Merry Christmas, Father Joseph
By Jim Stephens*
At my amateur radio desk late the day before Christmas in the ’70s, I sat idly spinning the dial of my transceiver. I had no idea I was about to become an instant Santa Claus.
My wife was busy preparing supper — and complaining about the heat. We lived in Miami that year.
The kids were putting their gifts under the artificial tree in the living room, and I was almost dozing at my radio when I heard him.
His voice startled me.
“CQ Miami, CQ Miami, CQ Miami. This is OA4XXX in Peru calling. Come in; someone, please.”
For non-amateur radio operators that translates as, “I want to talk to anyone in Miami.”
I’ve been a Ham operator for many years and have talked to a score of foreign countries, so Peru was nothing unusual. I tuned to see what else might be on the air but heard no other stations. I returned to where he’d called. He was still there.
I listened for someone in my area to answer.
No one did. Something in his voice disturbed me. Was it desperation?
I picked up the microphone and pressed the transmit button, “OA4XXX this is K4EBC in Miami. Do you hear my station?”
At that, one of my kids interrupted. “Can we hang up our stockings after supper, Dad?”
Sharper than I intended, I snapped, “Sure!”
“K4EBC this is OA4XXX. Thank God. I’m Father Joseph at a medical mission in Peru.” His signal was loud and clear, but I knew from experience on this frequency that it wouldn’t last this late in the afternoon. “We have a sick little boy. A doctor from Miami treated him months ago and gave him a special drug. He’s out of pills and needs a refill that we can’t get here. He’ll die if we can’t get it. Can you help?”
That banished my lethargy. “What’s the doctor’s name?” I fired back. “And the name of the medicine?” I added. Fading daylight warned me that the radio connection between us would soon fail.
Amid increasing tropical static crashes I heard him say, “We don’t know.”
“You don’t know which? The doctor’s name or the name of the medication?”
Father Joseph said, “Both. The bottle was lost.”
“Supper is ready,” my wife called.
“In a minute,” I shouted.
“Well . . .,” I heard her mutter. Unlike our Florida Decembers, her tone was frosty.
A torrent of thoughts flooded my mind. Miami is a big city with hundreds of doctors. How do I find the one who’s treated this kid — in Peru, of all places?
Then, an inspiration, “What’s the name of the disease, Father?”
He told me, but his signals were weaker than before; I strained to hear him. It was one of those unpronounceable maladies he had to spell twice before I got it.
I told him to stand by and grabbed the telephone directory, searched quickly for a listing of a Physicians’ Exchange, and dialed. I reasoned that if the kid’s illness were rare there couldn’t be many doctors in the city who treated it; maybe just one? I prayed!
The girl at the exchange was business-like. “Yes, there’s a doctor in Miami who treats that disease, but I can’t give you his telephone number. Besides,” she continued, “it’s Christmas Eve and I can only page physicians in an emergency.”
“Lady,” I said, none too politely, “this is an emergency — a scorpion-up-your-skirt kind of emergency. I’m a licensed amateur radio operator. I’m talking to a priest at a remote mission in Peru right now who needs to get a prescription filled here in town . . .,” and I spit out the details.
I thought she’d cut me off. “Just a moment,” she said, “I’m connecting you now.”
I waited, then called Father Joseph on the radio. He answered but conditions between us were worsening as the sun dipped below the horizon.
“This is Doctor P*****. May I help you?”
I explained as clearly as I could. He paused. “Yes. I remember the child; interesting case. Where do I send the medicine?”
“OA4XXX this is K4EBC. Where do we send the pills, Father?”
“What did he say, sir?” the doctor asked.
“Hang on, doc. I’m trying to reach him.” I thought, please God, don’t pull the plug on us now.
I clutched the microphone and put my lips close to it, “OA4XXX, K4EBC calling.”
Then suddenly he was there, loud and clear. I repeated my question.
I barely made out his reply as his signals faded in and out. But I heard him, “Care of . . . Catholic mission . . . Lima . . ..”
I relayed the information to the physician. Doctor P***** said, “Tell him I’ll get it on the first flight to Lima in the morning.”
I almost screamed the information into my mike.
“OA4XXX, this is K4EBC. Did you receive me?”
I snatched my earphones from the hook above my radio and clapped them over my ears, pressing them tightly against my head. Deep in the static, I heard Father Joseph’s voice, “Roger K4EBC. I received it. Thanks, and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Father Joseph. K4EBC clear.”
*This story is inspired by an actual event. The Peruvian station’s call sign has been disguised, however, and the timing has been modified to make it seasonal.
The author has been a licensed amateur for over 55 years and now operates under the call sign W6JMA from his home in Anacortes, Washington. He is a member of the Radio Amateurs of Skagit County radio club.
Readers who are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator may contact Jim at email@example.com. Wikipedia has an excellent article on amateur radio.