Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Walnut St. Berkeley - Home for a bit

While I was being trained as a combat medic, I was "put on orders" to report to Letterman General Hospital.  I was living in barracks at Ft. Sam, but almost without notice, I was given a plane ticket back to Berkeley with instructions to report to the hospital.  Sarah had given up our beautiful Berkeley apartment and was preparing to drive to Texas.  Within a few days, that trip was cancelled and I flew home.

We rather quickly found a new apartment in Berkeley on Haste Street.. In fact, Sarah found it.  It was furnished and down a rather dark hallway.  It was near campus.
Walnut St. in Berkeley

In the span of a few days, I went from waiting for orders to Vietnam to unpacking in a new strange apartment with my wife.  This was a brief stay before we moved, yet again.

The war was churning. I reported to the hospital.

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Can an institution be rambling? The hospital was a huge single story structure made of wood.  At the main entrance, there was a typical drive around spot with a flag pole in the middle.  Of course, there were rocks painted white to denote the road. Flowers grew around the rocks were carefully tended by prisoners with a large “P” painted on their denim jackets.  They were guarded by men with shotguns.  The scene was never noteworthy.  You saw it but never looked carefully.

Inside the hallways was a painted wooden floor. The floor had slats of wood which caused rolling gurney’s to make a staccato and precise sound.  If you stopped to listen it was a constant roar throughout the hospital.

Along the many long hallways that connected the wards, there were windows with window seats.  The patients wore dark blue pajamas that were heavy.  Patients could wear them outside on a cold and foggy San Francisco day.  The pajamas had matching jackets for those extra cold days.

The window seats were a good spot to rest as you navigated the hall. Depending on their level of recovery, young men would pull and steady themselves using the handrails along every hall.

 Occasionally there would be heavy swinging doors that defined different wards.  People on crutches or with new prostethics took these doors as challenges.  Fully functional people were never allowed to help. That was part of the culture.  Every patient had to struggle with each door and an observer no matter how troubled must never help. To do so was to invite cursing and anger. You might even evoke misplaced rage by a boy on crutches with 1 real leg.

I had a very easy job working as a social work technician in the psych ward.  Surrounded by variously wounded soldiers, I knew I was a very lucky person since I had not yet received “orders” to go to Vietnam.

After lunch, each day, we would cluster around the mail room. Since we were in San Francisco, not far from the United States, it was not mail we were seeking. It was “orders.”  If you received orders they came on a yellow sheet of paper.  So, as we craned our necks to look into the mail room, we each learned to spot our little mail slot located on a huge rack.  If nothing was there, we could relax for another day. 

Each day some of us did get orders, so that kept us coming back.  Typically those that were called just disappeared into the machine. They would pack up and depart.  No farewells were spoken.  If you had a good friend you might get a postcard some day.

I did get a postcard but it was from a college friend. He was indeed in Vietnam and somehow knew where I was stationed.  He told me his friend John had lost a leg and was coming to Letterman. He asked me to find John.

In a time before computers and in a hospital with 1000 patients, finding John became a quest.  Each day, all new admissions were put onto a 3X5 card.  A fresh deck of such cards was sent all over the hospital each morning.

I read the cards for weeks with religious determination to find this stranger who was a kindred spirit and another stranger in the army.

I found him.

He was on a ward for persons who had lost 1 or more legs.  I went to the ward and found it completely empty.  I wandered around and found a medic who knew of John and told me that John was in surgery but soon, very soon, he would be out of surgery and standing on his new leg.  That was an important part of recovery. Get up quickly.

The ward was, as all such things in an Army hospital, pristine and orderly. The beds were all in perfect alignment. There were perhaps 60 beds.  Pillows were centered on skin tight sheets.  But something was strange. There were prosthetic legs standing at attention near the foot of several beds.  They were waiting.

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