"For heaven's sake, you're not going out there now, are you?! Why, it's the middle of the night!" Martha's sharp voice knifed through the dark bedroom. Al pulled on his bathrobe and reached for his slippers. He braced himself for the onslaught he knew was coming.
"Don't you get enough on weekends?? Do you have to listen to that gibberish all night, too?"
Al paused in the doorway. He spoke soothingly, as though to a petulant child. "I know it's late, but I'm restless. I'll listen around the bands a while . . . it'll relax me and it won't bother you . . . I'll keep the door closed. Go to sleep now, honey. I'll be back soon".
Martha jerked the bed covers up around her ears and turned her head to the wall.
Pensive, Al headed for the garage where his equipment waited like a buried treasure . . . a source of comfort and satisfaction . . . even a refuge sometimes. He longed for Martha's acceptance of his hobby; not necessarily her partaking of it, but at least a tacit approval. "Although, maybe I do spend a lot of time out here", he admitted ruefully. A deep sigh escaped him. "Well, I'll make it a short session tonight; no use aggravating her any more than necessary."
He threw the master switch by the door, and felt a surge of pride as the powerful gear sprang to life. He loved these squat boxes, warm and alive with promise. He thrilled anew when he heard them purr with contentment as power coursed through their wire veins. He followed anxiously their every heartbeat, revealed by the swinging needles in their opaque windows; and he basked under the bright gaze of the tiny green and red eyes on their flat faces. Stationed on the roof, the multi-fingered antenna clawed at the sky, gathering in radio waves like a giant hand sweeping crumbs from a table.
He settled himself at the glass-topped desk, slipped the headphones down over his ears and spun the vernier dial on the receiver. Signals were thinly scattered between static crashes.
"Damn", he thought. "Just when I feel like ragchewing, either the skip is wrong, the band is out, or nobody is up". He spun the knob the other way, and heard the flash of a faint voice; oriental music wavering through from the Pacific area; and the regular pulsing of the electric blanket in the house. "Have to make a filter to eliminate that", he reminded himself.
Suddenly he stiffened. What was it he had sliced across? MAYDAY! Good Lord, was it? MAYDAY? Swiftly, every nerve alerted, he backtracked. He pulled the needle cautiously along the dial, delicately probing for his quarry. Had he imagined it? Could he find it again? "Keep calling", he urged silently. "Don't give up! I'll find you, only don't stop calling!"
There it was again! Mayday! Delicately he rocked the know across the spot until it was dead-centered. Then he zeroed his VFO on it, and crossed his fingers for luck. The voice vanished. The static had engulfed it like a turbulent wave sweeping over a bit of seaweed.
He threw on the transmitter switch, grabbed up the mike and began calling. "Q R Zed the station calling Mayday. Q R Zed? This is W6JFD, Vallejo. Over".
As he waited, he licked his lips and tasted salt. Then it came, haltingly.
"W6JFD . . . . K6VLE Mobile . . . . How copy?"
"Not solid, but think I can pull you through. What's your problem? Break".
"Hurt . . . . been trying hours . . . . raise somebody . . . . " Labored breathing punctuated the rambling answer. " . . . . my car and when . . . . when . . . . woke up . . . . down here . . . . canyon . . . . legs pinned under boulder . . . . and door frame . . . . can't pull free . . . . real mess . . . . help me?"
Al detected growing panic in the voice.
"What's your exact location? Break".
"Don't know . . . never here before . . ."
Despair spanned the gap and crept into Al, too. He must learn more, and fast. The man thought he was four or rive miles from the junction. Which junction? Laguna Road and Highway 80. Near what city? East of San Diego. As he faltered, Al patiently prodded him on.
His headlights were smashed, he said. Flashlight? Yes, but couldn't reach it. No, the horn hadn't worked for months. Landmarks? He seemed to remember crossing a bridge just before . . . .
Finally the delays between his words lengthened ominously, and he moaned, "Can't think more . . . pain's bad . . ."
Al forced himself to speak casually, "Hold on. I'll cut out here, and send some blind calls. See if I can raise somebody closer to you. Six hundred miles is a long haul; maybe we can trim the odds. Stand by".
With deftness and speed, Al set to work, calling and listening. Calling and listening. Finally he conceded defeat.
"Sorry, buddy. No luck there. How're you feeling now? Over".
There was no reply. The distant transmitter, however, appeared to be operative. Its electronic stream buoyed the needle on Al's meter, marking the place on that turbulent sea of sound where the voice had died.
Now the odds had shifted. Rescue could be seriously delayed. The ugly threat of gangrene insinuated itself into his mind. He recalled isolated battlefields and fallen men; bloodless limbs and lurking rot. Apprehension spurred his thinking as he conceived intricate solutions that dissolved under the pressure of practicality.
He fumbled for a cigarette. Then he knew. Rapidly he dialed Highway Patrol headquarters and outlined his plan to the police dispatcher.
Now he could do nothing more, but was reluctant to leave his post. Maybe he would come to know if the man was found. With sightless eyes probling a dark canyon, maybe he could somehow know.
He remained at the dimly lit operating desk, head lowered, slowly doodling along the margins of the logbook. Outside in the sleeping streets, a dog howled its loneliness.
He did not know how long he had sat there, when the receiver abruptly sprang to life. His head snapped up as a voice cried, "Here he is! Over here! Let's have those lights over this way more!"
Loud shouts and crashes displaced the stillness he had been monitoring.
"Easy there . . . . easy . . . . lift him up easy".
Al was jubilant. He sat transfixed as he visualized the scene performed by actors unaware of their audience. Finally the din abated, then faded completely as evidently the men bore their burden up the canyon wall.
Al pushed back his chair, and, with hands clasped behind his hear, arched backward in a tingling stretch. Yawning widely, he rose and leaned forward to switch off the receiver. He pauled midway. Two stragglers, apparently, spoke.
"You can chalk this one up to you public utility boys! Those portable field strength meters sure came in handy".
"Yeah. Lucky this guy's transmitter gave us a steady note to home in on; what's rough is trying to trace some erratic appliance that's tearing up all the TV sets in the neighborhood!"
"What I can't figure is who sucked you guys in on this deal in the first place?"
"Well, all I kno's the Patrol rousted me outa bed and says get all my gear together ... and something some amateur radio operator around San Francisco hearing this guy's call for help, and...."
"Jeez, you mean some guy six hundred miles away....?"
The disbelief in the question made Al laugh aloud, while the voices slowly dimmed and finally merged into the ether from whence they had sprung.
This was one time, he reflected, where a mobile rig really paid off . . . . wonder what kind it was . . . . it put out a pretty good signal. Maybe someday he would have one -- Martha might even get a kick out of it, especially on long trips.
His reverie was shattered by the metallic jangle of the telephone.
An amiable police reported requested more details of the incident. How long had Al had this hobby? Did he know the other man involved tonight? Would he mind if the local papers ran the story? Al hesitated. He hadn't anticipated publicity. In the end, he capitulated, with one reservation: "Remember, now, none of this 'big hero' stuff!"
Clearing the desk top, he looked forward to getting back to Martha so she could share his elation.
She woke on his arrival, and struggled up onto one elbow.
"It's about time you got to bed! Staying up 'til all hours with that silly radio stuff. Honestly, sometimes I swear I just don't understand you!"
He knew a sudden tiredness. Mutely the golden moment fled.
He lowered his head to the pillow and closed his eyes. Tonight his life had been briefly entwined with that of a stranger, and the union had borne sweet fruit. This would always be his secret glory. Pleasure warmed him.
Gently, he said, "Go back to sleep, Martha".
This story was originally published in 73 Magazine, October 1967.
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