THE COWARDLY LION
Shoot appeared from seeming nowhere. I hadn’t noticed the doors swinging at all.
He helped my brother back to a vertical position and gave him a towel, and then went to work cleaning up the mess on the floor.
“So sorry,” my brother said over to me, and then followed up with “you don’t look that bad, really.”
“Army, you’ve got to be Army,” Puller commented from the bed on my right.
“He’s on drugs,” I quickly added, to my brother, to counter Puller’s stinging rebuke.
“We’re all on drugs,” Masters said.
“Who are these men?” my brother asked, wiping his mouth and lower face.
Shoot was done and out of the room in seconds, leaving the four of us alone.
“You’re in the I.C.U., so take a guess,” I replied.
“Marines?” he asked, looking from one bed to another.
“Navy,” Masters said, which surprised me.
If Master was in the Navy and he was a lieutenant, then he held a rank equivalent to a captain in the Marine Corps.
“Thank you, sir, for your comment then,” my brother said.
My meeting with my brother was not going well, I realized. I needed something to normalize it in some way, but both Puller and Masters were not about to be put down or left out of anything.
The Navy Captain’s wife, Barbara, stepped through the double doors.
“How are we all doing in here?” she asked, her tone overly sweet, but I could see the glint of humor in her eyes.
The woman had an uncanny ability to figure out what was really going on, I knew, and here she was again, tossing me a life buoy.
“This is my brother,” I said, weakly waving what I could of my left hand toward where he stood, next to the bed.
“Pleased to meet you, Barbara said, moving toward where my brother stood and extending her hand, which he hesitantly shook.
“You were wounded and were just released from Yokohama Army Hospital,” she intoned, not in question, as if reading from a non-existent chart. “My name’s Barbara.”
I knew what she was doing immediately. She was letting Puller and Masters know that my brother was one of us and not some slick ‘in the rear with the gear’ support officer.
“Army Ranger, it says on your shoulder,” Puller said, his voice not strident like it had been before. “Knew a few of those guys back home. Not bad.”
I knew it was going to be alright then, as long as my brother didn’t blow it.
“When you get home, you might consider minimizing my injuries a bit,” I said, as Kathy walked into the room, moved to my bed, and then pulled the sheets over my open wounds. “I wrote home but the reply from dad was pretty terrible.”
“I’m not going there,” my brother replied. “I’m headed for Virginia and a transfer into intelligence if I sign up for a career doing this.”
“Your face, it looks better,” I said, realizing for the first time that his pock-marked facial skin was no longer pock-marked at all. My brother had unaccountably suffered from a series of years where pimples had covered most of his face.
“Yeah, I was burned by the fuel in the APC that got hit,” my brother replied. “the heat melted the top layer of my exposed skin and this smoother stuff is the result. Not all bad.”
He held up his hands. I could see that they’d been exposed too, but must have taken a stronger hit from the heat, as the tops of them were pretty badly scarred. Two of his fingers were still bandaged together. He held up that hand. They broke two fingers getting me out of the burning APC. They said I wouldn’t get a second purple heart for that though because it was caused by friendlies.
I laughed out loud. “Me too,” I rasped out, trying to hold up my own bandaged right hand, but it was taped to the side of the bed.
“When you were getting aboard the chopper?” he asked.
“Something like that,” I replied, my crooked smile disappearing.
There was no way I was going to try to explain to him that I’d cut myself trying to get morphine to deaden my pain. Maybe I could tell Puller and Masters later on, as both, I knew, would enjoy the story. But not my brother. I didn’t want to risk alienating him in any way.
“You want to play chess?” Barbara asked, from the foot of the bed, Kathy at her side.
“What?” I asked back, not being able to quite keep up with the change of subject.
“Your brother wants to play,” she replied. “I’ll have Shoot get a small raised and swinging table if you think you’re up to it.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering why my brother might choose to spend our time together playing a game he almost never won.
I’d been a chess prodigy since early in high school. But there was nothing to be done for it except give in.
“What’s your time like?” I asked.
“I’m out of here tomorrow morning, so I’ve got the day, and a bit tomorrow,” my brother responded. “This Naval base is huge and quite something else. The airstrip is big enough to catch a direct flight to Hawaii, and then on to the continental USA, unlike the small airport at Yokohama. They have Yokosuka Curry here too, and I’ve just got to have some of that. You order a Rolex yet? The overseas PX is great and cheap as hell. You can get a Rolex for about two-fifty.”
I stared at my brother like he was an alien just landed on my planet. With a wife and new daughter, and iffy pay going home to her, I was in no shape to buy any kind of watch, much less one that cost about the pay I took home in any month. There was nothing to be said, although my brother went on and on about the great deals on Sansui, Aiwa, and other brands of Japanese stereo equipment pieces that were an absolute steal at the base PX.
Shoot showed up, pulling along one of the tables used to feed the patients, those getting real food, which was none of the three of us in I.C.U. He carried a box in his free hand as he maneuvered the table to my bed and then swung the long, extended top of it to a position that was slightly in front of me. He opened the box and unfolded a portable chessboard.
“You want to set these up, sir, because I don’t play chess,” Shoot said, before going to work on untapeing my left hand from the bed frame. “You won’t be getting any transfusions for a while and your blood count is good,” he went on, while he worked.
My brother set the pieces up.
“You can be white, since you’re the wounded one here,” he murmured.
“Generous of you,” Puller said, with a note of sarcasm in his voice.
“Yeah, but he’s Army, and you know how that is, even if he is a Ranger,” Masters added.
“Don’t fatigue yourself too much,” Barbara said to me, ignoring the comments made by both Puller and Masters, “you’ve got to get through a few hours, starting pretty soon here.”
Kathy smiled at my obvious happiness in having my brother by my side. I didn’t care about the chess or the comments of my fellow I.C.U. residents. My brother being there was like having a bit of home at my side.
Barbara, our volunteer, Kathy, and Shoot all exited the room as my brother and I squared off across the board.
I opened the game by advancing my king’s pawn to the fourth square. The Sicilian Defense was my favorite opening game, the proper moves and counter-moves well memorized, until now. My brother responded by advancing his own king’s pawn. My mind would not work. I could not remember the sequences to the brilliant opening. I started moving pieces without really knowing what I was doing. My brother took every advantage. We played silently for half an hour before I was forced to resign. My brother was quietly jubilant, I could tell, but all I could do was smile at his obvious happiness. He’d won few games against me through the years, and here he was easily able to defeat me at will, and I didn’t care.
I suddenly began to perspire heavily. I’d entered the zone of pain, with the morphine’s effect diminishing. I could not play another game. I knew that in a very short order I was not going to be able to communicate much, either.
Barbara and Kathy came through the double doors.
“Time for a break, lieutenant,” Kathy said to my brother.
“He’ll be undergoing a few procedures for a bit,” Barbara said, also to my brother. “Why don’t you get lunch at the cafeteria and come back about one.”
Shoot reappeared, cleared the table, and then ran it against the wall next to the red waste container. I tried to rest, back to breathing into the pain, riding the waves, and trying to think about reconstructing the chess game. In the past, I could always replay almost any game I’d played, at least for a while. But there was no hope. It had still been fun, particularly the part where my brother had been so happy to win. I wondered if I shouldn’t have lost on purpose many times in the years past. Maybe our relationship might have had a chance to develop earlier. I didn’t truly care about the game of chess. I was just really good at playing it.
“Your brother looks pretty damned good, for an army pogue,” Puller said, his voice hoarse, the approaching pain having its effect on him too.
Masters was breathing hard so I knew he was already deep into fighting the monster. Neither Puller nor Masters had abdominal or torso wounds and it was said that those were the most painful of all, but I wasn’t so sure. It seemed to me that there was plenty of pain to go around the entirety of our small I.C.U. area.
I was relieved to have Barbara, Kathy, and Shoot (who wasn’t supposed to even be working the I.C.U.), because I knew they wouldn’t let my brother back in until I was a few minutes into my next shot. His worry, concern, and awful attempt to accommodate my condition, had been evident by his physical reaction to my appearance. He’d been wounded himself, and God knew what his mental adjustment issues might be from his time in real combat.
My brother came back and then left again, twice more until the night came. The next morning he was back, and we got to spend two more hours before he had to leave for the airport.
I didn’t want him to go. I was hanging on by my fingernails and I knew it. The surgeries were not over, and neither were some of the more dangerous tests. We’d spoken only briefly about what might be available to Mary and Julie if I didn’t make it, but he’d really wanted nothing to do with such a conversation. I wished, for the life of me, that I hadn’t asked him about what happened to him outside of Bien Hoa. The armored personnel carrier he was in charge of ran over a booby-trapped artillery round. Of the eleven men aboard the carrier only he had survived, and he was not that badly injured. I knew he felt bad that he’d not been hurt worse, and I also knew that was natural. I’d only done thirty days of my 13-month tour and I’d always regret the fact that I didn’t serve my full time in hell. I also understood that such thinking was unreasonable, and quite possibly downright stupid. But it was real and I couldn’t get around the emotion of it by applying even the best of logic.
“That’s about it for my tour,” he’d said, when his very brief and abrupt explanation was done.
I understood that his very short explanation was anything but complete, but there was not much to be said for it. After that, he closed up. There was no more smiling or any of that. I could tell that he just wanted to get out of the hospital, Japan, and back to the continental USA.
I had to live, or my wife would most probably be on her own, with the twenty thousand dollar life insurance, plus overdue pay and unused leave, of which I didn’t have very much because I’d had to use it to be on hand for Julie’s birth at Fort Sill.
With little more than a goodbye, he was gone. We’d played three chess games and he’d won them all. We didn’t discuss the enormity of his triumph before he left. He was single, although engaged to a neighbor who lived across the street from my parent’s house in Tonawanda, New York. He had his Rolex Submariner, and a load of Japanese stereo gear shipped to his next duty station in Virginia.
“Sounds like he had a bad tour,” Masters offered, when I remained silent right through the normal drug administered time, right after which I would normally have been animated and engaging in social dialogue with both men.
“I note that he didn’t ask you about your tour,” Puller said, a comment which surprised me.
“He couldn’t know anything about me or what happened in the A Shau,” I replied, trying to defend my brother’s seeming lack of interest, as to what had happened to me.
“He couldn’t miss it,” Masters said. “Everyone kind of knows you’re Junior from the A Shau. How many officers come through this hospital where they convene a full Naval Board of Inquiry and hold it right on-premises here? My dad says none. You probably haven’t guessed that you were in a private room instead of down here so they could assemble and do that.”
“What if I’d died?” I asked in shock, not having had a clue that the board of inquiry might have been causal in my not receiving intensive care treatment right away. “This room was full, though,” I went on.
“There are three of ‘these’ rooms,” Masters said, “or at least so dad says.”
The pain and the awfulness of what I was being told, plus the lousy ending to my brother’s visit was sending me into a depressive spiral. I had nowhere to go. I had no contact with my wife. My Marines were all to hell and gone, or dead, and here I was, in some anonymous I.C.U., one of many, set away in a country where English wasn’t much spoken or cared about. But I had to live. My wife and daughter needed me. Puller and Masters could not see me weaken and fall. I breathed in and out and tried to get aboard the waves of pain that were getting larger and larger as they came at me.
“My dad,” Puller started out, then delayed a few seconds, before continuing, “said that he’d heard about you and would have been proud to have had you with him at the Frozen Chosin.”
“Your dad? Chesty Puller, has heard of me?” I was shocked, awed, and deeply impressed.
I wondered then what he’d heard. Korea was a war that had never even been discussed in my whole time in the Basic School, or at the artillery school in Fort Sill. I’d fought my war at about in hundred-degree temperatures in a fetid misting rain and even more fetid stinking jungle mud. I couldn’t imagine what it might have been like to fight in the depth of winter, without proper winter equipment and against such overwhelming odds. I got aboard the waves of pain and rode. I could do it. I’d used Chesty Puller as a motivator when I’d been down in the Valley and he was now becoming my personal motivator here, strictly out of a fortune. I would meet him. He would find a way to come to his son and I’d meet Chesty Puller. I fought the pain up a swell and then rode down the other side. Fifty minutes to go. Three thousand seconds. Chesty Puller could do it. I could do it.
The days and nights came and went, although there was no descriptor other than ‘all ahead slow’ that could be applied to the time. A specific pain in my back developed. It grew worse as the days passed. Dr. Ahtai was called in, once again, because of his prowess as a cardiologist. After examining me thoroughly, he concluded that my heart was fine. The pain was caused by either gallstones or cancer of the pancreas. He called for an IVP, an intravenous dye/X-ray test, to rule out gallstones because of my age. Twenty-three-year-old men don’t usually get gallstones of sufficient size to cause such pain, or at least so the doctor said.
I was relieved to get the test because it was my first visit outside the I.C.U., and just being wheeled down the long halls felt like a form of releasing freedom.
The radiology department was ready when I arrived, after a journey of only a few minutes. The technician prepared the X-Ray machine I was to be placed inside of and then injected the dye into my I.V.
“You’re not allergic to iodine, by any chance, are you?” he asked, smiling down at me.
That smile was the last thing I remembered until I came back to consciousness in the I.C.U. I had no memory of my heart-stopping, the application of the life-saving paddles once again, or the return trip to rejoin Puller and Masters.
“Never a dull moment with you,” Junior, Puller said.
“Glad you made it back to the room,” Masters added. “We might get an even worse roommate if you’d cashed in your chips.”
Shoot came through the doors and moved to stand right next to my bed. He cranked away a bit until I my upper body was propped up by about thirty degrees.
I looked down at my open exposed torso. “No wonder he threw up,” I whispered to myself, although there was no whispering to oneself that was going to escape either Puller or Masters. Neither had had any damage to their ears.
“Yeah,” you’re a beauty now,” Puller replied as if I’d spoken to him. “You can forget about picking up the chicks down at the beach.”
I looked down at my chest. The open incision extended all the way up to my breastbone, but that’s not what bothered me.
Barbara walked in with Kathy following her. I knew Kathy carried my shot just by the way she conducted herself. She was bringing good news in a syringe, although I wasn’t in terrible pain, even though the clock called for the injection. The shock of my cardiac arrest had somehow thrown my normal schedule into the wastebasket. But, I said nothing, not wanting to find out that the pain might be merely hiding around the corner, lurking and waiting.
“My chest hair,” I murmured to Shoot, “it’s gone.”
“Well, not all of it,” Shoot replied, pointing plaintively at a couple of patches remaining. “the higher voltages cause electrolysis,”
Barbara said, viewing the damage. “you lost much of your chest hair where the paddles were applied, but it’ll grow back over time.”
“You can become a weightlifter,” Masters said. “They shave all their body hair when they get ready to do a posing.”
“Yeah, you can be in the single-digit class, lifting seven or eight pounds at a time,” Puller added. “I think your Marines called you Junior because of your face, anyway. You look like you belong on the wall of a church or something.”
Dr. Ahtai came through the double doors, alone this time, and all conversation stopped. The severity of his plain, but meaningful, looks usually had that effect on everyone around.
“You have gallstones the size of golf balls,” he remarked, “although we won’t have a hard copy of the results until tomorrow. “Not likely, those gallstones, but better than pancreatic cancer.”
Dr. Ahtai turned around and left without further comment.
Kathy injected my I.V., and then Puller’s and Masters’ I.V.s, as well.
“You’re going to need surgery to get the gallstones out, but that’ll have to wait until you get back to CONUS,” Barbara said, using the acronym for the Continental Unites States instead of saying the actual words.
“Great,” I breathed out, not really concerned with surgeries that might be coming in the future. I had to pay attention to the hours, minutes, and seconds of my current existence to make it, and I well understood that. The morphine kicked in, and I felt immediately sleepy. I knew the sleepiness must have something to do with my heart stopping again, but couldn’t be sure.
“Dr. Ahtai said you could go to 3Qh, a shot every three hours if the pain gets really bad. Gall stones can cause a lot of pain, although the pain will only come from time to time.”
“When do I go home?” I asked.
“First you have to be healthy enough to be ambulatory,” Kathy replied. “We’ve got to get you up and around.”
“Fine,” I replied, “I’m ready now. I tried to sit up all the way in the bed, but then I was gone, just like that.
When I awoke again, the lights were dimmed. I’d passed out, I knew. I tried to see the rest of my chest but it was too dark. I didn’t want to lose any more hair to the paddles. Had they used them on me again? I had no idea.
“You’re awake,” a voice whispered in my left ear. It was Shoot.
“Fessman?” I asked, before catching myself. “Shoot, I mean, so sorry.”
“Who’s Fessman?” Shoot asked.
I tried to form a picture of Fessman in my mind and all that he had been, but I couldn’t do it. I was overwhelmed with who and what he’d been. I couldn’t talk so I simply laid there, tears flowing down my face. I hoped it was too dark for Shoot to see.
“I’ve been napping here, waiting for you to wake up. I’ll go now but you can always use the buzzer. He carefully placed the small cord-connected button device in my hand.
“Fessman must have been one of your guys,” he said, walking to the foot of my bed, and almost disappearing into the dimmed light. “Thanks for that compliment.”
I posted this reflection 4 years ago discussing my brother’s visit