THE COWARDLY LION,
The words “stay with us” burned their way into my consciousness, as I fought to comprehend the awful condition of my body and even my state of existence on the planet. The words kept repeating, as I tried to see through a distorted return of fuzzy imagery hot poker penetrating pain that rifled into the very center of my being. The pain came in waves that I rode as an unwilling surfer, each wave coming at me intolerably and inexorably, my stuttering breaths fighting to somehow survive by willing the troughs of those brutal waves to be something less than outrageous unsurvivable pain.
“Look at me, Junior, and stay with us,” a face said, the being’s beady eyes trying to bore their way into and then right through my own.
I tried to mouth the single word “okay” back, but nothing would come out. My breathing was only capable of riding the waves of red hot pain to bring me to seconds of minutely relieving but never-ending pain.
“Your hit bad through and through and you’ve got to fight it,” the moving mouth inches from my face said. “You are going out on the Huey right now. You’ll never make it waiting for the big bird.”
Some sort of consciousness, that thinking now foreign to me as the pain attempted to occupy every shred of every bit of any kind of rational thoughts I might otherwise have. I knew I was hit. I’d seen the NVA soldier rise from his spider hole not ten feet from my position. I’d been moving to the center of the company in order to figure out what so much fire had seemed to be concentrated and coming from there when all the company Marines were stationed in a great perimeter set up to defend against outside intrusion and attack.
In that instant, when the soldier had opened up with his AK-47, I knew the enemy was coming out of the earth. They’d been waiting, after digging like fiends to prepare, since we’d sheltered down in the same position prior to coming down the face of the wall almost a month before, and they’d been ready. The fire I was trying to find the source of was their fire, as they killed my Marines from the rear while the unit fought against what it believed was fire coming in from outside the perimeter.
The yellow and white blasts from the AK had been like a string of Christmas tree lights coming at me, much slower than bullets were supposed to go. I’d turned a tiny bit to begin attempting to evade the string, but I’d only made that turn with my upper body before running out of time. The bullets hit my side and then were gone. The soldier disappeared to somewhere as I went down, not knocked down like I’d seen in the movies or even over backward, but slowly, like a damaged building collapsing from the bottom up.
“I know the pain’s bad, really bad,” the small moving mouth with beady black eyes that wouldn’t leave my own said, “but I can’t give you morphine. Your system will simply shut down and let you die. The pain’s keeping you alive. We’re going to have you on the chopper and out of here in minutes.”
I thought of the morphine in my pocket, the pocket that still held the letter home to my wife I hadn’t been able to get aboard any helicopter since coming to the end of the valley. As the face moved back and away from my shortened visual field of view I managed to get one hoarsely whispered word out. I had to speak. I had to get the face to understand and then take action. I could not access the morphine the face would not give me without being able to use both hands and in my right hand, I held tightly, uncontrollably to something that prevented that hand’s use for anything other than what it was doing. I had to have the morphine and I didn’t care one whit about whether I died or not. I could not take the pain. I would not take the pain.
“Grenade,” I hissed across the short distance to the face.
The Marine stopped his retreat and leaned back down.
“Grenade?” he asked, his wetly smooth forehead furrowed with a deep frown.
“Right hand,” I got out, trying to gesture by nodding my head to the side and down toward my uncontrollably clutching hand, but my head would not move, any more than my hand could or would let go of the M33 grenade I’d pulled out of my right front pocket as I’d gone down from the effect of the bullets striking my torso. Once the hits registered right into the central core of my being, however, my ability to do anything other than pull and discard the pin had been taken from me.
The face disappeared and I went back to trying to ride the scorching awful waves radiating into and out of my shattered body. I was hemmed in. The bullets had to have gone in on one side of my torso and out the other because the waves of pain came from those sides into my interior and then seemed to reflect and bounce back to those sides. Time after time, with milliseconds between them.
“Jesus Christ,” a voice I recognized but could not place breathed out. “The pin’s pulled. Easy, easy, use the K-Bar to pry his fingers loose. He’s not going to give a damn about losing fingers at this point.”
I wanted to shout that I did give damn, that I wanted all my fingers, but I couldn’t say anything as the waves stole my voice, my breath, and even most of my ability to see.
I knew my hand hurt but also knew that the hurt there didn’t matter one bit. The waves racking their way back and forth through my body like those of a shaken bottle of coke absorbed that hurt like it was a remote matter too inconsequential to be anything more than noticed in a minor way.
“Fire in the hole,” a loud voice screamed.
Through the waves of white-hot heated pain, I felt and heard a loud explosion. I couldn’t remember hearing the explosions that had to have been occurring when the bullets came out of the AK and on into me, but the sound of the grenade going off was unmistakable.
The face leaned back in for a few seconds, “Got any more surprises, Junior? By God, you were a piece of work in your time,” and then was gone.
My ears rang, but I was used to that.
The face’s words; “You were a piece of work in your time,” ate their way through the pain, and on into some still open recess of my fractured mind. My time was over? I felt a familiar, yet alien, bolt of fear rush its way to the top of my roiling and shattered being.
The face was gone, the explosion far back in my somehow time-slowed existence. I was alone.
I worked my left hand over and down with impossible effort, the surging power of its goal overcoming iron strength of attempted life-stopping power of the surf-riding, nearly overwhelming, force of the pain.
The morphine. I clutched the small box containing the styrettes. The face had said that administering morphine would kill me.
I felt the plastic bag next to the morphine box, as I worked to get the box out of my wet pocket with difficulty. My letter home. I could not die. What would my wife and new daughter do without me? There was no money on her side of the family and my side of the family wasn’t likely to share a thin dime. My wife had worked three times in her life during college to help pay tuition. Once in a potato factory, once in a pet store and once as a recess director at a summer park. She had done remarkably well at those foundational and terrible paying jobs. There was little hope that she might find something to support herself and our daughter without me. I could not die, but I could not take the pain. It was simply too awful, and, in spite of what the face had said, I knew in what was left of my rationality that the morphine was very likely the only thing that might keep me alive.
I fumbled the package out, shredding the cardboard box as I did so while bringing my freed-up right hand over atop my agonized torso to grasp the tiny styrette. I breathed, and then breathed deeply again to get to a near-instantly passing trough between the giant waves of unbearable pain. I flicked the plastic cover off the top of the tube and then, as gently as my forced and shaking fingers could do it, I got the tiny metal stopper out of the end of the needle, wondering at the same time about the fingers I couldn’t see that had to still be there if I was able to do what I was doing.
I punched the needle of the tube into my stomach. There was no way I could bend my torso to get the drug into my thigh. I knew from long experience with the company in combat that one syrette wasn’t going to be enough. I pawed with my left hand and found another stuck in the mud covering my stomach. I punched a second syrette into nearly the same place the first one had gone. I knew that three syrettes were death for someone of my size. If I was to die from taking the two then it was a death meant to be. I would not do the three. My letter home to my wife still had to be posted, and I was duty-bound to get it in the mail. She, and my daughter, were all I had to hold onto and I wasn’t about to let them go.
The waves of fire-hardened pain began to come down from their vaulting heights as the morphine began to do its job. My breathing began to change from the sucked and vacated packets of spewing jungle air it had been to a level where my torso no longer beat itself up and down against the jungle floor.
The run across whatever compound the chopper had landed on was harder than the bumpy life-threatening ride from the edge of the A Shau. I couldn’t remember where on the base any medical facility was located, but I’d only breezed right on through, thanks to my lipping off to the division general officer only a month before. I saw the lights. Thousands of lights, and then I heard jet engines, many of them, all spooling up and getting ready for a pre-dawn liftoff. I realized I wasn’t in Ah Hoa. The chopper had taken the extra risk of bringing me straight into the First Medical Battalion. I was in Da Nang. If I was to receive care then that trauma center would be about the best I, or anyone else, could get.
“Get him to triage,” a female voice yelled.
“There’s no triage because there are no other patients,” a man’s voice overpowered hers. “Get him straight to surgery, no prep except blood, lots of blood”.
I felt as good as I could under the circumstance. I would only find out later triage was the place where patients were evaluated to see who might be the best candidates to survive because surgeons were very limited in number and on time.
“That’s a great Colt you’re wearing there, pardner,” one of the Marines dragging my poncho said. “Mind if I help myself?”
I couldn’t frame a reply. I felt my .45 lifted from the holster, surprised that it was still there. I had no use for any kind of gun, and I hoped then and there that I never would.
“What about that watch?” another Marine asked, glancing down. “Wow, who is this guy, anyway. Great Colt and even greater watch. He won’t need it where he’s going.”
I felt my watch being stripped away. I wanted the watch. Where was I going that I wouldn’t need a watch? But, once again, I could not get any words out.
A face appeared very close to my own, big sparkling eyes like those of Nguyen shining down upon me. It wasn’t Nguyen. I hadn’t seen him get off the chopper and instantly regretted not even thinking about him. Was he hit too, but too tough to show it? No, the man had said that there were no other patients. Not yet, I thought. If Nguyen and I had made it then there had to be others and they might be in as bad a shape as I was in, or maybe not so bad. Suddenly, I wanted to be in surgery as quickly as possible. I didn’t know what triage meant but I wasn’t stupid either. I wanted to be in surgery, but all I got was I.V.s being run into both my arms, my right thigh, and then the left side of my neck. I’d never heard of anyone getting four I.V.s at the same time. And then there was the face, whispering to me.
I listened closely to the whispering coming out of the mouth of the person whose face was way too close to my own: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”
I was receiving the last rites, and the whispering face belonged to a Catholic priest.
Terror all but overcame me as a clear plastic mask replaced the priest’s face. The last rites, administered to those that were dying but not dead yet. Gas pumped into the mask, and I tried to fight the numbing feel of it. I didn’t want to die. I had to get home. I had a letter to my wife in my pocket and that had to be mailed. I wasn’t done yet. And then everything went away. Not blackness but simply lost foggy awareness until that blackness finally crept in.
My first awareness of consciousness was light. Bright light. Too bright. I gagged, which is the only sound I could make. I wanted anyone there to turn down the lights.
“I’m Doctor North, your surgeon”, a deep voice from nearby said.
The man sounded exactly like Brother John from the Armed Forces Radio Network.
I slanted my eyes back and forth, unable to move my head which was taped down.
I saw him and was surprised. He was black. He had a pencil mustache and very short black hair, with some gray in it.
“We’re shipping you out of here to Yokosuka, Japan. You’ll get the best care there. You have a really good chance of making it. You have, what we call here, a survivor’s body. You should have died before you got here. You lost too much blood to live, but here you are. I did multiple resections and knitted the bone of your hip back together. Any more than that is going to have to wait for other surgeons along the way. Your file…someone wrote Junior next to your name. I marked that out with a magic marker. There’s no reason for any of this to follow you. You need medical help, not criticism.”
I had not been that kind to my black Marines. I’d been close to Zippo but always distant from Sugar Daddy and the rest of my black Marines. I’d killed some before things had settled down. Here was a black surgeon saving my life. I wondered about the priest and if they were somehow linked. Would God forgive me that easily from the punishments I most justly deserved? Would the prayer of the priest to release me from all punishments in this life have a full effect?
“This will get you through, for most of the flight,” a female voice said, only her hands visible enough for me to see. She injected something into one of my I.V. tubes.
I felt the gentle tugging grace of morphine, its effect so sinuously warm yet apparent in every way. My mind wandered almost immediately. What was going to get me through the rest of the five- or six-hour plane trip to Japan? But the morphine won all battles over such interior and groundless arguments. I went under again, although I was desperate to stay awake. Every time I went to sleep I just knew I had a really great chance of never waking up.
“Letter in my pocket to my wife, “ I got out to the injecting nurse. I tried to look at where my watch was supposed to be. I really wanted that watch.
“Well, okay, I’ll see to that,” the nurse replied, and then she was gone and everything else went with her.
I awoke again and listened intently for the sound of whirling turbines, but there was nothing.
A woman with a chart stood over me, as I was wheeled along. I wondered why hospitals didn’t put some sort of scenery on the ceilings in the hallways, as it was about all patients, like me, on gurneys, got to see. The woman spoke.
“We don’t get many doctors in here, especially not Air Force doctors.”
“Okay,” was all I could think to say.
“Where’d he come out of?” a male voice nearby asked.
“Da Nang,” it says here, originally.
“Holy crap, did you read this?” the woman said, obviously passing something I couldn’t see to the man, who I couldn’t quite make out either although he had to be standing very near to the gurney I’d never been offloaded from.
“He’s not medical corps at all,” the man said, awe in his voice. “The file’s stamped ‘M.C.’ but it means the Marine Corps, not medical corps. This guy is a Marine Officer fresh out of combat. We stabilize and ship to Yokosuka immediately, or immediately as we can. He’s just had surgery and no doubt needs more.”
“How far?” I finally croaked out, fearing the two medical personnel were about to leave.
“Thirty-Three miles,” the woman said.
“About an hour,” the man followed up.
“Morphine?” I tried to ask, but the word came out all broken and hushed.
“You better believe it,” the woman said. “It’s taken about half an hour to arrange a Jeep to get you there. I’ll medicate when you’re ready to go. You are on 4 Q.H. so that’ll be a little bit short of the rule but what the hell, it wasn’t your mistake so why should you pay?”
They left and I laid there, trying not to see a nearby patient who was missing half his face. His one good eye kept looking at and into me, like somehow, I was to blame for his awful condition. What, in combat, I wondered, could take off half, but not all, of a person’s face, and how would that happen to someone in the Air Force? The fact that the man might have been flying an airplane that got hit only occurred to me when I was in the Jeep, flying across a crummy half-decayed highway toward the Naval Hospital that was supposed to take care of whatever was left of me.
The ride wasn’t that bad. My gurney was strapped from the front of the Jeep’s lowered windshield to the rear seat. The gurney was angled up in the rear where my head was. I could see everything along the highway as we traveled, and with a fresh hit of the morphine, the trip, taking less than an hour, wasn’t bad at all.
I was on 4 Q.H. which meant that I got a 10-milligram shot of morphine every four hours. The first hour was an almost human experience. The second hour was an hour of uneasy endurance. The third hour was an hour of harsh endurance and the last hour could only be tolerated by a count down, minute by minute, second by second until another shot would be administered. The medical staff of all the trauma hospitals were very sensitive to getting that shot to the patients on nearly the very second, they were prescribed for. They’d learned early on in the war that the screaming that began when that fifth hour began wasn’t worth putting up with.
Yokosuka was a sprawling complex of one-story buildings, connected by narrow halls. The place looked, as I was driven slowly inside on one of the many nearly impassably narrow roads, like a warehouse series of dormitories for chickens. There were buildings all over the American Midwest used for exactly that purpose. The buildings were all made of wood with shake roofs. The wood was poorly painted in worn cream colors, while the window trim and doors were bright blue. One of the doors ahead opened up and the Jeep stopped.
“That’s our dirty surgery?” a man holding a file said.
I recognized the file that had accompanied me during my stay at Tachikawa Air Force Base, from where I’d departed half an hour ago by rapid Jeep travel.
I wondered what ‘dirty surgery’ meant but there was no time or anyone to ask about it as what little communication ability I had had been taken away by the generous shot of morphine the woman had administered, as promised, just before I left. The personnel at the Air Force Base had been polite, cheerful, and caring, but it had also been obvious that they wanted nothing to do with a combat Marine Officer just out of the valley.
I was not so gently shuffled off the Jeep mounted gurney onto a more portable model with rails and wheels, before being wheeled in through the blue door. From there it was a brief run down a hallway, passing closed door after closed door behind which I presumed other patients lay.
“X-ray, and then over to cardiac,” a male voice said. “If his hearts no good then this is an exercise in futility. He needs a room in dirty surgery and then more antibiotics and morphine. Those bullets took parts of his uniform and whatever else was laying around the jungle area, into the interior of his body. They can’t have found them all at First Med. The next big fight is going to be the infection if we make it that far.”
Music came from somewhere, and all I could do was think of Fusner, and his little bitty radio. How much it meant to him to turn it on down in the valley, and finally also coming to understand that he was playing it many times for me.
The song was Never My Love, a song that had played on the system that was part of the Basic School back so seemingly long ago. Never My Love, the lyrics played, and they had no meaning in my life as I was being wheeled into a surgery situation I wasn’t likely to survive. “What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends on you (on you)…never my love, never my love.”
But did those words have meaning, really? My wife, my daughter, my existence on the earth. “Never my love.” There was no plan to assign the words to, as I had so often done down in the valley. There was no ‘never my love’ mission, and there was no audience of very concerned and worried Marines to play to. Fusner’s music reached inside me, and I knew, at that moment, that the men, as he had so demonstrated, would never leave my consciousness or attention ever again. The litany of those gone rang through me like bells, syncopated with the passage of the lights on the ceiling below which I traveled. Sugar Daddy, the Gunny, Jurgens and so many more, apparently, or in reality, all dead and gone. I only knew Nguyen to be alive and I clung to that, although it wasn’t likely I’d ever see or hear from him again.
A face appeared in front of my own, as I traveled the light segmented road to surgery. The face seemed too close and too intent. The man’s mouth was speaking words but I could not understand them. I listened as closely as I could.
“Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed,” the man said, his eyes peering intently into my own. And then it hit me, and the fear that had been eased back, along with much of the pain, by the morphine came crashing back into the center of my being.
The man saying the words was a Catholic priest. He was administering the last rites to me, and not just any last rites, but the one’s to be delivered to anyone about to die at any moment.
I entered the surgical room and the priest was brushed away. I had nowhere to take my awful fear of dying. A clear plastic mask was attached to my face and the world around me began to whirl.
“You ask me if there’ll come a time when I grow tired of you,” the words from the Association song played, as I went into unconsciousness. I tried to hang on, to interpret the words and their meaning but it was too late. I was gone.
NEVER MY LOVE