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Night Fire – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  December 2, 2017  /  13 Comments


Happy Days Are Here Again

Thomas Calabrese…  Fifty Army Rangers from the Third Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment landed by helicopter in the Mohmand Valley located in the Nangahar Province of Afghanistan. ISIS-K headquarters was two thousand meters away and the Rangers expected a very tough fight and their expectations were exceeded.

They began taking small arms from all angles and Sergeants’ Cunningham, Tomlinson and Roggins neutralized a group of enemy fighters so the rest of the Rangers could move toward their objective. The tactical force fought for every inch of terrain while calling in AC-130 gunships, F-16 jets and drones for support. The main force breeched the fortress of Abdul Hasid, head of ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan and terminated him.

Cunningham, Tomlinson and Roggins were surrounded and Tomlinson and Roggins were fatally wounded while Cunningham continued firing until he was out of ammunition. He picked up the weapons from his dead comrades and emptied those as well then killed one terrorist with his bare hands and used the dead body to block incoming rounds. When his fellow Rangers made it back, they overwhelmed the enemy force then carried their dead and wounded back to the extraction point.

Two years later, Sergeant Richard Cunningham was now a civilian and living in Torrance, California. He moved into the granny flat behind his parents’ home on Highgrove Avenue that was originally built for his maternal grandmother who lived there from 2001 until her death in 2014. His father, John Cunningham retired from the ExxonMobil refinery after it was purchased in 2015 by PBF Energy after a thirty five year career at the facility.

Richard applied at PBF Energy under a veterans’ readjustment program that the company was offering to returning military personnel and was hired as a laborer. Richard or ‘Richie’ or ‘Happy Days’ as he was nicknamed by his fellow Rangers because he had the same name as Ron Howard’s character in the sitcom, Happy Days began the next chapter of his life in the civilian world.

Richie approached his dad about paying rent, but his dad adamantly refused, “The house is paid for and my pension is more than enough to cover living expenses. I was never going to rent it to a stranger and it would just stay empty if you weren’t living there, so you’re actually doing me a favor. Save your money, you can never tell when you’re going to need it.”

It was an exercise in futility to argue with his kindhearted father and push the issue, but at the same time, Richie just didn’t feel right about not contributing his fair share so he did a flanking maneuver and contacted the family financial advisor, Bill Papadopoulos, who had already set up an investment account with his separation pay and had him set up a sub account for his sister Jessie.  While contributing to his own fund every month, he added seven hundred and fifty dollars monthly into hers.  This way if Jessie ran into a problem, he could help without her being forced to ask their parents for assistance. It would make a nice wedding gift or help with a down payment on a condo or house when the time came. Whatever happened in the future, it just made Richie happy to do something now.

To the casual observer, Richie Cunningham had made the transition from military service to civilian life without so much as a speed bump in the road, but beneath the surface things weren’t as seamless as they appeared. He had borderline obsessive compulsive disorder and felt compelled to have control over every aspect of his life. He had a one year plan, three year plan, five year plan and on and on. He volunteered to work nights at the refinery because PBF paid more for that shift and he also signed up to work holidays because he got paid double time. Richie also was studying to become an Instrument 4th Level Trainee, which would mean a significant raise in pay. This wasn’t about buying material possessions because Richie couldn’t care less about those kinds of things, he looked at money in only one way, it would provide him the opportunity as he got older to make his decisions out of choice rather than necessity. After getting off work in the morning, Richie would either go to 24 Hour Fitness or the California Mixed Martial Arts for a workout. The only times he fluctuated from his strict routine was when the surf was especially good that day.

Exercise had become his drug of choice and Richie knew that physical exhaustion was his best defense against depression. Being emotionally distraught or stressed out required energy, even if it was the negative kind, so he made sure he only had enough strength to do his job and exercise routine.  When Richie slept, it was because his body would not allow him to push himself any harder without rest.

He was even more determined to stay off mind altering psychiatric medications after reading Bart Billings’ book, Invisible Scars, about the treatment of returning veterans with PTSD issues and vowed not to be one of the 22 veterans who committed suicide daily.

The six terrorists were radicalized over the internet and became more delusional and violent with each meeting that was held at the apartment of Abu-Muhammad Sheku, who came to the United States as a young boy from Iraq with his parents. He refused to assimilate into western culture and viewed Americans as Infidels and the United States as an invader of his homeland. The other five young men, all with various emotional issues and different heritages met at an anti-capitalism rally in Los Angeles. After spending six months in Iraq, studying with radical clerics, Abu- Muhammed Sheku was seething with rage when he returned to California.

After scouting various locations in Southern California, the group decided on the PBF refinery in Torrance as their target. By severely damaging the facility, they would affect everyone in the state and send a clear message to the corporate elite that their abuses of the underprivileged would not be tolerated. What these terrorists deliberately ignored was that when gasoline prices rise dramatically that it is the poor and middle class who suffer the most.  They scheduled their attack for December 3, 2017 at 3:00 a.m.

Richie Cunningham’s normal schedule was Sunday through Friday, 10:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. He had been at work three hours doing routine clean-up around storage tank 3 when Supervisor Fred Murray called to him, “Cunningham, come over here.”

Richie stopped what he was doing and walked over to his supervisor, “Yes sir.”

“They are going to be doing a project at zero eight hundred in section 6. I need you to take a flatbed over to the storage yard and load these materials,” Supervisor Murray handed Richie a clipboard and two sets of keys, “Here’s the list of items that they need and the keys for the truck and gate. Drive the truck over to section 6 when you’re done, call me on the radio and I’ll come pick you up, any questions?”

“No sir,” Richie replied.

“If you find that it is too much for you to handle, I’ll send you some help.”

“Affirmative sir,” Richie was off in an instant.

Fred Murray was a former Marine who had been with the company ten years and he liked Cunningham. The young man worked hard and didn’t need supervision, just tell him what needed to be done and point him in the right direction. When Cunningham did make a mistake, it wasn’t because he was careless or negligent, it was because he didn’t have the experience or the knowledge yet. Once the former Ranger made an error, he learned from it and never made it again.


It was 2:40 a.m. and Richie had almost completed loading the truck and was double-checking the list to make sure he had not forgotten anything. At the same time the six terrorists had just reached the most secluded area of the refinery property. On any other Sunday morning nobody would have been in the vicinity, but Richie was working in the storage yard which was one hundred yards east of their location and could hear the click, click, click of bolt cutters on the chain link fence. Each terrorist was carrying an AK-47, with six magazines, thirty rounds in each one, ten incendiary grenades and one C-4 explosive with a timer detonator. They were not planning a simple act of vandalism, this was a full assault, intended to kill as many workers and destroy as much property as possible.

It wasn’t commonplace, but it also wasn’t unheard of either for some homeless individual looking for shelter, curious kids seeking adventure or petty thieves scavenging for copper pipes, wire or anything else they could steal from the property. The protocol was for any employee who saw anything suspicious to notify security and let them handle it and to not get involved.

“Security, this is Cunningham, I’m in sector 8, possible trespassers in sector 9,” Richie radioed in then finished his assigned tasks and barely gave it a second thought when he saw the yellow security vehicle racing toward sector 9.

Ack, ack, ack, the sound of an AK-47 is distinct and unforgettable, especially to those who have had the displeasure to be on the wrong side of its muzzle.  Richie’s mindset changed in an instant and before he knew it he was back in combat. He shook his head and returned to reality just in time to see the security vehicle get riddled with automatic gunfire and crash into a pole. Richie moved closer and saw a man toss something into the vehicle and a few seconds later, it exploded into flames.

Richie radioed in, “Code Red!” Armed intruders on site!”

The reasonable and prudent thing would have been for Richie to seek safety, but he was not that kind of man so when he saw trouble, he ran toward it, not away from it. Richie did not have any weapons, so he picked up two eighteen inch pieces of pipe to use as clubs, took a deep breath and shifted into assault mode and moved out.

The terrorists were shooting every worker and every light that they passed, plunging the area in darkness. When one of the terrorists lagged behind to plant a bomb at a pumping station, Richie saw an opportunity to take him out. The masked individual turned around just as Richie got within arms’ reach and unleashed a flurry of bone breaking blows. Richie unmasked the dead man and saw a blond haired blue eyed man about the same age as him staring back at him. He didn’t have time to ponder the situation so Richie disarmed the individual then radioed, “One terrorist is dead and I am armed and in pursuit of the others,” Richie radioed.

When the remaining five terrorists got to the front gate, they threw several incendiary grenades into the guard shack and shot the guards when they tried to escape the fire. They planted an explosive at the base of a large pole and detonated it and it fell across the road, blocking the main access to the refinery. The sound of sirens grew increasingly louder as police and fire personnel approached.

Richie saw Fred Murray hiding behind a storage container and came up behind and tapped him on the shoulder. Fred almost jumped out of his work boots, “What the hell, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Sorry about that, sir. I didn’t want to announce my arrival.”

“What’s going on?” Fred asked.

“All I really know for sure is that we’re under attack .There were six, five now, but that’s doesn’t mean that they are the only group,” Richie replied as he scanned the area.

“We should probably wait for first responders,” Fred saw the determined look in Richie’s eyes, “You don’t agree, do you?”

“I do not, sir, every moment that we wait gives them more time to kill people and carry out their mission.”

“What is their mission?” Fred asked.

“If I was them, I’d be going for the main storage tanks. If they go up, the fire could burn for days or even weeks,” Richie guessed.

There was gunfire, smaller explosions and fires happening all around them, “Sometimes you choose your battles and sometimes your battles choose you,” Fred smiled, “Ready to move out, Ranger?”

“Roger that, Devildog,” Richie replied, “Since I’m the one with the AK-47, why don’t you stay behind me until we can get you a weapon.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice and since I’m going to be in your back pocket, you can drop the sir, “Fred suggested.

“Roger that, sir,” Richie and Fred took a shortcut through an access tunnel and intercepted the remaining five terrorists just as they arrived at the main tanks. Richie shot one terrorist who was lagging behind and pulled his body behind some fifty five gallon barrels, “You know to operate an AK?” Richie continued firing at the other terrorists.

“I better learn fast, huh?”

Richie quickly showed Fred the essential operating facts, “Selector switch, auto and semi, keep it on semi and cover me. Two basic things to remember, don’t shoot me and don’t shoot yourself.”

“Yes sir, I’m going to put that saying, once a Marine, always a Marine to the test.”

Richie ran toward the remaining terrorists, zigzagging as he went as bullets hit all around him, while Fred did his best to provide cover fire.  Fred had been a 1391, Bulk Fuel Specialist in the Corps and the only time he actually fired a rifle was at his yearly qualifications and that was over twenty years ago so his accuracy left much to be desired.

Richie found cover under a metal beam as incoming rounds created a disjointed musical sound when they bounced off the steel.  Whenever Richie tried to run, he was forced back down by the terrorist gunfire, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw two terrorists moving toward the primary storage tanks and knew that time was running out. Suddenly he saw his fallen comrades, Sergeants Tomlinson and Roggins.

“Hey Happy Days, you can’t seem to stay out of trouble,” Sergeant Tomlinson smiled.

“It’s a good thing that we’ve been keeping an eye on you,” Sergeant Roggins added.

“This is no time for hallucinations, I’ve got more important things to do right now,” Richie snapped back.

“You’ve got to lighten up, it is not against regulations to enjoy life,” Tomlinson suggested, “Don’t you think you’ve earned it?”

“As if I’m going to take advice from a couple of dead guys,” Richie retorted.

“Rangers never die, we just get a change of duty stations,” Roggins quipped.

“We’ll make you a deal, we’ll help you out with this mess if you promise to start living instead of just surviving,” Roggins offered.

Richie hesitated before Tomlinson interjected, “You act like we’re asking you to be a sensitive snowflake.”

“Okay you got a deal,” Richie snapped back, “Now what?”

“Now go!” Roggins suggested.

Richie jumped up as Tomlinson helped Fred fire an accurate shot right through one of the terrorist’s eyes. Roggins ran right beside Richie and pushed him out of the way a split second before a burst of gunfire would have cut him to pieces.

When Richie got close to the remaining two terrorists, he was able to see that they had just planted two explosive devices at the base of fuel tank number one.  They fired at Richie and he dove to the ground while firing and took out one of the terrorists with a shot to his chest. He sprang  back up and charged at the remaining terrorist as bullets whizzed by, but Richie didn’t stop until he slammed into Abu-Muhammad Sheku and both men tumbled backward and bounced off the metal fuel tank.  They were momentarily disoriented, but Richie was a spilt second quicker, regained his senses then emptied his magazine into the terrorist. When he saw the two explosive devices and the timer at 8 seconds and counting down, Richie knew he didn’t have time to disarm the bombs so he grabbed one in each hand and threw them as far as he could over the perimeter fence. They exploded harmlessly in the soft mud as Fred walked over and saluted the former Ranger.

Richie felt lightheaded and when he looked down, he saw that his shirt was covered with blood. He fell over and Fred caught him just as he lapsed into unconsciousness. During emergency surgery at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, surgeons needed eight units of blood while they repaired the damaged artery in Richie’s abdomen, but he sustained no damage to his vital organs. While in the hospital recovering from his wounds, Walter Tillis, the CEO of PBF Energy visited Richie, “I wanted to personally thank you for your actions.”

Richie responded, “I really didn’t do anything that anybody else wouldn’t have done in the same situation.”

“That may be true in the military world, but not so much in this one. The board of directors unanimously voted to give you a one hundred thousand dollar reward and a promotion. We’ll talk more about it after you’re released. There is one other thing that will be waiting for you when you’re ready to take advantage of it.”

Richie spent sixteen days in the hospital and was expected to make a full recovery, but it was going to take between sixty and ninety days before he would be at full strength again. After another thirty days of recuperating at home, Richie was ready to take advantage of the other gift from PBF Energy, which was a two week stay at the Canyon Ranch Health Spa Resort in Tucson, Arizona.

If this had been a few months earlier, Richie would have had his schedule planned down to the minute before he even left California, but not anymore. He had been at the resort three days and was doing everything on the spur of the moment and had not done the same thing twice. Yesterday, he went for a hike and attended a Pilate’s class. This morning, he did sunrise meditation, hot yoga and had a deep tissue massage. While lounging by the pool and sipping on a fruit energy drink, a sultry brunette, who could have easily been a model or an actress, approached Richie with a warm and friendly smile, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be alone, would like to join me and my friends for dinner tonight?”

“Thank you, I would like that,” Richie replied without hesitation.

“Meet us at 6 p.m. in the main dining room?”

“I’ll be there,” Richie answered.

When Richie left the pool area, he went back to his room and decided to take a nap before dinner.  The word nap wasn’t even in his vocabulary before, but now it seemed like a natural thing for him to do. He stretched out on the bed, reached for the television remote and started flipping through the stations and on every channel were reruns of Happy Days. Richie looked up at the ceiling and grinned, “Very funny, guys.”

He turned off the television and switched on the radio and the first song playing was, Walking On Sunshine, followed by Don’t Worry Be Happy. Richie had already drifted off to sleep by the time the third song came on, Happy Days Are Here Again.

The End











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  • Published: 1 year ago on December 2, 2017
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  • Last Modified: November 29, 2017 @ 10:19 pm
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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  1. John Michels says:

    Nice story Tom I enjyed it.

  2. Tony says:

    Another excellent story by Mr. Tom Calabrese. He certainly has a flair to make the reader feel as though he is part of the story or would perform in a similar fashion as the main character. Reading Mr. Calabrese’s stories each Sunday I find he is very accurate in describing the places and events as depicted. I look forward to his column each week.

  3. Bart says:

    Great story Tom. Bart

  4. Joe says:

    Another great story. Thanks

  5. Guy says:

    Tom puts so much in his stories to think about…a lot of action, but also emotional content and good characters.

  6. Kyle says:

    Very interesting story with a nice twist,thumbs up.

  7. Mike says:

    You kept my attention again…I’m a regular reader

  8. Cary says:

    I liked this one two..Tom always manages to put serious issues in his stories like PTSD while making them fun and entertaining

  9. Josh says:

    Tom has a knack for drawing the reader into the story. In this one, I felt like I really knew Richie Cunningham.

  10. Ron Pickett says:

    Good story Tom. Thanks

  11. Clyde says:

    Another exciting story with a happy ending. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out next week

  12. Dan says:

    Good story…thanks Tom

  13. First time paying simply 5 bucks. Have to know more?

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