For much of my career as an occupational therapist I’ve worked with military veterans, both as a therapist and a researcher. In these next few posts, I’ll be sharing some things I’ve heard and seen, told as close to verbatim as a Southern boy is ever likely to get. Here’s one from my time at the VA Hospital on 23rd Street in Manhattan. It was a while ago, but I ponder it.
“I’m tellin’ you, them boys in the Hooch.” He shakes his head, cocks an eye. “They don’t never come out. And nobody go in there neither. Less they say come. I mean, no doctor, no nurse, no custodian, nobody.” We were at the cable machine. I had him standing sidewise to the frame, doing shoulder rotations with a pulley. You have to pay attention or your elbow swings away with the motion and you can blow out all that expensively repaired rotator cuff, so I was up close, tucking a magazine in the crook of his arm. That way if he cheated the magazine would fall. I wanted him to focus, but he wanted me to know about the 23rd floor. He said, “You know how people act funny we used to say, you keep that up you goin’ to Bellevue? Maybe you heard it, people around here say 23rd floor. Or just the Hooch. “
He caught the eye of another guy squeezing theraputty at a corner table, and raised his voice, making what began to sound like a sales pitch for the place. Important for all to grasp the far gone to Indiana nature of this enterprise behind the double locked doors on the 23rd floor, doors I’d seen myself and wondered about, painted with some childishly scrawled palm trees and birds with toucan beaks and double eyebrows. He made it sound like a mythical land, something out of a novel, a psychiatrist’s joke where the inmates run the asylum, but the way he told it, it was not a joke at all, because it actually worked for these guys in its own altered prismatic way.
“Man,” he says, “the Hells Angels, they’d be pussies to these guys. I mean, no meds. Total drug holiday. No sedatives, no neuroleptics, no narcotics of any kind. No cigarettes. They’re vegetarians, man! Drink fuckin’ protein shakes. They’re monsters. Beefed out like Batman! Got their own gym, got their own religion. They get women up in there sometimes, ladies say there’s nothin’ like it. Pure men. No bullshit. All the perfume stripped off. But psycho’s to a man. Not a night’s sleep among ‘em. Lights on 24-7, that good old spooky rock playin’. Caged rats, but with human brains and too much time on their hands. Just pacin’ the wall.”
“You know what they oughta do?” I shake my head once, ask him to switch sides to do external rotation, and he obliges, though now he has to turn his head and lean back to make sure the theraputty guy can hear him. “What they oughta do, set these dudes up like the Dirty Dozen or somethin’, give ‘em a mission, let ‘em just go out and Rambo some dictator or some shit. I wouldn’t put it past ‘em that’s what this whole Hooch thing’s about anyway. Lab rats. Way to recycle a fightin’ man. You know like catch a guy in a good midlife crisis. When the true suck of life begins to sink in. And let ‘em just blow each other’s brains out. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a concept! They oughta do that with the Army, man, no foolin’. They oughta set the draft at age 40 or around there, leave these little teenager boys alone, maybe relax the requirements a little, work that gut off, toss ‘em a ground to air armament and just fuckin’ let ‘em go to Viet Nam on somebody. You know, some sneaky old stockbroker on Wall Street, cabdriver, school teacher. Just throw ‘em all together in some size 44 khakis and poke ‘em with a stick. It’d be one bloody war, I can tell you that, brother. And they’d all be better for it. All of us would. Shit, I’d go. No shit, I would. And think about it a minute, you might too.”