I awoke in bits and pieces. I blinked my eyes up at the ceiling, which was made of some strange greenish plaster, with light bulbs swinging slightly from wires hanging vertically down. I realized, hazily, that I was in some sort of hard-roofed tent. I tried to move my head but something was holding it down. I raised my right hand with difficulty, as I.V. tubes were heavily taped to most of my arm. I felt my neck. An I.V. was attached under the side of my jaw.
A man’s face appeared from my left side, centering itself over my own, about four inches from me. I wanted to back up or sink lower in the slanted bed but I could not move at all.
“Surgery went well but it’s going to be a long hard road from here,” the man said, his brown eyes remaining steady and unblinking.
“Doctor?” I managed to get out.
“Hardly,” the face said. “I’m your corpsman, your orderly, letter-writer, bathroom assistant, and plenty more.”
I realized that the man’s face was way too young to be that of a doctor.
“You a corporal?” I asked, not knowing why I asked.
“Lance,” the boy said.
“I had a corporal once,” I breathed out, the enormity of Fusner’s death rushing like a load of rocks falling from the ceiling. I grimaced, but could only shut my eyes. I wasn’t crying. Fusner deserved tears but I had none. I felt bad about that too. “Sorry,” I breathed out.
“That’s okay,” the Lance Corporal said. “You’re in a lot of pain. You’ve got an hour to go but I can push it to q 3h every once in awhile if you’re in a bad spot.”
I couldn’t understand how a Lance Corporal Corpsman could order or ‘push’ anything but knew I’d once more entered a world where I was an FNG all over again.
“Okay,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. I fought Fusner out of my mind, feeling guilty about that too. The Lance Corporal had said he was a letter-writer, and that had impacted on me. I was strapped down with I.V. tubes in both arms, still getting blood and then clear stuff too. I could not write home and there was no way to call either. My wife was going to need an accurate report of my situation and condition, as well as knowing where I was, as quickly as she could get it. My letters home had not been accurate, for the most part, and neither had most of our reports sent to the rear from the field. The letter I needed to write, or have the Lance Corporal write, would have to be accurate, understandable, and sent right away. I had no faith in whatever communications my wife would be receiving from the Marine Corps. My parents also deserved a letter.
“What’s your name?” I whispered to the corporal, my strength seeming to ebb a bit.
“Shoot,” the corporal replied, finally pulling himself back from the side of my bed to the point where I couldn’t see him again. “I’m from Little Chute in Wisconsin, so everyone calls me Chute, but I’m not little.”
“No, of course not,” I got out.
“That’s my nickname, spelled like shooting a rifle like you’re Junior. Ranks don’t work really well in this kind of place.”
“How’d you know my nickname?” I asked, some strength returning at the mention of my own name, in light of how damaged I was in an unknown position and situation.
“The doctor blotted that off my file.”
“Word travels fast in this place. I don’t know how. It’s all English inside and all Japanese on the outside…and the Japanese don’t particularly like us here.”
There was a silence after that. I realized, after a short time, that the corporal was gone. For some reason, I didn’t want to be alone to go through the next terrible last hour, while the morphine was fast wearing off. I could do it by breathing and watching the huge clock, mounted up on the wall with a big loud-ticking second hand. I could count seconds. It took six seconds for me to breathe in and out. I figured that out right away. Ten breaths a minute. Six hundred breaths to the next morphine shot. I could do it.
“This is Kathy, your nurse,” Shoot’s voice spoke from nearby, his presence too far to the side to allow me to see him, or Kathy, however.
Kathy appeared suddenly, at my right side. She had long brown hair I saw right away, wore no cap, but was dressed in white like nurses were supposed to be. Her eyes smiled and sparkled. I tried to smile back but I had no tears, and now no smiles in me.
“Nurse Kathy?” I asked.
“Just Kathy will do fine,” she replied, grasping the I.V. tube running into my right wrist, and quickly injecting something into it.
“Shoot says you’re in a bad way,” Kathy said, disposing of a syringe, it making a slight clang as it fell into a metal container of some sort on the floor. “Your chart says you are dead, so I guess an extra shot, here or there, isn’t going to affect that condition. I’ll be seeing you.”
Kathy walked away, her shoes making a whispery sound on what I presumed was a bare concrete floor.
“You’ll get used to her,” Shoot said.
“Does the chart really say that?” I asked, tentatively.
“So, I guess there’s no wonder why they call you Junior, huh?” Shoot replied.
I didn’t understand the corporal’s answer but caught the sarcasm in his voice as he’d said the words, intimating that I was too dumb to understand him.
The morphine hit me and the room spun once before centering itself. The pain flowed out of me like something traveling fast down a flooded river. I stopped counting my breaths and closed my eyes. Whatever Kathy had hit me with was powerful, indeed.
“I’m here whenever you need me,” Shoot said, his voice seeming to come up from the floor on my left side, but nothing of his body was visible.
“Why are you staying?” I asked, without opening my eyes. I knew I was going out and I was so relieved. I also knew if I did not go out then I wasn’t going to be making much sense in short order.
“I’ll always be here, as long as you’re here,” the corporal said. “I sleep on a cot through that door over there under the clock. I sleep with the door open in case you need me, courtesy of the United States Navy. You get your own corpsman and a private room and a television. Feel special. The television is all in Japanese though. The good news is that they don’t have restrictions about having naked women on them.”
“Letter home, wife,” I got out. “Letter home, wife,” I said again, putting all the energy I had left into it while wondering if all corporals in the Marine Corps were as wonderful as Fusner, and now Shoot.
“Got you,” the corporal said. “You want me to write it and get it off toot sweet, or do you want to wait until you’re better?”
I had no energy left to speak. I tried to wave my left fingers at him but realized they were all bandaged. I’d forgotten about the damage to my hand.
“I’ll write the truth if you want it, about where you are, what they’ve done to you, and the damage and prospects for your survival. I’ll give her the address here and the Captain’s personal address in case she wants to hear from the commander of the facility. I’ve done this before. I just need her address since your file only has your parent’s address as your home of record.”
“Pocket,” I squeezed out, “parents too.” I’d pre-addressed a couple of envelopes I had tucked into my trouser pocket.
I passed out, being almost certain, however, that my trousers had gone the way of my watch and my .45.
I awoke again, and it was light. I knew I had awakened several times in the night because I had vague memories of someone I presumed to be Shoot hovering over me before I’d go under again.
An older woman walked from the bottom of the bed to my left side, before stopping to lower my chart and looking down at me. She wore a black dress and her heels clicked, which meant that she wasn’t wearing a nurse’s shoes.
“I’m Barbara, and I’m a volunteer, ostensibly with the Red Cross but actually with anybody who wants me,” she said, sounding like one of the Maryknoll nuns I’d spent most of elementary and high school learning under, and being totally dominated by.
“Yes,” I whispered back, my mouth awful tasting and dry.
‘You’re in a world of hurt and on a spinning planet of trouble, is what it says here. They’re working away on all this medical stuff but there’s other junk you need, no doubt. That’s my department.” She bent down and looked at me closely for the first time.
“Good God, you still have the mud of that Vietnam jungle in your hair,” she said, more to herself than me. “Shoot!” she yelled.
I heard running feet.
“Yes, ma’am,” Shoot replied from very close, although I couldn’t see him.
“I’m no ma’am to you,” Barbara said, very forcefully.
“Yes, ma’am,” Shoot said, although there seemed to be a bit of fear in his tone.
I thought of Fusner again. It would be just like him to reply the same way, or it would have been, I corrected myself.
“Ice, since he’s NPO. Nothing by mouth but he can suck on ice. Toothpaste and brush, and get one of those nurses to wash his hair. And turn on the television. Get some damned life in this awful cloister of a room. And why the hell is he here? Look at this chart. He should be in ICU, like right now. Condition critical, prognosis poor, and he’s abandoned in some little hole like this? Where’s the damned surgical team? Suzuki’s here today. He needs to be on this. Find them and report back, like yesterday.”
I’d wanted to ask for a pain shot, but the manner and force of her delivery had taken me completely by surprise.
Barbara stepped to the end of my bed, replaced the medical chart, and walked out of the room, her heels clicking loudly, yelling over her shoulder: “I’ll be back in ten minutes and things better have changed by then.”
Shoot appeared at my side, his face white, staring at the still swinging door Barbara had exited through.
“I need a shot,” I finally said, “what’s the countdown?”
“Kathy will be on her way right now, don’t worry,” Shoot replied.
“Who is that woman?” I asked, my breath easing as I knew the pain shot had to be on the way.
“She’s a volunteer,” Shoot said, softly.
“Why does it seem like she’s a lot more than that?” I asked, “for sure, you’re a bit scared of her. I think I’m even scared of her.”
“She’s also the Captain’s wife,” Shoot replied. “The Captain who runs this whole hospital complex.”
“Why did she say I should be in Intensive Care, and why aren’t I if I should be?” I asked, as Kathy entered the room, walked to my opposite side from where Shoot stood, and gently inserted a needle into one of my I.V. lines.
“I hear they are moving you,” she said, “about damned time. The evaluation team is on the way to check you out. Our dirty surgery I.C.U. only holds three patients and it was full, but not anymore.”
“Barbara throw somebody out on the lawn?” Shoot asked, a bite to his tone as he said the words.
“Shipped home,” Kathy said, tossing the syringe and moving toward the open door. “I’ll be back to arrange the move once they approve you. The good news is that you’ll be right between Lewis Puller and Masters.”
“I’ve got to get the ice, the toothpaste and I’ll wash your hair myself when you get down to I.C.U.”
“Shipped home?” I asked the corporal.
“Yeah,” he replied, his voice telling me what I really didn’t want to hear. The patient wasn’t being shipped in a seat.
“Who’s Puller and Masters?” I asked, as Shoot headed for the door.
“Chesty Puller’s, and General Master’s sons,” he said, over his shoulder as he went.
Kathy walked into the room.
“The surgical team is dropping by on rounds to determine your status for the I.C.U. bed. That you are conscious and handling the drugs so well is a big plus. I’ll crank you up to a more vertical position.” She approached the bottom of the bed, bent down, and began working a crank.
My upper body bent, as the upper half of the bed slanted up more vertically. An alarm went off.
“What the hell?” Kathy said, standing before me. I noticed right away that I could not blink or move anything at all.
“Crank him down,” Kathy yelled, running for the door. “We need a crash cart and the duty doctor on this wing. We’ve lost him.”
I watched Shoot crank, his eyes staring into my own until the angle was such that I was staring at the ceiling once again.
Kathy ran back into the room pushing a narrow blue cart to the side of the bed, and then going to work to untangle wires and whatever else was on top of the cart. A doctor, his stethoscope extended in his right hand, leaned over and pushed the cold rubber end of it onto my chest.
“Nothing,” he said, to my amazement. He pulled back a bit from the bed and plopped his scope onto my bare opened stomach incision. “Clear” he yelled, turning slightly so Kathy could place a metallic paddle in each of his hands.
“Set for 300 joules,” Kathy said.
The doctor, named Peter, if the nametag on his left breast was a true indication, pressed the paddles to my chest.
Suddenly, my whole body jumped and it felt like a huge baseball bat had struck me squarely in the center of my chest. I gasped once, and then again, only realizing that I had not been breathing at all for the longest time. The pain came rushing in as the doctor stepped back.
“Got him, normal sinus rhythm,” he said, handing the paddles back to Kathy.
“Leave the cart, but let them know at the desk where it is, just in case we lose him again before we ship. And forget about qualifying for I.C.U. Down there he goes, on my orders, stat. The surgical review’s canceled.”
I waited, breathing in and our lightly and slowly, trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened. It wasn’t possible. I knew Kathy and the doctor were not wrong or making things up. The pain had been gone completely for the first time since I had been hit. I hadn’t been breathing. I couldn’t move and my eyes would not blink. I’d been dead, with no blood flow going to my brain. It was not possible to be conscious under such circumstances, I knew, but I had been.
Moments went by, the pain once again inside my very center, threatening to absorb all thought of anything but getting through.
“You’re being transported, and the boards are old and rough in all the halls here,” Kathy said, unlocking the bed’s brakes, one wheel after another. She moved the bed, to make sure it was portable, then walked around to join Shoot at my left side. She held out one hand toward the corporal.
“This is a bonus shot to get you down there,” she said, pulling the plastic tip off the syringe Shoot had handed her.
She punched it lightly into the plastic tube of my left arm I.V. “Not much, but it’ll have to do. You can’t take much after the arrest.”
“We’re not supposed to, but I’m going to have another corpsman take the crash cart with us, just in case something happens along the way. We’ve got plenty of stuff down there but you’re pretty unstable just now, I’m going to presume.”
Whatever was in the shot hit me hard. I wondered if it was because of the heart incident. For some reason, I had not been afraid of dying, and I was not now, which was uncommon. Down in the A Shau, I’d been afraid almost every moment of every day and night, in some way or another, but the pain and misery of my life there had been surface and fleeting compared to what I was having now. I’d somehow made a trade, fair or unfair, of terror for pain. Maybe I couldn’t survive the two occurring together so my mind was trying to protect me. I realized after the paddles had hit me, that I had much less understanding of the world and what went on in it, than I’d thought.
Shoot left and came back almost immediately with another corpsman. I could only tell by assumption and sound, as I was flat on my back once again. Kathy pushed my bed, while Shoot guided it from the foot. I was moved out the door and then down the hall, the bed bouncing fairly wildly, as Kathy had told me it would, as we raced along, I.V. bags swinging from three metal stalks that bent slightly, back and forth against the movement.
“I was awake,” I forced out, up to Kathy’s upside-down face leaning over me as she pushed the bed.
“What?” She asked back.
“I was awake while you and the doctor were working on me,” I said.
“Not possible,” Kathy replied. “It’s the drugs. You were coded out. No heartbeat, no EKG, no nothing. You were gone for more than a minute, although not long enough to be otherwise affected, we hope.”
You told the doctor that you were setting that machine for 300 joules, whatever those are,” I said.
“That’s a standard-setting for defibrillation cardiac restart,” Kathy replied.
“The doctor’s name,” I gasped up toward her. “The doctor had never been in to see me. He was from somewhere else in the hospital.”
“Yes?” Kathy said, “that’s true, but just because you never saw him before isn’t exactly special.”
“His name is Peter,” I whispered, knowing that the shot she’d given me was fast taking away my ability to talk.
“Yes, that’s true,” Kathy replied.
“How would I know?” I asked.
“How would you know?” she asked back.
“Because it was on the nametag he was wearing on his right breast when he leaned over me with the paddles.”
The bed suddenly stopped moving, with a jolt.
“What did you say?” Kathy asked, her face now only inches from my own.
“I read his nametag,” I repeated.
“Shoot?” Kathy asked, “was Doctor Peter wearing his nametag?”
“He always wears his nametag,” Shoot replied. “He loves his nametag. He’s proud of his name, being the ‘rock’ and all that from in the Bible.
“Damn,” Kathy breathed out, looking back down at me. “There’s something special about you, but I’m damned if I know what it is. Let’s see if we can save what’s left of your life.”
She bent into the top of the bed and began pushing more powerfully than she had before.