I’ve been here for quite a while now. So long, in fact, that the hospital administrators have had time to wear out several sets of perma-press uniforms and work their way through several more sets of shiny, but possibly inflammable, acetate threads colored deep blue in keeping with what they describe to me as the “august” nature of their calling. None of them seems to remember the date of my ascent. I am not surprised. Perma-press fabrics have a habit of wearing out the wearers long before the cloth itself shows signs of deterioration. At least, that has been the case here at Fort Juan where, as administrations have changed, administrations have changed taking their old clothes with them or dropping them off at the converted crematory that is seventy nautical yards west of the main gate. I don’t think anyone remains, except Lorenzo, who remembers my original lift off.
Things being what they are—I’m thinking, of course, about the absurd irregularity in Fort Juan’s history—I can hardly be shocked by the fact that each new hospital chief, his administrative staff, and every new nurse including the senile ones who are allowed only to hand out post cards—one and all, that is—must, upon assuming their duties, go down to records, pull my file, and try to comprehend the particulars of my case. They are shocked by what they find. I most certainly am not. But then I have had plenty of time to consider the issue.
Fort Juan may be Fort Juan now, but when I was born, it wasn’t. I don’t mean to be cryptic. You’ll find as you read through this account that I endeavor to maintain the strict objectivity expected in a third person narration. During the past fifty years, I have expended considerable time explicating the texts of Flaubert, Turgenev, and James in order to train myself not to embarrass fellow craftsmen with so much as a single subjective sentence or anything that an envious realist might call emotional diarrhea. I am fully trained, self-taught. So Fort Juan wasn’t, once. Instead, it was Fort Bayard, or very near it geographically. On 21 August 1866 (and I am told that it was a hot day), troops commanded by Lt. James M. Kerr, Company B, 125th United States Colored Infantry began constructing a new post in the heart of New Mexico’s Apache country, just a little southeast of Pinos Altos. The establishment was named Fort Bayard, a desert memorial to Brigadier General George D. Bayard, deceased hero of Fredricksburg. Pershing once served at Fort Bayard. And Pershing once collected troops there, briefly, before setting off after Pancho Villa who had made the mistake of attacking Columbus, New Mexico and killing seventeen Americans. Necessary though Pershing’s second visit may have been, it did not proceed without some quiet protests: by that time, Fort Bayard had been converted into a hospital, and several of the staff opposed the expedition on humanitarian grounds. Villa was later terminated, without benefit of Pershing, in Parral, and a suitable park has since been dedicated to his memory outside Columbus. But Fort Bayard never again became a fort, not in the true sense, not in the military sense, and by the time I was born in 1941, what had once been Fort Bayard had been turned over—hospital, laundry, and crematory—to the Veteran’s Administration which had made it into one of the largest V.A. TB hospitals in the country. Needless to say, by 1941, the place was filled to capacity. Well, there had been a lot of TB around before, during, and after World War I, so patients overflowed, and later, during World War II, about one hundred German prisoners of war showed up to do the gardening, all of them captured in North Africa, all of them guarded during the day by one National Guardsman and a nasty Doberman pinscher. When World War II ended in ’45, the Germans went home, taking, I had thought, the Doberman with them, and the TB patients either died or got well, except for those who got old and stuck around when the V.A. turned the entire establishment—hospital, laundry, and crematory—over to the State of New Mexico for use as an out-of-sight-and-mind geriatric facility. All of that took place in the early Sixties, before Vietnam.
In so far as I know, I am the only person who succumbed to, contracted, caught TB in Vietnam. There may be others, but if so, they are unknown to me. My case was very mild; in fact, I found myself completely cured by the time I left the country, and I know I’d been cured because during my discharge interview at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Da Nang, a panel of three commissioned doctors, one Captain and two Commanders, each denied me the romantic rights and prerogatives that are usually accorded victims of the disease (see Remarque, Mann, & La Sontag). My cheeks, therefore, do not exhibit a heightened color, and officially, I am not supposed to be allowed to appear sad, wistful, wan, retired from the world, free from bourgeois obligations, artistic, or anything more than normally sensitive. Furthermore, in my lost medical record, the one that disappeared along with my B-4 bag on the flight back to the States, immediately between my typhus and cholera shot certificates, there was, I know—I’ve seen it, and I had photo copies made in Da Nang which also disappeared in my B-4 bag—an official certificate of disinterest in my case signed by my attending physician, Doctor Leopold Warynski, the Hungarian refugee, naturalized American citizen, Lieutenant Commander USNR who cured me as well as the three officer panel that oversaw my medical discharge. So, I am no longer medically interesting, officially, with embossed seals over the signatures. And furthermore, as I remember it, all four doctors were delighted with my discharge conditions; they applauded my recovery, drank toasts to my robust lungs during my going away party, and declared that I was one of the healthiest, strongest, and most resilient cases they had ever known. I may have been invalided out of Hue, then, but when I left Da Nang eight months later, there wasn’t a thing in the world wrong with me; I was in perfect health.
Knowing all of this, you may well ask, “what the hell happened? What are you doing in Fort Juan?” Flaubert, James, Turgenev, Twain, Zola, Sillitoe . . . , all of them have been very specific about this. An old critic, I think, put it best: we have fiction before Flaubert and fiction after Flaubert, which in his case, we actually haven’t got, except by extended deduction. Ah, well, it’s a matter of showing off, isn’t it? Twelve sentences ago, the unnamed author tried to jerky my Thackerayian string, but I handled him the same way I handled Fort Juan’s flagpole halyard. I do my own showing and manipulate my own narration in a fashion that is strictly worked out in accordance with the best examples of realism, naturalism, verismo, and, I might add, twentieth century Italian neo-realism a la Silone e Vittorini. For example: As the big plane lifted off the wet tarmac and climbed steadily through the overcast, First Lieutenant Able B. Newman, USMC (Cafone) closed his well thumbed copy of the Serviceman’s Guide to Vietnam, unbuttoned his blouse, and fell asleep at some point between fifteen and twenty thousand feet while the great silver bird sped east across the South China Sea. Sixteen hour later the dry runway at San Francisco International shook him awake, and when he limped quietly out of customs after saying that he had nothing to declare, he was accosted by a combined unit of the permanent San Francisco Shore Patrol acting in cooperation with the Military Air Police.
“How do you do?” said Able
“Watch your language!” snapped an armed Master Sergeant.
“Show me your papers! I vant to see your papers!” hissed the officer commanding.
“Sho now,” snickered a fat Gunner’s Mate.
The officer commanding extracted a Turkish cigarette from the folds of his raincoat, inserted it into the corner of his mouth, lighted it, and blew a thin stream of smoke into Able’s eyes. “Your papers!” he snapped, clicking his heels together with a crack that made Able flinch.
“If you could just tell me,” Able said, “what kind of papers . . . .”
Before he could finish the sentence, a sharply dressed Airman stepped forward, snapped to attention, produced a chrome plated clipboard, and began barking like an automatic rifle: “SIR, Social Security Card; Birth Certificate, Armed Forces I.D. Card; Gasoline Credit Card; Service Record; Medical Record; Pay Record; Insurance Premium Receipts, life, auto, and health; Draft Registration Card; Automobile Registration; Driver’s License; General Motors Ownership Shares; Boy Scout Membership Card, Bank Statement; Enrollment in Church of Your Choice Chit; Picture of Wife, Kiddies, Station Wagon, House in Suburbs; Mom’s Apple Pie Recipe, High School Diploma; High School Football Letter or Authenticated Certificate of Award; Good Citizenship Testimonial, and Purple Heart or Vietnam Service Medal, in that order, signed, stamped, sealed, SIR!”
Able’s jaw dropped. On the wall ten feet away, he watched a cockroach devour a gnat.
Just as ve thought,” smirked the officer commanding. “You swine! You are under arrest.
Seize him, Schotsy!”
You may think I’m showing this to be amusing. Not so. I’m telling, or I was, because now I’ll begin showing again, no matter how often the unnamed narrator tugs at my string. He can tug as much as he likes because I am perfectly able to cut the string at any time I like with my U.S. Navy Issue Jackknife (Remember, the Marines are a branch). I’ll be able to do this if I like because the jackknife was not in my B-4 bag with my papers when it was lost; that jackknife was in my pocket where it needed to be.
Now, the fact is that I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I thought it all might be some sort of practical welcome home joke. After all, I’d been discharged from the Marines less than twenty-four hours before the plane touched down, so it occurred to me that my brother officers, Petrocelli, Gomez, Rajam, Schmidt, Finklemeir, and O’Leary, one or the other of my old Hue bunker buddies, might have cabled ahead and arranged this little joke as a kind of farewell present. But apparently not because the next thing I knew, I found myself in the brig, and two days after that, a civil service doctor showed up and told me they were sending me home. Where they sent me, of course, was to Fort Juan.
Fort Juan wasn’t, once. Instead, it was Fort Bayard, or very near it. I’d say the distance would be about five hundred yards from the main gate, about half a mile from the crematory, and at least a quarter of a mile south of the geriatric collection tank. A quarter mile, at least.
“Welcome to Fort Bayard,” said the hospital chief upon my arrival. “We’re all so sorry about your condition.”
“What are you talking about?” said Able. “You know very well that this isn’t Fort Bayard. Fort Bayard is over there.” Able pointed north. “This is a greenhouse.”
“Slumber Ward and Rehabilitation Station,” corrected the chief.
“You can call it whatever you like,” said Able. “I was born right over the hill in Santa Rita less than twenty-seven years ago, and I can tell you, I know Fort Bayard when I see Fort Bayard. This isn’t Fort Bayard.”
“Nonsense,” laughed the chief. “We know you were born in Santa Rita less than twenty-seven years ago. There’s no way you’re going to fool us on that point. As you can see for yourself, we are right here, as we’ve always been, carrying on the admirable traditions established by Kerr, Bayard, and Pershing.”
“Is that why you have barbed wire all around this place and a sign on the gate that says ‘Fort Juan?’”
The chief laughed. “Oh, that,” he chuckled, “that is a token of our esteem for the Mexican American Organization for the Improvement of Relations with the United States Government. The barbed wire is merely a figment of your imagination, brought on, probably, by your condition.”
“Tertiary post-Tubercular Melancholia.”
“Oh, for crying out loud! And I suppose that’s what ripped the hell out of my blouse on the way through the gate into this place?”
“I think we’d better take your temperature, Lieutenant Newman. If I’m not mistaken, you seem to be getting worse.”
For the past fifty years, then, my conversations with the chief—with the chiefs, I should say (the present one is the sixth who has tried to cure me)–my conversations with the chiefs have rarely gone beyond the diagnostic stage. Each one, the second two after initial periods of observation, has diagnosed my case as severe Tertiary post-Tubercular Melancholia, self-induced, brought on by a genuine lack of guilt about my inability to produce my papers and aggravated by a continuing failure to be able to associate the words Vietnam and mea culpa in the same sentence. The staff here swears on a stack of Bibles (they call it their mission before God), that before I can make progress, I am going to have to be able to combine those words, mea and culpa in a simple, declarative sentence, and produce my papers. I know very well that I had my papers when I left Vietnam; they were all in my B-4 bag, all that is with the exception of the item designated PICTURE of Wife, Kiddies, Station Wagon, House in the Suburbs, and Mom’s Apple Pie Recipe which Mom never made and the rest of which I never had to have a picture of. But all the rest of it, my Boy Scout Membership Card and so on, all of that was lost in my B-4 bag somewhere between Da Nang and the States. A cargo hatch on the airplane may have fallen open, and I can only assume that the other passengers lost their B-4 bags at the same time, but none of those men seems to have shown up at Fort Juan. As far as the words go, I have been able to make some progress; that is, I’ve mastered the ability to pronounce tua and culpa in the same sentence, but mea continues to defy articulation. The letter m eludes me; it keeps sticking to the back of my throat like a dried gob of snot.
Perhaps I shouldn’t fault the staff; they’ve given me plenty of treatment since the day I arrived. The first chief, the one who met me at the main gate, watched me rip my sleeve on the barbed wire, and wrote out the original diagnosis . . . , that chief forced me to undergo a series of injections that went on for the better part of four years. I can’t say they really helped. In fact, the whole business finally drove me up the flagpole. The second chief tried a more relaxed approach, left me alone, and waited for me to “come around on my own.” I didn’t. I mean, how can I? It’s not my fault that they lost my B-4 bag, and it is not my fault that my tongue has become twisted so that I can’t say the things that they want me to say. I’m just as surprised as the various chiefs that I’ve had no trouble pronouncing complicated words like “pacification” and “strategic hamlet,” but mea and culpa won’t come out together, and when I left Da Nang, I had that B-4 bag carefully packed, every single paper required in its own special pocket. When the second and third chiefs refused to let me go home, I went up the flagpole again, and they were replaced, and so it has gone ever since.
The present chief tried a new approach—what else could be left? I mean, I can be that forgiving; I don’t have a thing against him personally.
“Obviously it’s a matter of mind and eye coordination,” he explained
“You think that might be it, then?” said Able.
“No question about it. Treatment may be a little uncomfortable, but you’ll get the hang of it. Had a case or two similar to yours after a couple of men returned from Fallujah.”
“They’re cured now?”
“We still have to refine the technique a little more.”
“Are they coming to Fort Juan?”
“Bayard. This is Fort Bayard!”
“Sure. I mean, I’ve been here for fifty years now, and in all that time, I’ve never seen another patient here.”
“They’re in Fort Winchnewski.”
The treatment consisted of strapping me in a chromium wheelchair for three hours each morning, rain or shine, while Nurse Cavanaugh went outside and ran a variety of colored pennants up and down the flagpole. Nurse Cavanaugh is a succulent plum, but that is part of the treatment—as the colored pennants go up the flagpole, I am, or was, supposed to tear my eyes away from Nurse Cavanaugh’s precious thirty-eights and follow the pennants to the top of the flagpole. The chief clearly explained that in time, I would develop an ability to keep one eye locked on Nurse Cavanaugh’s generous frontage while the other followed the pennants up and down the flagpole. What this did, of course, was give me severe headaches generated by intense overexertion of the optic nerve. After three days, I extracted my government issue jackknife, cut the straps to my wheelchair, and ascended the flagpole. Once I reached the cross tree where I could sit down, I made short work of the halyard, and the colored pennants—red, white, and blue—fluttered to the earth draping themselves softly about Nurse Cavanaugh’s breasts.
That all happened about three months ago. Since then, the chief has tried several times to coax me down to the ground, but I’m having none of that; I’m here for good. Twice, the chief thought he would have the halyard re-threaded so that I might go on with my treatments right here from the top of the flagpole. I was supposed to sit up here and look down on Nurse Cavanaugh, experiencing thereby a Gestalt effect as the pennants came up and went down, but I refused to thread the halyard through its pulley, and when an orderly climbed up to do the job himself, I stepped on his fingers.
You may wonder how I am able to do all of this from the top of a flagpole, and I admit that it may trouble the imagination; launching into the unknown always does, but one does what one can. It’s not so bad, really. I have a hanging sleeping bag which is comfortable and can even sleep two. Lorenzo, the Fort gardener, keeps me supplied with fast food combinations and chilled bottles of Mouton Cadet, so I am seldom hungry. And I am in the process of installing a second sheet of plywood, three quarter inch, around the cross tree so that I can begin doing pushups and situps in order to break the monotony of interminable pullups. Across the compound, I can see the chief in his office; he looks out at me from time to time, and I have no doubt that he is still trying to refine the treatment technique that brought him here.
For my part, I have decided to continue immersing myself in the craft of social realism. Given the right conditions, I may even start a little magazine: The Fort Juan Review? The Monday Review of Juan? Quarterly Juan? I’m not yet fully decided on a name, but it will give me something constructive to do, and who knows, it may even make money. If it does, I will then be able to complete the structure that I am building, invite Nurse Cavanaugh to join me for intimate suppers, and possibly, start a family. After all, I may be afflicted with Tertiary post-Tubercular Melancholia, but in this pure mountain air, there is no reason whatsoever that my children should ever catch it. It all depends, I suppose, on whether I can keep that halyard cut. I keep a careful watch, of course; if anything like the Villistas ever crosses the border again, well, I certainly don’t want to shirk my duty, but I’m absolutely done with that business of running red, white, and blue up the flagpole at just anyone’s whim. In the meantime, Lorenzo has promised to let me know if the Doberman ever again shows up; I can’t be sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the pinscher is not in Germany and may be the rascal that snatched my papers.
Phillip Parotti has published three novels about The Trojan War as well as multiple short stories and essays in journals and reviews. Now retired from a long teaching career at Sam Houston State University, he resides in New Mexico where he continues to write and work as a print artist.