Author– Sid Stevens
War of Words Winner
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/sid.stevens
“Repeat” hissed Shikhar at the bartender and thumped his glass on the table that had been refilled with scotch a few seconds ago, for the third time. The man must have been barely thirty with crew-cut hair and a solid jaw. Tense lines marked the forehead of an otherwise pleasant face, but then today was not about smiles. He had just returned from the hospital after losing a man – well almost losing him. His hopes fluttered by a very narrow thread of hope and there seemed to be no respite to his troubled mind. The only distraction from misery being the ticking of his chronograph Fossil on his wrist which he kept staring at every few minutes. “….What is going to happen to him. If only I hadn’t wasted that time, his life would have been safe….” he cursed himself under his breath and took a deep gulp.
“Rough day Major!” came to a familiar voice as the stool beside Shikhar was pulled back. He looked up and an expression of relief sobered his troubled face, momentarily.
“Damn it, Sagar. Not now please.” scorned Shikhar.
Sagar and Shikhar were old friends and batchmates from the academy and presently served the in same Army unit based in Northeast. Both proudly wore the rank of Major on shoulders and aviators wings on their chest in uniforms – the elite the few. Any given day, a stranger observing them could have easily taken them for brothers – joking, playing or even drunk karaoking in the bar. But today was different and Shikhar shared no hint of merriment.
“I’ll have my usual” Sagar signalled to the barman and settled besides Shikhar.
“Could you at least tell me what the hell happened out there” he inquired, but no reply.
It was a mutually agreed no-nosing policy that the two of them shared and thus silence prevailed between the two.
“Fine. I’ll wait then,” said Sagar picking up his scotch glass and took a long swig.
It was a routine day at their unit when Shikhar was informed about a patient who needed immediate airlift to a hospital. A soldier at a far-flung unit had suffered from heart stroke and needed immediate medical attention. The hilly terrain and dense vegetation in the Northeastern parts of the country cut off places from the civilized world and the facilities that come with it. It was a day’s walk to the nearest road followed by three days of road travel to reach the nearest hospital with requisite medical facilities to save the lad’s life – too far for the available time. Situations like these are not uncommon and call for casualty evacuation by air. Airlift by helicopters is the only option in those valleys to reduce that time to a few hours. The merciless terrain with meandering narrow valleys and high hills requires exceptional piloting skills and accurate navigation.
Shikhar was an enthusiastic pilot blessed with the skill which came naturally to him. “…The day you save a life is a day you do justice to what you were born for…” he’d always say. The moment he got the news, he was all pumped up and ready to go. Within half an hour of being tasked, he fired up his chopper along with his co-pilot -Aryan. Forty-five minutes of flying into the valleys and they had finally reached the pickup point.
The daunting task was no joke and Shikhar’s heart skipped a beat. Old memories flooded past as he firmed his grip on the controls. It was an extremely narrow valley with the river flowing at the bottom. Huge rocky boulders lined up on the riversides. The dense foliage all around made it impossible for the chopper to land and pick up the patient.
“Hey look over there” Aryan transmitted over the mike and pointed ahead to the left. A group of ten soldiers stood on the bank with one of them waving a red flag to assist the pilots in locating them. Shikhar surveyed the area for a possible landing ground but found none. Even the valley floor with the river’s flow made it impossible for the bird to sit. It’ll have to be a hover and pick-up- but how.
Shikhar moved the controls and the helicopter started descending. His heartbeat paced up and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. Another fifty feet lost and it would be a swimming lesson for all. His vision blurred and his breathing became heavy – twenty feet above the river now. His last accident flashed before eyes.
Two years ago, he had been in a helicopter crash flying similar profile. The beeping instruments and the red warnings flashing in cockpit followed by blaring alarms had been too many stimuli to process. The loud thud thereafter had shut down the mind. There had been no pain; there had been nothing. All he had felt was numbness and the darkness engulfing him as he was being pulled out of the mutilated chopper. Three months of his life in hospital and the loss of his copilot was the cost he had to pay. It had simply been a bad day for them.
“Careful Shikhar” hollered the co-pilot as he pulled him out from his trance. Immediately the controls moved and Shikhar flew the machine upwards.
“Controls are with you now !!” he gasped out.
“Are you all right?” asked Aryan, continuing to hover at a safe height above.
“Just give me a minute please” he replied.
“…It wasn’t my fault…” Shikhar told himself. His copilot’s face flashed before him and he murmured to himself again “…I can do this. It wasn’t my fault…”.
“Yes. Controls with me now.”, Shikhar said as he took over the whirring beast.
“Are you sure? We can abort the mission or I can take over if you want.” Aryan suggested, genuinely worried now.
“…I couldn’t help him or his family. It won’t happen again…” Shikhar mumbled to himself. “…I can do it. It wasn’t my fault….”
“I am all right. Let’s make another pass from the opposite direction this time” Shikhar said. He peered down the windshield and looked at the soldiers again. The helicopter rose and flew ahead which was met by the frantic waving of hands by the flag bearer. It was a hard turn in that narrow space and they could kiss the mountainsides any time. Aryan clutched his controls as the helicopter turned.
“Look there at that big rock by the bank. I’ll try and hover the chopper near it and place just the right skid on top. You go behind and guide them to transfer the stretcher inside.” Shikhar suggested.
It was a wild and highly risky plan. Not only it will require exceptional skill to make the helicopter just sit with one skid touching firm surface, but it would also be immensely tricky to keep it steady that way. One mistake and it would be a disaster for all. He assessed the risk and said “I am asking for the last time. Are you sure you are up to it?”
“…I can do it. It wasn’t my fault…” reiterated Shikhar in his mind as he paid homage to his fallen friend and prayed for strength.
“Yes,” he said, yanking the control stick.
The rotors churned ferociously through thin air as they gradually descended. Fifty feet to the riverbed and reducing. Water from the river started splashing upwards due to the immense downwash of the rotor blades. The whole windscreen now seemed like an artificial waterfall – scary yet beautiful. Ten feet to the water surface now. The observers all stopped breathing as the helicopter swung slightly to the left. Shikhar gritted his teeth and carefully moved his stick as the right skid kissed the boulder.
Aryan slid the door open onto its side and signalled them to bring up the stretcher. Meanwhile, the splashing water and the howling downdraft was making it impossible to focus or communicate. But the military teaches you to keep your wits about yourself in situations like this. The boys below lifted the stretcher several feet above their heads so that it was level with the helicopter floor. The soldier on a stretcher was one of them, their comrade at arms, whose life was at stake. Not a single one of them seemed hesitant or unsure. Aryan held the stretcher and pulled it inside the helicopter relieving the boys below from their awkwardly stretched out postures. He slammed the door shut and gave them quick thumbs up before examining the stretcher. 20-22-year-old lad lay there, unconscious, unaware and probably unsure of his survival. Back to the cockpit in a jiffy, Aryan saw his friend gripping the control stick like a warrior holds a sword during battle – firm and sure.
“Hey… I am asking again and for the last time… what the hell happened to you out there?” said Sagar after fifteen minutes.
Booze has a way of opening up doors to conversation and easing out the confessions. Five drinks, great scotch and a better friend is all that it took for Shikhar to narrate his inner battles.
“I regret that I shouldn’t have been afraid. I shouldn’t have wasted that time hovering and going around the valley just to calm myself down.”
Sagar’s look turned sympathetic as Shikhar continued “And now the poor guy’s life is in the doldrums. You know what the doctor says… Had he been brought earlier, it would have been better. Tell me, friend, if something happens to him, how will I ever forgive myself.”
“You did the best you could. It’s all right to be scared sometimes. And for someone who has gone through a traumatic accident like yours, it’s a miracle to survive. It’s a great feat that you are still there in that cockpit, saving lives, conquering your fears and surviving every day. I’d say cheers to that” said Sagar as their glasses clanked.
Suddenly his phone buzzed and Shikhar hugged his friend as he read the text – “The patient survived. He is out of danger now.”