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For these women and the men among whom they worked and lived a common defense against the awful onslaught of dead and dying, wounded and maimed, was a feigned indifference, the irony of the helpless. “Don’t mean nothing” became their mantra, a small bunker in the real war–the war against total mental breakdown.
Powerful, provocative, and often wonderfully funny, each of these tales offers new and profound insight into how the war in Vietnam forever changed the lives of everyone who served there. “Broken Stone” is an astute look at the relinquishing of faith and the sacredness of sex. The tremendously touching “Butch” is a story of love, loss, and the native casualties of war. And the darkly hilarious “Monkey on Our Backs” follows the escapades of a much-maligned and detested pet primate who causes one Lieutenant so much grief that she asks a Marine to kill it. But like the cat that came back, the monkey remains–a reminder that taming a jungle is an exercise in futility.
A moving contribution by a woman to the literature of Vietnam, Don’t Mean Nothing is eye-opening and unforgettable. Here is a book that enlarges our understanding of the American experience in Vietnam
Smoke hung like a curtain in the dying light, softening the lines of Agnes Reedy’s face. It was a worn face, square, heavy. She squinted as she took a last drag on her cigarette, dropped the spent butt, and ground it out with her sneaker. Then she picked up the crushed filter and slipped it into the pocket of her bloodstained operating room scrub shift, a strange gesture of tidiness amid the stark disarray of the dirt-bound hospital compound. She leaned against the picnic table.
“I’m sorry you had to go through something like that so soon,” she said. “You’ve been here what—two, two and a half weeks? It’s a hard lesson.
“Back home, you get used to people dying, but usually they’re old. Cancer, heart failure. Yeah, once or twice you’ll see a kid—leukemia or maybe a car accident. But it’s different—
“Nothing prepares you for this.
“The fights, the losses, all the healthy, good-looking young men. It’s hell. Even now, even now—with more than six months down. It’s still hell.
“Let me tell you about my first time. I hope you don’t mind. After what you’ve just been through.” She smiled briefly, ruefully. “You know, I’ve never talked about it, really. I just feel like now, right now, it’s time—I’ve had it in my head so long, and I’ve got to tell somebody about it before I go back where nobody’ll understand, nobody’ll want to hear.”
She glanced across the compound, over the rubber quonsets, green touched with soft pink from the sunset. A jeep rumbled by, kicking up dust.
On the other side of the dirt road, a man in fatigues hauled on the ropes of the hospital’s flagpole as a clutch of soldiers stood to attention. A twilight ritual, putting the flag to bed. Agnes watched them, her eyes dark and private. She was twenty-five; her eyes were ancient.
“I met the boy from Montana about three weeks after I came here. He was lying on a gurney outside, like usual—” She nodded toward the OR unit behind her. “—and he was awake, squinting up into that god-awfully bright sun—it was the middle of the morning. I pulled his chart out from under the mattress and checked his name and where he was from. I always did that, back then, when I was new—I was always looking for someone from Iowa back then.
“The chart said Montana.
“So I said, ‘Montana, huh?’ I looked him over—he was good-looking, even with all that red mud all over him—blond, blue-eyed young guy. And he didn’t seem to be in any pain. I said, ‘I didn’t know anybody lived in Montana.’ Joking, trying to, you know, make him smile.
“And he did. A little smile, and he said, ‘Well, I do.’ Then he kind of nodded off to sleep.
“I wheeled him in through the air locks, into the first operating room. Where we were today. Toby Stewart and I scooted him onto the OR table; I cut off the front of his shirt. There was this little round bullet hole on his chest, right above his left nipple. The anesthetist started his IV and gave him some sodium pent, and I soaped up his chest and started to shave him. All very textbook.”
She sat down heavily on the tabletop and drew out her pack of Salems, held it out. “No? Sure?” She shook out a cigarette, slid the book of matches from the cellophane sleeve, and lit up. Waved the match out, set it beside her on the splintered wood.
“Steve was first-call surgeon that day. You’ve seen what a good guy he is—really sweet, quiet. Polite Southern boy. Well, he steps up to the table, takes one look at the kid, and shoves me aside with his elbow. He yells at me—‘No time for prep; get me some gloves. Now!
“Steve never pushes people around. And he never yells. So when he did, it kind of jump-started the whole place. I dropped my razor and ripped open a pack of gloves for him. Toby threw a gown over himself and dumped a bunch of sterile instruments onto the back table. He gave Steve a scalpel, dropped a handful of clamps on a Mayo stand, and dragged it up. Jim came in just as Steve cracked the kid’s chest; I gloved him up, and he crammed retractors into the incision. You know—” She took a puff on the cigarette. “—Jim was new back then, too. I don’t think he’d done more than a couple of cases. He’s really an orthopedic surgeon. Not that that matters—as you know by now, all the guys do just about everything here, specialties be damned.”
She rolled her broad shoulders. “God, I’m beat. Where was I? Oh, yes. A nurse—Worthen, she’s gone now—she ran out and came back with a cooler full of blood bags. Another tech, Reb Orcutt, he came in and helped me start IV lines wherever we could—arms and legs—and we connected them all to blood. We pulled pump cuffs over the bags, hooked them onto poles, and opened the flow clamps all the way.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen a pump cuff, incidentally. I mean, who needs something like that back home, right? These were older ones than what we used today; the cloth was pretty chewed up. But they worked just the same way, like putting a blood-pressure cuff on a blood bag.
“Anyway, while I’m ripping open sponge packs, I get a look at the boy’s chest. There’s blood bubbling up, spilling out around the retractors, around Steve’s hands. You wouldn’t believe the blood, so much of it. It was just amazing.
“Besides Reb and Toby, there was a another tech in the room. He was this tall, skinny black kid, a new guy from some big city—Detroit, maybe, or Chicago. His name was Tewksbury. While the rest of us ran around, hanging blood, opening supplies, focusing lights, throwing sterile drapes on the kid’s belly and shoulders—” She took a drag on the cigarette. “—better late than never—Tewksbury was just standing there.
“Tewksbury considered himself a Black Panther. He wore this black beret. Even there, even in the operating room, with his scrubs and mask.
“What the heck—none of us were going to tell him not to. It wasn’t our place.
“He’d only been here maybe a week, at most. We tried to get to know him, include him in everything. I mean, I was so new myself, I went out of my way to try to make him feel welcome. But he didn’t want anything to do with us; he kept himself apart. He made it absolutely clear from day one that all of us—all us whites, and the black guys, too, guys like Sam, say, who cooperated with us whites—we were all The Enemy.” She lifted her hands—square, fingernails dark with blood—in a what-can-you-do gesture, trailing smoke.
“Frankly, we figured he was in ’Nam because some recruiting sergeant had wanted to break him. None of us wanted to give the guy the satisfaction, so we’d taken to letting Tewksbury stand in a corner where he wouldn’t get in trouble, and we just kind of went on with our business as if he wasn’t there.”
She paused to tap her cigarette’s ash on the table edge. The light was nearly gone from the sky; across the road, the flagpole stood naked and deserted.
“So.” She sighed. “Tewksbury’s in the room when we’re working on the boy from Montana. He’s just standing there in the corner, like usual, in his scrubs and mask and that black beret. But this time—Black Power be damned—we needed all the help we could get. So I pulled him up to the table and grabbed his hand—it felt just like a dead fish—and I wrapped it around the bulb to a blood-bag pump.
“We had four of the things going, like today. One on each arm and leg. We’re all pumping them up like crazy, flatten- ing those bags right out, squeezing pint after pint after pint of O-neg right into the kid’s veins—Reb’s running around, taking down empty bags, hooking up new ones; whenever he gets a chance to breathe, he’s pumping a cuff up. I’m doing two at a time. And now, Tewksbury’s working one. I mean, he’s really pumping that bulb, pumping up that cuff. His eyes are absolutely huge above that mask of his, like he’s scared to death, but he’s pumping. Really pumping.
“Together, we kept squeezing blood into the boy—and he kept leaking it right back out.
“Up at the chest, Steve’s up to his elbows in blood. Literally. We still hadn’t managed to get a sterile gown on him, but he had his hands wrapped around the boy’s heart and he was squeezing it, trying to get it to go on its own.
“You know that little fingertip-sized hole I’d seen in the kid’s chest?” She closed her eyes. “I was such a rookie. I hadn’t checked his back. All I’d seen was that little entry wound; if I’d checked his back, I would’ve seen the exit wound, where all the damage was. But he’d been lying on his back, on a sheet, and Toby and I moved the sheet with him onto the table.”
She dropped her cigarette, stood to crush it out, recovered the butt.
“So.” She climbed back onto the table. “Steve’s working on the kid’s heart. It was completely mangled, that heart, and he’s trying to make what’s left of it pump blood. Squeezing it. And every time, with every squeeze, the blood just bubbles out the holes. Everything was soaked—the kid’s chest, Steve and Jim, all those crumpled-up surgical drapes.
“We were all tense, all concentrated, hardly even breathing, none of us saying a word. Except Steve; he was begging the heart to beat, begging the kid to stay alive. Every now and then, he’d stop squeezing for just a second, and Jim would poke at the heart with his needle and suture, trying to sew it up. Trying to close the holes between beats. But the sutures just kept slipping out. So Jim was cursing, very quietly.
“But the rest of us, nobody was saying a word. Reb, Tewksbury, and I kept pumping the blood, bag after bag. I can’t speak for the boys, but I was praying to myself, praying as if all our lives depended on it. Praying, pumping.
“Reb kept Tewksbury at it—when he emptied a bag, he pulled the bulb out of his hand and pushed a new one in. Tewksbury didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and you could see these veins in his arms bulging up like ropes when he pumped. And pumped. It’s like his hand’s a separate thing, the only thing really alive about him. He’s stuck right to the spot where I put him; sweat’s pouring down his forehead under that beret. It’s dropping off his nose, which is sticking out over the mask. Dripping into his eyes. But I swear to God, he didn’t even blink. Only his hand—it just kept pumping. He didn’t even stop between bags, when the bulb wasn’t there. He just squeezed. Like a robot. Fast, hard. Really hard.”
She stared at her own hand, clenched and unclenched it.
“Too hard.” It was almost a whisper.
She pulled out her cigarettes again, tapped one out, held out the pack. “No? Sorry—I forgot.” She lit up, inhaled deeply, blew a long plume of smoke up into the deepening night.
“I’d say we’d been working for more than an hour when Tewksbury burst his blood bag,” she said. “It exploded. Blew up. Like when you smash a bag filled with air. Like a gunshot, out of nowhere. We were all so quiet, so intent, and that noise—ah, God. It’s like it just blew everything—instruments, pump bulbs, even the anesthesia stuff—right out of our hands.” She glanced at the glowing tip of her cigarette; music from a distant stereo drifted by. The Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
She said, “It woke us up, brought us back to our senses.
“The blood from the bag—it made this wet sound, sort of spockled—all at once, all over the ceiling, the walls, the floors, the lights, the instruments on the tables, Steve, Jim, all of us. It splattered on our masks. It hit our eyes and noses. Hit the corners of the room, all of them, top and bottom. All these little tiny red spots, like fine spray paint. I even found blood behind my knees when I took my shower.
“Someone—I don’t even remember who—removed the bulb from Tewksbury’s hand and led him out. I saw him go; his hand was still pumping.”
She took a deep breath, tapped the ash off her cigarette. “I never saw Tewksbury again.”
Agnes Reedy shifted her feet on the long board seat. Her sneakers were streaked with blood and dirt, but they still shone softly in the dark. Her voice, when she spoke, was low and husky. “Well, after we all started breathing again, Steve—very gently—sets the boy’s heart down, back in his chest. It twitched and leaked once or twice, like it was trying to beat, then—nothing. Jim threw down his needle holder; his last suture slipped out, just like the others. I remember how it looked, this thick red thread dangling down over the bloody sheets. I can’t forget that; when I’m threading needles now, I still think about it. Funny, how some things stick in your mind.” She inhaled, exhaled smoke. “Steve and Jim, they both just stepped back and pulled off their gloves, and they left. They didn’t say a word.
“Worthen came in and wheeled the boy’s body out. We all stood there and watched her. When the kid was gone, Toby packed up his bloody instruments and carried them off. And Reb and I were left to scrub down the room.
“It took us hours, the whole rest of the day. Neither of us said a thing; we just scrubbed the blood off the floor, the table, the walls, the light, the ceiling.”
She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “When I finally came out of the OR, there was a sunset. A nice one, like tonight’s. And the guys were putting the flag to bed.
“I was just standing there, watching them take the flag down, folding it up into that little triangle. Just another day. Business as usual.”
She shook her head. “I looked down at all that blood on my scrub dress, and I thought about the boy from Montana. How I heard his last words—they were nothing special, nothing profound, but they were his last words. His last words, and I heard them. Not his parents or his girlfriend back home or maybe even his wife, if he had one. Me. A complete stranger.
“And I thought about Tewksbury.”
She squinted as she took the last drag, then dropped the butt. “Just another day for the flag.” She stood and ground out the cigarette. “Business as usual.”
Agnes Reedy bent over and picked up the flattened filter. “Between you and me,” she said as she dropped it in her pocket, “I haven’t saluted the flag since then.”
|The Boy from Montana||3|
|One Positive Thing||37|
|Don't Mean Nothing||60|
|Monkey on Our Backs||101|
|Three Minor Love Stories||134|
|The Perils of Pappy||157|
|Hope Is the Thing with a Golf Club||171|
|This Rough Magic||195|
|What Dreams May Come||230|
Posted October 7, 2002
Susan O'Neill's stories help us better understand the experience of nurses in the Vietnam War, and, not so incidentally, of the men who populate her stories as minor characters. Readers should find this collection a pleasing fictional counterpoint to the valuable memoirs by women who served in Vietnam. O'Neill has structured the stories to take place in the three hospitals she herself served in, a suggestion that there is a rich autobiographical basis for the people and events here. These stories strike a nice balance between the pathos and humor of military service. To complement O'Neill's fiction I especially recommend In the Combat Zone, a collection edited by Kathryn Marshall, and two fuller autobiographical accounts of American women in the Viet Nam War: Home Before Mourning, by Linda Vandevanter, and A World of Hurt, by Mary Reynolds Powell. Readers interested in Vietnamese women's stories might start with Lady Borton's After Sorrow.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 2001
Michael Herr ended his classic account of Vietnam 'Dispatches' by telling us we had all been there. Many wonderful books about Vietnam followed, but many others left me thinking a negative variation of what Herr had said, ¿I¿ve already been there.¿ Then I picked up Susan O¿Neill¿s recent collection of short stories 'Don¿t Mean Nothing' and discovered there were indeed places in Vietnam where other writers had not taken me. O¿Neill¿s short stories are based on her experiences as an army operating room nurse in Vietnam, and the stories depict the ¿war¿ from a truly different point of view. 'Butch' is a touching story of a male nurse¿s aid who takes a Vietnamese boy into his life and heart. 'Prometheus Burned' is an intense tale of a nurse who comforts an injured soldier who just knows he¿s going to die. 'Monkey on Our Backs' is pure comedy about a nurse¿s efforts to rub out a bothersome pet. And there are fifteen more of what O¿Neill calls her ¿true and shameless lies¿ that made me laugh, cry and think not only about Vietnam, but about war, in a way I never have. O¿Neill¿s powerful, honest style conveyed her stories straight from her heart directly into mine, and Don¿t¿ Mean Nothing now occupies a very prominent place on the Meaning of War portion of my bookshelf. If you¿re looking for some true fiction that will take you to a place in Vietnam you¿ve never been, buy Don¿t Mean Nothing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.