In Homage to a Unique Character
am not a surgeon. I am a plumber who fixes leaks in people.
And this is not a war. It is an amusement park of the bizarre. Sooner or later, one of the rides will kill me. The fun never ends but that it begins again after the last belly is sewn shut and the Operating Room is put to rights.
We've been running the still of the night all through the day lately. The legend is not the man. We don't touch the stuff until our bottle stock runs dry. Most of it goes into the O.R. to buttress our paltry issue of sterilizing agent the Army calls "adequate". This is one of the few supply deficits we can fill for ourselves.
The cook is in on it. After the session, I limp in the morning light to the back of the mess tent. If it weren't for coffee, I wouldn't darken its simulated doorstep twice in a day. The mess attendant has a bonus for me alongside the netted bundle of peels and cores.
"All that." Igor picks up his butcher knife and he waves it at the bale, and the seven bottles ranked behind. "'Went bad two-three days ago."
Four, if you ask me, no point in saying. Orange juice can't last in this heat. I weigh a bottle in my open hand, run my thumb over the raised legend on the neck. "One Quart", just right for IV saline. We broke three bottles overnight. The Army can keep the deposit.
"'You hungry, Captain?"
"Don't ruin it for me, please." He's a good joe, Igor. He knows how I get, coming down.
I lug my spoils, no apology, back to the Swamp. Before I tumble out of my blood-caked boots, Trapper and I will start a new tub of mash -- no apology for that pun, either.
Not four hours are past when I find myself staring at my eyelids. Canvas will not let the fitful breeze pass, and insect netting won't block the noontime glare or the insects.
I get to my feet and tug my skivvies straight. My eyelids are clotted with sleep. Sweat has dried on my forearms to leave a faint rime of salt. I feel greasy at the joints. I would relish the prospect of a cold shower, but the shower is always cold by the time I get there. Blessing is a thing that routine is not.
I shoulder into my tattered robe and totter across the compound. As I draw the shower door closed, somebody squeals and jerks it out of my hand.
"Captain! This is the ladies' shower until fourteen hundred!" Baker is kittenish and virginal, the sexiest nurse on the staff.
Suddenly, I'm wide awake. "No problem, Lieutenant. I'm perfectly willing to share." I do the Groucho brows and tilt an imaginary cigarette holder in the corner of my mouth.
"O-o-h-h, never mind! The water's cold, anyway."
"Not between the two of us," I plead. But the woman is gone and the face of the door is blank.
Baker knows as well as Igor when I'm running on empty. A passing thought reminds me that she has to work for Margaret, but the pall over my thinking has descended once again.
I'm soaped from ears to ankles and slathering my left foot when the door slams open. "Captain Pierce!"
"Hot Lips! I knew you'd come to me like this one day. How'd you shake loose from Frank?"
"Open your eyes, Pierce."
"Oh, hi Frank! You know if you keep doing that to your voice, one of these days it's gonna stick like that." Done playing with my toes, I grope for the faucet chain.
"What's going to stick to you, Pierce, is the charges you'll be facing for violating regulations! This is the ladies' shower until fourteen hundred hours!"
"Frank," I gargle. I spit and try again. "Frank, how was I to know? There isn't a lady in the place."
Margaret is too easy. "Frank! Did you hear what he said about me?! Do something, Frank! Defend me!"
Frank lowers his invisible eyebrows and makes as though to yank open the shower stall. I give him the look, the reminder. He's bigger than I am, but only on the outside.
He pulls back and squares his lumpy shoulders. "Two more counts, Direct Disrespect. You're going into the stockade!"
"'Haven't checked with the North Koreans, have you, Frank?"
"Why should I ..."
They are loud enough now that we don't need to hear from Radar. Still, he comes on the run, snatches the door wide and shouts, "Choppers, Hawkeye!" He needs a moment to take in the situation and decide it's nothing he wants to reckon. "Choppers on the way, Majors!" He flees to his appointed rounds.
I do triage, sorting the living from the dying from those who have done with both. I mark their foreheads with a paintstick. "CO" is for Henry. If a man doesn't have a forehead, there's no point in sending him to a surgeon. Father Mulcahy works from the other side, checking for breathing and lending heart.
I find a patient with only shallow penetrations and assorted lacerations, and call a corpsman. One letter's difference ... "This one is for Major Burns." Klinger nods his understanding and the daisies on his summery straw hat re-affirm. He's been here long enough to do a better job of triage than Frank.
I stand, wavering, and Henry Blake takes me by the biceps until I shrug out of his grip. He's in whites, ready to scrub and gown.
"Hawkeye, are you still sketching dotted lines on Frank's patients?"
"When I have to give him a surgical case, you bet."
"I don't know whether or not to tell you to quit it. But he sure hates to hear a nurse giggle."
"Only because Hot Lips is too old to learn."
"Well, you must be four hours behind everybody, getting rested. We can ..."
"Just listen, Pierce. We can do without you for now, and ..."
"... it's an easy call. I'd rather make it now --"
"All right, what is it?!"
I nod over his shoulder. "Radar's coming."
Sometimes, we don't even need to hear them.