By HYMAN GOLDBERG
A LOT of my friends are angry with me because I didn’t write to them while I spent several weeks recently in an Army hospital not far from New York City. They seem to think that all I did was lie in bed and that the least I could have done while idling there was to write long cheery letters boosting their civilian morale.
Well, I did lie in bed for a number of weeks, but l was by no means idle. I was far loo busy all day long and a good part of the night, too, getting my own morale boosted by a lot of well-meaning citizens who come around to Army hospitals to make sure that the sick and wounded soldiers don’t get a chance to become bored and lonely. There were few times while I was in the hospital lhat I got lonely, but many times when I was near screaming from a surfeit of entertainment.
Towards evening of the day following my operation — it was a comparatively minor one, but it necessitated a long stay in bed — four or live Gray Ladies came into the ward where I was kept. “We’re going to play bingo!” cried their leader, her voice full of enthusiasm.
It was too early to get my painkiller and I was in no mood to play any games, least of all bingo. I have never played bingo. I always avoided those neighborhood movie houses where bingo was formerly played and I am not a churchgoer.
However, most of the other men in the ward — there were about thirty — seemed to be delighted. The only one besides myself who apparently had no desire to play bingo was the fellow in the bed next to mine. He was unconscious. He had been operated on just a few hours before and he hadn’t yet come out of the ether.
The Gray Ladies distributed the cards and the counters. I closed my eyes when one of them came to my bed, but I didn’t fool her for one minute. “Oh,” she said chidingly, “you must play too. You don’t want to be the only one not playing, do you ?”
I said, “Yes,” but she obviously didn’t hear me because she put a card down near my face and spilled down some counters. She walked around to my neighbor. I told her he was unconscious.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she said; “he’ll be so disappointed when he wakes up and finds he’s missed the fun.” She stood there thoughtfully for a moment and then her face brightened. “I have it.” she said. There was a medical corpsman sitting by the bed, waiting for the man to come out of the ether. The Gray Lady pointed at him. “You,” she said, “will play for him. And if he wins he’ll have a prize and he won’t be too disappointed in missing the game.”
Every body played bingo. They played for what seemed hours. They played bingo straight, bingo on four sides, and several variations which were too esoteric for me to understand, much less play. Miraculously, my unconscious neighbor did win a prize — a book — and when he came out of the ether he was delighted with his prize and not too disappointed that he had missed the fun.
The next morning, right on the heels of the medical officers who had charge of the ward, the day-shift Gray Ladies came in. There were three. Two had baskets under their arms and the other was pulling a bigger basket on wheels along the floor. They made the rounds of the beds and I saw that they had the materials with which to make colored braided belts and women’s handbags; leather for the manufacture of men’s wallets, women’s wallets, cigarette cases; stuff for picture frames, cigarette boxes, and, probably, prefabricated houses. Most of the men in the ward were already occupied in making one or more of these things and they got more material or instructions from t He ladies.
One by one the Gray Ladies came to my bed and asked what I would like to make. They enumerated all the possibilities, displaying the materials and examples of the finished products. When I said I really didn’t feel like making any of them, they told me that perhaps they could get the materials if I had my own ideas about what I wanted to make. I assured them there wasn’t anything I cared to make except scar tissue.
They were quite understanding and not at all aggressive and each of them spent some time chatting with me. I decided later that their avoidance of war talk and discussion of the wounds or ailments of the men in the hospital was probably the result of the courses the Red Cross gave them. In most cases their conversation was naturally gay and they were successful in their effort to be charming distractions.
Shortly after they left the ward, several women wearing green smocks came in. They had baskets under their arms and they too made the rounds of the beds. I learned that these green-smocked women are in the Arts and Crafts branch of the Red Cross. They are not in competition with the Gray Ladies because they dispense to the soldiers material for less utilitarian objects, which, however, rate slightly higher artistically. They had charcoal and colored crayons and drawing paper for the making of pictures. A few of the men in the ward took crayons and paper.
There was a radio at the end of the ward, not far from my bed, and it seemed to me that it was a very peculiar radio. Practically all that came out of it was musical commercials and three songs — “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Mairzy Doats,” and a song which sounded like “Bessie My Mucho,” which made even less sense than “Mairzy Doats.” The radio was turned on at six every morning by the medical corpsman, who had discovered that it was a great help in waking up his patients at the time we were supposed to get up. It was rarely turned off until lights out at ten. Everyone in the ward knew all the commercials, and the musically inclined patients sang them along with the radio all day. The one I like best, and in my opinion it is the prettiest music on the radio today, is the Dentine Chewing Gum song. The lyrics, of course, are somewhat sordid in their commercialism, but the music is gay and infectious. In fact, I still can’t drive the tune out of my head.
We patients right near the radio sometimes said we wanted the radio turned down low, and one or two of the more daring ones among us even sometimes said we wanted the damn thing shut off. But someone at the other end of the room always let out an agonized wail if the radio was touched. Since this is a democratic army, the will of the majority prevailed and the radio played on.
In these respects, every day was like the one before. The Gray Ladies came around each day — mornings, afternoons, and nights; the green-smocked ladies came around at various times in the day; and the radio played on. Then, too, there were the telephone girls. These are girls sent around by the telephone company with a portable phone which hooks into connections in the wall. A gay and wealthy friend tells me the same thing is done at some night clubs, and I have seen it done in the movies.
The phone girls, of course, arc meant to be a convenience to the bed patients, but they are more than that. They are all a good deal younger than the average Gray Lady or green-smocked Red Cross worker, and most of them are pretty. I don t know if they get a course of training in how to talk to soldiers who are in bed, or whether their manner is natural because they are, after all, girls. At any rate, they are a great source of entertainment.
A more formal sort of entertainment was provided in the evenings. People, generally escorted by a Gray Lady, kept wandering into our ward to build up our morale after supper. Sometimes there were movies from Hollywood and sometimes something a little less professional. I shall never forget the stirring pictures of ski jumping at Lake Placid which were shown to us by an earnest and kindly old gentleman. He had made the movie himself and he provided us with a running commentary.
The reel started off with a party of skiers arriving at the jump in a station wagon. There were long and intriguing shots of the skiers waxing their skis. Then came the climax. One of the party, a professional and, I think, a champion of some sort, was shown taking off. He slid down the frightening jump for a number of feet and then the camera must have jumped or something, for there was the skier sliding down the hill after the jump. “I missed the actual jump,” said the photographer, “but here he is now sliding down the rest of the hill.” I forget now how many hundreds of feet he said the skier had jumped.
Then there was the fisherman who came to us with movies of himself taken while catching fish, He was a fairly young man but he had apparently spent a good part of his life catching fish. He had a photographic record of most of them.
We could always depend on one team of entertainers. They were a man and woman who came to build our morale every Monday night. The man pushed a small piano into ihe ward and the woman made a pretty little game of helping him. She was a rather attractive woman and we learned from her, when one of the men asked her what she did every night but Monday, that she sings in night clubs. The man accompanied her while she skipped around the beds, singing. She always asked what songs we wanted, but what she wanted to sing was “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Mairzy Doats,” and “Bessie My Mucho.” After several Mondays we just asked her to sing those songs to save a lot of trouble. It didn’t matter much what she sang anyway, I discovered; what most of us soldiers were interested in was not her voice, but her shape.
Some of the cast of Oklahoma! came out to the hospital one night, and after they had finished entertaining the ambulatory patients at the big Red Cross auditorium, they were brought around to the wards to entertain the bed patients. The ward I was in drew about half a dozen of the girls and one of the male dancers. Someone wheeled in the piano and the girls walked around the room, smiling and saying hello to the patients. One of them came to my bed and smiled. She was a pretty, dark-haired girl.
“Hello,” I said. “ You in Oklahoma?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m in the show. Have you seen it?”
I told her I had tried to get tickets several times, but hadn’t been able to. She laughed. “Well,” she said, “don’t ask me to get them for you because I can’t get tickets myself. I have to stand in line to buy them for my friends and I hate it. But you shouldn’t miss the show.” I said I’d try not to.
One night, after I was allowed out of bed and was able to take care of my own morale building, I was at the hospital’s Post Exchange drinking a glass of beer. A civilian walked into the room and we both realized at the same time that we knew each other. He walked over to my table and said hello. We both confessed that we didn’t remember each other’s name. We exchanged names then and shook hands. He was a lawyer I had run into occasionally several years ago.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Visiting someone?”
“No,” he said, shyly but with a touch of pride, “I’m an amateur magician, and I come here once in a while to entertain the boys and build up their morale.”