The Rocket’s Red Glare

By Marty P


Captain Hank Stanley tried to concentrate on the memos in front of him as he prepared to call roll but loud voices reverberating from the dayroom interfered. With clipboard in hand he went to investigate.

“It’s not my fault!” Chet Kelly insisted as he banged his empty cup on the kitchen table.

Johnny Gage sneered at him, “It is! If you hadn’t gone in first, I woulda won.”

Hank Stanly gazed toward Roy DeSoto, raised his eyebrows and sought revelation. “Got me, Cap. None of us have been enlightened yet.”

Mike Stoker lifted the aluminum pot off the stove and held a cup out to his superior. Just at that moment, Johnny threw up his hands in disgust, knocking the hot liquid and its container onto the floor. “Now look what you did!” The paramedic studied his work shirt for signs of damage.

“Gage, clean that up.” The steel in the captain’s voice boded no argument. As soon as Johnny had cleared everything away, the lineup began.

When they were dismissed, Johnny burst with the news as he and Roy readied their equipment for the day. “Roy, you aren’t gonna believe what Kelly did to me!”

“Now what?” Roy kept his thoughts to himself as he checked the battery level on the biocom.

Johnny pointed toward himself, the picture of innocence. “Now don’t be taking Chet’s side in this. It isn’t fair.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about and I’m not sure I want to know either.” Roy counted the number of IV kits they had on hand.

“I’m gonna tell you and you’ll see I’m right.” Johnny stomped his foot on the running board, hooked his elbow around the side mirror and dug in. “See, yesterday Chet and I tried out that new spaghetti joint over on Mariposa. I got a two for one coupon in the mail for an all-you-can-eat dinner and he was available.” He waited for Roy to interrupt him and then proceeded. “I just happened to suggest that I needed to buy some TV dinners. It was my idea and Chet went along with it.”

“And?” Roy prodded.

Johnny took his arm off the mirror and stuffed it in his pocket. “He had the gall to enter the grocery store first.”

“All this is about who went in first?” Roy thought women were hard enough to understand but bit his tongue before he expressed something he would regret.

“No, that wasn’t a big deal EXCEPT that he was the 100,000th customer! If he’d tagged after me I woulda gotten the prize.”

“Was there a sign posted about it?”

Johnny slipped his green pen out of his pocket and weighed it in his hand. “Well, no, but…”

“So you coulda been the 100,000th customer, for all you knew.” Roy added 4 x 4s to the supply list and latched the box.

Johnny frowned and chewed his lower lip. “That’s not the point!”

“Isn’t it? It could’ve been the woman behind you with the three children screaming in her cart.” Roy adjusted his belt buckle as he stood.

“Okay, I’ll give ya that but she wouldn’t have wanted the prize. It’s two nights and three days in Tijuana.” Johnny was still unwilling to forgive Chet. “I’ve been dying to go to Tijuana.”

Chet, who had just finished checking the house fund, appeared behind Johnny. “I know you wanna go. You’ve told me at least fifty times since last night.” He focused his attention on Roy. “I told him he could go with me, at least forty-nine times but that doesn’t seem to matter.”

“Wait a minute, Chet. When did you say that? Are you sure you said that?” Johnny blinked and opened his mouth to refute his remark.

The tones sounded. Squad 51. Unknown type rescue. 1919 East 215th  Street. Cross Street Water.

While the Captain acknowledged the call, the paramedics positioned themselves in the squad and left as soon as they had address. Minutes later they arrived at the scene. With equipment in hand they approached the home and overheard a young man. “Look, Dad. I didn’t mean to belt you but you can’t change my mind.”

“’Scuse, me.’ Roy uttered from the doorstep. “Did you call us?”

The boy’s mother flitted into the room. “I did. I thought they were going to kill each other.”

“Tina, why’d ya do that?” Her husband swiped at a small cut above his eyebrow.

With teary eyes, she spoke to the strangers in her home. “You don’t understand. He was bleeding and they were at each other’s throats!”

“I am not gonna let my son join the military. I know what that life is like!” The father’s face grew angry and forlorn.

“Dad, I’m not being drafted. I chose to enlist.” His son begged to be understood. “Look, I’m nineteen and I don’t need your permission but I wanted you to know.”

The paramedics of Station 51 placed their cases on the floor. “Did you want our services?” Roy asked politely.

“Let them take a look at you, Tom, please.” Tina gripped her husband’s arm.

Tom sank into a chair, tired of fighting the inevitable. While Roy got the vitals, Johnny checked his pupils and sought more information. “Any dizziness? Nausea? Blurred vision?” The victim gave him negative responses.

“All the vitals are normal, Johnny.” Roy stated as he returned the stethoscope back to the drug box.

Johnny pulled out a medical refusal form. “Sir, we don’t see a need for you to go to the hospital but we’d like you to have your personal physician check you over.”

The paramedics stowed their gear and headed back to the station. “Seemed like an unnecessary argument to me, Roy. After all the kid can join the military when he’s eighteen, his dad can’t stop him.”

“Well, sometimes we argue about inane things, Junior.” Roy left the words hanging out there.

“Are you saying I’m the one being pig-headed about this trip to Tijuana? Look, Roy.” He swiveled to make eye contact with his partner. His demeanor changed from the offensive to acceptance. “You know what? You’re right. I’m gonna tell Chet I’m going as soon as we get back.

Chet was at the stove, stirring a thick sauce. Johnny snatched a carrot coin and crunched it. “Chet, I’d like to go with you to Tijuana. When did you say it was?”

“July 2-4. I’ve been boning up on Tijuana. There’s bullfighting and historical sites to see.” Chet paused as Marco entered the room.

“Hey, Chet. There’re some terrific restaurants in Mexico and I could help you understand the language.”

Chet gave his buddy a sorrowful look, “Sorry, Pal. John changed his mind and wants to come after all.”

“Tell me again when this is Chet?” Johnny’s certainty wavered.

Chet slapped him on the shoulder. “Maybe you should have your hearing checked. It’s July 2-4.”

“Do you have to take it during those dates?” Johnny’s enthusiasm evaporated.

Chet pulled the sheet out of his pocket. “Says right here: non-refundable, non-negotiable. Now what?”

“It’s just that I hate to miss the 4th of July, it’s a special day.”

“We’re coming home on the 4th, that good enough for you?” The Irish firefighter slid the sliced carrots into the pot.

Captain Stanley interceded, “Gage, you’ve been harping all day about your frustration over this. I’m ordering you to go and perhaps we can focus on our duties now?”

“Yes sir.” Johnny took plates out of the cupboard and set them on the table.


Time sped by and soon they were traveling to Tijuana in John Gage’s Land Rover.

“Tell me again what the trip covers,” Johnny asked for the twentieth time.

Chet pulled the tattered page listing the conditions and read: “Transportation not included. Winner and a guest will receive lodging and a choice of two venues for entertainment. One supper included on July 2…”

“Okay, so we’re going fishing and to a rodeo, right?” Johnny moved into the right lane as the highway divided. “Man, traffic’s a bear today.”

Chet glanced over a brochure he’d procured from a travel agency. “Sure ya don’t wanna watch bullfighting?”

“I see enough blood at work and I don’t enjoy seeing animals suffer either. It’s not a sport to me.”

“Yeah, I agree. We’ll set things up when we get to the hotel.” Chet crunched on a bag of chips he’d bought at the 7-11.


It was late afternoon when they entered the arena to take in the rodeo. “Wonder how this will compare to rodeos in the states?” Johnny sank onto the red painted seat number as he squinted toward the sawdust in the center of the stadium.

Bulls were led toward a chute. “Hey, maybe there will be bullfighting after all!” Chet quipped.

“Naw, they’re getting ready for the bull riding. We’ll hafta watch to see which ones are buckers, hookers or spinners.”

“Sure we’re not talking about fishing?” Chet gave him a serious look.

Johnny pointed toward the first one as a rider positioned himself on top of it. “See, some bulls buck, others try to flip the rider over toward their horns and some of them act like a dog chasing its tail. The judges score the riders higher on the bulls that are tougher to stay on.”

“No kidding! There’s a difference?” Chet shaded his eyes as the first contestant took his ride. The bull circled left and then right, attempting to lose the weight atop him. At last, the rider slid off.

“That was a spinner. He should get a good score.” Johnny kept his attention on the next participant. When the animal charged out into the arena the rider sailed over his head. The outraged bull took after the body lying near him, until he was distracted by a costumed figure who appeared suddenly. “Glad they have a barrel man. He’ll protect the rider by getting the bull’s attention.”

“I’d call him a rodeo clown.” Chet focused on the scene in front of them.

Johnny waited until the downed man was out of danger. “Well, when they hide in a barrel, they’re called barrel men. They do a fantastic job protecting the contestants.”

“I think I’d rather fight fires. They’re more predictable.” Chet commented as the clown zigged and zagged in front of them.

Johnny sought refreshments as they changed the venue for competition. “They don’t have much here. All I could find was steak on a stick and it’s tough.” He jawed the muscle in his mouth.

“What are they doing now?” Chet noted the two horsemen positioning themselves at the corners.

Johnny saw a gate open. “Oh, it’s team roping. They’ll release a steer in a minute.”

The riders took off as soon as the cow was let go. One aimed for the rear legs while the other snapped his lariat over the horns. There was a delay before the time was recorded.

“What happened?” Chet leaned toward Johnny as several people behind them cheered.

“One of them forgot to dally. They have to wrap the rope around the saddle horn.”

Johnny was contemplative as they left the site. “Maybe I should pursue rodeo riding again. I’ve always been good with a rope.”

“I’ll stick to barbed wire. It’s safer.” Chet announced as they traipsed out onto the street.


The following morning the two Los Angeles County firefighters gobbled a fast breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and black coffee. Johnny pointed to the map. “You’re the navigator, Chet. We need to be at the boat by 0900.” Johnny parked near the dock at 0850. He gloried in the weather as he slammed the door shut. “Would ya look at that? See the few clouds in the sky and feel the faint breeze. Know what that means? It’s a perfect day for reeling them in!”

The boat owner took them out to a location ripe with fish. Three hours later Johnny poked at their catch. “Man, they’re never gonna believe this at the station.”

“Yeah, it’ll hafta be a fish tale cuz there’s no way those will survive until we show up at work.” Chet mourned with him.

Johnny stroked his chin. “You mean we hafta release them?”

“We don’t have a cooler and ice is scarcer in Mexico than a camel in a rain forest.” Chet commiserated with him.

They dumped their treasure just before they returned to shore. “That was painful, Chet.” Johnny stuffed their fishing paraphernalia into the back of his vehicle and adjusted his sunglasses. “Let’s go find some food. I’m starved.” He revved the engine and they reversed their directions, headed back to Tijuana.

They were halfway there when a dark-haired woman exited from a small building, shook a cloth and disappeared inside. Johnny was drawn to her appearance and slammed on the brakes. “What’d ya do that for?” Chet grumbled as he rubbed his right knee.

“Look,” Johnny saw a small sign. “It says Comensal ve Pepe.”

“So?” Chet questioned as Johnny parked on the patch of gravel.

Johnny ignored his friend and approached the doorway, sniffing. “I do believe we’re gonna eat here.”

“What’s so enticing about this place?” Chet asked with disbelief as he saw the dilapidated appearance of the building. Just then the dark-haired beauty came into view again. She was in her early twenties, wearing an outfit that reminded the Irishman of pictures he’d seen of gypsies. She wore leather sandals and walked with the ease of a dancer. “Okay, but watch what you order.”

The young woman had a soft voice with a strong accent. “Como se llama es Maria.” She led them inside and pointed to a chalkboard with faded writing.

“Guess that’s the menu.” Johnny muttered to himself, not understanding the bill of fare.

Chet studied the choices and picked sopa de verduras. After much contemplation Johnny selected ensalada, thinking that he would be served an enchilada. With the use of gestures, he asked for a soft drink as well. Johnny’s eyes followed the waitress as she moved around the room.

A short time later she came to their table with Chet’s vegetable soup and a salad for Johnny. She put Johnny’s beverage down, causing the ice in the glass to tinkle.

“Miss, I ordered a SALAD?” His loud voice startled her.

She came and gave him an inquisitive look, “Senor estas triste?”

“What’d she ask?” Johnny looked at his tablemate for a translation.

Chet shrugged his shoulders, “How should I know? I’m not Marco.”

“No, gracias.” Johnny smiled, speared the lettuce and began eating.

Chet scraped his spoon against the ceramic bowl. “Mine was good. You?”

“Not bad.” Johnny burped as he drained his glass. “I’d like to ask Maria out.”

“Oh, and what would you two talk about?” Chet saw her animation as she spoke to a young man who had just entered. “I think she’s taken.”

Johnny followed Chet’s sight, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Let’s go.”

It didn’t take long for them to reach their quaint hotel. It emulated the Spanish style with stucco walls, low eaves and wrought ironwork at the arched windows and gates. Chet called it Old Style when he heard the water creak through rusty pipes and saw the cracking walls when they crossed the doorstep into their room. The room had two twin beds with faded white textured chenille bedspreads and a sparse distressed dresser. A TV sat on top of it but when Johnny tested it the night before it crackled and fizzed.

“Chet, I’m feelin’ kinda empty. Let’s see what we can find around here.”

Next door was an eatery proclaiming the wonders of its fried chicken. They hoofed over there and using sign language, requested a plate of chicken with potatoes. The men were silent as they ate.

“Now whatcha wanna do, Johnny?” Chet leaned back on his chair and toyed with his fork.

Johnny rose from the table. “Let’s mosey and see what our choices are.” They strolled past several homes where mothers chided their small children who were chasing the chickens in the yard.

“Not much entertainment around here.” Chet viewed a garage that had closed for the night and a boarded up building. “Let’s go downtown.”

“Tell ya what. I’d like to change my shirt and then we’ll investigate.” Johnny stretched. “Let’s not stay out too late. I’m still hoping we have some time to celebrate the 4th after we get back.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Chet agreed as he settled into the lone chair sitting in the corner of the room. Johnny vanished into the bathroom. “Hey, you have a date you didn’t tell me about?”

“Think I’d tell you if I did?” Johnny buttoned the left cuff of his brown shirt and then tossed the other one on top of his luggage.

Chet twiddled his thumbs. “Probably not….until it was over. I just wondered why it’s so all fire important for you to get back home.”

“I don’t think you’d understand.” Johnny’s curt tone had its desired effect on his friend.

The two men ambled out to the Rover. As Johnny climbed into the driver’s seat he felt unsettled, like an amoeba was attacking his innards. “I’ll be right back.” Rushing into the bathroom, the sudden feeling of nausea erupted and Chet came into the room to hear him heaving.

“Hey, Johnny. You okay?” He called through the door. Too occupied to respond, Johnny didn’t answer. Chet paced in front of the door, trying to determine a course of action. Finally, the knob turned and Johnny exited, stumbling toward the bed. Chet flashed past him to whisk the opened suitcase off the surface.

Johnny lowered himself onto the cot. “Just lemme rest here for a few minutes and I’ll be fine.”

“Can I get you anything?” Chet noted the perspiration on his roommate’s upper lip.

Johnny grunted and rolled over. “No…thanks.” His eyes closed and he took slow, deep breaths.

“John? Ya feel up to going somewhere?” Chet spoke in a whisper. Johnny didn’t reply and after Chet assured himself that he was asleep he crept away. The sound of the door clicking shut roused the queasy paramedic.

While Chet was gone, Johnny spent more time in the bathroom being sick. Two hours elapsed before Chet returned. His eyes bulged when he saw Johnny’s appearance. “Man! You look like you lost ten pounds! Are you all right?”

“I’ve been better.” Johnny forced his eyes to focus on Chet. “How are you?”

“Just fine,” Chet stood up straight. “What do you think it is?”

“Well, if you’re okay. It was probably something I ate.” Johnny said in a weak voice.

Chet hesitated, “Oh, ya mean the salad?”

“Could be. It’ll probably pass pretty soon.” Johnny’s face paled as he rushed to the powder room.

Chet had his reservations. “I’ll be right back.” He went in search of a drugstore that might be open to no avail. He purchased several bottles of root beer at a bar and brought them to the room. He let himself in and tiptoed toward Johnny who was looking at the ceiling with weary eyes.

“Want a root beer? It might help.” Chet acted hopeful.

Johnny moved at a crawl. “I guess I could try a little.” Chet checked the room for a bottle opener and spotted one attached to the doorframe. He popped the lid and carried it over to Johnny.

“Try sipping.” Chet recommended, alarmed at the warmth he felt radiating from Johnny’s skin when he helped him sit up. Johnny swallowed the tepid liquid and lay back. Within five minutes his body was berating him for ingesting the liquid.

Chet kept a vigil during the night as Johnny worsened. “Chet, let’s go home.” Johnny begged when the sun glinted in through the drapes.

“Is that a good idea?” Chet wondered aloud. “I mean, I could try to find a doctor for you.”

“I don’t want a doctor. I can take care of myself.” Johnny was breathless after forcing out the words.

Chet packed up the auto, debating over whether he was making the right decision. He did his best to provide a smooth ride for Johnny but it was bumper to bumper traffic and they inched along. At Johnny’s bidding they stopped in San Diego and Oceanside. Chet still kept his eyes peeled for an open pharmacy but they had closed for the holiday. “Chet, are we almost there?” Johnny asked as they approached Long Beach.

“We’re closer. John, I hate to say this but you look worse.” Chet decided to bypass his apartment and take him directly to Rampart.

Johnny’s eyelids fluttered and he waved toward Chet. “I’m too tired to prove you wrong. What time is it?”

“Almost 1:00.” Chet informed him.

Johnny’s lips curved upward. “Good, I should make it then.”

“Glad to hear it.” Chet checked the side mirror. “Make it to what?”

Johnny clenched his teeth. “Stop. Now.”

Chet barreled to the next exit and located a filling station. Johnny shot out of the car but needed Chet’s assistance when he was finished. The ailing paramedic gaped when Chet neglected to turn off at his street. “Wait a minute. Where…” Realization overcame him.

“I don’t wanna go to Rampart.”

“I’m driving and this is where we’re going. Ya gonna walk home from there?” Chet saw an empty space near the Emergency entrance and snatched it. He circled the Rover and gave Johnny support.

There was a lull in the ER as they had just treated victims of a multi-car accident. Dixie was at the charge desk, charting. “May I help you?” She recognized Johnny and flew into action. Dr. Brackett was leaving his office and almost bumped into Chet.

“Four’s ready.” Dixie held the door open while Johnny was led in.

Chet gave his report. “I think he has food poisoning. Hit him last night around 8:00. He’s just been getting worse.”

“I wanna go home.” Johnny disagreed. “I’m not that bad.”

“You’re here and we’re going to check you out.” Kel Brackett told him as Dixie got vitals.

Dixie reeled off the numbers, “BP is 100/68, respirations are 16 and shallow and respirations are 112.” She fastened a tourniquet around his arm. “I’ll get a redtop and send it to the lab.”

“Start an IV with D5W, too.” The doctor continued his examination. “Johnny, you’re pretty dehydrated. I want to admit you until your electrolytes are back in balance and you can eat again.”

“You mean I’ll be here overnight?” Johnny protested. “Couldn’t you let me go in a few hours?”

“Now what would you tell one of your patients if they wanted to leave too soon?” Dixie cajoled him.

Johnny rolled his head away from her. “That’s not fair. I just want to see fireworks tonight.”

“What’s the big deal with that?” Chet rolled his eyes. “They’ll be around next year.”

“Forget it.” Johnny clammed up and flinched when Dixie started his IV.

Now that Johnny was in good hands, Chet backed toward the door. “Call me when you’re released and I’ll drive your Rover over. Hope ya feel better soon.”

Johnny was admitted and soon felt stronger. They brought him a supper tray with soft foods. Placed next to his fork was a tiny American flag attached to a toothpick. He was twirling it between his thumb and forefinger when Dixie came by. “How ya doin’, Johnny?”

“I’m better. Now can ya help me get out of here?” Johnny scooted up in bed and rested his head on the pillow.

Dixie took the tray off his bedside table. “Now you know you’re not ready to go home yet. What’s the big rush?”

“Dix, can ya see fireworks from any of the windows at Rampart?” Johnny had a wistful look on his face.

The head nurse thought for a moment, “Yeah, there’s a pretty good view from the lounge on the 6th floor. Would you like me to take you there to watch?”

“Could ya?” Johnny appeared relieved, and reached to squeeze her hand.

Seeing the time she sailed off. “Get some rest between now and then.”


Johnny dozed and kept an eye on the clock. At 9:30 he heard the sound of a wheelchair in the hall. “Taxi service for John Gage.” Dixie proclaimed with a grin. She guided Johnny into the chair and took him to the lounge and the show began several minutes after they reached their destination.

“Johnny, why the obsession with fireworks? You know how dangerous they are.” Her words were punctuated by a colorful missile erupting into shades of amber and goldenrod outside the window.

Johnny shifted his weight in the wheelchair. “It’s kinda hard to explain. There was one 4th of July that a veteran of World War II described D-Day and he told us as they fought the battle he kept thinking of why he was there defending our freedom. As he struggled to survive, the words of our National Anthem kept cycling through his brain. The fireworks evoke his memory of that time. I promised myself from then on I would watch the fireworks every 4th to honor him and all those who went before us to shape and defend the America we have today.”

The weight of her hand on his shoulder conveyed her understanding. “I saw men willing to die for the values the United States holds dear.”

They remained silent, lost in their own thoughts. At last, Dixie transported Johnny back to his room. She made sure he was comfortable and prepared to leave. “Hey, Dix? Let’s get together next year and celebrate the 4th.”

“I’d like to do that, Johnny but let’s not do it at Rampart, okay?”



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