Published by Penman Review
Lines of sand blew across the helipad beside the evacuation hospital. Beyond the helipad was a wide beach and beyond that, in darkness, the South China Sea, lit with white caps and foaming surf.
Alex was the surgeon on call. Only a few weeks remained for him in Vietnam. He had orders for Fort Ord, and thought about playing golf, lounging around a calm blue swimming pool and sleeping late in the cool mornings. Dressed in faded cutoff fatigues, a Dodgers T–shirt and flip-flops, he slumped in his chair beside Becky, the nurse who was in charge of the shortwave radio. They were sitting together in a corner of the hospital’s admission ward, as they had done so many late nights. She was cute even in full fatigues and canvas boots. Her shirt’s blacked–out insignias matched the color of her hair kept carefully tucked under an army cap. They listened to the radio chatter from medical helicopters. It was midnight, cloudy and quiet except for the radio and the crashing surf.
Alex was tired, and exhausted with little remaining army discipline. Now he only shaved once a week and no longer bothered with haircuts. His time left in country was too short for the Commanding Officer to transfer him somewhere else, and after eleven months of combat surgery, he was too valuable to lose. Alex closed his eyes and scratched the whiskers on his sand–etched neck. Uninvited horrors streamed again into his mind. The explosions, the blood–covered operating rooms, the screams, the rush to stop bleeding before it wouldn’t matter anymore, and the morgue filled with plastic –covered bodies.
But then he smiled, thinking about leaving the pounding surf that blocked the noises of fighting until rockets hit nearby. Soon there would be no more windblown sand that covered hospital floors, his tent, and clothing. Even his hair and mouth filled with the damn sand that crunched when he talked. Chewing gum had become an addiction. Constant sweating, the unwashable salt–streaked clothing, his stiffened boots, the malaria medicine that caused nightmares, headaches, and often blurred his vision. All that would be left behind in a few days.
He thought about Becky, about the times they had been together the past months; how they had been able to forget the war and its dangers. He unscrewed his canteen and took a drink of water.
“How do you look so good after midnight?” He asked her.
But Becky acted like she hadn’t heard and didn’t move or look at him. “Clean up and you may have a chance,” she finally replied.
Smiling, he moved his sandaled feet off the radio table and leaned forward. “Becky, you know we could have a great life together after this. It’s just waiting for us.”
“Dream on,” she said, brushing sand off the table. Alex’s laconic laugh was then interrupted by a tense voice from a medical helicopter.
“Army Evac. We’re ten minutes out carrying soldier with unexploded ordinance in his chest. What’s your wait time?”
Surprised by the sudden loud voice, Becky gripped the microphone tightly “No waiting here for that,” she replied, her voice rising as she urgently turned to Alex.
“We’re on our way.” The pilot answered.
Alex jumped up. ”Call Ordinance Disposal!” He said, and ran back to his quarters for a helmet and flack vest. After hearing the radio exchange, the hospital’s priest, Father Callahan, his fatigues streaked with sweat, ran to the admission ward, his green prayer shawl trailing behind.
Alex heard the approaching helicopter and walked to the edge of the helipad. A jeep slid to a stop near him; ORDINANCE was painted on its front bumper. The driver, built like a pro football player, wore full armor that stopped at his knees, like an outgrown Halloween costume. He pulled a heavy cart behind him and smiled as he grasped Alex’s hand.
“You the cutter, sir?”
“No one else volunteered,” Alex replied.
“We talked with the pilot, Doc. It’s a self propelled grenade. Struck him in his chest but didn’t explode. These grenades are usually fired at tanks. A rear propeller turns as it flies through the air. When it screws in, the grenade is armed and explodes when it hits something. Somehow this guy got in the way. It could explode when it’s picked out of him. Maybe it’s a dud. Who knows?” His eyes riveted Alex. “What I want you to do, Doc, is lift it out very, very carefully. Make a big cut and don’t move the propeller. Then just hand the fucker to me. I’ll be standing behind you and I’ll put it in this lead cart and take it away.” Alex wondered if the rotating propeller had fastened itself to muscle.
The hospital‘s starched, straight-capped chief, a Colonel, now stood beside the two men and listened quietly as he stared at the light of the approaching helicopter. His polished boots reflected from nearby security lights. He resented Alex’s lack of military attire and his refusal to salute.
Alex threw his gum down and kicked it off the helipad into the sand. His mouth was very dry. The Colonel thought about the grenade. If that thing explodes, it’ll wreck the hospital. We can’t bring the soldier in for an X–ray and we can’t put him in the operating rooms. After a pause staring at the ground, he finally looked at Alex.
“You can operate in the morgue. We’ll move the bodies. Don’t worry; we’ll surround you with a wall of sandbags.”
“You mean you’ll make holes for my arms and head so I can reach the patient? “Alex said. “How thoughtful.”
“Well, damn it.” The Colonel replied.”What do you want me to do? It’s our job and you’re the one on duty, soldier.”
“Perhaps you could assist me in surgery?” Hearing that, the Colonel turned, spit on the helipad, and replied while walking away: “Don’t take the soldier to the hospital’s X–ray department. Bring the portable machine out here.”
The helicopter came straight in over the ocean at high speed, then pitched nose up and settled gently on the ground like a pat on a baby’s bottom. Father Callahan and Alex slid open the door and at first saw nothing but a mound of sandbags.
Then a voice: “For God’s sake get these off me, I can’t breathe. “ One at a time, the heavy bags were removed and the injured soldier breathed more easily; he was just a scared, unwrinkled kid like a next door neighbor who needed help. “I know I’m in big trouble,” he said to Father Callahan as they lifted him onto a wheeled stretcher. Alex cut off the soldier’s uniform to check the swollen chest, already twice normal size. A flashlight showed abraded skin and a large cut that exposed red chest wall muscle. The pulses at his wrist and neck were intact.
Father Callahan leaned over the soldier, and spoke softly. Not knowing his religion, he touched the soldier’s face, smiled, and administered last rites.
“Bring the X–ray machine.” Alex said, and then went to the morgue which smelled heavily of rot and formaldehyde. Medics were rapidly building a sandbag wall around the autopsy table. He pushed his head and his arms through the holes in the wall. His hands couldn’t touch.
“Take the wall away from where I’ll stand. “ It was better to be able to operate like he always had. Besides, either way, if the grenade blew up, he would not survive. The wall was just an administrative ruse that would look good in the Colonel’s report no matter what happened to the surgeon.
“Lay out the usual sterile instruments on a tray I can reach,” he told an operating room nurse. “Then you can leave.” The anesthetist then wondered if local anesthesia would be better. Alex replied: “No it wouldn’t, goddamn it. And keep him deep. Even a twitch could kill us both.”
The first X–ray film showed nothing; the portable machine wasn’t powerful enough. Now, just Alex, the anesthetist, and the Ordinance Expert, with his lead cart, remained in the morgue, enveloped in its putrid air. The Colonel and almost everyone else had crowded into nearby rocket shelters. Becky, her hands clasped like a priest’s, looked into the morgue from a hallway with a worried expression. Father Callahan was still outside, holding the soldier’s hand.
“Take him to the X–ray department and shoot an overexposed film,” Alex said, damned if he would operate without knowing exactly where the rocket was lodged. Quietly, the soldier was wheeled into the hospital .
Hurriedly, Father then came into the morgue, took a flask from his pocket, unscrewed the cap and filled it with Irish Mist. “Have a sip of this,” he said to Alex. “It will steady your hand.” Alex emptied it in a single swallow. It burned all the way down, but somehow made it easier to breathe.
After the second X–ray, he and Father Callahan wheeled the soldier into the morgue and gently slid him onto the autopsy table. The anesthetist started a flow of oxygen and Alex painted the swollen, reddened chest with iodine. Father Callahan, hands held in prayer, now stood close to the soldier, inside what remained of the sandbag wall, and Alex tied on a sterile gown.
“The X–ray, the X–ray, where the hell is it?” Alex yelled. Still wet from its development, a medic hurriedly brought the film into the room. Alex held it up to an overhead light. The exposure was good. No ribs were broken, the heart looked normal, and the lungs were inflated. The chest wall muscles were damaged and contained a few metal fragments. There was no grenade. Alex examined the patient’s chest again, this time pressing deeply, feeling nothing but swollen muscle.
It must have bounced off his flack vest! He leaned to the soldier who was still awake, and whispered: “Good news, son, there isn’t any grenade. Just some swelling and a large cut of the skin. We’ll sew it up and pack your shoulder in ice. You’ll be fine.” The soldier smiled like a convict pardoned from the electric chair and uncrossed his fingers. The Ordinance Expert, looking disappointed, closed the cover of his lead box.
Alex stepped back and looked up at the morgue light. “Lucky son of a bitch,” he murmured, thinking of no one in particular.