Friday, August 29, 2008

Gourds

Yosemite Trip
We had stopped by the side of the road to buy gourds. Suddenly on a 2 lane semi-country road there was a little shack type affair with huge baskets of multi-colored gourds. It was the Fall and we were driving to Yosemite. This was to be one of our periodic celebrate the relief of the scan. Normally, when Sarah got her CT scan, we waited for a day or two, while I pleaded with the nurses for the results.
It had become one my jobs. Sarah would drink the drink, get the scan and then I would start badgering people for the results. In practice only physicians were to give out the results, but I had learned that politeness and expressions of fear by an adult male can get the results over the phone from any of several decent fellow human beings.

Sarah and I would get shaky before each scan. Somehow, getting a clean scan meant more to us than it should. We knew that. We knew that 1 minute after the scan some little tumor would grow big enough to show up. But, we were always very happy to have a clean scan.

This time I was not able to get anyone to give me the results. They kept telling me that the results were not in yet. I believed that (why?). It was late Friday. We decided to go on to Yosemite. We had a reservation at the Ahwahnee, a wonderful spot.
Sad to say, my cell phone rang. Since we were on a little road, I pulled off onto the shoulder and heard the voice of a physician. He told me the scan results showed tumors on Sarah’s liver. He was not our regular oncologist and told us that we should call her on Monday. Typical of me, I wanted to go back home. Sarah said, “Why? We’ll just be depressed. Let’s be depressed in Yosemite.” So, we went on.

I have never been back. We staggered around for a few days. We spoke briefly of death. But then we pushed that back into it’s black bag. Our oncologist called us but the floor of Yosemite is not a cell phone friendly place. She apologized for not telling us herself and gave us the pep talk that there is always something more to do and indeed we did many, many “things” over the next 4 years.

We bought some gourds, but threw them away when we got home. The trip didn’t really work out.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A clear memory

Although my job in the hospital was to work in the locked psychiatric unit, I spent a lot of time in the general hospital. It was Letterman General Hospital, 1967. The hospital was made of wood. It had many long ramps connecting the various wards to allow wheelchairs and gurneys and the many wheeled things that move about in hospitals. Since this was an Army hospital, everyone wore a uniform except for the occasional civilian visitor.

I wore a Class A uniform which is the traditional “dress uniform” for enlisted people. Most of the staff wore “whites” which designated them persons who did direct patient care. I was a social work technician. Everyone had a little plastic badge that explained our name, rank and our specialty.

Because of overcrowding in the barracks, many of us were allowed to live off base. I lived in Berkeley with my wife, Sarah. Each day, I drove my little blue Volkswagen across the bay bridge to work at the hospital.

One day, I got a letter. In those days, letters came in paper envelopes with stamps. My letter had the postmark indicating it was coming from a military base. The letter was from a friend, Michael, who was in the infantry. He had never written to me. However, I knew Michael was in Vietnam. . He wrote that his buddy, John, had stepped on a mine. Since we all knew that John would be evacuated to a hospital near his home, it was expected that he would arrive at my hospital, Letterman, at some point.

Michael asked that I look out for John.

In those times, I was already reading the obituaries in the Army Times most every day. Occasionally, I would recognize name. I had only been in the Army a short time but friends from high school were being sucked into the military and on rare occasions a name would flash by. But John was alive. I needed to find out if John was in Letterman.

Every day, the hospital printed 3 X 5 cards with information on new admissions. We would get a little deck of cards. I decided to make it my task to go through the cards each day looking for John. Looking back it seems odd that I found him.
He was a complete stranger and had no idea who I was. As a social work technician, I could go anywhere and ask about anyone. I found him on the day his leg had been amputated surgically. As it was explained to me, he was fitted immediately with a prosthetic leg and would be up on it very quickly.

In the ward where John was living, everyone had lost a leg. At the foot of each bed a prosthetic leg stood, as if at attention. The legs were all perfectly lined up as in a military formation. This is one my clearest memories from the hospital.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Army Story

After more than 40 years this relatively minor story seems to roll back and forth in my mind. Whenever, I think of writing any of these events down, this story comes right up to the top. I’m really not sure why. Maybe you will know.
We lived in very large two story barracks. We were in Monterey, or so I thought. Today, it would be Seaside, California. I was 23 years old and a relatively old person to be drafted. It was 1966. My platoon slept on bunk beds in one single room. We had a foot locker and a locker for things on hangers. We had no personal possessions. Those items had all been sent home. We were forbidden to even save letters.
I was not having fun.
The story is about our last days. Somehow, I had survived basic training. As a very unfit 23 year old who had been at a desk job when drafted, I was limping about on what I later learned was a stress fracture of my leg. In order to leave to go to our next duty assignment, we had to turn in our weapons. This was, I later learned, part of the great theater that was basic training.
Turning in your weapon meant cleaning it to an inspector’s satisfaction.
In the morning, long tables were set up with white sheets on each table. Inspectors (our drill instructors) sat at the tables while we were instructed to clean our rifles. We all disassembled the weapon and spread them out in the grass on our own bed sheets. We then cleaned and polished parts of the weapon. When we thought it was ready, we would take all the parts in a pillow case to the inspector. He would look at it and then reject it.
No matter how often you went up, no matter how you cleaned the metal, it would be rejected.
Around Noon, my brain, which had been on temporary hold for about 9 weeks began to function. I realized that the ritual involved the rejection. I took my pillow case of parts and went into the barracks and waited. I think I may have even dared to relax a bit. As the sun began to set, I observed everyone getting approval. I went back outside, got in line and low and behold my rifle was clean.
That wasn’t my only lesson that day. As I tried to put my weapon back together, a tiny spring in a something called the trigger housing sprang away from me into the grass. It was forever lost. The sun was setting very fast and this had all the elements of a ghastly moment. If I did not take the rifle, intact, to the armory, I could not even imagine the screaming that would occur, no less the punishment. So again, my brain worked. I assembled the rifle without the missing spring. Everything looked correct. I took it down the stairs where the weapons were stored. I turned in the rifle and went back to the barracks.
Today, more than 40 years later, I still think about that day. I’ve told the story over and over in my mind.
I learned to watch the system, play the game and lie.

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