My wife drove Mickey’s 442, since she wouldn’t let me drive, as we made our way to Highway 280, then 80 across the Bay Bridge, onto 580 to head back south to where the hospital was set back on Mountain Boulevard some distance from the MacArthur Freeway.
“Why do all the freeways from home to here end in eighty?” I asked, inanely from the passenger seat, Julie sitting in my lap.
Mary didn’t answer. We’d argued about the driving. I was fit to drive but she thought my mental condition was a bit tattered because of the coming surgery. I could see no sign of that myself but there was little point in arguing. If they kept me at the hospital, which I’d packed my small canvas sack for, then Mary would return home, leaving Julie with Pat and drive Mickey’s car back to the station. I knew she liked the Oldsmobile but also that she hated the wind blowing because the convertible top was down. For some reason, the electric motor operating the top would not function and I’d not wanted to mention any kind of complaint to Mickey.
Mary parked the car, against my wishes, in the emergency medical parking, the part of the lot reserved for medical personnel. I was fine to walk the longer distance from visitor parking, but I’d lost my decision-making powers once the trip had begun. She carried Julie on her right hip and I swung my small bag of shaving and toothpaste stuff as we went.
The emergency waiting room was actually the most ambient space in the hospital that we’d found so far. Mary would wait there with Julie until a decision was made about my surgical decision and any schedule.
I took the elevator up to dirty surgery and headed for the nurse’s desk. Lieutenant Johannson stood, leaning against the counter, talking to a couple of the nurses on duty.
I moved to where he stood, standing a couple of feet back from the counter, not knowing what to expect.
“You won’t be going back into the lockup if that’s what’s on your mind,” he said, noting my reticence to approach any of them.
There was no answer to that comment I could think of. “Thank you,” seemed totally out of place, so I said nothing. That Johannson was trying to be so solicitous and nice alerted me to the fact that I was probably emanating some of my interior fear about what I knew had to be coming. I looked at the very squared away lieutenant in his Class A Green Uniform. The only reason I could think of about wearing my own uniforms was the fact that they were so tightly tailored that they’d hold me together better than about anything else I could wear. However, there was no cause to wear a uniform, and the cleaning and pressing bills alone, if not living or working on a Marine Base, were beyond my current capability to pay.
I was ushered into a small room already occupied by several men, all dressed in surgical attire.
A tall man with short gray hair, a thin mustache, and a short goatee stood up, turned around, and then looked intently at me.
“This then is the patient?” he asked, apparently to nobody in particular.
“Lieutenant patient at your service,” I replied, making sure not to smile.
The man’s intent stare didn’t flicker a bit, as he turned, faced the other men, and then sat in the chair he’d been in when I walked into the room.
“We’ll need three or four hours of time in the morning to perform a complete exploratory laparotomy. Prep is at zero-five-thirty and the team should be positioned, ready and available by seven. The patient will be sedated and wheeled to surgery on a hard gurney.
“You can go,” one of the other two men, sitting across from the laconic and analytical surgeon said, waving me back toward the door I’d come through.
I made my way back to the emergency room waiting area where my wife waited. There was no way I was going to tell her about just what an arrogant ass the surgeon had turned out to be. There was nothing to be done for it. I was stuck where I was and going under the knife in the morning. All I could do would be to worry her more.
“I’m going to stay the night and be prepped early tomorrow morning,” I told her. “The surgery should start at seven a.m. and be quick. There are no complications they can think of without opening me up, but the surgeon is world famous at this. You better let the nurse’s station upstairs know where you’ll be.”
“No, I’ll wait outside of surgery upstairs,” she replied. “How long?”
“Three hours, or maybe less,” I replied, having no real clue.
I hadn’t liked the phrase ‘complete exploratory laparotomy’ at all. A laparotomy was the opening from stem to stern, up and down, of the entire torso. It was about the most serious and extensive surgery a human being could have, short of an autopsy.
Mary left but was back early in the morning. I didn’t think to ask her about how she’d made the trip, my concentration focused almost exclusively on holding my building fear in check.
When they came to get me, I was ready. The young doctor wasn’t present, only the tall mustache and goatee surgeon with no personality, and no name tag.
“Valium?” he asked Edith, the RN who stood nearby.
“Nothing,” she replied, being kind enough not to mention my now well-known addictive problem. She did smile weakly at me; her brow furrowed a bit.
“Twenty milligrams,” the doctor said. “I’ll be back. He’s going to need it.”
Edith returned only moments later to push the drug into my I.V. The effect was instant. I was not only calm about going into serious potentially life-threatening surgery, I was happy about it. I realized that morphine and Demerol weren’t the only drugs that really worked.
My wife held my hand until I was ready to go, and then Edith took over, but there was no more hand-holding. With two attendants she helped lift me onto a gurney they’d wheeled in. There were no goodbyes or any of that. Edith took me away, back into the world of passing white chicklet lights on the ceilings of the halls.
I didn’t come out of surgery into consciousness. I came out of it in some sort of different state of reality recognition, without reality being anything I was ready for. A Catholic priest peered down, his face protruding from his bent-over position, as he did whatever a priest was supposed to be doing at the time. I looked into his eyes, noting the white-collar and the black outfit. My mind went back to the First Med in Da Nang when the priest had been administering the Last Rights to me as my gurney was wheeled into surgery. My fear back then had been much greater than what I experienced looking up into the man’s eyes.
I reached my right arm upward and grabbed his arm as hard as I could, my hand clamped with as much pressure as I could generate, around his neck.
“I need morphine,” I whispered, with as much energy as I could manage, the words coming out low and raspy.
“I’ll get it,” he whispered back, trying to pry my choking hand from his throat.
He finally freed himself and stepped back to stand next to my wife.
“I think he already had a pain shot a bit ago,” Mary said to him.
I stared, all the energy I’d gathered together to assault the priest now completely gone.
“I don’t care,” the priest said, still looking into my eyes. Slowly he turned and then disappeared from my narrow field of view.
“Where am I?” I asked my wife, as she moved closer to peer more comfortably down at me over the protective rail.
“It’s the morning of the third day,” she replied, her voice soft and caring.
“The third day of what?” I asked, feeling my forehead curl and eyebrows come together in real question.
“The third day after the surgery,” she replied.
My right hand plunged, seemingly on its own, down and across the front of my torso. The bag was gone. I ran the hand softly up and down, then over and around, crisscrossing the many thick bandages taped to my belly and sides, as far as it could reach. There was no crinkle or plastic encountered, either under or atop the bandages, that I could detect. There was no bag.
Edith appeared and pushed the yellow liquid into my I.V., smiled, and then was gone. I presumed she knew how much of what I could or could not have.
The drug began to kick in, beginning to take me away, I realized, although the euphoria of no longer having a colostomy bag was as overwhelming as the effect of the pain and mind-numbing drug.
“Why, three days?” I asked, trying to comprehend what my wife had said.
“The surgery was twelve hours,” she replied. “I think it was some sort of record around here.”
“What did they do?” I asked, befuddled a bit. The surgeon had said that I’d be under for a few hours just before the anesthesia mask had been strapped over my nose and mouth.
“They had to take out your gall bladder too,” my wife replied. “It had gall stones the size of golf balls. The doctor said it was because they gave you the wrong blood in Da Nang.”
I thought for a moment about what she’d said. The pain that had been so terrible might have had a lot to do with the stones, but the blood type thing couldn’t be right. I was AB positive. I was a universal recipient. I could, supposedly, get blood from any other type and have it work just fine.
Edith appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, at the foot of my bed. She checked my chart, made a notation with a pen in her free hand, and then came around the side of the bed across from where my wife stood.
“He’s doing fine,” she whispered as if she wasn’t allowed to give out such information. “Prognosis good and condition good, which is saying something after what he’s been through. The surgeon said you’re tougher than shoe leather, which surprised us all…I mean, that he would say something so human.”
Without saying anything further, Edith left the room.
“How’s everything at home?” I asked, wondering how Julie and Pat were doing.
“Thompson has been over every morning to see how you’re doing,” my wife said. “Apparently, he’ll have to register the car and title to himself, at least as far as they’re concerned, in order to enter it into the race since you may not be there.”
“Oh, I don’t know why,” I breathed out, “and the GTO’s really owned by the Federal Credit Union, at least for two more years,” I went on.
In truth, I couldn’t create much interest within myself about the car or anything else except my own survival and trying to find some position or place of physical comfort.
“I’ve been unconscious for three days?” I asked the nurse, a woman I didn’t know.
She’d walked into the room to check my chart, but not said anything until I broached the question.
“No, you’ve been conscious since about twelve hours following the surgery,” she replied, her voice very matter-of-fact, “you have no memory of the three days?”
“He’s fine,” my wife said to the nurse before I could answer. She moved down the side of the bed until she was only a few feet from her.
“He’s fine,” she repeated, forcefully.
The nurse backed up a few feet.
“Okay, I’m sure you’re right,” she said, before turning and heading on out of the room.
“You were gone the whole time,” Mary said, coming back up the side of the bed to once again lean down over me. “You were gone until you asked where you were, and then I knew, plus you went after a pain shot, which you didn’t care about for three days and nights. I thought I’d lost you. I don’t want you stuck in here with psychologists, at least not just yet, so keep as quiet as you can.”
She didn’t cry, but I knew she was close. It hadn’t occurred to me just how much pressure, worry, and fright must have piled up on her shoulders and more. I’d been concerned almost totally about my own survival.
I wanted to tell her so much about how I was going to be okay, get off the morphine and get back to being normal again, but the effect of the shot would allow none of that. I slowly sank down into the pleasant morass it opened up under me without my being able to say one more word.
The days passed faster than the nights, which were stuttered and segmented with periods of hallucination from the pain drugs to actual memories of what had happened in the A Shau Valley. I took to sleeping with the light on, as I had no roommate. There was a spare bed in the room but it was never filled by anyone. I wondered if the staff was trying to make up for their previous behavior toward me, but there was also no social life on the floor until I could get ambulatory. My wife visited every day but could not bring my daughter because of the nature of the dirty surgery floor. I was able to get out of bed on the tenth day. I’d spent the two previous days sitting up, trying to balance on my own, with a pelvis not only riven through with cracks and bullet holes but the loss of weight eating away the muscles and fat of my butt and thighs. One of the nurses had described my condition as ‘having no real substance’ below me.
My young doctor visited twice a day and the surgeon once daily while making rounds with the other doctors. I quit the morphine on the first day I was allowed to walk, with assistance, very proud of myself after the nurse came with a syringe and I sent her back. My stopping the drug wasn’t all about courage though, as I lived in fear that the cold-blooded young doctor would return me to detox with the prisoners, who would no doubt be different than the rather kindly ones I’d been in the ward with before. I knew that I had no fear of such men or living in difficult circumstances among them, even men with violent criminal careers. That kind of fear of my fellow men had been driven so deep down in my psychology that I couldn’t tell it was there anymore. I did, however, have a bit of marginal fear that I wouldn’t have the equipment I needed in order to deal with such men if any situation grew too dangerous for normal communications or common human interaction. Equipment to handle trouble was the most important thing, I’d learned, followed very closely by the ability of the possessor to use such equipment.
I wanted to get back on medical leave as quickly as I could, so I dragged my I.V. stalk and catheter bag through the halls with me, trying to gain strength by walking as far and for as long as I could. The shower shoes the hospital issued me were so cheap that they became my biggest obstacle. I longed for real ‘go-aheads,’ like I’d been accustomed to when living out on Oahu when I was much younger. I was slowly losing weight again, which was a bifurcated indicator, in that I was weakened in my efforts to grow stronger through exercise, but helping me in that the doctors would be more motivated to let me go in order to build my weight and strength back up.
The analysis of that data worked the last time.
The day of reckoning came in the middle of my third week following the surgery. Everything had gone according to plan, except I was down to the weight level I’d been discharged last time for having. I took the initiative by having the nurses get hold of Johannson. It took him almost two hours to show up. I was so certain that I was going home again that I greeted him with smiling enthusiasm. My I.V. had been pulled the previous day, the catheter bag with it. All my digestive functions were normal. I was ready. My family was waiting for me, and the race preparations had to be in an advanced stage on the GTO. I was excited to not only be able to attend the race without a bag hanging from my belly but also to be a part of getting the car ready.
“You don’t have any more medical leave available,” Johannson said, as if that information shouldn’t make much difference to me.
“What?” I literally hissed at the man, coming out of my bed like a big King Cobra getting ready to strike. “What in hell are you talking about?” I asked, trying to control myself.
“You get two weeks of medical leave a year, and that’s it,” the lieutenant said, slowly backing away as if he was in front of something more distasteful than dangerous.
“You used all your leave to stay in Fort Sill because of your daughter’s birth before you went over.
“So, what in hell am I supposed to do, stay here and wander the halls day and night until I die of starvation?” I asked, controlling the volume and tone of my voice as best I could.
Johansson was all I had when it came to being in contact with the Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps was very definitely the organization I would eventually have to deal with, and spend more time in.
“No, that’s not it,” the lieutenant replied. “You go back to work. In fact,” he went on, pulling out a sheaf of papers from the thin leather notebook he always carried, “I have your orders right here, once you’re approved for duty by your surgeon.”
I leaned back to gain some support from the edge of the bed. I waited, a bit in wonder and shock, only starting to realize that my experience with the Corps was so limited I had almost no idea how it all really worked as a military force.
“Treasure Island,” Johannson read from the paper grasped in his left hand. “You’re going to be assigned to Treasure Island as the Adjudications Officer in Charge of U.S. Marine Personnel Transport Goods and Material.”
“What?” was all I could get out.
“Adjudicate,” Johannson said, putting the paper back into a pocket in the folder. “It’s not a common word. Anyone would have a hard time understanding, so don’t feel bad. The word means, basically, ‘decider.’ You’ll decide what stuff is lost, stolen, and all that during moves by personnel between duty stations, and then put a value, if there’s to be a value, on such things so the Marines who’ve lost stuff can get paid for what’s been lost…if it’s been lost. There, that’s it. A desk job so your PULHES designation will be covered."
I knew I was in shock then, as my body and head rocked slowly back and forth, and I wished I’d never given up the morphine shots.
“PULHES?” I got out, my tone having gone from suppressed anger and disbelief down into depressive resignation.
“Physical, Upper extremities, Lower extremities, Hearing, Eyes and Psychology,” Johannson intoned, interpreting the acronym in a way that made it seem like everyone should know what the letters meant.
“You get rated one, for good, down to a four, for bad in each area,” the lieutenant said, using the fingers on his left hand to mark off the numbers one through four. “If you average three or worse then you get IDS, which stands for ‘denial of service.’
“What am I?” I asked, afraid to hear anymore.
“Oh, that’s easy,” the lieutenant smiled. “You’re a four.”
I stood up straighter, hope returning. “So, I’m to be processed out?”
“Nope, not yet anyway,” Johannson answered. “You can’t be processed out until there’s a hearing,and you can’t have a hearing until you get to a permanent duty station and position.”
“What’s Treasure Island, and that duty station, then?” I asked, trying to figure it all out.
“Temporary duty,” the lieutenant intoned, easing toward the door to my room. “It’ll be sort of like being on medical leave but having to show up and do stuff…and report to Colonel Armand ‘Lightning Bolt’ Trainer, I mean.”
“I’ll have to show up every day in uniform to do whatever adjudication involves?” I asked, not quite being able to picture this new turn of events inside my mind.
Colonel ‘Lightning Bolt’ Trainer, sounded an awful lot like the man himself if he went by or allowed such a nickname. He was likely nothing more or less than a macho pail of crap.
“So, I’m not going home?” I asked, making the question more of a disappointed statement than a question.
“In a way,” the lieutenant replied. “You’ll be reporting to Treasure Island every weekday at zero seven hundred, work the day, and then go home at four. Regular Marine Corps hours.” Johansson smiled, as if I should be quite happy to hear this new development.
“I’m discharged back to duty, just like that?” I asked, my mind whirling in wonder.
I was still bleeding up and down my torso from the main incision. I would have to carry and change the four-by-four bandages myself. I thanked God that the new adhesive tape that had just been invented was not like the old. It held the bandages in place but was very easy to remove. It didn’t pull pieces of skin on either side of the incision apart. I could do it. At least I would be home at night and on weekends, and I was going to be out in time to make it over to Half Moon Bay and the drag races.
“When do I come back?” I asked, still not quite believing that I was being discharged back to duty, no matter how limited by some chart calculation.
“You don’t,” Johannson replied, closing my file. ‘You’ll be able to check in at your next full duty station if you have any lingering problems, until the board meets to consider your continuance in the Corps, of course.”
“If I have any lingering issues,” I whispered to myself.
Johannson held out an envelope, he’d kept from the file before he closed it.
“Your new orders,” he intoned, another smile crossing his face.
With that the lieutenant got up, placed my file under his left arm, and held out his right hand. ‘
“A great pleasure to meet you, Junior,” he said.
I stood there, staring into his merriment-filled eyes. This was all funny to him, and no doubt interesting compared to the normal duties he had to conduct. I was being given the bum’s rush, just like I’d been locked up with the brig rats. What could I say or do? They’d also saved my life.
I shook his hand, no expression on my facial feature at all. It was the best I could do. I was hurt again, and I just wanted to get away. I wanted to hurt back but that thought was fleeting, as I walked away from what had been my bed and out into the hall. I walked slowly toward the elevators, realizing that, unless circumstance turned terribly in the wrong direction, that I would not have to return to Oak Knoll, and I began to relax. Wherever I was going was better than where I was coming from. I remembered thinking the same thing when I was pulled out of the A Shau, then out of Japan, and now out of Oak Knoll. When would I arrive at a place that I had any chance of staying in while also staying sane?
I called my wife from the nurse’s station down in the emergency room using the special, and supposedly confidential numbers of 91 to access an outside number that allowed for long distance calls. I’d memorized the numbers from my close observation of the doctors when they were nearby. Daily City, located only a few miles across the bridge into the outskirts of San Francisco proper, was still a long-distance call, and therefore prohibited to patients or visitors.
My wife answered on the second ring, having an idea that I might call but not certain, as, until the liaison officer talked to me we had no idea what was going on. Pat was home, for whatever reason, on a weekday so the three of them would pick me up.
I went back up the elevator to get my shaving gear and other small stuff I had kept following the surgery. I was in mild pain but could move, walk and do everything necessary to be on my own, except I couldn’t stand up straight or walk without limping. I was hunched like an old man and moved back down the hall like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I didn’t care, as long as I could navigate and do so without the colostomy bag.
Pat drove, while Mary sat in the front seat next to her holding Julie. I rested in the back seat. I’d wanted to walk toward the Oakland base of the Bay Bridge and have them pick me up on the way, but that idea wasn’t approved at all. Once on the bridge, I asked Pat to pull off into the Treasure Island complex. I pulled out my orders, only to discover that the address was the lighthouse on Yerba Buena Island, the main island that Treasure Island had been artificially constructed from. It took three stops until we could finally get someone to direct us to the lighthouse. Once there we were all stunned. The old lighthouse sat upraised at the very tip of the island, looking out over the waters of the bay toward San Francisco itself. It was beautiful, although I realized right away that the parking lot for the place was a good quarter of a mile walk from the lighthouse itself. I could do it. I breathed in and out deeply. Maybe my fortune was changing for the better. How bad could the “Lightning Bolt” really be?
“Stop at M&M” I instructed.
I just had to know how the car was doing in preparation for the big race the following week. Julie gurgled gently as we made our way along, Mary and Pat talking about the GTO as if it was more a thing of my imagination rather than being real. I started to nod off, truly relaxing for the first time since the last surgery, my head against the window and corner of the back seat. Pat’s Firebird was brand new and I loved the smell. I smiled to myself. Only a woman would buy a car named Firebird, and then make sure to get the car with the lowest powered six-cylinder engine that General Motors made.