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.