THE COWARDLY LION
I went on my Sippy diet a few days later, while also being proud of myself for not giving in to the morphine shots coming every three hours instead of every four. General Masters visited all the time, and even went to the extra effort of writing a letter home to my wife, or so everyone said. General Puller never made it, not while I was in the I.C.U., anyway. He was always coming but never showed up, and it really bothered his son that there was never any explanation for his not showing up as planned either. I hated the Maalox liquid medication I had to drink on the hour, but on the half-hour, I got three ounces of milk. It never tasted so good. My body processed the liquids, which led to my next transition goal, which was getting to my feet.
Shoot and Kathy sat me up, my stomach covered by 4X4s, and over those, an elastic bandage that went all the way around my torso. I was able to sit unassisted, noting that my primary pain had shifted from my abdomen to my left hip. The hip had been in nine pieces, each piece which had been drilled and then tied into the other pieces with stainless steel wire. Good fortune had allowed that my hip ball and joint had not been affected by the bullet’s travel or its nearby hydrostatic effects.
Two days later I was able to get out of the bed and into a wheelchair. I made my first trip up and down the corridor with Shoot being my guide and the motive force behind me.
Barbara came to inform me that I would be leaving the I.C.U. At first, I was jubilant, leaving the I.C.U. being an indicator that I was actually likely going to live. My chart had gone to ‘condition fair,’ ‘prognosis good,’ but, if I was being okayed to be in a room or on a ward, then that was an even better indicator that I was going to make it.
Barbara motioned with her hand toward the other two beds. All of a sudden it hit me. I was leaving Puller and Masters behind. And what about Kathy and Shoot? I knew Barbara had the run of the whole hospital but I didn’t think that was true of the corpsmen.
Kathy gave me a shot, but we didn’t exchange much in the way of pleasantries. Shoot came and went, not saying anything either. My life was about to change again and I was, even with the warm effects of the shot hitting me, helpless to have any say in the change.
Neither Masters nor Puller said anything until Barbara, Kathy, and Shoot were gone.
“So, you’re getting a transfer,” Puller said, his words coming out a bit slurred and faint from the effects of the morphine. I knew his dosage must be considerably more than my own, just from the nature of his apparent injuries and the fact that he could barely talk at all ten minutes after being injected.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I’m gonna miss you guys.”
“Why the hell can’t they just fly us straight home instead of moving us around this place?” Puller asked.
“They call it stabilization, according to Barbara,” I replied. “They want to make sure we’re going to live before they risk having us on a long plane ride where there’s no surgical equipment or proper medical staff.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Puller said.
I looked at Masters, but he turned his head to stare at the wall next to him.
I had no reply for Puller. He’d lost his legs and some other equipment. He was going home if he made it that far, an entirely different man than the one who’d left for the war only months before. He had a wife and a son. What would she, friends, and other family think of the changed man? There was nothing I could say to Puller’s statement. It hadn’t been delivered as a question. I felt relief that I had not (supposedly) been hit so badly that my injuries would be as disfiguring or as crippling as Puller’s were. My relief made me feel guilty, while at the same time bringing back worry about the extent of my injuries still unknown to me.
“I’ll come to visit as often as they let me, or I can bum a ride,” I said to both men, nodding at Puller, as Masters didn’t turn his head back to look at me.
“It don't mean Nothin,” Puller said.
“Semper fi,” Masters whispered.
Kathy returned with another shot. I didn’t realize she was there until I felt her working on the I.V. bar, getting the wheels unlocked and ready for the move. I’d somehow nodded off, even with the pain.
“You gave me a shot while I was asleep,” I said, surprised, not being able to figure out why a pain shot would be administered to someone who’s basically unconscious.
“You’re moving, and you haven’t been up and around for some time,” Barbara replied. “Your abdomen is held together by steel stitches and your hip with all that wire, so we should have no problem except for the pain, and hence the shot. You ready?”
The move was a blur of tumbling images and rolling discomfort, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The light bars evenly spaced on the ceiling of all the halls passed like beacons of success. I wondered, in some protected corner of my mind, if Kathy hadn’t upped the dosage of my pain medication a bit to put me nearly out.
When I awoke from the effects of the shot, I was settled into a regular wardroom, moved to a ‘Sippy Two’ diet, according to Barbara, so I could have Gerber’s baby custard every half hour, along with the Maalox and milk. My colostomy was a nasty piece of surgical work, in that the clear plastic bag sat right off to the left side of my torso. I couldn't imagine what it would be doing when I was taking in and eliminating solid food. The doctor had indicated that my next surgery would be targeted at going in to make sure all the other surgery had gone well, and then to close the colostomy. He had also mentioned that some people had to keep the awful contraption for the rest of their life. I couldn’t bear to think about living long with that thing on my body.
My first trip out of the room was exploratory, with Shoot pushing me along down the hall outside my room.
My next trip, when I could make it on my own, would include a visit to Captain Johnson’s room. That was the name of the hospital's wildest character, located along the hall, according to both his chart and what Shoot said. He was a living legend among the staff, and I’d heard his name and circumstance discussed several times. His room was closer to the end of the corridor than my own.
Time passed, more slowly than before because I was alone, except for visits by Barbara, Kathy, and Shoot.
Very slowly, and agonizingly, I knew I could make my way down the full length of the wing corridor. I’d been moved out of the I.C.U. to my own room onto a regular ward only five days before, and I was still feeling the loss of Puller and Masters. I’d talked to them endlessly about stuff I couldn’t remember, as I was quite communicable during the first hour and a half, or so, after getting a pain shot. My constant I.C.U. bedmates had provided more therapy to me than I’d really understood until they weren’t there anymore. I knew from moving around that I’d be a long time in being able to get back to visit them on my own. Kathy let me work my way along, on the fifth day, catheter bag tied to my leg, I.V. on top of a wheeled stalk, wearing shower shoes, hospital tied pajamas, and a Navy-Blue robe. Shoot had toured me through the hospital in a wheelchair that first day so I wouldn’t get lost when it came time to go on my own, or so he said. I smiled at that because I couldn’t remember making the trip at all.
The Naval Hospital was a simply constructed set of seven long rows of rather slim buildings. Each building had a corridor that stretched from one end to the other. In the very center of each building was a single connecting hallway that allowed passage from one long building to another. Both Puller and Masters were in orthopedic I.C.U. which was in the third row. My new room was in row seven, in the part everyone called ‘dirty surgery.’ It was a great distance, for me, from row three. All the buildings were two-story, although the second story of each row was mostly occupied with staff living space, special equipment, and storage. We, the patients, occupied the first-floor space in all the buildings.
I hobbled, or staggered my way along, going from one side of the corridor to the other, in order to gain stability, rest, and then move on. The showers were at the end of the corridor. I so wanted my first shower, and to make sure that I could walk again that I refused to use the wheelchair being pushed behind me. A new corpsman, one probably assigned to replace Shoot, with the unlikely last name of Pustinger, moved slowly along, stopping as often as I did. I wasn't going anywhere alone, I realized. Either the doctor, Kathy, or Barbara had made certain of that. I made slow progress, with my wired back-together hip in pain, but I was moving. Pustinger’s name badge was a shortened form of his full name. It read only “PUS.” Nobody laughed or commented on his name, so I said nothing about how weird it was to have such a name when working on a surgical floor that was called ‘dirty surgery.’
“They’re not going to like you walking without crutches,” Pus said quietly. “The nurse ordered you to sit in the wheelchair because your hip is a long way from being healed. Bones don’t heal fast.”
“Really,” I replied, between breaths. “What they gonna do send me back to the Nam?”
“I don’t know, they’ll probably punish me instead, I mean, if they find out.”
“I recommend that we don’t tell them,” I said, although I knew that almost nothing got by anyone on the floor, or quite possibly, in the whole hospital. The place was a nest of rumor, loose talk, and the passing of every bit of information that could be gleaned from anyone.
Captain Johnson’s room was exactly halfway to the showers, so I stopped there and entered his room. The door was propped open.
Shoot was always frustrated and sometimes disgusted by him, I knew. Johnson had been hit in the head with something, along with taking a bullet through his left shoulder. He’d had successful surgery on the wounds, but was waiting for the repair of his damaged, addled mind to catch up with the healing of his body. Somehow, after being hit, and then returned to consciousness following surgery, he’d come to believe that he was Stonewall Jackson, still fighting in the Civil War. An officer friend of his had brought Johnson some black riding boots, which Shoot was required to put on him every morning and then take off every night. During the night Shoot also had to polish the boots.
“Inadequate, impertinent and incompetent,” were words that were constantly being shouted out by Johnson, with respect to Shoot’s inability to pull his boots off successfully and also because Shoot didn’t know much about how to polish the leather to a Marine Corps grade of a spit shine.
I entered the room and sat down, as lightly as I could on the single cushioned chair next to his bed. I could not sit on anything without cushioning and, even with that, could not sit for long.
“Good morning, General Jackson,” I said, easing myself gently around the seat of the chair in order to cradle my damaged hip as much as possible.
The orthopedic doctor claimed that the many feet of stainless-steel wire they’d knit the pelvic pieces back together with was so strong, after twelve days, or so, of healing, that the joint could easily handle walking, although my gait would be different, possibly for the rest of my life. I didn’t completely trust the doctor’s opinion, mostly because of what could happen if he was wrong. Another major surgery might just kill me. I knew I had serious surgeries ahead of me, one of which, the colostomy closure, I was looking forward to, but those seemed so far ahead that it was like considering a different life rather than the one I was currently stuck in. I was afraid to risk anything by trying too hard, but I was also frightened that I would not go home and recover to be much like my old self.
“How is it that a cripple like you, Corporal, is the only one in this God-forsaken encampment who calls me by my proper title?” Johnson asked me, his ‘general’s’ voice echoing around the room, as well as out into the corridor.
“How’s your head?” I asked back since there was still a white bandage wrapped around his forehead, tied off with a big square knot.
There was no questioning the captain’s comment. My rank had been reduced to Corporal the first second he’d laid eyes on me the day before. Shoot had been there, whispering from behind me: “don’t argue,” he’d said. I didn’t argue, being glad that I’d not been hit in the head too.
“This is Indian crap,” Johnson bellowed, moving the gauze slightly with the fingers of his right hand, “they think I should be wearing a feather on my head.”
His hand was covered in red crisscrossing scars, but it seemed to work without much difficulty. My own hand had been hurt, as well, and my brother’s too. What was it with hands in combat, I wondered.
“What was your greatest battle in that war?” I asked, already knowing what his answer would be since I’d made the first experimental shower trip the day before. I’d made the trip just to make sure I could. Today was my first time I was making it on my own two feet, however, without Shoot forcing me into a chair and pushing me along. I hadn’t showered the day before but now would do my best to accomplish that mission. For some reason, I craved an actual shower, with hot water cascading down around me, even if I couldn’t bend over to soap up.
“Gettysburg,” Johnson intoned, his voice dropping very noticeably in volume. “Our worst defeat, but boy did we give it to them that day. Killing so many of us took the heart right out of them Federalists.”
The ‘general’ sat atop his covers, the angle of the top one-third of his bed cranked to allow him to sit straight up, his boots extended out in front of him.
“That cursed Private Shoot, weird name, can’t shine boots worth a damn,” Johnson went on, changing the subject.
I knew he wasn’t changing the subject because of a lack of detail about Gettysburg, as my previous visit he’d demonstrated brilliant details of almost every facet of that pivotal Civil War battle. So, I waited, wondering what was going on inside his damaged cranium, and what he might want to talk about but couldn't bring himself. I realized that his brain injury was actually a more merciful result than Puller had been given.
After a few minutes of silence, Captain Johnson sighed, adjusted the bandage covering his shoulder with his other arm and turned to look at me.
“You’re dismissed Corporal,” he said. “You may return, however, as I will be in the area all day.”
My ‘audience’ was over.
I painfully got up and moved to the open door, turning back to salute the make-believe general with my right hand, which he didn’t return. I shuffled out into the corridor where Pus waited.
The rest of my journey was made without incident. I was beginning to realize why Kathy had given me a pain shot when I’d made the move out of the I.C.U. but would not give me shots before I traveled the halls on my own. She wanted me to avoid injury by limiting the time and travel I spent out of the bed. Even with the shower standing open in the small locker room, I was torn about getting the shower or heading back to get a shot. The pain was growing and I was in the last hour of its crushing and disabling grip.
The shower was everything. Pus, much quieter and less expressive than Shoot was, however, a wonderful bath attendant. I had to shower with my ‘tie-in-the-back hospital shirt on, but Pus had brought an extra. My abdomen was still pretty much open in its outside layers, while the wound stitches closing the other openings in my torso had yet to be removed. Shoot told me I had seven other openings of one kind or another, but I wasn’t yet aware of them all. My cut on my hand made manipulating clothing, and just about everything else, almost impossible, without assistance. Pus was that assistance, seeming to know just what I needed even before I knew I needed it. I took the longest shower of my life, shampooing my hair three times. I had no conditioner, but my hair was so short, in Marine Officer trim, that it really wasn’t necessary.
After the shower, I was so relaxed, and so in pain at the same time, that I accepted Pus’ offer of the wheelchair. Pus wheeled me quickly, but firmly.
As we were about to pass Captain Johnson’s still open door I heard his gravelly yell: “Corporal,” he shouted.
Pus stopped pushing instantly, nearly catapulting me forward and off the chair. I recovered as Pus turned through the door and pushed me inside the room. Quickly, he stepped backward and out in the hall to wait.
“That was your favorite?” I asked back, not being very aware of Civil War history. I’d only asked the question to pander to the damaged patient and pass the time.
“That’s an entirely different question that you asked before,” Johnson replied, all of a sudden very cogent and clear.
“You just came from a war, didn’t you?” he went on, stunning me. We’d instantly moved from the Civil War to Vietnam. “Did you have a favorite battle?”
My mind stopped suddenly, the pain through all of my body growing but my need to consider the enormity of the question and the obvious answer would not let me call Pus to get me back to my room.
“No,” I replied, my mind going straight to the A Shau Valley, and battle after battle until the last brutal killing battle. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the cascade of thoughts. I hadn’t thought about any of it, my thoughts all concentrated on getting home, getting out of pain, and fighting to live and recover.
“Antietam might fit in there, although I don’t have a real answer. We lost 23,000 that day alone.”
I remained totally silent, unable to speak.
“Thought not,” Johnson continued. “Antietam rhymes with Vietnam or someplace like that,” Johnson intoned. “Get Shoot in here with some boot polish.”
Pus pulled me backward out of the room without any instruction from me. I had to get to my room and he somehow had guessed that. I had to get the shot. I couldn’t think through the awful thoughts and images coursing through my brain. Somehow, the general’s simple come back of a question had allowed the pain in my mind to overcome the pain coiling and churning inside my body.
Pus helped me to bed and then called the nursing station. Kathy appeared in less than a minute, her hand holding a syringe with the yellow morphine visible inside its clear glass cylinder.
“Did you hit something?” She demanded of Pus, “or did he fall?”
“No, not at all.” Pus replied, holding out both hands before grabbing the wheelchair and backing it toward the door.
“Then why’s he crying?” Barbara asked, her voice hard and tough.
The liquid went in. My eyes closed before it was possible for the live-giving drug to hit my system. But I was gone. Gone from the pain, from the hospital and gone from the A Shau Valley.