Return To The Real World, Part V

And so I was pulled back to consciousness by the bustle beginning to take place around me.  Commanders, captains and clerks were turning on lights, opening windows and hopefully arranging stacks of papers next to their typewriters; papers which would soon include my discharge orders.  I sat up with the other derelict soldiers who had been left deserted on the riser when the Oakland Army Terminal shut down at 2300 hours the evening before, and tried to rub the sleepiness out of my eyes.  As I regained full consciousness I became aware of the fact that my mouth tasted like an ashtray.  I had quit smoking cigarettes in Vietnam but still enjoyed an occasional cigar.  The events of the past 48 hours qualified as an occasion, so I had purchased a four pack of cigars the evening before, and reaching into my shirt pocket I found that the last one was still intact.  I extracted the tube of tobacco and bummed a light from one of the other awakening G.I.’s.

As I sat back to enjoy my smoke a new urn of coffee was brought out to replace the hog swill that I had used to extinguish the butt of my last cigar of the previous evening.  This urn undoubtedly contained a much better product and I arose and mosied over to get a cup.  I was pleased to find that my assumption was correct; the coffee was the same strong and flavorful stuff that I had drunk for nearly the last three years, and the aroma soon drove the other guys over to the urn to get cups of their own.

As we sat there waiting for the process to resume I took the opportunity to do what soldiers everywhere do; I told a story.  “You know, this Army coffee kept me out of a lot of lousy duty” I began in the time-honored manner of all yarn spinners.  “How’s that?” replied one of the other guys, playing his role to perfection.  “Well, I like working in the kitchen and cooking, and when I was in basic training at Ord I had KP (Kitchen Police, or kitchen duty) on the day that our company had to march ten or fifteen miles out into the country in full packs, set up tents, and do night and day maneuvers for two or three days.  I ended up helping to pack up the field kitchen and mess tent and rode in the back end of a deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton truck) to our bivouac area.  We set up the tent and assembled the kitchen long before the ‘cruits (recruits) got there, so Sarge made some coffee and we sat around for an hour or two until he got the word to start cooking dinner.  The Joe’s came into the area and had to pitch tents before they could eat, and they looked like shit when they came into our tent, but we were doing just fine.

After that I always volunteered for KP when there was a crappy detail to avoid, and sometimes I would take a guy’s KP in return for their weekend pass.  I tell you, sitting in a tent in the early morning with a cup of hot coffee and some of the best SOS (creamed beef on toast, or Shit on a Shingle) that the mess sergeant could cook while listening to his stories, some going back to World War II, were some of the best times I had in the Army.”  The guys all smiled and nodded.  Nobody appreciates a good scam that gets you out of boring or dangerous work nearly as much as a soldier does.  At ten minutes until seven a great commotion erupted behind us.  The doors to the building yawned open and a new batch of soldiers filed in, probably the next bunch of returnees, we assumed.

“Durden, Glenn!”  A new clerk bawled out my name and I jumped up, ready to make an end of this.  “Come in, Durden.  We’re almost done here.  When you leave this station you will get into your Class A dress uniform for the final station.  You’re almost done, soldier.”  I could hardly believe my ears but the clerk was as good as his word, and not twenty minutes later I had traded fatigues and combat boots for my rumpled green dress uniform with it’s shirt the color of baby puke and my “low quarter” dress shoes which had all been stuffed into my bag.  Emerging from a restroom so attired I proceeded to the last station.

“Here is your last payday soldier.  How would you like your money:  cash, check or travelers checks?” I had a little cash left in my pockets and so foolishly opted for travelers checks, which were duly issued and signed.  “OK.  Sign this paper here,”  the clerk pushed one more paper toward me that looked like the fifteen thousand other papers that I had already signed, “and we’ll be done.”  I signed as quickly as I could, scrawling my name across the bottom of the paper.  The clerk slid a folded sheaf of discharge orders to me and asked for my military ID card, which I cheerfully yielded up to him.  “That’s it.  Get out of here, man.”

I picked up my bag and walked out of the building, dazed and hardly daring to believe what I had just heard and witnessed.  Outside it was a glorious spring morning in the Bay Area and I felt like this must be what entering heaven would feel like.  Nearly three years earlier I climbed off of a bus near midnight in front of a mess hall at Ford Ord, and now I was walking towards a taxi with every step leading me farther away from all of that.  Two other guys were negotiating with the driver and I came up to make it three.  We agreed on a price and soon passed through the gates of Oakland Army Terminal.  I didn’t look back.

We chattered excitedly as the driver made his way towards San Francisco International Airport.  I don’t remember anybody’s name or where they were going to; this was my time and that’s all I was focused on.  We passed over the bridge and through The City, finally arriving at the front of the airport.  I saw none of the protesters who were reported to show up anywhere in the City where soldiers might appear in order to spit on them and call baby killers and so forth.  I can’t predict how I would have reacted in such an instance but nothing of the sort happened.  We paid the driver, shook hands and went our separate ways.

I headed straight to the Pacific Southwest Airlines ticket counter and took my place in line, and at length my turn came.  I approached the counter, gave my destination and waited for the ticket to be sold to me.  After a few minutes the agent pushed a ticket in my direction and said “That will be $78.69.”  I took out my travelers checks and prepared to countersign when she asked “can I see your ID?”  I had, of course, surrendered my military ID less than an hour earlier and told her this.  “I’m sorry sir, I can’t accept a travelers check without some sort of ID.”

“Ma’am, I don’t have any ID.  I have just been discharged from the Army.  I have a drivers license in my chest of drawers at home because I didn’t need it much in Vietnam where I’ve spent the last two goddam years.”  My frustration with the tragicomedy of snafus and delays on this odyssey was beginning to reach a boiling point, and my near exhaustion that a few hours of sleep had only barely begun to address only added to my irritability.  “Look, all I ask is that I be allowed to go home and take this green monkey suit off.  I have a name badge that says my name pinned to my chest.  I have orders that say Glenn L. Durden is a free man and can go home now.  What the hell do I have to do to buy a ticket from you that will get me there?”

“I’m sorry sir.  I don’t make the rules—.”  At this point a vein at my right temple was about to explode.  The customers lined up behind me came to my aid however, and averted a replay of the Tet Offensive right there at the ticket counter.  “Come on lady.  Sell the man a ticket!” said the customer behind me.  “Yeah” chimed in a lady behind him.  “What the hell’s wrong with you.  Does he have to bleed for you right here on the floor?”  A chorus of other voices began to rise up and the flustered agent, who’s fault it really wasn’t after all, held up her hands and said “OK.  Wait here and I’ll get a supervisor.”

She left the counter and in no time at all a guy in a natty little suit came out and asked the eternal, smarmy question:  “OK, what seems to be the problem here?”  I explained the problem to an accompanying chorus of muttered threats and imprecations from the other travelers.  “It doesn’t sound to me like we have a problem at all” he said, averting a small crisis.  “Here.  Sign these two checks and we’ll get you some change and a seat on flight 1079, leaving here in about—” he consulted his wristwatch in a sweeping and dramatic fashion —“fifty five minutes.  There’ll be a stopover in Long Beach and we”ll have you in San Diego at 1:44 this afternoon.”

1:44 PM this afternoon!”  Not 1344 hours, but 1:44 PM  “Is there anything else that we can do for you Mr. Durden?”  Once again, ‘Mr. Durden!’  Not Specialist Durden, not soldier, not ‘cruit, grunt, goldbrick, shitbird or anything else that I had been called the last three years.  Mister Durden responded with “No sir.  Thank you very much for your help.”  I took my ticket and carried my bag to the appropriate gate, and there awaited my flight which was right on time.  At last the gate opened and I queued up to board.  A flight attendant took one of my tickets – the one to Long beach – and I put the ticket for the second leg of my final journey into a crease in my peaked garrison cap.  Soldiers now wear cute little berets, but back then we wore garrison caps, and traveling soldiers always put their tickets in that crease.  It was like they were made for it.  I found my seat, stashed my bag in the overhead compartment, sat down and buckled up, and then fell fast asleep.

“Hey buddy, wake up.  Wake up soldier.”  An elbow was nudging me in the ribs as I regained consciousness.  I looked over at my traveling companion, a civilian in his middle years, as wakefulness slowly returned to me.  “Where are we?” I asked.  “Coming into Lindberg” he told me.  I looked with bleary eyes out the window and saw the brown layer of smog that hovered over the city.  “Humph” I thought.  “That’s different.”  We came down uneventfully and in fifteen minutes I was talking to my mother on a telephone in the terminal.  “I’m home Mom.  Can you come and pick me up?”

We lived a half hour from the airport, and it seemed like forever before Mom’s ’62 Mercury pulled up in front of me outside of the terminal doors.  I got an affectionate tongue lashing for not having bothered to call home once I was on this side of the Pacific Ocean, but I mostly ignored it as we passed by the North Bay area, then past the old Spanish Presidio buildings up the hill from the mouth of Mission Valley.  Now we drove past the new football stadium where the Chargers played.  I had not yet seen this building and it looked like the apex of modern sports to me. At last we drove up Fairmont hill and through the neighborhood that I had called home for the last seventeen years.

“Mom,” I asked when we got home.  “I’m too young now to buy a beer.  Would you go up to the store and get me a six pack while I shower?”  Mom agreed and soon I was alone, standing in the shower at the house that I had called home since I was four years old.  After the water had washed off nearly three days of dirt and sweat, some of which had first stuck to my body at Long Binh, Vietnam, I toweled off and dressed in shorts and a tee shirt and went out to enjoy my first beer as a civilian.

Mom had bought two six packs and I sipped one and talked with Mom until Dad got home from work.  He greeted me with a handshake and tears that he only barely held back.  Pop opened a beer of his own and then procured a shot of the rye whiskey that he kept on the back porch.  We then yakked while Mom bustled about in the kitchen.  At length my brother Brad returned from his classes at San Diego State.  He too opened one of the beers and we talked until Mom sang out “Dinner’s served.”  Then the four of us sat down at the table as civilians for the first time in three years.

After dinner, with hellos all well said and a stomach bursting with the best food that I had tasted in a very long time, I excused myself and strapped on the sandals that I had brought home from Vietnam.  Ray Matlock, one of my oldest neighborhood friends, had returned from the ‘Nam only two weeks earlier, and I wanted to go savor my freedom with somebody who could really relate.

At length I stepped out of the front door with a straw hat on to hide my extremely short hair.  My first sergeant in Vietnam had threatened to hold me back if my hair, which I had always cheated on, wasn’t Army length.  I doubted that he would really do it but didn’t want to incur unnecessary risk, so I had my head virtually shaved.  Now, with a smooth face and a cue ball for a head I walked down the two steps off of the front porch, down the walkway that Dad and I had framed up and poured years earlier, and over the sidewalk that I had grown up walking and running on.

So many of my brothers had trouble coming home from Vietnam.  Some you could say never quite made it home at all.  That was not my story.  As I walked along the sidewalk to Ray’s house, the three previous years were already beginning to recede into the past.  New experiences would replace the old ones and the worst of the old ones would in time be relegated to my dreams, and those increasingly far apart.  I, Glenn Durden, was home.

Serious As A Heart Attack, Part VI

“Good morning Glenn. How are you feeling today?” Kim, my new daytime nurse, was smiling and active, even perky. Nothing could have been more diametrically opposite of how I felt. I had been awakened two or three times the night before by a nurse taking vital signs or a phlebotomist drawing blood or somebody sticking a needle into my belly injecting something, insulin I think. I still felt light headed, as I had since I awoke from surgery, and I was still without any appetite at all.

“Today we are going to walk a little, and if you want you can take a shower. Your urinal is in the bathroom; if you need it, call and we’ll help you walk to it. Your breakfast will be here in a few minutes. Is there anything else I can do for you now?” I assured Kim that I was all right for the moment and she left to perform other duties, leaving me in bed to ponder my new stage of recovery. I did not feel at all like eating OR walking, and even though I knew that both would be good for me my body recoiled at the thought of it. As Kim had promised, my breakfast did arrive within minutes of her departure.

Diane, a nurse assistant, brought in my breakfast tray and set it on a bedside table. “Come on, Mr. Durden. It’s time to get into the chair.” I grudgingly complied, grasping a pillow against my sundered sternum and allowing Diane to get her arms around me so that she could help me up to a sitting position on the side of the bed. Using my own arms to push myself upright was forbidden, as the muscles of the arms are leveraged against the muscles of the chest which attach, among other places, to the sternum. I did not need the muscles attached to either side of my sternum pulling in opposite directions, separating that bone which was now cut into two pieces and wired back together. One surgery was enough; I had no need of another to rewire my sternum.

“Up we go.” And up we went. I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or two, getting my balance, and then stood up, once again using my legs instead of my arms to push me erect. The chair was only a few steps away and I carefully sat down in it, still pressing my stiff pillow tightly against my chest. “There you go” said Diane. “Now lets see what we have for breakfast.” What we had was oatmeal with raisins, a small fruit bowl, a cup of cranberry juice and something else, the memory of which escapes me now. I looked upon my feast with a relish approaching that with which a taxpayer looks upon the approach of an IRS auditor.

“You have to eat to get your strength Mr. Durden” said Diane, and I knew that she was right. So I lifted my spoon and began first to work on the chunks of canned peach and pear and a few bits of melon which might have been fresh, and washed it down with my juice. That didn’t amount to much but it added up to more than I really wanted. Now I dipped my spoon into the oatmeal and began to mechanically chew. It was like asking a T-Rex to eat tofu. I rolled each spoonful from one side of my mouth to another, chewing and chewing and finally swallowing, just to get rid of the noisome stuff. I probably ate no more than a quarter of the bowl and then pushed the button that would alert my caregiver that I was finished. Diane quickly arrived and swept away my tray.

“I’d like to get back into bed now” I said. “Since you’re already up, why don’t we get your weight and take a little walk” Diane replied. I groaned but nodded my approval. Clutching my pillow I once again arose and walked unsteadily about ten feet to where a large scales awaited me. I stepped onto it, Diane recorded my weight, and then we headed out of the doorway and into the hall. I really didn’t want to do this and so I set out to get it done as quickly as possible. I probably went thirty feet down the hall, and at a faster rate than I should. I turned around to make my return trip and the distance to my room looked like miles to me, so I quickly pushed on, wanting to get this ordeal over with and back into my bed.

At last I did get to my bed and carefully fell back into it. I could feel my heart pounding with the exertion and my nurse quickly made an appearance. Kim took my vital signs, felt pulses, listened to heart and lungs and then disappeared for a few minutes. When she returned she injected a medication into the central line that was still in my neck. It turned out that the exertion caused my heart rhythm to go into atrial fibrillation, and the result of that was a new medication taken each day to ensure that my heart stayed in what is called a ‘normal sinus rhythm’. I still take that pill every day and will probably continue to do so for another month or two to come.

This pattern of activity dominated the rest of that day and the next two and a half days to come. I finally got my shower the next day, and not a minute too soon. I had worked and hurt and sweat for four days by then and I could draw my fingernails across the back of my neck and scrape up an opaque bit of dirty oil underneath them. A chair was placed in the shower and I sat on it while I sprayed myself with a hand held shower nozzle. I have never felt better than when I emerged from that shower.

Thursday and Friday were a monotonous progression of walks and meals (which nearly made me throw up) and blood draws and finger pricks and belly injections and attempts to have a bowel movement. Anesthesia, pain medication, and even some of the heart meds that I was taking have the unpleasant side effect of causing constipation, and when you have had your chest cloven in two any sort of straining is to be discouraged. My central line was removed from my neck (a very strange sensation if I do say so myself) and a final few wires in my chest were extracted. It felt good to finally be free of all technologies which had invaded my badly beaten-up body. Friday was proposed for my discharge, but my doctors, nurse, and ultimately I felt like one more day would do the trick.

Saturday arrived and I initiated my final round of unappealing meals and walks around the hallways of the sixth floor. I took another shower and brushed my hair, and for the first time in a week and a half put my baseball cap on my head. My wife appeared at about ten thirty and we waited as a depressing series of doctors and pharmacists and dietitians made their final interviews with me. Finally a cardiologist cam into my room, spoke with me for a few minutes, and pronounced me ready to go home.

Words are inadequate to express how I felt as I rode in my wheelchair down that elevator to the first floor. My wife had moved our car to the front entrance and we rolled out to it. I rose up out of my chair, sat carefully in the back seat, said my goodbye to Diane, and my wife fired the car up and rolled away from the hospital and out onto the street. I relished seeing the blue sky and the familiar houses as we crossed the five blocks or so which separate my house from the hospital. People were out working in their yards and at one house a small child played at it’s dad’s feet while dad puttered around the garage. The beauty and rhythm of the life I watched as we drove home were healing medicines all by themselves.

In a very few minutes we rolled in front of our house. My wife pulled slowly up the driveway and I looked out of the window at the abelia and hyssop that I had planted years ago. I saw that the white, pink and coral flowers were crawling with bees, and it looked good and natural. I also saw that the hyssop needed water. Hyssop has more shallow roots than abelia and must be watered more frequently. “That’s OK” I said to myself. “It’s all right now. Daddy’s home.”