This story also appears in Forks in the Road but is included here for continuity during the early years of military service.
AN ELDER AMONG US
Everyone understood that in a military hospital there would be military rules. The first directive of the day for ambulatory patients was to rise at 0630. Within the next 45 minutes they were expected to make their beds (with hospital corners, of course) tidy their bedside area, do personal hygiene, and walk to the mess hall for breakfast. Those patients whose conditions prevented that routine, or who needed more attention or were confined to bed, deserved, and received special treatment from the medical staff and other patients. Most of the patients on this adult male ward were recuperating from recent surgery and were able to walk or waiting for their surgical procedure. A few had just returned from Korea and had undergone plastic surgery to remake portions of their body that had been damaged in combat. Some were older retirees recovering from surgeries related to military service, or just repairing parts of bodies that still had some use but needed mending. One day we welcomed an elderly adult dependent. His patient number was the serial number of his son, his sponsor, who was on active duty. Here, you will know him as Mr. Snow.
Mr. Snow arrived in a civilian ambulance and entered the ward on a gurney through the rear door. He looked older than his 85 years, and he was afflicted with a plethora of ailments. None of us was surprised when he announced that he had come to the hospital to die. We reassigned patients to beds to make room for him near the nurse’s station. Within a couple of hours something unusual happened that attracted everybody’s attention. Three young GIs had taken seats at Mr. Snow’s bedside, and each took turns wiping the newcomer’s brow with a cool moist cloth. Throughout the day other privates, corporals and sergeants volunteered as “mother hens” for a stranger whose age and dignified presence encouraged their compassion.
After a few weeks of this attention and medications Mr. Snow’s strength and vigor was noticeably improved. The real test of his recovery was not some medical examination. A more precise gauge of his improvement was his understanding and appreciating the almost endless jokes shared among the patients. One doctor observed that, “If my patients are laughing and joking, they’re not crying.” At first Mr. Snow only listened, but GI’s tell jokes unlike any other group, so proximity simply drew him into the amusement circle. There is an unspoken rule that if you enjoy hearing a joke, you’re invited to tell one. Some jokes, like fine wines, actually improve with age, especially when some facts are slightly altered for contemporary understanding. One day Mr. Snow joined the narrators with a tale about a cowboy and a sharecropper. Naturally, it also involved a woman, a horse, and bad weather. The woman and horse were the only two characters whose honor escaped perdition and damnation. When the roar of laughter subsided, one nurse urged an encore as she recorded his tale on her note pad. She then gave him a hug and called him a very charming, very old, dirty old man. He was now a member of the club.
On another day Mr. Snow wanted to teach younger men a lesson. Age and illness had not extinguished his sense of timing and drama. At an appropriate time, he raised his voice and summoned me. “Private Alexander, can I have a word with you?” All eyes followed me to his bedside. He sat up and asked a question. “Young fellow when is the last time you got laid?” There was a strange silence as all eyes and ears awaited my response. I hesitated, unsure how to respond to this public inquiry. Finally, I told him the question was too personal. He quickly responded, “Ah, ha, that’s the point.” This was his forum, so he continued. “Even if you won’t tell me the last time you had a woman, do you remember her name?” Then, to avoid another long silence, he continued. “Alexander, you ought to remember the name and face of every woman who shares your bed.” He then readjusted his pillow and resumed his nap. The eldest among us had just written a prescription for the youngest.
A month later the doctor told Mr. Snow that St. Peter had gone AWOL from his post at the Pearly Gates, and since God didn’t allow trespassers in heaven, he would just have to go home and live longer. Mister Snow insisted on three conditions of departure: One: Rather than wear pajamas and robe, he would wear his best suit. Two: He would not return home in an ambulance. Three: He would walk, unassisted, out the back door where he expected his son to be waiting with the car door open. His son, being informed of the conditions, brought his clothes and shoes. We fashioned a special rack in the linen closet for his wardrobe. Although every other patient denied it, someone took Mr. Snow’s shoes and placed them under his bed – after giving them a perfect spit shine.
On the day of his discharge, other patients and staff shuffled about without much talk. We all applauded his recovery, but we also knew his absence would create an unfavorable void. His departure was scheduled between 1130 and 1300 hours – chow time. Almost everyone missed lunch that day. Two sergeants helped the frail gentleman tie his shoes, then sat with him in a scene that resembled three travelers waiting at a bus stop. Shortly before noon we heard, “Sir, your ride is here.” It came from a sentry whose voice resonated disappointment. The elderly man rose and made a brief panoramic final inspection of the ward and the assembly, then braced his back and began his slow walk to the door. As far as I know, there was no prearranged understanding among the other patients, so the spontaneous ceremony was even more touching. Each patient stood at “parade rest” in front of his own bed, and as Mr. Snow passed, each man snapped to attention and gave the old man a sharp salute. When he reached the rear entrance he turned, mustered his remaining strength, stood at attention, and returned the salutes.
That afternoon there seemed little interest in playing cribbage or pinochle, but we used a lot of Kleenex that day.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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