This is a story I wrote in honor of my mother, Dorothy Byrne, who served as a nurse on the USS Arcadia. And, in honor of one special patient.
It was a perfect September afternoon in Iowa. A gentle breeze was helping large puffy cotton ball-like clouds make their way across the deep blue sky. Golden leaves were slowly fluttering to the ground. In the distance a tractor buzzed; the sweet perfume of new mown hay would soon be wafting everywhere. Dynamite, the Shetland pony, was neighing in the pasture; I took that as a ‘come ride’ call.
None of that was for me.
‘I am choosing you,’ my Mom, Dorothy, said sternly. ‘You have sassed me twice this morning and refused to vacuum. So, for that you will iron.’
I was nine years old; ironing my most hated duty. The ironing board, which I had banged and slammed against the wall in protest, was set up in the big farm kitchen alongside the stove where Mom was busy canning. Despite the open windows and doors, the steam and heat in the room was making me itch. The huge bowl of juicy peeled, sliced peaches was covered with cheesecloth; their robust sweet aroma had both Mom and me swatting flies continually. My hair felt plastered to my head. Impossibly, there were three big baskets of ironing yet to complete, making me resentful and irritable. Kicking the side of the stove and ramming a newly ironed shirt on a hanger, I told Mom, through clenched jaws, ‘I will never do this again!’
Reaching for the next wrinkled item, the side of my hand briefly touched the hot iron. Instantly, I screeched like a wild animal, twirling in pain, clutching my hand, tears streaming. Frantically running outside, I flapped my hand wildly, bawling, throwing myself against the banister, screaming how unfair life was. Mom calmly dragged me back indoors and held my hand under the faucet.
Cold water helped, but not much. Mom inspected the wound, applied an antiseptic ointment and a gauze bandage. Then she pointed to the baskets and told me get back to work.
‘I can’t,’ I wailed, sniffling. ‘How can I when I’m hurt?’
Mom, her face dripping with perspiration while lifting heavy jars of peaches from a pot of boiling water, glanced at me and quietly said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’
He was vaguely aware that he was hot. There was stickiness, a discomfort, but not searing pain. Not like before; not the writhing agony he had in the beginning.
He thought of Mother. She would wear her black suit, of course, and likely the black hat she was so fond of; netting in the front, a bow and long ribbons in the back. He’d always thought the hat too girlish for a woman Mother’s age but he would never tell her that. It would not be polite and it did not matter. He was glad she would be surrounded by friends.
The cemetery was full of his ancestors. There was comfort knowing he would be among them. Down a lonely gravel road, surrounded on three sides by wheat fields, his cemetery was under the big prairie sky. He could never tire of that.
‘Good evening, Private. I’m Dorothy, your nurse for tonight.’
The feminine voice took him by surprise. Not wanting to be rude, he pursed his rigid lips, as much as they could move, and blew her a soft wolf whistle. He winked with the more mobile right eye, even though both eyes were closed and bandaged.
‘You see,’ Mom said, ’During the time I served, the United States Army had twenty-four hospital ships in service around the world. This was during World War II. Throughout that terrible war, these ships were able to ferry more than a million wounded soldiers home.’
‘Were you on one of those ships?’
‘I was, the USAHS Acadia. It was the first ship to bring back those injured in the fighting in North African.’
Mom stood rigid, almost at attention, and recited proudly specifics: the Acadia was 403 feet long (123 m), weighed many tons and was originally a civilian passenger ship. As a hospital ship, she – Mom said all ships were considered girls — had a crew of eighteen officers, thirty-seven nurses and ninety-four enlisted men. Acadia had the ability to carry nearly 800 patients; the three modern operating suites worked around the clock. They were always very busy with the injured.
‘You may not believe this,’ Mom said, ‘but I made twenty-two round trip Atlantic crossings from North Africa. We cared for more than 17,000 injured patients. We all worked so hard taking care of those injured patients. No soldier ever died on our ship. No soldier was ever buried at sea. I have always been very proud of that.’
Wiping away a stray tear, Mom told me, ‘It was on a moonless night, I suppose in 1943, the Acadia streamed through the choppy waters of the Atlantic, filled with wrecked bodies, broken bones, shrapnel wounds and one severely burned private, wrapped head-to-toe in gauze.’
She swallowed hard, ‘His parents had been wired the bad news and were probably on a train chugging east from a prairie state to New York, and, I have always imagined, praying they were not too late.’
I didn’t understand and shook my head, but did not want to interrupt.
It was too quiet in the isolation bay. He imagined others were bandaged but still playing cards, smoking and eating with a fork. Not alone. Not mummified, with destroyed joints, rotted skin, unrecognizable features. He knew his bed was padded with pillows to prevent him from damage sliding against the rails during rougher seas.
This time it was a man’s voice, professional.
‘Private, I’m Father Morrissey. If you would like, I can hear your confession and then I will give you’re your rights.’
The last rights. He understood.
Father Morrissey leaned over the near-corpse. The Private thought he heard soft gagging sounds.
‘Whenever you’re ready, Private.’
‘I stepped outside the room then, pulling off my mask to suck in fresh air’.
‘I think I killed a lot of Germans, Father. That’s my main worry.’ The words barely audible through the calloused lips.
‘No, Private, God forgives you for that.’
‘Thank you Father. You’re kind ta say so. That means a bunch. Sorry, I know I smell.’
Mom said she was summoned back into the room, put back on her isolation gowns, and listened while Father Morrissey continued to chat with the Private.
‘I join’d right after high school,’ the patient recalled, painfully. ‘I want’d to be in the tanks. I read a little about America’s Sherman tank. They seemed highly touted and really fast. Mobile ‘n’ a brand new war weapon. That sure seem’d like fun. The right thing for me. Fast and light: we’d get those Jerry’s now!’
‘Why? What was it about them, son?’ From the scraping sound, he knew Fr. Morrissey had pulled up a chair. He felt Dorothy slowly tug a soaked pillow from behind his head.
‘Oh, gee, the way those cannons never missed. They were 75 and 76 mm cannons. Mine was a 76.’ The Private slowed, a bit weary. ‘We jus’ roared through the desert, covering miles so fast. I loved it. Pretty soon, tho’, — there was five of us in the Sherm, — we got nervous. We kinda’ started joke’n, ya’ know, calling the Sherm the ‘Ronson’, ya’ remember, after the Ronson cigarette lighter, the ad ‘lights first every time’.
‘Sorry, son, I’m confused.’
‘Well, we learn’d the truth, but kind’a late. All that speed and easy steering was ‘cause they didn’t put on much side armor. The Sherms blew up with the littlest puncture.’
‘I’m so sorry, son.’
‘s ok, Father.’
Father Morrissey kissed his cross, made a final sign of the cross over the Private, patted Dorothy on the shoulder and, with a shake of his head, left to hear other confessions.
Mom slid more peaches into empty jars. The kitchen was still hot and close; we were again swatting flies. My hand throbbed but I was silent. Mom was in her own private world.
The door shut softly. Through the gauze-bound ears there were more footsteps and the rustling of a gown being put on.
‘Good evening, Maureen. Thanks.’ He heard Dorothy say. The Private tried to salute her but his burn-fused elbow refused to co-operate. She, too, received the distant wolf whistle and a glint of teeth.
‘Maureen?’ I interrupted.
‘Hush,’ she was sharp. ‘My roommate and friend. Another nurse.’
‘Shouldn’t prob’ly do that. You’re prob’ly a Sergeant,’
‘First Lieutenant.’ Maureen answered rather muffled. Her sterile gown must be covering her nose and mouth. ‘We have to change your dressings.’
‘Ya have morphine?’ he cracked, unseen tears welling behind his bandaged eyes.
‘Yes, Private, we do.’
‘Okay, doll, ya do what ya need ta do.’
‘Private, I will let that go this time.’ Her voice told him Maureen was smiling.
‘Okay, doll.’ His mutilated lips slowly came together to blow her a kiss.
My hand still hurt but the antiseptic ointment was helping. I was ironing the easy pieces now. I was fascinated; Mom never talked like this before. Then, in the hot, steamy kitchen, she got a little nursy. Wiping her brow with a towel, she told me World War II saw a huge number of burn patients in all the fighting throughout the world.
‘Did they all die?’
‘No, we helped them though with new things: sulphanilmide, penicillin and plasma. It was shock – the decreased circulation to vital organs – and infection that killed most burn victims. Dead skin is where the infection gets a hold. Dead and damaged tissue has a poor to almost non-existent blood supply.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘We could give antibiotics through the bloodstream but those drugs had an almost impossible job of fighting an infection in dead tissue. So,’ she seemed so sad, ‘we had to remove the dead tissue by a long razor blade.’
‘What! I don’t get it.’
With this Private, Mom explained, they double-masked, hoping it would help suppress the smell of his seeping flesh. She explained morphine is a pain killer but too much of it can cause a person to die.
‘The doctor ordered us to give his man a bit larger dose than normal. Really, just under the amount that would cause him to overdose. You see, we had to remove those bandages, all over his body, but the bandages were completely soaked through with fluids that came through the skin. When it dried, it stuck to the skin and had to be forcibly ripped away. It was very painful for him. Any area that peeled away easily was new growth –a callus – of dead skin. This we had to cut away.’ Mom winced from the memory.
‘We have given you the maximum amount of morphine,’ the nurse Dorothy whispered in his ear. ‘We will try to work fast.’ Someone was unwinding a leg bandage.
Only once did he have to let out a scream-moan, then apologized.
Completely exposed at last, exhausted and in pain, the Private tensed.
‘Are you ready, son?’ The physician bent over him.
‘Yes, sir, thank you.’
Knowing Dorothy was holding one limb, he felt the physician sawing away new callus. He could feel where long strips of dead tissue were taken off; through filmy vision he glimpsed exposed raw, red, new epidermis. Without the morphine it would have been too painful. The trio was skinning him alive. There was no point complaining but in time the morphine began losing its power. ‘Concentrate’, he told himself.
‘Got any jokes to tell?’
In time, nearly sobbing, throbbing in pain, he knew they were finished. Sticky again, greased in sulpha-something, the nurses always said. The new bandages took a long time to get on but they felt ok; like they were holding him together.
‘I’m sorry that was so tough.’ The doctor said.
‘Thank you. See you tomorrow.’ The Private softly croaked.
I looked down, surprised to find there was only one basket left. The other two were finished; even the harder pieces perfectly ironed and neatly folded in piles on the kitchen chairs. It was not easy with my bulky wrap but I no longer clumped the iron or kicked the stove.
‘What does this ……? Why are you …..?’ I timidly stammered, not sure of anything. I had slowly begun to think of Mom as a hero.
‘Because he had a terrible job to endure and he chose his attitude.’
‘Attitude is everything!’ Mom leveled me with her gaze, still flushed with the steam of canning. ‘Attitude makes any job bearable. You have been sassy and bad today and I do not like it. You need to adjust your attitude, young lady. Remember, there are others around you that are always going to be affected by it. As you go through life, people will only remember you for your attitude. And attitude is something you choose.’
This Private, possibly still a teenager, survived to New York, although he passed to his prairie cemetery shortly afterward. I never learned his name. Many, many years on, his story – and his attitude – still inspires me. His tale has been a lifelong gift. This soldier is in my thoughts every day and I often thank him for the valiant legacy he left. My true, unsung hero.