What’s With All These Crazies??? - Redneck Tale # 5
What's With All of These Crazies???
It all started because of the Selective Service, "the Draft." I was one of those draft dodgers; that is, I enlisted in the Air Force before the Army snagged me. I simply did not want to slog around the hills of Korea, fighting freezing cold and a very mean enemy at the same time. My goal was to be able to sit through the Korean War in the comfort of a gun turret in a huge B-29 bomber. You see, I was a sitter, not a slogger.
You might know it. During the days of basic training, the Air Force found out all of my secrets, such as: Gus is scared of immunization needles, he bounces when he tries to march, food disappears into him like there will be no food tomorrow, he snores and talks in his sleep so as to keep the other trainees awake all night, he forgets his serial number, doesn’t remember to say "Sir !," and Gus worked at night in a hospital while going to school. SO – we sure do know what his assignment has to be after basic training is finished. We are going to make a bedpan commando of him, that’s what.
Into the medics I went. No comfortable gun turret in which to sit. That is all that I had wanted, simply to go to fight a war sitting down.
Back in those 1951 days, you would think that the U. S. Air Force had just then started up. Actually it had separated from the Army back in 1947. Even so, the Air Force issued us oddball uniforms in 1951. I received two sets of one-piece fatigues (overalls to some folks) that were manufactured in the style of one size fits all. Most of us were fairly skinny. Therefore, whenever we wore those fatigues, it looked as though we all had a load in our pants. The "dress" uniform they provided for me to wear looked nice and warm, but I was not allowed to wear it. The shirts were blue, as were the two neckties. The "Ike Jacket" was also blue and so was the dress jacket. The wool trousers were brown, as was the overcoat. The warm socks were khaki in color, but the dress socks were black and so were the dress shoes. Mostly we had to wear short-top boots (called brogans), so they passed two pair each to all in our outfit. They were supposed to be shiny black leather, but our brogans were light tan and nubby textured. We had to use cigar lighters on them to burn the nubbies off and then use leather dye and loads of shoe polish on them to get them to shine enough to suit the sergeants. Nicely outfitted and pretty as a technicolor picture, off I was shipped to the medics for bedpan commando duty as soon as basic was done with.
Never mind what the hospital squadron commander and the first sergeant had to say to me when I reported in for duty at the medical squadron. It was of colorful language some of which was in whole sentences (inspired, no doubt, by my technicolor uniform), while at the same time, it was a bit embarrassing. It was a shock to me that they did not recognize a proper Air Force Uniform.
If basic training had taught me one thing really well, it taught me that I had landed amid a crowd of crazies. My entrance to bedpan commando duty reinforced that earlier lesson.
Understand now, I received no special training for what they wanted me to do. I was assigned to work on one of the neuropsychiatric wards, the wards where the mentally discombobulated troops are sent for both confinement and treatment of sorts. Most of the patients were basic trainees who had either been nutty when they got to the base, or they got that way under the loving tutelage of their basic training instructors. The first patient I encountered on my ward was the kid who had slept right above me in our basic training double-decker bunks. Therein lies a whole other tale, but meeting him first in my new career of bedpan commandoing on a psycho ward was rather disconcerting, to put it nicely.
After the first week, the sergeants came to respect me for not wincing when some patient decided to throw a chair at me, or when the psychiatrist actually addressed me by my first name (even though he used someone else’s first name). For good reasons such as those, the sergeants assigned me to night duty on one of the several locked wards - by myself ! We will not address all of the many amazing events to follow thereafter, save but one of them.
One of the patients had to be administered some penicillin via syringe and needle; that is, he was to get a needle of the stuff in his bottom end. Even though I explained to my sergeant that I had never given anyone a penicillin shot before, he assured me that I could learn how to do it. After saying that, he handed me the paper insert from the package that held a vial of dried penicillin powder, plus the vial itself, and another little bottle holding some sterile saline solution. "Read this. It will all become clear to you." Was my sergeant plain crazy, I ask you?
At three in the morning I awakened the guy. "Drop your pants," I told him, "and lean over your bed. You have to have a shot of penicillin." What surprised me was that he did as I had asked him to do. I thought, "Hey, this kid does not act like a crazy. What’s he doing here on the nut ward?"
Having prepared the syringeful of penicillin really perfectly (as the paper had taught), I swabbed an area of the kid’s rear with an alcohol wipe. Taking careful aim on the proper spot for rear-end injection, I popped the kid with the needle. He screamed at the top of his voice and took off running around the ward. The syringe, held captive by the embedded needle, waggled from his backside like some sort of crystalline turkey feather. He managed to wake up all of the other patients on the ward with his screaming and running. However, maybe I shared in the blame for that because I made lots of commotion myself trying to catch him.
Was I irrevocably convinced that I had truly landed in with crazies? Make a guess, I dare you.
By the time three and a half months had gone by, I was a nervous wreck myself. Had someone sneaked up behind me and dropped a little pin onto the floor, it is probable that I would have jumped and hit my head on the ceiling. Let’s just say that a reasonably effective cure for lethargy would be to spend three and a half months playing bedpan commando on a psycho ward.
The phone in the barracks rang. It was probably nine o’clock in the morning. I was asleep in my bunk, having worked all the previous night on the locked ward. I got up and answered the telephone. The call was from some clerk in the squadron orderly room. He was actually calling for me. My goodness!
"Airman Gus, would you be interested in going to X-ray school? If so, can you get over here to the orderly room in twenty minutes or so?"
Was he kidding? Twenty minutes? I was there, nicely uniformed in all blue stuff by now, in five minutes! And off to X-ray school I went – all the way from the middle of month-of-March wintertime in New York State to bright, sunshine-filled, San Antonio, Texas. It was an Army school, but what did I care? Out of the locked ward thing and into a technically challenging field; that is, I knew nothing whatsoever about what I was getting into.
Ahhhh, the trip to San Antonio. It is engraved in my memory. It occurred 57 years ago. It might as well have been just yesterday. Oh, my Glory!
Leaving the base in the middle of New York, the bus had to make its way down the highway in a blinding blizzard of snow and howling wind, Ice, snow, but psychos were now behind me, so I reasoned. Therefore I can smile, can’t I? From the bus to the first railroad train. A real piece of cake. The train ride from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri went OK. There was some almost reasonable food and a little sleep to be had on that first leg of the journey. The people I met along the way all seemed to be in possession of their faculties. There is no need here to explain all of the good thoughts that bounced from one of my ears to the other one, now, is there?
The Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) train left the station in St. Louis, heading for San Antonio. As it chugged along, leaving the huge train yard, it would travel a tiny way, stop and sit, and then go a bit more. This was repeated for hours. How strange. Maybe I was back in the land of the crazies again?
"Soon," I thought, "we’ll get some leg on and go on down the track like a train is supposed to go – like really fast."
That was not to be. The starting and stopping went on all night long. By morning’s light, we were scarcely halfway to San Antonio. Thus, we were going to be at least twelve hours late getting there. I had not slept at all because of the starting and stopping stuff, so I crawled out of the seat and straggled on up to the dining car for a wake-up cup of coffee. As I sat at the little table, the train traveled around a long curve and I could look ahead, more or less, out of the window. As far as I could see ahead, telegraph pole after telegraph pole lay down across the tracks ahead. Men with big pieces of equipment were up there clearing them away from the railroad tracks. That, it seems, was the why of the train stopping and starting all night long.
Farther along I saw a pickup truck hanging from a tree, a rowboat several hundred feet into the middle of a dry farm field just sitting there with oars still in its oarlocks, four houses sitting out in the open with one house more in the center of them not being a house any longer – just a concrete slab with a bathtub in the middle, freight cars at a railroad siding that had been lifted up and tossed through a brick freight house. There was a lot more. What insanity was all of this? I had never before seen anything at all like this.
We arrived in San Antonio about 24 hours late. The temperature was 85 degrees or so. The sun was smiling down. Birds were singing. People were scurrying around much like normal folks. There I was in my winter uniform, sweating away and feeling out of place, even though I knew that I was really in the right place. I bought a newspaper to see if there might be some reports about what had gone on with the train and with all of the other stuff, too. Sure enough, there it was. During that night a big bunch of tornadoes had descended on a wide swath of the country, from the southeastern United States all the way through to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. As I recall, about 116 or so people had lost their lives that night, and the property damage had been enormous. The damage seen by my own eyes was enormous enough for me.
Army X-ray school went OK. I learned reasonably well and I only got into several small untoward episodes in the four months during which the Army guys attempted to make something worthwhile of me, this Air Force interloper thrust into their midst. The first time I got into trouble was early in the game. There was a Red Cross blood drive underway, and I was handed a brochure explaining the need for my blood as I processed into the school – actually I processed into the huge Army base wherein the little X-ray school was doing its imaging training thing. So, after the processing was done for the day, I went on over and squeezed off a pint of my personal red stuff for the Red Cross ladies.
A Red Cross lady forced a slug of whiskey on me which I appreciated, being out of money after travelling through blizzards, tornadoes, and all the rest as I had been. The next morning I went into the X-ray school, optimistically hoping for the best. I was summoned to the school commander’s office. There, the nice Major chewed me up one side and down the other. He explained the why of that. The Red Cross had sent over a note asking him to thank me for donating some blood. He told me that X-ray students were not allowed to donate blood. After I told the Major that I did not know anything about that prohibition, he told me that the reason for it was because the X-ray students have to zap each other with a ton of radiation during their schooling, so much so that a student in a previous class had come down with aplastic anemia from so much exposure.
Ooops. I was once more back with all of those crazies. First, they yelled at me for being a decent human and donating a pint of blood to help my ailing fellow humans, and now they wanted to zap me with too much radiation. I’d probably lose my hair at least!
Just to show everyone that I was not reluctant to get right into the swing of things on that Army base, check out the story I put onto Hubpages entitled, "Redneck Recipe # 7 - 'Gus versus The Glove.'" Therein is the story of my second scrape during that stay with the Army boys. For that deal I was punished, although not officially punished. "The Glove" and his several platoon sergeant buddies got to me on the drill field the following day. They lifted me up horizontally and "The Glove" pulled hairs from my young chest, one at a time, and for each extraction, he’d ask, "Are you going to soldier now, or not?"
Guess what my answers were. Oh, did I ever soldier for that man from then on.
Finished with X-ray school, I returned to the big Air Force hospital on that base in the middle of New York State. I screwed up on the first X-ray I made there. It was of some guy's right foot. As I recall it was the foot that stunk because his other foot stayed covered with a sock and a shoe. The routine for a foot X-ray was to make a first image with the foot flat on a film holder, like the patient was stepping on it. Next, an image is made with the foot and leg tilted about 45 degrees "inward" toward the body. I tilted the guy’s foot the wrong way. The X-ray doctor had a fit. I did not say anything back, but you can count on it that I never tilted a foot the wrong way ever again. I did think the doctor was crazy, however, for he carried on like some sort of nut about something as simple as a wrong-way tilt. Here we go again, right?
Quite a few years went along, and some day I may have weeks and weeks to detail all of the nutty stuff that went on. For the moment, however, I will tell you some of the crazy stuff that attached to the closing of the huge base on which our Air Force Hospital sat. Yes, the Air Force finally agreed that our being there was completely crazy. That, alone, provided me with renewed faith that there must be at least several higher ups in the military who were not completely daft. (I really used to think that way, but you and I both know that elapsing of time tends to heal holes in folks heads.)
About a year and a half before the base closed, some butterfingers dropped a heavy object into the bowl of one of the X-ray lab’s commodes, breaking a big hole in that bowl very nicely. The boss asked that it be fixed. It was not fixed. (more on this later…)
I was kept behind at the hospital and required to sort, crate, and ship to the records center all of the thousands and thousands of X-ray image files produced at the hospital during its tenure of about six years. To do this job I was given a crew of 8 airmen to alphabetize the files and box them up for shipment. There was one problem. Four of the eight were illiterate. They did not know an A from a Z and scarcely understood why that might be of some importance. When I described the problem to our interim First Sergeant, he thoughtfully looked at me with a completely blank stare, sort of like some of the looks I used to get on the psycho ward from the nice patients housed there. Oh, boy! There really is nothing that stays the same more than change, is there?
Finally the day arrived when every single thing that could be buttoned up in the X-ray lab was buttoned up. I walked down the hall to the department’s front door, to open it, to walk through it, to turn around, to lock it shut forever, and finally to report to the commander using the words of our Lord and Savior, "It is done."
Before I could lock it up and shut it down forever, along came two civilian workers, trundling along the outer hallway with a two-wheeler on which rested a porcelain commode. They demanded entrance to the X-ray lab.
"What in the hell for?" I politely asked.
They waggled a piece of paper under my nose, after which they loudly explained that they had a work order to fix the commode with the hole in it. I did explain to the fools that the department was now closed for good and for all time, that the hospital was closed, that the entire base was closed, and that they were pluperfectly, plumb, no baloney-intended, crazy. They insisted. There were two of them. I was but one of me. They installed the new commode.
Somewhere in my vast pile of little diskettes containing beautiful color photos of that now long-closed Air Force base, the decay of time and the effects of bulldozing are clearly visible, and one can see that, what was once a 1,000-bed Air Force hospital, is now but a large plot of real estate currently owned and operated by myriads of procreating rabbits. The crazies had obviously descended on the sprawling building-filled base in force after it closed and the hospital area remains desolate, well-leveled, and empty of all but those rabbits as of today.
No matter what one does, the world knows to stick to its themes and its inherent love of crazies. Yes, the whole huge Air Force base shut down - solid. It was abrupt. It was total. It was wasteful. It was amazing – and, what to do with the airmen who had populated and attempted to operate that place? The X-ray department had almost 50 techs shooting X-ray films. When the base closed, half of them were sent to work at one hospital at a big base in Texas. Me, too. That Texas hospital X-ray lab was already fully staffed. As big as that Texas hospital was, there were not enough patients to go around to keep all of the X-ray techs busy, happy, and out of trouble. They squabbled over who was to X-ray the patients. "I get the next one." "No, I do." It was crazy.
Somehow I got out of there. By pressuring my bosses, I was allowed to take a test for a photography classification, and it came through just fine. That made me the most eligible photographer on that base for an overseas assignment. The Air Force sent me to Germany as an "Aerial Still Photographer." Talk about crazy – I did not have the slightest idea of what that job might entail.
Hey. It was fun. Now I was in the "real" Air Force. My job was to process those great big cassettes that our warbirds carry aloft full of film so as to shoot photos of militarily meaningful stuff below. Our pilots would wait for the clouds to go away and then they would take off for photo shoots usually in mid afternoon. Back they’d come, late at night. We would grab up those big film cassettes and run the many feet of film through our great big processors, then slosh the film through methanol so that it would dry in a hurry, and off to the Intelligence Shack and the sharp-eyed wonders who toiled therein. What a feeling. I had obviously left all of those crazies way behind me.
Damn! I was wrong. They were still dogging my trail. I was in the Photo Recon Squadron for only a scant three months when, out of the blue, I was kidnapped by the hospital group. They lost their X-ray guy to reassignment back to the states, and then they had found out that I was here on the base, a live, breathing X-ray troop. . Enough, right? At the end of that Germany tour I was still breathing OK, so everything must still be according to some good plan or other.
For now, this tale is going to jump over many years, many events, many joys, and many sorrows. I’ll save some for later! Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that leaving the military eventually proved to not be the remedy for crazies following after me and driving me almost to the point of craziness myself. Skipping way ahead in time, we come to this:
I very happily went to work for a small company that produced what are called radioisotope-labeled pharmaceuticals. They hired me because I needed a good job and had extensive nuclear medical technical training behind me. Good deal for me and good match for the company. I observed the way they did things with the radioactive stuff they handled. "Oh, my Glory! These people are just plain crazy!" Yes, they were obscenely nuts. Watching the way they went about doing things, I marveled that any of them were still alive.
I was there for only about a week when the president and vice president - production manager of the company quit. On their way out, they sabotaged the place. It was really bad, because they did it with radioactive stuff strewn all over the place. Had I not felt sorry for the people they left behind, I’d have quit myself. I knew that I had been right next to some severely crazy folks once again. "What is wrong with you, Gus? Can’t you tell when crazies are nearby? Maybe you need to get your own head shrunk some."
So much for all of that.
Here I am, about a month into being a denizen of that place haunted by the craziest of all crazies – writers. I am truly worried that it seems to me to be a place of peace, harmony, fellowship, happiness, erudition, industry, learning, and just plain fun.
I guess I must be crazy.
And, by the way, I have been working on this crazy computer contraption all day, my head hurts like crazy, and I don’t have time to proofread this nutty diatribe, so if it is full of errors, just chalk that up to crazy bad luck - and I’ll fix it later. (...and if you believe that, then YOU, too, must be crazy!)