I was awakened by the pain and by the noises being emitted from within my room. I stared over at the figures of Pus, Kathy and Barbara, gathered together as they worked to set up an additional bed and get all the connections correct. Barbara was the first to notice that I was awake.
“How was your shower?” she asked, but didn’t wait for an answer before going on, “and, you’re getting a new roommate. I know it must be hard to be in a room alone, after the kind of relationship you established with the other two lieutenants you were with.”
I didn’t reply, my relief at not being back in the A Shau overpowering my communications ability. I breathed in and out deeply. I was okay. I was in Japan. Nobody was coming for me. I looked over at the big clock placed up above the bed they were assembling, and then up at the television mounted high up on the wall in front of me. Would the mysterious new roommate argue over what channel to watch? I smiled at my own unintentional humor. It was all Japanese television. Channels didn’t matter, as there were also no subtitles to any of them. The clock was mounted on the wall, which placed it high above where the new patient would be ensconced. I’d have to look at the guy every time I wanted to see how much time had passed, which meant I’d be looking over at him often. I was one hour from another shot, I saw, glancing at the clock.
A one-armed man was wheeled into the room, the chair pushed by Shoot.
The man was handsome but his facial features were mildly contorted in such a way that it took a lot away from his strong-featured appearance.
“This is Lieutenant Rory King,” Barbara introduced, waving her left arm in a needless gesture to alert me of the new patient’s arrival.
The man in the wheelchair didn’t look over at me, his eyes fixed on the bed.
“When’s the next pain shot?” he asked but didn't seem to direct the question at anyone.
“Let’s get you into the bed,” Barbara said, ignoring the lieutenant’s question.
Without any delay Kathy, Shoot and Pus surrounded the man, lifted him bodily, as if his wounds were to his legs instead of one arm, and eased him up and then over the higher edge of the bed.
“I can do this myself,” Rory said, his tone surly and low.
Everyone stood back as he eased himself around and then came slowly to a sitting position, with his butt on the bed, his back to the wall.
“Unless you have a shot for me, you can all get the hell out,” he whispered, looking at each person in the room one by one, except for me.
“Okay, then, our work is done here,” Barbara replied, heading for the door.
“You’re not due for an injection for another three hours,” Kathy said.
“Sir,” Rory stated, looking Kathy in the eyes.
“Sir,” Kathy muttered, before turning to follow Barbara out the door, followed by Pus. The wheelchair remained next to Rory’s bed. Pus gently closed the door upon leaving, his look through the closing crack not missed by me. I was being left with a problematic patient and Pus was sorry about that. That I had been so effective and popular with Puller and Masters hadn’t been ignored by the medical staff.
“What’s your rank?” Rory asked, looking over at me for the first time.
“Second Lieutenant,” I replied, knowing what was coming next.
“So, you can call me sir, too. I have the rank that is equivalent to your service’s designation of a captain.”
“Okay, captain,” I replied. “My men called me Junior down in the valley so I guess you can call me whatever you want.”
“Yeah, I heard something about that,” Rory said. “Not the best of tours. Me either.”
Rory turned his body gently around and then laid down on the bed, his head in the very exact center of his pillow.
“They didn’t turn up the bed,” Rory complained. “I need some angle to this thing and don’t call me captain. That’s a much higher rank in the Navy.”
“The button's on the left side of your bed, to call them, I mean,” I replied, not knowing how to address the difficult man.
“Left side, very funny,” he replied.
The naval officer was missing his left arm, I suddenly realized. I pulled my thick-wired control unit to my side and pushed the button for assistance. Pus appeared within seconds.
“Angle the head of this bed up, Snuffy,” Rory said.
“Yes, sir,” Pus answered, going to the head of the bed to operate the crank located there. He cranked away until Rory told him to stop, and then he was gone, nearly running out of the room.
“They’re a great crew, you know, the people working here,” I said, unable to stop myself. “They called me Junior in the valley and now you’re calling the corpsman Snuffy. Neither of those two nicknames were or are complimentary. You lost your arm, and that’s got to be terrible. I’m not even certain yet what parts I’ve permanently lost, but I sure as hell know it’s not the fault of this team of medical people. Don’t call the corpsman Snuffy again, at least not in my presence.”
“Sir,” Rory hissed back. “And just what in the hell do you think, from your own mess of a bed, that you can do to control anything I do?”
“I’m friends with important people, but you’re correct, sir, that I can’t do much. Maybe all I can do is call my friend, the Navy Captain of this hospital, and make certain that you don’t get a pain shot in three hours, or any more, since obviously, they’re giving you morphine to help accommodate your mental, rather than, your physical state.”
“Who the hell are you?” Rory exclaimed, looking directly over at me. “Where’s this valley you keep mentioning? And why are you defending enlisted naval staff who are required to do our bidding? We’re both officers and combat-experienced officers at that.”
“And…” I replied, almost instantly.
“And,” the naval lieutenant replied, looking away from me, “please don't stop the shots. They’re all I’ve got right now. They’re sending me to Bethesda Naval Hospital from here, but I can’t go there, and nobody will listen. My wife, down in Amarillo, Texas needs me back badly, and I can’t seem to get anyone to understand just how badly I need to get back to her. I don’t have an arm anymore. She may not want me.”
Rory held out his small stub of an arm, to illustrate his condition.
I looked at the man and my sympathy went out towards him. “So, you’re worried that she won’t want you anymore because of the arm?”
Rory looked at me, his answer to the question fully delivered by his facial expression alone.
I noted that the Navy Lieutenant had not required that I call him sir again.
“We need Barbara,” I replied.
“Barbara who?” Rory asked.
“Barbara ‘I’m getting you to Amarillo’ Barbara, that’s who,” I replied, as I hit the button on my electronic unit for assistance, again.
I had no idea what I was doing, but ever since I’d heard Barbara was not just some anonymous volunteer at the hospital, that her husband was the commanding officer of the whole place, I’d treated her gingerly, with respect, as well as a low level of fear.
Pus came into the room, his response time astoundingly fast, but he stood uncommonly at the door, avoiding looking over at the Lieutenant.
“I need to talk to Barbara,” I said, and then stopped talking.
Pus looked over at the Navy Lieutenant finally and meaningfully, no doubt thinking, I realized, that I was probably trying to find a way to bail out of the room they’d put the more than difficult Navy Officer in. Pus left, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before he returned with Barbara or she came alone.
Barbara was there within minutes. I wondered if she remained on her ‘volunteer’ hours all day and all night long, and what area of the hospital was she assigned to, as she always seemed to be nearby and it was a very large hospital.
I explained the situation Rory was trying to live through, as best I could. Rory didn’t comment at any time or interrupt at all.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Barbara said, before leaving.
“Thank you,” Rory said, but I couldn't glean any sincerity from his tone or the use of the words.
“Think nothing of it, and I don’t have any idea whether she can pull it off,” I replied.
“I meant, thank you for trying…after the way I was a bit ago.”
My shot came on time and then Rory’s, both delivered by Kathy early, as the pain management system set up and efficiently operated by Yokosuka Naval Hospital worked to perfection, with slight modifications and changes worked in by the staff.
Rory looked over at me meaningfully, as if I was the one who’d got him the morphine, but I’d had nothing to do with it. Kathy was sensitive, crisp, cool, and brilliantly able to understand the wants, needs, and attitudes of her patients.
I faded away with the shot, knowing I’d have another coming in the middle of the night. The Navy Lieutenant had nothing to say, once receiving his own injection of pain medication.
I awoke in the morning, having remembered the morphine shot in the middle of the night, but not thinking much about everything else that transpired. I looked over at the Navy Lieutenant’s bed but the bed was empty.
I pushed the button for attention.
My feelings ran from being happy for the Navy Lieutenant to my own sense of strange alienation from having ‘lost’ another member of my company, even though he’d never been anywhere near where I’d served. I couldn’t even remember his last name, my near eidetic memory not working at all, just as it didn’t seem to when I thought about the guys in the company, or exactly where the A Shau part of the valley I worked back and forth across was in relation to the rest of the country. It was north of most of the south, it was west from the ocean but I couldn’t picture just how it fit in with how’d I’d come to be there or even how An Hoa or Da Nang fit in.
I half-walked down the hall toward the single shower stall, more interested in looking out the window than having the shower itself. Pus was there with the wheelchair and I accepted a ride halfway down the hall. Following my hot hard water shower, I was refreshed to the bottom of my being, however. I remembered the life-giving power of the Bong Song when I'd been able to swim in it. Water could be magical in its healing power. Why there was a window low enough for me to see out of in the wing’s only shower, was based on a logic I couldn’t comprehend. Who looked out of a shower window when they were washing and rinsing down? I did, but I also knew I wasn’t normal by any stretch of any definition I could think of. I’d once been normal and wanted to be again, but whatever state I was in was different than that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on the details of just how. The snow had been coming down outside when I’d visited the shower days earlier. It’d been heartwarming to observe, although Japan in winter was a very cold place I knew, and that weather was only inches from my view.
I was so tired out from the staggering, brushing and bouncing-off-walls travel from my room to the shower that I accepted Pus’s offer of a full free ride in the chair on the way back.
We passed Captain Jackson’s room quickly. I forced Pus to stop, just beyond the uncommonly closed door. It had been closed when we passed it earlier, I realized.
“Let’s visit the general,” I said, forcing Pus to turn the chair around.
“He’s not there,” Pus said, placing my chair right exactly outside the center of the door.
“They shipped him out,” Pus said, his voice low, nearly unhearable.
“Oh,” I replied, shocked that nobody had said anything about his leaving.
“Where’s home for him?” I asked.
“They didn’t ship him home,” Pus said, his voice sounding like he was filled with misery and regret.
“Where did they send him?” I asked, imaging the many hospitals connected to the Naval operations medical system.
“They cleared him and sent him back to Vietnam,” Pus said.
Thoughts of crazy apparitions blasted into my mind. General Jackson flying a helicopter over the enemy in Vietnam. Johnson forcing his subordinates at some base to get his boots on and keep them polished.”
“How could they have sent him back,” I asked in amazement, but Pus didn’t reply. I knew they simply couldn’t have sent him back in his condition, but deep down in my heart of hearts, I knew they had.
“Who came to interview him?” I asked, anger beginning to replace the grief I was feeling.
“There was no interview,” Pus replied, wheeling me along toward my room. "He was determined, from the medical reports, to be serviceable as an officer and pilot, and okay to serve out the remainder of his tour. There’s no place on the report for a mental condition.”
I made the trip back to my room in silence. Johnson was a dead man and I could not save him. The people with him on any Huey he flew would be dead too, but I couldn’t save them either. I was reminded of the crew that the colonel had sent out in the night to investigate me, and the terrible KIA numbers coming from my units in the A Shau. They didn’t know. There was no way they could know because the system was not set up to let the rear areas know what was really happening in the field, or even in the hospitals they operated.
Pus helped me get back in bed. I waited for him to leave since unlike Shoot, he didn’t stay inside the room all the time. That was a good sign, I knew but at the moment couldn’t reflect on that thought.
I pushed the button for help.
Kathy appeared in less than two minutes, as I looked at my big clock on the wall, Rory gone, gone like so many in the period of my life I was living.
“It’s too early for your next shot,” she said, looking down to check her watch.
I didn’t reply, merely looking away, as I was not surprised. I knew the schedule of shots better than any nurse might.
“They sent Captain Jackson back to Vietnam,” I said, not wanting to meet her eyes.
“Yes, I heard that,” Kathy answered, before turning and leaving through the room’s double doors. She reappeared in minutes, a syringe in her hand.
“This one’s on the house,” she said, plunging the needle into my I.V tubing.
“There’s nothing right about any of this,” she said, tossing the syringe into the medical disposal box.
I didn’t reply, as there was no reply necessary. I was still in combat and there was no rational ability to conduct almost any social or structured action in a combat situation. The combat area and its effects structured everything. Anyone within the surrounding area of its effect reacted, and, mostly died.
“What about Barbara?” I asked. Barbara had single-handedly saved Rory and got him back to be with his wife.
“Orders,” Kathy replied. “Neither she nor her husband can change or affect Marine orders in a combat zone. I know you’re thinking about Rory, but that was different. He already had orders sending him home. They don’t change orders given out when you're still part of the combat team in actual conflict.”
I wanted to ask questions, like who had certified the man to be okay to not only continue active service but return to full-on combat service, but I knew it was hopeless. Combat zones, even in rear areas and supporting operations like the Yokosuka Naval Hospital, functioned in a state of managed chaos. I’d gone to Tachikawa Air Force Hospital because my file had been stamped M.C. and the people transporting me thought that meant Medical Corps instead of Marine Corps. That fact might have been bad enough alone, but instead of treating and stabilizing me they’d immediately dumped my grievously wounded, likely dying, body into a jeep and driven me to another hospital. Managed chaos, the same kind of nightmare logic that ruled life and death at the bottom of the A Shau Valley survived insidiously throughout the war arena. Johnson was as good as dead, like Sugar Daddy, Fessman and so many of the rest, and there wasn’t one thing I could do about it. He’d gone back into the charnel house of violent death.
I knew I couldn’t make it the distance over to see Puller and Masters. There was no way they were going back into combat, not with fathers who were general officers in the Corps.
The morphine hit me before I could feel even worse. I liked the man playing at being Stonewall Jackson. I wondered before I went out, whether it would be different when I got to a hospital back in the Continental U.S. and, for the first time since being hit, also wondered if I too might somehow be patched back together and sent, once again, into the valley. My dad was only a warrant officer in the Coast Guard.