The proctology ward is quarantined. My clothes are taken from me, and after inspection, my records and personal belongings are passed to the inside through double glass sliding windows. Next to the windows, a Coke machine is set into the wall, so, as I learn later, it can be serviced with sterile protocols through a back door outside the ward.
Naked, I wait in the hallway for whatever comes next.
A corpsman emerges from the ward and escorts me to a shower room down the hall. I am issued a thick yellow bar of soap with a strong medicinal smell, towel, hospital gown and slippers and told to report back to the ward entrance when I am finished.
Following my shower, I appear as directed, in gown, outside the double glass windows. A corpsman buzzes me inside, issues me a donut-shaped seat cushion, logs my name, rank, ship and the number of my rack on a roster hanging outside his office. He points toward my assigned rack, tells me to put my personal belongings into the drawer of my bedside locker and informs me that my clothes will be ready for me to pick up by the sliding windows when they are back from the laundry.
“When?” I ask.
“Listen for the announcement,” he answers.
It’s a big ward. There are two rows of twenty racks, and all but a few are occupied by men sleeping or reading magazines. I catch several of them checking me out as I put my things in the locker. The air hangs heavy with the same sharp medicinal odor as the yellow soap, but the ward is refreshingly quiet compared to the noisy sickbay aboard ship.
Lunch arrives as I’m sitting on my rack waiting for the announcement about my clothes. It isn’t any worse than normal shipboard food, and I am thankful for the big improvement over sickbay mush. There appears to be a routine by which the meal arrives at each rack on a bed tray, and after a half hour or so, a corpsman comes around and collects the trays. There is little conversation among the patients during lunch, but afterwards, I notice several of them get up and slowly make their way to a lounge I passed on my way in. They shuffle by my rack in short steps with stiff legs like injured troops in a column, seat cushions in one hand and cigarettes in the other.
I have no cigarettes, but I’m sure I can bum one, and it will be a chance to meet some of the patients and get a feel for the place, so I grab my cushion and fall in line.
The smoking lounge is actually a comfortable room with tables, chairs and a television.
“You in for surgery?” one of the guys asks me.
I am grateful for his question. “I hope not,” I answer.
“I’m Hanley,” he says.
“Landy,” I reply. “Can I bum a smoke?”
“Sure,” he says, as he offers me the pack and a light.
“I can see by the way you walk that you haven’t had surgery yet. You got a pilonidal?” he asks.
I draw heavily on my cigarette. “I have hemorrhoids.”
“You’re a lucky bastard,” Hanley replies. Most of us in here have had pilonidal cyst surgery. It’s a bitch. Takes forever to heal.”
“Sorry to hear that. When does the doctor come in?” I ask.
“Whenever he feels like it. Hard to tell.”
“You haven’t seen him yet?” Hanley asks.
“You’re in for a treat,” another patient at the table interrupts, and the remark gets laughs from some of the others in the lounge.
A corpsman enters the lounge with a handful of letters. “Mail call,” he announces. He is not the one who checked me into the ward. Passing out letters, he makes his way around the lounge until he comes to me. “Landerman?” he asks.
“That’s right,” I answer.
“I have a note for you,” he says, with an oddly suspicious glance.
I’m puzzled by the look on his face and surprised to be included in the mail call. It’s a hand-written note from O’Hara:
I tried to call you when I heard that you were sent to the hospital, but the hospital operator said that you don’t have a telephone, so I tried to visit you, but they wouldn’t let me in. What’s up with that? A nurse at the main desk told me that I could write you a note and it would be delivered to you. When are you getting out?
Just got word that we are going to sea next Tuesday for a two-week exercise, so I’m off on liberty. If you are not out by the time we sail the Commander says that your stuff will be sent to the hospital and you will no longer be assigned to the ship. He says if you are not with us when we sail you will “miss movement” and when you get out, you will be assigned to a new ship. Bad news. I’ll go crazy if I have to deal with the nut cases on this ship by myself. See what you can do about getting out before next Tuesday.
Before the corpsman leaves the lounge, he informs me that my clothes are back from the laundry and that I should pick them up by the entrance windows, put them on and report to him.
“He’s going to get you busy mopping and cleaning the sitz baths,” Hanley guesses.
“Lucky you,” another patient adds sarcastically.
“He is lucky,” a guy at another table says. “He can stoop over, and he doesn’t have a big chunk of his ass missing. So he has to do some mopping, I’d trade with him.” The remark is met with silence.
I report in.
I’m put to work, just as Hanley said. It’s clear the corpsmen have been watching for a patient well enough to be assigned to cleanup work in the treatment room. There are several urinals, toilets and a row of sinks along one wall, sitz baths and showers along the other and an open space between. The men recovering from pilonidal cyst surgery are required to regularly soak their open incisions in medicated bathes and then report to the corpsmen for new bandages. It is my job to mop up any blood and water on the floor and clean each bath with disinfectant after each use. The place reeks of disinfectant and bodily ooze, and I intermittently step outside to calm my stomach, catch my breath and reestablish my bearings.
The time for bathing is every afternoon between lunch and dinner. I am also assigned to mop the examination room floor every evening following dinner. I have the rest of the evening and most of the morning free, unless a new patient comes on the ward and the corpsmen want help with something.
On the morning of my second day on the ward, the doctor appears. A big man, crashing into the ward unannounced with a long determined stride. He is wearing rubber gloves and is covered head to toe with light green surgical garb. “All right, let’s get to it,” he bellows as he heads for the patient in the first rack.
The corpsmen bolt from their office and take their places at his right and left. One of carries an armload of charts and the other the clipboard from the office wall.
The doctor makes his rounds from rack to rack, greeting each patient by name, joking with them, asking about their progress, occasionally logging something in their charts and making remarks to the corpsmen. He has an easy smile and a hearty laugh. Tufts of his bushy black hair poke out under the elastic band of his head cover. He is clean-shaven except for a full mustache, which is neatly trimmed in line with his upper lip.
He greets one of the patients, but not recalling his name, puzzles a bit and asks the fellow to remind him.
“I’m Cordoza, sir.”
“Of course, you are,” he says. “And how are you doing today, Cordoza?”
“Pretty well, sir.”
“Good… good. You know if I had you on the table I’d know your name. Sometimes I forget a face, but I never forget an asshole.”
The ward erupts in laughter, and the doctor moves on.
When he comes to me, realizing I am new to the ward, he introduces himself.
“I’m Doctor Sullivan.”
“Seaman Landerman, sir.”
One of the corpsmen hands the doctor my chart. “Yes,” he says, pondering my chart.
“Hemorrhoids,” one of the corpsmen says.
“Yes,” the doctor says again.
I am stunned by the open discussion of my problem. Then the corpsman adds that I am helping with the mopping and cleaning the baths. The doctor acknowledges his appreciation for my help and exchanges a glance with the corpsman that leaves me uneasy.
“Sir,” I interject. “My ship is going out on an exercise next Tuesday. I’d like to be aboard. Do you think I will be discharged by then?”
“We’ll see. I can tell better when I’ve had a chance to examine you,” he answers, hands my chart back to the corpsman and turns his attention to the patient in the next rack. I am left with the sick feeling that getting out of the ward isn’t going to be easy as it was getting in.
As the doctor moves on with his probing and joking, I settle back on my rack to answer O’Hara’s note:
Hey Big O,
Thank you for the note. I’ve wanted to be in touch with you, but haven’t had a chance. I can’t believe I have ended up in a total netherworld, with no easy way out. There is a telephone I can use to call out, but the call has to be placed by a corpsman, and the charges have to be reversed. They wouldn’t let me call the commander’s line. I haven’t figured out how to get to the phone without going through a corpsman, but I’m working on it. Meanwhile letters will have to do. I hope you get this one before you go out.
This place is very weird. The doctor in charge runs the place like his own
little fiefdom. Every other patient I’ve met is here to recover from pilonidal cyst surgery. Really gruesome. They have huge open wounds at the base of their spines, which take forever to heal from the inside out. That’s why the ward is totally quarantined; infection is the big concern. The poor bastards shuffle around in their gowns and slippers like zombies in a 1950’s movie. Some have been in here for weeks.
The corpsmen picked right up on the fact that I can stoop
over and that I am not in for pilonidal surgery. I think they made a little wink-wink agreement with the doctor. I’m classified as “in rehabilitation.” I’m afraid that’s code language for main-man janitor. Good for them, bad for me. The corpsmen serve the meals, issue meds and change bandages. That’s it. They have me doing everything else, so I fear major resistance to me getting out of here. I’m too useful to them, and they threatened me with shot record hell and a whole new battery of shots if I screw up, so that is not an option. They know how to get what they want.
I’m going to try to get out of here by the time the ship goes out. I don’t know how, but I’m working on it, now that I am beginning to see what I’m up against. I really don’t want to go through the whole thing of an assignment to a new ship. I’d probably end up on a tin can picket doing ovals in the ocean for weeks at a time. Good God, I’d go nuts with that.
Stuck in the eighth circle of hell, and probably heading down to the ninth,
“Thanks, man,” one of the patients says as I hand him a towel following his soak in a sitz bath. “I’m Jacco.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Landy.”
“I know. You been scoped yet, Landy?” he asks.
“Scoped?” I question.
“You ain’t been scoped, or you’d know what I’m talking about…Two feet of cold steel up your ass. You don’t forget that.”
“No thanks,” I say.
“Ha, that’s what you think,” he replies with a squint in one eye. “Everybody in here gets scoped. You’ll see. They make you drink this ape snot for two days before. Gives you the screaming shits. So when they come with the ape snot you know you soon have a date with Doctor S. Wooo wooo!” he laughs, looking over his shoulder and raising his eyebrows as he walks away.
Scoped? Two feet of cold steel…? Dear God. A chill runs up my back. This is the ninth circle. Or is Jacco just jerking me around? But why would he bother to introduce himself if he’s just jerking me around? Besides, he doesn’t seem bright enough to make all that up. This is something that needs to be checked out, carefully, in a way that doesn’t attract attention.
That evening, as I mop the examining room I’m on a mission. The table, the stirrups, the lights, and especially the long flexible stainless steel instrument with a lens on the tip take on frightening new meaning. Moving my mop across the floor, I keep an eye on the doorway. Find the chart, find the binder, find the file. I can do this. O’Hara and I pulled sheets from personnel binders and produced our own special assignment chits back on the ship. “Bureaucracies are all manageable, if you grab them by the paperwork,” he would say.
And there it is. On a clipboard hanging behind the doctor’s desk, next to the pictures of him in his Boston College football uniform and his framed degrees. PROCTOLOGY WARD COLONOSCOPY and a list of names, some crossed off, others not. Mine is not. I glance over my shoulder and listen for footsteps outside the room, then slowly open the doctor’s desk drawer, find a ballpoint pen and test the ink on a scrap of paper from the wastebasket. It matches the lines through the names on the list. In one quick stroke, the deed is done. On with the mopping. If there is mention of scoping in the future, I’ll offer a convincing grimace and a groan or two.
February 5, 1964
I hope you got my last letter before you went out, but I haven’t heard from you, so I don’t think you did. I’m still stuck here, so I fear that means that I am no longer attached to the ship. What a tragedy of errors. It’s clear that I should not have been sent here in the first place. Now, I don’t know where it is all going, but I really don’t look forward to being bounced to a new assignment on another ship. Who knows what that might entail?
Life in the circles of hell has improved a bit. I finally got some smokes. I bummed a few before one of the patients told me about a guy who comes around once a week with a cart full of candy bars and cigarettes. Stale Chesterfields. They burn like dry grass, but they’re free. I can smoke in the lounge any time day or night, so that is a big advantage over shipboard life, and there’s a TV, so I get some news.
The doctor is tough about quiet in the sleeping quarters, and he makes the corpsmen enforce it. I’m actually getting a good night’s sleep now. I’ve gotten to know some of the patients. Not much for company, but most are OK guys, and they are grateful for the little things I do for them.
There is one crazy, named Keller, off of a light cruiser, face like a toad. He has a serious problem dealing with the confinement, and I think he feels humiliated by the fact that his hospitalization is related to surgery on his ass and not a glorious wound he can write home about. He won’t let me help him with anything. When I try, he pushes me aside and says, “I don’t need no help from no reserve pussy.” He has a big thing about draftees doing their two years with the Navy Reserve. He says we are phonies pretending to be Regular Navy when we’re not, and for some reason the corpsmen put USNR or USN after our names in the ward roster, so whackos like Keller can get all cranked up. I’m trying to stay cool, hoping he will just give up on it, but he actually seems pretty unhinged when he gets in my face, shows his teeth and says, “Somebody should do something about you reserve pussies.” When he is going off on me, other guys in the ward tell him to shut up, so that’s a help.
I have come to enjoy a simple fellow from the farm country of South Carolina. His surgery is nearly healed, so he is allowed to wear dungarees, and he likes to help me with my work getting the men in and out of the baths and cleaning up after them. For his own reasons, he is as out of place in the Navy as I am, but seems unaware of it, and he has three more years to do, so I say nothing. He goes by the nickname Weasel, but he’s a sweet, caring person, a true son of the soil. I think he gets his nickname partly because the other guys can’t pronounce his name, Wasczneski, but, on the other hand, he is a little guy, skinny body, pointy nose, small eyes. Life plays strange tricks sometimes.
I remain incarcerated, but it is light years ahead of sick bay hell on the ship, and there are no general quarters in the middle of the night. But I am starting to go stir crazy because I can never leave the ward. I dream of sitting on the beach at Rosarito, sipping sangrias.
If you get a chance to come to the hospital, can you bring me some art supplies? You’d be saving my life. Pencils, a drawing pad, a tin of watercolor paints, a brush and a pad of watercolor paper. I’m enclosing some money. I’m hoping to use some of my free time in the evening to do some work in the lounge after the other guys have gone to sleep. You could pass them through the looking glass when you have a chance to visit. Grazie mille!
I’ve decided to date my letters to you. Please keep them; they are as close to keeping a journal as I am going to get for now, and I have a feeling that I’m going to want to refer to this strange passage someday. This place is so weird, and so apart, it really does remind me of Dante’s book, without the graphic horror and hopelessness.
I haven’t told Noleen anything except that I have an address change because I had to see a doctor about a hemorrhoid problem I developed from a weekend of bouncing up and down the coast of Baja on the back seat of your Vespa. I told her that the doctor recommended extended rest and rehabilitation at the hospital, which is sort of true. She is planning to fly out for a four-day visit the first weekend in April. I had already put in for leave when I was on the ship. Now that doesn’t count. I have to get out of here and make new arrangements. She is really counting on the trip, and I can’t wait to see her. When she comes I want the three of us to go to Rosarito for a day. She is a great photographer, and will love the place. Make arrangements to have off.
What’s new on the ship?
That’s it for now,
A week later I receive the following letter from O’Hara:
February 9, 1964
I got both of your letters when we got back in port. Glad to hear that things have improved a bit. I talked to the commander, and he said that you are definitely gone. Your records have been sent to the hospital, and we have a new guy at your desk. Sorry, man. He’s from Ohio, a Bowling Green graduate, and like us, a draftee who took a Navy reserve hitch to stay out of the Army and what seems to be shaping up in Vietnam. He said that he was lucky to get into a reserve unit because they are all really full, and pretty soon all the new draftees will have no choice but to go to Vietnam. I don’t know how much news you are getting, but it’s really getting messy over there.
I saw one of the petty officers emptying your locker, and I asked him what the deal was. He said that all your stuff is going into your sea bag and over to the hospital. Guess you really are gone, man.
Let me know what you hear about your next assignment. See if you can work in a trip to Baja before you go wherever you are going, and I’ll try to get off for the same weekend. We aren’t scheduled to go out again for about a month. I’ll try to get off for a day the first weekend of April to go to Rosarito with you and Noleen. Sounds great.
I’ll get the art supplies to you as soon as I can.
A few days later I write back:
February 16, 1964
Thank you, thank you, O’Hara,
I got the art supplies and I am cranking out some new line drawings and small abstract watercolor washes that I see as studies for paintings, when I finally get out and back to my studio. Once again, you have saved my life.
Over the last week, I have discovered that if I wait until everybody on the ward is asleep, including the night corpsman, I can have the lounge to myself. I can smoke, draw and paint for hours and still get a good night’s sleep. The ward goes dark at 9:00 PM, and most of the men are on pain meds, so they go straight to sleep, and I have the lounge to myself till midnight or 1:00 AM, and I don’t have to roll out until 7:00 AM to help with breakfast. I am still incarcerated, but at least I have quiet and a chance to work.
I know it’s weird, but sometimes when I look up from my work in the lounge and see the darkened ward with the glowing red emergency exit signs, I think of it as the chapel in the monastery where I spent a year. I used to get up early for Morning Prayer, so I could have the chapel to myself for a while before the other monks arrived. I loved that time.
I know that I am sort of going on here, but I have already written Noleen, and I can’t tell her details about this wacky place, or she would worry about me. Mom and Dad, even worse. So you, my friend, are it.
Top secret, for now. I have a plan to get out of here without chancing an assignment on a tin can to nowhere. No, it does not include a trip to Canada. Will let you know soon. Wish me luck.
Only 142 more days! I get out of the Navy on Bastille Day. What do you think of that?