Today, my son Brett would have been eighteen – knocking on the door of manhood. People say to me, “Well, at least you have another one – and with the same birthday, too.” Yes, that’s true, I do have ‘another one’ (Nick – his twin brother) and that is a balm, of sorts.
We will celebrate Nick’s birthday today, and happily. I am so proud of him I could bust, with all he’s been through in his short lifespan, including, but not limited to, losing his brother, his twin, his protector, and his best friend, at the age of six. I admire him for going on, for making the best of a bad situation: he not only lost his twin, but to some degree, his parents, too, for a few years at least, and in truth, he lost some parts of us for good, for those parts — innocence, naivete, a certain smiling belief in the basic goodness of life — are gone forever.
But I’m not going to talk about Nick here, because he has his whole life ahead of him, and besides, he would be embarrassed and mad at me, for what eighteen year-old boy wants his father to blab a bunch of stuff about him to the whole wide world?
Nope, I’m going to talk about things that have to do with Brett, the ‘goner’. Why do I use that term? Because of a patient of mine who, if he’s still alive, most assuredly doesn’t remember me at all. But more on that after a little background.
A long time ago (1972), in a galaxy far, far away (The South), I did a summer internship at the Oteen Veterans’ Administration Hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina. I have only fond memories of Asheville, though some of them are leavened, and improved, by the passage of time. Like what? Well, like the fact that in the little clapboard cottage (well, shack, actually) where we were staying, out on Old County Home Road, if you turned on the lights at night the walls were teeming with hundreds of big, fat cockroaches. And they didn’t just sit there and look at you when the lights went on – they all scrambled madly for the closest available darkness, making the walls a living Hieronymous Bosch canvas of squirming bugs.
And they invaded the kitchen, too. If we didn’t put our silverware in sealed bags, our food, everything – well, it was ‘game on’. Oh, and it didn’t stop at roaches, either: big, bullying raccoons owned the night, too, and they weren’t subtle or scared – not a whit. They would bang around in the darkness of the night kitchen, searching, angrily and with total ownership, for whatever ‘goodies’ you had, in their opinion, procured for them and them alone.
For years, my wife would laugh about how, that first night, hearing the coons scuffling around aggressively, I jumped up in bed and said, “What the hell – there’s a goddam bear in the kitchen!”
But she wasn’t laughing when, the next morning, as she went to put a tablespoon full of cereal in her mouth, a roach suddenly shot out from the underside of the spoon and made a mad dash for her Cheerios!
And Southern culture is, well, different – or at least it was, then. There was a tunnel I had to transit every day on the way to work. It’s name? Beaucatcher Tunnel. Get it? Only in the South. And there was a famous mountain (part of the Blue Ridge Mountains) that was visible from town, too, with a smaller peak next to it. Their names? Mount Pisgah, and The Rat. No, really – it’s a big deal there.
Asheville is famous for a few things: the author Thomas Wolfe was born there, and his book, Look Homeward, Angel, is set in the Asheville area. The Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, is a tourist mecca. They have a minor league baseball team, The Asheville Tourists. In the old days, the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the U.S. was established there, and it was widely believed that Asheville’s ‘salubrious’ climate was ideal for healing all manner of ailments. After the Civil War, the government began to establish what were then called “old soldiers’ homes,” to take care of the medical, and later psychiatric, needs of veterans, and one of these was the beginning of the Oteen VA Hospital (now the Charles George VA Medical Center). The hospital has lovely, large grounds and high-ceilinged buildings that give some of the feel of the old, gracious South.
I first realized that the place had a work ethic, and a pace, all its own on my first day on the job. I was gung ho, hoping to impress my superiors with my dedication to my job, my willingness to learn, and my ‘potential’. As we gathered at lunchtime in the office of the Chief of Psychology, I expected, maybe, an informal ‘in-service’ training session, or at the least a grilling on what I had done with myself all morning.
Instead, the Chief and his cohort, Bob, a friendly, older guy who had been there forever, looked at each other and said, “Okay – we’re all here. Ready.”
I looked from one to the other. “Ready for what?”
The Chief smiled indulgently at my ignorance, picked up his hat and said, “Botanical rounds, of course.”
And with that, we all trooped out to take a long, leisurely stroll through the extensive, green grounds of the hospital, which included, as I remember, picking blades of grass and attempting to whistle through them – one of the manly arts of the Southern gentleman (and if you think I’m making this up, check this out). They could name most of the flowers, trees and birds of the grounds, and aside from an occasional bit of juicy gossip about the staff, no business whatsoever was discussed on these daily perambulations. So, it turned out to be a kind of in-service after all, just not one about work. There was a courtliness – a gentility, about this custom, and these men, that I never found anywhere else I ever worked, and though I didn’t get the fast-lane, sophisticated educational apprenticeship about being a ‘working’ psychologist that I had hoped for, I ultimately ingested something far more valuable, merely by the osmosis of hanging out with these guys: namely, that, while work matters, so does Life. Don’t forget who you are; don’t forget the natural world; don’t forget your family; and don’t forget to have some fun every day.
In effect, they were telling me,
Sure, you may think we’re just backwater old-timers, piling up years until our pensions kick in, and maybe we are, but remember this, boy: you may become a big-city fancypants someday, but you’re also just an ordinary Joe, along with the rest of us, so learn to enjoy it, and you’ll be ahead of the game.
And man, were they right. I never did learn to whistle through a blade of grass, but I did learn from them a couple of other crucial ‘manly arts’: humility and the capacity for a light touch.
And then there were the patients. For some reason, I seem to remember that most of the guys I dealt with were Korean War vets – forgotten men from a forgotten war.
Two memories, of two men, stand out especially, because they involved lessons taught to a young, arrogant, would-be hotshot who thought he was slumming in Asheville for the summer.
The first one was Sonny, a small, beady-eyed, unprepossessing guy in his mid-forties. He was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and he did have a wild look in his eye, along with a Southern accent of dark molasses. On his tongue, “shit” was a four-syllable word. I was assigned to interview him, to provide a progress report. You understand, everyone was supposed to be making ‘progress’, due to the powers of our treatment plan, which, along with medication, meant group therapy, where we talked about ‘life’ issues, daily problems, and how cute the nurses were. I’m not knocking it – if I was a paranoid schizophrenic veteran in 1972, that’s what I would have wanted, too. It definitely beat sitting in a bare, one-room apartment and nursing your delusions with Camels and Southern Comfort all day.
So, as I say, I was assigned to meet with this guy and assess his ‘progress’, of which there was, to be honest, virtually none. Well, maybe the fact that he wasn’t out stabbing people or causing the police any trouble. But for Sonny, progress mostly meant keeping his inner demons at bay, rather than ‘getting better’ in the sense that a layman would think of it. In truth, he was an odd duck who unfortunately got caught up in an odd war, and it had ‘affected’ him. I remember his mental disability was rated as 80% ‘service-connected’, which meant that somebody, at some point, had determined that whatever happened in Korea had significantly degraded whatever pre-service mental stability he’d ever had. I wouldn’t know, because he wouldn’t talk about the war, or his experiences in Korea, though I asked. I let it go at that. It’s not like in the movies, where you help a guy ‘recover’ lost memories of how a sadistic platoon sergeant sent him out on night patrol for kicks, knowing the area was infested by North Koreans, and then he sobs into a pillow and screams, “I hate him! I hate him!” for an hour, and is miraculously cured.
Nope, Sonny was ‘gone’, for good, and nobody knew, really, what caused it, or ever would. My guess is that, like I said, he was a very odd guy who was probably barely making it in civilian life, and never should have been subjected to whatever things he went through in war – things that would probably have made even a normal man a bit odd for the rest of his life, but pushed this fragile guy around the bend for good.
I didn’t look forward to my assignment: the guy not only had that molasses accent that meant ‘ignorance’ to me, but a major mouth on him, too, to go along with a chip on his shoulder about everything and everybody in general. He had earned his paranoid ‘wings’ honestly: when he wasn’t being crazy, he could slash and carve with the best of ’em, and sometimes the staff almost hoped he was in his private delusions so that he wouldn’t spray around that verbal machine-gun fire and disrupt the staff and patients with his accusations. He was just crazy enough to harbor wild suspicions about everybody, but just un-crazy enough that his suspicions had the ring of truth and could really hurt.
I thought I would try and put him at ease with some small talk, establishing ‘rapport’. After he had taken his seat, I noticed him looking at a poster on the wall – of a castle. I nodded towards it. “Pretty amazing place.”
His eyes shifted from the poster to me, and back. “Oh yeah?”
I nodded. “Yeah – it’s in Austria.”
He smiled. “You mean, that place near Germany?”
Wow, this was going better than I expected. He was ‘responsive’. Actually, I had been to the castle, but I didn’t want to flaunt that in front of him, not now, when we were doing so well. I played it low-key. “Yeah – I guess Hitler stole their country for a while there, but they got it back after World War II.”
Why stop now, when I was doing so well? “I hear Walt Disney used it as the model for the castle in one of his cartoons.”
He pointed. “You mean, that castle?”
I nodded, enthusiastically.
He pounced. “You mean, Neuschwanstein?”
Paranoid schizophrenia: 1
Bernstein the Intern: 0
I scrambled to regain lost ground. “So – you were stationed in Germany?”
“Nope, never seen the place – I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Ludwig II built it as a refuge for himself. Like me, he didn’t particularly like people.” Spoken with no accent – could have been elocuted by an Oxford don.
Johnny Reb: 2
Yankee Fool: 0
Of course, you know what I was thinking at that point, but he even anticipated that.
He smiled at me, knowingly, his accent back full strength. “Yeah, yeah – if ah’m so smart, what the hail am ah doin’ heah? Well, what the hail else ah got to do? They don’t make no jobs for crazy folks, and gals don’t cotton to ’em much, neither, an’ that’s a fack.” He paused. “Ah on’y tail you this cuz ah lah’k ya.” He paused, then muttered, “Y’all done good with Bobby.”
I racked my brain, and finally made the connection. “Bobby” must have referred to a black patient the staff called Robert – who insisted on being called Robert, in fact. Some of the staff had been trying to transfer him to another unit because he was annoying and provocative to staff and other patients. I dimly remembered a heated discussion at the nurses’ desk weeks earlier, where I had pointed out that his ‘problems’ were precisely why he was here in the first place, and that to transfer him because of them ran counter to the whole purpose of our being there. Apparently Sonny had overheard the conversation, or someone else had, and passed it down the grapevine.
But two things really struck me: one, that a confirmed Southern redneck had appreciated my standing up for a black man. And two, the realization that the white patients apparently called him Bobby all along. It took me a long time, but because of this incident and others, I realized that Southerners didn’t just ‘hate’ black people, pure and simple, as I’d thought. White Southerners saw black people almost as children – hence the automatic use of the diminutive (even affectionate) ‘Bobby’, a name which Robert probably accepted as normal from them. And, they felt in a sense protective of blacks, as they would toward children. From their point of view, the real problems only came when blacks didn’t know their ‘place’, and therefore forfeited their status as protected children. Yes, I know it’s called paternalism, and like I say, it’s ugly and I don’t condone it, and it had to change, but I learned that it wasn’t as simple as pure hate, either. As someone once said, stereotypes work best from a distance. Once you get up close and personal, it’s a little more complex.
I think Sonny had used up all his energy making his ‘point’ with me. Soon after his victory over my own ‘paternalism’, he lapsed back into his psychotic delusions, and though he nodded to me, vaguely, whenever he saw me, we never really connected again.
But I’ll never forget, and will always honor, even the momentary glimpse I was afforded, into the mind of what could have been an extraordinary man.
(Coming Soon: The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers)
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.