The large green metal doors gradually, almost reluctantly, separated. Two polite, Rubenesque nurses entered the elevator, smiled and informed my parents that “Everything would be alright.” Then, on the double, they spun my wheelchair in the direction of the noisiest ward in the veterans’ hospital.
The hallway resembled a long dark tunnel in a New York City subway. We finally turned into a gigantic room with discolored white walls, worn green tile floors and sparsely covered windows protected with ornamental iron bars. The noise in the ward quickly subsided and in the silence, seven curious men watched the two Army nurses lift my fragile frame up to the bed.
Having polio when I was 12 years old in 1949, I gradually escaped the iron lung and could even walk short distances. It was decided that I should have a muscle transplant on my right hand. The veterans hospital in East Orange, N.J., was the only available hospital that would permit the experimental operation.
The room slowly swelled with conversation. A large black man, Herb, wearing an Army shirt with one empty sleeve tucked behind his suspender, came over to the bed and asked me, “What the hell are you doing here?” Herb was a “lifetime” patient at the VA hospital. In those days they didn’t put the wounded vets out on the street to lose their dignity, starve, panhandle and become homeless. Of course, that all changed when the Republicans came into power on the back of a movie star from California.
The rest of the wounded men were curious and had questions about what I did to “earn” the right to be there. I told them my story and just knew that I would never be accepted by these hardened, bitter, brave, wounded heroes of war.
During the following three weeks, we slowly developed a bond and a friendship that usually happens in a hospital ward. Being the only kid in the place, I had the run of the hospital. The nurses wheeled me into every room on all the floors and I knew everybody by sight or by name. My favorite place was the kitchen. Every night at about 2 a.m., Herb wheeled me into the “center of gossip” where I was treated to the fresh-baked dessert of the day. Herb’s favorite lady, Bert, always made something special for the two of us.
The vets, thinking I should have life survival skills, quickly taught me to play poker, blackjack and gin rummy. The racing form was daily reading. I even had a code number to bet on the ponies with the neighborhood bookie — downstairs on the first floor of the VA hospital.
I had my surgery and after some recovery it was time to leave. The nurse wheeled me through the hospital to say my goodbyes, especially on the first floor and the kitchen. With great excitement and sadness, I returned to my ward to say farewell to my new friends. The room was empty. No one was there. Where were my friends? I felt deserted, betrayed and alone.
My parents entered the room, collected my personal belongings and slyly asked if I noticed the lumps under the blanket of my bed.
I turned down the sheet and there were get well cards, chocolate candy and a small box on my pillow with a note attached to it. The box contained the Purple Heart and the note read: “To David for his courage in the battlefield of life.”
My mother started crying. I couldn’t wait to pin the medal on my shirt, but my father gently took the medal out of my hand, reverently placed it back in the box and gave it to the nurse to be returned to its rightful owner, Herb.
He explained what the Purple Heart represents. He said that men and women are wounded and die in wars and the Purple Heart is a symbol of their sacrifice, bravery and love for our country. He said that only veterans are worthy of ever wearing a Purple Heart; it was a sign of their personal courage on the battlefield.
The elevator slowly lowered me to the ground floor where my journey had begun weeks ago. The door opened and there was a crowd of nurses and patients waiting for me. An old Army field ambulance backed up to the entrance. The olive green doors swung open and there were my roommates waiting inside.
On the trip back to New Brunswick, N.J., we talked about our good times and they all jokingly reminded me of my newfound survival skills. But as the ambulance arrived in front of my house, it became quiet. The eyes of the men started to glaze over as if they were back in the field of battle. Herb broke the silence, clutched his empty shirt sleeve with his jet black left hand and said, “I hate war.” Then, in an eternal minute, they were gone from my life forever.
Every Veterans Day and Memorial Day, with both a smile and a tear, I reflect on my childhood experience with my veteran friends. I don’t have the medal of courage, but I still have the note, and I will always remember the days when I was surrounded by seven Purple Hearts.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.