St. Elmo’s Fire

St. El-mo’s fire (el’mohz) n.

1. a form of luminous corona discharge that sometimes
occurs during electrical storms. [1880-85; after St.
Elmo (d. A. D. 303), patron saint of sailors; cf.
It fuoco di Sant’Elmo]

I feel like I’m looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything appears distant and as if it’s in a tunnel.  My best friend is talking to me but I do not recognize his voice. For some reason I find that I’m trying desperately to grasp onto something familiar; a face, a name, anything! My confused, foggy brain keeps trying to sort things out. A name. I’m thinking of a name. It’s my wife’s name! I hold on to that thought as if my life depended on it. What the heck is going on?

The day really hadn’t started out all that badly, although I do hate moving our radar system, something we must do every few weeks. The sarcastic comments from my teammates confirm that I’m not alone in those feelings. What made this move different, however, was the newly issued tower; all 84 feet of it.

Radar Tower

We received orders to move the night before, which was quite typical. Everything was going smoothly when we broke camp early the next morning, until we got down to the last 4 sections, or 24 feet worth. The tower was first assembled only to the 60 foot level and there were 3 sets of guy-wires to support it. Later, 4 additional sections were delivered and the tower height was increased to 84 feet. To evenly spread out the wires, we moved each wire set up a section or two. Our mistake was dropping the lower (last) set of guy wires rather than re-attaching them to the second or third level. When I swung the fifth section over the side, over we went. In short, we screwed up.

I don’t remember anything after the very first hint we were tipping. As luck would have it, we crashed right in the middle of the tower sections we had just removed. My buddy said I actually broke a piece of the aluminum tubing on one of the sections with my head. I guess I was fortunate the tubing was thin-wall. The only other guy on the tower messed up his knee pretty bad.

By the time my senses started returning I found myself sitting in the ¾ ton truck as my buddies took us back to base camp for a medical checkup. As luck would have it, we were on a barge, crossing the Song Vam Co Dong River when I realized I was in this sorry place called Vietnam. Happy days.

The doc checked us over and decided to keep us overnight for observation, most likely because of the bump I took on my head. I was in quite a bit of pain and the idea of having the night off sounded terrific, not to mention a couple of hot meals, a real shower and a nice bed! I took the pain medication the doc gave me and turned-in early, anticipating a peaceful night’s sleep. Unfortunately, a monsoon had different ideas. Heavy rain on a tin roof makes for a bunch of noise, not to mention the thunder and lightning. Nuts!

As we’re laying there, wondering if the storm will ever pass, a strange phenomenon appeared. At first, neither of us knew for sure what it was. As the turquoise halos moved slowly around the roof-rafters my buddy shrieked, “don’t touch anything!” We both felt kind of silly when we figured out what it was and that it was harmless. It’s the only time in my life I’ve seen St. Elmo’s Fire. A fitting end to a rather strange day.

Early the next morning, one of our teammates arrived and gave us a lift to our new camp site. We received a bunch of ribbing for avoiding setting up the radar system. By now, my injuries, although not serious, are becoming very uncomfortable. I’m convinced I have a cracked rib or broken rib or two. A few days later I returned to the base camp in Tay Ninh for some X-rays. They reveal nothing. In retrospect, I regret that trip. While I was waiting for the X-ray results, a Dustoff arrived with casualties. What made this Dustoff unique was the fact the casualties were children. It appeared they had tripped a booby-trap or ended up near some type of explosion. One of them was certainly going to lose a leg, if not his life. It took me weeks to shake the affects of that terrible image. And Lord knows, I’ll never forget it.

The cuts on my back did eventually become infected with ring-worm or some such thing and it took a couple of months to get rid of the symptoms. Nothing to complain about, really. Things could’ve turned out far worse.

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