Still on two week National Guard duty at Phelps Collins Air Base in the 1960’s, I was a lowly Airman Second Class manning our medical infirmary late at night. Sometime after ten o’clock, with the outside floodlight casting a harsh glare over the parking lot, several cars pulled up. Anyone arriving that late could only mean trouble, and I wasn’t due to be relieved for hours. A flight-line officer stepped inside, somehow looking a little sheepish.
I stood and saluted. “Yes, sir; what can I do for you?” He seemed hesitant and stood leaning against the door frame, appearing disconcerted instead of seeking care. Then it struck me. He was, in fact, drunk as a skunk.
“Hmm. Is a doctor in, Airman Reed? We have someone outside who damaged himself.” “Damaged himself”? Was this “officer-talk” or perhaps something more serious like a self-inflicted wound? What was going on? He arranged a lopsided grin and continued, “Ya see, he was ridin’ his motorcycle through the barracks”. He stopped, trying to think of another way of saying it, but gave up. “He hit a bunk-bed and crashed.” He stopped again, to see if the story was registering, but thought better of it.
I stared at him, dumbstruck, amused. Was this what officers did with their free time? I was curious but could only blurt, “Through the barracks? A bunkbed? Crashed.” Should I write any of this in the log book so it could be reviewed later? “So how fast was he going? Is he hurt? How badly? Is anyone else hurt? Who else have you notified?” was all I could get out.
A second officer appeared, adding, “Yeah, ya see, the bike fell over on him after he hit a wall after he hit the bunk bed, an’ he’s not feelin’ too good. Nah, nobody else got hurt. Too much.” They both stood there like I might make it all better.
“OK, but if he’s out in the parking lot, you better bring him in here. I’ll wake Doc Cooper and start making out an accident report.”
“Accident report? What accident report? Is that really necessary?” They took a few steps, realizing the entire incident was about to be officially recorded. I could only suppose upper command normally took a dim view of drunken motorcycle riding through barracks resulting in crashes and injuries. He and his pal hadn’t had time to come up with a better story, so I left them to ponder.
After rousing our doctor, I returned to find Captain Motorcycle supported by both arms and one good leg in the anteroom. The remaining limb was oddly twisted. He lay on the couch, moaning, while more officers arrived, milling about, trying to maintain solemn faces. Doc Cooper arrived, yawning and scratching, accompanied by Senior Master Sergeant Joe Polak.
After a brief examination of the offending leg, Doc observed “Well son, you’ve got a broken leg and a torn rib cartilage.” Everyone seemed surprised at the news, as if anticipating a different verdict. How could this be? In the harsh light of an overhead light bulb, the evening was suddenly less fun. “This man has to be taken to Wurtsmith. I don’t have the facilities here. You might as well start the paperwork.”
Wurtsmith United States Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan, fifty miles south, had one of the few military hospitals in Michigan. Since the accident occurred while this officer was on active duty, it was about to become a lot more official than a National Guard infirmary could handle. The same thought suddenly occurred to our inebriated Captain Motorcycle.
“But I can’t have a broken leg.” he wailed. “I have to be at work next week. I’m only an insurance salesman,” he protested. “My boss’ll never unner stan’.”
Doc Cooper was all business. “Look, young man. No matter how much you argue, you still have a broken leg. It needs X-rays and proper setting.” He turned to me. “Put him in the blue ambulance, the Pontiac.” He thought for a minute. “They won’t let anyone onto the base unless the driver, at least, is in uniform, with active duty orders.”
Joe glanced at me. “Reed’s the only guy here who still has a copy of his orders and wearing a uniform at this time of night. Guess who gets to drive to Oscoda?”
Doc said, “He can’t sit in the passenger seat. He has to ride on his back in the stretcher with one of his friends up front with you driving. Here’s the paperwork and my number here. I’m going to bed. Have fun and report back in the morning.”
I went out and backed the ambulance around to the infirmary door to pick up our new passenger. Captain Motorcycle’s buddies picked him up, still protesting, maneuvering him into the parking lot. We opened the back of the ambulance, extracted a complicated chrome-plated stretcher, and unfolded it before spreading a clean sheet over it. His friends helped strap him down and it took four of us to maneuver him inside and more time to latch it in place so it wouldn’t roll around once we began moving.
It was now after eleven and we were ready to start. I had a massive headache and it was an hour drive south on a northern Michigan two-lane blacktop, not to mention all the paperwork I might face. Remaining well-wishers crowded around, and I started the engine. One of Captain Motorcycle’s less-inebriated friends said he would ride with us.
Then a small voice was heard. “Hey, fellas. Let me outta here. I gotta pee.” I shut the engine off and got out. Everybody helped unlatched the stretcher and get him outside. It was going to be difficult un-strapping him, getting him back into the infirmary restroom, and then reverse the entire process. After some discussion, it was decided to carry him around a corner of the building, still strapped in the stretcher, lean him against the infirmary wall and tilt him forward to do his business.
One of his friends thoughtfully observed, “One of us has to unzip him and get it out so he can go. Who’s going to do it?”
There was a moment’s silence before another piped up, “Look, I’m his best friend, so I’ll unzip him, but there’s no way I’m doing anything else down there. I’m not that good a friend.”
Captain Motorcycle spoke up. “Guys, I can’ hold it mush longer. Get a han’ free an’ I’ll take care of it. But, hurry up!”
Everybody inspected the night-time sky and parking lot gravel for a few minutes, before reassembling patient and stretcher in the ambulance. I drove toward Alpena, hurtling down U.S. 23 a little over the speed limit with the roof-mounted red light turned off, since it would only add to the evening to be stopped by a curious Michigan State Policeman.
Captain Motorcycle had sunk into silence, and I knew his officer-friend was working desperately to come up with a story for Wurtsmith. There wasn’t much traffic and we flew down through Black River and Alcona approaching Harrisville. Everything was going to plan except officer-passenger wanted to turn on the flashing red emergency light and siren every once in a while to see what it was like.
That was before he spotted a distant late-night roadside tavern with all its lights on. He turned around and asked, “Hey, Buck. You wan’ some more beer? This might be the las’ one for a while.” With an affirmative grunt, I was ordered to pull over and wait in the ambulance while he returned with a six pack. Before I was back on the road, they were opening and downing as many as they could.
Soon nearing Wurtsmith’s entrance, I was offered one of the last cans, but politely declined, thinking at least one of us should be sober. Especially myself, the driver, since I assumed the United States Air Force looked even less kindly than Michigan State Police upon inebriated ambulance drivers. The Air Policeman manning the entrance couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but my active duty orders were accepted and we found our way to the base hospital. After finally depositing two drunk and one damaged officer long after midnight, I realized Summer Camp was over for Captain Motorcycle-Insurance Salesman, and I had a long drive back to Phelps Collins with only a six-pack of empty Miller cans for company.