The Bivouac of the Dead and Other Memories

I began my internship in 1980 at a Veterans Administration hospital in Johnson City Tennessee--the Mountain Home VA. To this day I don't think I have seen a more beautiful campus with quaint brick buildings, lush lawns, dogwood lining the main avenue, and white southern mansions in which the doctors lived.

But most beautiful and poignant was the cemetery, just to the right of the main entrance. Established in 1903 as a tribute to this corner of the "Volunteer" state that had contributed 30,000 volunteer soldiers to the Union, it was maintained beautifully.  I would walk through that cemetery with reverence, the pages of history becoming more real when I  read the names on headstones of men who had died in the civil war and every war since.

There was a plaque in the cemetery bearing these lines without attribution:





I returned some years later as a specialist to work at that VA and I lived in one of the grand antebellum houses (or maybe they were post bellum--but they fit my idea of what antebellum looks like).  I loved the old open wards, which, even though they were outmoded and needed to be replaced by semi-private rooms, seemed to recreate for the patients the intimacy, the camaraderie and the supportive environment of a barracks. I could often get from the patient in the next bed the low down on his neighbor's progress through the night.

My patients in those first days of my internship were largely World War II veterans, in their late fifties and sixties at the time.  I recall the generosity of their spirit to us young physicians, and the stories they traded of service in North Africa, or the Pacific theater, or landing at Normandy.  I wonder now how many of them are still with us--so much time has passed.

Tonight while writing this piece, I reached for my first book (which I have rarely gone back to because I immediately want to change things); it was the true story of AIDS arriving in that idyllic corner of east Tennessee.

I found a passage where I described nights when I would dream that I had floated down from my bedroom in the big white house, drawn to the hospital and to Ward 8, my favorite. I write about the sights and smells of the ward, the smoking room at the end of the hall, the walls yellowed with nicotine.

I was suprised to find I had written this: "I loved the old men; I loved their sounds; I loved the way they let us take care of them and the way they and their wives bonded to us, seeking us out on every visit. And when finally  oat-cell cancer of the lung or a variceal bleed claimed them, I would hear from the wives for years: cards on Memorial Day, a surprise visit to my office with a present of a giant hug and homemade corn bread."

So here's to those men and women from every era. And to their spouses. I wanted them to hear from me tonight. Thank you.

(What triggered this memory is a wonderful series of pictures in sight of the orderly rows of gravestones stretching to the horizon could have been from the cemetery in Mountain Home).