Some novels simmer until, I dunno, something happens to spark them into being or nothing ever does. My simmering novel is about life as a medic during the Vietnam War. I thought I wanted to write about serving on the Intensive Care Unit at USAF Hospital Clark in South East Asia for a year and nine days – a record, the previous holder had been sent home strapped down to a stretcher. Me, I got tired of blood dreams and walked into the hospital commander’s office one morning over the objections of his secretary and plopped into the chair next to his desk. Luckily, Colonel Hernquist had people skills. He looked up from his paperwork and asked, “What can I do for you son?”
I told him who I was, where I’d worked for how long and that I was not going back there.
“Where would you like to work?”
“OB. It’s full of life.”
“Report to OB in the morning.”
I thanked him and left. (A year later, I was rousted out of a tent early one morning in Kwangju, South Korea -the North Koreans had just stolen our spy ship, the Pueblo. Me and three others were stood in a line and up walked some general officers and the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown. Harold pinned some kind of medal on me “for saving lives, etc. while at Clark.” So, that year and nine days had been time usefully spent.)
The stories never go away. Hence, the simmering novel. Not just about the grisly but very much about how we coped. I ran with two other medics and we coped -well, probably the ways young men and women have always coped with casualties of war. Here’s one true example:
“I was taking a guy to x-ray in a wheelchair. Shot-up, just off a medivac. We go by the gift shop and he says, ‘Stop! See that nurse? I want to eyeball-fuck her.’” He shrugged. “I stopped.”
“Who was she?” Captain Kelly asked with bright humor in her eyes.
“Jenkins, from O.B.”
“Oh. That didn’t take him long then.” She turned serious. “I understand. You see death, you want life.” She pushed her chair from the table and looked at the floor while she sucked in a breath. Then she stood. “Back to it.”
He took in the blonde walking away. Kelly was on the dialysis team and regularly watched young men die because their kidneys had been left on the battlefield. When she was on call at night, Captain Kelly was notified by waking the doctor on call that night. He shook his head. Would he ever meet another woman he could tell this story? She would have to be the woman that Captain Kelly was.
Last week, my lady picked up the ringing phone and looked at me. “Do you know a David Miller?” And suddenly I was back there, in Clark Hospital in 1967. David Miller was one of the two that I ran with. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s now but his memory is sharper than mine. His wife found me and with her help, we are going to write some of our stories.