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Just a Janitor
Not For Sale
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Russell J. Killion
591 Phillips Avenue
Glen Ellyn, Illinois 60137
Just a Janitor
August in San Diego. August in other cities creates many different visions,
hot and humid or hot and rainy, but August in San Diego is the same as June in San Diego or October in San Diego. A light smog in the morning that burns off by 10:00 AM, sunny the rest of the day and cool at night. A wonderful place to live, a lousy place to be a TV weather person. However, on this day I was not concerned about the weather, I was now a full-fledged Marine. No longer considered the lowest of life forms by “real” Marines, no longer called “whale dung”, I was now one of them. I was free of the drill instructors and the abuses they constantly threw my way. I never had to worry about having to do push-ups or sit-ups in the San Diego sun and sand until I was ready to drop. I was now a Marine and I could forget the bad parts of boot camp, and even have a conversation with those same drill instructors. That is, if I wanted to have a conversation. I had finished my twelve weeks of boot camp and was promoted to Private First Class upon graduation. I was ready for whatever the Marine Corps was going to throw at me.
As I walked across the enormous piece of black-top called the “grinder”, where masses of Marine recruits marched and learned precision close order drills, I became almost giddy because I could walk across the grinder and not be concerned about being in step. In fact, I might walk right-left, right-left instead of left-right, left-right. Walking across the grinder toward the building that housed Headquarters Company, my thoughts drifted back to the hours I spent standing at attention or marching in the brilliant San Diego sun that was rarely blocked by a cloud. I thought about the punishment that we would receive when the noise of the airplanes landing at the San Diego airport caused us to misstep. How I hated those days. Many say that once you graduate from Marine Corps boot camp, all of the bad moments are forgotten and you dwell on the accomplishment. This was not the case for me. The pain and anguish were still clear in my mind but I tried to block those mental images and concentrate on my new job. Upon graduating from boot camp, every Marine is assigned an MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) and I had to go to Headquarters Company to receive mine.
Headquarters Company looked like all the other buildings on the base. It had the same red tile roof, the same yellow walls and large windows that rose from the stone base-boards to the ceiling. The brass hardware shined in the sun and I wondered, “what unlucky private in boot camp had to polish all of that brass.” Even though I was out of boot camp, the emotional pain remained and every event brought me back to the experience. I reached for the large door of Headquarters Company, and saw my reflection in the spotless glass. I knew the reflection was mine but it was so strange, knowing it was me, but thinking it was someone else. I was overweight when I first came to San Diego. I was twenty two years old and had not exercised much in college. I was one of the older recruits and one of the few that had gone to college. In addition to being younger than me, almost every person in my platoon was in better physical condition. On the second day of boot camp, after they had shaved our heads, given us ill-fitting uniforms and kept us from sleeping, they made us take a physical fitness test. They wanted to know how many sit-ups you could perform within sixty seconds and how many push-ups you could do in two minutes and how many pull-ups you could do un-timed. I was able to meet the minimum sit-up and push-up requirements but fell dreadfully short on pull-ups. After being called every derogatory name remotely associated with being fat, I was put on a special diet to insure weight loss. I was told that unless I lost weight quickly, I would be sent to a group affectionately called the “balloon platoon with all of the other fat pieces of garbage”. The senior drill instructor stood in front of me with his face inches away from mine and yelled, “ my beloved Corps deserves better than you and unless you become lean and mean, I am going to personally see to it that you are thrown out”. Every day as I entered the mess hall, I was shown the sign over the entrance that read, “Take all you want but eat all you take”. One of the drill instructors would sarcastically say, “that sign is for thin Marines, not fat ones like you”. I had to show my tray to a drill instructor every meal to show that I did not have any fattening food on it. This was not the type of weight loss program you see on late-night commercials. After a while I noticed my uniforms were becoming baggy, but during the twelve weeks of boot camp, I never had a full-length view of myself, just a small shaving mirror that hung on the wall. My assumptions were confirmed when I stepped on the scale during the end of boot camp physical. The physical took place in a large, white room with concrete walls and high ceilings. A whisper could be heard across the room, so every personal comment could be heard by everyone within thirty feet of the person speaking. They yelled out my weight as if I were a horse being sold at an auction. When they stated the weight, I thought they were talking about someone else. A quick calculation made me realize I lost forty-eight pounds in the twelve weeks. The reflection in the door of Headquarters Company revealed the new, thinner me.
The interior of Headquarters Company was just like every other building on the base, spotless, shiny floors and polished brass railings and knobs. In the Marine Corps you learn to appreciate consistency and routine. Cleanliness was the “consistent” and it became routine. At the end of a long narrow hall, Marines lined up in front of the office where you were handed a large brown envelope that held your Marine Corps future. The other branches of the U.S. Military had many specialty jobs such as radar technicians, computer operators and medics. The choices were fewer in the Marine Corps and the vast majority of those that graduated were assigned to the infantry and were called “grunts”. The phrase, “all Marines are warriors” was a badge of honor. The phrase,”If you want to watch a radar screen, join the Navy”, was heard daily. I had to wait for over an hour before I reached the entrance of the office, but it did not matter, because no one was standing over my shoulder screaming at me or hitting me. “I could handle this wait standing on my head”, I thought. I had heard that line spoken by a felon in a movie and it was not lost on me, since I felt as if I had been in prison during my weeks in boot camp. I was quite comfortable just standing there waiting for my new assignment. As I was waiting, I saw something small move near the top of a ledge that was approximately shoulder high. The movement was a fly caught in a spider’s web and was frantically trying to get out. My first thought was, ‘I have never seen a spider web in any Marine Corps building because there are “boot camp Privates” cleaning every inch of every building. I watched the fly struggle until it became tired and so tangled it just gave up. Once the movement of the fly lessened, the spider slowly moved across the web and rapidly turned the fly and completely wrapped it in the silk. I have no idea how long I watched the combat between the fly and spider but a sound made me turn away from the web. I am not sure if I smiled outwardly but I know that I did internally because I realized that I had been observant of some activity around me other than my survival. It felt so strange just to be able to relax and watch something happen like a spider wrap a fly. For the past twelve weeks every action and every thought was focused on finishing a three mile run in sand, learning how to assemble the M-14 rifle within sixty seconds blindfolded, finish the obstacle course within a prescribed amount of time and enduring the punishment if I did anything wrong or too slowly. Watching the spider catch a fly was a joy because I was free to do it.
I moved further down the hall, away from the spider web and as I stood there, I watched every young man that was in front of me walk into the office. Some were tall, some short, some white some black yet we all looked the same. Our heads were shaved, our shoulders were broad and our waists were small. So different, yet so much the same. As I got closer to the office, I could see the sergeant who was passing out the envelopes. He was standing in the middle of an office next to a table piled high with large brown envelopes. He made each man stand in front of him and look directly at him. If their stare wandered, he would yell, “what are you looking at maggot? What is more important than what I am saying”? He too looked like us only more extreme. Our heads were shaved but his was polished. Our shoulders were broad but his started at his ears and were as broad as a china cabinet. He never smiled or changed the robotic tenor of his voice. When it was my turn, the sergeant placed my brown envelope into my hands. It was light and held very few pieces of paper. I had not been in the Marines long enough to warrant lots of paper. I listened intently to what he had to say and then left the office. I quickly opened the envelope and read the first page. I am sure that my mouth dropped as I read it. I was shocked at what was printed on the piece of paper. I was to be a janitor at Balboa Naval Hospital. “A janitor!? Are they kidding”!? I thought back to my high scores on the rifle and pistol range. I had the scores of a marksman. I remembered all those hours in hand-to-hand combat. The days spent crawling on my stomach and sleeping on the hard ground. The blood and sweat I shed becoming a fighting machine, and instead they made me a janitor. I knew that it had to be a mistake. “I was supposed to be carrying a rifle not a mop”! I said to myself. I turned and walked back toward the office, passing the dozens of men waiting in line. I waited for the sergeant with the polished head to finish his speech and I stepped in front of the next man.
“What do you want”? he screamed.
“I think a mistake has been made”, I said.
“A mistake”? he said sarcastically.
“Yes”, I said.
In a very condescending tone he said, “What kind of mistake”?
“My paper says that I am to report to Balboa Naval Hospital as a janitor”.
In an even more condescending voice he said, “What’s wrong, you too good to mop my beloved Marine Corps floors”?
I wanted to say, ‘first of all they are not Marine Corps floors, they are Navy floors and second of all, yes I am too good to mop them’. But I knew that I would be picking myself up off of the floor if I said that, so I said, “No, I don’t think I am too good but I was not trained to be a janitor”.
“Your orders state that you are a janitor, so you are a janitor. If you don’t like it, talk to the general”, he said. As he said it, he had a smirk on his face as if he had said something funny and at the same time profound. No one ever saw a general, much less spoke to one. I knew that I was not going to get anywhere with him so I walked out of the room. As I walked out, I could see that those close to the office entrance had heard every word and were smiling at me, and not in a nice friendly way. A smart-aleck, snotty way.
I went back to my barracks and I informed my friends of what had just happened. They laughed at first but stopped when they realized that I was telling the truth.
“A janitor”? my friend, Tim Daniels questioned.
“You are one of the worst moppers I have ever seen”, Denny Olson said, thinking this was going to make me feel better.
“What are you going to do”? Tim asked.
“I have no idea”, I said.
At that moment I had no alternative but to proceed as ordered, become a janitor.
For the rest of the afternoon and evening everyone in our barracks discussed their new assignments. Phil Ansel was assigned to the motor pool. Rich Bowen, whose civilian job was a cook in a restaurant in New Orleans, was excited when he learned that he was going to be a cook. “I don’t care if it is not fine dining and I am scrambling hundreds of eggs at one time, at least I am not getting shot at”, he said.
I thought, ‘that makes sense, having a person who has cooked in a restaurant become a Marine Corps cook. What does that say about me’?
Throughout the evening I heard many others say when asked about their MOS, “I am going to Viet Nam and kill VC, I’m a grunt”. They all acted like they were happy about being in the infantry but I wondered if that was bravado to cover their fears or if they were truly excited about going to fight. I know that I did not have to worry about that unless they had floors in Viet Nam that needed cleaning.
Early the next morning, I boarded a bus with about twenty other newly “minted” Marines who were also being transported off the base. Some were going to other Marine or Navy buildings but seven were going with me to the hospital. As the bus exited the base, a strange feeling shot through me, an uneasiness that I could not explain. I had spent the last twelve weeks without speaking to or seeing anyone other than Marines, and to leave that cloistered environment seemed vaguely familiar yet uncomfortably alien. The ride took about thirty minutes, through nice neighborhoods and beautifully landscaped parks, the largest being Balboa Park near the hospital. The hospital building had the same red tile roof and yellow walls and large spotless windows. Consistency and routine. There was an air of efficiency and at the same time, kindness from those that worked in the hospital. I was familiar with the efficiency but the kindness was something new for me. It was a hospital filled with wounded young men, mostly Marines and the kindness was consistent and routine.
All seven of us were directed to an office on the first floor near the back of the hospital. We reported to a sailor whose rank I could not recognize because the Navy has a ranking system different than the Marine Corps and Army. However, I knew that he outranked me because at that point of my Marine Corps experience almost everyone outranked me. He went through an explanation of what was expected from each of us during the day. His demeanor was very different than anything that I had seen over the previous three months. He was kind and talked to us as if we were real people, not pieces of junk. I was given a mop, a bucket, a buffer and a floor plan with the rooms I was to clean, circled in red. The hospital was quite large and I had difficulty finding the first ward that I had to clean. After four wrong turns, I finally found the correct ward. When I entered, the first thing that I noticed was that it was quite bright and busy. The ward held approximately twenty beds and they were filled. I stood at the doorway for a few minutes trying to get my bearings. I asked one of the orderlies where I had to go to get water for my bucket. I was taken to a small, dark closet that had a sink in it. Because it was small, the smell of every item that had been poured down the sink remained. Some smells were familiar, like bleach and cleaning detergent. Others were foreign and after a few seconds of wondering, I quickly moved from that train of thought. ‘This is a hospital filled with men that have been wounded in a foreign country, I do not want to know what has been dumped into that sink’. I filled my bucket and added a cleaning agent that was in a plastic bottle, hanging on the side of the bucket. I went back to the ward and began to move the mop across the floor. As I moved from bed to bed, I felt that I was in the way of the people that were trying to help the patients. The nurses moved from bed to bed, all the while saying little to anyone. Most of the nurses appeared to be in their thirties with a few being older and a few younger. As I moved through the room, I noticed that most of the men had wounds of the legs and arms. Some of them were sitting in chairs next to their beds and when I came close to them, I tried to mop without having them move their feet. I cannot remember any of the patients talking amongst themselves, they only responded to the medical staff when asked questions. They seemed to stare into space with blank stares and the only time that their expressions changed was when a pain shot through their body. By the time that I finished mopping at one end of the room, the floor was dry at the other end of the room. I plugged the buffer into an electrical outlet near the door where I entered the room. When I started to move toward the buffer, a nurse yelled, “excuse me, you can’t use that outlet. It’s for the x-ray machine”. She said it in a way that made me feel stupid, as if I should have known better. I immediately unplugged the buffer and saw an outlet on the other side of the door on the same side of the room. I plugged the buffer into that outlet and started walking toward the buffer. Before I reached it, I heard someone speak from a different part of the room, “don’t use that outlet, it is for our respirator”. The distance from where I stood to the outlet was only ten or twelve feet but if felt like one hundred because I knew that most of the people in that room were looking at me while I walked back. I pulled the plug out of the wall and stood there for a moment.
“Is there an outlet that I can use?” I asked.
At that moment all of the nurses and most of the patients started laughing.
A nurse who was about thirty years old said, “Congratulations, most of the new guys walk around the room and try four or five outlets before they ask us. You only used two. You can use any outlet that you need to use”.
For some reason I was not proud of my accomplishment of asking after trying only two outlets, because they were still laughing when I stuck the plug into the first outlet near the door.
I looked for the “on/off” switch and turned the buffer on. I had never used an industrial sized buffer so as soon as I turned it on, I lost control and it hit the door and bounced back toward the bed closest to the door. It was if it had a mind of its own and was going to hit the bed, no matter what I did. I felt so silly, standing there wrestling with a machine. I tried to keep it from hitting the bed by lifting it off of the floor and pulling it away. When it hit the floor, it was still out of control. I was very aware of many of the patients and nurses watching me and I tried to look as calm as possible but it did not work. I saw one of the nurse’s shoulders moving up and down with laughter. The fact that this particular nurse was my age and very pretty made my situation a great deal worse. I continued to fight with the machine until I realized that I was going to lose and I turned it off. That’s when I heard the laughter from everyone in the ward. I wanted to immediately turn it back on to drown the sounds of their laughter but I was afraid to turn it on and lose control again. I knew that if I tried to act like nothing happened, they would continue to laugh at me, so I did the only thing that I could do and that was laugh with them.
As I stood there wondering how I was going to control the buffer once I turned it on again, I looked over at one of the patients and he was staring at me. He looked to be about eighteen years old but it was difficult to tell because the right side of his face and the entire top of his head was covered with a bandage. When he saw me looking at him he said, “Don’t worry, we’re not trying to give you a hard time when we laugh, we are just bored to death. Besides, we enjoy the entertainment”.
I turned the buffer on again and I strained every muscle in my arms, legs and back to keep it straight as I moved it slowly down the aisle. If I came close to any of their beds they would scream as if I were going to hurt them, then they would laugh when I passed. As I guided the buffer from one end of the room to the other, I thought about the transition that these men had gone through. Boys, who twenty months ago were playing high school football, or baseball, or were trying to gather enough courage to ask a particular girl for a date, were now lying in beds with gunshot, bayonet or mortar wounds. On one hand they were just kids who found humor in something as “slapstick” as losing control of a buffer, on the other hand they were men who had probably killed another human being and were wounded while fighting. “Talk about conflicted”, I thought. “They just want to be the fun-loving kids they were a few months ago, yet they have to go home to communities that would not welcome them. Some of them had wounds on their faces and I wondered if the girls that they were trying to ask out on a date twenty months ago would look at them the same way”.
“If I start sympathizing with every wounded person in this hospital, I will never make it through the day”, I said to myself. So I tried to keep my focus on the buffer and do my job, as dreadful as it was.
I finished my first ward and packed up my mop, bucket and buffer and looked at the hospital map with wards circled in red. I walked in the direction of the next ward and stopped at the door and a shiver ran down my back as I read the sign on the wall next to the door. As I stood there I could detect a smell coming from beyond the door and I did not want to go in but I knew that I had to clean that ward. I entered the room and the first thing that I noticed was its immense size, and the dim light and the silence. My senses were attacked immediately and I took inventory of every sense that was being affected by this room. The only sounds I heard were the squeaking of the rubber soled shoes that the nurses and orderlies wore, on the spotless floor, the muted whimpers of the young Marines lying in their beds, the smell of burned flesh and the salves that covered the burns. The smells were so strong, I could taste them. The numerous beds formed neat rows, the whiteness of the sheets shone through the dimmed lights. The Burn Unit at Balboa Naval Hospital was filled to capacity with Marines who had been burned in Viet Nam. As I started to mop, I tried not to make eye contact, but for some reason I had to look. I pushed the mop across the floor and realized this was not going to be like mopping the floors of the barracks or the other wards. These beds were filled with men suffering incomprehensible pain. I knew that the slightest bump would shift the bed and cause the patient additional pain. Every patient’s face expressed a desire for stillness, a fear of the pain that comes from movement. I thought if I did not look, I would not see their pain or become part of their world. I worked slowly and tried not to breathe deeply because the smell of the burned flesh was more than I could stand. The mixture of burned skin and ointment was overwhelming. The longer I worked, I understood why they kept the room dark, no one wanted to look around and see the horrible sights. As I went from bed to bed, mopping with a very deliberate stroke, I could not help but look at their eyes. At first they appeared to be expressionless, but the more I looked I could see the eyes were screaming, “I pray to God that you never have to see what I have seen”. Yet there was a sense of bravery in their eyes. As I worked, I began to wonder, if I was really a Marine like them. Yes, I endured the same punishment they did in boot camp, but this was different. Not only had they been to war, but they had been wounded, not just wounded but burned. I was feeling embarrassed and insignificant, pushing a mop, while they had done so much and were in such pain.
I finished less than half of the unit when I noticed the pain in my forearms. My deliberate and careful mopping caused shooting pain in my arms. I suddenly felt totally incompetent. The men in these beds endured so much and I hurt myself pushing a mop. The lean, mean fighting machine was wounded mopping a floor.
Just as I was really feeling sorry for myself, I heard one of the wounded Marines ask for some help. I slowly went over to him and asked what I could do for him. The man in the bed was probably three or four years younger than me. His hands were covered with a horrible smelling salve and wrapped in gauze. The gauze was discolored from weeping blisters. The Marine asked me to rub his right foot because there was a cramp in the arch. The Marine wanted to rub it but could not because of his burned hands. I was reluctant to touch him in fear of hurting him more. After all, what does a janitor know about helping a wounded Marine? I lifted the cover and I almost went to my knees, surely the doctors had told him. Surely he meant his left foot, not his right. Do I tell him that his right foot is gone? “Why me’?, I thought. “I was not trained for this”. At that moment I was not sure what I was trained for but I knew that it was not informing a young man that there was no foot where he thought he was experiencing pain. I thought about lying, telling him I rubbed his foot and then going about my mopping. This was not the easy way out, it was the coward’s way. This young Marine deserved better. I told him I could not rub his foot and he must be having ghost pains. I did not have to tell him his foot was gone, he understood the term, “ghost pain”. The young Marine just closed his eyes and said, “Thanks for trying to help”. Go on Russ, just keep on mopping.
I finished mopping but I really wanted to continue because I knew that once I finished mopping I had to start buffing. I just knew that I would lose control and hit a bed and I also knew that no one would kid me about it. I saw the electrical outlet and walked toward it. No one said anything about it being the wrong one or that was the one used for a piece of medical equipment, there was no kidding in this ward at all. I plugged the buffer into the outlet and before I turned it on, I gripped it tightly. I moved it from side to side slowly and as I came close to a bed, I would put all of my weight against the buffer as a way of controlling it. I began to sweat and within a few minutes, I was as wet as if I had been running on a hot day. It seemed like I was in the Burn Unit for hours but in reality, it took just a few minutes longer than the other wards. Thankfully, my day ended when I was done here.
Every day was the same for me. I woke up, showered, got dressed, made my bed, ate breakfast and cried before getting on the bus to the hospital. At times, the parks on the way to the hospital looked brighter and more manicured. Other times they were ugly. They rarely looked pretty on the way back to the base, the thoughts of the burn unit could turn the prettiest scenery into something ugly. I sat on the bus, sometimes staring out the window and other times looking at my forearms as I rubbed them to relieve the pain of holding the mop and buffer so tightly, never wanting to hit the leg of a bed. I wondered how people endured pain such as burns. When I was in boot camp, I told myself, I could get through anything. I was not sure if that was true anymore. I was not sure if I could face the painful rehabilitation those marines faced. Could I try to move my burned hands while they were being immersed in water? I really could not answer that question. I just knew that I had to face people with severe wounds six days a week.
The second Sunday after graduating from boot camp, I attended a local church, located a few miles from the base. I hoped to find refuge there. I immersed myself in the songs, the prayers and the sermon. On Sunday I was free from the pain of the hospital. At the end of the service, a member of the congregation made an announcement about one of their ministries. As I listened to what he was saying, I began to sweat and I had this feeling of suffocation, as if someone was putting a towel over my face. I could not believe my ears. The person asked for volunteers to go to Balboa Naval Hospital and serve communion to the wounded on Sundays. I screamed inside. The man stated the wounded needed to know that the members of this congregation were concerned about them. I agreed they needed attention from the church, but it was not going to be from me. I wanted no part of hearing them cry without their lips moving. Sunday was my only day off. The man asked for volunteers and no one stepped forward. Nothing. I sat there holding my breath. Nothing. I could not believe no one understood how much those men needed attention. Minutes passed and no one responded. Then without explanation, my arm raised and I looked at it as if it was not part of me. My arm betrayed me. In this instance, my heart was controlling the arm, not my brain. Before I knew it, I had volunteered to serve communion to the wounded in Balboa Naval Hospital. Everyone patted me on the back and thanked me for volunteering. They were all sure that the wounded Marines and sailors would appreciate my efforts. Besides, I knew how to navigate the various wards in the hospital. Their consciences were salved because they were part of sending someone to serve communion to the wounded. They suggested that I begin immediately after the service.
With communion kit in hand, I caught a municipal bus to Balboa Naval Hospital. On more than one occasion, I thought about getting off of the bus when it would stop to let others off or on. I wanted to be back at the base watching a football game or napping. I reached up, pulled the cord and the bus stopped at the corner near the hospital. I looked at the list of wounded men and noticed that most were in non-burn wards. Most efficient people would say, “work on the tasks that you least enjoy first, then do the easier one”. My approach was just the opposite, visit the less wounded and then go to the burn unit. Pure procrastination. I visited some wounded Marines in the other wards of the hospital, the less severely wounded. I visited and talked with many as I served the communion, all the time knowing that I would eventually have to go to the Burn Unit. I talked as long as I could with the patients in the non-burn wards until it became impossible to arrive at an excuse for staying longer. My list had the names of two men that were in the burn unit and I knew that I had to visit them.
I walked slowly toward the Burn Unit, all the while hoping that something would arise and keep me from getting there. As I stood at the brown double doors, each with a window that was covered with a tan curtain, I took a deep breath, trying to gather the necessary composure to enter the room. I pushed the door open and entered the ward and quickly realized that it looked, sounded and smelled the same on Sunday as the other six days. The routine did not change just because it was a Sunday. There were fewer doctors in the ward, but the nurses and orderlies were as busy as ever. I had to find the two young men on my list. I felt fortunate because they were in beds next to each other. I walked toward the two beds and when I got within a few feet of the beds, it was as if someone hit me in the stomach. I was breathless. I had never seen anything like this in my life. Was the figure in the bed a person? Was it alive? I hurried to find a nurse to see if it was all right to serve him communion. The nurse said, “they did not know why the man had not died in Viet Nam, they did not know how he survived the trip from Viet Nam and they did not know what was keeping him alive now”. She said it was all right to serve him communion, “what harm could it cause”? I slowly walked up to the beds, and in my mind I was hoping both of them would be asleep and I could leave, hop on a municipal bus and get back to the base. No such luck. The Marine that was in the bed on the left, Allen, was burned from the waist down. His burns were covered with an ointment and wrapped in a gauze. The Marine in the bed on the right, David, was burned from head to toe, with very few recognizable features. His entire body was covered with ointment but he was wrapped in gauze from the neck down. He was shrouded with an oxygen tent which added to the distortion of his features. I asked Allen about David and he told me they were childhood friends. They joined the Marine Corps together, went through boot camp together and went to Viet Nam together. Their base had been attacked and an enemy mortar hit the fuel dump near where they were standing, and the explosion burned both of them. He thought that both of them were going to die. The pain was so intense, it felt as if the flames and fuel were stuck to their bodies. Fortunately for both of them, a Marine, while under fire, used a fire extinguisher to douse the flames that engulfed their bodies. They had to lie under a truck until the fighting was over. All that Allen could do was lie there and look at his life-long friend shake as if he were cold. As he described the incident, I fought the urge to “lose my lunch”. Allen stopped talking a number of times and cried, because of the pain and because of his friend in the next bed. I told him why I was there and asked if they wanted to take communion. Allen said that he did and suggested that I ask David. I did not know how to ask, the man looked almost dead. Allen said that his friend could not talk but would blink once for “yes” and twice for “no”. I approached the other bed hesitantly, stood there for a moment, gathered my courage and then rolled the oxygen tent back in order to talk with David. The smell, oh the smell of burned flesh!! I wanted to run from that place and never see another person in pain, but I could not. As I stood over David, I looked at him and could hardly recognize any feature of his body. He was covered in burns except for a spot about the size of a hand on the right side of his face. As I stood there, I wondered what prevented him from being burned in that spot. It was none of my business and felt that it would have been an inappropriate question to ask. The other side of his face was burned so badly, it appeared that everything had melted together, his eye, nose, lips and chin. I tried to slow my breathing to lessen the smell. I looked at the spot that was not burned and he had his eye open. Maybe it was because of the contrast of the burned skin around the spot, compared to his eye, but his eye was so blue, bluer than the San Diego skies that I dreaded every day during boot camp. David looked at me as if he knew he was going to die, but he was relaxed as if he was ready. I felt so helpless but I asked David if he wanted to take communion and he blinked once. I served Allen the bread and then I went to David. As I placed just a crumb of the bread toward his mouth, he slowly opened his mouth, his tongue came up to receive the crumb. The tip of his tongue was darkened and appeared to be blistered. I laid the bread on his blistered tongue. I asked if he was all right and he blinked once. I served the juice to Allen and then took the cup to David. My hand shook as I tried to put a drop on his tongue. I was so afraid that I would touch what was left of David’s lips and hurt him. The drop fell on his tongue and I asked if he was all right and David again blinked once. As I was backing out of the oxygen tent, David continued to stare but blinked three times. I turned to Allen and said, “He blinked three times”. Without missing a beat, Allen said, “Three blinks means, ‘Thank you’”. Thank you? What kind of a person thinks of a code for “thank you” when they are in such pain? Severe pain, near death and “thank you”? I regained my composure and responded, “You’re welcome”. David immediately looked at me and blinked twice, very hard as if something was wrong. I told Allen that David blinked twice as if something was wrong or he was angry. Then Allen said, “I do not want to hurt your feelings, but he was not thanking you when he blinked three times”. I, being very confused, responded, “not thanking me, who is he thanking?” Allen said, “If I know David, he was thanking God for the fact that there is a Lord’s Supper”. “Right?”, he yelled. David blinked once. Near death but such clear thought. I rolled the oxygen tent back over him, making sure that I did not move the bed or touch him with the tent. As I was draping him, a nurse came over and listened to his breathing. She looked at me and said that he did not have much time, his breathing was becoming very labored. “You may want to tell his friend”, she said.
“Me tell him”?, I responded. I wouldn’t know how to tell him.
“Just be honest and he will understand”, she said.
I wanted to be anywhere but between those two beds. Running in the sand, climbing over an obstacle course, even crawling on my stomach was preferable to this. Allen deserved to know about David and I turned to Allen and told him what the nurse had said. Allen was silent for a while.
“Is there anything that I can do”? I asked. All the while thinking that there was nothing that I could do. It just felt like the thing to say.
Allen began to cry. I could not hear him crying at first but I saw his shoulders shaking as he laid on his stomach. Then I heard his sobbing. My eyes filled with tears and I could not remember feeling more helpless. Allen raised up on one elbow and looked at me.
“He has been my friend my entire life, I can’t just lie here and watch him die. I wish I could just hold him for a while”, he said between his sobs.
“He is burned so badly, I can’t see how you can hold him”, I said in a voice that showed my terror. He continued to cry and I wanted to run but I couldn’t.
“I could check with a nurse to see if I could move you closer to his bed. Will that help”? I asked.
“Would you do that for me”? he asked as he looked at me through eyes that were filled with tears.
“If I can”, I said. “I will be right back”.
The nurse who told me that David was near death was standing at a desk at the end of the aisle. I told her that Allen wanted to be closer to David so that David would know that he was there.
“Come with me and help me move his bed closer to David’s”, she said.
I stayed at the foot of the bed and she was at the head and we moved it slowly, closer to David. David could not turn his head to see Allen but Allen said something to him and I saw him blink once. Allen reached under the oxygen tent and touched David on his unburned cheek and kept it there for a few minutes. His arm tired and he moved his hand.
“Let me see if this will help”, I said.
I took a pillow and placed it next to David’s head. I told Allen that he could rest his arm on the pillow while he touched David’s cheek. He did not say a word. He again reached under the tent and touched David’s cheek. I moved the pillow slightly so that it was the same height of David’s face. Allen could keep his hand on David’s face and not tire.
“Thank you”, Allen whispered.
I did not respond. I couldn’t because I covered my mouth to muffle my crying. As I stood there, I could see tears streaming down David’s cheek, touching Allen’s hand. I have no idea how long I stood there but a doctor came and told me that I should leave. I was relieved at first but at the same time I wanted to stay until the end.
“I am intruding”, I thought. “The doctor is right, I should leave”.
I took a deep breath, turned and walked away.
On my way out, I realized that although I was trained to fight, by being where I was, I could help in ways that I could not if I were in the field. Yes, I was the janitor, who mopped and buffed the floors, but that no longer bothered me. I knew that I was a fellow Marine and I always would be.
I returned to the hospital the next day to mop and buff the floors. I cleaned three wards before I came to the doors of the Burn Unit. I did not hesitate. I pushed one of the brown doors open and walked in with my bucket, mop and buffer. I looked over at the beds where I left Allen and David. They were empty. David had died shortly after I left and Allen was sent that morning to a hospital closer to his home. I cannot explain the emptiness that I felt while looking at those two beds. Two close friends were in those beds the day before, and were now gone. Why should I feel an emptiness? I knew that it was silly to think that way. After all, I talked to them for just a few minutes so how could I feel that way? Just like in the church, my brain said one thing but my heart said another, and again the heart won.
I started to dip my mop into the bucket and the door opened. Two orderlies were bringing in another Marine who had been burned in Viet Nam. I quickly moved my tools out of the way and let them wheel the bed down the aisle. They stopped next to Allen’s bed and methodically transferred the new patient into the bed. The nurse checked his vital signs and the routine continued, my mopping and their pain.
I continued to get up every morning, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast and cry, before hopping on the bus to Balboa Naval Hospital. I still pushed the mop deliberately and my forearms hurt at the end of the day. The smell still turned my stomach but one thing changed; I looked every patient in the eyes. I no longer avoided contact or conversation. Their eyes still screamed in ways that mine would never match, but I had seen death and I could deal with it. I was proud to be amongst them.
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