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.