Hospital Ship

In the bed next to me the dead marine is begging to be carried back to the line so that he can kill a
       “just one Jap, one lousy Jap, one lousy fucking Jap. . .”
“There, there,” the nurses say and up his dose of morphine until he shuts up. If they or the docs had any balls they pump enough morphine into the guy’s bag to kill him, but they don’t have the balls. Corpsmen and medics on the line do it all the time but not here, back in civilization, with women in lipstick and men wearing glasses and toupees and Glenn Miller’s music coating the background so loud it covers up the sound of shells from the bombardment.
It’s hot. It’s like Florida. The swamp. Hunting with my old man.
“Are you loaded up?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Then don’t point that fucking thing near me. So help me if that you point that thing at me again I’ll fucking shove it up your ass.”
Gee, dad, is that you way you talk in those shiny white shoe offices on Madison Avenue? I don’t think so. They’d throw you out and blackball you from the New York Athletic Club if you came off with language like that. “I say, Marvin, can you watch your tongue, there’s a lady present.”
Ha. They don’t know you.
Or maybe they do?
Which one is the real you?
The you of the three piece suit and the Fedora talking copy for the Sunday Times or the you in the swamps with me, hunting coon and rabbit?
Why is with me you always have to play the hardass?
“Maybe we’ll catch us a panther,” I say.
“As long as a panther doesn’t catch us,” he says.
“Just one Jap, just one lousy Jap, oh Christ the. . .the pain, oh Christ the fucking pain, oh. . .”
“Nurse! Nurse! His dose has worn off!” I yell and the night nurse comes from a cupboard somewhere with lipstick smeared, hair askew, big tits being buttoned up. A royal piece of ass that one. King tail. Queen tail. And the lucky honeydipper is who, exactly? Some intel officer or doc or faggot on the General staff who wouldn’t go ashore if you paid him a million bucks.
Not a real man.
Not a marine.
“What is it, Marvin, what’s wrong?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me nurse. It’s him. He’s off again. He needs his morphine if any of us is going to get any sleep around here.”
“He’s quiet.”
“Now he is, but you wait, you wait and see.”
“Hmmm,” she says and goes.
She doesn’t give him the morphine. She’s worried about killing him. Killing him would be a mercy. He’ll never make it to Hawaii never mind Stateside. Eighty percent burns, cock burned off, eyes burned out of his fucking head. Nobody knows how it happened. Hit by one of our own? A napalm bomb from a P 38? I wouldn’t be surprised. Those flyboys can’t hit shit. They’ve killed more Marines in this war than than fucking General Tojo. Doesn’t matter how it happened. The guy’s dead. Everybody knows it. If he was my buddy I’d do it for him.
White surfaces.
Clean sheets.
“Why do you have to play such a hardass dad? Or should I call you ‘father’?”
My old man.
What a doozy.
Not content to be a Doughboy, he joins up in this war too! This is our war, pop, you had your turn.
What a hardass.
Two wars.
Two wars and a thousand dead rabbits in the Everglades.
How could I not enlist in the Marines with a pop like that.
And it had to be the fucking infantry and it had to be a working stiff on the fucking line.
That’s the only thing he would respect.
I know him.
The fat nurse.
The Spic nurse.
The thin nurse.
The navy docs in a little huddle.  “And how are we doing today, Marvin?”
“We are doing fine.”
“Gentlemen, as you can from the nature of the wound, PFC Marvin is going to have surgery on that sciatic nerve. Not here, of course, our facilities are too primitive for that.”
Am I allowed to speak? Am I allowed to know? Am I allowed to ask what happens if I don’t have the surgery on that sciatic nerve?
“Yes, Private Marvin?”
“I’m not going back to my unit?”
“Hasn’t anyone told you?”
“Told me what?”
“The war’s over for you, Marvin. You’re lucky you’re not paralyzed. You’re getting shipped out of here.”
“I don’t know. Auckland? Noumea? Don’t worry you’ll be in good hands. There’s every chance that you’ll walk again.”
And with that they move to the next bed. The dead guy who still hasn’t had the decency to die yet.
I’m out?
I’m fucking out!
I’m out of this war.
What do I feel?
How can you tell what you feel without a woman to talk to?
Do they have whores in Auckland?
But I know how I feel. I feel relieved. I feel relieved because I’m a coward. A coward who got shot in the ass and let his buddies down.
I’m here.
And they’re there. Wading through the sodden jungle and the plantations, wading through swarms of black flies and mosquitoes. Tracer lighting up the night, Jap mortars clumping up and down the line, P 38’s dropping napalm on the wrong side. . .
“Let me out of here, let me go back,” I say, but it’s not my voice. It’s a voice from a dream, from a nightmare.
“Easy now, Marvin, easy now. . . nurse if you will. . .there we go. . .yes, that’s it. That will ‘gentle his condition’ eh, Lieutenant?”
And it’s soft. And it’s beautiful.
This is the way to die. . .
An empty bed to the left of me.
The Marine Who Wouldn’t Quit, finally quit.
A morning barrage of navy shells.
There are half a dozen battleships in the fleet and they still can’t fire enough ordnance to pin down the Japs. Do they even know what they’re doing? What day is this? D Day plus ten?
Every island is the same story.
This time it’s going to be different.
We’ve learned the lessons of Guadalcanal and Tarawara. This time we’re really going to pound them. This time there won’t be a single Jap left alive when you boys march onto the beach. This time it will be a cakewalk.
And this time it’s always the same.
Death lurking in a dug out. Death hiding behind the iron sights of a Type 3 Heavy Machine Gun.
Pain in my thighs.
And my knees.
If I can’t walk again then I can’t dance and if I can’t dance how am I supposed to meet a girl?
Are there girls in Auckland?
“Nurse. Nurse! Nurse!”
“What is it, Private Marvin?”
“What happened to that kid? The burned one? What happened to him?”
“Oh, I, uh, I don’t know. . .I suppose if he’s not here. . .I could ask, I could find out. . .”
“Forget it.”
“Are you all right? Can I get you anything?”
“How about a cigarette?”
“Captain Farnsworth says that there is to be no smoking on the ward.”
“Captain Farnsworth? You made that up.”
“No,” she says and laughs. One of the pretty ones. Short. Petite, I should say. Red cheeks and blue eyes and red hair. From somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Nurse Walter.”
“What’s your name?” I insist.
“Angela,” she whispers like she’s giving me the password of the day.
“Where are you from?” I ask her.
“Tallahassee,” she says.
“No kidding. I know Tallahassee like the back of my hand. I got expelled from some of the finest schools in the panhandle.”
“Is that so?”
“It is.”
She smiles. She’s got a sweet smile.
“Would you like some ice-cream?”
“That would be swell.”
The scream of navy shells arcing towards the island.
Corsairs landing on carrier decks.
And music.
Day or night? Who knows. What does it matter? I’m outta here. I’m going to Auckland where they might fix it so I can walk again.
Two new men on the ward.
“I hate Glenn Miller.”
“They killed him you know.”
“Who did?”
“The Japs.”
“That’s bullshit.”
“His plane went down over occupied France.”
“There are no Japs in France.”
“You’d be surprised where the Japs get to. Fucking everywhere. I bet you twenty bucks, they’re on this ship. Swam out from the rock, hiding below decks, waiting. . .”
“Waiting for what?”
“Just waiting. . .They’re good at that. They waited on Saipan for us for four years and boy were they ever ready when we came.”
“I’m glad they killed him. I hate that fucking big band shit.”
We’re moving.
What day is it?
Where are we going?
No one has answers.
There’s a rumour that Jap planes have been deliberately crashing themselves into ships and carriers. But not here, surely? That Jap air force on Saipan was crushed. And the Japs can’t get out here from Rabaul. Too far. Not enough fuel to get back.
Are we safe here?
Is it cowardly to ask these questions?
No one has answers anyway.
No one knows.
And I’m leaving.
Where they have whores.
And surgeons.
And girls.
Every boot camp Marine believes that he’s going to be a hero. The morning of D Day intensifies the hope. You’re like the burned guy in the bed. Let me just kill one Jap, just one lousy Jap. . .By the end of zero hour on Day 1 everyone has had enough. Everyone has become a company chaplain, Dear God please just let me live through this. It doesn’t matter if you kill any Japs, all that matters is that you live long enough to get rotated off the line. You don’t need to survive the battle or the campaign or the war. You just need to live long to get rotated off the line. . .
Rotated off.
Or clipped off.
“Oh fuck! I’m hit!”
“Stay down!”
“I’m hit! Jesus, I’m hit.”
“I know you’re hit, stay down!”
“I gotta get over there.”
“You don’t have to do a godamn thing. Stay the fuck down, Marvin!”
“Stay the fuck down!”
Marvin stayed the fuck down.
When the line moved forward a little the corpsmen took care of him.
“Is it bad?”
“You’ll live.”
“I can’t feel anything down there. My balls. . .”
“That’s the morphine. Your balls are fine.”
Yes, we’re moving.
Steaming away from the other ships. Away from the mud and the stench of blood and gunpowder. Away from the ringing of ordnance. Away from the slaughterhouse.
Blue sky. Clouds. No planes. No bombardment. White walls. White sheets. Scrubbed surfaces. Nurses bringing you ice cream.
“When I can walk again, I’m going to show you my moves, Tallahassee. Don’t be fooled. I could cut it with the best of them.”
“We’re still talking about dancing, right?”
“I got all kinds of moves.”
“Private Marvin! Hush your mouth.”
Hush your mouth. Who do you think you are? Scarlet O’Hara?
“Where are we going anyway?”
“We have a full compliment. We’re leaving the theatre.”
A full compliment?
What day is this?
We’re moving and this ship is stuffed to the guts with wounded Marines. Did we win? Did we take the rock? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. We’re steaming east. Away from the war. What do I tell my old man?
He’ll know. He’ll look in my eye and he’ll know.
The shuddering of the engines.
Blue sea.
Blue sky.
“They call it the land of the Long White Cloud.”
“The fuck they call it that for?”
Glenn Miller.
  “We interrupt this broadcast with a special announcement. According to reports from the BBC in London, Paris has fallen to the Allied Armies. To repeat, General Eisenhower’s staff reports that Paris has fallen to. . .”
Fuck Paris. There are no Marines in Paris. Japs maybe. No Marines.
But if Paris has fallen he’ll be going home too.
And, it’ll be ok, won’t it?
Yeah. It’ll be ok.
I won’t need to say anything.
He’ll look me in the eye.
And he’ll know.
He’ll know.