Friday, October 22, 2010

Chapter 4

Keeping up with the fiction theme...

I have a few other projects as well, but nothing noteworthy yet. Boring is a good thing in a war zone though.

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Halfway through the day, I was ready to turn in my ID. We’d done 6 back-to-back transports. There was no lunch break, no coffee stop. We picked up one patient after another and they were all the same. Somewhere in their eighties, diabetes, dementia, renal failure. Some needed a Foley catheter placed in their urethra for urine retention or an infection. Some were going to dialysis. Others headed to die forgotten in a nursing home where no real nursing ever seemed to happen.

My partner for the day, Jerry, was a jerk. He was 300 pounds, with a chip on his shoulder. There was no right way to drive for him. I was always going to fast for him to work, and he couldn’t keep his balance or start an IV. If I slowed down, I was driving like a grandma and somehow our stable patients were going to arrest and die along the way. I ignored him for the most part. He was out of shape, belligerent, and possibly a little jealous of my life and my past. His attitude made the day very easy to hate. After being told to drive faster for the seventh time that day I pulled over.
“Do you want to drive?” I asked, exasperated.
“Don’t get snappy with me! I just want to get to our pickup sometime today.” I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it today. He watched me for a moment, but didn’t move.
“If you don’t like the way I drive, then drive yourself. Otherwise shut the hell up and I’ll get us there as quickly and safely as I can. Besides if I drive slower it’s more time before we get yet another job.”
“All I’m trying to do is make you a better tech!” he growled.
“Nobody else I work with ever complains, Jerry. You’re the only person in this whole damn company that seems to find a problem with every single thing that I do. You always talk about doing things by the book-you won’t even let me get you an IV line on a rough scene because it’s out of my scope of practice. Well I drive ‘by the book’. I’ve got a wife to go home to, and I’d like to see her again tonight.”
“Fine,” he told me. “Just drive.”

I called out at Hudson Falls Hospital. Dispatch was making up for their compassion the other night and put another job on us straight away. “721, I need you to take it into the crisis unit, 25 year old male, going to St. Johns Psychiatric facility. A scrip for restraints will accompany you.” Jerry looked at me as it went over the air. He hated violent patients. He was a useless fat-body. If something went awry in the back, he’d get his ass kicked by just about anybody. A 70 year old with Alzheimer’s once gave him a black eye.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.” I told him. Normally I would have let him squirm, but the name that came through with the Nextel page was familiar. In fact, it was a dead mans name. “You’ve got the next two after this though. I’ve already done four.” For once, he didn’t argue as I pulled the stretcher out of the back and dropped the wheels.

Hudson Falls was a hospital no more than the Hudson River had waterfalls on it. Many years ago, it had been one, with an Emergency Room and all. It had closed in the 1980’s, was bought by the state, and now served as a nursing home/rehabilitation facility, and a crisis center. We were here for the third feature-on the lower level was a psychiatric crisis facility.

Their job was to take despondent people and evaluate them, and then decide appropriate treatment, which usually involved a transfer to a drug rehab or psychiatric recovery center. The weather-beaten, shoddy red brick exterior was foreboding at night, and downright depressing during the day, and the plain, dark long hallways did nothing to lift your spirits once inside. I had heard they did a pretty decent job with patients, but the cloud of despair over the place made it feel like they must be fighting an uphill battle.

I pulled the stretcher through the automatic double doors that used to enter the old ER, waved at security and headed down the hall. As always, the fluorescent lights above me were dim and flickering. My heels clicked softly with each step, pausing briefly at another set of double doors before entering the crisis division.

Inside the crisis center was a bit warmer than the rest of the hospital, both in temperature and d├ęcor. The walls were a light colored wood paneling and the lighting seemed to work better in this part of the building than anywhere else. There was a carpeted waiting room with some fake potted plants in the corners, with comfortable looking chairs and magazines to read. At the moment, many of the chairs were full. The back right corner of the room led to another hallway-the main office and some private rooms for interviewing and problem patients that couldn’t be trusted to sit quietly and play nice with the others in the waiting room. My patient was apparently one of those people in the back rooms. I left the stretcher and Jerry in the waiting room and stepped around to the office to pick up paperwork and get a report.

Heather was on the desk today. She was a small, freckled redhead about my age with a neat, tidy appearance. She wore plain tan business skirt and blue knit sweater. The collars of a white button-down were tucked over the sweater’s collar carefully. It was a conservative look, but attractive nonetheless. She looked harried and busy when I came around the corner, but she smiled brightly at me.
“Thank God, Paul. I am swamped, and this guy was a handful. He’s not crazy, he just wants to kill himself and he’s very adamant about it. Veteran, like you, except he’s a bilateral above-knee amputee, and blind in one eye. He’s definitely got some PTSD goin’ on. Not married, no family. He takes Percocet for pain, and apparently took the whole bottle last night with a bottle of Jameson. A neighbor spotted him through a window and called 911. I took in in quietly, nodding. I was pretty sure I knew this guy. I’d been in that firefight.

Jerry waited around the corner while I went in to introduce myself to our patient. Kevin Burke. He’d been a 19 year old gunner on a HMMWV with me in Mosul. I’d taken the wounds that had sent me home while kneeling over his body trying to stop him from bleeding out. I’d never figured that he’d survived. I took a deep breath, pausing for a moment at the door. My memory of that battle was scattered and there were plenty of blank spots, but I could still hear the screams and smell the burning gunpowder sometimes, and now was one of those times. I steeled myself, walked through the door, and was promptly banged over the head with a chair.

It was cheap, light plastic, and the seat actually broke, but the metal frame caught me hard on the left side. For a moment I was dazed, but not long. Sitting in another chair in the corner of the room was PFC Kevin Burke, former infantry. He was smaller than he had been before, because of the missing legs, but he still had the massive frame of a young man that had once been 6’4. His skin had lost the sun baked tan he’d had in Iraq, it was pale and blotchy from long time spent indoors. One eye was regarding me with a deep fury, and the other lay lifeless and blank in its socket. He was screaming at me.
“Leave me the fuck alone! If I want to die that’s my own business. He threw in even more gratuitous profanity, and deteriorated into nonsense shortly after that. He was known for creative tirades long before he’d been hurt. I did what I’d done back then. I leaned into his face, very close-it was a risk, but calculated. I could probably jump back faster than he could swing. I let my voice get slow and icy. “Private Burke, at ease!” He stopped, the one good eye regarding me curiously. It took a few moments before he recognized me behind my goatee.
“Sergeant Bauer? Doc?” His mouth dropped a little bit, and then he grabbed me in as big a bear hug as he could manage. “I thought you were dead…” I returned his embrace.
“I’m not dead, buddy. I just got sent home. I thought you were dead too though. I thought I’d failed you. Now I find out you want to go and waste that second chance? Hell of a way to have a reunion, Burke.” He started shaking in my arms and then I realized that I’d gone too far-he was crying. It’s not easy to make infantry cry.
“I’m useless, Doc. I can’t work. I can’t drive. I can barely see. No woman wants to look at me. I’ve got nothing left. Sometimes I wish you’d left me in the sand. You wouldn’t have gotten hurt then, and I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His words made the sounds of battle ring out in my head again. I could hear the chatter of AK-47’s and M4 rifles trading rounds. I could smell the burning powder, and oil and blood. “Back then, I would have told you to quit feeling sorry for yourself and drive on, Burke. I’m not going to tell you that now. This situation sucks, and I know that, but you’re still here for a reason. You’re going to die someday, so why rush it?”
“I’m only here because you made it happen.”
“I failed you,” I told him. “I got hit too. Some other medic saved your life.”
He looked up at me with that one-eyed, quizzical look again. “You don’t remember anything after that grenade went off, do you?” I shook my head no. It was true. The blast had knocked me out cold. I didn’t remember thinking a damn thing after I said a quick, final prayer.
“Tell ya what doc, I’m gonna take this little ’ammalance’ ride with you, and along the way, I’m going to tell you a story. About the man who saved my life.” With that, I called Jerry into the room, and Burke moved himself over with his arms. We wheeled him out talking about the old unit, and girls that used to send us photos to entertain ourselves with in the desert. I winked at Heather, and she beckoned me over to the desk.
“What the hell did you do?” She whispered.
“I told him that if he got better, you’d take him out on a date.”
“What?!”
“No, not really. I used to know him. He’s actually a pretty good guy, just lost some hope.” She nodded in understanding-her and Amy had grown up together and she knew my story through her.
“Have a safe trip, Paul.”
We wheeled down the lonely corridor once again, but it was lit up with Burke’s loud, excited chatter. It was a complete turn-around from the broken man in my paperwork, and far more like the motivated young man I’d known years ago,
“I was going to make them call the cops and shoot me,” he told me. “But then you walked in. Good thing it wasn’t your buddy there, I mighta killed him.” I thought it was possible, even with no legs. I let him smoke a cigarette in the parking lot even though it was against the rules. I could see Jerry’s discomfort and privately reveled in it. I loaded the stretcher, Climbed in the back, shut the doors.
“So Doc,” he started. “Tell me what you remember.” I started to sweat. It was suddenly getting very hot in the ambulance. The diesel engine started up and it sounded like a HMMWV turning over. I could feel the weight of my body armor again, could smell the rank odor of Mosul’s streets. And then I was back in Iraq.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chapter 3

I've been struggling with finding material-and with getting the clarity of mind to turn the ideas into words. Here's another chapter of the fictional story I've posted earlier. The first two chapters are in earlier posts, titled "Chapter 1" and "Chapter 2", respectively. I have no idea how to link to them. Yes, I'm internet retarded.
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When I’d finished, I tiptoed over to the refrigerator. I’d forgotten what day it was. Saturday, April 10th. Amy was a teacher at the Elementary School. Since she didn’t have to go into work, I let her sleep and looked over the “Honey-Do List” on the fridge. There was a woodpile in the backyard that had plenty of logs for splitting, and the yard needed a serious clean-up after a snowy winter. I headed down the hallway to the bedroom. I changed my boxers and paused in front of the mirror.

I’d aged a little in the years. My hair wasn’t thinning yet, but there were lines on my face-crows feet around my eyes, and some wrinkles on my cheeks. My skin was getting leathery. My hair was still cropped short, but I’d long since given up the clean shaven look in favor of a trimmed beard. I’d stayed in shape, too, but there were love handles beginning to show, despite my best efforts to the contrary. Luckily, my arms had stayed muscular. The daily grind of lifting obese people into the backs of ambulances had been enough to keep tone and definition, along with my daily exercise regimen.

The scars were still there. Three spots of puckered flesh, faded into my skin. They looked like cigar burns, two on my left side, within an inch of one another, and one more on the side of my neck. They were bullet wounds, shrouds covering the spots where a 7.62 bullet had torn its way through my body and spilled my blood in the sands of a foreign land. Long, jagged lines still crossed my neck and chest, where a grenade had gone off, sending me home. There was a long scar across my chest from a bar fight after I‘d gotten back, too.. The marks had grown lighter, nearly matching the light tan of my skin, but there were still there as a constant reminder of a more violent youth My eyes had grown softer, along with the scars. They were no longer the hard blue ice chips of Sergeant Paul Bauer. They had definitely seen their share of sorrow, that was very evident. But there was love in my eyes now too. It was a far more pleasing sight than what had been.

I threw on a pair of faded jeans, so old I couldn’t tell what brand they were, a plain black tee shirt, and a plaid lined denim jacket. I headed out the back door, and stretched briefly on the patio. We had about a half acre, on the edge of a large tract of state park. There was a lone, battered tool shed in the back right corner. The yard itself had no trees, except a slowly dying Japanese Maple right in the middle of the grass. The yard was yellowed from the winter, but patches of green were beginning to show up randomly. There were sticks, and leftover leaf piles that I’d neglected the previous fall. I ignored them for now and headed to the woodpile on the edge of the property line.

I’d cut down a big pine tree last fall that was threatening to take out the shed. I’d cut the log into sections a foot and a half long, but hadn’t had the time to split them before the snow had hit. I picked up one of those logs up now, and propped it upright between a couple of two by fours. The idea with splitting logs is to go with the grain of the wood, and to let the weight of the axe do most of the work for you. Done properly and even a huge log will split in one or two strokes. Then you have to quarter them so they can fit into a fireplace easier. I went through about twenty logs , then stacked as much as possible in the wheelbarrow and brought them close to the house. It took me two trips.

I enjoyed yard work. It was tedious, but it was mindless, and that gave me a chance to think things over at a basic level. I had never known anything other than Emergency Medicine. I’d enlisted in the Army straight out of high school., and spent three years on active duty before an AK-47 burst had put two bullets within inches of severing my spine. They almost finished the job with a grenade as I lay on the floor. The Army discharged me and sent me home, and I’d nearly drowned in alcohol and self-pity until Amy dragged me out of that hole.

I’d started working as a civilian EMT soon after that and never looked back. I was always frustrated about being an EMT basic, but I never went for my Paramedic. I loved doing my job, but I had never gotten to the point where it truly felt where I should be-the one secret that I’d kept from my wife all this time was that I was always on the verge of quitting, I just couldn’t think of anything else that I was ever good at besides helping folks. Or hurting them. I’d hated that part of me, but even as a medic, I’d been a good soldier, and I’d put down several people that needed it. Part of me missed that, but going back wasn’t an option. I didn’t think I had any options.

I stopped smoking years ago but I wanted one now. I remembered that my partner, Joe had left a pack in my glove box last week and went to get it. Camel silvers-they weren’t my brand and they were stale but I lit one anyway, and turned around as the back door opened. Gracie, our Black lab/beagle mix , came bounding out the door and circled me briefly before running to the far corner of the yard to do her business. Amy saw me smoking from the door but she didn’t say anything. A disapproving look passed her face, but she let me continue. I took a few more drags and reluctantly crushed it out on the driveway, then picked up a pink Frisbee on the lawn and tossed it for Gracie to chase. She took off after it with gusto, and we went back and forth like that for the next half hour before I decided to head in and shower.

Amy was sitting at the table, reading my letter on the laptop. She turned towards me as the sliding glass back door closed, Her eyes were troubled. “I love you,” she said. “And I’ve missed you these past few days. I know it’s been tough, and I don’t mean to push you too hard, if you really don’t feel up to it anymore.” I walked over and placed my calloused hand on her shoulder.
“I sense a ‘but’ coming, hon.” She giggled a little, and it lightened the mood. For a moment she sounded twenty years old all over again.
“BUT…you can’t just quit your job. You need to find something else first. Or we’ll be out of a house.”

I nodded. We’d properly invested my deployment cash and ended up with far more money than most young couples could imagine having. It had served well as a down payment for the house, and helped get Amy through school, but what was left wasn’t enough to live off of. We didn’t have a huge safety net. Without a college degree there weren’t many good jobs out there. Going back to college as a married twenty-seven year old didn’t appeal much to me either. Not to mention that I still had no ideas on what I’d even study. I gave up, went into the bedroom and grabbed a couple of small fishing poles from a rack on our den wall. Amy smiled when I emerged. “Trout’s open.”

We drove down to the creek a few miles away, and climbed down a slope of slippery, wet, leaves. The ground was still very damp from the nights storm, and the distinctive smell of spring earth hung low in the air, heavy with a feeling of growth and new life to come. The little stream was swollen and swift with runoff from the ice melt, and the previous nights storm combined to turn what was normally a trickling, tame creek into a roaring cascade of water, swirling and crashing over rocks. They held unmoving against the deluge, but it didn’t make our prospects for catching newly stocked trout very good. The water would have moved them downstream unless they could find a gentle eddy to suspend in. We found a calm spot and cast a spinner into the foam.

A few hours later we each had two fish. They would be dinner tonight. We’d neglected to take anything out of the freezer, and fish were best fresh anyhow. Amy was an excellent cook. She stuffed the fish with rice, butter and spices, then grilled them over a cedar plank. I opened up a can of corn and green beans and heated them up, then cracked a bottle of white wine. We ate together slowly, though I still had to focus on the slow part. The Army had ingrained in my mind eating quickly and it had stayed that way even years later. My wife found it humorous, but it wasn’t a romantic way to eat.

With a full stomach and a good buzz from a half a bottle of wine, I curled under the covers and wrapped my wife in my arms, but sleep was a long time coming. I watched the red numbers on our alarm clock change from minute to minute and stared over Amy’s shoulder at the wall behind her. I finally dropped off sometime after 3am, an hour before the alarm jarred me back awake to get ready for work. I was working in two hours and dreading the day. Amy rolled out of bed and slipped into her robe to brew coffee and start frying some eggs so I would have breakfast waiting when I got out of the shower. I was perfectly capable of making breakfast, but she was far better. I loved her more every morning that we woke up next to one another.

A pressed blue shirt lay on the dresser on top of a darker set of cargo pants. I dressed reluctantly and padded out into the kitchen in bare feet. I always put my boots on at the last minute. There were three eggs on a plate sprinkled with cheese and peppers and bacon off to the side. A black cup of coffee was steaming next to it. I ate quickly and kissed Amy goodbye at the door. “Hang in there.” she told me. Her eyes were bright even at this early hour. I knew that she could see my pain.

In EMS, they call what I was feeling burnout. It’s when you’ve seen all you can bear seeing, and it manifests itself in many different ways. Some guys get angry at the job, and get belligerent with patients and partners. Some start to freeze up, or worse, completely break down on scenes. Some plod through the day with a blank stare, with no emotions left to stand. I wasn’t sure where I fell on that scale. Most days it was the blank stare, but some days I felt like I was on the verge of breaking. I’d never frozen up yet. I couldn’t even be sure that I was burned out, because I was never entirely sure that this was where I wanted to be in the first place. Shaking my head, I laced up my boots on the tailgate of my pickup, took a deep breath, and walked through the station doors

Sunday, October 3, 2010

War again...

As I stepped off the plane and my boots hit the ground in Kuwait once more, my brain was in turmoil. My leave had felt long, and relaxing. I spent many a night around the fire pit in the backyard among friends, family, and loved ones. I enjoyed my favorite pastimes, going fishing and shooting, and I even learned to ride a quad. I was a hero to my cousin’s Cub Scout den, and the guest speaker at a college writing course, where I made some new friends. It was almost too good-I didn’t want to be here anymore.

Whatever my original reasons for volunteering to come to Iraq, they had become mired down in the frustrating Army bureaucracy and lost. So many petty rules and regs that seem like a good idea up the chain are often in practice a major annoyance to boots on the ground. Along with the “Ether Bunny”, the “Good-Idea Fairy” can be one of the most dangerous mythical beasts of the military.

A good example is the Army Combat Shirt-it’s a tight, but breathable, moisture-wicking, long sleeved shirt designed to be worn underneath body armor. It’s also quite comfortable without armor, and keeps the temperature feeling much cooler than a standard ACU blouse. But the Combat Shirt may only be worn just prior to, during, or just after a mission. Leave it to the Army to take 7 years to come up with a practical, comfortable uniform well suited to desert warfare-and promptly come up with all sorts of rules stating why it *can’t* be worn!

In any case, when my boots hit the ground, I hated it, but I resigned myself to my fate, shuffling from plane to bus, from bus to tent, to other tent. Each step brought me closer to Iraq again, but also closer to going home again. The thought of stepping off the plane for good several months down the road is a surprisingly good motivator, but I had to be careful not to dwell on just how many months it would be.

Once the in-processing was completed, late in the evening around 1800, we were released for the night. Despite traveling for 20 hours, through several different time zones, I wasn’t tired. I’d slept some on the plane, and my brain was still swirling with thoughts of my life back home, and my future. My college application was in and I was almost sure to get in. I was going to have my own place for the first time, and no more insane 70 hour work weeks-excepting maybe “Finals week”. I was thinking about failed romance, both fresh and stale. I tried to think that the time that I had left would be quick, and there were so many good things happening in the states, I couldn’t wait. I felt like a child when somebody tells him Christmas is just a week away-a week is a short time but it feels like an eternity when you’re excited about the end.

I found a buddy and we grabbed a coffee and traded stories for a good hour. While we sat, a wind began to blow, bringing thick, wet air with it from the Gulf. A fog formed in the darkness, so thick that it was a stretch to see fifty feet in front of me. It cooled the earth around me, the first time that I’d ever thought to consider the temperatures in Kuwait as pleasant. I started to laugh a little to myself at this unexpected turn of events. I’d always loved cool, foggy weather. My buddy from Georgia looked at me funny when I chuckled.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” He asked me. I turned to him and offered a big grin.
“I’m back” I told him simply. Then I shrugged and walked off into the mist.