A Soldiers’ Home Companion

Not long ago my neighbor Alice suggested I apply to live at a nearby 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.

On a chilly New England morning veteran’s agent Barry Carlson and I visited the Lenwood Soldiers’ 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 Phillip, 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 Barry growled words which I will not relate. Finally, as if in a dream, mine or his I could not tell, Phillip 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, Phillip explained that to properly administer the rapid antigen test I would first have to blow my nose. Connie had warned me of this. I told Phillip “no” I could not do that.

“Is 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. Phillip 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 this would not go right. What to do? I did not blow my nose, but reluctantly allowed Phillip to swab my nasal passages.

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

As Phillip inserted the swab into a container, loud and clear I said, “I’m bleeding.”

Phillip looked up from his task. He saw the blood on my face. “You weren’t kidding,” he replied.

Undeterred—or inspired by the sight of liquid vermillion dripping down an old man’s face—Phillip 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, dripped down my chin, and splashed onto my tan Carhartt jacket, branding it with a distinctive red scar. Barry handed me tissues to stanch the bleeding.

I pushed the tissue into my nose. This is absurd, I thought. Did I really want to be bloodied twice in an hour? 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 Phillip returned I said, “Never mind. I’ve lost enough blood for today.”

Almost cheerfully, Phillip 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 had the pleasure to occupy, until it was overrun—and moments later I swore I heard the welcoming sound of 155 shells whistling overhead. In the eye of my mind I witnessed their fiery crrrumpBANGs exploding upon the building’s 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 mangled roof.  I imagined that inside the home there was panic and havoc. I was momentarily elated.**

When Phillip returned he asked that I call admin. A woman named 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 Linda ignored my distress call. Anger. I had anger and anxiety, but somehow asked Linda if the interview could be done by phone.

“Absolutely not,” she declared.

My war nerves peaking—I have considerable PTSD—I inquired about rescheduling 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. 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 smoldering ruins, there stood Linda, grinning triumphantly.

At this point, bleeding and agitated, somehow, in a civil tone I terminated the visit. Barry had remained at the wheel all this time. He calmly handed me a fresh set of tissues, then us drove home.

On the way back Barry made small talk. He told me about a homeless vet he’d just placed in housing. The veteran, somewhat eccentric, had called Barry 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. Barry advised him to stay calm, things would work out—but all the vet did was complain.

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

Barry, who’d seen his share of combat in a recent war, took it in stride.

A few days later, Connie, who heads the neighborhood park committee, 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 park bench with floral arrangements of strange but magnificent design. Over the years, in my walks around the park I’d gotten to know him. For nearly two decades, twice a month Arnold has spent considerable time and effort garlanding the bench with an ever-changing array of flowers, stalks, leaves, petals.

“To the memory of all who have gone before. To those who will come after. Love. It’s all about love.” He’d never once mentioned military service.

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

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

There’s a small park across the street from Arnold’s new home. I hope he makes good use of it. I’ll keep an eye out the next time I’m down that way. Who knows? I might even become his neighbor.

Post script: two week later the Soldiers’ Home called and asked if I wanted to reschedule my visit.

“Of course, you’ll have to take take the covid test,” said the polite female caller.

“Ah…no,” I said. My deliberation was palpable.

I told her that complaints had been filed. With the state Secretary of Veterans Affairs. With the VA Inspector General.

She made a gulping sound. “Oh,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, and politely hung up.

To be continued…

_________________

* all names changed.

**This is not to discount 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-made weapons came to mind.

Park bench decorator Walter Levesque in The Salem News