The flight was nothing more or less than a disjointed series of buzzing noises, vibrations, and brief bouncing bouts where my plastic cocoon swayed out a few inches from the metal bulkhead, and then gently smacked back into it.
I was aware, but unaware, both at the same time. I knew I was on, off, and then above the planet, but not really where I was, or how far or near from anywhere. Morphine-induced thoughts cascaded through my mind the few times I nearly surfaced enough to escape the light swimming current of the drug's seductive power.
The real senses I had seeped slowly on through the clouds I’d been biting since I’d left Japan. I knew the plane had landed and stopped when all was finally still, and mostly silent. There were no shivering vibrations transmitted through the hull of the aircraft. I realized that I was being allowed to surface from the near torpor of the morphine’s hold.
My cocoon was removed from the bulkhead by talking humans nearby. I could sense and hear them but not see much of them through the eerie, weird, and misshapen images the plastic allowed for. The material had been almost clear, like milky yellow glass when it was still, but when in motion it didn’t allow for either clarity of direct vision or almost anything else. My body moved. I was shifted onto a soft surface, and then the plastic was cut away from me by two people using big sets of scissors. I watched the process with my head still, observing all I could observe by moving only my eyes, feeling like that if I moved my head the whole scene would dissolve back into the near hibernation state I’d seemed relieved by but trapped in for so long.
Whatever I was on moved and, as was becoming normal for me, I was able only to stare up and watch the ‘ceiling’ of the inside of the plane’s bulkhead pass by. I knew I was moving and not the plane, the thought of which relieved me. I was becoming fully conscious and cogent again. I knew I was being taken somewhere to see my wife, and I wanted to be able to be as clear as possible, as well as minimize the amount of damage visible to her on my body.
It was daytime I realized, as my gurney came down a ramp and out onto the tarmac of the airport. The sun was behind the building I was headed for, but I couldn’t make out whether it was going down or just coming up.
Two big doors were open. I saw other gurneys in front of me and knew that a veritable parade of gurneys likely followed me from the plane, as well. I was covered by a blanket, under which I was wearing my hospital pajamas. I lifted my head to see that my feet were bare, which seemed strange. It wasn’t too cold out nor was it too warm so being barefooted didn’t really bother me. I was in California and back in the USA, at last. I let my head fall back to the pad of my gurney in relief, as I was wheeled across the threshold of the building’s opening and on into a long hall, a hall much larger than the halls I traveled through back at Yokosuka.
I noted the other gurneys being wheeled all around me, some with their pads angled up so the men in them, those capable of it, could look around. I wasn’t capable in my drugged state, and, in fact, I could only take in the information that we were all there, being set into places against the walls. I looked to my right where there was an open area forming, running the longitudinal distance of the hall, or so I presumed since I couldn’t see that far. The open area began to fill. I realized it was filling with wives and children.
She would be there, I knew. I breathed in and out deeply, wishing the drugs were less pervasive on my consciousness. I wanted to be at my best, my most cogent for her when she arrived.
In only minutes she was there. The same radiant, beautiful, and so very open and friendly woman I’d married earlier in the year. She stopped by the side of my gurney, looked down into my eyes with a fixed smile, and then moved on down the open area of the hall. I watched her short hair bounce as she departed.
I exhaled sharply, wanting to say something to stop her, and bring her back. I watched her retreating figure, however, without saying anything. I was beyond confused, and beginning to wonder if the drugs hadn’t driven me over the deep end of any awareness about what was happening around me.
There was nothing to be done except to wait, hoping that she would return.
In minutes, she was back, accompanied by one of the flight nurses.
“That’s him,” the nurse said, pointing down at me, “that’s your husband, his name is on the chart tucked into the bottom of his gurney.”
My wife looked skeptically down at me.
“It’s me, really,” I got out, only starting to realize that everything about me must have changed.
I weighed a little more than a hundred pounds now, as opposed to the hundred and fifty I’d been when I left her. I was also almost certain my expressions and facial features were probably a bit different, given the stress and agony of my journey since leaving her.
My wife started to cry, the short inches of distance between her and the gurney I was on seemed like the Grand Canyon.
“What have they done to you?” she asked, finally reaching across the distance to put her right hand on my right upper arm.
She finally leaned down and clutched me as close as she could. We hugged there more than we talked. We both knew there was no time. She was living in Daly City, across the bridge from Oakland where the hospital was located. I’d left her only the GTO I’d purchased three days before I’d found out she was pregnant. The car was a four-speed, and my wife was five feet tall and thin. The clutch alone was a monster to operate on any of San Francisco’s hills. Visiting me at the hospital was going to be problematic, I knew, but there was nothing to be said about it until things could be discussed and talked over at a later time.
Only moments passed before the medical people swept through the hall, taking all the wives and children with them. I promised my wife that I would call when I was situated at the hospital across the water.
The loading and trip across the Bay Bridge were uneventful.
My arrival at the facility of Oakland Naval Hospital was not without some drama, however, even though the quick separation of me from my wife in short order, and injecting me with another morphine shot, might have seemed dramatic enough.
The Navy ambulance I’d been loaded into, with five other gurney-bound patients, had been fully enclosed, without windows. When I was finally pulled from the double door opening in the back of the big blue truck, I saw the hospital building and was shocked. It was a huge brand-new modern structure rising up many stories in front of me. It was as different from the dingy strung out low building Yokosuka had been as could possibly be. The place had to be a much more wonderful facility to be secreted away in, and treated, than what I’d so far experienced. The treatment I’d had at the First Medical Facility and then Yokosuka had been wonderful, but most of that had been because of the personnel. It gave me a relieved sense of well-being to realized that I’d probably have the same class of people caring for me, but with the additional benefit of the latest technical equipment, as well.
I found out very quickly that, once again, I’d be assigned to a room in the ‘dirty surgery’ portion of the hospital located on the 6th floor. Why any medical operation would use such a negative sounding title for a part of the hospital was beyond me, but at least the drugs were wearing off to the point where I could finally think such thoughts.
Through the opiate haze, I felt myself being wheeled down halls and up a very spacious elevator. In spite of the hospital being brand new, I noted that the ceilings were just like the others in hospitals I’d been in. They were there to protect everyone from what was above and to provide fixtures for light. They weren’t there for informing or entertaining patients being wheeled around on their backs who couldn’t see anything else.
My room turned out to be a double room with a man half-elevated laying in the bed closest to the outside wall window. My gurney was pushed to the side of the bed nearer the door, but not before I noticed a large sign posted on the wall above the head of the bed. It said; “Junior.” My heart thudded and my breathing increased in speed.
Who would have done such a thing, I wondered, until I saw the next bed feature. A baby’s mobile was suspended over the bed, swinging slightly down from two rails that ran farther up from the bed’s frame, no doubt their true intent to be available to suspend I.V. bags and other medical equipment. The two attendants who’d accompanied me, part of the plane’s medical and transport team, seemed to not take note of any of the odd additions. I was moved gently across the space to lay flat on the bed’s surface. I stared up at the mobile, having no doubt about the name taped to the wall but not understanding the mobile at all.
“You’re one of those Marines from Vietnam, wounded I would suppose,” the patient in the bed across from me said.
“That’s right,” I replied, trying to ignore the hostility in his voice, as well as, tamp down the anger I felt about having my nickname from Vietnam following me, as well as the potential negative meaning of the baby mobile mounted over the top of my bed.
“It’s sir, to you,” the man said. “I’m a full Commander, black shoe, and I’ll expect the proper use of my title from junior officers like you. I don’t know why they let Marines in here with Navy personnel. You people just don’t work out well when it comes to accommodating the human condition.”
I shrugged to myself. The play on words, his using the junior in junior officers when the word was plastered for him to see above the head of my bed, might have been cause for humor in days past, but not anymore. I was quickly coming to find that the facility I’d been shipped into was world-class in equipment, as I’d suspected before I entered, but woefully backward when it came to staffing, at nearly all levels. The Commander was like the Navy Lieutenant at Yokosuka, before, of course, I was able to get Barbara to have him transferred to be close to his wife.
“I have stomach cancer, not some easily operable and temporary injury like yourself,” the Commander said, the tone of his voice going from testy to acridly acidic. “I didn’t get wounded as easy as you. I have to live with the fear of getting it back for the rest of my life.”
I began to realize why I’d been given the room I’d been given. The Junior sign was the first warning, the mobile the second, and now the Commander who could not be counseled or given any kind of therapy was the third. Someone at the hospital knew me or about me, and what they knew wasn’t good.
“You’re a second lieutenant in dirty surgery,” the Commander said. “You don’t rate a double room, while I rate a private room. I’m having you shipped out of here.”
I wanted to say something cutting and hurtful, but I withheld myself. I was in no condition to threaten anyone, least of all someone who outranked by so much. I remained silent, wondering about when I would get another pain injection. There was no clock in the room, and certainly nothing like the giant clocks that had been in every room on every ward back in Yokosuka. Why would a Navy Officer think he was ‘wounded’ by getting cancer? How did one ‘accommodate the human condition?’ I hadn’t heard such arcane use of language since attending philosophy courses in college.
The Commander picked up his phone and called someone. I didn’t follow what he said, thinking of how to access an outside line so I could call my own wife. But there was no time. Before the Commander was off the phone an attendant appeared to move me.
“Why am I being moved, really, and where to?” I asked of the attendant standing by the side of my bed. I wasn’t totally opposed to the idea of moving from a room where my roommate was about as agreeable as a poisonous Tarantula spider loaded with speed, but still unsettled by the idea that I had just gotten into the room when another change was being foisted upon me. I wasn’t certain, but it seemed unlikely that the Commander could summon up the powers that be to get another badly wounded critical patient dumped from his room merely so he could have a measure of privacy.
There was no answer to my questions. At Oak Knoll, the nickname for the hospital, I was astounded to find that there were no corpsmen, either assigned or working the halls, rooms, or anywhere else. The attendants were private contracted medical personnel of unknown backgrounds and credentials. Without the corpsmen, the personal part of the care they’d so wonderfully provided was completely gone. The attendant merely called out the open door for a cohort who hauled in a gurney.
The commander, the Naval Officer, of seeming worst repute and with cancer, in the next bed, simply stared at me as I was wheeled out.
I wondered as we moved down the hall toward the southern end of the building wing, whether the Junior sign and child’s mobile would follow me to my new room.
The end of the hall came abruptly. The attendants pushed my gurney to one side, while the female attendant pulled out a ring of keys and promptly went to work on a large deadbolt lock securing the door just under its entrance and exit lever.
I stared, my eyes going larger in wonder. Why was the room I was being moved to locked? What did they keep in there that had to be secured?
The double doors swung open, and my gurney was retrieved and quickly pushed into the opening. I realized immediately that it wasn’t a room at all, but a ward. I was being moved into a six-bed ward, of which five of the beds were occupied. The men in the beds were all conscious and all staring at me.
There was no ‘Junior’ on the wall above the front of the bed I was quickly carried across to, nor a mobile mounted above it. The expressions on the face of the attendants were grim as if I had done something to deserve their ire or bad feelings. I didn’t know what to ask or say, so I remained silent.
The attendants swept the curtain around the bed closed, but not before a young man with a stethoscope around his neck slipped through and in close to the left side.
“You’ll have the head surgeon assigned to your case, for your next surgery,” the young man said. “I’m doctor Kent, your doctor for everything not surgically related.”
“Oh, thanks for coming,” I replied, trying to sound sincere, but in reality, completely lost in this new system of medical care so entirely different from anything else I’d experienced. “I don’t have a clock or watch, when is my next pain shot scheduled for?” I asked.
“You aren’t getting pain shots anymore,” Dr. Kent replied, looking down at the chart in his hands, or making believing he was doing so.
“No pain shots?” I asked, shock and instant deep worry coming into my voice. “What about the pain?”
“You’re an addict,” Dr. Kent said, checking off something on the chart, still not looking at me. “You’ve been on morphine every three or four hours for months. You’re done with that. That’s why you’re in here, to detox. You can have visitors once you get through.”
“What about the pain?” I said, my voice becoming anguished, as I knew another wave of pain was growing deep down inside me.
“You’re a Marine, you can hack it,” he replied, not looking at me directly, “You get some more medication after your next surgery, but nothing before.”
With that he reached back, whipped away the hanging curtain, and disappeared through the opening.
I couldn't think of anything to say in time to stop him, my mind was in too much shock. My wife wouldn’t be visiting. I’d seen her for a few brief moments at Travis and that had been it. My daughter’s existence was still physically unknown to me.
I heard the key operate in the lock, and laid still for a few moments. I had a call button but no control of a television, but then there was no television visible to control, either.
I leaned as far out as my body would allow, grabbed the curtain, and began working it back around my bed. After five full minutes, much of it in pain, I had it pulled far enough back so I could see the other men in the room.
“Where am I?” I whispered out. “Are you all detoxing?”
All five men laughed at once.
“No,” the man right next to me replied. “We’re all patients from the brig. We’re not surgical patients, but this ward is the only one they have that locks, so they can keep us in.”
I realized I was locked up for the first time in my life.
“What you detoxing from?” the man asked, after introducing himself as Walter Peterman.
“I’ve been on morphine for a long time,” I said. “I was shot in Vietnam, back on the 1st of October, and have had to have it all the time since.”
“You better call for some ice, towels, and water,” Peterman advised. “Looks like you’re going to have a pretty rough trip.”
I pushed my call button.
The lock on the door operated a few minutes later, the door opened, and then an attendant came in accompanied by a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant in Dress A Greens, with a full blouse, tie and piss cutter cover folded over the left portion of his belt.
The attendant came up to the bed, with the Marine following right behind her.
“This is your Marine Liaison Officer,” she stated. “What is it you want,” she went on when I didn’t respond.
“These guys in here say I’m going to need water, ice, and towels to detox, is that true?” I asked.
“You’ll need some pans too,” she replied, “for the vomiting, and maybe some extra covers for later on when it's mostly run its course.”
I couldn’t get over the fact that my coming time of total misery was talked about like it was no big deal, which to them apparently was no big deal.
“What’s wrong with that doctor?” I asked, unable to stop myself. “He doesn’t seem old enough to have proper credentials and he seems like he’s mean-spirited down to his core.” I turned to look at the Marine Officer, his name tag on his right breast reading Johannson. “Can you get me another doctor?” I asked him, directly.
“Fraid not,” Johannson replied, a big smile on his face. I noted from his single National Defense ribbon that he’d not been to Vietnam. “I’m here for sundries and outside contacts. I can call your wife for you since you have to stay in this ward, and there’s no phone.
I looked around the room once again. No phone. I hadn’t noticed that and it was a big deal. I was about to be in a lot of trouble and I was going to be in trouble all alone.
I gave Johannson my wife’s phone number and told him to call and tell her that I was in for an initial evaluation and she wouldn’t be allowed to visit for three more days. I knew there was no point in complaining about anything or appealing. I was stuck inside a process driven by forces I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know who knew about me as Junior from Vietnam but I’d seen enough, from the sign, the mobile and now my lock up with prisoners, having to detox all on my own. I knew some force was at work. I would first have to survive the ‘pretty rough trip’ in this room and I also knew it was going to a rough trip, indeed.
I resented being locked up with prisoners from the brig, but my resentment didn’t last long. Only Peterman had spoken to me until a guy from over near one of the windows on the far side of the room approached my bed.
“You’re going to need these to get to the other side,” he said, opening the single metal drawer in the little bureau next to my bed on the right side.
“Can you reach down that far?” he asked.
I reached down to make sure I could.
The man dumped a supply of pills from a bottle, then sealed it back up. He turned to go but stopped briefly.
“Codeine #3,” he whispered. “Much weaker than morphine or Demerol but it’ll get you through the tough spots of pain, and also push back the hallucinations and nightmares from the detox. Got more if you need them, but take them sparingly. If I get caught stealing them then I’ll have to tell them where the pills went. Take no more than three at a time and space them out as much as you can.”
I thanked the man, as he walked away. He didn’t respond further, merely returning to his own bed.
“It’s bad enough being in here, but it’s worse being in here with someone crying, sweating, and puking all night long,” Peterman whispered over to me.
I got what he was saying. The man wasn’t being kind to me. He was being kind to himself, and his friends in the other beds. There had been some immediate wonder in my mind about why he hadn’t asked for compensation of any kind until I understood the rest of the story.
“What are you in the brig for?” I asked Peterman.
“Oh, I had a disagreement with a senior NCO and we fought it out,” Peterman replied, with a big smile on his face.
“What happened to the NCO?” I asked.
“He died,” Peterman said, no emotion in his voice at all.
“So, they hit you with a charge of murder?” I inquired, surprise pushing back the pain that was rising up from the center of my torso.
“Yeah,” he replied, and then asked, after a few seconds: “What are you in for?”
I looked all around about me, thinking about the Junior sign that had been prepared for me, before replying.
“Same thing,” I said.