Friday, May 27, 2011

Uncle Ron and The Amputee Ward

My dad was the oldest of seven.  He came of age during World War II,  joined the army and helped bring the Allies to victory in Europe. Except for a badly injured back due to a glider crash, he returned home after the war pretty much intact.  The youngest of the family was Ron and not all that many years older than me.  That's because my grandmother had married young and started birthing children soon afterwards, making the age difference between my dad and his youngest brother considerable.  Ron came of age during the Vietnam War.  But unlike his oldest brother, he didn't join the Army.  He joined the Navy and became part of the Construction Brigade, more commonly known as the Seabees.  They were in Vietnam building aircraft-support facilities, roads and bridges for their buddies who were on the line and in the air. But they were also humanitarians, building schools and hospitals and digging wells for the Vietnamese. Uncle Ron was a big guy.  If things had turned out differently for him, I think he might have gone into trucking or highway construction.  But he was never able to do those things, and unlike his brother, Ron came home early.

Uncle Ron and my grandmother not too long before he joined the Seabees

I had a dream long ago that I was standing at the top of a hill with a large wheel in my hand.   Letting go,  it rolled down the hill and ran over someone's leg at the base of the hill.  I was writing Uncle Ron who was serving in Viet Nam at the time, and I remember telling him in one of my letters about the strange dream I'd had.  I certainly didn't see it as a warning or premonition,  but it wasn't too much later that my grandmother received the news that her youngest son had been seriously injured.  He'd been thrown from his equipment, and the tire from the large earth-moving machine he'd been operating had run over his leg.  They couldn't save it.

There are certain episodes in our lives that make an indelible impact on us.  My parents packed the five of us into our station wagon early one morning.  We were going to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia to see my uncle where he was recuperating and rehabilitating from his injury.  Even after all these years I see and feel the sheer size of the building and hear the echo from our shoes hitting the hard tile floor. I couldn't help but wonder if time had altered what I remembered about that day and place.  So I did what any good blogger would do,  I started googling and discovered the place was 352,000 square feet and 15 stories high.  My memory was right on.   And the size of the building only added to the enormity of that war for me, that it was full of people who had come home terribly wounded and were therefore changed.  As a young teenager, I was overwhelmed by that reality.

It seemed like we walked through ward after ward until we found my uncle. And then there he was, his bed in the midst of so many other beds, all filled with amputees.  A muscular young soldier lay in the bed next to his, both legs gone well above the knee.  He was working his upper body and what was left of his legs with a couple of acrobatic type rings hanging from the ceiling.  I didn't want to gawk but couldn't keep my eyes off him.  Without stopping his regimen he asked if I'd ever seen anything like what I was seeing there in that room.  I shook my head, not knowing what to say.  I felt awkward, uncomfortable, as if this place should be private,  devoid of outsiders.  But then it was my turn to visit with my uncle.  I walked over to the bed and any words I might have prepared remained unspoken.  I was so overcome,  not just with the emotion of seeing him in that place, but by the sea of amputees all around me.  So all I did was hold his hand and he held mine, not letting go for a long time.

U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia

The U.S. Naval Hospital of Philadelphia is gone now.  The Navy decided not to keep it and sold it to the city of Philadelphia.  They demolished it ten years ago.   My Uncle Ron is gone too.  He eventually married, had three children and lived a pretty productive life doing things he enjoyed.  After I moved away I didn't see him much, but he and my father remained close.  He died suddenly, unexpectedly, just a few months after my dad passed on.  I often think of him, and sometimes when I do I'm back in that amputee ward with those wounded soldiers all around me.  I can't help but feel my throat thicken just like it did on that day long ago, and I know the words won't come.  I don't think they ever will.

Postscript:  The acreage where the hospital sat is now used as a parking lot for the Philadephia Eagles.  Sadly, there's not even a commemorative plaque on the site.

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