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Special Feature July 13, 2006

A Hospital Night

It was at the 67th Field Medical Hospital. . .can't remember the
city right now, want to say Tay Ninh. . .but that's not it. Perhaps as I tap out the memories on my keyboard the city will come to me.

I had asked to spend the night in the hospital and to be awakened if and when they had casualties come in. I wanted to
do a feature on triage treatment of battle casualties, the up front and personal view of a medical team operating in a time of crisis.

First incident. . .I was awakened by someone jostling me. It was a doctor. "What's this guy doing in my bed!. . ." he was bellowing. The nurses shushed him and said. . ."Quiet! He's a reporter. He's just doing a job."

"I don't care," said the doctor, "he's sleeping in my bed."

"There are plenty of beds here . . leave him alone. Let him sleep."

I would have gladly gotten up and given the doctor his bed but I was too tired to enter into any debate. The nurses rushed the doctor out of the area and I went back to sleep. (The doctor had NOT been working for 24 hours stitching up maimed troopers; he was just used to having his way and was pissed that someone was in his bed. The story of Goldilocks came to my mind, I recall).

Incident two . . . I was again jostled awake. This time by a nurse. "We have a casualty," she said. I wiped the sleep away from my eyes and, somewhat bleary-eyed, stumbled out of the good doctor's warm bed. "One casualty?," I asked.

"Yes," she said. "An Air Force Master Sgt. attempted suicide.
Shot himself".

We hurried to the Emergency Room. I had my tape recorder with me as I wanted to prepare a radio feature, later transcribing into a column for my newspapers as well.

We arrive.
There are about four or five medical personnel rapidly administering a variety of treatments to the patient. They have
stripped him of his clothing and they have a variety of tourniquets of some type on his legs and arms, apparently trying to control blood pressures. They quickly turn his body over, almost like flipping a pancake. They flip him three or four times. They are pounding
on his chest, then pounding on his back. There's a lot of movement, motion. There is a great deal of blood from a head wound.

I am talking into my microphone, describing the events. I never knew it would be this bloody. The smell of ether hits me, of medicinial alcohol, the smell of blood. The blood and gore and hospital smells well up inside of me and I feel myself growing faint. I stop talking and head for the door, eager for some fresh air. I also feel nauseated and if I am to throw up I want to do so outside. These medical people are too busy with important stuff. . .I don't want them to be concerned about me.

I reach the exit door and step outside. I take a couple of welcome deep breaths. It is about 5 or 5:30am. It is a comfortably
warm morning. The sunrise is upon us, just rising from behind the purple mountains. There is just a hint of mist in the foothills of the mountains. It promises to be a beautiful day.

The thought strikes me and remains with me to this day. . here it is the beginning of a brand new, beautiful day. . .and the ending of the day for the Air Force Master Sergeant.

It is the occasional random thought such as the above that tends to stick with you. The contrast between life and death, between the beginning of a day and the ending of a day (or life).

The Sergeant did not survive. I have often wondered what caused him to commit suicide. I never pursued the thought.

Qui Nonh. That was the name of the city. Qui Nonh.


Having drawn fire twice on my prior tour of Vietnam I decided, in case I drew more accurate fire this time around, to route myself to Vietnam the second year by way of Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji and Australia. I'm still kicking myself for not having set down in New Zealand for a couple days. . seeing as how I was in the neighborhood and all.

It seems that no matter from whence you come it is a horrendously long flight to Tahiti. I arrived under cover of darkness. Frankly, I don't remember whether it was 3 in the morning or 10 at night . . . I just remember being dead tired.

I remember the descent into Papeete', the excitement of seeing one of the South Sea Islands noted for its beauty. It is not overexaggerated! Even with the fragrant odor of JP4 (jet fuel) at the airport one could still smell the soft, warm
tropical breezes redolent with the fragrance of flowers. I was
feeling refreshed already.

The next pleasant surprise followed my cab ride to my hotel. I attempted to give the cab driver a tip and he declined saying, "Oh, no, thank you sir. It is an honor to have you visit Tahiti. We don't accept tips." That custom prevailed throughout the islands. Don't know if it still does or not. I do know the cost of visiting Tahiti has increased plenty.

I only spent three days in Tahiti (it was a working trip, you know). After a good night’s sleep chased most of the jet lag away, I went swimming in the lagoon of our hotel complex. I have never swum in such crystal clear water. Just like in all the tourist photos you've ever seen. A beautiful aquamarine world with fish everywhere you looked. Unfortunately, I was not then a certified scuba diver. It would have been great to scuba in Tahitian waters. I am now a certified scuba diver and I can think of no finer adventure that exploring Tahitian waters.

I don't remember the name of the hotel complex (it's been 38 years) but it was one of the deluxe ones. We had our own private thatched hut with ceiling fans, just like in the movies. The lawn was manicured to perfection, all was still and quiet and elegant. There was a fresh water swimming pool just yards away from my hut, perhaps 20 yards away from the ocean.

We began to meet our fellow travelers. A sheik from Araby, an obviously wealthy but very secretive older man, two nurses from Seattle, an older married couple that wanted to keep to themselves.

The Tahitians are musicians. Fantastic musicians. They will sing at the drop of a hat - or a pareau (the lovely wrap around skirt worn by both men and women). Every evening they have a "sing-sing" and entertainment. The singers are joyful in their expression, play a mean guitar as only South Sea Islanders can play, and the dancers. . .well, the dancers are something special. The national dance is the "tamure" (tamooray). Take the Hawaiian Hula - increase the revs by about 1000 per minute and you have a fair outline of the tamure. I can't remember when I've enjoyed singing or dancing more than at Tahiti.

After the entertainment we adjourned to the manicured lawn by poolside. I interviewed the sheik (and learned the correct pronounciation is "shake") after which he asked to sing into my tape recorder. He then proceeded to sing some low, wailing type of lyric that went on and on. I have no idea what he was singing about.

The sheik was wearing a platinum watch. I asked to see it. I was amazed at how heavy a platinum watch is. Heavier than pure gold, I expect. I put it on and fantasized for a short while what it must be like to buy all types of expensive baubles. The conversation went on for about an hour, and I was wearing this expensive platinum watch all the time. The sheikh had forgotten about his bauble. Probably had two or three more in his brief case. Reluctantly, I reminded him I had his watch and returned it to him.

I struck up a conversation with the two nurses from Seattle. One was rather attractive, the other reasonably plain. I would have enjoyed a stroll along the romantic beach with the rather attractive one. I got stuck with the reasonably plain one. We had a pleasant enough stroll, chatting easily, said good night, - even got a good night kiss, perfunctory though it was.

The next day I met a most engaging and attractive young man. He was movie star handsome. About 6' tall, blond, well built, ready smile and beautiful teeth. I don't remember his name but he was a molecular physicist. It amazed me that such a young man would have acquired such academic credentials. You would not know he was a molecular physicist to talk to him. He just seemed like normal people. Molecular physicists walk around in white lab coats, are usually bald, wear horn rim glasses and say, "hmmmmmm" a lot. This guy had sailed with his brother from LA to Tahiti in their own sailboat. His brother had taken the boat and gone on to other ports and this guy was "stranded" in Papeete'. (Incidentally, it's pronounced Papa-Yat-ay. Don't forget that. There will be questions later).

I talked about taking the next mornings boat to Moorea' - an island we could clearly see from our breakfast table; it was probably not more than 20-30 miles. "Naw," don't do that," he said. "Sleep in. I'll go down and rent a plane and we'll fly over." Flying from Papeete' to Moorea! In a private plane! With a molecular physicist no less! (And, incidentally, it's pronounced "Moore-Ay-Uh". And don't think I won't be listening to how you pronounce these words).

We spent the day together, this handsome dude and me. He attracted all kinds of wahines. I imagine a lot of them were attracted to me as well - but, well, I'm sure most of them sensed that I was a happily married man (at that time, at least) and all and decided to settle for this handsome chap I was hanging around with. At least I like to think that.

The Tahitian people are a handsome people. For some strange reason I tended to note that the Tahitian women were particularly attractive. Like Hawaiians the older women tend to add a pound or two here and there, mostly there, but the young Tahitian women are beautifully sculpted. They have laughing eyes and faces. Free love is quite the accepted thing. At one time the Tahitians knew only singing, dancing, making love, having babies, living a wonderfully unfettered life of happiness.

Then the missionaries came.

I am convinced the missionaries ruined Tahiti. Tahitians didn't know what "sin" was until these holier than thou missionaries came on board the islands and insisted these heathen people (lovely and unspoiled that they were) stop sinning. They then proceeded to explain what "sinning" was. "You put on some clothes and cease and desist from making love," they would say. They even introduced a horrible sounding word . . . "fornicating."

Fortunately, the Tahitian customs die hard. They still enjoyed free love while I was there. (But remember, this is only anecdotal evidence. Remember also, that, at the time, I was a happily married man.). There was no greater compliment you could pay a lady then to impregnate her. There was no greater honor for a lady than to be with child. All were happy. A new child was to be born to Tahiti and the Tahitian family would care for and love that child.

Paradise does have its problems, however. Not only the missionaries came to Paradise but it was quickly followed by the French Navy. (We are in French Polynesia, you know.) As a result of the Free Love custom and the French Navy - well you have a rather high VD rate. Then it was gonorrhea. I shudder to think what it must be in today's STD environment. Whether AIDS has become a major problem in Tahiti, I don't know.

In any event my molecular physicist friend struck up a brief but public and passionate relationship with a lovely young wahine (pronounced "wa-heeney"; and don't you forget it! I've given you three words now and you've mispronounced them at least twice each. I'm starting to get steamed).

The next morning I slept in. I heard the hustle and bustle of the tourists gathering to grab the morning boat to Moorea. I smiled, thinking of the leisurely taxi ride to the the airport, boarding our very own personal private aircraft that my pal, the molecular physicist/pilot/yachtsman/wealthy/ brainy/handsome pal had rented, taxiing on the tarmac out to the runway, revving up the engine (or perhaps engines; this guy probably had a multi-engine rating, perhaps a jet rating?), streaking down the runway, lifting off into an azure sky, reaching altitude only to begin a gentle descent on the island of Moorea (pronounced "wa-heeny").

I was just finishing breakfast when ol' H. M.P. walked up. (H.M.P. = Handsome Molecular Physicist). There would be no plane ride to Moorea'. All the private rental planes had been rented out. I was stuck on Papeete'.

Of all the cursed luck! Here I was, stuck on Papeete', surrounded by beautiful people who played, sang and danced well. With delicious food, ample amounts of intoxicating liquors, soft summer breezes and a beautiful surfline outlining an aquamarine sea under blue, cloudless skies.

And I never did get to Moorea.

That night, late, I was scheduled to leave Paradise (pronounced "Ta-heet-ee").

As the sun began to drop below the horizon I marveled at the panoply of colors. There is something about a Hawaiian sunset. . .a Tahitian sunset. They are indescribable. Magical. The only sad thing was . . .I was alone. By myself in Tahiti. No special lady to share it with.

I promised myself that one day I would go back to see that very same sunset, with someone very special. I shall keep that promise.

But I have yet to return to Tahiti.





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