Bagman

Second post in a series about military veterans I’ve known, working as an occupational therapist and researcher over the years.

Okay, he’s a half pint. He’s a squat Puerto Rican with no right to vote but that don’t mean he gets outta military service. Drafted, but he’s mean as beans, and he’s been diving the shipwrecks since he could walk, so ten minutes post-induction he’s a Demo Unit leader, and he is bad! He’s fit to swim through the Berlin sewers and reach up, cut off Hitler’s one hairy ball while that squirrelly madman sits the toilet. He thinks about that for real. And the feats he pulls off during his tour are just as outlandish. Dynamites shipyards then floats away on the outgoing tide, hitches a U-boat ride up the Rhine, drags uniformed Nips offa Tokyo boardwalks and slits their throats just to keep his hand in. Which is sort of a joke, because along the way his right hand gets torn off. You may want to know how, but there he won’t go.

So he rehabs in New York at war’s end and figures why not stay? No work in PR for a hard nut lefty. And he gets this religion jones, goes to confession, thinks it through. The only way to fix it, he figures, is to make himself into a good man. Cuts a deal with God, one good deed for every bad one during the War, and tacks up a wall chart to keep track. It’s a tough calibration, matching up a gutted Nazi to a plaster repair for the landlord, balancing cigarette handouts with cigarette tortures. He’s getting on in years now but still toeing that line, even to the point where he’s a trusted bagman for an Orthodox Jewish gold merchant in the 40s.

Doddering up Broadway with his heavy satchel, he looks like a garden gnome with a shaggy beard. So the thug kids who roust him figure him for an easy mark. How would they have guessed? The years of scratching off deeds on the wall, the sleeping catlike reflexes.  The old man’s prosthetic hook plucks out the eye of the first with a single ruthless swipe. The other guy stares aghast but then is down the street running before his buddy hits the ground. People rushing by, it’s all happened too fast to register. The little man bends, tucks the satchel between his knees and calmly wipes his bloody hook on the crumpled man’s pants cuff. One crepe-soled shoe crushes the plucked eye with a satisfying grapelike squish. Then he takes up the satchel and dodders on.

So how do I know all this? Next day he shows up at the VA prosthetics clinic and tells them he wants the whole length of the thing feathered. Prosthetist asks, like a saw? Yes a saw, for traction. For traction? He’s bad. He’s WWII Navy Demo. With a list to balance.   Which for some reason he’s brought with him. And shows me.

The Hooch

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.”