LITTER WAGON • by Frederick K. Foote

I get a hop on a C-124 litter wagon. An empty plane except for me and the crew, dead-heading back to Dover AFB.

Going home on leave, at last.

Happy to be leaving frozen Labrador. Glad to be headed to sunny California.

Old Shaky lives up to its name. The four props all seem to be vibrating at a different frequency. I say a prayer that this rickety old bumble bee is still airworthy.

It is a double decked empty warehouse of rows and rows of litters. No seats. I’m the only passenger. I stretch out on a stretcher and strap myself in.

This old bird reeks of pain, suffering, grief, and despair. It is a hollow, ghostly feeling to be alone back here where the wounded and broken bodies of young men and boys take this flying ambulance home from Vietnam. I think I can smell the blood, piss, and vomit. I can feel the fever and pain deep in my bones.

The out of sync props make the old ship, moan, groan, shriek and cry.

The faint stain on my litter is something I would rather not think about.

Up, up and away to 12,000′ and home. God speed us.

Soon joined by a flight crew member asking about the duty free liquor we radar site troops get. I’m glad to share my Crown Royal. Glad for the company.

Soon after, joined by other crew members and both pilots. We huddled together on the upper deck, drinking and avoiding the mission of this beast. The pilots do not sit on the litters. They stand and drink or sit on the deck.

We talk about anything but Vietnam.

Forty minutes out alarms sound. The flight crew scatter to their stations. I strap myself in. They feather the right inboard engine and drop down to 8,000′. We pick up where we left off. Sometime later, more alarms. They feather the left inboard engine. We drop down to 4,000′.

The flight crew is confident we can get home on two engines and a continuous flow of Crown Royal. I’m not so sure.

The five of us finish off nearly a half-gallon of whiskey.

We walk off the plane at Dover stone-cold sober. The flight crew head for the nearest bar. I look for another hop home to California. Anything will do except another litter wagon. I would rather walk.

Frederick K. Foote lives in Sacramento California and enjoys writing short stories and plays.

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