Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
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Earl Crier wakes screaming from nightmares in which his ship sinks in the Arctic in World War II. He has survived but is now blind. He takes refuge in music and in the kindness of Stella. Meanwhile, other veterans return, and their most serious wounds are not always visible.
Chapter 20: Stella’s Guilt
A tall figure of a man stepped down from the last day coach at the end of the express train from the West.
Stella looked up from her book, Miracle of the Bells, unable to concentrate. The last time she had finished a book was in 1941. The war had interrupted so many pleasures in life. For years she had no time to read; now that she had did, she couldn’t seem to get beyond the first sentence.
She was on disciplinary leave for insubordination to a hospital administrator with a Hitler complex. She was lucky to have only lost a few days’ pay. Henry had lost his job, for which she felt very much responsible; that he was Nisei made it even more difficult.
It had been her idea to allow the patients, who were able, to have a small taste of booze to brighten up the bleakness of their incarceration. Incarceration. It was suppose to be a hospital, where hope was promised, not taken away.
Mann, who rarely needed an excuse to fire someone, had used the alcohol as an excuse to fire Henry and to bully everyone else involved: staff and patients alike. The truth was that drinking was rampant throughout the hospital, especially amongst the staff. Elroy sold his cheap moonshine openly, and Mann never batted an eye, which gave her cause to question their relationship.
Having read the first line two, three, four times, she tossed the book onto a table. A dark cloud loomed over the hospital, and she sensed its cold specter. If she had any savings she would willingly turn and run, with no looking back, until she could run no further. She couldn’t, not if it meant abandoning her boys to the graft and insensitivity of men like Mann and Elroy, both the Devil’s spawn, and there was little she could do to stop them.
If only she had the courage. Courage seemed natural for guys like Earl Crier, Ivory Burch, and Henry Akita. She remembered the look on Ivory’s face when he had first opened his eyes and seen Henry, who, with great compassion, had reached out to a man who hated his very existence. “Take it easy fella, it’s only a dream,” he had said.
Dreams? Few of the men in her care had dreams, thoughts and memories that refreshed the soul; most had nightmares. Maybe it was their combined weight that made the very air in the hospital foul and foreboding. The thought chilled her as she tried to push it aside.
She got up, put a log on the fire, warmed herself as she looked out from her small cold-water flat into the chill of the evening. She was forty-four; her entire career had been spent as a nurse. Had she a choice? She was not a secretary, a teacher, or a retail clerk.
She had never married, and for that matter had given up on the idea of ever doing so. She had seen too much suffering, anger and violence to allow herself to open her heart and be loved by and to love one man. She had a calling and a vocation in caring for the broken and battered souls who had paid a horrendous price for their service to their country in a time of war.
She had been one of the first nurses when the new Veterans’ Hospital had opened in 1935. Her first patients had been Veterans’ of the First World War and the Spanish-American War. After Pearl Harbor, the facility had been closed because it was too close to Fort Miley, and possible shelling from a Japanese invasion force.
She had transferred across the bay to Oak Knoll Navy Hospital where she worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days. Oak Knoll was a major receiving hospital for the casualties in the distant war against Japan. She saw the worst of the worst and kept her emotions locked tight beneath her nurse’s cap. Oak Knoll was a place she wanted to forget, and she jumped at the chance when the Veterans’ Hospital reopened after the Japanese Empire crumbled under the intense plumes of two atomic bombs.
San Francisco was home, and she often stared across the Bay at the city’s welcoming lights. As the war raged, and the casualties mounted, she ached for her city by the Bay and her cable car bells. When the war came to a fitful end, she found a small apartment near the Veterans’ Hospital and had been hired back as senior nurse.
Now that she was home, San Francisco was more beautiful than ever. It was the Veterans’ Hospital that had changed. At Oak Knoll the casualties of war, no matter how difficult and ugly their traumas, were cared for. She soon discovered that at the Veterans’ Hospital good medical care and kindness were not on the menu of everyday fare. It had become nothing more than a storage facility for those who were too scarred and maimed to return to the outside world.
The Administrator, a perpetual bean-counter, cared little for the value of a single human being. A penny saved was more important than a man’s dignity or life. She shook her head. It was out of her hands now, everything but her sense of guilt for leaving those poor men behind. She reached for her coat and a scarf, needing some fresh air and a chance to think.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith