In honor of all those soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors who are dying in the name of America, I give you an excerpt from a story about Stuart Dulley, a young man who joined the Marines in 1940 and got caught up in the hideous machine of war.
Stuart decided Navy nurses were all the same. Sexless and deliberately unpleasant, as though being bitchy somehow abetted the healing process. Maybe it did, because the idea of staying in hospital a single second longer than necessary was anathema to Stuart. He wanted out.
He soon got his wish when they transferred him, first to San Diego and then to a base hospital on Parris Island, where he heard the familiar Marine Corps cadence called by drill instructors throughout the day. After two months there he was sent to an overcrowded rehabilitation center in Corpus Christi where a single orthopedic surgeon oversaw the care of two hundred or so wounded Marines. The Pacific War was hell on limbs, leaving thousands of men handless, legless, footless, armless or some combination thereof. Stuart was one of the lucky few who still had all his extremities, though his right arm hung withered and nerveless in a sling.
Stuart, who had joined the Marines before the war had even started, was astounded by the variety of tiny islands that the guys in his ward had invaded. Some, like Iwo Jima and Tarawa, were famous, but others had whimsical names sounded made-up. Guam. Angaur. Eniwetok. Kwajalein.
The days were pleasant enough. The men sat around a screen porch drinking coffee and playing cards, the handless men practicing with their hooks, legless men pushing wheelchairs. Stuart’s own therapy was painful and humiliating. His right arm, never muscular, had been reduced to ridiculous dimensions, the tiny bicep crossed with shiny red scar tissue, the shapes of stitches giving it the appearance of a badly-sewn doll. Every day he joined the other arm cases for morning exercise as they strapped themselves to various machines designed to improve flexibility and range of motion. It was excruciating, but he kept at it. Gradually he got to the point where it was mildly painful. The doctor implied this was probably as good as it was going to get.
Nights were another story. Nights were the worst. After the sun set it became abundantly clear that the war was not over and would never be over. Sensations of doom and panic and horror and disgust came back with more force than the actual experience. The nighttime ward was filled with the shouts and sobs and screams of men cornered by nightmares.
Naturally, teverybody stayed up as late as they could. They talked and played poker and read by flashlight. Liquor was strictly forbidden, but these Marines were combat veterans, some of them heroes. It wasn’t hard to persuade the orderlies to look the other way when visitors fetched in bottles of whisky and cases of beer.
Even so, there was never enough to go around, never enough to guarantee every man who needed it would find oblivion because every man in the ward needed all he could get, every night.
At night the dead would not stay dead.