ANSWERING THE CALL
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"This is International Rescue receiving your call. Go ahead, please..."
"Ummm...yeah...International Rescue? Ummm...have you got Prince Albert in a can?"
"That was an old one when my Great-Great Grandmother was a girl. We're an emergency rescue organization, and these bandwidths need to remain free for people who really need help. So...knock it off, already! International Rescue: OUT."
It's been that kind of night, full of annoying calls from drunken frat boys who didn't get to go home to a loving family for the Christmas holidays. I guess I should not only feel for them but relate to their plight, for I'm much in the same predicament. As the space monitor for International Rescue, I spend the majority of every year caged aboard this large, obscured satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth. Far below, the rest of my family—the Tracy clan—is decorating, cooking and wrapping holiday gifts in wait of tomorrow's festivities. I can smell Grandma's mince pies all the way up here, just as I hear her voice in my head saying 'These are Johnny's favorites!' She's right: they always gave Grandma's house that one special scent that screams CHRISTMAS! I miss them, and I miss her, and suddenly I realize how very far from home I am. And it hurts.
"'Allo? Allo? C'est La Organisation International Delivrance, c'est vrai?" calls out a young female voice. Hmmm...haven't handled a call in French in a while; hope I've still got my tongue!
"Mais ouis, Mademoiselle," I reply, and I hear that common sigh which means she's assured of help. After listening to a rambling inquiry, I realize that the 'person' in need of assistance is the young lady's cat which has climbed up a tree. I gently but firmly advise her that International Rescue is NOT the entity to call for such troubles and direct her to call the local fire department. She's agreeable and promises not to test her brothers' brand new walkie-talkie set to reach me again.
"Merci! Adieu! Joyeux Noel, Monsieur!" she calls out to me before ending the call. My head hurts.
"Calling International Rescue! Help!"
"International Rescue receiving your call. Go ahead, please."
"My friend...he was outside in the storm...and now he's trapped in the viaduct. You gotta send some help...fast!"
"Have you contacted your fire department or local search and rescue organization? They would be the first line of help in your area."
"I don't understand, mister," the young man replies, hesitating as if he's getting information from someone behind him. At least it sounds as if he's pausing to listen to something or someone else.
"What is it you don't understand?" I ask, concerned about the delay in information from him. After all, his friend could be drowning out there.
"I understand why you want me to call Search And Rescue...but I don't understand...vhy a duck! Haaaaaaaaaa!" Then the connection goes dead from his end. Funny, I think the Marx Brothers' jokes are really great...except when used on me!
A few moments go by while I wait for my pride to return. Soon the redness leaves my cheeks and my thoughts turn elsewhere. If I were still a little kid, I'd be over at the wide window which looks down on the Earth, my nose pressed to the triple fortified glass as I gaze down on the world and search for Santa and his sleigh gliding from the North Pole on his visit to gift the good children around the globe. I've been a good boy, too, doing as my father wants and helping out a great many people in the process. But Santa and his reindeer don't make space calls, and he and my family will all forget about John-in-the-tin-can-in-outer space tonight.
I head for the kitchen and pop a bag of microwave popcorn. Hey, it's not Grandma's yummy glazed ham and all the trimmings, but it's about the best I'm going to get for a Christmas Eve dinner without going to the trouble of cooking a meal for myself. The kitchen is well stocked and all, but why go to all that trouble just for me. Nah...just a bag of popcorn and a lemonade and I guess I'll be tired enough to turn down the lights and go to sleep. It has become sort of a nightly ritual for me, at least when there's no emergency operation going on or I'm not up in the observation tower viewing the stars. An old movie...a bag of popcorn...read part of a book until I fall asleep. Day after day, night after night...it's all the same to me. Tomorrow's Christmas Day, but it's really just another day up here. Sometimes I think Dad put me up here to punish me.
"'Ello...?" The voice is elderly, sort of English sounding, and thankfully it's not likely to be the same frat goof balls again. One more of those calls and I'm going to forget my manners.
"'Ello there...International Rescue, please? Can you hear me?"
"Yes, you've reached International Rescue, ma'am. How may I help you, please?" The faltering voice pipes up in a new confidence, and I can hear her speaking to others in the background.
"It's HIM! I'm sure it's the same one! You're the one..." Hmmm...another weird call. The proximity to New Year's must bring it out in them. I start to prepare in my head my 'please don't call if it's not an emergency' schpiel, but before I can open my mouth, the voice continues.
"This is Sister Marie Clare at the Saint George Anglican Orphan's Home, in Belize," she states in her fluid, tropics-influenced tone. "You sent some very nice gentlemen to assist us when that fire burned through the forest and cut us off from the city...you know, back in June. If those young men hadn't come to cut a fire break and rescue the children...well, I shudder to think of what would have happened!"
"Yes, Sister, I remember you and the situation with the fire," I reply, automatically trying to piece the information she's given into useful bits I can start to use to bring up maps and data that Father will need to begin a rescue attempt. That is part of what I do on every call that comes in. Time is of the essence when there's an emergency, and I'm responsible for pinpointing whatever area my brothers are going to be sent into to aid those in danger.
"What's the trouble, Sister? I thought the government was going to create a permanent break to protect you folks out there," I ask her as I key in information on a panel before me which accesses maps and geographic guides. Boy, are the guys going to be angry at me for messing up their Christmas if I call this in to Father. I'll sure hear about it when I finally get home...and the language will be rough!
"Trouble? Oh there's no trouble, child! Dear me, no! All the children are safe and sound and looking forward to Father Christmas' visit," Sister Marie Clare states emphatically.
"Errr...then why the call, then, Sister?" I ask, not really annoyed but more curious than anything. The nuns I grew up with never played practical jokes, and no way would those frat boys know about the fire in Belize last summer. Weirdness.
A few words to others around her and Sister Marie Clare came back to her handset. "Well, you see, young man...wait—what is your name, son?"
Startled, I hesitate but reply, "John...my name is John, Sister." No security breech there: Anybody's name could be John, and I know my brothers give their first names during rescues sometimes.
"Oh...like Saint John The Divine!" she chirps joyfully.
"I'd hardly think so," I say to myself automatically. Other than my mom or grandmother, no one would think of me as saintly. "I suppose that would have been nice, Sister, at least in my mother's mind, but my dad insists that he named me for the astronaut John Glenn and he always got his way where that's concerned with me and my siblings," I reply rather meekly to her.
"Well, John," she continues, "I was pretty upset that day. It was hard to keep my head with the children screaming and the soot rising and all. And all the time I was trying to cope with the situation, there you were—this dear, patient stranger with a kind and caring voice, asking me if the children were all right and making sure I kept my head. You were so thoughtful and concerned; I could hear it in your voice. You even called me back the next day to make sure of what the damages had been. And do you know what? We received a very generous donation forwarded to us through the Tracy Industries Foundation in the United States—that big aerospace company—which paid for all the repairs and even allowed us to add to our programs to help the children. At first I didn't know how someone so far away would know about our poor little orphanage and our troubles, but it's my guess that you were responsible for that! Bless you, child. Well, the children and I just wanted to say 'thank you' to your organization for helping us. And I wanted to say a special 'thank you' to you for helping an old woman...errrr...'keep her cool,' as you young ones say!"
"Sister...well, I...it was so kind of you to call," I stammered. "I'm very grateful and I'm glad to know that you and the children are happy and well. That's wonderful news."
"Are the other members of your group with you, John?" she asks, curiously.
"Ummm, no Sister. I'm...alone here." I don't know why I told her that. I always follow Father's rules about not divulging proprietary information about the organization...but no way would I lie to a nun! You can go to the hot place for lying to nuns!
"They left you all alone, child...on Christmas Eve?" she says incredulously. "Is there another emergency somewhere?"
I cringe and hazard a response. "Errr...no Sister," I reply, "That's just the way it is. Everyone else is on a base where they await an alert from me about someone in need of our help. We're a bit like a fire department, in our way. It's my job to maintain a vigil, listening for anyone in peril who is trying to reach International Rescue, but it's a one-man operation, I'm afraid."
"I see," she responds softly. "Just as the wise men maintained a vigil, waiting to see where the star came to rest so that they could go in search of the baby born to Mary. Well, we understand you must keep to your vigil, but the children wanted to give a gift to you to thank you for sending help to them. Now they will know that you are liken to that of an angel, one who watches over us and looks out for those in danger."
Before I can downplay the saintly view she seems to have of me, I hear her directing the children by counting to four. Suddenly, a choir of angelic voices begin to sing Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy,' just as clear and bright as a Tracy Island Christmas morning. I record all incoming calls habitually so as to make sure I don't miss any details, so thankfully I'll be able to play this back to my family back home. Father, Grandma and all the boys will really get a charge out of this.
I listen and quietly hum along, remembering when I sang the same piece in the church choir when I was a little boy. I remember my mother's beaming smile as she sat in the audience and watched my brothers' school Christmas plays and cantatas. I wish my dad had had the chance to see those, but back then he was always on the Moon or somewhere else just as remote. For the first time in my life, I realize that, like me up here in the satellite, Father would much rather have been at home with his wife and small sons on all those holidays he spent building a space station on the Moon or whatever else he was doing. I guess he felt just as cut off from his loved ones as I do now. Somehow, that makes me feel closer to him, in a way I have never felt before, and maybe I can be more understanding of him, too.
As the children finish singing, I thank them through Sister Marie Clare and wish them all a Merry Christmas. "You have a Merry Christmas too, John," she replies. "You know, some of the children think they are too old to believe in Santa Claus, but the little ones think that you know him. Having received that donation which helped us so much, I am convinced that you do. You will thank Santa—well, that nice donor for us, won't you? He must be a very good and caring man."
I think about the man who provided for the repair of the orphanage, the man who provides for all of this equipment around me and who is the heart and soul of our rescue organization and I smile. Yes, Father is a very good man and I am so lucky to be part of this dream of his.
"Yes, Sister," I reply, "I'll make sure that he hears the children and I'll be sure to thank him...from all of us."