A Soldiers’ Home Companion

Not long ago my neighbor Carol suggested I apply to live at a soldier’s home. She knew I’d done a tour in Vietnam as an infantry medic in 1970.

“My father lives there,” she said. “The food is great. The rent is cheap. They take care of everything.”

I’m on two housing lists but figured why not? I filled out an application; two months later I had an interview at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home in Boston. On a chilly New England morning veteran’s agent Kim Emerling and I visited the Home. We arrived early and waited in the car. I would have to take a rapid Covid test to enter the three-story building. After a time, a nurse I’ll call Hank emerged from the blue canopied front door.

A tall, muscular man, he carried a basket filled with medical supplies suited to his present task. Ambling toward us, he stopped abruptly to chat with an elderly female veteran. A few minutes later, he leisurely conversed with the driver of a delivery van. During this time Kim growled words which I will not relate. Finally, as if in a dream—mine or his I could not tell—Hank sauntered toward us. I had the curious impression that here was a man bereft of intellect and medicinal insight.

Leaning into the passenger side window, Hank confided that to properly administer the rapid antigen test I would first have to blow my nose. My neighbor had warned me of this. I told Hank “No,” I could not do that.

“I that a medical condition?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “My nose will bleed if I blow it.”

Nose bleeds were the scourge of my childhood and continue, though less frequently, to this day. I’ve had my nose cauterized several times. Hank returned to the building to check with administrative staff. He came back a few minutes later.

“You can’t enter without taking the test.”

I had a bad feeling. Something told me things would not go right. What to do? I did not blow my nose, but reluctantly allowed Hank to swab my nasal passages.

“I’ll try to get a good sample,” he said, and swabbed diligently three times inside each nostril.

As Hank inserted the swab into a container, loud and clear I said, “I’m bleeding.” Hank looked up from his task. He saw the blood on my face.

“You weren’t kidding,” he said.

Undeterred—or, inspired by the sight of liquid vermilion dripping down an old man’s chin—Hank said he would return the swab sample to the building, wait fifteen minutes for the results, then revisit me to administer a PCR swab test, also required—with results in five to seven days.

While we waited, I contemplated my reflection in the visor mirror. A shiny red rivulet coursed from my nose, over my lips, down my chin, and splashed onto my tan Carhartt jacket, branding it with a distinctive red scar. Kim handed me tissues to stanch the bleeding. I pushed the tissue into my nose. This is absurd, I thought. Do I really need to be twice bloodied by a carefree automaton incapable of remedial insight? It is one thing to knowingly cause medical injury without thought of consequence. But to even consider inflicting soft tissue insult a second time is most ricky-tick cause for alarm.

When Hank returned I announced, “Never mind. I’ve lost enough blood for today.”

Almost cheerfully, Hank said he would talk with admin to see if I could enter the building without the second test. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Instead, I imagined calling in heavy artillery from LZ Ranch—a remote firebase in Cambodia which I’d had the pleasure to occupy while it was overrun—and moments later I swore I heard the welcoming sound of incoming 155 shells whistling overhead. In the eye of my mind I witnessed their fiery crrrumpBANGs exploding upon the building’s immense front door. Seconds later I fancied power diving Cobra gun ships unleashing salvos of white-tailed rockets, 40 mike-mike grenades, and withering miniguns into the black tar roof. I imagined that inside the home all was pure havoc. I was elated. Please note that I am not discounting the proven efficacy of the B40 rocket propelled grenade launcher, the primitive but deadly Chicom grenade, or the wicked tripod-mounted 30. caliber machine gun. In my reverie only American weapons was employed.

When Hank returned he asked that I call admin. I did so. A woman I’ll call Linda stated I could not enter the building without taking the slow result PCR test. Three times, quite clearly, I half-shouted, “Miss, I’m bleeding as we speak!” Three times Admin Linda ignored my distress. Anger. I had murderous anger and wilting anxiety, but somehow asked Linda if the interview could be done by phone.

“Absolutely not,” she declared. I imagined Linda astride Marengo, Napoleon’s small grey war horse. She was smiling. Gleefully overseeing Borodino.

My war nerves peaking—I have considerable PTSD—I inquired about rescheduling the war. Pardon me. The visit. Linda asked me to wait in the car while she consulted a doctor.

“You can’t enter the building without the PCR test,” she sternly repeated. “But don’t worry. The swab will not enter your brain.”

Perhaps not my brain—but what about hers? I called in another air strike. Four squadrons of B52s roared overhead. When the trembling earth quieted and the thick smoke cleared, alone amongst the ruins, there stood Linda, grinning triumphantly.

At this point, bleeding and agitated, somehow, in a civil tone I terminated the visit. Kim, at the wheel all this time, calmly handed me a fresh set of tissues, then us drove back to home sweet Salem. On the way we made small talk. Kim told me about a homeless vet he’d just placed in veterans housing. The vet, somewhat eccentric, had called Kim in the middle of the night to complain about the apartments lack of heat, the various rules and regulations, the need to pay monthly rent. Kim advised the fellow to stay calm, things would work out—but the grouchy man could only grumble. I knew better than to ask his name.

“If he was homeless, I’ve probably seen him around town,” I said. “Living on the street, it’s too bad he wasn’t grateful to you.”

Kim, a Special Forces command sergeant major who’d seen his share of combat, takes all things in stride. “It’ll work out,” he said. “You still bleeding?”

A few days later, my neighbor Carol mentioned that our mutual acquaintance Arnold had just moved to another town. Arnold, you may recall, is the local eccentric who each week spends hours ornately decorating a Salem Common park bench with floral arrangements of strange but magnificent design. Over the years, in my walks around the Common I’d gotten to know him, as did Carol. For nearly two decades, twice a month Arnold has spent considerable time and effort garlanding that one particular bench with an ever-changing array of flowers, stalks, leaves, petals.

“To the memory of all who have gone before,” he once explained. To those who will come after. Love. It’s all about love.”

He’d never once mentioned military service.

I emailed Kim later that day. “A hundred dollars says it’s Arnold.”

“I am NOT taking that bet!” he replied.

Two weeks later, for reason’s known only to itself, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home called and asked if I wanted to reschedule my visit.

“Of course, you’ll have to take the Covid test,” said the polite female caller. “Ahhhhh…No,” I said.

I noted that complaints had been filed with the state Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs. With the VA Inspector General.

There came a gulping noise. “Oh,” she said.

“Oh,” I echoed, and politely hung up.

A month later I received a letter from the VA IG. My complaint had been forwarded to the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

A full two months after the initial nasal attack I received a phone call from the director of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. Our conversation was cordial. I emphasized the beguiling way my conspicuous bleeding was ignored—by Hank the Nurse and Admin Linda—both avid soldiers in blind obedience to Covid protocol. The director offered to consider my suggestions on how to improve patient care in anomalous circumstances. Several times he encouraged me to reapply to the Soldiers’ Home.

Politely, I told him, “That’s not gonna happen. But thank you for calling.”


Park bench decorator Walter Levesque in The Salem News