Few is the number who think with their own minds and feel with their own hearts.
The chill reminded the Reverend Doctor Peebles of that night in Yemen. Sitting in a dank, gloomy APC on a night much like this one, just prior to a midnight ambush, unable to shine a light, running his large hands delicately over his medic’s pack.
In the height of a mission gone wrong in the Third Sa’ada Insurgency, a near miss by a 120mm artillery shell lifted his Armored Personnel Carrier right off the ground and tossed him out like a rag doll onto the sand in the middle of what the Yemeni called “the desert of death.” A hell-world of vivid red-yellow flashes and ugly yellow-black geysers of sand and smoke was exploding all around him. APCs leapt into the air, spewing torn, bleeding bodies. The smell of cordite and death was everywhere. A nasty ringing sound filled his ears with pain. The bombardment grew more intense. Peebles became convincingly aware of the distinct possibility he was about to be killed by friendly fire.
And then it happened.
The chaos went ghostly silent. He watched the white cannon flashes on the horizon turn into a spirit chorus singing Amazing Grace, which he heard as clearly as he had ever heard it in the Church of God as a boy. It struck him that preparing for the life beyond this one was a practice significantly more important than keeping sand out of his sidearm. Years later, he would refer to it as the time the Lord knocked him off his high APC and told him to get serious about saving souls, starting with his own.
He and a scant few others were pulled out of the carnage. They told him he walked around in circles for three days dazed and deafened by the concussion of the shelling. Two months later, Peebles went straight from the C-135 that took him back to the States to Columbia Theological Seminary and from there used the Wounded Warrior Bill and the Army pay he had squirreled away to attend NYU medical school. He graduated first in his class.
Alerted by the head chaplain of NYU Med, who had grown up in Lackawanna, Buffalo’s Irish-Catholic south side, the board chairman of a Buffalo nursing home which had just lost its chaplain and its chief physician, flew down to New York to meet the young man of whom his friend spoke so highly.
What Peebles knew about Buffalo was: snow, cold and chicken wings, none of which he cared for. But he found himself inexorably pulled towards this place in the snowy western part of the state. He felt it as surely as he felt that first call to the ministry. He was as certain as if he had been flung to the floor of the restaurant by an artillery barrage. Always on the lookout for a bargain, the chairman made Bill a generous offer (at a considerable savings from having to fill two positions) that included a car and an apartment.
The Patriotic Board of Inquisitors that vetted candidates were well aware of the potential savings to them. His military bearing and intense no-nonsense replies completely won them over. It was merely a matter of spinning out the necessary red tape.
But Peebles was not anything like the typical appointee. Though Proverbs was his favorite book of the Old Testament, and he quoted it freely, his time in the armed forces had helped him develop a fine nose and a short fuse for what he freely called “chicken shit”. He had a quick temper, his own way of prioritizing and would not allow small-mindedness or man-made rules to prevail over common sense. There was no doubt about his courage. He’d spent most of his hitch jumping out of rescue helicopters or APCs to pull soldiers out of tight spots and had a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts and a slight limp for his efforts. There was no doubt about his devotion to Christian principles. He lived them. A decorated war hero could take some leeway, and take it he did. He was formidable and frightening for the light of God was in his eyes and he knew not fear. And it was good to not provoke him either to words or action. He was in fact that most fearsome thing: A righteous man. The inner-city nursing home staff lovingly called him “the irreverent reverend.” He knew he had a mission to fulfil there. What he could not know was that it would involve aliens and dancing with the dead.