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The story of how one man wound up fighting the Vietnam War from a Chicago hospital
Young slacker Jim Holder wants no part of the draft, the army, or Vietnam. So he registers as a conscientious objector and gets ready for alternative service. He’s assigned to work as a unit manager at a downtown Chicago medical center, worlds apart from his rural roots. A wild assortment of patients and colleagues awaits him at Metropolitan Hospital. As Jim’s life swings from the chaos of his job...
The story of how one man wound up fighting the Vietnam War from a Chicago hospital
Young slacker Jim Holder wants no part of the draft, the army, or Vietnam. So he registers as a conscientious objector and gets ready for alternative service. He’s assigned to work as a unit manager at a downtown Chicago medical center, worlds apart from his rural roots. A wild assortment of patients and colleagues awaits him at Metropolitan Hospital. As Jim’s life swings from the chaos of his job to the fervor of a revolutionary moment, he balances his beliefs with the everyday business of life and death.
In this richly comic novel, Paul Hoover crystallizes the strange days of the conflict in Vietnam with a memorable cast of characters.
YOU CAN CALL ME Holder. It's one of your basic names, like Gold, Paper, and Anxious. Most of us belong to the Church of Peace, which is German Protestant—midwestern and rural. It's a lot like the Mennonites and Amish. Wherever you see a quaint horse and buggy on a rural highway, you know there's a Church of Peace, and maybe some Holders, in the area. Most of us have given up the horse and buggy for red sports cars and pickup trucks, but you get the idea. We also refuse, absolutely, to kill anyone with a gun, or with anything else except good intentions. This is irritating to some of the neighbors, and during World War II there were some broken friendships about it. Ernest Blanding, the housing contractor, hated his good friend from high school, John Yoder, because Yoder had stayed out of the army as a conscientious objector, working in a nursing home, while Blanding had served in a submarine and seen action. They used to go bowling together and date the same girls, but now Blanding wouldn't even let his kids talk to the Yoder kids.
I wound up in the hospital, too, only not in a small town like the people of that generation. I went to Chicago, the nearest big city, since the draft board allowed you to find your own position, and who wanted to stay in Malta, Indiana, anyway, with its silos, memories, and boredom?
The draft board, Local 13 in Malta, was famous already. There had been an article about it in Life describing a young father being dragged away from his wife's hospital room while she was giving birth to their first child. He was sent off to Vietnam, and a month later he was killed. The Malta Prairie-Sun put the news of his death back on page eight, next to ads for cars. Everybody knew about Local 13. It was bad enough to get a letter from Selective Service. If the letter came from Local 13, your friends' voices would resonate with doom.
It was the summer of 1968, and I'd just graduated from college. I was working for Ernest Blanding, saving money for grad school in English, when a letter came from the draft board. Now that my student deferment was at an end, the president and my fellow citizens had chosen me to defend the country. I responded with an application for status as a conscientious objector, along with a letter requesting immediate induction into "alternative service."
Two weeks later, I got a reply from the draft board. They would not accept my application on face value. I was to appear at a hearing to prove my sincerity as a pacifist.
On the day of the hearing, I combed my hair, put on a suit and tie, and drove downtown. The clerk of the local board, Mrs. Factor, who looked like a sadistic librarian, ushered me into a conference room in back where two older men were already seated, folders open in front of them. They introduced themselves as Edwin Mulroony and Cappy Knight. I sat in a chair facing the long table. I recognized them. Mulroony owned the hardware store, and Cappy Knight the infamous Black Cat nightclub at the edge of town, where underaged drinkers were served. You could also spend time with a prostitute upstairs, if you had the right kind of money. Mrs. Factor joined them, making the third panelist.
Mulroony was apparently the chairman. Leaning over the table, face sagging like a bag of cheese, he asked the question everyone asked conscientious objectors: "What would you do if you found a man raping your sister?" Cappy Knight's face gleamed like an anvil as he waited for my answer. Mrs. Factor pursed her lips in expectation.
"Well," I said, "to begin with, I don't have a sister. I'm an only child, and my parents were very old when they had me. Secondly, most rapes are not carried out in public. So I take your question as pure speculation.
"I assume, of course, that my presence itself would be enough to send the rapist running away. This would amount to a kind of emotional jujitsu. In clear view of the rapist, I would symbolize the displeasure of society, and guilt would overcome him. Moreover, he would have no idea his victim was my sister, so the flight response would probably not be superseded by a stand-and-fight reaction. Because I'd remained calm, even the most salacious rapist would flee the scene."
I made gestures in the air, as if catching fireflies. The board looked at me with profound distaste. They had expected quotes from the Bible, Dr. Spock, and Tolstoy. But I could tell they liked the quasi-military metaphor, even if it was oriental. Most of all, they liked the pragmatism with which I perceived the situation. Morality was a matter of convenience for them, too, in running the hardware store or bar and grille. Besides that, I was a twit. These COs were always twits, using words like salacious.
"Tell me, Mr. Holder," said Mr. Mulroony, aggressively tapping his pencil on the table, "what would you do if you were confronted in an alley by a man with a knife, and there was no means of escape? Wouldn't you fight to protect your own life?" It was apparently also one of his favorite questions. He settled back in his chair and gave a knowing wink to the others.
"Mr. Mulroony," I said, "to tell you the truth, I wish harm to no living thing. It makes me sick to see an animal run over on the highway. My grandfather nearly fell from the roof of his barn when he hit his thumb with a hammer. This runs in the family. My uncle Ralph walks down the street in a zigzag, trying to avoid the ants. I don't like cherry pie because of the color. If the attacker killed me, that would be God's will. I wouldn't fight back, because that might bring harm to him. The fact is, the more passive you are, the more you are feared. Passiveness not only exudes confidence; it can also be frighteningly aggressive."
Mulroony liked the part about God. His eyebrows shot onto the top of his bald head. The others were happy with it, too. They were also Christian fatalists. It was all in God's hands, but they assumed God sided with them, like in John Wayne movies. This meant I was protected from the man with the knife—I knew about God's will and submitted to it. The bad guy lived only by his wits, so he knew nothing about surrender. That's why, in the end, he couldn't hurt me. Fatalism would protect me, and they knew it. Mrs. Factor seemed both instructed and amused.
"On a more practical basis, however," I continued, "I might be aggressively tender."
Mulroony gasped like he'd swallowed an egg. Cappy Knight looked up from the backs of his hands as if he'd just discovered their use, and Mrs. Factor's face could only be described by an ornithologist.
"Did you say 'tender'?" Cappy Knight said the word the way others say "sanitary napkin." He broke it into two awkward syllables that seemed never to have belonged together.
"Yes. As Jung once said, 'Sentimentality is a form of brutality.' I would approach the man with an excess of kindness, which, given the hateful conditions of his life up to that point, would confuse and disarm him. I would approach the offender with my arms extended, as if to embrace him."
I stood in front of the chair with arms extended, like a divinity student about to bless some macaroni.
"I would counter his violence with a caress. At first he would be suspicious, watching for concealed weapons. But when he realized I only wanted to embrace him, he would run away, fearful of such kindness."
Mulroony was bright red, either from anger or embarrassment. Cappy Knight seemed to be memorizing my face, in case I ever came into the bar. Mrs. Factor smiled like a lizard.
Mulroony's voice came from a dark cave, from about two thousand years ago.
"Mr. Holder, are you, or have you ever been ... a, a, a ... homosexual?"
"No, sir. Absolutely not!" I said, knowing that "yes" would have kept me out of the army forever. Seated again in my chair, I felt like I'd been caught in the act of reading Proust. Had I fluttered my hands while talking? Crossed my legs at the knee and checked my fingernails?
There was a rustle of papers as the three leaned to confer. Then Mulroony rose to his feet and asked me to leave the room. A week later I received a letter indicating that I was to work for two years in public service, in a civilian capacity. There was no doubt about my pacifism and no end to the board's bewilderment. They suspected I was queer, but better than that I was odd.CHAPTER 2
METROPOLITAN HOSPITAL IS LOCATED on Chicago's Gold Coast, a few blocks from Lake Michigan. It has 900 beds, 18 floors, and seen from above, looks like the letter H. Associated with a major university, it's a teaching institution for both nurses and doctors—just the sort of place where hospital melodramas are set. There would be legions of tough nurses with big hearts, eager but overworked interns, arrogant resident physicians, conniving administrators, and frightened, often victimized patients. My first interview was with Mr. Bolger, an officer in Personnel. He was impeccably preppy, wearing a blue blazer, school tie, and shiny penny loafers. This was also, more or less, how I dressed at the time; we sat there, older and younger versions of an ageless archetype. When we first shook hands, I thought we might melt into each other, like water into water. But his talk was all Texas, and he could crease your clothes with his gaze.
"Says here you need a CO job. We're always glad to have your kind," he said with comfortable ambiguity. "At least with you COs we know you'll stay around for a couple years. Believe it or not, COs also tend to make good employees."
"But let me tell you something," he said, leaning over the desk. "This is a nonunion hospital. The first word we hear of your organizing the staff, or of any political activity whatever, and we report it to the draft board. Understand?"
I nodded yes, but my eyes were narrow.
"We had this kid in the laundry room—thin white kid from Indiana, just like you, who started organizing the black employees. This we could not take."
"So you fired him?"
"Only been here a few weeks, and already he's organizing. Unbelievable!"
I assured him that he didn't have to worry about me. When he smiled, I found myself staring at his teeth, which leaned against each other like a shelf of books.
"It gets hot down there, you know."
"In the laundry. It gets to about a hundred and twenty degrees on a summer day, and there's no air conditioning or windows for ventilation, just these fans that move the hot air around so you think you're going to choke. Over in the corner, under the laundry chute, there's a pile of sheets higher than your head with shit and blood and pus all over them. The smell is just unbelievable!"
Did he want me to work in the laundry, or was this his way of issuing a friendly warning? If I didn't behave, would I find myself assigned to the shit chute? He gave me a confiding look and patted the back of my hand, which rested on the edge of his desk. It was obvious there was a reason for the organizing of employees. It was also clear that most of the workers there were black. If they had put the other CO in the laundry, would they put me there too? On the other hand, I had the right to refuse an assignment. It was up to me to find any means of employment at a certified institution, just like any citizen. The job didn't have to be demeaning, but they tried to make it so, out of patriotism. Why should the boys in Vietnam have to suffer and COs get off with easy tasks? In spite of my own beliefs, this made perfect sense. I was prepared for whatever miserable task they offered, but first I wanted to see what was available.
Bolger sent me on three interviews, none in the laundry. The first was in the Gastro-Intestinal Center, in the Radiology Department. Ahmad, a small black man in a stained lab coat, took me into a dark room containing X-ray equipment. He explained that my job would be to stay in this room eight hours a day, with an hour off for lunch and breaks, sticking tubes down people's throats. The tubes, some of which were big enough to choke a catfish, were used to introduce a radioactive dye into the stomach, which was then repeatedly X-rayed as I manipulated the tube for different effects. The main problem, he said, was that people gagged a lot and threw up on the table. Most of them were very sick in the first place, usually with cancer. I had a vision of jaundiced, skeletal patients, like survivors of Auschwitz, struggling in my grasp. In order to keep them quiet, said Ahmad, you had to strap them down. He pointed to four large leather straps that hung from one end of the table. I leaned over the table as he instructed me in their use, eyeing the gleaming grommets and hefty buckles. He stroked one of the straps with the finger and thumb of one hand.
"This is my idea," he said. "I used to work up in Psych, and ain't nobody gonna get out of 'em." There was a small flash of light near his chest, then a bright V in the air. A religious medal had fallen from his shirt as he leaned over and now it dangled in the air on its silver chain. On it was a writhing Jesus Christ, with eyes closed in an attitude of suffering. Ahmad quickly tucked it back into his shirt. His reaction left the impression the room was used for more than professional purposes. As we left the room, he looked back fondly at the table, now shiny in the hall light, the way some people eye a new car. He was completely in love with the object. Late at night, after everyone but the janitor had gone home, he probably returned to the room, strapped himself or a friend onto the table, and did those things only mirror and chrome understand.
I decided against the GI Center, as it was called. Bolger pretended he was miffed, but in the corner of his eyes there was amusement.
Next was the research wing, located on the fourth floor behind two metal doors, completely separate from the patient-care areas of the hospital. Its smell explained why. Halfway down the hall I entered an olfactory fire storm of alcohol, rubber, urine, rotting meat, dust, fur, and something like tapioca on a hot day. This experience was multiplied upon entering the research area itself. Agonized howling of many large dogs. Cages clanking and rattling. Inside one room several lemurs sat quietly in a cage, wearing helmets to which a halo of screws was attached. In another, a frog was crucified on a metal frame, all four limbs stretched to the limit. Each leg had an electrode attached, as if to measure the amount of muscle quiver. Surely somebody named Igor would step into the hallway, holding a candle.
Instead, it was Dr. Perez, a Filipino researcher with a round angelic face and a continental suaveness you see only in old movies. I had no idea how he'd gotten there; he'd simply appeared, as if he'd stepped through a wall. His handshake was smooth as smoke. Wordlessly we entered a laboratory to the left. An entire wall was filled with bloodhounds in cages, the great sad hounds of Basil Rathbone movies. The noise was monstrous and rare, but Dr. Perez silenced them with a wave of his hand.
"What do you use them for?" I asked.
"Oh, these," he said with a disdainful wave of the hand. "These are not mine. Dr. Sarnisi uses them for his heart research."
"You mean ...?"
"The heart of the bloodhound is the same size as that of man," he said. With a magisterial gesture he indicated the shelves around us. I saw for the first time that they contained pale dog hearts in solution.
I failed to mention that I'm tall and thin. When I'm not wearing a shirt, you can see the ribs rising and falling with each breath. My face is long and thin, like a dog's. I could feel my heart blowing around in my chest like a piece of tissue paper. The room began to stagger, and someone in it gave a low howl of disbelief.
It was me, but the doctor didn't seem to notice. He slipped into his office around the corner and offered me a chair. He sat on the edge of the desk, one hand in the other, like a basketball coach preparing to have a serious talk with one of his players. There was only one attempt at decoration, a large pastel drawing of a mouse, the kind people buy for their kids at Lincoln Park Zoo. It wasn't as cute as it should have been. Standing on its hind legs with sharp claws sticking out, looking as if it had just eaten something, it glared at me knowingly over Perez's shoulder.
"I see you admire my picture."
"Oh, yes. Very nice."
Excerpted from Saigon, Illinois by Paul Hoover. Copyright © 1988 Paul Hoover. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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