Saturday, March 13, 2010


We live very close to the local hospital, right under the flight path of the rescue helicopter as it comes in fast and hot.  It's just gone overhead now and as always I find myself pausing and doing what I suppose is best described as prayer for all concerned with its reason for being here right now.   And with gratitude that such things exist.  It lands so close that the house shakes.

Helicopters I find quite materially threatening at the best of times.  I can recognise the thrills available, but on a very basic level there's just something incredibly on-the-edge feeling about the way they rely on just smashing and beating the laws of physics into submission in order to fly.  Another way of defining flying is "avoiding hitting the ground in a catastrophic way resulting in mechanical and human blancmange over a wide area, usually with fire".  And that visceral rhythmic thumping as they hammer the air....gets you somewhere in the gut levels.  I have met some people who have worked with them (ex-soldiers and the like) and they tell me you never quite lose the fear response.

A couple of years ago, I was sent from another local hospital up to Perth (our major city here), specifically to Royal Perth Hospital (a misnomer, as Perth is not a sovereign monarchy, but never mind) as there wasn't the technical expertise or equipment available to properly diagnose what was going on where I was.  I went in an ambulance though, not a helicopter.

The room I was given was initially mine alone (amazing!) and had an excellent view of the helipad, about 50 metres away on a rooftop level with my window.  The very same helicopter as has just passed overhead now would land in a fair hurry most days, sometimes more than once, and I could see the goings-on perfectly clearly.  One day I had an arrival of a different sort, Mohammed, a man of maybe 60 or so years old originally from Iraq, with virtually no English, as my new roommate.  He was just sort of parked there as he; like me, didn't really fit properly into any particular 'stream' of treatment, and there was nowhere else to put him.  Mohammed seemed mainly to be dying of some sort of gastric cancer thing, and I do suspect they chose me as his roommate partly as I'd already shown myself a fairly helpful and not-squeamish type about the ward.  Because he was having a pretty gross time of it.

Anyway, we got on great.  We were able to have enough communication to suit his limited desires, a nurse had shown me how to trick the supposedly pay-per-use TV system into working so I could help him watch Al-Jazeera news each day, and most days my intern would stop by for a longer chat and translate - he was an Egyptian Canadian Australian and spoke great Arabic and English.  He was also, it must be said, a fine doctor and fellow.  His name was Islam.

Then on maybe Mohammed's second day, the chopper thundered in, unseen to him from his bed away from the window - plus he used to put a towel over his head to pray - and oh my, did it hit his buttons.

Mohammed was virtually bed-bound but I think if he hadn't been he would have found himself torn between running for the window and running for cover.  I heard a little cry from behind me as I watched from the window and saw his terrified face, with hands outstretched halfway between imploring and covering his face and he simply strangled out...


Oh fuck.

"Or good ones?" he manages to get out before I can muster a response.

"Good ones, yes, good ones.  Rescue chopper.  Yellow one.  From an accident maybe.  It's OK.  They are helping people.  Want to see?"

I watched as some of this at least sunk in through the Arabic/English filters and Mohammed sort of relaxed a bit, but kept staring towards the window with a haunted look flashing across his face.  Then after a while he started talking, and showed me his scars.

I'm a little vague on the details what with not speaking Arabic - and the details being really not the point - but his story in brief was this.  Mohammed was from somewhere called I think "Samawa" (Samarra?  I'm not sure) as I recall, and he explained it was between Kuwait and Baghdad.  The Americans came through on the road to Baghdad in Desert Storm.  Mohammed was already in a bit of a persecuted bunch, I gather the area was not one of Saddam's most loyal districts.  From Desert Storm onward he started progressively getting family members out to Australia.  I met a few, now mostly working professionals with kids and a decent life.  At a few points, Mohammed witnessed some very bad shit involving US helicopters and civilian deaths.  He lost children and other relatives.  He was strafed and bombed by accident and had some very nasty older shrapnel and burn scars on his legs, arms and back.  He saw US soldiers shooting people - combatants or not, I'm not sure. 

Two things I was made very sure to understand.  The first is that helicopters are a major and deep traumatic trigger for Mohammed.  Secondly, he is very against the US forces.  Mohammed has good things to say about the Brits, Australians and Japanese, but when it comes to Americans he just makes a hating, angry face and says "Americans - bad, you understand?  They VERY BAD"  So something happened.  Mohammed had been in Australia for a few years at that point.

I stayed with him about a week before I was discharged, and he never got used to the choppers.  He asked me every time, and once, when I said it was the rescue chopper without me looking up from my book he made me go to the window to make sure.

I used to love M*A*S*H as a kid.  My favourite was Radar O'Reilly, the young simple Iowa farmboy become logistics clerk who knew exactly what you needed before you asked and who told you how he was going to get it as you spoke your request.  But more than that, he was always the first to hear the choppers coming in and call out "incoming" whatever was going on.  No-one ever questioned him, because he was always right.  So he was the character that had the job of constantly turning the plot back to its basis - the reason for their existence.  I felt he was the true anchor of the M*A*S*H experience for me, and apart from the slapstick and shtick I ftne felt moved by the humanity of it all, and was very sad when it ended. 

Thanks for coming, Radar and the gang.  
You have helped me love helicopters more than I fear them.


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