There's a regular little feature in the St. Petersburg Times called World War II, Fifty years ago. I read it with more than casual interest. Both my wife, Lisl, and I lived in Europe during World War II and the events of that time are etched forever in our minds. How well I remember British Prime Minister (Neville) Chamberlain reading the declaration of war over the wireless, followed almost immediately by the eerie sound of the air-raid sirens. It was the first alarm, followed by many others.
Who can forget the triumphant dance that Hitler performed after his armies overran Belgium, Holland and France? It was at the site of the sleeping car where, about 20 years earlier, the armistice between Germany and the Allies was signed, signalling the defeat of the German armies and the end of World War I.
Soon after my arrival in this country I was drafted into the U.S. Army. By that time, I had started my medical studies, and the Army decided not to send me overseas but to use me as a medical orderly in a hospital.
I helped the doctors take care of the wounded, mainly men suffering with multiple fractures. I helped to carry the injured as they arrived, often without warning, in long hospital trains.
Our treatment techniques may have changed, and the wounded are more likely to arrive by plane or helicopter than by hospital train, but the pain they suffer and the loneliness they endure are the same.
It is in this spirit that I write about an incident on Ward A-17, Camp Pickett General Hospital, approximately 50 years ago.
It is 2 o'clock in the afternoon and a sleepy atmosphere has settled on Ward A-17, Army Hospital, Camp Pickett, Va. The shades have been drawn to keep the hot Virginia sun away from the patients and the fans are humming their soothing melody. War and battle, wounds and pain, they all seem less violent through the thin wall of half-slumber.
The large hall is filled to capacity. There are 16 beds on each side, four more on the sun porch and three new cases in the private rooms next to the kitchen.
This is an orthopedic ward. Every one of the patients has one or more shattered limbs; every one is in this so beneficial yet so cruel device called "traction."
To regain the ability to walk, to be released from the hospital, to be discharged from the Army, these were the dreams of them all. Yet no one seemed farther away from that goal than Jones, in the second bed from the left.
Both of his legs were shattered. From lying on his back for so long, he had developed deep bedsores. Only with frequent blood transfusions and injections of amino acids could the doctors keep his weakened body alive.
Even in the sheltered atmosphere of the hospital, Jones differed from the other patients. No pinup girls or pictures of a girlfriend broke the gleaming white of his bed table. No sister, mother or friend ever came during visiting hours.
Even the nurses and Wacsseemed to spend more time with the other fellows who joked, flirted and tried to steal kisses than with Jones, who just smiled and hardly ever spoke a word.
The 3:30 gong sounds. Slowly the ward stirs and awakens from its afternoon nap. Somebody turns on the radio, the Wac attendant wheels in a cart with fruit juice, pajamas are buttoned and hair is combed in preparation for visiting hour.
Here they come. The usual crowd. The wives of Maurice and Grant who are staying in town to be near their husbands, Joe's girlfriend on a week's visit from New York, a few mothers and a group of girls from nearby Crewe who visit the hospital once or twice a week to keep the injured soldiers company.
Naturally, there are not enough girls to go around, and, naturally, Jones is one of the men without a guest.
Or is he? A tall, good-looking blond has just entered the ward accompanied by the ward officer. She is introduced by him as Miss Agnes Martin, a dancer who is performing in the field house in a USO-sponsored show.
The introduction is greeted by more than the usual number of wolf howls and whistles, the quips and wisecracks so familiar to every good-looking girl.
The dancer, trailed by the officer, walks slowly along the row of beds. She stops at every one of them, smiles to a fellow here, talks to another one there, very cheerful but also very distant.
She finishes her round and seems about ready to leave when suddenly she turns around and glances back. I do not know what she noticed. Was it the bareness of Jones' table? Was it that lonely look on his face? Perhaps she herself cannot define it.
We see her asking a question of the officer, an emphatic nodding of his head, and lonely Jones has as a visitor one of the best-looking girls I had ever seen.
I do not know what they talked about, the shy kid from the farm and the sophisticated showgirl from the city. Poor Jones was probably too excited to contribute much to the conversation. But I do know she sat next to him until the end of visiting hours, and she returned the next day for another visit.
A doctor can bandage wounds and set broken bones, but the will to live and to get better has to come from the patient himself. I was transferred from Ward A-17 soon afterward, but nobody could fail to notice the change that took place within Jones from that particular afternoon on. Outwardly, that change included a large picture on his bed, a letter once a week from wherever she was performing and a new nickname _ a product of envy and admiration _ "Casanova Jones."
Dr. Alfred Schick of Clearwater is director of medical education at Morton Plant Hospital.