Avant Garde of Western Civilization
Chelsea Naval Hospital, 1970
Things didn’t go anywhere in neuropsychiatric at Chelsea. They rolled me out and down every week or two to the basement to probe the ganglion with a needle. Face up I watched them push the needle through my neck until it reached the spine. The results continued to be hopeless. In the time between, I sailed on drugs.
Except for another big nurse who threw away wet towels and snapped open shades, the others left me alone, wrapped in wet cloth in a dark room. Eventually, they had taken the casts off my right leg and left arm and while there was some regeneration – except of course in the dead right arm – it didn’t matter anymore. The pain in the palm had completely crippled me.
I passed the time in my way. After the shot, I had learned how to push the needle with my thumb into the groove on my portable record player and whereby be, for the most part, asleep but conscious enough that I could control my dreams. In direction, pace and with great detail. I painted dreamlike scenes. Changed colors at will. Moderated the breeze – yet kept fantastic happenings. Angels descended. Hell boiled and bubbled. Faces were beatified. Fish spoke. No more plumbers appeared. The towels dried and I slept on, unaware of their dryness. The I.V. was changed and I slept on.
I took the prescribed CC’s from one shot to the next. The bedsores multiplied and grew in circumference. From rashes to a bloody pulp. They had given up on trying to get me to walk. They said they had others that needed their time. Change the solutions, wet the towels, Demerol, clean up my mess. And as with the music I served myself in other ways. I used the fingers on my good hand to walk to the “on” button, to get the pack of cigarettes, the pieces of food, the lighter, the tissues. At night, I was happiest.
I stayed awake and smoked, my resting hand just under my chin, my forefingers lifting the butt an inch for a drag, staring out the window at the Chelsea Bridge as the trucks moved under the lights. I blew the ashes down the sheets and flicked the butt on the floor. I was not crazy, as many thought.
“He’ll be well when he wants to be well.” They had told my parents when they drove up. My father, unable to look at it; my mother, set to nursing the wounded. I was not crazy. My mind had it all. The sympathetic and the parasympathetic were fused and I physically could no longer tolerate sound or light. Beyond that, there was a big nurse and the weekly practice on my neck in the dungeon that would, I knew, soon enough drive me crazy.
Finally, after months, they gave up. They gave me a refillable prescription for drugs and a permanent transfer out. Permanently disabled, I was called. Pensioned out, honorably.
They had lain me across the back seat of the Ford, swaddled in the wet compresses. My father’s meek attempt had followed. “David, just so I understand, how does the water help?” Silence. “I mean what would happen without it?” I didn’t bother answering. They had a war hero on their hands. So back off with the things will be OK routine. My mother looked at Henry to drop it and pulled out another washcloth from the bucket she had put between her legs in the well of the car.
After some more words, they agreed to set up a bed for me in the basement. It had always been dank. The cement sweated. The floor was beneath the water table. There was one old cobwebby window at ground level which when I reclined gave me a view of the sky and, when the wind blew, of a branch of the cottonwood. There wasn’t much else. My old set of barbells, the furnace, the oil tank.
My mother brought down a side table for my portable record player and a waste paper basket. There were a tap and a bucket where I soaked my towels. I pissed in a sump hole and shit in another bucket. Three times a day she brought down cut-up food. Once a week she took the sheets. She informed me of visitors and callers and dutifully sent them away. With time she urged me to lift the hatch at night and walk around the back yard. Which I did. Barefoot in the cold grass, ragged in my hospital bottoms, I took my first steps in months… with my grandfather’s mahogany cane no less.
Except for an occasional bark or the light coming off a full moon on a cloudless night, it was painless. By later in the year I even took to running. The sores retracted. My mother was pleased with the progress. There were traces of something else on the bone beside skin and gristle. The bucket could be taken away; I shat in the woods. With the first snows, I was forced to wear slick black rubbers on my feet and drape a blanket over me.
Days were different. Darvon, even several, is not Demerol. I got my mother to bring down jug wine and washed them down. She disapproved yet this kept me blissful until nightfall. Henry said he hoped she knew what she was doing. I heard his car pull in each evening. He’d stick his head down the stairwell and ask me how things were? I answered, “OK”. “Any chance of you joining us tonight, David? It’d sure mean a lot to us.” My palm burned at the thought. Silence. “If there’s anything you need, call us, won’t you, David?” Silence. “Won’t you David” A tinge of anger in the voice. “Yes,” I answered. The door closed. Sister Roo visited once but I closed the door there, too. “I told you mom, no visitors. It’s not their bloodline that causes burning. It’s their noise. Is Roo noiseless?” My sister had brought a friend from California. They were sitting out where I walked at night. In Moroccan leather hats and lumberjack shirts, their hair braided in corn rows.
I didn’t come up for Christmas and there was nothing I could use anyway. I got a little drunker than usual and played Adeste Fideles on my portable. A couple of weeks later I moved my bed closer to the furnace and lost my view during the daylight entirely. I spent the rest of the Winter and Spring like that. Running – even in the snow – building my strength, actually putting a clock on myself as I ran, right arm still dangling dead as polio Clem, through the forest to the field where Dickey and I had made a sort of love in our underground tunnels and back again. Down to the frozen swimming hole at stony brook where fifteen years earlier we had danced around with flowers in our pee holes. Usually, out by midnight, I was back before the first car lights came down the road. I didn’t think beyond that. There was no-one. There was no-one looking for me. My father had suffered as much as he could. His only boy, in his prime, living like a mole. A dark story alongside all the sales talk. Swanie was nursing her child. Roo had her life. I had my woman in my mind who came as she was imagined and of course the faces of the dead soldier hanging there.
In summer my mother effected another breakthrough. Almost on the anniversary of my seclusion in the basement. I had had my hands in the water pail gripping onto a towel when she had slipped on the last stair and the tray of lunch had gone clattering onto the cement. I had spun my head over my shoulder ready to take the inevitable burn. It never came. While she was bent over picking up the pieces and calling herself clumsy she had unconsciously happened on a great discovery. It seemed I could handle noises, and presumably light if I… my hands I mean… were in water, in contrast… and this was the discovery… to only being wet. I told her to scrape her shoes on the stairs. Nothing. Not the slightest burn. Asked her to turn on the lights; to rub her dry hands on her dress. Dry on dry, in glaring light. The worst. I looked down at my hands magnified in the water one apparently doused, the other hanging by a deadline from my shoulder. I turned the palms up underwater. There was no pain.
In the beginning, I was tentative. I went out at twilight, my mother holding a pail of water with my hands in it. My father stood off to the side offering encouragement for the first steps in daylight… albeit somewhat complicated by the accessory. Roo was phoned and given the good news.
My father prevailed. The pool they bought was a temporary model. A Kool Pool it was called. A plastic tub four feet deep and fourteen feet across. “Don’t be ridiculous Swanie. We are not spending ten thousand dollars on an in-ground pool for something that could be over tomorrow. Sometimes you amaze me. Is it that you want the boy to spend his life as a reptile?” Of course, she didn’t, she said. “Sometimes Henry, you can be so cheap.”
Now my life was topsy-turvy. In the blaze of the day with lawnmowers humming and children screaming, there I was lolling like an alligator, in my pool, feeling none of it. My metal headplate warming like a pan. Shriveled like a pink prune, the sun burning my maze of scars scarlet.
Neighbors stopped by to converse. My father brought Rotarians by. I was interviewed for the local paper. Always with my hands way beneath the surface. Otherwise, I stared over the edge, took in the world at peace, and when I had had enough, dropped down under the water and pushed off across my pool, my hands fluttering like fins behind me. This was late June. By August I was propelling myself from both elbows down. The nerves definitely regenerating… as the doctor Henry had brought poolside, pronounced.
Life crept up to my shoulder. Muscle reappeared on the arm bones. And on one dramatic day, I took my arm out for a stroke. Dragged it along the surface and let it sink down. Late into the night, one became several, my body rolled in the rhythm of the crawl. Progress was swift. I pulled myself across. Back and forth in fourteen-foot laps. Then no legs and finally by the cool days of Autumn, weights tied to the ankles. Emerging, at the end of the day, over the side in the dark. Purple and shriveled. And soon back under the light in the basement with my hands in the pail, my body now becoming a faded pink jigsaw. Now with the flush of health on the face. Unkempt hair. I took the vanity of tailoring the beard. But not much more. Once I had overheard that Roo was looking for a solution. From November to April I reverted to running at night.
Only once in the second year, and that for my father’ sake – did I let myself be taken out. Someone from the town. One of my former enemies from school, now a born again Christian. I took a lot of Darvons and a couple of quarts of wine and soaked my socks and gloves beforehand. I had donned sunglasses. I looked like a myth. There I was in the shadows at a corner table, overwhelmed by the glamor of the bar, alternately pouring water into my shoes and gloves. Girls had never been talked to as such. Someone with a live coal in his hand putting words to them fearlessly. Throwing back glasses of whiskey without a wince. Dousing the dry in his shoes with table water. And they can tell when its real. No theatre by the piano at Saratoga from me this time. Those glossy lips, the creamy skin, the sweeping lashes were getting more passion off him than they’d get in a lifetime. Nothing to do with legs in the air and a dick like a piston. A brilliant residue of war inches from their lips. Others, boyfriends, tugged at them even as they looked back to stay with me. The bar was closing. I put the rest of the water in my gloves and was driven home.
The Christian didn’t call again and anyway there was no future to the incident. How would the unprecedented passion hold up when they pulled the shirt apart onto a crisscross of scars, onto the black specks of shrapnel, now a year later rising to the surface. A lover who did them in his basement on wet sheets? Whose last remembrance was the pocked orderly’s teeth grinding on his dick?
Asylum Hill, 1971
On a night in April, my Dad had waited for me to come out and run. He had sat on the stump of the willow perfectly still, as the whole family now knew how to do – save those hours when I was in the water. There was a specialist. A Doctor Benjamin Whitcomb. He would see me. Roo would drive me there. I’d see him at his home tomorrow night. I said I thought I could stay as I was. Why confuse it?
So for the last time, I prepared to go out. to an old Tudor home on Asylum in Hartford. I was led into the main room. Tapestries and hardwood. A great stone fireplace. I sat, Roo still, the sock drying, licking the palms of my gloves. I would ask him to cut it off. A white-haired Yankee. The Healer. He talked to me before the fire. I described the pain. What had been done before Chelsea. “Could you take one of the gloves off?” He saw me shaking. Inside I was chanting. Blinking my eyes. The Doctor held my hand and with his other, he reached up to a table lamp. I chanted louder and looked past him. He pulled the switch and I could go no further. I yanked back my hand into my crotch and doubled up. The nonsense burst out. Do dah, Do dah, Do dah, La, La, La, La, La…..
Roo took me to the bathroom where she filled the sink over my hands and soaked the gloves. Later she took me out and we met the Doctor on a path through the front lawn. He told Roo to check me in the next day. He’d operate the day after. “Can you fix it, Doctor,” I asked. “I think so,” he said.
- NB…Causalgia is a rare pain syndrome related to partial peripheral nerve injuries. The peripheral nervous system encompasses nerves that extend from the central nervous system of the brain and spinal cord to serve limbs and organs.
- Causalgia is usually caused by brachial plexus injuries, involving nerves that run from the neck to the arm. The disruption of neural signals causes pain and increased the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which causes vascular symptoms.
- Symptoms usually involve burning pain prominent in the hand or foot within 24 hours of injury. Almost any sensory stimulation worsens the pain.
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