my locker room that read “TRAITOR”, and another note inside my backpack that read “KILLER”. I could tolerate the shunning but this was invasive. It sent a chill down my spine and I immediately reported this to my supervisor. He told me to stay calm and let the rumours run their course.
‘What do you mean rumours? What rumours?’ I asked.
‘Ah, don’t take this to heart. There were rumours that the butane came from your backpack. But don’t worry about it. There was no evidence of that.’
‘Of course not. You saw my pack. You checked it before I put it on my back, didn’t you?’
‘I know. That’s why I said not to worry about. Look, people are upset understandably for the loss. In their grief, fingers were pointed everywhere at everything. Just give it some time. It will blow over.’
Only it didn’t. I found stacks of nails placed in front of my tyres just waiting for me to run over them. My things would go missing. The hostility intensified. The writing was on the wall that I was not welcome. I decided that it was not worth staying. I left the service and went back to private practice.
I was working in my suburban clinic one day when two men came into my clinic. One man said he had a sore throat. I knew that was not true right away. They both looked too well to be sick. Men in general never came to the clinic with a friend. Something was up.
‘What do you guys do?’ I asked as I checked the man’s throat.
‘We’re with the Navy,’ the friend said. The hair on my neck stood on end. I knew these men weren’t here to seek medical treatment. I stopped the examination and just waited for them to speak.
‘Look, Dr. McMahon, we’re on your side. And you need to leave,’ the person with the fake sore throat took the cue and spoke.
‘I have already left. As you can see, I’m in private practice. I am a civilian. I have nothing to do with the military anymore.’ I sighed and gestured at my surroundings.
‘You need to leave town.’
The shock of what I heard took the air out of my lungs. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Everything in the room seemed to collapse towards me. I fought the fear and took in few deep breaths to steady myself. Then rage took over and I had to control that.
‘What? Come on, I’ve done nothing wrong. Seriously, are they still thinking that I was responsible for the accident? How could intelligent people believe in such ridiculous rumours and speculations? It’s impossible for me to have done it for God’s sake!’
‘Pride eats logic for breakfast. This place is not safe for you. Just go before it’s too late.’
‘Honey, how did you go?’ Liz handed a cup of tea to Chris, her husband.
‘Andy’s a coward. He’ll own the mechanical failure but not the deaths. He blamed the crew for letting the butane bottle on board and left it at that. I need to prove Joey’s innocence. Someone must have smuggled the damn thing on board without Joey’s knowledge. I can’t let the blame be fallen by default onto the pilot. I am using my own connections to see if I can find out how the bottle got on board. Do you remember Jim McMahon?’
‘Of course I do. You, Andy Heston and Jim McMahon were the three musketeers, weren’t you?’ Liz cocked an eyebrow.
‘Yes, those were the days. We had a lot in common back then. We met at school. All three of us came from military families and we shared the same passion for service. I chose the Air Force, Andy Heston went to the Navy and Jim McMahon the Army.’
‘And all of you did really well too.’
‘I suppose. We rose through the ranks. We were also adversaries as we competed for resources. We were fierce in our fights and we were competitive. But I was the only one that has a son with promise and capabilities. Well, I meant we, our son. We had Joey.’
‘Our beautiful Joey…’ Liz’s eyes reddened.
‘Our son was strong, smart and ambitious. We raised him well. He was destined for greatness. I used to rub it in their noses about how well Joey was doing. Jim used to hate it. His asthmatic son could barely climb a stair without passing out.’ Chris let out a chuckle before curling down his lips again.
‘Joey was sweet too. He always called.’
‘Yes, he was perfect. Only I have it. I always know that they were jealous of me. Well, guess what?’
‘That weakling son of Jim got into the Army Reserve.’
‘Special skills. They needed doctors for a mission.’
‘He was scheduled to be in the helicopter with Joey that day.’
‘What? He was on the same deployment as Joey?’
‘Yes, he was one of the doctors that Joey was flying that day.’
‘Oh my goodness. So, he was killed too.’
‘No, he wasn’t.’
‘He was replaced in the last minute.’
‘I don’t know. They said some rostering error.’
‘So he survived?’
‘Undeservedly so. Do you smell something fishy? Something is not right. I’ll tell you that.’
‘Do you think Jim’s son has something to do with the accident?’
‘I don’t know. All I know is that he showed up and Joey is dead.’
‘Chris, you must do something about it. You promised me that you will not let Joey die in vain.’
‘Don’t worry Honey, justice will be served’
THE LONE SURVIVOR
Peter had recovered fully from the hospital. There was no lasting injuries and he was back at work. He was on shore leave at home when he heard a knock on his door. Reluctantly, he got out of the couch to see who it was. He opened the door ajar and saw John McMahon standing with his hands behind his back.
‘Oh, John…? Hmm…wow! Hi, what do you want?’ Peter was taken aback to see John at the door. John had approached him a few times since the accident but Peter had managed to avoid him. It was more difficult this time when he stood at his front door.
‘Look, it’s not a good time. I need to run shortly and …’ Peter tried to find an excuse to spare himself from having to deal with John.
‘I’m just dropping by to say goodbye. I’m leaving,’ John smiled.
‘Oh, leaving? Leaving where?’ Peter was surprised and became more curious.
‘I’m leaving Canberra.’ John gave out as little information as necessary.
‘Oh, where are you going then?’ Peter asked.
‘If you have time, I can tell you more,’ John took out one of his hands from behind his back and produced a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.
Peter looked at the golden liquid and swallowed. He was thirsty and he could use a drink. He also figured that if John was leaving town anyway, it would be safe to talk to him a little.
‘Well, alright, come in,’ Peter opened the door fully and invited John in.
They sat down at the dining table and Peter took out the glasses.
‘How do you like it? On the rocks? Straight up?’ Peter became more perky.
‘Straight up is good,’ John smiled.
‘That’s how I like it too. Here, cheers!’ Peter poured out two glasses and handed one to John.
‘So, where are you going?’ Peter asked to avoid the silence.
‘Melbourne,’ John was sticking to his strategy to talk as little as possible. As long as he could keep Peter drinking, Peter would talk.
‘Melbourne? What are you going to do there?’
‘Peter, we’re doctors. What else can we do but being doctors?’
‘True. Are you setting up your own practice, or are you doing medical centres? Do you have a plan? By the way, this is good stuff.’ Peter refilled his glass and took another gulp.
‘I’m not sure yet. I’ll decide once I get there.’
‘Well, that’s one good thing about us being doctors. We’ll never be out of work,’ Peter chuckled.
‘That may be the case but I was happy where I was though.’
Peter felt a little uncomfortable with that response and took another shot of whisky to get rid of that unpleasant sensation. He didn’t know what to say to that and needed more time to think. So he took one more swig at the whiskey hoping that it would help.
John remained silent. The silence pressed hard against Peter’s chest. He could hear his own heart throb inside his ears. The discomfort was too much. He wiped the perspiration from his brow with his hand and took his fifth shot of whisky. He wasn’t expecting the conversation to go down this path. He thought John was just going to tell him what he was doing in the next chapter of his life and he would never see him again.
‘Look, I’m really sorry about what happened to you,’ Peter finally said.
‘It sucked. I never understood it. Do you know why they picked on me?’
‘I don’t know. I’m not their favourite son either. I guess we got to live while others didn’t. People may feel that we were undeserving, I suppose?’
‘Why did you pull me off the roster that morning?’ John looked into Peter’s eyes. Five shots of whiskey should be the right amount.
‘So that you could live?’ Peter laughed. That was a good one, he thought to himself.
John just smiled.
Peter took another shot from the bottle. He glanced over at John and smiled back. Then he started to tear up.
‘You want to know what happened?’
‘Yes I do.’
‘Peter, you want to tell someone, don’t you? It’s too heavy to carry this all by yourself, isn’t it?’ John spoke gently.
‘Yes, it’s difficult,’ Peter sniffled.
‘Please, tell me.’ John placed his hand gently on Peter’s shoulder.
‘I wanted to surprise a girl,’ Peter started to sob.
‘I met a local girl and we were seeing each other. She was beautiful. I wanted to impress her. I figured that I would surprise her by cooking for her the Australian way. She had never left her village and she had probably never seen a man cook in her life. I just needed some gas for an all Australian barbecue. I managed to source a gas bottle a little way from the village. It’s a couple of hours’ drive and the roads were a shocker. When I realised that Joey was flying that morning, I thought I could convince him to do a pick up for me. That’s why I swapped the roster and put myself on the chopper that day,’ Peter placed his hand over his eyes as he revealed the event.
‘How did you convince the pilot to do that?’ John cocked his head.
‘It took some effort. He wasn’t going to help me initially. There were people on board and the last thing he wanted was a court martial. But I was so in love and I was on cloud nine. I invited everyone on board the chopper to the barbecue and I offered to provide all the food and drinks for the event. It was only a five minute detour,’ Peter shrugged and smiled and he made his recollection of a more innocent time.
‘You know, when you see deaths and destructions all day long, people need something to lift their spirits. It’s a survival thing. Even in the worst of times, there’s something joyful and uplifting about people in love. Next thing I knew, the crowd rallied behind me and pressured the pilot to make the detour. The joy from the group was infectious. Eventually, Joey nodded and everyone cheered. It was such a small ask after all. But who would have thought…’ Peter shook his head and sighed. He then tightened his hands into a fist and placed them over his face.
‘And the girl?’
‘Who cares about the girl. Nine people died because of her,’ Peter’s earlier sad face turned angry and vicious.
‘No, nine people died because of you,’ John slowly got up from his chair.
‘I didn’t wish for this to happen. It wasn’t my fault. The helicopter was faulty. It failed. It it wasn’t for the mechanical failure, everyone would have been alive.’
‘Equally, if you didn’t bring the gas bottle on board, everyone would still be alive,’ John started to head out the door.
‘So you blame me?’ Peter’s eyes followed John’s movement. They were wide with hurt.
‘That’s a judge’s job, not mine.’ John smiled as he opened the door to let himself out.
‘Are you off to Melbourne now?’
‘Yeah, after making a pit stop.’ John reached into his pocket and took out his phone to press the stop recording button.
‘FUCK! NO! Listen John, you can’t bring back the dead. Why don’t we just drop it?’
‘No Peter, the truth matters.’
Peter jumped out of his chair to try to grab hold of John. He had caught on to the game too late though. John had already taken the keys from the table, closed the door and dead bolted it from the outside. He ran to this car and drove as fast as he could to Russell, Canberra, home of the Royal Australian Navy head quarter. As he turned a corner and saw the towering column that marked the Australian American Memorial, he was satisfied that he had served his country and had done his family proud.