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Throw a Nickel on the Grass
By Norman Phillips
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Norman Phillips
All right reserved.
On a warm June day, the morning sun streamed through the tall windows of a room in the Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston. Col. Rick North was stretched out on a hospital bed in that room. He was bare-chested, both arms immobilized in cocoons of plaster and gauze. Yesterday, Colonel North had been delivered to the naval hospital on a stretcher after a series of long flights from his home base in Thailand. He had injured both arms and one leg after ejecting at high speed from a burning F-105 hit by a 37 mm cannon shell in Laos.
Today, at seven fifteen in the morning, the routine hospital activities were under way. Nurses, doctors, aides, and corpsmen bustled about, their voices subdued. Colonel North lay there drowsy and daydreaming. He heard the metallic clattering of a cart in the corridor. The sound evaporated his dreamy, drug-induced mood, and he scowled. The clattering got louder and then stopped. A moment later, a short Filipino corpsman with a cheerful smile walked in carrying a breakfast tray with a plate of eggs, a carafe of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a plate of toast. He put it on a table, which he swiveled across Colonel North's midriff. The colonel was hungry, and the spread looked good.
"There you are, sir. Scrambled eggs with bacon, juice, and coffee." The corpsman turned and started to walk away, but then he paused, looked over his shoulder, and said, "Let me know if you need anything else, sir."
He was gone before Colonel North even smelled the coffee. He lay there seething while the eggs, toast, and coffee grew cold. He could have stopped the corpsman and ordered him to feed him, but his stubbornness invited a chance for confrontation. His gut roiled, and he said to himself, That stupid bastard! Can't he see I've got plaster on both my arms? I'll be damned if I ask for anything from these bastards! Jesus Christ, do these guys even know that we're fighting a war? And if a full colonel gets this kind of treatment, what in hell can the poor grunts expect? What a war! Well, it's all behind me now. I'm damned lucky to be here.
The breakfast cooled, almost matching Colonel North's glacial mood.
Things gradually quieted down around him. He again heard the clattering of a cart in the corridor, and he couldn't wait to rip into one of the staff. It wasn't like Colonel North to play the part of an ass-chewing colonel, but his frustration took over.
The cart stopped, and the smiling corpsman strode in. He paused at the colonel's bedside and looked at the breakfast tray straddled across his midriff. He frowned and then jerked his head back and grimaced like a parent whose child was holding up a bleeding finger. "Didn't you feel like eating your breakfast this morning, sir?"
"How in hell do you suppose I can eat with both of these arms in casts? Now get off your dead ass and get me a hot breakfast! And you stay here and feed it to me this time!"
The corpsman looked startled; wide-eyed, he snapped to attention, and, in a flash, lifted the breakfast tray and stepped back. His expression looked as if he'd been caught stealing apples. "Yes, sir! I'll be back in a jiffy, sir!" He scurried out of the room and brushed past a nurse coming in, carrying a clipboard. When she heard the cart skittering wildly down the hallway, she paused and looked at it speeding down the corridor. She turned back and walked toward Colonel North, shaking her head back and forth, a big grin on her face.
"What'd you do, Colonel? Bite him?"
Colonel North stared out the window. He scowled and turned to the nurse. She wore the gold leaf of a lieutenant commander and was the head nurse. He looked her up and down and, through tight lips, said, "Commander, what does it take to get out of here and back to the air force?"
"You have to be able to walk to the hospital executive office and have your clearance signed, sir."
She was trying hard to conceal a smirk; her lips didn't seem to be able to decide what they should do. Her expression told Colonel North that nurses of her rank didn't like to be challenged by patients.
"Well, Commander, you get me the damned paperwork, and I'll do it!"
She frowned at him, raised her eyebrows, lifted her head, and pushed her jaw forward. A smug, skeptical look grew on her face, and she said, "Yes, sir!"
She about-faced and left the room, saying to herself, Phew! That is one pissed-off colonel!
Colonel North was still an air force colonel even though he had been ripped out of that role when he became a hospital patient. Stripped of his duties and responsibilities, he was no longer a commanding fighter pilot. That life screeched to a halt. He had thrived in the fast-moving military life and always looked forward, but now what? Tranquilized by the ministrations of his keepers, his mind was free to wander and to wonder. How did he come to be where he was? He began to look back and then further back.
He rifled through his military career—all the things he did and places he'd been. Memorable faces popped to the top. He relived the joy he felt when he commanded the Twenty-Second Fighter Squadron—World War II with the thrills of combat flying scrolled by, and he remembered an earlier time, bursting with pride when he got his silver wings and became a commissioned officer. The only thing he wanted then was to stick with it and keep reaching out for those brass rings that flashed by, offering a never-ending ride on that flying merry-go-round. He was an air force officer, a combat-seasoned fighter pilot, nothing more. There was no room in that life for doubt, confusion, or failure. But that whirling carousel stopped when he was blown out of the sky, and for the first time, he began to think about life's complexities.
He looked back at the image of the self he knew. Why was discomfort oozing into his identity? Could it be that the stigma of fear lurked in the shadows of the confident person he saw in the mirror every morning? There had to be something else.
Colonel North hadn't thought much about his beginnings, but now he remembered how eager he was to join the fight during World War II. He remembered feeling that he had to throw himself into the fray because it was the right thing to do. After the war, he served as a flying officer, doing his best and rising in rank. How did he do it, and what came before?
Now he had time to try to understand what had gone by. He thought of all the places he'd been, the things he'd done, and the women he knew. For the first time, he began to think of things he hadn't done and things that were part of him but hadn't drawn his attention.
This was a chasm that he had to cross so he could connect with his beginnings. Periodic doses of medication detached him from the present, and he slipped into dreamy states. His mind wandered to brilliant autumns in New England, to idle hours in the summer sun at the lake, and to lie on the beach talking with his pals and to look at the girls. An earlier recollection surfaced, one that he'd never thought about.
Could it have been when I was only nine or ten? But the name Margaret Downs Clark came up. It wasn't precisely clear. It had to have been before I was in the sixth grade because I moved to New York after the fifth grade, and I remember Margaret was a classmate in elementary school.
It's interesting how certain early memories stay etched into our brains. He remembered holding his hand out, palm up, and the teacher whacking it several times. That stinging punishment was for throwing snowballs at classmates during recess. He remembered the look and smell of the boys' room where he urinated against a slate wall; a trough of running water at the bottom washed the urine away, and toilets had a tank of water above and a pull chain to flush it.
He saw himself trudging up South Street to school, passing street gutters filled with burning leaves. He remembered the Thanksgiving pageant and his role as an Indian wearing a feathered, beaded headdress. It must have been around that time that Margaret and he had interacted. He still remembered how she looked—the rubber band that wound several times around a lock of her brown hair, holding it away from her face; the space between her front teeth; and her bright smile. She was an active and robust girl. He smiled to himself when he recalled the cold days at recess when they all lined up along the school's brick wall with one of them in the corner. They all pushed toward the corner, squashing the first kid until he or she couldn't stand it and would pop out and go to the end of the line. The game was called squeeze the lemon. Margaret pushed, shoved, and laughed like all the boys. It was like a flashback, but now he saw her showing him how Indians walked. It must have been when he showed up at the Thanksgiving pageant decked out in Indian garb. He heard her say, "When Indians walk, they put their toes down first like this." And she raised her knees with each slow step and planted her foot down, toes first.
She made an indelible impression on him. He remembered becoming self-conscious—conscious of who he was and who he wanted to be. Margaret sat behind him in school, and when she was looking, he pretended he was a member of a secret gang and wrote messages in code on paper tightly folded into a wad and not revealing from where or to where they came or went.
To impress her, he stood on the street in front of the school, doing semaphore signals to an invisible conspirator at the bottom of the hill. It was the first time he saw someone who awakened a desire he hadn't felt before. After he moved to New York, he often strolled by her house during summer vacations, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, but he never saw Margaret again.
He snapped out of his daydream when he heard a voice. "Got to change your sheets this morning, sir. Can I help you into your chair? I see you've been going to the bathroom on your own, so I hope you don't mind." Colonel North turned and saw the young Puerto Rican corpsman walking toward him. He was followed by a female attendant whose pert features almost assuredly originated in the Emerald Isle. Her figure wasn't the least bit constrained in the baggy, styleless hospital toggery, and her bouncy vitality drew his gaze.
"No. I can get up by myself. My balance is pretty good on my good leg."
The female glanced at him and continued talking to the corpsman, wildly changing the bed linens.
"So, Emil, you went up to Revere Beach yesterday, huh?"
"Yeah, I miss the beach. I come from Culebra, and we got nothin' but beaches all around that island."
"You told me you were from Puerto Rico." She stopped folding the sheet.
"Yeah, I know. That's 'cause no one knows where Culebra is. It's a small island close to Puerto Rico."
"Oh, so what'd you do up at Revere?"
"Wha' choo tink. I went swimming, but Jesu Christo, that water was like ice!"
She laughed, "No one goes swimming in the ocean 'till the Fourth of July!
You gotta let the water warm up."
Colonel North lost track of their conversation, but their talk about swimming opened a memory from his high school days. He recalled that day in March when he and Al Dubois skipped school and went swimming because it was the first day of spring. The river still had ice on it. Now, that was cold! he chuckled when he remembered reading the weekly Brookton News. "It was the first day of spring and Rick North and Al Dubois celebrated by going swimming."
A tight-lipped smile spread on Colonel North's face, his head went back and forth, and he thought, Yep, as usual., Al and I were out there before anyone else.
"OK, sir, your bed's all made up. Need any help, sir?"
Colonel North muttered, "No thanks. I can do it on my own."
The corpsman's eyes glanced at the casts and watched him hop nimbly on one leg and climb onto his cot. The corpsman darted to his bedside and adjusted the sheets. He looked at Colonel North; his expression became tender, and his eyes moistened. As he walked away, he looked back and said softly, "I wish you a speedy recovery, sir."
Colonel North came out of a dream, and, for a moment, didn't know where he was, and then he saw a nurse and a corpsman standing at his bedside. The nurse bent over and whispered, "We've got to draw some blood, sir, from your leg 'cause we can't get at your arms."
Colonel North recognized where he was and said, "Fine. Have at it."
The corpsman lifted the sheet and studied the colonel's ankles to find a visible vein. He then took a syringe and bent closer.
Jesus! That hurt! Colonel North thought, but he hardened his look at the technician and didn't let on to his discomfort. He couldn't shake off thinking that he was on the receiving end of some inter-service rivalry or a victim of a bad attitude that some enlisted troops had toward some officers. He had seen such officers who were nothing but martinets. Lying there, more or less, helpless brought on all kinds of thoughts. He wondered if he was getting paranoid but brushed that notion aside.
Before he was shot down, Colonel North hadn't spent much time on self-reflection. For twenty-five years, he had immersed his body and soul in the air force and had become a forward-looking, self-assured officer. He always did what was "good for the service" and rarely thought about himself. A colonel's life in the air force was a black-and-white world with no shades of gray. Failures demanded remedies, and changes had to be made. Yesterday's failures were turned into today's resolutions. Colonel North's early life wasn't like that. In it, there were no absolutes, at least not for him. Now, his inner self seemed to become more important. As the weight of duty lightened, Colonel North began to reflect more on his past and those memories softened the hard edges he had put around himself.
Just before lunch, the Puerto Rican corpsman danced into the room. He was smiling and had a paper cup in one hand. "Mornin', sir. How are you doin'? I have your codeine here. You can take them now or wait a bit if you're not hurtin' too much." He put the cup on the nightstand and poured water into another paper cup.
Rick glanced at his name tag and said, "I'm fine. Thanks, Emil."
Emil's eyes brightened when he heard his name, and his smile became wider.
"Commander Gerber says you are going to be leaving here for the air force hospital at Westover."
"Yeah, I thought I ought to get out of here and get back to the air force."
"I'll be sorry to see you leave, sir, but if that's what you want, you should get it."
Emil gently tipped the cup with the codeine pills into Colonel North's mouth and then held the cup of water to his lips so that he could wash down the pills. Gradually, the pain dissolved. He fell asleep and his dreams took off in a swirl.
Chapter TwoNew York to Brookton
Rick dreamed that he was floating over a familiar landscape. Below his wingless flight, the rolling hills of northeastern America scrolled by. He flew over a valley with a town spread on both sides of a winding river. It was a small New England mill town; its tree-lined streets were beginning to show the seasonal outburst of color. The town was quiet, and cars rolled by silently. It was during the depression years before the war; Hitler's convulsive rise to power had not yet touched its citizenry. Through the trees, three tall steeples reached up into the sky as if their Catholic priests competed to get closer to God. On Sunday, most of the town's people went to Mass in those Catholic churches. St. Agathe's was on the east side of town. French was spoken there. Polish was the language in St. Mary's, and in the center of town, at St. Patrick's, the sermons were in English. Small congregations of Protestants attended a variety of smaller churches on the north side.
Brookton was an orderly town filled with first—and second-generation immigrants. They lived in well-defined neighborhoods and worked together under a congenial umbrella that gave the town a distinctive and cohesive character.
The wind stream that had carried the youthful Rick away in his dream was like an errant dust devil that dropped him on a dark, empty road not far from this town. It was four thirty on a cool autumn morning. A half hour earlier, in that dream, Rick had alighted from one of those trucks that cruise back and forth between the cities on the east coast. The talkative driver who picked Rick up in Meridan, Connecticut, said he was a navy veteran of World War I. He drove a truck because he didn't like working for bosses, but driving a truck at night was lonely. He was a tough, streetwise man who didn't usually pick up hitchhikers, but when he saw Rick at the roadside, his fatherly instinct surfaced. He hit the brakes and stopped. He leaned across the seat to the side window and yelled, "Hop aboard, kid! Where are you heading?"
"To Brookton Mass, sir."
Rick clambered in. The driver shifted gears, and the truck cruised down the highway. He glanced sideways casually and sized up his passenger but didn't say anything. After a few miles, he grabbed a stained mug hanging on a hook attached to the dashboard. He handed it to Rick and said, "I swiped this one from a joint in New Haven last summer. Been drinking from it ever since. That metal cup on the thermos gets too damned hot. Fill 'er up for me, son." Rick picked up the battered green thermos he'd put on the floor when he climbed into the cab. He could barely hold the huge thermos. He unscrewed the metal cup, pulled out the cork, and poured the steaming coffee into the mug.
Excerpted from Throw a Nickel on the Grass by Norman Phillips Copyright © 2012 by Norman Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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