The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers

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(Note: Please first read The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through the Grass)

The summer weeks drifted by in Asheville: group therapy, botanical rounds, the cockroach and raccoon wars, loving a neighbor’s puppy named Shane, doing individual therapy sessions, hopes borne out with some patients, hopes dashed with others, teaching my wife how to drive a stickshift in the Blue Ridge Mountains, claiming my gifts, accepting my limitations, crossing back and forth through Beaucatcher Tunnel, work and home, heat and humidity, summer rain, lessons, lessons, under the hot Southern sun . . .

A new patient arrived: Victor. A Vietnam vet. His diagnosis: Depression. I don’t know why, but I gravitated to him. Make no mistake – all patients are not treated the same. Not that all don’t get the benefit of everything the program has to offer, but sometimes you take a special liking to, or a special interest in, a particular one, and spend “more time than you’re getting paid for,” as a supervisor once put it, in his care and treatment. Such was the case with Victor.

He was a big, likable guy, a heavyset bear of a man with a deep, resonant voice that you noticed right away. Paul Robeson’s voice came to mind – and William Warfield, maybe Billy Eckstine, but for obvious reasons I wouldn’t have made any of those particular comparisons to Victor’s face. White guys from Mississippi don’t like that.

I scheduled some individual sessions with him, and we talked of all kinds of things: the wife he still loved (she had left him for another man while he was in ‘Nam), his lonely childhood (an only child of a drunken mother and a father who was on the road all the time), his own drunkenness and addiction to pills (he had kicked both years before, “on his own”), and most devastating of all, his loss of the guys he called ‘the only family I’ve ever known’ – the platoon that was annihilated by the Viet Cong, all but him.

Victor was the first person I ever heard say, “I wish I had died instead of them,” and really mean it. He explained, “The dead get to rest. I have to face hell for the rest of my life, because aloneness, and life without The Goners, is hell.” That’s what he called them – The Goners.

I thought about that, and thought I could understand it, a little. I had never suffered a significant loss of a person in my life, but I could see what he meant about the dead ‘getting the best of the deal’, in that their struggles were over, while the living had to go on and face life without their loved, and lost, ones.

But what about that peculiar phrase, The Goners? For some reason, I felt I needed to file that question away for later.

In the meantime, I tried to talk to him about the things he did have to live for.

What about other women?

He would shake his head sadly, and say, “For me, Joanie was the beginning and the end.”

Subject closed.

New friends?

“What’s the point? You let people matter, then you just lose them, and it’s worse than never having them in the first place.”

Subject closed.

Work?

“I’m an electrician. I do my job. I go home. What else is there to say?”

Another one bites the dust.

Finally, I mentioned his voice.

“You’ve got quite a voice. Ever done any singing?”

That got a small smile. “Singing? Sure – when I was a kid, in church. I was a soprano. Then, my voice changed.”

“It sure did.”

He really smiled, for the first time ever. “Now I’m a bass – like Daddy.” He grinned, proudly.

Hmmm – were we finally onto something? “Daddy?”

“Yeah, you know – my father.”

I smiled, “Yeah – even a Yankee knows what ‘Daddy’ means, Vic. It’s just that I never heard you talk about anyone before – anyone other than Joanie, or The Goners – with any feeling. I guess your Dad meant a lot to you.”

He pursed his lips in thought. “He meant everything to me.” He paused, his eyes moving as he searched his past. “He used to sing.”

“To you?”

“He sang all the time – in church, everywhere.” He paused, his eyes lighting up, head nodding proudly.  “He used to blow out speakers, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sure – a really powerful, deep bass can do that, you know.”

“No – I had no idea.”

He was quiet a moment. “But he also sang, special – to me.”

“How do you mean – special?”

“At night, in my room.”

“Like, bedtime songs – lullabies?”

“Not lullabies. Just anything: popular songs, hymns, gospel – you know, church.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I know gospel has something to do with church.” I paused, considering. “Would you sing for me?”

He did a double-take. “What – right here?”

“Yes – right here.”

He looked at the closed door. “Is that okay?”

I did my best Edward G. Robinson. “If they come to arrest us, I’ll take the rap, see?”

He looked down, clearing his throat. “Well, I don’t really sing anymore. It’s kinda like, when Daddy died . . .”

“The songs went with him?”

“Um hmm.”

“So, you don’t really feel entitled to do it on your own?”

“I don’t know about that – I just haven’t done it.”

“Would you do it for me? I’d be honored.”

He looked around again, like we were up to something illicit. “What do you want to hear?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know – maybe some of that hymn and gospel stuff you were talking about?”

“Like, what hymns?”

“I have no idea – I’m just a Jew-boy from California.”

That earned a rumbling laugh. He looked down and cleared his throat again. “Okay, then”

He began, timidly,

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing by the throne of God?

Now, he really gave it his all – his voice molten gold:

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

He looked at me. I nodded, “Keep going.” He continued through the verses, belting it out, body swaying, his eyes closed, and ended with,

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver,
With the melody of peace.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

By god, I almost converted, right there on the spot!

There was a knock at the door.

Victor flinched.

I said, “Yes? Come on in.”

The door opened, and two nurses poked their heads through a crack in the door, timidly, one head on top of the other. “Is everything alright in here?”

I nodded. “Everything is great in here.” I looked at Victor, then back at the nurses, asking them, “What did you think?”

The one on the bottom had her hand clapped over her mouth. They both had tears in their eyes. The one on top said, “It was just . . . just so beautiful.”

Victor looked alive for the first time since I had known him. Something had happened – it doesn’t matter what, or why, or how, only that it happened. A spark of life had been struck. Now it was my job to keep that spark alive.

I continued to meet with him, and, while he was still depressed, it seemed he had turned a corner and stepped out onto the street of life. There was only one thing I still wanted to know, and I waited till our last meeting to ask him. Maybe he’d be willing to tell me now.

“I know you don’t like to talk about the War, but could I just ask you one thing?”

He drew in a breath, hesitating. He still didn’t want to go ‘there’, but he said, “Okay – what is it?”

I had earned my one question. “Why do you call your platoon The Goners?”

He smiled. “Oh, is that all? That one’s easy.” His eyes did that moving-back-and-forth thing again, searching the blackboard of time. “When I was a kid, and my Daddy came home, which wasn’t often, he used to play soldier with me all the time. And whenever I would ‘kill’ him, he would clutch his hand to his heart, spin around, say, ‘I’m a goner’, then fall down.

“So, every time he had to leave home again, it became a regular thing that I’d say to him, ‘Guess you’re a goner, huh?’ And he’d say, ‘Yep – I’m a goner, boy.’ Somehow, it made it easier.

“So, when the guys were all killed, I just took to calling them The Goners – like, they were with Daddy, somehow.” He looked at me, but not really at me. “I guess it makes it easier.”

I nodded, and stuck out my hand. “Thank you – I appreciate it. I think I understand, now.”

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would ‘borrow’ his father, and the platoon, to make it easier for myself when Brett died.

Oh, before I get back to Brett, there’s one more thing about Asheville, and it’s in the nature of an ‘amends’. While we lived in Asheville, the older, nice guy, Bob, whom I mentioned earlier, was wonderful to us. He ‘had us over’ to his lovely house for dinner, did everything possible to make me feel welcome, talked with me patiently about my doubts and questions at work, and even laughed at my dumb jokes sometimes.

And yet, there was something sad about him, something very human. Maybe he was a self-questioner, a self-doubter, like me? I don’t know. I didn’t know, then, that ‘old guys’ were human, too, could need companionship, too, could be lonely, could doubt themselves. I just know that, on my last day at work, on my way out I glibly said to him,

“I’ll be in touch.”

He immediately replied,

“No, you won’t.”

Not like an accusation, or anything of the sort – just straightforwardly, like a statement of hard-won truth. It took me momentarily off guard. People aren’t usually that direct, or that honest. I think I shrugged it off at the time, and continued my merry way down the hall.

So, for the record, and to my shame, I just want to say that, Bob, you were right. I was a boy in a hurry – to get my Ph.D., to grow up, to get paid, to earn respect, to ‘make it’. I so wish that Botanical Rounds, that your generosity toward me, that the South, had taught me to slow down and let my heart put down roots in life, sometimes. I know it now, but I didn’t, then.

And I’m sorry – I’m the one who missed out on the privilege of a continued relationship with you, Bob – I’m the loser. And now that I’m an old guy, I know that age has nothing to do with it: I think you recognized in me a fellow traveler, and wanted to know me longer than my three-month ‘hitch’ in Asheville. Maybe at the time I couldn’t imagine an older guy actually wanting to know me, or finding genuine companionship with me – I didn’t think I had that much to offer.

But now that I’m older than you were then, I see that when a soul connects with another soul – age, or race, or gender, or background doesn’t matter much at all; sure, maybe those superficial similarities make it easier, but if the actual connection isn’t there, those things don’t make up for it. The connection is the precious part – and I let a true connection fall by the wayside when I failed to follow up on our friendship.

Maybe somebody reading this now will learn and realize that truth, and think twice about letting a special connection lapse.

That’s all I can offer you now, Bob, but I am offering it, with all my heart.

(Next: The Goner, Part III: Mission Accomplished)

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through The Grass

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8/29/2014

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.

Amen.

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.”

He nodded.

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.