Tuesday, August 22, 2006

T'was a Texan Who Saved Prince Rainier's Castle

Here's one of my favorite friends--who just happens to be the prettiest paint pony I know. I go talk to her every chance I get. She belongs to the daughter of one of my patients. She's looking a little peeved at me on this occasion because I forgot to bring her some pears. Sigh....some days I get so busy that I forget to feed myself, much less my friends. But I think she's going to forgive me because I told her that she's waaay prettier than the any of the paints at the Rodeo Star's place--she makes them look positively drab. (Yes, she's a little on the vain side, if you want to know the truth.) There's a lot of talk lately about the new movie "World Trade Center". I have not seen it. And I also noticed that there's lots of programs about "September 11" running on the television this week. And then, sigh...there's also the daily news programs which continue to give play-by-play accounts of the various wars that are ongoing. War, war, war... It seems like all the world is at war. I have my own sadness about the wars and unrest in the world--and about September 11. I keep it to myself usually, but sometimes that sadness is re-awakened by a chance experience in my daily work. It has happened several times this week, as a matter of fact, because I have several patients who used to be soldiers. They were soldiers in another, earlier, war.... World War II. And their stories cannot be ignored. They were young boys then. Ages 16 to 20. Two of them were Air Force fighter pilots. One of them was a "covert" military pilot. One of them was in the Army infantry. All of them were severely injured during the war--but they lived to return home and tell the tale. Whenever I see patients such as these I am filled with gratitude. I am so very grateful that they fought the terrible war which saved our country from foreign invaders. I am grateful that they made the sacrifices they made--so that my family could live and thrive, without fear, in the country of my birth. I firmly believe that it is because of the soldiers of World War II that I have the things I have today. And let me tell you, I have so much to be grateful for. Because I am free. I am free to work where I please. I am free to contribute to causes I approve of-- and I am conversely free to disagree with causes I don't approve of. I am also free to worship where I please. And my country treats me pretty well. They gave me a lot of free education. And when a company I worked for once went bankrupt--they gave me unemployment money for awhile. These days my country provides me good roads to be a Road Nurse on. (Although I do wish they'd tell all the road-hog truckers that it's MY road just as much as it's their road....) I am so grateful to the elderly soldiers of World War II that I consider it a supreme privilege to be their nurse. I want to do anything I can to repay them for their service. It is my duty. And I also seize the opportunity to hear their stories. I love to hear their remembrances. Where others may see an old person who is feeble and slow, I see someone who once wore a uniform--someone who was once young and proud-- someone who fought furiously for his Texas. A person who risked his very life on the battlefield yet beat the odds and survived, coming home battered and injured with war stories to tell his grandchildren. When I have a chance to hear a war story, I will plop down into the nearest seat and put aside my nursing bag for awhile. I will sit before an old soldier and ask: "Tell me about The War..." And so they tell me. One of my patients lied about his age. He joined the Army Infantry when he was 16 years old. He went to war as a child. "We were all very patriotic in those days," he explains. He fought in the war for two years until he was wounded by enemy gunfire. He got shot up in both his feet during the Battle of the Bulge. His injuries were so extensive that he was sent home to the United States, where his feet were never the same. He walked again but with a limp. And now, in his old age, his damaged feet are curled and twisted into near-useless arthritic stumps, and he must use a walker to hobble around as best as he can. But he won two--not one, but two--Purple Hearts for his bravery during his two years of battle. As a teenager. I asked him one day if he ever thinks about the war and he admitted to me that he's had pretty bad flashbacks ever since then. He has endured 60 years of repetitive nightmares which still cause him to jump out of his bed screaming in the middle of the night. It's always the same dream, he told me. He dreams that he's in a foxhole--and an enemy soldier jumps into the foxhole to kill him with a bayonet. I asked him: "Is this just a dream or did it really happen?" He answered: "It really happened--but one of my buddies killed the guy before he could skewer me." I then asked: "How many of you and your friends made it back to the United States alive?" He paused a minute before replying slowly: "About half of us...." I have another patient who was a fighter pilot in The War. He was injured once when the Germans sabotaged their planes. He said they didn't realize that the Germans had sneaked onto their airfield during the night to do the damage. The next day, when all the pilots took took off in those planes, several of them promptly crashed. "I was about 100 feet off the ground when my airplane lost power," he told me. "And I crashed right into the ground. I was burned all over my neck and face, and had a lot of broken bones." He was in the hospital for 7 months, where they patched him up and healed his burns. Then he was given another fighter airplane and sent back to do air battle for the remainder of the war. His face still shows the burn scars. I have another old soldier patient who'd also been a fighter pilot in the war. He had been stationed on an aircraft carrier ship. He told me harrowing tales of having to take off and land on that ship while at sea--which was extremely difficult to do. He said they used a big catapult to fling the airplanes off the side of the ship. "I tell you what, Nurse," he told me. "They'd sling-shot us off that ship like Davy and Goliath! But even then some of the planes still couldn't get up enough speed to take off--so those planes ended up getting slung right off the side of the ship and into the ocean!" "Did you ever get shot at?" I asked him. "Sure I did!" he replied. "I got shot at all the time. I'd return to the ship with bullet holes all over my plane. But I always brought that damn plane back...yes, I always brought it back..." We left unsaid the fact that not every flier had been lucky enough to stay alive and bring his plane back... One gentleman patient I see is in his 80's. His wife has Alzheimer's disease and no longer recognizes anybody in her family. She must be tied to her bed at night so that she will not jump out of bed and fall down, injuring herself in her confusion. She is agitated most of the time and is constantly asking: "What am I supposed to do?" My company takes care of her as well as her husband. They live on a small cattle ranch in the town my father was born in, a tiny farming hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Yesterday I sat and talked with the husband. He was sitting in his recliner, a handmade quilt covering his lap, his wife sitting quietly nearby in her wheelchair. His daughter had brought us some ice tea. Speaking of tea, here's a pic of one of my fringed cotton "tea-cloths" that I knit, a-la-EZ Zimmerman's method for knitting in the square (or round), adding little touches of eyelets and other yarn-over variations just for fun. (Notice that I do it "on the fly", which means that I don't count where I put things on every round--I just eyeball it and throw them in. (But then, I always was an undisciplined soul....) (And I will say here that I DEFY anybody to come to one of my tea-parties and be so impolite as to point out that my tea-cloths' eyelets are not placed "exactly" correct....) Where was I? Oh yes, I was visiting my old soldier patient and his wife. Anyway, as is my custom whenever I go to the town that my father was born in, I asked my patient if he ever knew my father. My father had lived in the town as a young boy but had left when his father moved the family to Houston to start buying gas stations. "Yep, I think I knew him in school," he replied. "Your family is Scotch-Irish descent just like we are. I'll show you our family crest. And you must bring us your own family's crest the next time you visit." I promised to bring the family crest, of which I am now the custodian. (I did not tell him that I have often heartily wished that I took more after the stable Scotch-Irish side of the family --rather than the wild and unfettered nature I have always displayed. Which may perhaps be the Cherokee Indian thread of the family-- or else some other hot-blooded nationality which was sprinkled into my family's gene pool at some point in the past...) (Did I tell you that one of my ancestors was a Pony Express rider? The Love of The Road must be in my blood.....) Anyhoo, I then asked my inevitable question, "What happened in The War?" And when he obliged me with a story I sat back contented and enthralled, as he told me a frightening--yet hilarious--tale of one of his "war adventures". "Well, Nurse," he began, "There I was in The War. And one time me and my co-pilot, Pie, were flying a covert mission over the Mediterranean. We were right in that area where the tip of France is across the water from Northern Africa." "Really?" I asked. "What were you doing there?" "Can't tell ya," he replied with a twinkle in his eye. "If I told ya--I'd have to kill ya!" "And he's not kidding," his daughter piped up. She was sitting at her computer, looking up the weather to see if we were going to get a much-needed rain. I laughed and he went on with his story. "I called my co-pilot 'Pie' because he could play the pi-aner. Yankees all seem to be able to play the pi-aner. Anyway, so there we were, me and Pie, flying towards France, trying to make it back to our rendezvous point. But we'd been hit by enemy fire--and something was going wrong with the plane. I was frantically fiddling with the controls, looking all around trying to see what was wrong-- and I was horrified to figure out that the enemy fire had hit something that caused us to have a fuel leak. And that fuel was leakin' so fast that I knew we didn't have much time! I knew that we'd most likely blow up in any minute. So I yelled at Pie that we had to GIT OUTA there as fast as we could!" "Heavenly mercies!" I cried, gripping my ice tea glass. "What did you do?" "I put on my parachute and told Pie to git his'n on. But Pie had always been chicken. That dang idiot was too scared to jump! He'd always been rather puny anyway--he's not from Texas, you see." "Go on--what did you do?" I asked him, sitting a little closer to the edge of my seat. "Well, the problem was, I knew that before we could jump I had to steer the plane towards a different direction--because the unfortunate fact was that we were flying straight towards Prince Rainier's castle just off the coast of Monaco! You know--that fancy schmancy place where all the rich people go to gamble. Anyway, we were headed directly towards that castle--in fact we were already in sight of it--and I just knew that I couldn't let that damn plane blow up right on top of that purty thing. An explosion like that would have just plumb destroyed the whole place. Can you just imagine what kind of damage would happen if an American military plane blew up smack on top of the castle? I didn't figure Prince Rainier would be too appreciative of that, if ya know what I mean." "Goooo-oood night!" I exclaimed. "Whatever did you do?" He paused, took a sip of ice tea, and continued. "I yelled again at Pie to git his damn parachute on. He was still sitting there in the co-pilot seat, staring at me all petrified, with his eyes so wide that he looked like a gigged frog! I got my chute on and then I turned the plane, aiming it t'other way around so that it would fly back out over the water, away from the castle. And then I told Pie: 'Pie, you idgit! Put yer eyeballs back into yer head and get your dadblame parachute on. I'm gonna jump out of this damn plane--and you had better foller me if you don't want to blow up!' But Pie kept whining at me that he thought maybe the plane wasn't going to blow up. But I kept on tellin' him he was a durn fool if he didn't jump. So finally I just opened the port behind the flight deck and jumped out! We were flying so fast that when I jumped it knocked me for a loop--and that's why my back hasn't been so good ever since then." "You jumped?" I asked breathlessly, "Were you scared?" "Shoot, no, child!" he replied, "I wanted to git the hell outta there. I just yelled 'GERONIMO'! and out I went! I landed in the water." "Gooolleee-gee!" I cried in admiration. "So what happened to Pie? Did he ever jump?" "Oh yeah, he jumped," he replied. "Bless his yellow-belly heart but he jumped out right after me, he did. And then that damn plane blew up, sure eee-nuff, not three seconds later." "Git outta town!" I exclaimed, wide-eyed. "The plane really blew up? Were you guys alright? And how long did it take for somebody to come rescue you?" He took another sip of tea and continued. "Yep, that plane blew up to smithereens, and all the burning pieces fell into the Mediterranean. It rained fire for the longest time. And yes, Pie and me were okay. I'd radio'd our position before I jumped. And so some of our forces in Morocco ended up coming to fish us out of the drink. We only had to wait about 3 hours." "So you saved Prince Rainier's castle!" I laughed. "And you saved stupid ole Pie, too!" He laughed again and replied: "Yep--that chicken hearted Pie jumped outa that plane. And he actually yelled 'GERONIMO!' when he did, which sure suprised me, him being a Yankee and all. I figured Yankees would yell something ridiculous like 'COCKTAIL MARTINI!' or something. And what's more, my captain told me a few days later that Prince Rainier said he was 'extremely grateful' that we'd aimed the plane to fly towards another direction for it to blow up at instead of letting it destroy his family's home. And you know, I don't think he had any cattle over at his place--I guess royal princes are rich enough to buy all the steak they want!" We all sat laughing about this story and I continued my nursing visit for both him and his wife. I also had a good chat with his daughter, who walked me out to the Jeep when I left. She talked with me about how hard a decision it had been to move in with her parents and take care of them. She showed me her hibiscus plants and a potted lemon tree with 7 lemons growing on it. As much as I loved his entertaining story, I knew that it really wasn't very funny, truthfully. I knew that he'd been a scared 20 year old kid, making life-and-death decisions in the Great War. I also knew that he'd been seriously injured in that incident--because his back had been pretty well racked up by that jump. He'd had endured back problems for the rest of his life and lives in the daily agony of chronic back pain to this day. But no matter how many times a nurse ever asks him if he's experiencing back pain, he will never admit it. And he won't take any pain medicine. I love my old soldiers. They are my heroes.

"Where have all the good men gone,

And where are all the gods?

Where's the street-wise Hercules

To fight the rising odds?

Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

Late at night I toss and turn and dream of what I need,

I need a hero......"

(Bonnie Tyler, "Holding Out For A Hero")

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Anonymous said...

Funny how vivid the memories are that we had while young...as in young men at war. I remember reading one time that our entire adult life was spend dealing with the experiences of our youth. You are a good soul to listen to these tales...and a fortunate one. To hear these impressions after all these years, even in a second-hand way, is to borrow another's life for a moment. That won't be a possiblity too much longer. Two winners here.

Anonymous said...

I hope you'll share more of their stories as they share them ... I love reading their stories, too, even when they're NOT funny! In a way, you share some part of their "essence" that way ...

Unknown said...

Good stories! You capture history this way. May we not forget.

czaitz said...

Wow! Thanks so much for sharing the stories! I've always felt the same way- I want to hear those stories before they're gone. And thanks for the shots of the pretty ponies!

Katherine said...

Great stories that remind me of my Father's war stories. Thanks for sharing. Also, love the photo of "your" paint. I have one in the ranch behind our house, that comes to our fence and demands apples. Paints are chatty little creatures aren't they!