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Old Soldiers Never Die...

Several wear T-shirts with the insignia of their old military units, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry at the death's head logos stretched too tight or too slack across torsos disfigured by beer or cancer.



Notes from the V.A. Hospital: You are struck by the nearly total absence of sexual atmosphere and this strike is not mitigated by the lack of surprise about a place where so many are shamed by their bodies and where health and hope are so scarce, this bower of the brokenbodied, this haven for the brokenhearted.

Your eyes comb the room in search of something different, the human triumphant, the wolves among all these sheep and now and again, you see them: people who are here to hustle the medical establishment, lay the okey-doke on the docs and nurses and social workers. Just as they've hustled the educational establishment, the assistance establishment, all establishments in all opportunities.

The women, Paulette and Brenda, move the flock along with all the careful attention of sheepdogs, nurses trying not to be only cynical, only expedient.

Other workers here, too, who are almost visibly striving to go to work every day and not leave all their smiles and all their faith at the door. Some of them make it and they are the small capillaries that bring blood throughout this huge automaton.

Then over to the pharmacy wait-room, full of men of hospital age, each crazy according to his need. Several wearing jackets or T-shirts adorned with the insignia of their old military units, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of kickass, death's head logos and mottos stretched too tight or too slack across torsos disfigured by beer or cancer.

There were several rows of orange plastic seats and near the front rocks a "rocker." A man, average in size and haircut, rocking forward at the waist every five seconds or so, bobbing down sharply and back up. Head held straight on. For 15, 20 minutes, it never stops or even slows.

Up-down. Up-down. Does this jerking man know what he looks like, care? What does he know, care? It's all beyond you, quite beyond anything you could grasp by bravery or bribery. It all brings nausea above your neck, being things indigestible by your brain and turned into sickness by the refinements there.

Up-down. Up-down. It's like watching a man being killed hour by hour, minute by minute. All our lives are ruled by things outside our control, but this poor devil is being ruled in a viciously public way, moved by some unseen hand the way we all are -- only his movement is violent and visibly unending.

There are many people waiting to have their prescriptions filled, so things are going slow and there is plenty time to watch this bobbing life. Too much time, enough time for your mind to start to play around and cause trouble.

Like: how could anyone live with this guy? Or sit next to him on a Greyhound from Tucson to Buffalo? Suppose someone just got up and walked over and shouted like a drill sergeant, "Goddammit, son! I want you to straighten up this instant! Now get a hold of your- self now!"

But no one seems likely to do that, not even the funny guy with the sleeveless jacket with the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagle" patch on it. Everybody looked busy not looking.

Up-down. Up-down. You begin to learn that things pathetic can make you feel a lot of feelings. Even anger. You think of what you would do if somehow your life and his were locked together, and your imagined responses grow darker and darker.

The woman behind the glass window at the pharmacy counter calls your number. And outside in the sun again, a feeling of high fortune sweeps over you. Somehow you share the very capricious luck that lifts at the last moment the senseless butterfly just above the highway-speeded truck.

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