Miracle on the Base

The boiler malfunction was his problem, and he hadn’t called anyone for assistance. So who was this young man who showed up to help?

By Thomas Waller, Columbus, Mississippi

As appeared in

The phone rang just as I was climbing into bed. My wife rolled her eyes. I knew what she was thinking. In my job, a ten o’clock call meant only one thing: an issue over at the Air Force Base. A problem that needed my attention, my expertise. A problem people were counting on me to get fixed. Pronto.

I grabbed the receiver. One of my coworkers wasn’t feeling well. He begged me to relieve him. “I’ll be right over,” I said. At least it wasn’t something worse. “Anything I should know?”

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“Boiler’s acting up. I can’t get it to stay on. The building’s getting cold, so bring a sweater.”

Boiler trouble? It was winter, freezing cold, even here in Northern Mississippi. And tonight, of all nights, the temperature inside the Flight Simulator Building I maintained had to be kept at a constant 76 degrees with 60 percent humidity.

I got dressed and kissed my wife good-bye, making a mental note of all the things I’d have to do.

My staff and I constantly monitored the heating and air conditioning, the humidity, the electricity, everything to ensure that this building, with its 16 state-of-the-art simulators and highly sensitive computers and electronic equipment, could operate 24/7 without even a hiccup. A drop of even a few degrees could be catastrophic.

The Air Force brass was coming in the morning for a full-scale dog and pony show, a complete run-through for all the new flight simulators. A super-big deal. The kind of day that could make or break a career. S till, I wasn’t that worried as I drove over.

I was 34, a veteran aerospace engineer, a rocket scientist. Out of college I’d worked as part of the support team for the Apollo space program and helped put a man on the moon. A boiler was basically a giant hot-water heater. Nothing to it. The important thing was to see that it was back online ASAP.

I got to the Flight Simulator Building in 20 minutes and went straight to the boiler. It was huge–eight-feet tall, six-feet wide–with a series of switches and handles to control it. The tank connected to a maze of pipes that delivered hot water, exactly 180 degrees, throughout the building’s heating system.

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“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you up and running.” The building was quiet, not another soul around. I turned a knob a bit to the right, then the next one to the left. There was a set sequence that had to be followed precisely to reset the boiler. I listened for it to fire up. Good.

There was nothing to do but wait. It took about 30 minutes for the boiler to run through the whole cycle. Still I didn’t dare leave, even to go to my office across the hall. I had to be sure. Everything depended on me.

The boiler ran perfectly, almost to the end of the final cycle, and then suddenly it went dead. I took a deep breath. Okay, I must have turned a knob too far. Nothing to worry about. I checked the wiring. Everything looked good.

I turned the first knob, then the second. Ensuring I did it exactly right. Again the boiler started, then died. I retraced my steps over and over. No matter what I tried, the result was the same. Finally, I went to my office and got the manual. I followed each instruction to the T.

Failure.

It seemed like I was only making the problem worse. The boiler shut down quicker with each attempt I made to fix it. Like it was mocking me. The building was growing colder by the minute. There was nothing more I could do. It was way after midnight.

I’d never felt more frustrated and useless. There was no possible way to repair the boiler. Not tonight at least. Come morning, I’d have to call the manufacturer. My only prayer was that my boss wouldn’t fire me on the spot. But what were the odds of that? He’d be furious. It would be a miracle if he wasn’t.

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Yes, I thought. A miracle! That’s what I needed. That was my only hope.

I knelt down, head cradled in my hands. “Dear God. I don’t know what to do. I need help. Give me the words to say to my boss. Help him understand.”

There was a knock on the door. Who could this be? I knew the building was empty. “Who is it?” I said, getting to my feet. T he door opened and in walked a young airman carrying a technician’s tool bag, spotless, as if it was being used for the first time.

He wore an olive-green uniform, perfectly pressed, open at the collar, cap in hand. His boots, I couldn’t help but notice, were shined to a mirror finish. I looked for his name tag, but he didn’t have one.

“Mr. Waller, I’m here to get this boiler going,” he said. “You can go back to your office and look after the rest of the building. I’ve got this covered.” His voice was strong, so confident that I didn’t think to question him. I felt immediately at ease.

“That’s great. I really appreciate you coming out.” He nodded and began adjusting the knobs on the boiler. I went back to my office and watched the monitor in amazement. The boiler came on and stayed on. Slowly the temperature and the humidity levels began to rise.

How had he fixed it so easily? I had to know the answer.

I went back to the boiler room. The airman was standing in the corner. “It just needed some adjusting but it’s running fine now,” he said. “The run-through with the flight simulators in the morning should be good to go.”

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“I can’t thank you enough,” I said. He was halfway through the doorway when it hit me. “I didn’t catch your name.” H e looked at me over his shoulder and said, “John.” I watched him walk down the hallway and out the door.

Except for the hum of the boiler the building was silent again. Quiet enough for me to hear John start the engine to his service vehicle. But I heard nothing. Had he walked? It was a good half-mile to the Heat Shop, the department that oversaw all the heating systems for the entire base.

I remembered the spotless bag he had carried. Could this really have been his first day? Pretty impressive. I’d definitely make sure to tell his boss.

Later that morning, when the operator came in to take the next shift, I drove over to the Heat Shop. The supervisor was just sitting down with a cup of coffee.

“That new airman, John, the one who got sent over to fix the boiler at the Flight Sim Building last night? He really knows his stuff. I would have never got it going without...”

The supervisor looked puzzled. “We don’t have an airman in the Heat Shop named John. And I know there were no service calls last night.” He paused. “Tom, are you feeling all right? You are turning white as a sheet. You better go home and get some rest.”

I said good-bye and stumbled out to my car in a daze. For the longest time I just sat there in the driver’s seat, questions flooding my mind. Who was this John? I hadn’t imagined him. I knew that without a doubt.

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But how had he known my name? Or that I had an office. About the critical performance tests for the flight simulators on Monday morning. The boiler. Yes, the boiler. He’d sure saved my bacon. As if he was responding directly to a call for help. But I hadn’t...

Then I remembered: my prayer for a miracle. God had sent me the ultimate repairman, always nearby, ready with the answer, an angel, on call 24/7.

 

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