A ward at the St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens New York
So its November 1966 and 24 year old Toritto is still in the Army with one more year to go on his four year enlistment. Those of you who waste your precious time reading my random thoughts know that I was stationed in Brooklyn arranging for notifications of the next of kin of U. S. Army soldiers from New York state killed in Vietnam.
Fully one third of Army casualties were conscripts; kids drafted off of the streets, given 3 or 4 months training and then dropped in the Mekong. I did everything in my power for the families of the dead – arranged for a boyhood friend or cousin still in the combat zone to escort the body home, military funeral and a place in Arlington if that is what they wanted. Presentation of medals, honor guards, paperwork, insurance payments.
I was in Brooklyn only because my mom had died at 43, my dad was ill and my brother was already in the war zone. I got to stay close to home.
I was living with my wife off post in Staten Island. Each evening I would pick her up from her job in Manhattan at the ferry terminal and we would drive home.
This day before lunch I developed a pain in my lower right abdominal area. I figured it was just a strain from all of the sit-ups I had been doing. I was a lean, mean fighting machine at the time; albeit a small one.
The pain got worse during the day and as I waited for her that evening I began to think something was wrong; that I might be in serious trouble. Dumb ass.
By the time we got home I was ready for the emergency room. My brother-in-law took me to the old Staten Island Hospital which kind of looked like the castle where Dr. Frankenstein lived in Transylvania. Yikes. (Not to worry – its long gone.)
Appendicitis! Two yikes!
Well because I was such a tough guy and had waited so long, my appendix burst as it was being removed that evening. I woke up with an open wound and a drain in my side. Lots of antibiotics.
A week later I was discharged with a partially sewn up hole in my side along with instructions on how to keep the open incision clean. My wife had to do it. She almost fainted as the surgeon gave her wound cleaning lessons.
Meanwhile the Army heard I was incapacitated and ordered me to St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens. They send a car to pick me up and transported me to St, Albans where I was placed in a ward filled entirely with wounded soldiers from Vietnam.
I was by far the healthiest guy on the ward. Everyone asked me how I was wounded and I would simply respond with “appendicitis.” “Lucky bastard!”
The first thing the Army surgeon did was open me up again with a scalpel – with no anesthetic, proceeding to debride the wound. Cold. The wound was to heal from the inside out. We were expected to be tough. Besides there were Marines on the ward. No making a fuss while you got cut open.
Military discipline was to be maintained. Each day those of us who could walk policed the ward and the day room, cleaning up, mopping floors.
We all got drugs at night whether we needed them or not to ease any pain and help us sleep. We looked forward to our daily pills like a British seaman awaiting his allotment of rum.
Christmas was approaching and we began receiving visits from comely young women singing Christmas carols around our beds. I would usually try to dismiss them letting them know I was not a wounded warrior but I got a song and a smile anyway. “It makes no difference! You’re a soldier in the hospital!”
Soon, since I was the healthiest guy on the ward, I was given messenger duty during the day. I would carry notes and charts, limping around the hospital with a cane from one doctor or department to another. No computers then.
One day I had a chart to be delivered to the burn unit.
That’s when I saw him. But first I saw his mother.
She was outside of the entry to the burn unit; apparently she had seen her semi-conscious son. She was wailing and sobbing uncontrollably, surrounded by two female nurses and a doctor who were doing their best to calm her down. She was a woman perhaps going on fifty from a small, upstate New York town. Her face reflected the hard life of the rural poor. And she would not be calmed.
She was ignoring those surrounding her, shaking her right fist at heaven, clutching a string of rosary beads.
“What have you done to my son!” she cried out to God. “What have you done!!”
“Ma’am” said the nurse “You mustn’t let him see you like this! He’ll be more awake soon! Please ma’am. Don’t!”
The mother looked to heaven one more time – shook her fist to the sky and flung her rosary into the trash. She would never pray again. Getting herself together and now relying on herself alone, she straightened up, dried her eyes and in steely no nonsense tone demanded “Get me a cup of vanilla ice cream and a spoon!”
I walked by on my cane as unobtrusively as possible and entered the burn unit.
Her son was maybe twenty; just a kid. He was bare and burned from the waist up.
He had lost his left eye and right hand. And he had no face. He had been horribly burned, his face simply melted; a black, red and blue. His ears were unrecognizable, his hair was gone and there was simply a hole where his mouth used to be below his missing eye.
His old life was over before it had even begun. He probably joined up for economic reasons, perhaps before the war began as I did. Perhaps he was drafted. Perhaps he enlisted for “honor.” His mother had prayed for him while he was over there and now she had flung her rosary into the trash.
He had his own color television. The hospital only had television in the day rooms which meant no tv if you couldn’t get out of bed. The poor towns folk where he lived had purchased a television for his use and paid to have it set up so he could watch from his bed when he was able.
I had to wait for the files I delivered and return them each to where I had gathered them.
His mom came in, vanilla ice cream in hand. Now outwardly thoroughly composed, she was on his right side where he could see her and touched his handless wrist. He couldn’t speak through the hole which was once a teen mouth with lips. He let out a soft quiet moan, like her baby calling for her breast,
She took a spoon of the sacred vanilla and, like a priest placing the Eucharist on the tongue of the faithful, placed the sacred vanilla through the hole where his mouth used to be. Everyone in that ward save the mother had wet eyes but, like she, made not a sound.
“Here are your files” I heard in a whisper and I quietly left.
About a week before Christmas I was told to go home and given several weeks to recuperate. The Army needed the bed for the wounded. “Take proper care of that wound!”
So in my Army uniform, a pronounced limp and a cane I made my way home. Got a ride to the Long Island Railway station and took a train to Manhattan, the subway to South Ferry and a boat to Staten Island. Along the way old veterans, seeing a uniform and a cane stopped me to say thanks and Merry Christmas.
I went shopping that week for the holiday. The uniform and a cane got me to the front of the line and helpful service with a smile. The war was not yet unpopular though thousands were already dead. It was a fine Christmas for me.
I never spoke of St Albans, which was closed in the mid seventies, or of the mother or her son. I went back to my duties and left the Army a year later. I did as I was ordered, I went where I was sent. I lived for 18 months without my new bride and we gave the nation four years of our lives. I did my best to be a good soldier and did nothing of which I or my country should be ashamed.
I was there to comfort families who made the ultimate sacrifice; to carry out their wishes. And for them I moved heaven and earth. It is they who deserved the thanks of a grateful nation.
But I never spoke of St. Albans, the mother or her son.
There 52,272 names on the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington. This Memorial Day there will be honors for the fallen. What was it all for? Fighting commies? Vietnam today bothers no one and makes nice blouses you can buy at Kohl’s and nice bed room furniture. I know. My bedroom was made in Vietnam.
This Memorial Day weekend give just one moment’s passing thought to the mother and her son. And resolve to work for peace.
Forty years later I thought of them and these words came out. High indeed the price of honor.
A Picasso face
with one eye a piece of nose
a dented skull distorted melted
cubism done in red black and blue
one hand one and a half limbs.
A rearranged montage
of her soldier son.
His mother turned away
in a silent scream
beyond anguish beyond tears
face buried between her palms.
She picked up his favorite
vanilla ice cream from a tray
walked in and sat where an eye used to be
touched his handless wrist
whispered his name in a maimed ear.
A low primal cry from deep within
came through his Picasso face
the sound of her little boy
now very far away
moaning for her breast.
Like a priest placing the Eucharist
in his body for the first time
she scooped a spoon
of the sacred vanilla and placed it gently
on his tongue through the hole
where his lips used to be.
He grasped her hand
still with the spoon
a tear falling from his Picasso eye
and she knew at that moment
she would never pray again.