THE COWARDLY LION
There was night and day in the I.C.U., only the night was brought about by merely dimming the existent lighting enough so that the pain drug clock could barely be seen. Visitors did not come at night. Doctors only came if emergency care was necessary. Kathy, or dim replacements for her, came with the syringes, which never hurt since the needles were always injected straight into the plastic piping running to the needle already in my body.
The pump never slept. The morphine waves could be ridden into a state of near-sleep, while the first hour of their effectiveness was in full bloom, but the pump was ceaseless in its unpredictable efforts to make sleep its fiercest enemy. The tube they ran into another drain hole was called a shunt, I learned, although the doctors never spoke to me unless it was to ask a question about some move or reaction they’d done. and then wanted direct feedback. The shunt had gone in without pain but its insertion all the way to the end, my end, had been very slow and labored. My bowels were all stitched back together, Shoot had informed me earlier, and the inserters didn’t want to risk tearing any of them apart. Once the tube was fully through me the saline flowed, not in bottles per shift or even hour, but for each half an hour. They called it the ‘sippy’ time because, when and if I ever became capable of eating again the diet would start out as one ounce of some magnesium alloyed milk on the half-hour and one ounce of water on the hour. That start, even when it converted to one ounce of Gerber baby pudding and one ounce of real milk, was referred to as the sippy diet by everyone.
The bottles came and went on the sippy schedule, providing even less incentive to sleep. There had seemed no escape from the A Shau, only days before, but here I was, trapped again, I thought. There seemed no escape from the pump but there had to be some small corner of probability that would finally rise up to release me, even if that was a terminal release.
“You sound like my mother’s Singer sewing machine,” Masters said, “what are you making?”
I turned my head to look at him but his features were hidden behind a towel draped over some guard they’d put around him to keep him from falling out of his bed.
“Cookies,” I replied, my drug-addled mind not putting two and two together.
“You can’t sew cookies,” Master’s replied, almost a laugh in his tonal inflection.
“Sure, you can,” Puller chimed in, “you just have to do it very very carefully.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you have to work carefully around the chocolate chips.”
Kathy walked in, the two doors swinging widely behind her.
The pump came on for a few seconds.
“You did that on purpose,” Masters said, “to win the argument.”
“What’s going on?” Kathy asked, standing at the foot of my bed.
The pump shut off.
“The sewing machine is afraid of her,” Puller said, an actual laugh coming out only a few seconds after his comment.
I watched Kathy’s eyes get just a little larger, as she stared over to where the lieutenant lay, his bed not more than ten feet from my own. She glanced back down at me, a warmth in her eyes I hadn’t noticed before.
“You two get your shot in two hours and ten minutes,” she said to me.
I knew that, of course, as the clock never left my hawk-eyed visual field. Two hours and ten minutes and forty seconds, to be exact, I thought but didn’t say anything.
“You two are on almost the same schedule, Q4H, just like him, except about an hour later,” she said to Puller and Masters.
We were all getting morphine every four hours. I wondered why she’d come in to tell us something all of us had to know.
“You want your next shot along with them?” she asked, looking deep into my eyes.
I was already beginning to sink into the valley of pain, where the agony would increase incrementally with each passing minute for the remainder of my time. Kathy was asking me to take another hour of raw agony. I waited to see if she’d provide some reason for her question but she said nothing, merely waiting with patience only a nurse of her caliber could muster up.
I got it, suddenly, just as my pump came on again. Kathy was asking me to make a sacrifice to be riding the waves with my two new lieutenant friends. She wanted me to be right there with them, at least for the first two hours when communication among us was possible. I knew she could give me extra morphine if she judged that to be necessary, but she didn’t want to do it for the purpose she had in mind. Her eyes continued to stare into my own. They needed me. The company had needed me. Kilo had needed me. They’re needing me had been as powerful a survival tool for me as it had been for some of them.
“I can do it,” I finally replied, the pump turning off as if to add an exclamation point to my statement. I swallowed without liquid, and then breathed in and out deeply a few times. I glanced over at the clock. Three hours and three minutes to go. I could do it, but it was going to be a very rough ride. Kathy wanted me to help Puller and Masters through, which I had no problem with. Secretly, as the pain began to replace whatever normality tried to sustain me, I also understood that it also meant I was not likely without body parts I could not examine myself to determine I either had or might be missing. Both Puller and Masters seemed like much more ‘worth it’ as officers and gentlemen than I could ever hope to be. I could do the time.
I rode the remainder of my last withdrawn drug hour in deep breathing silence. I was back in the A Shau. I felt the water dripping down my face from the monsoon mist, and the bugs and leeches were back, as my skin seemed to itch, crawl, and then flutter with light pain. I rode the waves my mind created to ‘surf’ me through without a board. The wave of pain came at me and I breathed in. The wave grew higher, but I held my breath against the onslaught, and then slowly let the air out of my lungs. The wave passed and the pain wore slowly down, ever lower in intensity lower. Like the real ocean, itself imagined and out in its element, it never truly went away. The cycle, as I watched the hazy clock on the wall, took forty-four seconds. My artillery mind calculated. 44 seconds came down to 81.818181…forever, times a minute. Four thousand, nine hundred and eight waves later I was through, even though I was not through the ordeal on into the future.
Kathy walked through the doors, moved quickly to the I.V., and ended the nightmare. Her presence alone ended the surfing competition, her smile down at me so real and genuine that I responded, even though I knew my own was more a grimace than a true smile. She moved first to Puller’s side and then to Masters before leaving. She didn’t speak, so I knew she’d be returning soon.
The shot hit with its expected warm and smoothly explosive relief. Coming from so far down and so tightly held to such relief was beyond describable. I’d heard an expression many years earlier about the fact that pain had no memory. It had a memory all right, I knew. How long the memory of such agony would last I had no idea, but I also knew, down to almost a genetic level, that I would never ever forget either the enormity of it or the detail in which it came at me.
Kathy re-entered the I.C.U. through the double doors, but the doors didn’t swing shut, instead, they were held open by Shoot, for the Navy Captain’s wife to enter. It wasn’t time for a shot I knew, although I couldn’t help but glance at the face of the big clock. Then I noted that Kathy’s eyes were wet. She was crying. I caught my breath, not knowing what to expect, but expecting the worst.
“I have a reply to the telegram you sent to your parents,” Kathy said, holding out a piece of yellow paper before her.
My breath rushed out. My parents. I had so feared for my wife and daughter but it was only my parents. Shoot had sent the telegram.
“Your arms are in too bad a shape to hold this, so I’ll read it to you, but it’s very difficult,” Kathy began, the telegram in her shaking hand.
“Hang tough,” Masters said, from my left.
I sensed that the letter she was holding was from my father.
“It’s from my father, I know, and I understand,” I said to Kathy. “It’s okay, whatever it says, that’s the way he is.”
I looked into Kathy’s eyes and saw a certain relief, but also a hint of criticism. I knew I was right, about my father being the author, and I felt better.
“Okay,” she replied, hesitantly beginning to read the salutation and date before she got to the message. When that was done, she began:
“Don’t bother with sending any more of the wounded war hero letters home. Whatever you’re doing over there, if you are over there, isn’t something we want to know anything about. We have our own problems.”
Kathy stopped reading, the unfolded letter hanging from her right hand, her eyes moist and red from the tears.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I replied, no feeling of grief, anger, or even emotional upset evident in my words or expression.
“He’s been dealing with this all his life,” the Captain’s wife, our volunteer, said, from behind Kathy, “and those hurtful words, intended to cause pain, won’t in this case.”
“That’s the way he is, and my mom goes along with it,” I said, Kathy’s sympathy and tears bothering me more than any message from my father.
“You joined the Marines because of him,” the volunteer went on, taking the letter from Kathy’s hand and reading it for herself.
“You too?” Puller asked, making everyone in the room look over at him where he lay.
“All of us,” Masters added, his voice soft but firm.
“So, you’re in good company,” the volunteer said, looking up over her glasses at me.
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I much appreciated the support and comradery of both Puller and Masters, but my relationship with my parents was a whole lot more complex than could be explained by my joining the Marines to get away from them or because they wanted me to. It was true that I had been raised in Marine messes and singing the Marine Corps Hymn from an early age. My dad had wanted to be a Marine but been forced to join the Coast Guard when the Marines inexplicably turned him down in 1940. My father had so resented my success at getting through Marine OCS that he’d failed to show up to pin my gold bars on when I was commissioned. His resentment of my service had come all the way through to make its way to me in Yokosuka, generated by Shoots, no doubt, glowing somewhat heroic message that had gone to him.
“Do you want me to write something back?” Kathy asked, slowly recovering herself.
“He does not,” the volunteer, Barbara, said, reading that message straight from my stare back, and my facial expression. I’d done my part in getting messages back to both my parents and my wife. My mission now was to survive, and that was it.
Kathy, Barbara, and Shoot departed, as they’d come, the volunteer taking a brief moment to approach the red trash bin Kathy used as a receptacle for old syringes. She curled up and tossed my father’s letter into the container without a glance or comment, before following the other two out through the swinging doors.
“Man, Junior,” Puller laughed out, in his broken way. “No wonder you have this tough hombre reputation. My father’s strict but he’s not like your dad at all. He’s proud that I made it through the Basic School and got my butter bars, although it was no fun having him at the commissioning ceremony.”
“My dad’s great,” Masters said, from the other side of my bed.
“Yeah, I met him while you were out,” I replied to Masters. “He’s a class act, not like a general at all.”
“You met him as my dad, not as a general, but as my dad, so don’t forget that or it may cause you more pain,” Masters replied.
“More pain,” Puller tried to laugh out. “I like that. More pain,” he repeated.
It had to be the drugs circulating in my system that made me sleepy, as well as being able to understand what Masters and Puller were saying less and less. The pain, I knew, was out there on the threshold, like a large wave set way offshore, heading in but taking its ponderous time. I wanted to sleep but I didn’t want to waste whatever rational time I had until the set arrived. When it came in I would not be able to sleep.
My pump came on, and caught me by surprise, as my stomach vibrated away for many seconds.
“Ah, the Singer is at work once more,” Masters said, but I was beyond replying.
Two days and nights went by, slowly and painfully. The moments of clarity and marginal peace, with the pain held back, made living almost worth it. I could not write home because both of my wrists were still fastened down, one for the I.V. and the other for the drawing of blood and the transfusions of occasional pints of blood. That I was AB positive was bothersome to the staff because only two percent of humans have that particular blood type. It’s the universal receptor blood type because only AB positive people can receive any other blood and survive, however, the medical staff preferred to match the same type with the same type, for never discussed reasons.
“You’re not going to need any more blood after this,” Kathy said on the third morning following my dad’s fateful letter.
She punched the needle into my elbow vein and let the metal clamp loose. The blood flowed through the tube, looking like liquid ketchup. As soon as it began to flow into my bloodstream I felt better, with more energy. Beefsteak, Puller called fresh blood transfusions, and he had a point.
“What about the pump?” I asked.
“Yeah, what about the damned pump?” Masters asked. “How in hell are we supposed to sleep with that thing going off and on all the time?”
“I thought you said you weren’t sleeping, anyway,” Kathy shot back. “Dr. Ahtai makes that decision, and I think he has. Your white blood count is just over four thousand now,” she said to me. “That can be normal for most people, although you’re far from fitting that description. I think the pump will come out tomorrow. It won’t hurt a bit.”
“I wish nobody would ever say that,” I replied. “Everything here hurts in some way or another.”
“You go, Junior,” Puller added.
“See?” I replied, nodding at Kathy’s back.
“Your brother’s coming,” Kathy replied, clearing my mind of all thoughts about the pump or anything else.
“He’s coming where?” I asked, in mild shock.
“He’s coming to Yokosuka from Yokohama before he ships home,” Kathy said, matter-of-factly, like she was talking about the weather.
“How’s he going to get here?” I wondered, out loud, having no idea where Yokosuka was in Japan, much less where Yokohama was in relation to it.
“I imagine he’ll catch a ride in somebody’s car or maybe take a bus or train,” Kathy replied. “It’s only twenty-five miles from here, or so.”
Kathy exited the room, while I watched the doors slowly stop swinging behind her. I realized, for the first time, that I’d lost track of when my next shot was due. My brother. We’d only become close in the last year before ending up in Vietnam. Having bad parents didn’t mean that the siblings banded together to fight or resist them. It had been just the opposite, with me, my brother, and sister going totally independent. It had been ‘every man for himself’ since I could remember, until the last year. I wanted to see my brother badly, I realized. If I didn’t make it then he was all Mary and Julie would have.
“Your brother?” Puller asked. “What’s your brother doing in Yokohama?”
“Wounded,” I replied. “Army hospital there. He was with the Big Red One at Bien Hoa, but he’s okay now, I guess. I don’t know anything for certain because I wasn’t notified until right before I got hit.”
“Bien Hoa,” Puller whispered. “We were out of An Hoa. Life is so strange.”
“Wow,” Masters piped in. “Your family’s taken quite a hit from this war.”
I knew my brother had been wounded, but the severity of his injuries hadn’t been a part of the telegram I’d gotten. If he was being discharged from the Army hospital, however, and being allowed to travel on his own to visit me, then he couldn’t have been hit too badly, I knew. Masters was very badly injured and likely to lose his right leg, while Puller was missing both legs and part of his right hand. My family hadn’t paid nearly the price that the two men’s families had who were right in the same room with me. I said nothing, however.
Kathy was as good as her word. Dr. Ahtai returned but did not perform the simple procedure. He merely made a few notes after examining the entry vent he’d used days before to insert the tubing for the pump. The tubes and bottles were quickly removed, and there was no pain. Without a word, Dr. Ahtai and his assistants left the room. Kathy reappeared. Obviously, she’d been waiting until they were done. Dr. Ahtai was obviously an important member of the medical staff.
The timing had been a bit off, as all three of us in the I.C.U. were at the very end of our four-hour period. Neither Puller nor Masters were able to remain completely silent in their suffering. I understood. I had a few more days on them and I, although grievously wounded, didn’t have the severity of the damage to my body as they had to theirs. I’d moaned for hours only days and nights before. It was almost impossible, under intense pain, to make no noise at all.
Kathy brought the syringes and very quickly injected all of our I.V. tubes.
In minutes, while Kathy disposed of her equipment, the relief in the room became palpable, and the moaning stopped completely.
“When’s he coming?” I asked, knowing Kathy would understand immediately who I was talking about. I was so relieved that the pump was gone. I hadn’t wanted my brother to see it or be there when the thing went on.
“He’s here,” Kathy said. “I just wanted to give you a few minutes to accommodate the medication. “I’ll get him.”
Kathy walked out and I breathed deeply in and out, forgetting I had very conscious and cogent roommates.
“You’ll be fine,” Puller said. “He’s your brother, after all, not your father.”
“Too true,” Masters added, “and you can make believe we’re not even here.”
I knew Masters was kidding and I enjoyed that fact. Both lieutenants were responding to real conversation and there was some humor buried inside them that was surfacing.
“I wish one of you was my brother,” I gushed out, not fully understanding where the comment had come from.
“We’re both your brothers, or haven’t you guessed that by now?” Puller said.
My brother walked slowly through the double doors, slipping through between them rather than pushing them aside, as Kathy and Shoot did. He moved like a prowling, feral cat. I knew he’d been in the bush for a long time, just by the way he moved. He was wearing his full Class A green uniform. I noted that he already displayed his purple heart on his chest, along with his National Defense and Vietnam campaign ribbons. His face was one welcoming smile as he walked to the right side of my bed and turned to look down upon me. His smile disappeared, as Kathy had not replaced the sheet over my wounds following the procedure.
My brother took two steps back, almost contacting Masters’ bed before quickly leaning over and throwing up onto the floor.