It is 1969 in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. A hard winter holds us tight against our times, times that will eventually change somehow into indelible, picture-quality memories. It is late in that bleakest of months, February, and I have come in from the city. Another drunken midnight. We are shuffled away from view here on Ward R. Most are amputees, or soon to be amputees. I will escape the loss of my leg, although there are other forms of amputation.
I am here on the ward, drunk, looking for a pint of scotch I have in the bottom of my footlocker. These are some long hours until morning. Black and White Scotch, those two little dogs on the label. This is my brand, far too much of it, like pouring the past and future through my mouth. Outside, the wind hammers at me. I drink absently, a drinking drunk, drank, and all the tenses of oblivion are here. The ward is filled to overflowing. I empty myself out, night by night.
There is pain here on Ward R. It is physical and emotional. It is palpable, in the air all the time, stirred up in the active hours into the other emotions – anger, frustration, longing – but in this night place I can see that it is pain. It settles down on us like a blanket. I move slowly. One shouldn’t disturb things at night. It is out of the natural order. I co-operate with the universal laws.
The ward is cold near the windows. They are painted shut, yet the cold gets in. It always manages to get in. Half a ward away, one of my fellow Marines is crying. Not a tears sort of crying, but a jerking-out-of-his-throat noise at odd intervals. I shook like that when I first came here, still existing around the world in those mountains. Who is this new arrival? Where was he when his arm began to turn up missing? I limp to his bed in my own inimitable way, painful prose in my leg, writing new chapters every hour. I will offer him a drink, some bottled ordering to straighten out these night twists.
I am older than most of my abbreviated brothers. A couple of years on the calendar, but so much older than that during these Philadelphia nights. My ancient hands and all this ancient, amber liquid in me.
“Where are we going, mister new arrival? Where are we all headed after this place? What is the meaning of your empty sleeve or the missing legs and fingers and feet and faces and dreams? You tell me, friend, and I will drink you a future right out of my imagination.”
But I never say these words or any words. I sit on the edge of his bed, still reeling from an evening in Philadelphia, and tuck the blankets up around his neck. I hold the sides of his face, and his sobbing-out ceases. The wind is hammering this frail looking wing of the hospital, and I have quieted a small piece of all of us with my unpracticed hands. Can the warmth from all that whiskey really be pouring out of my fingers? This simple incident has shaken me, and I will need a drink when I go back to my bed, but I don’t get up. I sit here and he is quiet, and I drink right here, beside him….
For the rest of the winter, the long, snow-filled, pain-ridden winter – for the rest of the winter I awaken after midnight and ghost through Ward R, usually in one state of drunkenness or another, and fold people in as they sleep. Fold them in to keep them warm against all that is going on outside these colorless walls. Tucking blankets around stumps of legs and arms, around ruined faces, careful not to create any more pain. Every night this excursion. Seventy beds. A rotation of despair I have never forgotten.
One night when I was a little unsteady, a gin night, I bumped along, noisier than I would have had myself be. Across the squad bay one of the new arrivals watched me. He spoke so quietly that, had it not been deathly still, I wouldn’t have heard him.
-Hey, man, you cover people up every night?
(I do not reply.)
-Hey, would you help me sit up? You know, it’s hard.
(He has lost one arm and one eye.)
I help him sit up. While I hold him forward with one arm, I give him my pint of gin. He drinks and coughs almost noiselessly.
-Where did you get hit? I ask.
(My mind flashes back to the A Shau Valley.)
I never hear his answer. Maybe he never answers. I hold him against me for a while and then lay him down so he can sleep. After I fold the blankets up to his chin, I hobble back to my bed. I will drift into sleep and dream deep, vivid dreams that will disturb me for days to come.
To this day, in the winter, I awaken deep into the night and drift through the house, tucking people in, adding blankets, moving pillows. I never leave the bedside until I sense that whoever is there has relaxed into warm sleep. Sometimes I make coffee and sit at the window for hours. I don’t drink anymore, but it feels the same. It feels the same.
Norm Milliken is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served with the Ninth Marines as a combat machine gunner in 1968 until he was wounded just before Christmas of the same year.