Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the early 1970's, America was in turmoil.  The Viet Nam war was still raging on. His college deferment had expired and he'd already passed his physical. He applied for and was granted a Conscientious Objector status. He received the CO,  because his high school buddy,  recently returned from his tour of duty; spoke as his witness.  Under the Michigan summer sun, they spoke to each other, the way friends talk when they say goodbye.  He was to shipping out the next day. Standing in driveway, he asked him to come back alive.

His friend was terribly wounded  in a deadly ambush with the Viet Cong. His statement was simple and direct, he said, "don't get this guy killed...." That's all it took, the draft board was unanimous in its decision.

A week later he was a new orderly at an inner city hospital.  Dee-troit was still reeling from the 1967 riots. He was assigned afternoons,  the 3 - 11pm shift. Harper Hospital was the site of the nation's first open heart surgery. The  morgue was located in the original 1863 structure, far below grade, embraced by thick red stone walls; keeping it  a constant 40 degrees. As a surgical orderly, you wheeled patients up to the 9th floor for surgery and back down to the recovery room. If things didn't go so well,  you took the long ride to morgue in the basement.

The orderlies' locker room was on the 8th floor. It smelled like french fries and cologne.  They changed into crisp green scrubs and criss-crossed surgical caps, to create a "turban" look. Personal accessories included gold plated snake bracelets, heavy fake gold neck chains, hi black socks - so sheer you see your leg and white patent leather slip-ons. On his shift, the orderlies included Otha, Andre, Raj, Des, Rod and Dee. He shared a locker with Durrell -  sullen,  light skinned, sleepy eyes, processed hair, probably in his late 20's. Durrell asked where he was from ? Not listening for an answer he said, "Only white people and you live there ?" The orderly struggled to answer.  The best he could do was ask Durrell where he stayed ?  Durrell looked at everyone else but the new orderly and said, "I'm from Jacktown, boy." The other orderlies laughed and  repeated "Durrell from Jacktown, man !"

Durrell reached up to the shelf inside the locker and pulled down a small brown paper bag. He took out a chromed, pearl handled Berreta .25 caliber hand gun. With one arm Durrell cradled the new orderly's neck, with the other he dug the gun in just below his ear and pushed upward to punctuate each word.  "If anyone wants to know, this is your gun, understand ?" The orderly nodded ever so slightly.  After that, the orderly always changed in the bathroom. Durrell was a former resident of the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility, in Jackson, Michigan. He did some time for armed robbery. 

Miss Violet was the elevator operator. She must have been in her late 70's, wore nurse's whites, a little pastel sweater, white opaques and white shoes with thick foam soles.  Her voice was raspy from the Parliament cigarettes she liked to smoke. One thing Miss Violet always had with her, was a shopping bag containing her  knitting. The inexpensive bundles of sky blue yarn always seemed to be cascading out of her bag.  She must have been a very slow knitter because those bundles of Woolworth's yarn and the big knitting needles never seemed to get together.

On the first floor, Rod, Des, Raj and the new orderly  tumbled onto Miss Violet's elevator. Everyone greeted Miss Violet reverently and she said "Hey baby, it's tea time. We go up to four." This brought out some boyish giggles and slappin' of  some skin. The new orderly was mystified as the elevator bypassed  floors 2 and 3. Miss V said, "Lemme go cut it off". She  switched the "On" key to "Off". The elevator hung suspended between floors, like a  submarine; trying to avoid detection. She picked up her knitting bag and pulled out a bottle and a stack of tiny Dixie cups. The glass bottle had a pebbly texture with a clear liquid, tinted of grey and green. It was a pint of Seagram's gin. Miss V passed out the cups and cracked open the new bottle. She gave  everyone a pour and said, "To your health boys !" The new orderly never drank gin and it felt like he'd swallowed herbal lava. She quickly put the bottle and knitting away. She gave her boys a stick of Juicyfruit gum and let  everyone off on 5 - the psych floor. As the elevator doors closed Miss Violet said, "Be good boys !" 

The submarine  descended into silence.

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