EMA on the grog

October 20, 2007 at 4:49 am (Short Story) ()

EMA on the grog 

            It was in the Sepik District of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea within sight of Mt Turu that Jim Kelly, European Medical Assistant, was camped in a village near the patrol post of Yangoru. He had just got out of bed and was listening to the ABC news on a portable wireless. The news was full of the Cuban Missile Crisis and what Kennedy and Khrushchev would do. At the time Jim could identify with any crisis as he was going through his own crisis; he badly needed a drink.

            He thought to himself what a fool he had been not to have secretly planted a bottle of whisky in his patrol box, to tide him over the next day or so. Apart from coordinating a smallpox vaccination campaign in the area, he had been expressly sent on patrol by the Medical Officer in Maprik to ‘dry out’. The officer said to him: “Jim, this is your last chance. Any more boozing on the job and I’ll have to report you to the Regional Medical Officer. Anyhow, your behaviour is not fair on Marge.” Marge was his long-suffering wife who was also the District Nurse.

            Kelly first came to New Guinea during the War with the army as a medic and after the cessation of hostilities, he joined the Health Department as a Medical Assistant with the Civil Administration. He was for a number of years highly regarded in the Territory for his medical work. In the Highlands he did ground-breaking work in treating leprosy in the Tari area. He was put in charge of the native hospital at Telefomin after the murders of Patrol Officers Szarka and Harris. He had also enhanced his position with the Health Department by marrying Marge, a trained nurse. She found ready employment and for a period, kept him on the straight and narrow. Jim needed this as his drinking had increasingly become a problem He was becoming a bottle-a-day man with an increasing inability to hide it. For years his redeeming qualities were that he always fronted up for work immaculately dressed and did not, as a rule, drink on patrol.

            He noticed that his hands were unsteady as he tried to drink a cup of tea before starting the day’s work. He thought to himself, “Thank god I’ve got good doktaboi”, native medical orderlies. His work really only consisted of sending them out to the surrounding villages with medical supplies to do the vaccinations while he  stayed at the village, where he was now,  carried out some medical examinations in a quiet and unruffled way, and hoped his craving for a drink would abate. If the going got too much, he could always get the driver of his Land Rover to take him to the nearby patrol post and cadge a drink from the patrol officers. He didn’t want to do this, if he could avoid it, as he was not keen that word should get back to Maprik that he was hanging around the patrol post.

            After issuing instructions to the medical orderlies; Luke from Manus, Tobis from the Middle Sepik and John from Rabaul, Kelly sang out for his mankimasta, his domestic servant, to bring him another cup of tea. The cup of tea put him in a better frame of mind and he was about to start a medical examination of a group of natives, when an out of breath and agitated villager informed him in garbled Pidgin and English that a plane had crashed some distance away towards Mt Turu, with the death of all on board.

            Kelly swung into action and sent his driver and Land Rover with a note to the patrol post stating that he intended to walk immediately to the crash site and render what assistance he could if there were survivors. The site was only accessible by foot through the jungle. He packed a patrol box with essential medical supplies and arranged carriers from the village.

            The purpose and dynamism that Kelly now displayed was nothing short of miraculous. In his eagerness to get moving, his craving for drink abated and he concentrated on the task at hand.

            The walk to the crash site took a good two hours, some of which was through dense jungle. On his way there, Kelly thought to himself, “I wish Marge could see me now.” He knew that he was at times a terrible embarrassment to her with his drinking, guests arriving at their house to find him in a drunken sleep on a chair and awaking hours after just as they were about to leave. Marge once said to a young visiting doctor, “I would rather have anything than an alcoholic husband, even a philandering one would be far better.” It was now years since he had had any physical relationship with Marge. His boozing had virtually made him impotent. He knew that drink had often made him ineffective in his medical work. This at times had led to dire consequences. European Medical Assistants, at this time in the Territory, were very often the only medical help available. He thought of a botched birth delivery he had done while stationed in Dreikikir. This was all because of his inebriated state at the time. Kelly was very conscious, as it were, of letting the side down and this only made him drink more. His life seemed to him full of pride and shame. He was proud of his Irish descent and he spoke with pride of visiting his father’s relations in Dublin. Drinking in a pub just off O’Connell Street with a distant relative, a man came up to the relative and said, referring to Jim, “What’s that Englishman doing in the bar?” Whereupon the relative said, “That’s no Englishman but the son of Daniel Kelly visiting from Australia.”

            All these thoughts were going through his mind as the team moved towards the crash site. When they came upon the plane, Jim saw that the fuselage was more or less intact. One wing had been severed. There were four people on board. The two natives behind the cockpit were both dead. In the front, the passenger, a white woman, was dead and still strapped to her seat. The pilot was just outside the plane lying on his back and obviously very seriously injured. Both his legs were broken and he was suffering with extensive internal injuries, but he was still conscious and able to converse. Jim immediately recognized him. He was Fr Pat Ryan, an Irish priest with the Mission in Wewak. Before entering the priesthood, Fr Ryan had been a pilot with Aer Lingus and for the past year had been flying Catholic Mission planes.

             “Don’t worry, Father we’ll have you as right as rain in no time,” Jim said, making him as comfortable as possible and giving him a shot of morphia. In spite of being conscious, Jim could see that he was not going to last long. “Ah, Jim, it’s good to see you and how fitting for one Irishman to see another into the next world.” “Don’t worry, Father, you just settle down.” In a short time the morphia started to work and Fr Ryan’s pain somewhat abated, but he was still intent on talking. “I did my best to avoid any villages. There was just nothing I could do. There must have been a blockage in the fuel line. I tried the auxiliary tank but it would just not come into play. These bloody single-engine Dorniers.” On saying this, he went into rapid decline and he just managed to say to Jim:”Let’s say the Our Father.” They started the prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be…” He lost consciousness, Jim held his hand and finished the Lord’s prayer. Fr Ryan then died.

 Just as this happened, two patrol officers arrived from Yangoru. Arrangements were made to remove the bodies and secure the site for the Civil Aviation Department investigation that would follow.

            Jim returned to his camp still in a state of heightened motivation but also with an anticlimactic sense of, “Oh, well, so what.” He told himself that he had done all he could for Fr Ryan but he could not deny that his death had profoundly affected him Death was nothing new to Jim but the appropriateness of the good priest’s words of one Irishman seeing another into the next world and the dimension and refuge implied in the Lord’s prayer in some strange way gave him comfort.

            Kelly was born a Catholic but as an adult had not practised. In the terminology of the day, he had married Marge outside the Church in a Protestant ceremony but like most lapsed Catholics of his generation, he was not entirely comfortable outside the Church.

            The patrol officers from Yangoru had asked Jim to join them back at the station for a few drinks. “Damn it”, he said to himself. “I need a drink.” But for some reason, before leaving, Jim got down on his knees and prayed:”Help me Lord, I’m powerless.” He did not go to Yangoru for drinks and a fortnight later returned to Maprik. Word soon got around that Kelly was no longer drinking. 

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