Heading for the Hospital

10 Nov

“You’ve got to be fearless, son.
You are heading for the hospital…”

Army general hospitals welcome you with sterile detachment and chrome furniture. They suggest “get lost.” Combat aid stations are more intimate: cruddy and homey. No forms. Medics exhausted. To be avoided. Our shiny new doctor, a nice kid, evicted me from my suite at the Shinbashi Hotel where I ran the local radio news and OJ station when I felt like it.

“Mister, we have a serious problem. Get on the Tokyo Express. Your papers are ready.” The walk from the station to the Hospital was a cultural event as was the train ride. I was an American savage on their sacred soil. They treated me with disdain even though I was shined up for some whoopee time in the city, which wasn’t much in September 45..

While playing basketball, I was hit with a hard pass. I broke my glasses. For new ones I had to go to Tokyo, get new specs and hop the next freight north. It didn’t work that way – it worked the Army way. There was no private car for Americans so I crammed in with a mob of Japanese G.I.s. We might have met on Luzon. Most wore surgical masks, a few carried sidearms. It was so crowded, people stood on the seats while others crouched between their feet. They made a circle to give me fighting room. There would a slaughter. That was the promise.

An ancient lady, perhaps a hundred years old got on board with a back pack twice her size. Taking my life in my hands, I cleared a seat for her. She jabbered and cried. I insisted and she sat, mouth open, petrified. The Japanese pointed at me “Aha! Aha!” and said something menacing. But when the train pulled into Tokyo, a Japanese officer (two stars and a six shooter) ordered the troops to clear the way for the American. He insisted that I go first through the window. All doors were jammed with luggage.

A fat MP ordered me to halt, which I skidded to do. He pointed me across the square where dignified Japanese businessmen rushed about in black suits, in white boxer shorts – carrying their trousers over their arms. In the lobby, silent, broken Americans loafed or limped about in circles.

“I broke my glasses playing basketball,” I announced and showed them my broken frame. They’d never seen a broken eyeglass frame. “What?” the idiot in charge screeched. I could have used expletives but didn’t, thereby saving my life. He took my pulse and blood pressure, looked down my throat and up my backside. He checked me for VD and made me drink something. A mute lackey threw me a robe, large and fleecy, pointed me to a ward, and told me to get undressed. I squalled, “I’m here for a —- pair of eyeglasses.” I could walk around, he said, but this is my bunk for the night. He would study my case data. “We don’t see many guys like you who need eyeglasses,” he scowled over his shoulder.

“I’m here for eyeglasses,” I told the nurse as I delivered my urine sample which was orange like my skin and eyes. “What have you got?” I told her tearfully that I had these broken eyeglasses. She said “Hmmm.”

“You’ll stay for the night, it’s dangerous out there,” she warned. “Not at all. I just came from out there. I was on a train load of Jap soldiers and they snubbed me,” I whined. “They’re glad to be home and alive, just like me.” She was red headed, green eyed, and cutely pudgy in white – with captain’s bars. I followed her: an undulating cloud, all eyes attached to her articulated rear. “My company needs me, there’s a war going on.” She gave me the Irish evil eye. “Stop that, the war’s over. You should have been there, General. You missed the laughs?” I hadn’t, she knew.

After a tin plate dinner I toured the ward. The men were damaged and anxious, but hopeful and safe. Most being patched up for a ship to San Diego or Guam. I was there for glasses. A kid with missing fingers said, “Wow! You get a Purple Heart?” I said I would. He was going home, glad he didn’t need glasses like me. After dinner and cleanup the nurse captain came back to the ward. It was calming down for lights out. That’s when she went into her cutesy comedy act

She went from the formidable to the divine. She cruised the ward, swinging suggestively, tossing Marilyn Monroe kisses and mildly naughty jokes. “If there’s anything you boys need, just anything, you let me know.” There was more of that as she checked charts, made notes, then lights out. There were sounds of pain. Nature called an hour later. Nurse Reedy was on station at the head of the corridor, studying charts. “You o.k. General?” she asked. (‘I’m not a General, you know that, Captain.” I smiled. “Just got to make a visit.” “Hey guy, I know a General when I see one.” What a nice laugh, beautiful teeth and the heartbreak I saw at an overworked field hospital on Luzon.

I got talking to a guy in the latrine. We had a smoke or two. A half hour. When I passed her desk, her head was down and she was sobbing or having a bad dream. I didn’t interfere. The next morning I caught a truck and rode back with my new glasses.

I think of her. She’s in her eighties now and I hope her grandchildren crawl all over her and tell her how much she’s loved.

My life experience with Army hospitals isn’t much. I had some brass taken out of an eye. A cartridge blew out. Then I broke a tooth and I still have it. It’s older than my dentist. I got malaria in Mississippi and a bad tarantula bite. Broke a toe on a tactical jump in Georgia. Up in the hills, we all caught something; mine was paratyphoid with a 105 fever. I was toted off to a field hospital. It was hobo junction, smelled like a dump and was in range of Japanese patrols. Rain turned to steam. I said I couldn’t stay the night and tried to run, collapsed and passed out. Orderlies dumped me on a wet cot. The doctor made a good guess and a nurse shot me full of miracles. In the morning I was pounds lighter. I tried walking but I fainted and crashed. B-Co was in R&R – a good time to be deathly sick.

My cot faced the surgery tent. I got a big jug of water and they ordered me to drink all of it; I was dehydrated. It was a night of demonic movies; scratchy black, white and blue. At sundown, they brought in some half dead Japanese and I watched, as they did amputations, dressed the wounds, pulled shrapnel and all of that. It was slow, robotic and there was music. Doctors and nurses floated around. They put this officer on a cot near mine. I had seen them lift his leg and cut it off. He talked softly to somebody until he sighed and died. It was faraway, no noise, swirling blue green, black, white and blackish red. No air, just clouds of choking fumes.

I said a prayer for the enemy, for us and for the doctors and nurses. One nurse was red headed and wrapped in oversized fatigues. It was not yet morning, black except for lights in the operating tent. Twelve kinds of hell broke loose. It was not an attack, it was worse.

Two American patrols clashed at sundown. The Ml sounds like a bull, so it took only long enough to produce a dozen dead and wounded. The stretchers came in a dismal line; doctors and nurses were now working on our people, and once more I watched that terrible ballet as arms, legs … oh, hell. I passed out and the night passed, too.

She shook me gently. “You o.k. General?” The spasms had gone, the air was cool; nurses slept on a pile of laundry. My blankets were soaked. The dead Jap officer was gone. People in the surgery drank coffee and a radio played Miller. The night never happened. She was dirty and tired. “Don’t look. I have to stick this needle into your butt; either side or up the middle? That can pinch.” She stabbed me. “Holy Cripes, what was that?” I howled. “Coffee, a waker upper, rise and shine.” She smacked my butt. “I love doing that.” Then, with a motherly word and a smile for each of us she drifted into the blue morning light, out of hells bloody night.

 It was a tough, realistic Infantry Camp. The big blowout happened. After Demolitions School 1had the task of simulating what it would be like for a company to cross an open field under mortar fire. Half sticks of dynamite with blasters and exploder cord were dug in deep at roughly 20 yard intervals. Our crew made it safe and predictable. At noon, the operation was cancelled. We were to disassemble the mine field and return the stuff to Supplies. That un-doing would have been a giant mistake. We wired the explosives to a falling down Southern mansion. Boards and roof slates flew a hundred yards and the artillery boys were deprived of a target.

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