The Phantom Doesn't Work Here Anymore
Chet Kelly, devout Irish-Catholic, LA County Firefighter and lineman, relentless prankster who dubbed himself "The Phantom", friendly nemesis of paramedic Johnny Gage, son, brother, and friend who would give anyone the shirt off his back, died from injuries sustained in a 5-alarm warehouse fire on New Year's eve, 1977.
He had been working overtime at at 8's. New Year's eve wasn't his favorite time of year since his father passed away on that day 5 years ago, so he worked in the hopes that he wouldn't think about it quite so much. Paramedic and close friend Johnny Gage was with Chet when he passed. Thankfully, Johnny thought, it was peaceful when he drew his final breath. No pleading for someone to save him. No panicky gasping or crying. Chet had seemed to accept that he was going to die. "But," Johnny thought, "the problem is...I'm not so sure* I'm* willing to accept it".
Drs Brackett and Early and nurse Dixie McCall, who had come back in to the hospital right away when Kel called her at home, were standing with Johnny as Chet died. Kel called time of death at 12:01 PM, January 1st, 1977.
Roy rushed in through the door of exam room 4 at Rampart General Hospital and saw his best friend standing over the gurney that contained the now still and lifeless form of Chester Brian Kelly. Johnny was crying. So were Kel, Joe and Dix.
"Johnny!" Roy cried out to his partner.
"He's gone, Roy," Johnny said through his tears. "He...he's gone."
Roy stood stunned for several minutes. Then he finally managed, tears in his blue eyes, to say,
"He looks so...peaceful. Almost serene." Roy murmured. Johnny nodded slowly.
"He passed peacefully, Roy." Kel managed, tears streaming down his face. Joe and Dixie were weeping, too, arms around each other as they all gazed at their friend, Chet.
Roy sobbed a little before he noticed the nurses and orderlies that had come in and were waiting to prepare Chet's body to be moved. They had tears in their eyes as well.
Joe Early held up a hand.
"Wait just a minute, please guys," he said to them, and turned to Johnny and Roy. "Do you think any of the others will want to see him?" he asked.
"I'll go check," Roy said, wiping his eyes.
He slowly opened the door of the exam room, and, shoving his hands in his pockets, walking slowly down the hall toward the waiting area, tried to compose himself. He knew he was failing miserably as he came closer to the guys. They all looked up at Roy and knew Chet had died. They stood up and moved toward him.
"He-" Roy couldn't finish. He could only stand and let huge tears roll down his cheeks. But there was no need for words as Chet's shiftmates and closest friends in the world all put their arms around each other and began dropping their heads to cry. They all wept together, the band of brothers in the waiting room of Rampart Emergency.
Roy sniffed and asked,
"Dr. Early wanted to know if anyone wanted to go in and see Chet before they move him." Hank turned his gaze down the hall and slowly began to follow it to the room where their friend lay. Mike, Marco, and Roy followed after their captain to exam room 4. When they went in, they saw Kelly, Joe, Dixie and Johnny, eyes red and offering sad smiles. They moved away from the gurney so the guys could gather around Chet and say goodbye. These firefighters, strong, brave heroes, stood around their brother and wept like broken-hearted little boys. No one could possibly have known the depths of sorrow they felt at that moment. The pleading of their hearts to let it be a bad dream.
Wake up, Chet. This isn't funny, Pal! C'mon, Buddy... please....wake up...
They stood there for what seemed like hours, holding Chet's hand, stroking his face. Some even bent down to kiss his cheek. Then Joe, choking back tears, gently said,
"I hate to do this...but I think we'd better let the nurses get him ready to move him."
They all touched Chet affectionately, one more time, softly said "See ya" and left the room.
Johnny stayed, reluctant to leave Chet's side. Roy knew how Johnny was feeling; he felt exactly the same. But he also knew that the hospital had it's procedures, and it was time for them to begin.
Roy took Johnny gently by the arm and led him toward the door.
"C'mon, Junior ...we need to let the nurses do what they need to do." He and Johnny looked back toward Chet, lying on the gurney, surrounded by pretty nurses as they began cleaning Chet's body and preparing him for the morticians. He would be taken by orderlies to the morgue, and from there, the funeral home would come and take him away.
"Y'know, Pally...Chet would have liked all that attention from all those nurses," Johnny said quietly.
Roy put his arm around Johnny's shoulder as he gently led his "little brother" out into the hallway. Johnny was, in fact just a year younger than Roy, but looked up to Roy as his big brother.
"Yeah, I think you're right."
Station 8 has their own squad and paramedic team, so Roy and Johnny weren't at the fire. All of A-shift was off duty and spending the evening with their loved ones.
All they knew was that Chet had been on the main level of the building. Someone had heard a loud crack right above him. Chet hadn't heard the men yelling at him to get out. Brice and Bellingham had been the first ones in to try to pull him out. The rest of the crew came to their aid when they heard Craig call out to them. They managed, miraculously, to get Chet unburied. Bob Bellingham called Rampart on the bio-com, and Joe early gave the orders to give two IV's; D5W and normal saline and to transport him immediately.
However, when they got Chet to the hospital, the Drs all examined him. He had crush injuries all he way up and down his torso, broken ribs, punctured lungs and ruptured spleen, pancreas and liver. They all agreed that his injuries were so severe, and blood loss so great, there was nothing they could do. Unbelievably, he didn't have any head injury, so they loaded him with morphine.
Brice, who had ridden in the ambulance with Chet, Didn't want to leave his side, but Bellingham knew they needed to get back to the station and fill out the report. It was completely uncharacteristic of Brice to not follow procedure, but he knew that he would never see Chet again, and finally felt what it was like to ignore procedure and go with his gut. He couldn't help feeling a little irritated with Bob, even though Craig knew Bob was right.
Roy was left inconsolable because, as usual, he thought that if he and Johnny had been there, at the fire, they could have done something, and maybe saved Chet's life. But of course, Roy was actually kicking himself for what he saw as abandoning Chet.
He was glad, however, that John could be with him when he drew his last breath, even though Roy missed it by a split second.
Johnny was left inconsolable at the loss of The Phantom who could make him fighting mad at Chet, but in the end, he knew that Chet was one of his closer friends, besides Roy, and knew he was going to miss Chet intensely for the rest of his life.
The other guys of A-shift stood out in the hall talked to each other about how they were all in disbelief and felt incredible grief. But no words were needed as they looked at Marco, ( who was Chet's co-lineman), and knew that he was completely devastated. It was as if they could see Marco's shattered heart fall to the floor and land at his feet in millions of microscopic pieces. Marco had asked Chet to be the best man at his wedding. Now, that would be a wonderful dream that would never come to pass.
Johnny and Roy slowly joined the group of their friends. Johnny cleared his throat.
"He wanted all you guys to know that he loved each of you, that he was thankful for the time he had with us at 51's, and that he wasn't afraid or in pain." Johnny said softly and sadly, looking each of his shiftmates in the eyes.
"He died peacefully. Don't worry."
About that time, Craig Brice came rushing, breathless, into the waiting area.
"What's happening?" he asked.
Roy looked at Brice and shook his head. Brice went white and shakily found the closest chair and slowly sank into it. Captain Stanley came and sat down behind him and put his hands on Craig's shoulders.
"I guess I didn't really expect him to die before I got back," the young paramedic said, forlornly. "At least I'd hoped he wouldn't"
"I know, Pal, I know," Hank said, trying to comfort himself as well as the young paramedic who had tried to rescue Chet.
Across town, Chief McConnike and LACoFD Chaplain Louis Donaldson arrived at Chet's mom's house to deliver the news that Chet was gone. Rose Kelly felt the devastation of what the two men were telling her and swooned as the Chief and chaplain reached to keep her from falling to the floor. Soon, the A- shift guys showed up at the house to show their support as the family was notified one by one. The children came to their mom's home, and the guys thought that maybe they should leave, now that Rose had them around her.
"Please, don't go," said Chet's sister, Charlie. "You're family, too. We need you here....please?"
Chet had talked a lot to his mom and his siblings about the guys at work, and had talked to the guys at work about his family. It wasn't a secret that Chet adored them all, and so when Chet introduced them all to each other, they all felt as though they knew each other well.
The men looked at each other and nodded in agreement. They knew better than to argue about it.
"We should call our wives, though; let them know where we are and that Chet died," Mike suggested.
"You're right, Stoker," Captain Stanley said. They all took turns calling their wives, and Marco called his fiancee, Elena.
Someone brought out a case of Jaimeson, and they drank to Chet's memory. Then, they drank to Chet's fellow firefighters. Then they drank to the firefighters' wives for being so understanding and telling the guys not to rush home. Then they just drank. They went on, deep into the night, laughing, crying, then laughing again, remembering Chet; what a kind man he was. How sensitive he really was underneath the mask of the comedian. The silly things he had done. They laughed about The Phantom and the seemingly never-ending pranks he pulled on everyone, most of all Johnny. Johnny just smiled and shook his head, remembering how Chet just seemed to know where all his buttons were.
Then, the family shared something about Chet that no one else had ever known.
Chet had been married before. The men looked at each other and then, back at the family for an explanation.
"Her name was Margaret, but we all called her Margie." Rose began. "They met in their senior year of high school. They started dating right before Homecoming and right away, became inseparable. She was this tiny little thing with the same dark hair and blue eyes as Chet."
"What was it that we used to call them, Ma?" asked Chet's oldest brother, Peter.
"I think it was the Sawed-off Twins," sending the entire room exploding with laughter. "I don't think Chet ever thought he would find someone shorter than him! Margie didn't have a lot of family, and so she adopted us," Charlie explained.
"And we adopted her right back!" said Rose with a huge smile. "She was a beautiful girl, inside and out."
"So what happened?" Roy asked. "Did they divorce?"
"No, Roy... They had just gotten back from their honeymoon," Miles, the middle brother began. "They were setting up housekeeping together; you know, all the picking out and putting up artwork and arguing about which colors they wanted in which rooms, but having a ball the whole time."
The room got very quiet suddenly. The firemen shifted in their seats.
Terri, Chet's oldest sister continued the story.
"Margie went grocery shopping one evening after work. Chet had wanted them to go together, you know, because he hadn't wanted Margie to go out by herself. But she said she would be fine and she could take care of herself."
Then Peter took over.
"Well, to make a long story short, she was at the checkstand, almost ready to leave when there was a commotion at the front of the store. Someone yelled that a guy had a gun. This guy was robbing the store. He came to the checkstand that Margie was at. Well, Margie's dad was a cop and he had taught Margie some defensive techniques, and one of them was how to knock weapons loose from an assailant's hands. She started to move slowly toward him to get into a position where she could do that, but he turned his head at the wrong time, saw her coming toward him, turned the gun on her and shot her at point blank range in the chest. She was killed instantly."
Nobody said a word for several minutes.
"I'm so sorry," Johnny choked. "I can't even imagine what that must have been like to go through."
"So, now you know why Chet was such a comedian and a prankster," Charlie said sadly.
"Facing reality must have been an impossible thing for him," Roy said.
"So he hid behind the comedian," Marco concluded.
Johnny just stared off into space.
"What are you thinking about, Johnny?" Charlie asked softly.
"Wha...huh? Oh, sorry...I guess I was feelin' kinda bad about how I used to get so mad at him for his pranks," Johnny said, head bowed.
"Ya wanna know something that'll either make you laugh or make you mad all over again?" Peter snickered. Johnny looked around and then silently nodded.
"When you would get mad, Chet was in the height of his glory! It was practically what he lived for!" Everyone in the room burst out laughing. Johnny looked at everyone through narrowed eyes; then he couldn't help smiling. Soon, he was laughing right along with the whole gang. If I could help him not dwell on the past, then I'm satisfied, he thought.
Roy, Johnny, Mike, and Marco plus Charlie Dwyer from C- shift, and (of all people), Craig Brice, who had filled in at 51's from time to time, were asked to be pallbearers. It was no secret, that on the surface, all these guys, particularly Roy and Chet, were annoyed easily by Brice's self-righteous, dead pan delivery of what he perceived to be correct. But they also had gotten to know him as a staunch brother who would defend them all, and that he would give his life for any one of them in a heartbeat ; even if It meant throwing his stupid, precious rules out the window. (And although not widely known, he let it slip to Roy while filling in for Johnny one time that he had actually grown very fond of Chet.)
Roy and the rest of guys stood quietly, even though the occasion was solemn, looking very handsome and dashing in their dress blacks and white gloves, under the overcast skies. They were talking quietly and smoking, even Roy, who had quit two years before, and to the surprise of everyone, even Craig Brice accepted a cigarette when Roy offered one. Roy turned and found Joanne in the crowd of people, silently offered her, a former smoker herself, a cigarette. Joanne, very nervous and emotional, (knowing that that was why Roy was smoking like a chimney, and understood by instinct, that Roy needed her by his side right then) walked slowly over to her husband, took the cigarette from the pack in his outstretched hand, and Roy held the lighter to the end of the cigarette and lit it for her. The acrid smoke burned down her throat and into her lungs; a rude shock to her system after almost six years of being a non-smoker. She and Roy stood arm-in-arm. The guys were all shocked to see Joanne smoking and she apologetically said that it was acceptable for all of them today. When the hearse came into view, they all put out their cigarettes, Joanne gently reached up and kissed Roy, told the guys she loved them, walked back toward Marco's fiancee, and, since this was not her first fire service funeral, started to tell Elena what to expect during the service.
The hearse pulled up in front of the church and the guys, led by Roy, lined up in two rows of three behind it. The two funeral directors got out and stepped to the of the hearse and opened the bay door. The pallbearers watched each other intently and listened to Roy's soft commands, turned toward the open back of the hearse, took a few steps, and turned to face each other again. Roy and Johnny each took two steps toward each other turned to the hearse again, reached in and slid the casket partway out of the car. Then they turned to face each other on either side of the casket and Roy and Johnny passed the casket, sideways, to the rest of the guys. When they all had it securely by the six brass handles, Roy softly gave the command to turn away from the hearse and transfer their friend's casket to one hand each.
Roy spoke softly again and the men stepped together and pointed the head toward the entrance of the church. Roy could be heard, barely, saying "forward slow" and the procession walked slowly and deliberately toward the front door of the church, the soles of their mirror-shined black dress shoes beating out a solemn rhythm in a perfect military-like unison.
The command came to step up to move up the four stairs one riser at a time. When they were all at the top of the steps, they halted and stood still. The family gathered on the sidewalk behind the casket. They all filed in as, once more, the men of 51's were in motion and continued their walk into the church.
The congregation of firefighters, paramedics, ambulance attendants, law enforcement, secondary family members, and friends were seated in the huge Catholic church sanctuary. The Color guard and bagpipers, who had been waiting in the vestibule took their places in front of the procession, flags erect, pipers filling the bellows of their instruments with air, getting ready to play the traditional hymn, "Amazing Grace" as they would follow the Color guard, but leading the casket detail into the sanctuary.
The Captain of the Color guard shouted out his orders to march in place , the pitch pipes sounded their searching moan, searching for the right key. They finally moaned in unison and the strains of their hymn began. The Guard began their march down the long aisle, and the pallbearers followed the bagpipes, with their precious, flag draped burden, followed by Chet's mom and brothers and sisters and their families. The wives, girlfriends and fiancee' of the men carrying Chet were seated behind where their men would sit, their various children seated with them.
The congregation stood and faced the aisle as the casket passed. they all were dabbing at their eyes as tears were shed. Sniffles were heard as well. The casket bearers were supposed to remain in control of their emotions, but they all had tears in their eyes as they passed the weeping mourners. Even Craig Brice. The entire procession halted at the front of the sanctuary. Chief Houts stepped from his seat behind the clergy and came to a halt, half a turn from facing the procession. He gracefully rotated his body so that he faced the group. The Captain of the Guard slowly saluted the chief and held his position. Houts slowly lifted his right hand to the bill of his cap in a salute. Then they both snapped their arms back down to their sides. The Color guard then turned and marched to the side of the sanctuary, and Chief Houts turned and slowly walked back to his seat, where Chief McConnike, Captain Robertson and Captain Stanley were also seated.
The men, softly commanded by Roy, stepped forward and suspended the casket of Chet Kelly over the cataphalque. Roy whispered another order, and they all turned inward, took the brass handles by two hands each. Roy told the guys to lower the casket onto the cataphalque; they did so, then turned and walked to their pew and sat down.
The priest, who knew Chet well, welcomed everyone and then sadly reported that they were all gathered to celebrate the life of Chester Brian Kelly. Soft sobs and sniffles were heard as the priest read from the 23rd Psalm.
After he finished, there were some murmurs of astonishment as Roy De Soto rose and climbed the platform steps. Very few people knew that Roy could sing. Joanne, of course knew, as did the A-shift and Chet's mother, who had asked him. The first strains of "Ave Maria" began on the piano, then Roy began to softly sing. He had confided to Joanne and Johnny earlier that he was afraid he wouldn't make it through; that he would look at the congregation and all the crying people and he would lose it.
"Don't look at anyone...most important of all, don't look at the casket!" they coached. "look at the choir loft or the ceiling. Or keep your eyes on your music. You'll do fine."
So, shaking, nervous, emotional, Roy stood tall and sang his heart out. His gorgeous, pitch perfect baritone soared into the rafters; smooth and deep, and just the right touch of vibrato. He grew louder as the song progressed, then softened again when the time came to start the song once more at the beginning.
Joanne sat, rapt by her her husband's wonderful voice and marveled at his composure. A feeling of pride washed over her, and she was engulfed in a desire to hug him and hold him close. He began to increase his volume slowly as he sang then as he reached the crescendo, suddenly, the sun began to shine and it shone in through the huge stained glass window, giving Roy an angelic backlight and landing on Chet's casket. Each note Roy sang was clear, strong, steady and true. It seemed, at that moment, that Heaven was smiling down and blessing Roy's song, and Chet was smiling the most.
"Hey, Roy," Chet seemed to be saying "....thanks, Pal."
When Roy finished, and the last sweet note died away, there was not a dry eye in the entire church. On his way down off the platform, Roy allowed himself to look at the congregation. It was at that moment that his composure failed and he burst into tears. He sat down quickly next to Johnny who put his arm around his best friend's shoulder. Johnny couldn't speak, but hugged Roy tight. Joanne reached forward and handed her husband a tissue. Roy took a it, opened it up, held it to his face and sobbed.
Chet's family asked, (along with Chief McConnike, Captain Robertson, who subbed for Hank once while he was on vacation, and Chief Houts, ) Hank Stanley, Chet's captain and friend, to eulogize Chet. They each told tales of pranks that Chet pulled on various people at the station. Captain Robertson, especially, told of Chet trying to overly impress him by telling him about his human fly shoes, and how Hank thought they would revolutionize the fire department. That got a laugh from everyone, especially Hank who just sat there and shook his head in denial, but he also had a big grin on his face.
Then there was an open mic time for people that knew Chet and wanted to share stories and personal memories of him. There were so many people that told their stories, that it turned out that it was a good thing that the service had no time constraints. There were funny stories, serious stories, stories of how annoying Chet could be, but one obvious thing in each one, was how precious he was to everyone.
When Johnny stepped up to the mic, he started by introducing himself and told how Chet called him his "pigeon" and started to tell about all the water bombs the "phantom" placed in strategic areas, designed to nail Johnny, but suddenly, overwhelmed with grief over the loss of his friend, he choked up and struggled to hold back his tears so much that Roy, Joanne and the kids gathered around him to give him support. Meghan stood with her little arms around her Uncle Johnny's leg and held tight. No one in the world could replace her Uncle Johnny in her heart and she wanted to help him bear his grief so it wouldn't be so heavy for him. Roy and Joanne were so proud of their little girl for not being bashful about showing her love and support for her "uncle".
Finally, with the comfort of his surrogate family around him, he was able to finish with his thoughts on how much he really loved Chet and that he would miss him every day for the rest of his life.
Even Dixie McCall, Kelly Brackett and Joe Early took turns speaking of the man they had gotten to know over the last couple of years, and , of course, Chet's big, loving Irish clan told their funny, emotional and fond memories of Chet Kelly.
Finally, once mourner after mourner had a turn at the mic, the priest got up and moved to the pulpit.
"I have never witnessed more outpouring of love for someone as I have for Chet over the course of the afternoon. Knowing Chet the way I do, I know that the wonderful sentiments, if he had been able to hear them, would have been met with a lot of embarrassment. He may have tried to appear proud and arrogant, but I knew, as all of you do, that he was a very caring, loving and humble guy." There were murmurs of agreement throughout the congregation.