Saturday, April 18, 2009

Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent.

The following story, "The War Tattoo" is true. The name of the person involved has been changed to protect his identity. In fact, even though this man touched my life and changed it forever, I would not know him if he walked up and shook my hand. It happened too long ago.

Be forewarned. Grab a hankie before when you read. I'd love to hear what you think about it. Thanks in advance.

The War Tattoo--1995

I darted glances at the bent frame of the angry seventy-two year old man shuffling by my side to the ultrasound exam room. His snow white hair and wrinkles gave the appearance of great age, but he vibrated with a barely suppressed fury that seemed more appropriate for someone much younger.

My hectic schedule had caused me to be an hour behind for his appointment, but his anger seemed out of proportion to my being late. Others might tremble in the face of such wrath, but I’d faced down other tough characters during my career. I unleashed the considerable charm I’d inherited from my father, determined to draw this guy from his ugly mood if only for a moment. But, my preliminary instructions for the exam, which usually brought a smile to most patients, fell flat.

I inquired about his work prior to retirement. He gave minimal answers. Even my cheerful inquiry of “What do you do when you’re not hanging out in hospitals having tests done?” brought a curt reply of “nothing.”

Silence hung in the darkened exam room like an oppressive fog. On edge and uncomfortable, I found it difficult to breathe.

He rejected my attempts to draw him out, but inexplicably, I felt an intense need to connect with him. I refused to relinquish verbal contact, so when a faded marking on his arm caught my attention, I changed tactics. “There’s always an interesting story behind a tattoo. Can I ask how you got that?”

He turned his bleak, lifeless eyes towards me. “I got that when I was young and foolish during World War II,” he explained in a dull voice. Instinctively, I understood the silent words he telegraphed, ‘when I was young and still alive!’

The implied message discomforted me, but I pressed for details anyway. “What did you do during the war?”

His nostrils flared as he exhaled deeply. The quiet noise punctured the leaden silence in the room. “I was a lieutenant in the infantry,” he said, his low voice rough with emotion.

I suddenly realized I’d reached the limits of decency in questioning the old man, so I squeezed his arm. “If this is too difficult, we don’t have to talk about it.”

Another deep sigh punched me in the chest. He whispered, “I know…but I’d like to tell you.” With flashes of controlled emotion, he told me about his job as a group leader in the first wave of the invasion on D-day. Their landing craft took fire. Most of his men died instantly. The gentleman’s voice shook with regret. “I was so much older than those boys,” he said. “None of them knew combat. I couldn’t help them.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-three,” he mumbled.

“You were just a youngster. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

He ignored my comment. “I was ancient compared with those seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year olds. It was such a waste…such a huge waste…” His voice trailed off. In the semi-darkness of the exam room, I saw faces of young men long dead reflected in his eyes.

I felt like a heel for bringing up long suppressed memories, yet somehow the old man seemed more alive. I vowed to listen as long as he wished to talk; I didn’t care if it made me even later than I already was for my next appointment.

“They assigned me a new group of men. We went inland to take more ground.”

Details were sketchy and hesitantly presented, but I didn’t press for more than he wished to give. Deep down, I recognized this was a subject he rarely spoke about.

He shook his head and stared intently at my face. “I don’t know why I survived. No family, no sweetheart. Those guys who died lost everything. I had nothing to lose.”

The bitter emotion strangling his voice touched me to the core. With the utter conviction of someone who’s never faced death before, I uttered the senseless platitude, “There must have been a reason for you to survive.”

A sardonic chuckle startled me. “Well, it's been over fifty years, and I’ve never figured it out. If you were to ask me when the war ended, I'd tell you it ended two weeks ago. I never got over what I saw or the bad things I did.

“My life became better after a Colonel chose me as his aide. No responsibility for anyone but myself. I was in danger at the front lines gathering information, but always got out safely even though artillery fire destroyed my jeep once. Luckily, I had sense enough to run when a series of explosions hit the road ahead of me. I exited the vehicle seconds before it blew up.”

“Oh my God!” I grabbed the old man’s arm.

“You know,” he continued, “I married a couple of times after the war, but the marriages didn’t last. Never had children. Couldn’t hold a steady job either.” His face dropped. “Why am I still here?”

By this time, I had completed his test. He fell silent, but this time, the quiet felt less oppressive.

I left the room to finish my paperwork and came back to walk Mr. Martin to the exit. He ambled along in companionable silence, a real change from his attitude just a short time ago. When we reached the door, he said goodbye and turned to leave.

I called him back. “Sir, can I shake your hand?”

He searched my face with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “I guess so, but why?” he demanded as he stuck out his hand.

“I just want to thank you for all you’ve done.”

He blinked rapidly and whispered, “Thank you.” His firm grip expressed the emotions I saw warring on his face. He turned and left without another word.

With tears in my eyes, I watched an amazing metamorphosis. As Mr. Martin walked away, his slumped shoulders unfurled like a flag catching a sudden stiff breeze. Even the shuffling gate of the old man became more sure and confident. In my mind’s eye, I saw the ghost of a young man, ripe with potential, before the demons of war had ravaged his soul.

Inside, I was saluting.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Power in a Promise

My job as an Ultrasound Technologist in a busy metropolitan hospital requires an expertise in dealing with all sorts of nervous patients, especially little ones. Children, agitated about their coming sonogram, often require special efforts to ensure their cooperation.

Over the years, I developed some effective ways of neutralizing the fears of little ones, such as demonstrating how the sonogram is done on their parent or making a game out of the test; look…your tummy is on TV. Occasionally simple explanations are enough to calm them. Little did I know in one case, a special promise would be necessary.

Several years ago, I called the name of an eight-year-old girl in the waiting room. She cringed and resisted her mother’s attempts to lead her in my direction by clinging to the armrest of a chair with a death grip. Loud, exaggerated wailing and crocodile tears ensued. It was obvious she had no intention of allowing me to perform the test.

Immediately, I crouched by her side to be smaller than she was and hopefully less intimidating. My voice became strained as I struggled to be heard over her sobs.

I attempted to explain the test and soothe her fears, using every technique I’d ever learned to deal with children. Nothing quieted her vociferous demonstration. The child even screamed, “You’re a liar!” when I promised the test wouldn’t hurt. That really hurt my feelings.

She eluded her parent’s grasp and slide underneath the chair. Every time her mother grabbed her, the little girl wailed even louder. Embarrassed at first, her mom pleaded with her to come out from under the chair. She progressed to demands and threats, but the child ignored her.

I tolerated fifteen minutes of this behavior before I became impatient. It was obvious the child was not mentally handicapped in any way. This would have tempered my reaction to the tantrum.

The irritation in my voice finally caught her attention because her eyes widened as she peeked out from under the chair. I pointed my finger at her as I said through gritted teeth, “I will not hurt you. Scout’s Honor!”

Automatically, I raised my right hand, three fingers extended upward in the traditional Girl Scout’s pledge. I’m not sure why, but the habit of using that sacred pledge when I really want to be believed, ingrained itself in me during in my early years in scouting.

The sudden silence stunned me. The little girl’s eyes bugged out in surprise. “Are you a scout?” she demanded.

Stunned by the abrupt change in her manners, I paused a moment before I nodded. “A long time ago, I was. Once a scout, always a scout. You know we never lie when we say, Scout’s Honor! It’s against the Girl Scout rules. I promise this test will not hurt!”

The child emerged from her hiding place and grabbed my hand. She dragged me down the hallway towards the exam room.

Her mom and I looked at each other as we hurried down the hall. “What just happened?” I asked.

The woman just shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know, but I bet you’ll remember us.” We both grinned in relief.

The testing proceeded without a hitch. The little girl enjoyed watching the sonogram and was a delight to work with. And I NEVER forgot the power in that special kind of promise.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fairy Godmother Wings?

(You should probably read the posting below about the $30 dress before you read this note if you are a new visitor to my blog. It will make a lot more sense.)

I suppose I ought to explain the drawing with the fairy wings. Thirty years ago, I watched out for a friend of mine going through a trying time in her life. She was in medical school. I gave her little presents and sent letters just to say, "hi, I'm thinking of you." She used to marvel at the wonderful timing my letters seemed to possess. They always came at a time when she needed a pick-me-up.

In fact, one time she asked, "How do you know when I need you?" I laughingly replied, "it's magic." She asked, "Are you my fairy godmother or what?" I liked that idea and adopted the non-de-plume of Nancy's fairy godmother.

(I could go weeks and weeks without thinking of my friend, but whenever she came to mind, I felt a compulsion to write immediately. Once, however, I put off writing to her for two weeks, until the urge to write became too strong. That was the time my letter arrived on the very day she lost her first patient as a resident.)

Over the years, I've played fairy godmother to four different people. When their lives seems to get on an even keel, I retire as their fairy godmother, but we remain the best of friends.

So, when I had my portrait taken in the fairy princess dress and the photographer suggested giving me fairy wings, I had to agree. He saw the real me.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

This is the tale of a dress, a beautiful dress, a $200 fairy princess dress marked down to $30. A warning to all those budget-minded women who think they are getting such a deal when finding a magical dress like this. BEWARE---- it can end up costing you way more than you think.

You laugh...ha, ha, but my $30 fairy princess dress bit me in the behind and took a big chunk out of my wallet. (Aaaaaaah...but it was worth it.)

Two of my very good friends and I went shopping just for fun. Evie and I went into a teenie-bopper's store to look at prom dresses. Joe, her husband, sat outside to wait while we played.

Since it was after prom season, we found the marked down dresses and started rummaging around through the racks. Evie picked out a wonderful dress and said, "Kate, I think you would look good in this one." It was a cream colored strapless dress with an organza overlay split down the middle on the long empire waist. The bodice was laced up the front with a ribbon. It looked like the kind of dress a princess might have worn back in the days of old.

I decided to try it on. After all, I was just sure it wasn't going to fit and heavens sake, if it did, the dress would only cost me $30. While I slipping it on, Evie went out to get Joe to see. When I finally squeezed into the dress, I pranced out of the dressing room to show it off. The amazed mutual gasps of, "Katie?" from both of them made me realize this dress just had to follow me home.

I called it my "fairy princess" dress. I felt so beautiful when wearing it that I decided to have my portrait taken in it. I found a photographer who looked into my soul and photographed me, the real me. He did such a wondeful job with my photographs that I ended up spending $1,500 all because of a dress that cost $30. And so, the story goes: Beware the $30 dress. It can cost you more than you think.

Because of copyright laws, I cannot show you the real photograph, but this is an outline drawing of an image of the real me as seen by this extraordinary photographer.