I watched Japanese television. I didn’t understand almost any of it, but Shoot had clued me in, early on, that the Japanese had no qualms about showing bare female breasts on their regular programming. That part of Japanese television was okay. Rory had come and gone so quickly I hadn’t gotten used to having a roommate, so the solitary nature of my stay was only broken by the fact that Shoot and Pus dropped by all the time while Kathy and Barbara were always around too.
One morning, the morning of my fourth week at the Hospital, I received my first visitor, I mean following the board of inquiry that had shown up so long ago when I was brand new. This visitor was another Marine Officer who was ‘stopping through’ on his way through. There was a nearby Bachelor Officers Quarters at Yokosuka where many stayed until they could tie-up with the flight home they needed. The officer named Bob White spent a couple of hours with me as if he was trying to bring me out of some depression, or something. He had a ton of questions about my time in the A Shau Valley since he’d never made it into combat.
Over the next three days, I received three more visitors of the same ilk. I did the best I could to be hospitable, and since they only came right after I’d had a shot, I was sociable and polite. Nobody could answer my questions about why these officers were coming to see me or even how they knew about me at all until Barbara came in while the last officer was with me. When he left, I asked her the same questions?
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” she asked, sitting down in the only extra chair in my room, something she’d never done before.
“About what?” I asked, perplexed.
“They know you over at the BOQ, so the officers there come to visit,” she replied.
“For what?” I asked, baffled. “Why me, although it’s awful nice of them.”
“None of them were in combat,” Barbara said.
“So?” was all I could think to reply.
“They’re going home,” Barbara said, in a tone that seemed to indicate there was something she both wanted and didn’t want to say.
“Okay, I got that,” I responded, becoming a bit frustrated and also exasperated with where our discussion seemed to be going because I could not figure out any logic to any of it.
“They’re going home, and they need your stories,” she finally said. “You are completely open about everything that happened. They want to be able to tell your stories to their family, friends, and relatives.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked, still not getting it.
“They’re going home to tell the stories as if they happened to them, not you.” She said, slowly getting up out of the chair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you. Do you still want visitors?”
I slowly shook my head, the information she’d given me seeming to take my breath away.
“Thanks for what you did for Rory,” I said, quickly trying to cover just how hard her revelation had hit me.
“It’s okay, that was a really nice thing to be a part of and it was really great that you told me, but I couldn’t help with Captain Johnson. I’m so sorry.” She turned and headed for the door. “You want Kathy to bring you an injection?”
“No, I’m okay,” I lied. The pain hadn’t climbed to its fourth-hour level yet, but the pain I felt from the seeming violation of my brother officers stung deeply, all the same, and somehow, she knew that.
The visit back to the I.C.U. room I’d left Puller and Masters was to be eventful, in that I went with so much company. For whatever reasons, word had come down that General Masters was making a special effort to see me when I got there. Both he and the staff seemed to feel that my talks with the lieutenants had been definitively helpful in keeping both of them alive long enough for their bodies to be healed enough to survive. I didn’t see it that way. I knew I’d talked because I couldn’t shut up when it came to the vast assortment of short stories that had formed my tour. Alice in Wonderland, having gone down into the rabbit hole, had only reached an imagined underworld, created by a genius, not an expert or participant in visiting underworlds. I’d been to the real underworld and now that I was removed from it could only come to grasp what had happened by telling others about it, although I could only truly open up with guys who’d been shot or wounded in other ways like me.
“Your entourage is getting noticed,” Barbara said, as others traveling through the long halls moved aside for my chair, with Shoot pushing and Pus and Kathy clearing the way. There was no way I could have made the trip on my own two feet since the distance of my longest travel was to the shower, and then, after showering, taking a rest, before staggering back to my room.
I felt the effects of the morphine as we moved along the corridor before getting to the I.C.U. I looked up at Kathy and asked her a question that hadn’t occurred to me before.
“How long can I keep taking morphine-like this without becoming an addict?”
“You’re already an addict, or what we in your medical team prefer to call dependent, but we’ll worry about taking care of the drug stuff later. It doesn’t matter right now,” she replied as if I should have known about what she was saying in the first place.
“Why doesn’t it matter?” I asked, not truly understanding her reply.
“Because without the morphine you’d have died, may still die, so being dependent wouldn’t have mattered if you hadn’t made it.”
I understood the answer, and didn’t like it, but said nothing further as we’d reached the double doors leading into the I.C.U. As I was pushed through the opening, I was shocked. There was another room outside of the intensive care unit. I looked all around. How could I be so wrong about something? Those double doors had swung open so many times to reveal patients and personnel scurrying by when I was laying in my bed. It struck me hard that I couldn’t possibly have seen other people walking by. I’d hallucinated them. What else had I hallucinated?
I smiled artificially as General Masters stood to one side, a big grin on his face.
“We’ve been expecting you,” he said, bending down to pat me on the shoulder with his right hand, his barracks cover tucked neatly under his other arm. When my brother had visited, wearing his Army uniform, he’d worn his cover inside. Only the Marine Corps required all personnel unless under arms, to remain uncovered, and hence did not salute one another indoors either.
We spent only about twenty minutes together in the room. Kathy kept checking with me to see how I was doing, knowing the morphine was wearing off but not wanting to end the positive session. It ended minutes later but in an unexpected way. Master’s son asked if everyone, including his father, could leave the room for a few minutes, except for me. I was surprised but didn’t know what to make of such a strange request.
After everyone was gone, the Navy Lieutenant told me what it was they wanted. I was able to get out of my chair but only turned to slowly push it back out through the double doors. Once the doors swung shut, I got back in the chair. General Masters was gone, as was Pus.
“What was that all about?” Shoot asked entering from the outside hall, gripping the handles of the chair, and then heading me back to my own room where my small amount of collected gear was waiting.
I couldn’t answer his question. I owed him an answer, but it would have been an answer I’d totally have had to fabricate, and he didn’t deserve that. I gave him only silence for a minute, before looking over at Kathy, accompanying us, and asking her about the coming flight.
“The flight will be a little over ten-hours, with the C-141 Starlifter stopping once in Alaska to refuel,” Kathy replied, holding up a syringe to check the yellow level of the glass tube’s contents, “So I’m not hitting you with this until you’re actually inside the fuselage. They’ll keep you mostly out for the entire trip until you reach Travis. They tell me your wife will be there to meet you too.”
“Mostly?” I asked. “What does mostly mean?”
“Stop worrying,” Kathy replied, exasperation in her voice. “I care, they care, we all care…so don’t think you’re flying alone or without a whole lot of that care surrounding you during the ride.”
It was true. I was paranoid about the pain, as I’d been about the terror back down in the valley. Two horrid kinds of nearly unbearable pain, but at least the physical injury causing pain was dulled by the morphine. I couldn’t argue at all that great care had not been given to me. I should not have made it through the night of the first of October, and I wouldn’t have without extraordinary care. Dr. North had saved my life and so many others who I didn’t, and would never, know. Once more I was also about to leave behind those who’d been so necessary and personally important to my survival. Would I ever see any of them again? Most of my Marines were gone and the few of them who’d made it were gone somewhere I knew nothing about. Would I ever see them again? Nobody said anything about such things, or at least they hadn’t so far, and I was about to get aboard the ‘Starlifter’ and head up and out into another part of my life if I lived. Those last three words had somehow become part of my mantra of life, often mentioned by others around me. Would I ever be able to drop them from my thought?
The gurney was a light-wheeled model. It had thin padding, and its little axles needed grease. Both corpsmen wheeled me along, Shoot in the back and Pus leading the way. Kathy had gone on ahead and would meet us at the plane after she counseled with the medical team assigned to take care of us during the flight.
The lights set horizontally across the ceiling of the hall were spaced about twenty feet apart. I lay flat on my back, the pain starting to edge its way back up from wherever it was pushed down by the morphine. The lights flitted by like super-white chicklets, there soft-edged rectangular shapes seeming to go off, as I passed under them, more like gentle passing flashbulbs than the constant lights they really were.
Sensing my drug-diminished but still distressed state, both Shoot, and Pus used gentle platitudes about how I was going to all right. Both argued that if I wasn’t stable and likely to live then the hospital would never release, much less transport, me to somewhere else. I sighed, trying to accommodate the meaning and emotion behind the words. It had been mere weeks since the Medical Corps at Tachikawa Air Force Base Hospital had released me in worse than critical condition and sent me to Yokosuka in a jeep manned by just a driver and no medical equipment whatsoever.
The gurney was wheeled outside the hospital and I felt the whole rig being spirited quickly up a ramp. Shoot settled me atop the gurney, checking to see that the straps they used to stabilize me for the trip were secure, and then securing two legs of the gurney to the bed of the truck. I realized we were in the bed of a six-by, the most common supply vehicle of the Marine Corps, and not inside an ambulance, which brought a question to my mind, but I didn’t get a chance to ask it.
“A bunch of guys are going home on the Starlifter, so transportation was limited,” Kathy said, sitting on a bench across from me.
Shoot sat down to join her. The back ramp leading up to the truck’s bed was removed and the gate slammed shut.
The deuce and a half pulled away, noisy and slow, like all six-bys I’d ever been in, but the trip to the airport, and then out onto the tarmac, took only minutes. The truck never stopped until reaching the plane, which I didn’t know was the plane until someone outside pulled down the gate, replaced the ramp. Shoot wheeled me down to the asphalt below. The giant Starlifter loomed above, like the great body of some huge whale, a whale with giant wings.
Barbara was there to say goodbye, as was Pus, but there was someone else. I craned my head around to try to see better, under the two big jet engines that hung down from the plane’s big wing, itself distinctive. The wing looked like it was part of some ‘hunchback’ airplane configuration. The image looked strange but also suggestively powerful, like the shoulders of some defensive linebacker in football.
A shadowy figure lurked near one of the Starlifter’s big wheels, not hiding but not showing much of himself, either. It was impossible not to recognize the figure because he’d almost always appeared the same when emerging from the background bracken and debris of the lower canopy of the jungle. It was Nguyen.
I tried to see into his impenetrable eyes, but the light was bad, and the distance was too great. I watched him shake his head slowly back and forth like he’d only done a few times since I’d come to know him. I tried to figure out his message, but nothing would come to me, and then he was gone.
I turned my head back. Quickly, the good-byes over, I was unstrapped from the gurney and eased into a net of some sort. Kathy came over and injected a syringe needle into the nexus of my I.V. rig plastic.
“You’re going to do fine,” she said, with a great smile, “I just know it.”
I was lifted into the air and then swept immediately into the darker inside cavity of the plane’s fuselage. Once there, a team of busy people took over and moved me, inside my netting, forward along the right side of the metal-plated floor.
“Okay, here we are,” a woman’s voice said. “You’ll ride in this special place for the whole trip, but you won’t be aware of much at all. I’ll be out here with my team to take care of your every need. Your I.V. is set and external for service, your colostomy bag okay because you’re not on solids yet, and the catheter bag should cover you for the whole trip.”
The web was removed, and hands gripped me all over. I felt myself slipping into what I came to call a cocoon. In seconds I was inside a plastic bag, and it was being attached to the right wall of the plane’s fuselage. I was going to fly inside a bag. The only good part was I could see through the plastic, but the drug was starting to hit me, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing much for very long. I wasn’t afraid, the drug helping with that too, I just didn’t want to be alone.
The plane’s engines started, their whine rising and rising in shrill synchrony until we began to move. The drug kicked in more fully, and the next thing I really felt was the acceleration and rising up of the Starlifter from the airport tarmac.
I was going home if I lived.
I lay inside my plastic cocoon, supposedly unconscious. What they’d given me had been more than morphine I knew, just from the effect, and there would no doubt be additional doses until we reached Travis Air Force Base. But there was something more powerful than the drug that would not let me sink into unconsciousness.
I’d spent many hours with both Puller and Masters and I’d thought that I had a pretty good understanding of them, as well as a brothers-in-arms depth of friendship with both. That they’d not understood and internalized the stories I’d poured out to them more than disappointed me. It went to the very core of the soul I was attempting to rebuild. That their expectation of my taking action under and after the circumstances I so recently had come through and was trying, with what was left of my heart, to overcome and recover from, was shocking. I tried not to twist and turn inside my plastic bag. I didn’t want any more drugs. I didn’t want the drugs either. I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t really want to live anymore either.
I worked to think my way through. I tried to image my wife and daughter who were waiting for me at Travis, but the images of both were blurry like they’d never been before.
One figure’s image came through all the fog of the drug, and the emotional nightmare I’d faced inside the I.C.U. room. It was Nguyen. He’d come to see me off, to protect me one last time. He’d shaken his head slowly like we were still down in the valley, which in some ways, I wondered if we wouldn’t always be. What was his message? Then an unlikely possibility occurred to me. It was like he’d been in the I.C.U. room with Puller, Masters, and I for the conversation.
“Stop telling your stories,” I whispered, a dim light seeming to go off way down deep in my brain. But I only said the words to myself. My right elbow unconsciously poked outward into the plastic.
“You okay in there?” a muffled voice asked, only inches away, on the other side of the plastic ‘wall’ of my cocoon.
The men visiting me from the BOQ had wanted my stories to take home and then tell as their own. That should not have bothered me, and the act of them telling my stories as their own really didn’t. What bothered me was the deception buried deep down at the foundation of their visits, and my foolishness in not being able to penetrate the deception.
But, much worse than that kind of violation, was Masters asking me to take care of Puller. Puller didn’t want to go home in the condition he was in. He’d never be a Marine again, much less an officer. His dad was Chesty Puller. And he was missing key body parts.
“With what you’ve been through you can do this,” Masters said. “We can’t get up or walk, but you can. Don’t let him go back home like this.”
Puller was laying on his right side, somehow having been able to move to that position in his grievously wounded condition. He didn’t make any sound. I felt he was waiting, but I couldn’t know unless I went to his side, which I would not do.
I said nothing in reply to Masters. I realized they hadn’t gotten the substance and meaning of my stories at all. I wondered how much combat both officers had really been in before being hit. When I left the I.C.U. room I didn’t look back, but I was cut to the quick inside. I wasn’t Junior. I was never going to be Junior again, even if it killed me, and I wasn’t going to kill anyone again, even if it was to ease someone’s pain or poor social or physical circumstance.
“Stop telling your stories,” I whispered again to myself before the drug finally worked to drift me away into unconsciousness. “They didn’t get it. Nobody’s going to get it,” I continued, trying to crookedly smile as the words came out.
My attempt to smile came only because I somehow was able to understand Nguyen’s last attempt to survive and take care of me.
Then, the very last thought I was capable of struck deep into me. Was I hallucinating the visit to the I.C.U., like I’d hallucinated the unit’s entrance, and the people passing by, for all those days and nights? Had Nguyen, improbably and nearly impossibly appearing under the Starlifter, been there at all?