"The Guy in the Next Bed"
HENRIETTA SHARON, illustrator living in New York, had the idea of organizing a group of artists who would visit and sketch the wounded in near-by hospitals. How the boys in the wards took to the idea you will see in the pages which follow. Miss Sharon had as her associates Albert Hirschfeld (Times staff cartoonist), Berney Tobey (who had formerly sketched at Stage Door Canteen), Wallace Morgan (illustrator and AEF artist in the last war), Willard Fairchild, Louis Giacobbe (USN), George Greller (Herald Tribune), Victor de Pauw (of the New Yorker and Fortune staffs), and others who will appear in her account. This paper has been drawn from Miss Sharon’s new book. It’s Good to Be Alive, which Dodd, Mead will publish this spring.
by HENRIETTA SHARON
IT WAS Allan Olson who told us that the drawings we were making of patients in the wards were not just entertainment for the patients. He said they had educational and therapeutic value. Olson was a Welfare Specialist, First Class, USNR, and his duties were to assist the Protestant chaplain at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital with everything regarding the welfare and recreation of the patients. These duties ran the gamut from arranging weddings, funerals, and dances to providing theater tickets, playing the organ for chapel services, and even taking under his wing our weekly program of artists. He knew every boy in the hospital, where he came from, and what was on his mind, any ambitions he had, the name of his girl, and where he hurt the most. We listened with amazement when he told us of the far-reaching results he traced from the sketches we were making.
One of the best stories was about Charles Paris, a commercial artist, who went to the Brooklyn Naval Hospital with us one evening. Robert McKay had brought Paris along. When we were halfway to the hospital, Paris informed me that he could only drawhorses. This was staggering. I felt I could have coped with pin-up girls, but pin-up horses was too big a problem.
Olson solved it. He took Paris to one of the wards to draw for a boy who was so ill that for days he had been under a twenty-four-hour watch. The boy was a former cowboy from New Mexico, named Jimmy, with a passion for horses. Olson hoped that a drawing of a horse might arouse his interest.
He introduced Paris to Jimmy, who was lying flat in bed and didn’t bother to speak. Paris sat down by the bed and spread out his materials — he had brought water colors. Jimmy closed his eyes to show his lack of interest. But when Olson passed through the ward a little later, on the way back to his office, the former cowboy was resting on one elbow, watching the horse growing under Paris’s fingers; and when Olson came back a little before nine to collect Paris, the boy was sitting up in bed, the finished drawing on his knees, eagerly discussing horses.
I took Paris back the next week at Olson’s request. Olson told me that after Paris’s first visit, the twenty-four-hour watch was no longer necessary; Jimmy had, apparently, made up his mind to get well. He was dressed and walking when Paris returned to the hospital and he introduced him to the other men in the ward as “My friend Mr. Paris, the artist.”
The morale, we found, was the highest wherever the men had suffered the most. In the wards where men lay blind, or with draining stumps of amputated arms or legs, or with half their faces torn away; in the wards where they alternately shivered and burned with malaria, or ached with rheumatic fever; and in the wards where men lay for weary months in traction apparatus, the morale was high.
In the neuro-psychiatric wards the patients, their problems, and their reactions were entirely different and the atmosphere was not the same. Some of the men were suffering from combat hysteria or shock. Many of them had collapsed after hideous experiences under fire. On the other hand there were several who had cracked up because of homesickness, anxiety, fear, or the strain of military discipline. Their neuroses were not always the direct result of war.
I felt a certain amount of tension when I first went into a psychopathic ward. The men were all up and dressed, but they kept away from me until I began to draw one of them, a sailor named Wade. Presently I was conscious of a ring of men silent ly watching. I looked up into a boyish, snub-nosed little face with a sprinkling of freckles on the short nose.
“We’re nuts, you know,” he said airily. “See?”
He leaned over my head, carefully removed something between his thumb and the third finger of his right hand, then flung up his hand as if releasing some winged creature. “Butterflies,” he said.
They all laughed except Wade.
“Didn’t they tell you we were nuts?” asked a sailor with a long, solemn face and sad eyes.
“Didn’t they tell you I was?” I asked. “Artists, you know —”
That lightened the tension. Everybody began to talk. I had almost finished drawing Wade when the nurse came up to me.
“One of our patients would like to be sketched,” she said. She pointed to a man at the other end of the ward. “Could you do him next?”
He was an ordinary sort of man. Nothing unusual about him except for the fact that both hands were bandaged. He didn’t say very much. Afterward I was to wish I had talked with him more.
I heard the story much later from Olson. The man had been in a fire at sea and his hands had been badly burned. The flesh and some of the bone had been eaten away. The doctors had done a particularly skillful job of bone and skin grafting and the patient was nearly cured, but not in his own mind. Nothing would induce him to use his hands, because he was convinced they were useless. Even various forms of occupational therapy failed. He became morose and was finally moved to ihe psychopathic ward. He let his beard grow, on the plea that he couldn’t shave himself.
For some reason, that first night I went into the ward he wanted to have his picture drawn. Some latent pride, I suppose, made him want to look his best for his wife. Whatever he thought, he marched himself into the head and with the “useless” hands shaved off his beard; then he sat for his portrait. From that time on he began to use his hands, and a month or so afterward he went back to sea duty.
BY NOVEMBER we had settled down to a routine: St. Albans every Monday night, Brooklyn every Thursday night. The group of artists was growing. Willard Fairchild brought along Ruth Rodgers, who had a husband in the Navy somewhere in the South Pacific. Wally Morgan brought John Holmgren and Bill Pachner. Ann Schabbehar, whose fiance was in India with the RAF, joined us. Others who came were Travis Cliett, Jean Robins, Charles Hawes, Ray Prohaska, Berj Gary, Frank Bensing and his daughter Punkie, John Vickery, Kay Kenny, and Aurilla Ashenbach.
Some months after we started work in the hospitals, we found that the patients wanted copies of the drawings, so we started to photostat them. Each artist paid for the photostating of his or her drawings, and the patient received the original to send home and a print and a negative for himself. Many of the patients had copies made from the negative and sent them to girl friends as Christmas presents. One of the boys asked an artist to please write on the drawing, “To the One and Only,” and then asked if he could have ten copies.
One Thursday the whole staff of “Superman” — ten of them, including Joe Shuster, artist-creator of the famous comic strip — went with me to the Brooklyn Naval Hospital. I had gone to the “Superman” office one day during my lunch hour and told them the story. They all agreed to go. Harry Childs, in charge of publicity for “Superman,” made the arrangements (incidentally, without benefit of publicity). Seven staff artists, Harry Childs, and Joe Shuster himself came along. They brought a hundred and fifty comic magazines and a hundred and fifty cartons of cigarettes to give to the men.
The patients learned how comics are made. They had their pictures drawn with their own heads and Superman bodies. And they were loaded down with cigarettes and comic magazines. Modest little Joe Shuster took the wards by storm.
All my spare time was spent in calling artists. Most of them were eager to try it. Occasionally somebody would say, “Oh, I couldn’t go into a hospital. I’m too tender-hearted.”
Everyone went for the first time under the impression that he would find the hospitals depressing, and was surprised when he didn’t.
Sometimes an artist would say to me in a worried voice, “I’m a IV-F, you know, — my eyes, — but I look perfectly healthy. Won’t they resent me?”
But the patients never did; they felt only gratitude as long as the artist was sincere and the drawing was good.
Sometimes an artist would say, “But I shouldn’t know what to talk about. What could I say to them?”
After the first visit no one gave that problem another thought. There was so much to talk about — the patient’s wife or his girl or his home town, or how the artist got to be an artist. If the patient wasn’t talkative, that didn’t matter either; the artist just concentrated on his job.
Sometimes an artist would say, “But how can I work with all the distractions and the bad lights?”
That problem was solved only by getting used to the surroundings. At first the noise, the talkative audience of kibitzers, the laughing patient (somebody was always making him laugh), the dim center lights, all were disturbing. But after the artist had gone to the hospital several times he found that all these little difficulties became just a part of the job. He got into a certain rhythm. He began to sacrifice style and artistic drawing to getting a likeness. He developed a routine, according to his speed, and turned out from two to five drawings a night.
Often for a very sick patient, who couldn’t sit long, the artist had to make a “quickie.” For the foreshortened drawings, where a man was flat in bed, he developed a technique. I always had to stand up to draw a bed patient because I was too short to see him when I sat down. Sometimes a patient wanted to be drawn in a uniform, complete with hat and insignia. The one clear objective was to please the patient. That was all that mattered.
IT WAS in one of the surgical wards at St. Albans Naval Hospital that I met Eddie. Eddie came from New Orleans. He was very dark, with the blue blackness of the full-blooded Negro. He was tall, and even in his wheelchair he gave the impression of standing erect. The night I drew his picture the first thing I noticed was the sweetness in his face — that and the way he crinkled it up to laugh. They were hard qualities to capture on paper and the drawing didn’t have his spirit.
I was disappointed with it, but he seemed pleased. When I signed the drawing he gave me his name. It was a French name, musical and flowing. I pronounced it as I wrote it and Eddie laughed.
“That’s right,” he said delightedly. “That’s just right. You should hear what the Navy does to it.”
Eddie had been a gunner on a mine sweeper. The mine sweeper had been blown lip in the Mediterranean and Eddie was just completing his fifth month with his leg in a plaster cast.
One of the Red Cross recreation workers told me Eddie was a hero — that he had saved the lives of several men aboard his ship. But Eddie never mentioned it.
“When the explosion came,” said Eddie, “I was blown up fifteen feet in the air. I landed on the deck with an awful crash.”
“Didn’t it knock you out?”
“No,” said Eddie, “it was funny, it didn’t. I kept wondering why it didn’t. I just laid there wondering why it didn’t. Blood was gushing out of my leg and out of my hand. I was lying in a pool of blood. I never saw anything like it before. There was a guy lying on top of me and he was screaming. There was another guy with half his face shot off. I recognized him — Swanson, one of the gunners. ... I don’t rightly remember how they got us off, but they did — all of us. I saw the ship go down. You know, it was funny,” Eddie said in his soft voice, “I was glad to see the ship go down — all of that blood and all — I was glad to see it go down.
“They took us off at Bizerte and laid us on the decks. There were boatloads of guys being brought in. I was afraid they would amputate my leg — it was broken in several places — and they were doing a lot of amputating to save guys from dying. I figured maybe I wasn’t going to die after all. I just laid there thinking. It was funny how I kept thinking about God. It seemed as if thinking about God was the only thing I could do. It seemed as if I’d gotten down to cases for the first time in my life and the only real things were fife and death and God. Everything was kind of wrapped around with maybes. Maybe they’d save my leg. Maybe I wouldn’t die. Maybe I’d go home.
“They put me in a hospital in Bizerte. Then after a while they moved me. I was in four other hospitals before they sent me back to the States. It was good to be back — it was good to be alive. But I want to get into service again,” he added after a pause; “I want to get back in until it’s over.”
“Most of them feel like that,” I said.
“Yes,” said Eddie, “I think the other guys feel like that. Most of us feel the same way about things.”
“I’ve noticed that — the way you share things, the way you build each other up.”
“Sure,” said Eddie. “It happens that way. Shep says nobody can build you up like the guy in the next bed.”
The Monday night after Christmas we went to St. Albans. A huge Christmas tree decorated the Recreation Hall; late-arriving gifts stood piled up in the Red Cross office; and so many patients had gone on leave that the wards seemed almost deserted.
That night, I worked in a room off one of the wards. There were three patients in this room and they had hung some mistletoe over the door and were exacting payment from every nurse or Wave corpsman who came in.
The three patients, who were all in casts, had been in the hospital a long time. There was a big towheaded fellow from Wisconsin, known as Lefty. He had been a southpaw pitcher in some minor baseball league. There was Ricardo, a Spaniard from Mexico City. And there was Steiner, a Jewish boy from the Bronx.
I drew Steiner’s picture last. Steiner had been a cook aboard an airplane carrier. The carrier had been hit and Steiner had had his back broken. For months he had been incased in a plaster cast like a turtle inside his shell. Lefty called him “Brother Terrapin.”
“How about putting a hat on me?” Steiner asked.
“A hat!” snorted Lefty. “With that coffin you’re wearin’?”
“You know what happens to them guys in body casts?” Lefty asked me while I was drawing the hat on Steiner.
“They’re limited to three glasses of beer, so they won’t swell up and crack the cast,” said Lefty delightedly.
“Besides,” said Ricardo, “they stink.”
“Here’s your picture,” I said to Steiner.
Steiner took it and held it up for the ot hers to see.
“Jeez!” breathed Lefty. “Did you flatter that guy!”
“Are you going to send it to your wife?” I asked.
Steiner shook his head.
“I haven’t got a wife,” he said disgustedly. “I’d only been married a month when I got my orders, and when I got back she said she’d fallen in love with another guy. So — we got a divorce.”
“ Well, what’d you expect?” demanded Lefty. He turned to me. “Steiner only knew the girl two weeks, and she was just eighteen. I told him the next time he got married, to marry a woman.”
“Whom are you going to send it to?” I asked.
“Believe it or not,” said Steiner, “I’m gonna send it to my mother-in-law. She’s a grand old girl.”
“Now I’ve heard everything,” said Lefty.
I had drawn a number of the boys in his ward at St. Albans before I drew Buck. Buck was hard to convince. He was a cynic. When I first asked if I might draw his picture, he said, “How much is it?”
“What’s the catch?”
“There isn’t any.”
He looked at me suspiciously out of a pair of ironic black eyes — eyes that didn’t quite match in size.
“Yeah?” said Buck. “There’s always a catch.”
So I went to the next bed and drew Ellis. Ellis was Buck’s pal. He was little and tubby with a round, merry face.
“Don’t pay any attention to Buck,” said Ellis. “He’s got a suspicious nature. He thinks everybody is mazuma-minded the way he is.”
“And who,” demanded Buck, “won five dollars off of me last night in a gyp game?”
“Oh, that,” murmured Ellis depreciatingly.
“Hold your head still,” I said.
“I can’t,” said Ellis, “or I’ll go to sleep.”
This proved to be true and I finished his drawing under difficulties. Buck observed it impartially.
“So that’s the catch,” he remarked coolly.
“What catch?” I demanded with exasperation.
“You flatter the boys,” he said. “You build up their egos. You,” he said accusingly, “are a DoGooder!”
I went home chastened.
But the next week I was back in the same ward drawing another boy. Buck heckled me all the time I was making the drawing.
When I finally drew Buck’s picture it was a minor triumph.
“But don’t let it set you up,” Buck warned me. “I’m not impressed, you understand — except by your persistence. I never saw anyone so damned persistent.”
IN THE summer of 1944, Kay Kenny and I went to Valley Forge General Hospital. We lived in the Nurses’ Quarters, a big, beautifully kept building set a little apart from the hospital. We ate our meals with the nurses and WAC officers attached to the hospital staff and sketched in the wards during the day.
Although it is a general hospital and handles every type of case, Valley Forge is famous as one of the five Army hospitals — Walter Reed, Letterman, Bushnell, and O’Reilly are the others — specializing in plastic surgery. New surgical techniques and improvements of old ones are being used here by some of the finest plastic surgeons in the world. The famous plastic surgeon at. Valley Forge is Lieutenant Colonel Brown, and Kay and I saw many evidences of the miracles he had performed.
Colonel Brown was away on leave when we were there, so that we were unable to meet him, but we talked with one of his assistants, Sergeant Eliscu.
Technical Sergeant Frank Eliscu used to be a sculptor. His job at the hospital was to make careful drawings of each plastic surgery patient from the time of his entrance into the hospital to the time when he was cured. He also made plaster masks of the patients, and while we looked through the sketches and studied the masks, he told us stories about some of the cures performed.
“How do you like the work you are doing?” I asked.
The Sergeant turned his eager dark eyes on me.
“I like it,” he said. “ I like being a part of it. To rebuild men’s faces is the greatest creative work I’ve ever done. Look there,” he said, pointing.
Behind the glass doors of a cabinet filled with various art materials were several small bronzes. One was the figure of a fawn, another of a cock. They were delicately and beautifully made.
“That was the sort of thing I did in civilian life,” said the Sergeant.
He pointed to a mask hanging over his desk. The face was grim. The nose was a gaping hole; one side of the jaw was crushed; the mouth was drawn into a sneer. The Sergeant had shown us the sketches of the rehabilitated face that went with the mask.
“That’s the sort of thing I do now,” he said. “ I’d rather be doing it.”
Joe was not very tall and he was built like a piece of spaghetti. A long red scar ran down the side of his face from his forehead to his chin. On his left temple another scar emerged from his eyebrow and crawled halfway up to his hairline. Both scars lifted his eyebrows and lent him a permanently quizzical expression. His whole face was a little lopsided like a drawing made by a child. These were Joe’s visible scars. In addition, he had a silver kneecap, and a silver plate inside his head.
The day before, when I had drawn his picture, he had said to me royally, “Make me look the way I’m going to look when the doc gets through with me.”
He had seemed to be in no doubt that he was going to look all right. So I had studied the line of his features and drawn him with an eye to the future.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Virginia.” His lopsided mouth twisted into a grin. “But not one of the F.F.V.’s. I belong to the new order.” He indicated the white letters on his dark-red hospital pajamas. “MD, USA. Know what they stand for?”
“Not as regards the inner circles,” I admitted.
“Many Die,” he quoted. “U Shall Also.”
“That’s not very encouraging.”
“It’s only a joke,” he explained solemnly. “Nobody thinks they’re going to die when they get in the doc’s hands. Have you met him — Colonel Brown, I mean?”
“He’s terrific,” Joe said. “There’s nobody like him. He’s the best plastic surgeon in the world,” he said with conviction, “and besides that he’s such a damn human guy.”
“I’ve heard about some of his miracles.”
“After a while,” said Joe, “you get used to seeing miracles performed every day. Look at Ernie over there. — Ernie!” he called across the ward.
Ernie came over.
“Ernie,” said Joe, “don’t you think what the doc did for your face was a miracle?”
Ernie jerked a thumb in the direction of the drawing. “I think what she’s doin’ for your face is a bigger miracle,” he drawled.
Joe was patient.
“Ernie didn’t have any nose when he came,” he explained. “Nor any left eye, either. He was a sight — weren’t you, Ernie?”
This time Ernie agreed. “When they seen me at Stark,” he said, “the only way they could tell my face from a piece of beefsteak was because it didn’t have no points on it.”
Joe looked pained.
“Ernie,” he explained, “is given to jokes.”
On the Thursday following August 19, 1944, we celebrated the end of a year of drawing in the wards at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital. Olson was there, and some of the patients I had met in those first months were stilt in the hospital.
We knew t hat the men we had seen in the hospitals during the last year were only the advance guard of those who were to come. And the hospitals we worked in were a patch on the national quilt. There were men we knew who had been hospitalized for two years with no time limit set upon their departure, and there would be more of these. Long after the war had drawn to its close, the wounded would lie in the wards of the Army and Navy hospitals all over the country waiting to get well, waiting to go home.