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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 21: A Blind Man and a Jap

Doctor Cornelius Fryback had little time or patience to spare. Of all the patients he had treated, few had suffered as much as the survivors of the China Marines, First Marine Battalion, Fourth Regiment. Most had not survived. Those who had would suffer life-long disabilities. War was hell, and Ivory Burch had served in the black heart of it. A North China Marine, he was one of more than two hundred men who sank into POW hell before war was declared on December 8, 1941, and did not surface until the Japanese Empire surrendered unconditionally on September 2, 1945.

Having suffered every single minute of the war under the most cruel and harsh conditions, Ivory crawled out of the Philippine jungle on September 3,1945. That he was alive was a miracle; that he would live doubtful. There was no space at Oak Knoll for patients considered to be beyond hope. Ivory was transferred to the Veterans’ Hospital in San Francisco.

Dr. Fryback stopped in his tracks and put on his reading glasses when he saw Ivory Burch’s name on the file. Until this moment, none of the wait-and-see patients he had consigned to the Veterans’ Hospital had returned. That it was Ivory made it even more surprising. He read the file, bemused. He smiled as he knocked then pushed open the door.

“Well, Mr. Burch,” Doctor Fryback said as he opened Ivory’s medical file, “I didn’t expect to see you back here so soon.” He looked at Ivory over the top of his spectacles. Ivory had gained little weight since he had left Oak Knoll. He appeared as frail as he had the day he had been carried off the U.S.S. Carton, and delivered to Oak Knoll, with a host of diseases and a poorly amputated leg.

Doctor Fryback cocked a bushy eyebrow and looked up curiously. “It says here that you were booted out of the Veterans’ Hospital for insubordination to a superior officer. Is this true?”

Ivory smiled. His entire body shook, a gentle death rattle, a reminder that he still had more than one foot in a grave. Yet, there was a slight twinkle in his eyes that told the doctor that Ivory wasn’t done yet, that his soul had somehow found the light of day.

Ivory looked at him intently before finally speaking, his voice a dry feeble quiver indicating that whatever had happened in the last twenty-four or so hours had depleted much of his strength, leaving him pale and exhausted.

“Superior officer?” Ivory said barely loud enough to be heard. “That’s a laugh. Mann, the administrator, is a civilian 4-F prick. If I could have, I would have kicked his civilian ass into San Francisco Bay and fed him to the sharks. Only” — he paused with a mischievous smile — “I didn’t want to give the sharks indigestion.”

The doctor laughed, astonished at Ivory’s hidden vigor. “I would have liked to see that.” He laid the file down on his desk. “We’ve had more than one report on the administrator’s callous behavior towards the patients. Perhaps in time you can enlighten us as to the true conditions over there?”

“Any time, doc, any time.” His voice sounded a little thinner.

Doctor Fryback eyed Ivory a little more seriously. “Ivory,” he said, “you were sent to the Veterans’ Hospital because there was little more we could do for you here. The physical abuse you suffered along with the myriad diseases that have wracked your body should have killed you. You never should have come out of that jungle alive, but against all odds you did.”

As if on cue the sarge appeared behind the doctor, giving Ivory a conspiratorial grin. His yellowish teeth, what there were of them, highlighting the dark abyss of his decaying face. Oh yeah, Ivory agreed with the sarge: Who said any of us survived?

“Unfortunately your mental state was as worn down as your physical condition. Unless you wanted to live, there was little we could do to keep you alive.” Doctor Fryback tapped the file with a long narrow finger. “I wrote here that you most likely would not last more then two or three weeks. Yet here you are, a dead man who is very much alive. Not in great shape, but alive. What magic bullet saved your life?”

Ivory’s stomach grumbled, as he had not eaten much since the night before. “A blind man and a Jap,” he answered as his stomach grumbled again.

“A blind man and a jap,” Fryback repeated thoughtfully.

“Yep, and a nightingale named Stella.”

“Stella Tate?” Fryback asked.

“All I know is that her name is Stella, a woman in her forties, with a heart of gold.”

“It sounds like the Stella I know, and you’re right, she is a nightingale if there ever was one.” I’ll give Stella a call, he thought. First this man needs to eat. “Are you able to keep down any solid food?”

“Yesterday I had Spam and eggs.” He wet his lips. “And toast with... a dab of butter. I couldn’t eat the Spam. It made my stomach ache,” Ivory said, his mouth watering. “Real butter. It wasn’t much bigger than a tiny old postage stamp, but damn, I haven’t tasted anything that sweet since China.”

“You remember China?” Doctor Fryback stood, turned Ivory’s wheel chair around and guided him out the door. Most of the enlisted-rank patients were in dorms, twenty-four to thirty to a room. Ivory was to receive special treatment. Now that Ivory was no longer a wait-and-see patient, Doctor Fryback would do everything possible to make sure Ivory survived. His proudest day would be the day Ivory Burch walked out of Oak Knoll on his own.

“Do we remember China?” He turned slightly to see if the sarge was still there. He was. “Yes, I remember China. It’s not easy, because back then everyone was alive, life was a grand adventure, we thought we were invincible. It’s hard to go back: the faces, so many... so many.

“Doc, China was long ago, most of what I remember happened before the war. Everything else is a blank. I remember waking up on December 8th at Camp Holcomb, in Chingwangtao. My unit was to ship out on the 10th. We were surrounded by thousands of Japs. There were not enough of us to stand and fight. I... I...” His voice faltered. The sarge limped along behind followed by more shadows of the dead. Ivory’s pallor paled as he grew silent.

Whether it was from exhaustion or the repressed memories, Doctor Fryback couldn’t tell. “Go on.”

Ivory didn’t answer. He just stared ahead in silence. After a moment he licked his lips, then whispered two words: “Real butter.”

A blind man and a Jap... huh, Doctor Fryback thought. He patted Ivory on his shoulder and steered him down a long white hospital corridor. A blind man and a Jap? Just when you think you’ve heard it all, something new always seems to manifest itself.

Proceed to Chapter 22...

Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

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