Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's Not Supposed to Do That

Readers who have a low tolerance for profanity, anatomical references, and inappropriate behavior are invited to skip this story. Suffice to say that I was not then, nor am now, such a cad as my actions indicated.

The captain was mad. He ran us fast through the sand and hills, angry at our unit for failing an inspection earlier in the week. I had just joined the unit that day after transferring from Japan. Over a hundred men and women started the run in tight formation, legs and arms pumping in unison. Within a few minutes the ranks had thinned with the frantic pace in the summer heat of North Carolina. People kept stopping. The captain kept punishing. I kept running. After a few miles my head was lolling as I struggled to remain in the ragged pack of runners. As I saw their shoes on the ground passing left and right I wondered, as my last clear memory, "Why aren't my feet moving?"

Through a fog of unconsciousness I felt myself being pushed across the seat of a car and then the feeling of air — glorious, moving air. I flopped my head out the open window seeking more of that cooling breeze, but they pulled me back in. My ears heard moaning gibberish that in my head had sounded like a simple protest. I flopped my head out again. They pulled me back in again. I babbled another protest and flopped again but this time hit my head on the closed window. I was defeated and thought no more.

Rectangular ceiling lights began to clear away the fog as they moved through my vision like road stripes. In the emergency room of Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center I laid bare, literally. They stripped all my clothes, laid wet cloths on my skin, aimed large fans at my body, blew oxygen into my nostrils, pumped fluids in my arm, sucked blood out of the other, stuck heart monitors on my chest, and inserted a thermometer in my rectum. When asked for a urine sample I said I couldn't because I'd sweated out the last of my water. Pointing to a clear tube, the medic replied that he would have to put a catheter in my penis if I could not urinate. Grabbing the bottle I tried, and failed. I was defeated, and the last orifice was violated.

Prone, naked, and probed I listened to the chatter calling out vital signs, but the only one I remember was the temperature, 107.2 degrees Fahrenheit. This was only eight and a half degrees above normal, not even ten percent higher. Of course I did not know the temperature when problems — well, other problems — might set in. I considered that water is a large component of the human body which boils at 212 degrees. I was then, and am now, fairly ignorant about the human body; I figured I was safe. What I did not know was that this was brain damage territory.

A nurse ten years my senior rolled a wet washcloth at the base of my skull and talked with me. She asked if I knew where I was and what was happening. She asked how I felt and only one word would do, HOT. As I relaxed into the rhythm of questions and cooling a wave of nausea interrupted the calm, but after a few dry heaves I actually felt quite better. With eyes closed I calmly listened to the many doctors and nurses ministering to me.

After a while someone said, "It's not supposed to do that." To this day I do not rightly know what this was about, but at the time I gathered it had something to do with my heart. Before this moment the gravity of the situation had not occurred to me, that this might be my end. Momentary sadness gave way to wonder about what was to come and the knowledge that these last thoughts might remain hidden from here to eternity, whether there were nothing or life beyond. Anticipation of absolute peace must have shown on my face because someone asked what I was doing. "Thinking about God.", I said, which brought the immediate response "STOP that!", but I didn't.

The reverie continued. Although my thoughts were a bit confused and my body did not feel normal, it all seemed natural for the process of dying. An unexpected quietness came: no sounds, no thoughts, no movement. Then I opened my eyes to see a red-headed young woman to my left. She lifted her eyelids wide like looking at a baby, so I did the same. In a sultry way she narrowed her eyes and smiled; I returned the look.

And in an instant I sat up and flung my legs over the bedside, preparing to hop off. The young woman asked where I was going. "Home", I replied, repeating what a voice in my head had just said. I thought it a bit odd that my transition to death meant I had to walk out of the hospital on my own, but at the same time it felt right and natural. She stopped my journey with a hand on my chest and asked again. "I'm going home", I said at the behest of the voice in my head, to which it added "I've already heard this story before." The inexorable guide in my head led to inexplicable words that seemed normal as I passed from this life into the beyond. Fixing my gaze deep into her eyes I said, "I want to fuck you." Turning to the person beside her I emphasized, "I want to FUCK her!", then pointed to the others in line, "You're a captain! You're a Major! You're a GENERAL!" Crossing into death could now commence in earnest.

Again my thoughts turned to existing in eternity with the knowledge that if it was something rather than nothing it would be greater than I could ever imagine. So I did not try. Instead, memories of this life flashed in clichéd reverse: running in Misawa Japan, dating my fiancée, outings with high school friends, and playing on the Girl Scout camp that was home. A dull ache in my left shoulder interrupted this replay. Could this pain be part of my eternity? How could I bear anything less than perfect comfort forever? Quite easily I rested on the knowledge that I did not know, but I was going to find out. Life in rewind resumed with me as a toddler playing tug of war over a t-shirt with my father, and then the memories were a jumble that I attributed to being too young for them to have formed.

Now that the regression through life to dying was done I opened my eyes. Astonished, I was looking at a male Army nurse to my right. Army memories were at the end of my life, but the review was complete to the beginning and this man was out of place. No matter how oddly natural the transition was in my head, his presence was disquieting. Even more upsetting was sight of a male doctor who pushed him aside and asked rapid-fire questions: "What's your name? … What day is it? … Do you know where you are? … Do you know what happened?" Confusion reigned and I did not answer. Then a terrible question came — could it be that the transition was not just in my head? Slowly shifting my head left I saw a young woman with red hair staring down at me, then looked to the doctor on my right and asked a question of my own, "Did I really say that to her?" His answer dashed my death journey against the rocks of my rudeness; "It's the best offer she's had all morning." Even now the shame I felt is as acute as it was then when I turned again to her, trembling out "I'm sorry." Like an angel of forgiveness she hugged me and said it was all right.

As she leaned against me I became aware of a pain in my shoulder, and noticed the left arm behind my head at an odd angle. Around my left wrist was a green cloth fastening me to the bed rail. This was the cause of the ache I was to bear into death. By visual inspection and attempts to move I noted restraints on my waist and each leg, but my right hand was free. Around that wrist was tied the same sort of green cloth. Later they told me that I kept yanking my hand away so that it could not be tied to the bed. Another piece of the dying story fell into place — playing tug of war in my head was likely the battle for this restraint in real life.

I was glad to be alive and allowed myself to relax. Almost immediately I started shaking uncontrollably and felt cold, which was quite a swing after being so hot. The red-headed nurse told me that I was going into shock and assured me that all would be well. Where bare skin had been was covered with blankets. Soon I was stable enough to transfer to the intensive care unit. From mid-morning to late afternoon medical teams congregated, in part to assess my health but also to determine factors leading to the heatstroke. "No, I didn't drink. Yes, I got a full night's sleep. No, I didn't take drugs. No, I don't smoke. Yes, I was accustomed to running several miles." Without any complicating factors on which to hang some doubt, and maybe blame, their finding was that I was not acclimated to the heat and I did not quit.

In the evening a woman with hair below her waist walked through the door of the open ward and walked straight to the observation station. I did not think too much about it until she started walking to my bed, and then I made the connection because that hair was red. Renewed apologies spilled from my heart and were met by her graciousness. She explained that this was part of her two week reserve training and learned quite a bit from our experience that morning. Kindness and compassion shone from her manner, so I asked her more of the story. Apparently I became combative after the proposition to her, swinging punches and thrashing about, which is why I was tied down. She was not offended because the medical staff explained it all as an effect of delirium. However, she recounted, it did affect her more than she knew because a few hours later she was taking the blood pressure of another soldier who winked at her — she dropped the cuff and walked away shaken. I apologized again, and again her assurances put me at ease for her sake. There would be at least one lingering result according to the other staff; for the rest of her time on reserve duty they would call her the prettiest red-headed angel they had seen. She left and I never saw her again, but her care and mercy remain in my memory.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

It Cost More Than a Fiancee

"Can I put your name down to help with Friday's bake sale Private Burt?", the Master Sergeant asked. I said no, and consequences of that answer continue to affect my life to this day.

A Dear John letter two weeks before began a series of long workdays with no days off, coming early to the swing shift and staying late. I did not seek solace in work, but rather intellectual exhaustion. I would leave when my mind was clear to concentrate on emotional functions and simple considerations about the complex landscape of love, especially unrequited love. I wandered Misawa Air Base in the wee hours of the morning for solitude. Dawn usually failed to shine light on the problem, so I would lay aside thinking and lay down my body for a few hours of sleep.

After about two weeks I made a decision to work through the next break and subsequent work days. The first day of the work schedule began on a Friday. To signal the beginning of the end of this self-imposed grind I decided to spend that upcoming Friday morning on the shore of Lake Ogawara searching for washed up treasures such as driftwood and polished stone.

Two days before that planned lake hike I was working during the day shift, sitting in civilian clothes at an 80-column keypunch mindlessly creating database cards. Two Staff Sergeants in my group were working at their desks when the Master Sergeant in charge of Operations walked over. For those unfamiliar with the rank structure for enlisted folks, I was a Private First Class (E-3) with about 18 months of experience, the Staff Sergeants (E-6) had roughly 10 years in, and the Master Sergeant (E-8) had nearly 20 years of service. An E-9 is the highest enlisted rank, so a Master Sergeant is high in the chain of command. The difference between an E-3 (me) and E-8 (him) was almost the entire span of a standard career, so for several reasons the Master Sergeant's position and rank deserved respect.

He turned first to the others in my group (who worked on day shift) and asked if they would mind working a bake sale on Friday morning. He indicated that he already had enough volunteers but he wanted to have them available just in case. They agreed. He then turned to me (who worked the evening shift) and asked if he could put my name down for the bake sale. I said no. He paused, then asked why not. I said that I was going to be on the beach looking for driftwood. My co-workers were telling me with their hands and eyes to wave off and just say yes. Steel set the Master Sergeant's jaw and gravel ground in his voice as he said, "I could order you to be there." I simply responded that if he ordered me then I would work, but he had offered me a choice and I chose to continue with my plans.

Throughout I was respectful and non-combative. And I knew it did not matter. Even after being there less than two months it was apparent that this particular person was political, expecting to be surrounded by yes men. Agreeing to be a backup for the bake sale would have kept me from trouble. Indeed, as a backup I might even not have to attend the sale. All these thoughts flooded my mind when he asked his original question, and I chose simplicity itself by offering a straightforward answer. And I knew it did not matter, or rather, I knew it would matter to him because he would likely take it as an affront to his authority.

On the Friday after this exchange I arrived at work in the early afternoon to begin the swing shift, and my mentor --- one of the Staff Sergeant's present on that day --- informed me that I was to start working the day shift on Monday. When asked why he said that the Master Sergeant thought I was a trouble maker and wanted to catch me in the act. It was also clear that this change was in direct response to my no. I was unconcerned and thrived on the opportunities afforded during the day shift. It was clear that I was under scrutiny by the Master Sergeant, but that burden was his; I stayed light and transparent. After one month my mentor asked if I wanted to go back up on the evening shift. I told him I would be delighted but that I was curious about the change since the Master Sergeant had not caught me making trouble yet. The answer, given in hushed tones, was that I was making the day shift look bad. I was naive enough to be completely shocked because I had only done my job with vigor. No matter, I would go back to the relative solitude of the swing shift thinking --- again, very naively --- that the consequences of daring to say no had been meted out and checked off.

Almost immediately I began to see effects of the Master Sergeant's political character and others with a like mind. I had been recommended for promotion within the first weeks of arriving, but the Army was currently limiting advancement to E-4 so I had to wait, along with tens of other soldiers who had also been recommended. Several weeks after the original punishment on the day shift, all the other E-3s were suddenly E-4s. The Army had opened the floodgates that month and all E-3s who were already recommended for promotion got it. Trying to understand why I had not heard of this, I surmised --- again, oh so blessedly naive and idealistic --- that the chain of command had not gotten a chance to communicate with me. When I went to work that afternoon I waited patiently, but when no word came I asked about it since I had met all the criteria for promotion. My mentor had no answer then, but a few days later he reported that I would not be promoted in this wave because my recommendation had been held up by the Master Sergeant. That cost me several months of pay and seniority.

More consequences were in store. For instance, I was passed over again for promotion. However, it was my request for an extension to stay in Japan that plumbed the depths of office politics. Extensions were almost automatic, but even so I submitted my paperwork as soon as I was eligible. Weeks went by without any word. Inquiries at headquarters were brushed off with variants of "don't bother us; we are working on it". Months later I received orders that when my tour in Japan was done I would go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Far from working on my extension, they had buried it and lied to me. Now that I had different orders, they were almost smug as they shrugged off their inaction. I sought an audience with the commander and executive officer through the chain of command and heard advice not to proceed because the extension stall was deliberate and political; I would not win. Winning, however, was not my only objective. Drawing out a frank discussion was the primary aim, but even that did not happen.

I lost the battle and their war. Although the executive officer stated that he would see if I could be extended, when I took emergency leave in the month before my tour ended I was told to stay in the states. Specifically, go to North Carolina. I had been forced to leave all I owned in the world save a few clothes in a duffel bag. I left behind a car, good friends, a great job, a wonderful environment, travel, and a new fiancée. I never saw the friends again or traveled in Japan. The job in Fort Bragg was an order of magnitude less fulfilling. I gave the car to my fiancée, but a little over a year later I had lost her forever as well.

All this because I stood against false loyalty and futile politics.

I lost their war but I gained much more. I suffered and there is no dismissing the losses as unimportant, yet the lesson was powerful and welcome. That "No" to the Master Sergeant set in motion a series of events where I bore a cost which purchased a life that treasures truth as an end unto itself, a shield of protection, a source of inspiration, and the basis for meaningful, fruitful relationships.