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Chapter Seven -
Life and Death
by Clinton B. DeSoto
THERE IS SOMETHING about the saving of a life, a single life, the life of a specific human being whom one can call by name and see and hear, that makes it a very tangible accomplishment. Death, after all, is a very formidable antagonist.
Every now and then some radio amateur encounters a situation where his peculiar ability to be able to make himself heard beyond the range of his own voice gives him an opportunity to outwit "Hell's grim tyrant" and save another's life.
In the beginning this story goes back to early September of 1935 when Dr E. Russell Wightman, professor of physics at Doane College in Crete, Neb., helped Robert Stewart set up his amateur short-wave station, W9DOA.
W9DOA, probably the highest amateur station in the world, was installed at the Claire L Mine of which Stewart is president. The Claire L is a precious-metal mine situated on the rich Leadville-Aspen limestone horseshoe on Italian Mountain on the western slope of the Rockies. It is twelve thousand feet above sea level and about seven thousand feet above the surrounding terrain.
Such a location means isolation. It is forty miles over a tortuous and dangerous mountain road from the camp to Gunnison, the nearest city; the trip takes five hours by automobile if all goes well and nothing breaks down--as usually happens. From October to May the camp is snowbound. Only three mail deliveries are made in that time. A twenty-six mile ski trip over a route that takes an expert two days, facing death every step of the way, does not encourage outside contacts in the winter.
In such circumstances as these amateur radio is a godsend. The little battery-operated transmitter in use at W9DOA served to keep Stewart and his men in regular touch with their families and friends, supplementing the infrequent deliveries of mail.
It served other purposes as well. Because there were two women and two small children in the camp Stewart was anxious to have some means of outside contact in case of emergency. A telephone line was out of the question. But when Dr Wightman, an old-time amateur and operator of station W9BB, vacationed with his wife on Italian Mountain in the summer of 1935 Stewart learned the solution--amateur radio. The station was installed, and when Dr Wightman returned to his teaching post in the autumn regular schedules were instituted. Christmas of 1935 was made happier for the men isolated at the mining camp by the holiday greetings that came from relatives and friends in all parts of the country via W9DOA.
But in January the inhabitants of the little camp, usually self-reliant in the face of emergencies, became worried. For genial William "Slim" Janes, two-hundred-pound foreman of the mine, complained of an ailing ear that stubbornly refused to respond to ordinary treatment. At first it was only an earache, but one that did not get better. The common home remedies applied by Stewart did not seem to help; instead the pain grew steadily more intense.
Finally the man was put to bed in a gigantic bungalow that was the mine's headquarters. Hour by hour the crisis grew more severe. "Slim" Janes became unconcious, his fever mounting steadily.
Near the end of an all-night vigil Bob Stewart, hollow eyed, face drawn with worry, turned away from his bedside.
"What are we going to do now?" his wife, Edna, asked.
Stewart brushed his forehead wearily with the back of his hand. "I don't know," he confessed. "I've done everything I know how."
"Slim's" brother, Tom Janes, spoke. "If we only could get to a doctor. . ." The miner's voice trailed off hopelessly.
"But we can't," one of the others retorted. "So what's the use of talking about it?"
Bob glanced at the speaker and then sat sharply upright. "That's it!" he shouted. "That's the answer!"
The men looked at him in amazement, and he explained. "We can't get Slim to a doctor and we can't get a doctor here. But suppose we could get a doctor here. What would he do?" He looked quickly from one to another of the men.
"Why, he'd----- I dunno what he would do," a bearded miner answered, baffled.
"That's just the point! We don't know. But if we got him to tell us we would know. And that's just what I'm going to do," Stewart declared, getting to his feet. "I'm going to ask a doctor to tell us what we should do!"
Stewart left the room and sat down before the tiny transmitter and receiver that constituted his radio station. It was almost time for his regular schedule with Dr Wightman in Crete. Impatience burning fiercely within, he watched the hands of the clock slide past the minutes.
At last six o'clock Mountain time came--seven o;clock in the morning on the Doane College campus where Dr Wightman was sitting down to his short-wave receiver. When the minute hand moved around to the figure "12" Stewart reached for the key.
Contact established, he relaxed and steadied to his job. Sparing his words, but going into complete detail, he described all the symptoms of "Slim" Jane's illness. The contact continued for an hour and a half. At times Wightman would interrupt with questions, copying the answers with painstaking care. Finally the complete story was told.
Wightman signed off then. Gathering up his notes, he drove to the residence of Dr A.A. Conrad in Crete. It was still early in the day--too early to go to the physician's office.
Seated in the doctor's study, the professor began to describe the sick man's symptoms. Dr Conrad listened carefully.
"Why, that man must be taken to a hospital at once!" he declared when he was told Janes was unconcious.
Wightman explained that it was physically impossible to move him. "The man is snowbound in the Rocky Mountains," he said. "This information came to me by radio."
When Dr Conrad learned that he was expected to diagnose the case by radio he raised his hands in protest. "But that's--preposterous!" he expostulated. "How could you get instructions to the cabin, and who would carry them out?"
Patiently Dr Wightman explained the circumstances and the manner in which the amateur circuit functioned. Finally the physician, convinced, began to ask questions. Some of these Wightman could answer, others he could not.
The latter he took back with him to W9BB. On arriving at the station he called Stewart who was standing impatiently by at the mine with headphones clamped to his ears. When the replies to the questions came they were relayed to Dr Conrad by telephone. The doctor grunted and then announced his diagnosis--mastoiditis!
Treatment must be commenced at once, Dr Conrad said, and asked for a detailed list of the medical supplies available at the camp. When Wightman brought him the list he sat down and wrote out directions for the treatment of the isolated miner, directions to be followed with the meager stock of emergency supplies and first-aid equipment on hand at the lonely cabin. These were relayed to the mine.
There was intense activity in the snowbound mining camp as his friends set about treating the unconcious man. For two days, fighting static and weak signals, Stewart and Wightman maintained regular contact, the one reporting changes in the situation and the other relaying Dr Conrad's instructions.
Gradually the sick miner rallied. By the end of the third day he seemed to be noticeably better. At the end of a week Dr Conrad released the patient he had never seen. In ten days the husky foreman was on his feet again, temporarily deaf, but alive and well.
There's a sequel to the story too. During the following March Tom Janes, brother of "Slim," together with two other miners donned skis to "go down" to civilization. Near the end of the trek Tom fell, breaking several bones in his foot.
The other miners succeeded in carrying Janes into town without difficulty but after he had been examined they learned it would be several weeks before the bones could knit sufficiently for him to travel.
This left them faced with the problem of notifying Stewart of the accident, as well as a need for instructions concerning the care of the injured man. But there was no way of communicating with the camp. It was only 35 miles away but as inaccessible as if it were thirty-five hundred.
Then Tom Janes recalled his brother's startling "cure by radio." "Tell you what, boys," he said. "You mail a post card to Dr Wightman back East there in Nebraska, and I'll bet he'll send it right along to Mr Stewart by radio!"
His two companions agreed that might be a good idea. They sent the postal card, and three days later there was a letter from Dr Wightman. He had relayed their message to Bob Stewart, received instructions for the men concerning arrangements for Janes's care and their own return to camp and forwarded the reply to them by mail.
The "cure by radio" and the "post card by radio" are now among the prime legends of the mountainous Colorado mining country.
The big ten-passenger Boeing bored steadily through the dust-blackened sky, its twin Hornets throbbing powerfully. Inside the dimly lighted cabin the long dashes of the radio beam punctuated the engine roar. The cheery tone of the beam was a comforting sound, for the Wyoming Airways transport was flying blind through the black, swirling muck of a raging dust storm that had closed down over all the mountain states.
Pilot Herbert Holloway held the ship steadily on its course, following the radio beam as it led them to North Platte, 150 miles away.
Beside him copilot Ray Bullock peered through the outer darkness. Suddenly he jabbed his forefinger in the general direction of the ground at the right.
"Lights down there," he shouted. "Know what place it is?"
"Not sure," Holloway replied, staring at his map. "On the route though."
"Hope so. Think we'll make North Platte all right?"
"Sure, if the gas holds out and the beam don't cut."
"Just our luck to have something like that happen," Bullock said glumly. "Everything else seems to have gone wrong on this flight so far."
"Don't talk like a fool," Holloway told him sharply. Both pilots became silent and they droned on through the night.
It was the Billings-Denver air mail they were flying on a route operated by the Wyoming Air Service. The first hop, from Billings to Caspar, Wyo., had been made in a single-motored Lockheed. It was uneventful enough. The trouble began after the mail and the one Billings passenger, David Lawrence, an investment broker from Denver, had been transferred to the Boeing at Caspar.
Besides Lawrence there was only one other passenger as they took the air at 5:35 P.M. He was R.W. Witt, a Caspar oil-company executive on his way to Denver.
Not long out of Caspar, the airplane had encountered stormy weather. Visibility was poor as they neared Cheyenne--so poor that the dispatcher there radioed instructions for them to continue on. The ceiling was too low for landing.
Shortly afterward the report came through from Denver. The storm was settling there, too, and by the time they were due to arrive officials agreed that a landing would be hazardous if not impossible.
Pilot Herb Holloway had shrugged his shoulders then and pulled open the door leading back to the passenger cabin. He stuck his head through the opening.
"Are you all comfortable back there?" he yelled.
The two passengers, looking lonely in the expanse of empty chairs, shouted back that they were all right.
Holloway slipped back into his seat. "Well, that means we go right on through to Denver, I guess," Holloway said. Bullock nodded agreement. They began to climb, and the plane banked and headed east.
"Where are we going now?" Ray asked.
"North Platte. Conditions there will be O.K.--I hope! We can follow the Omaha beam in."
"Two hundred miles east when we should be going south." Bullock shook his head glumly.
"Can't be helped," Holloway replied. "We've got to get this load down--and safe. North Platte's the nearest place we can get through."
"Well, I guess that's that."
Fleeing fog and wind and dust storm, they cruised steadily onward through overcast that blotted out sky above and earth below. The sharp, clean whistle of the radio beam was a beacon that led them straight along the sky path toward North Platte and Omaha. They met the blonding menace of the dust storm, but at first it did not concern them greatly.
Then the signal from the beam failed.
"Ray!" Holloway cried sharply. "The beam's cut out!"
The two pilots looked at each other in sudden alarm. Bullock swore viciously and grabbed for his headphones. He twisted the volume control on the beacon receiver, but there was no sound.
"Well," he said with forced lightness, "I guess we've got to keep our eyes open from now on."
Holloway's lips moved inaudibly under the motors' roar. Bullock turned to look again through the window into the swirling blackness outside. After a time he thought he saw a faint haze of light ahead. As they grew nearer the patch of light became distinguishable.
"Looks like another town," he told Holloway.
"Yeah?" Holloway dipped his wing and peered downward. "That's what it is, all right. Wonder what town it is?"
Both men studied the map before them. "Might be Sterling," Holloway said finally. "Off our course, but it comes closest to checking with our rate of speed and drift. Look--check with Denver on the two-way, will you?"
Then he straightened in his seat. "And while you're doing that I think we will take a look-see down there. Maybe we can find a spot to set her down. . . ."
Down below the inhabitants of the quiet little city of Sterling, Col., were going about their business oblivious of the taut drama being enacted in the air above them.
In a comfortable frame house in the residential section Allen Berkstresser, mathematics teacher at the Sterling High School, was sitting at the kitchen table in his home rewinding his fly-casting rod. The dust storm meant poor radio conditions, and fishing season was coming soon anyway. His small daughter looked on, eagerly plying him with questions.
Suddenly Berkstresser interrupted her flow of animated chatter. "What was that?" he asked, holding up a finger for silence. It was the sound of an airplane motor they heard, still some distance off but approaching rapidly. Nearer and nearer it came and then it roared past not far above.
"Must be that contractor from Greeley," Berkstresser decided, and resumed his winding. "He passes over every now and then. Flying pretty low tonight though."
But a few minutes later the noise of the airplane was heard again. They stepped out on the porch for a look. The plane was clearly visible, its wing lights glowing brightly, metal covering gleaming even in the smoky black of the dust storm.
"That's an airliner!" Berkstresser announced excitedly to his daughter. "Wonder if they're transmitting."
He ran back into the house and turned on his receiver, tuning to the aircraft band. One signal stood out louder than the rest; beyond doubt it was that of the ship overhead.
". . . might be Sterling, Colorado. Come in, please," a voice was saying through the transmitter.
Berkstresser turned the dial swiftly to the Denver ground station's frequency.
"There's an emergency landing field at Sterling, Flight Five. Do you think you can get down there?" the Denver operator inquired.
"Not a chance. No way to locate the field. No lights to get down by. Gasoline running short. Can you-----?"
Berkstresser shook his head. "He'll never make that little field!" he said. He listened to the rest of the report: no visibility, beam gone, two passengers aboard, off their course . . . Something had to be done.
Across the street in the auditorium Bandmaster L.E. Smith was drilling the high-school band in its final rehearsal before leaving for the state contest. The brassy strains of the horns came through the chill April air, and with them came an idea.
Smith was an amateur pilot--Sterling's "flying bandmaster," he was called. He would know what to do.
Berkstresser crossed the street to the auditorium and climbed up on the stage. Smith, seeing the anxiety on his face, waved the band to stop in the middle of its number.
"What's up?" he demanded.
Tersely Berstresser told the story. "What can we do?" he asked.
Smith rubbed the side of his head with his baton. Then his face became purposeful. "There's only one thing to do," he said. "Get as many cars as you can, go to the airport and head them all into the wind at the end of the runway with their headlights on."
"But that'll take a lot of cars, won't it?"
"A dozen or more should do it. Of course, the more the better."
"Thanks. That's just what I'll do!"
Berkstresser climbed into his car and headed out on the five-mile road to the airport. As he rode along he heard the fire siren sound, and by the time he arrived at the field he was only one of a caravan. Later he learned that Sheriff Ray Powell and Mayor Boggs, recognizing that the transport was in trouble, had left a card game to see what could be done. Sheriff Powell, too, had gone to Bandmaster Smith for suggestions and therefore knew about the plan to use automobile headlights for landing lights.
In an incredibly short time there were a hundred or more cars at the airport. As fast as they came they were lined up along the runway. Highway Patrolman Oldfield set flares to govern the parking of these cars and trained the searchlight of his own car on the wind sock atop the lone airport hangar.
All this time Flight Five had been circling endlessly around the town. Holloway saw no way of getting the ship down but he dared not leave the one lighted landmark. Once out in that Stygian blackness, and they would have no chance at all.
"Any idea what we can do now?" Bullock asked at last, unable to restrain himself longer.
"No," Holloway admitted. "I'm just stalling. Got to do something soon too. Our gas is getting low. Say, have you noticed that patch of light over there away from the edge of town?"
"Yeah, I have," Bullock answered. "Seems to be getting brighter. Wonder what it is?"
"Don't know, but we can go over and take a look. Haven't anything better to do anyway." He laughed mirthlessly.
The big transport wheeled around again and circled over to the growing patch of yellow light that was Sterling's airport. Dimly a faint sound came through the air as they drew nearer. Holloway cut the engines as they glided over the patch of light.
"Say!" Bullock cried excitedly. "Those auto horns! What the heck can it be? Sounds like a barbecue, but nobody'd have a barbecue on a night like this!"
Holloway pulled the ship up. "You're right--they don't," he said. There was a curious note in his voice. "I haven't got it quite figured out yet, but they're up to something down there. I'm going to take another circle around."
On the next turn around they stared intently toward the ground. They followed the steady stream of cars that flowed toward the airport and then they realized what was happening. Pilot Herb Holloway gave a shout of relief.
"Look!" he cried. "They're lighting the field for us!"
"Yeah," said Ray. "They've even got the wind sock lit up. Pretty smart, at that!"
It was 8:15 P.M. The two 525-horsepower Wright Cyclones were still grinding smoothly away, using the dwindling gas supply at a rate of seventy-fve gallons an hour. But that no longer mattered. The important thing now was to get down.
They circled the field twice more. Then Holloway decided to come in. The automobile headlamps showed the boundaries of the field, even though it was but little more than a luminous haze through the dust storm.
Somehow Holloway got the ship down. There was a fifteen-foot-high sand blowout near one edge of the field; he missed that, put the ship down in the rough sagebrush, jumped onto a north-south runway, ran over that into the rough again and then rolled onto the east-west runway. The ship leveled off nicely, coasting up toward the hangar straight into the blinding headlights of hundreds of automobiles. . . .
"It's a lucky thing Berkstresser picked us up when he did," Holloway later told the reporters who flocked to the field. "Our gas was low, and we were going to have to come down somewhere soon."
And as for their chances of making a safe landing while groping blindly in open country--well, as to that he couldn't say. He shrugged eloquently when the question was asked and in answer told again the story the way it did happen: how Flight Five with pilot, copilot and two passengers aboard had come smoothly down to the little emergency landing field outlined dimly through the choking clouds of dust by the headlights of nearly a thousand automobiles--"the first rescue of a distressed plane by civilians in the mountain states, the most unique rescue in aviation history."
The wild sea moans endlessly over the dunes of lonely San Nicolas Island out in the Pacific, seventy miles west of Los Angeles Harbor Light. It is the mournful accompaniment to all the happenings in the circumscribed lives of those who live on that barren island. It was the background against which four-months-old Edna Agee uttered feeble, poignant cries.
In a little home on the island the baby lay sick--dying. Hope beating against grim despair, its parents, Roy and Margaret Agee, sat waiting . . . waiting. . . . There was nothing more they could do.
For there was no doctor on the island, no medical aid nearer than the mainland. San Nicolas is inhabited only by a few ranchers; it is seldom visited by ships. There were no powerboats, no telephone to the mainland. There was only hope and prayer. . . .
Twilight came, and darkness, and still the feverish infant moaned weakly through stertorous breathing and clinched its tiny fists, eyes tightly closed over flushed, fevered cheeks. Word traveled around the tiny community that the baby was ill. Sheep ranchers gathered in the beating rain. They visited the Agee home and prayed that the fever might abate in the little body.
Word traveled even to the Coast Guard station where Lyman Elliott kept watch at his lonely outpost.
"Roy Agee's kid is dying," the herders said in tones that were dull and somehow bitter.
"Can't anything be done?" Elliott asked.
"Guess not," was the answer. "They should have a doctor, but------" Hands were thrown out, palms up; shrugging shoulders were eloquent with resignation.
Elliott pondered for a moment. "How long do you figure she's got? What I mean is, how soon would a doctor have to get there?"
No one knew. A few hours maybe. . . .
"You know, I might be able to do something about that," Lyman said thoughtfully, and he went inside.
They watched him sit down at his radio table. All the sheepmen knew what it was; they had seen Elliott unpack the shiny boxes with the meters and white engraved dials when he came on duty months before. One or two of them had even helped him run the long span of enameled copper wire from a two-by-four nailed to the roof peak over to a hook eye in the tall flagpole. They knew, too--mostly because their youngsters pestered Elliott with questions through the day and then repeated the answers at the supper table at home--that he was an amateur operator and that he could talk to Los Angeles and Denver and even Chicago--"when the wind was right," he told them.
They could guess when they saw him sit down to the key of his radio transmitter that he was going to contact the mainland. They couldn't be sure just what he was trying to do, but it would be something to help Baby Agee--that was certain. And they prayed that he would succeed.
"I sure hope the wind is right tonight," muttered a grizzled old sheepherder as he shuffled off in the rain.
And the wind was right that night. Elliott's urgent call to Los Angeles was answered almost at once by William Duframe of Redondo Beach. Duframe heard the tale and agreed to help. What could he do?
"Notify the Coast Guard," said Elliott. "Better tell the Los Angeles police too. Maybe they'll help."
But would they act on such a report casually telephoned in? Duframe was dubious. He decided to call first the Redondo Beach Police Department where he was known.
A burst of co-ordinated activity followed that clicked as though it were a carefully rehearsed sequence for a movie shot. Redondo Beach called the Coast Guard and the Los Angeles police. They cross-checked, and the pieces of the plan fell into place. Out to the home of Dr William Brown at 2017 West Seventy-ninth Street in Los Angeles sped an L.A. police cruiser. Warned by telephone, Dr Brown was waiting, his medical kit packed. The doctor jumped into the cruiser as it slid to a stop. The uniformed driver wheeled the car swiftly through traffic and set out for the harbor.
At the harbor Coast Guard Patrol Boat No. 259 was straining at its moorings, motor warmed up and idling. Dr Brown had the door open as the coupe skidded and slowed at the edge of the dock. Before it stopped moving he was out. "Good luck!" the patrolman shouted after him as the doctor ran toward the waiting cutter.
They sailed for San Nicolas Island, seventy miles away, at 11:30 P.M. Eight hours later as the sun shone through the fog and the low-scudding clouds the patrol boat hove to in the lee of the desolate island.
Through that long night Roy and Margaret Agee had waited in lonely vigil while their infant child fought for life. The baby had grown neither better nor worse; the flushed face, the deep, hard breathing had not changed. Now it was dawn.
As the patrol boat's tender grated on the shore willing hands helped Dr Brown to land. He hurried over the slippery rocks. In a few moments he was inside the high-boarded yard of the Agee home. He worked swiftly, surely.
The crisis came. When it passed the fever subsided. The flush face relaxed, and the breathing softened. It was not long before the doctor was able to pronounce the baby out of danger.
Little Edna Agee's life was saved. Amateur radio, a skillful physician--together they had cheated death again.