Grumpy Old Men

It’s a rainy day here in the Lakeside Area. Muy lluvioso. I didn’t really have any plans for today, but it just became the perfect day to write. I’m going to have a lots of water to suck out of our supersized rain gauge once it stops raining.

I’m just hoping I don’t spend five hours rewriting this post after I finish writing it like I did with my last piece. The one thing I have going for me is that I actually know what I want to write about this time.

Believe it or not, that actually helps when you’re writing stuff.

* * * *

Historically, the Franks (Latin: Franci or gens Francorum) were a collection of Germanic peoples and tribes living along the west bank of the Rhine River since the 3rd century or so. Just in cases you didn’t know, the Rhine forms part of the border between France and Germany. And another just in cases, the country of France got its name because of the Franks.

When I was a psych nurse, the Franks were a collection of elderly male patients I cared for during my occasionally illustrious career. There were several of them, and in retrospect, you probably shouldn’t name your kid Frank. It’s seemigly a very popular name for crazy guys. There were a lots of Franks in my career. These are a few of my Most Memorable Frank’s. I could probably write a book about all of them if I ever get tired of writing my blog.

I met most of my Franks at the Minneapolis VAMC. The female nurses I used to work with there thought most of the old guys were cute, but as my buddy and former co-worker, Darrell, used to say, “There’s no such thing as a cute old veteran. I should know. I am one!”

You know what? Darrell was right. He wasn’t cute. I’m an old veteran now. I tend to agree with Darrell. I don’t think I’m all that cute either.

* * * *

Frank Bee was one of my patients at the Minneapolis VAMC. He was an old farmer guy who would check in periodically when he became depressed. He was a mostly quiet, round, little man who liked to hang around the nursing station and talk to the girls, especially the Night Shift nurses.

Part of the reason Frank was depressed was he lost his farm. He got old and he couldn’t keep up with all the stuff farmer guys have to do. And there was another thing. He told us his story one night when he couldn’t sleep.

Way back when Frank was a kid living on the family farm, he was the youngest child in a huge family. He had ten brothers and sisters. You need a lots of hands to get all chores done on the farm, so farmer guys tended to have a lots of kids. And the kids helped work the farm until they were old enough to leave the farm.

Farmer guys might love farming, but most of the time their children didn’t. They’d do anything they had to do to get the hell off the farm, even if it meant going to war in a country they’d never heard of before.

At any rate, young Frank had a pet rooster back on the farm. I didn’t know you could have a pet rooster, but according to old Frank, he and his rooster were inseparable when he was a kid. His rooster followed him around like a dog and they did everything together.

Being the youngest in his family, his older siblings would pick on him from time to time, and if their teasing ever got too physical, Frank’s pet rooster would have his back.

“He would fluff his feathers out and rip out with his spurs. He attacked more than one of my brothers. And at least one of my sisters. That rooster was kind of my guardian angel. He used to meet me at the end of the driveway when I got out of school. He was the only one that was happy to see me…  I would’ve let him sleep with me in my bed at night, but Mama wouldn’t have it.”

And then one day, Frank’s rooster didn’t meet him at the end of the driveway when he got home from school. He went inside to find his beloved pet rooster had been translated into a fried chicken dinner for the family while he was at school.

“You wouldn’t kill one of the hens, because they lay eggs. So if you butchered a chicken, it was always a rooster. But we had lots of roosters. Mama didn’t need to butcher my rooster.”

I can’t remember how or why Frank’s rooster got chosen. Maybe because Frank’s rooster had become too protective of Young Frank. But I do remember that Old Frank had carried a grudge against his mother for the rest of his life.

“I couldn’t eat that night. I loved that rooster, and everyone knew it. I never spoke to my mother again. She knew I loved that rooster. She didn’t have to butcher him.”

* * * *

Frank Dee was the first crazy Frank I met when I started working as a psych nurse. He was one of my patients at AMRTC, the Minnesota State Hospital. You had to be certified crazy by a judge to be there. I’m not sure how long Frank had been there when I started working there, but it was almost as long as I had been alive. I was thirty-one years old at the time.

Frank was bipolar. He was generally a genial guy, except when he wasn’t, and then he was like unto an angry bear. Come to think of it, he kind of looked like a bear. He had a thick beard, and bushy mad scientist eyebrows.  I learned a lots about the mood swings of bipolar people from Frank. Mostly what I learned was to tread carefully around Frank until I found out what mood he was in, and then continue to tread carefully because I never knew when the switch was going to flip.

Before he became committed to AMRTC for the rest of his life, Frank had been a high school football coach, I think. He was probably a teacher, too. He was certainly smart, and he knew a lots of stuff. He was married, and had two young girls under the age of ten. It was during that time in his life that Frank had a manic episode and became psychotic.

Very extremely psychotic.

Due to his illness, Frank began to believe that something terrible was going to happen to his daughters. Something very extremely terrible. They were going to be abducted, raped and murdered. My memory isn’t certain, but it was something along those dire lines. Frank was understandably distraught by this. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. Nor could he come up with a plan to protect his girls from this terrible fate his mind had convinced him was going to happen.

What Frank finally did is much less understandable. To protect his daughters from being harmed at the hands of malevolent stranger, he stabbed his oldest daughter to death and severely wounded his youngest before he was stopped by his wife.

You get to hear a lots of sad, sometimes tragic stories when you’re a psych nurse. Frank’s story was one of the most tragic tales I would ever hear.

* * * *

Frank Pee was a patient of mine at the MVAMC. He was almost ninety when I met him, and he was one of the few World War I veterans I cared for. Frank was a gentle old man, soft-spoken, and kind to everyone. He would periodically get depressed and come in for a tune up. His wife of seventy-odd years, Eunice, would come to visit him every time he was in the hospital, and she always brought homemade goodies for the nurses to eat.

We liked Frank, but we loved Eunice.

Frank wasn’t a great story teller, but he had a lots of stories to tell. I was his nurse many times. He was a guy you only needed to ask one question to, and he would ramble on through his memories for hours.

Frank was seventeen when he went over to Europe to fight in the Great War.

“I was young, and stupid. All I really wanted to do was get the hell offa my dad’s farm. I never wanted to see another horse or a cow or a pig again for as long as I lived. I thought going to war was going to be, you know, dashing and glamorous, compared to working on the farm.

“Yah, I was wrong about that. There’s nothing glamorous about war. And trench warfare is even worse. It’s nothing but mud, and bugs and rats, and sickness. And artillery bombardments. And fear. And stench. And loneliness. And death. I saw a lot of good young men die, and it turned out that they all died for nothing.

“That was supposed to be the war to end all wars, remember?

“And you know what I thought the worst part was at first? When I got to France, my sergeant found out I worked on a farm. Well, a lot of us boys had. But I was real good with the horses. I could gentle them real easy when they were spooked. And that’s what I did during the war. I took care of the horses.

“The one thing I ran away from home for, I ended up doing in the Army. Life is funny like that, isn’t it?”

After the war, Frank was part of a military exercise pitting horses against machines. The military saw promise in all those newfangled automobiles and trucks. In 1919, the Army staged a cross-country race, animals against machines. Frank was still working with the horses. Despite the frequent mechanical breakdowns and the sorry state of most of the roads, machines easily outperformed horses, and the modern Army was born.

Frank didn’t return to the farm when he got out of the Army. I can’t remember what he did, but I know it wasn’t farming

* * * *

Frank Vee is the last of the Frank’s I’m going to write about today. He was the oldest of all the Franks. He was in his mid-nineties when I met him. He was also a veteran of the Great War, like the previous Frank. But this Frank didn’t have any stories to tell. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak. He could. But he only said one thing. And he said it at the top of his lungs.

“HELP!!!”

It wasn’t a polite, “Excuse me, but could you help me.” This was much more of a terrified demand. It was as if Frank Vee was being stabbed to death by Frank Dee. It was like Frank had fallen into quicksand and he couldn’t get out. It was like he was being gang raped by the Oakland Raiders. It was that kind of a primal scream.

It was hell to live with. Nurses started calling in sick in record numbers, and no one volunteered to stay for an extra shift. Eight hours of Frank yelling in terror was actually more than anyone could take. No one wanted to go through it for sixteen hours straight.

For at least an entire month, that one very loud word became the mantra of my unit, and the bane of all of our collective existences. We heard Frank scream it almost every thirty seconds for roughly twenty hours a day or more. I’ll give it to Frank. That guy had a lots of stamina.

You try screaming at the top of your lungs for awhile. See how long you last.

It made no difference what we did. Frank shouted that he needed HELP!!! so we did everything we could think of to make sure Frank that knew he was being helped. Maybe he’d stop yelling. But still he yelled and shouted and screamed, even while we were frantically trying to help him. All day, and all night.

We put a radio in his room and played soothing classic music. Frank continued to yell. We put a TV in his room and played movies. I tried to get him to shout, “Stella!” just for a change of pace. We had a nurse sit at the side of Frank’s bed, holding his hand, saying anything comforting she could think of, and Frank still screamed.

I’m pretty sure I suggested we hire strippers to entertain him. Everyone thought I was joking, and laughed. I was serious. It’s a good thing no one took me seriously. My idea probably wouldn’t have worked. But if it had, we would’ve had twenty guys yelling for HELP!!! at the top of their lungs.

We had to admit defeat. There was nothing we could do to help Frank enough to get him to stop yelling for HELP!!!

Well, there was maybe a couple of other things we could’ve done. We could have medicated him into a coma, I suppose. There were certainly a lots of people who argued for it.

His psychiatrist was Dr Bob. He would occasionally order Thorazine 25 mg. (PO) on days when Frank was especially loud, but mostly he said we all had to learn to live with Frank. It was a low dose, but it would knock Frank out for hours, sometimes up to an entire blessed day. Dr Bob refused to order it on a regular basis, or even as a PRN. He didn’t think it was ethical to put Frank into a coma every day.

As much as I found the constant cacophony that was Frank unsettling, I had to admire Dr Bob for not crumbling to the course of action that all of the nurses demand he take.

We searched Frank’s old charts and records, looking for a clue to his distress. We contacted everyone listed in his chart. Maybe they knew something. We talked to the staff at other facilities Frank had been at. Did Frank scream and shout while he was there? Did anything work to make him stop?

Someone told us Frank used to hang around with a guy named John Dillinger, and might have been his driver for a time before Dillinger became Public Enemy #1. One of the Evening Shift nurses was convinced that Frank knew where Dillinger had buried some of the money he had amassed robbing banks, and spent hours trying to get Frank to tell him where it was.

We had the VA Corps of Engineers come to the unit to assess the situation. They attached noise absorbing mats to the walls of Frank’s room. Frank seemingly only yelled louder. After a couple of weeks, I don’t know who was more miserable. The other patients who were on the unit, or the staff.

This was a VA facility. At least seventy-five percent of the patients on my unit had a diagnosis of PTSD. It’s a complicated disorder that can be triggered by any number of external stimuli. And one of those triggers can be noise. Frank triggered every one of the patients on my unit. And at least half of the staff. Including me.

I have a bitch of case of PTSD. It’s gotten better the longer I’ve lived with it. But there’s no cure for PTSD. Sometimes it still catches me by surprise.

The only one who didn’t appear to be miserable during that time was Frank, who contentedly yelled for HELP!!! as loud as he could, no matter what. And the only reason I say contentedly is yelling seemed to be the only thing that made him happy. And yet, he sounded so fucking terrified.

I’ve spent years wondering just what it was that he was so afraid of.

More than one of our patients had a solution for Frank’s constant shouting, “Leave me alone with him for five minutes. I guarantee you he’ll stop yelling.” I don’t think that was an idle statement. A few of those guys probably would’ve snapped Frank’s neck, or smothered him with a pillow, without a second thought.

And don’t think we weren’t tempted. Frank’s verbal onslaught probably could have been construed as cruel and unusual treatment by the Geneva Covention. Too bad we weren’t actually prisoners of war. It just felt like we were. By the third week of Frank’s screaming, a few of the nurses weren’t just thinking about killing Frank anymore. They wanted to kill Dr Bob, too.

We eventually started moving Frank off the unit at night and had one nurse sit with him while he yelled for HELP!!! At least the other patients could get some sleep after that.

Our only hope was finding a place we could send Frank to. Our social workers called every facility they could think of. None of them wanted a guy who screamed for HELP!!! all day and all night.

A few facilities sent case workers to take a look at Frank. They didn’t need to even take a look. All they had to do was hear him for a minute or two. One of them said, “I don’t know how you’ve been able to put up with this, day in and day out. How long has he been here? Man, you’d think he would’ve lost his voice by now…”

That was something we couldn’t understand either. Frank, it seemed, had a superpower. He was The Voice. And nothing could silence him.

All good things must come to an end. So it is with all bad things as well. We eventually transferred Frank to the St Cloud VA for long-term care. They actually had a long-term care unit, and at the precise moment that none of the nurses felt they could endure one more minute of Screaming Frankie Vee, a bed opened up for him at St Cloud.

I’m sure Frank yelled through the entire ambulance ride, and he probably continued to yell for HELP!!! right up to the moment that he got dead. I know we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy so see someone leave my unit as Frank. I’m pretty sure I got drunk for a week.

I still have flashbacks from my time with Frank. I can still hear him screaming if I even think about him.

* * * *

Mad Max was probably one of the most aggravating guys I’ve ever met in my life. I didn’t give him his nickname because he was crazy/mad. Max had a real talent for irritating almost everyone he came into contact with. He made everyone around him mad.

Max was kind of an anal old guy. He was obsessed with neatness, which was unusual for an old veteran guy. Most of them weren’t. But Max wanted everyone to be as obsessed with neatness as he was, and that’s what most everyone found to be really annoying. Max had no sense of tact or decorum when it came to being neat.

He always made his bed. The area around his bed was spotless. If Max had cleaned the rest of the unit, we might have been able to tolerate him easier. But what he tended to do was point out the flaws he saw in everyone and everything else in a form of speech that was more or less incomprehensible, and he spent hours lounging in his bed like unto psychiatric royalty or something.

I don’t know what Max had done for a living, but he had a lots of really nice, stylish clothes, and a really expensive pair of shoes. He was a snappy dresser, no doubt. He was tallish, had a slim, kind of athletic looking build. I didn’t like Max much. I can’t think of anyone that did, but I liked his fashion sense. It’s something I picked up being married to a supermodel.

The main thing about Max that annoyed everyone the most was the way he talked. It was a cross between a whisper and a mumble. I called it a whumble. I probably even charted it that way. As a result of his difficulty saying anything understandable, anyone who actually wanted to know what Max said usually had to say this:

“What?”

And then there was thing: no matter how clearly anyone spoke to Max, no matter how specifically and precisely the words were enunciated, Max always whumbled this in response:

“what?”

I doubt that Max ever misunderstood anything that was said to him. I think he took a kind of sadistic joy in making everyone repeat what they said to him. I’m just guessing, but he might have done simply because everyone had to make him say everything twice because hardly anyone could understand his initial whumble.

Well, there was one more thing, but it only applied to nurses. About every fifteen minutes or so, Max would come up to the nursing station and whumble:

“is it time to eat yet?”

Max could have just finished eating a meal, and he would whumble that question. All of the meals were delivered to the unit by the Dietary Service in a huge stainless steel cart about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. They were cumbersome things to maneuver, and were about as quiet as a tank.

It was a mystery to everyone how Max didn’t weigh five hundred pounds, given his obsession with eating, but there was never any mystery about when meals were served on the unit.

Never.

You might think that Max would be first in line whenever a meal was served. The fucking dietary tank went right passed his room. He watched his goddamn tray roll by his room three times a day, but Max would purposely lay in bed until he received a personal invitation from the staff to dine–the staff he had interrogated all day about when he’d get his next meal–and we would always tell him when the next meal would be served, to which he always responded:

“what?”

Seriously. The guy didn’t know how many times he was almost assaulted by the nurses. Max usually stayed in the hospital for about a month. None of us missed him when he was gone. None of the female nurses thought Max was cute.

My favorite Max memory is the day we had an old drunk guy admitted to the unit, and because he was an old guy, I put him in the same room as Max and the other old guys. Max didn’t whumble when he saw the guy. He actually spoke understandable English when he saw the guy.

“Does this drunk Indian have to be in my room?”

I probably responded the guy was a Native American. Not only that, he was a veteran, and was as deserving of the same level of excellent care as any other patient on the unit. And if Max wanted to be in charge of bed placement, he could go to school, get his nursing degree and take my job. Otherwise, he could just keep his comments to himself. To which he responded:

“what?”

The old drunk Indian guy was a semi-frequent flyer on my unit, and I liked him. Too bad I can’t remember his name anymore. I liked most of the drunk guys, except the asshole drunk guys. After all, the only difference between me and the drunk guys was the side of the nursing station we were on. I knew I’d want someone to be nice to me if I ever ended up as a drunk guy in the hospital, so I was nice to them.

I checked on the old drunk guy frequently, and Max always whumbled something to me, and everyone else in the room, about not liking the drunk Indian guy. Max didn’t think that guy was neat and clean enough to be near him.

And then one of the funniest things I ever saw in my entire life happened.

The old Indian guy might have been drunk when he was admitted, but he wasn’t deaf. He heard every whumbling complaint Max had registered, and he decided to let Max know that he knew.

And that resulted in the second time that Max didn’t whumble. He came running up to the nursing station and said, very clearly, “That guy pissed in my shoes!!”

I went to Max’s room go see what had happened, and sure enough, someone had pissed in Max’s shoes, his very nice, very expensive shoes. All the way to the top of each of them. But that’s the only place he had pissed. There wasn’t a drop of urine on the floor.

“Man, that’s impressive! How the hell did you do that?” I asked Max’s roommate.

“I don’t know how that happened. But I’m an Indian. We never miss when we shoot.”

Max was furious! He kept on not whumbling about his shoes, and what were we going to do about it, and stuff. I carefully carried Max’s shoes to the bathroom, poured out the urine into the toilet and rinsed his shoes out in the sink. And I laughed my ass off the entire time. I had tears running down my cheeks. I laughed so hard I almost pissed my pants. And my shoes. When I thought I had probably rinsed all of the urine of the shoes, I gave them back to Max.

“You should let those dry out before you wear them again.”

“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to do? That guy pissed in my shoes!”

“He says he doesn’t know how it happened. But if I were you, I’d apologize to him.” I chose my words carefully, and enunciated each and every one of them. “If you keep this up, and you keep making those disparaging remarks about your roommate, someone will probably shit in your shoes the next time.”

To which Max replied:

“what?”

I knew Max understood what I had said. He had never not known what anyone had said to him. His roommate clearly understood what I had said. He had a kind of wry grin on his face, like he wished he had thought of that first. And judging by the look on Max’s face, he knew that too. He kept looking at his shoes as if he were seeing them filled with excrement, then he looked at his smiling roommate, and then he looked back at me. And he stopped whumbling bad things about anyone.

I don’t know if Max ever apologized to his roommate. But he never spoke clearly again. He went back to whumbling about food and saying,

“what?”

But his roommate never had to shit in Max’s shoes. So maybe Max did apologize. He did like those shoes a lots…

All of the nurses loved that old Indian guy after that, even if they didn’t especially like alcoholics. Even Darrell thought what he had done was kind of cute.

* * * *

The Duke of Earl is the last of the old guys I’m going to write about today. Earl was an old farmer guy who returned to the farm after he got out of the Army. He worked the land for as long as he could, then sold the farm and moved into the closest town in rural Northern Minnesota when he retired.

Earl wasn’t a big fan of ‘city living.’ He’d check into the VA every six months or so when staring out the window and yelling at the kids who walked on his lawn got to be too much for him.

Earl was one of those nondescript guys that I probably wouldn’t even remember anymore if it hadn’t been for one encounter I had with him. Earl came in for a tune up, and we sent him back home after a week or two in the hospital. But instead of returning in six months like he usually did, Earl came back in six days.

I was up for the next admission that day, so I went to talk to Earl to find out what had happened. And this was the reason Earl gave me for coming back to hospital so soon:

“My wife is having an affair!”

“Well, you’re, like, eighty years old. How old is your wayward wife?”

“She’s the same age as I am.”

“Okay. Your eighty year old wife is having an affair. Why would you think that?”

“Well, I was here the hospital, you know–“

“Yep. I was here too. Then what happened.”

“Well, when I got home, there it was!”

“There what was?”

“The turnip!”

“I have to ask this, Earl. Where was the turnip?”

“Sitting right there, on the kitchen counter!”

“And then what happened?”

“What the hell do you mean? I already told you what happened!!”

“Yeah, you said your eighty year old wife is having an affair…  Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You think your wife is having an affair… because of a turnip?!?”

“You damn right I do! Wouldn’t you?!?”

You better believe I told my wife that story. She knows better than to leave any turnips just laying around where I can see them.

Harvey

Things are heating up here in the Lakeside area. Believe it or not, May is the hottest month of the year down here. According to everyone we know, it should cool off in June once the rainy season starts.

That’ll be nice. I think it’s rained once since November, and there have been a thousand fires in the last month or so. It’s so smoky/hazy now, there are days when you can’t see the other side of the lake.

* * * *

If you’re a classic movie buff, I don’t need to tell you about Harvey. 1950. Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dodd, an eccentric man whose best friend is a pooka named… what else? Harvey is Elwood’s best friend, and he’s a six foot three and an half inch tall invisible rabbit. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s a darling movie.

I knew a guy named Harvey. He was maybe five foot four. He had kind of a weather-beaten appearance, and he wasn’t invisible. Harvey was an older guy. He was in his seventies when I first met him. I can’t remember if he was bipolar or schizophrenic. He might have been both. If he was bipolar, he was the quietest manic guy I’ve ever met. And if he was schizophrenic, he kept his psychosis to himself.

Harvey was pretty much an enigma. He was more imp than pooka, and was, at least once, like unto a gremlin that had been fed after midnight. That’s how I remember him. One of our patients at the MVAMC was a guy we called Forrest Gump’s Smarter Brother. Harvey was probably their grandfather.

And I should add this: The female nurses loved him. They thought he was cute.

I probably first met Harvey around the year 2000 or so. He came up the nursing station one day and said, “I want to call my mom. My mom. My mom!”

I took a long look at Harvey and seriously wanted to ask if his mother was still alive, but I asked a different question.

“Do you know her phone number?”

“Yeah. Yeahyeahyeah.”

So I set a phone in front of him, and he dialed a number.

“Hi Mom. It’s me. Harvey.”

I decided to look up Harvey’s contact information in the computer. His mother, Olive, was listed. As near as I could discern from his file, his mother was still alive. She had to be in her nineties.

Harvey had a very nice conversation with someone, and a few hours later, a frail little old lady who smelled of cat urine, walked onto the unit with a man whom, I think, was Harvey’s brother.

They brought in a bag of clothes for Harvey, and his glasses. When Harvey was showered and shaved and wearing his own clothing, he looked like he could’ve been a college professor.

All the female nurses wanted to talk to Olive–they might have seventy year old sons to raise someday, and they wanted all the information they could get about Harvey. I can’t remember what he did for a living anymore–if he ever had a job, or if he was on some sort of disability, or if he had a place to live, or much of anything else about him.

There was a lesson for me to be learned. Just because I didn’t think something could be possible, didn’t mean it wasn’t true.

For example, The Guy Who Knew Milton Berle. His name was Steve. He was a local radio personality/comedian who had relapsed on alcohol. His detox was uneventful, and we were getting him set up with follow up care.

For those of you who don’t know who Uncle Miltie was, he was a comedian, and one of the pioneers of early television. He might have been a pooka, but he stood only five feet ten inches tall, and he wasn’t invisible.

Steve was talking on the phone at the nursing station one Saturday morning, and when he hung up, one of the nurses I was working with asked who he was talking to.

“Milton Berle.” he replied, and all of the nurses started laughing. So Steve went to his room and returned with a photo album that contained dozens of pictures of him with none other than Milton Berle.

Yeah, who’s laughing now, nurses?

The sad fact is most psych patients lie about almost everything, so as a psych nurse, you tend not to believe practically anything they say.

“I’m the hair dresser to the stars.”

“No kidding! If you don’t mind me asking, who are some of your clients?”

“Stevie Nicks. Victoria Principal. Morgan Fairchild.”

“Wow. When was the last time you were in Southern California?”

“I’ve never been there.”

“So, they fly here, to Minnesota, so you can do their hair?”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

“By the way, I love what you do with Stevie’s hair.”

“Yeah, she’s beautiful. Thanks!”

I met at least two guys who were the hair dresser to the stars, and neither of them had ever been to California. And then there were the guys who were mysteriously drugged at their local watering hole.

“Well, I was at the bar, and then I can’t remember anything. I think they ​slipped me a mickey!”

“Yeah, that’s why I quit going to bars. I got tired of getting drugged, too.”

“See? This guy knows what I’m talking about!”

I always got a kick out of that story. Fictional private detectives from the 1940’s, like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, were always getting slipped a mickey, but I don’t think it ever consistently happened to anyone in real life. Until Ruffies became popular, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it was mostly girls who were the target of Rohypnol. Even the girls had their tales of misfortune.

“We just discharged you two days ago. Why are you coming back today?”

“Someone on the bus stole all of my meds!”

“Even your Xanax?”

“No, that’s the only thing they didn’t steal!”

“What happened to that?”

“Oh, I accidentally dropped the bottle in the toilet!”

Well, there are a lots of fun filled activities to do on the bus, so it’s easy to see how that could happen…  And toilets clearly can’t be trusted anywhere near controlled substances. But every now and then, you meet someone who actually tells the truth. So, try to remember that.

* * * *

Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lots of Harvey stories. He was a mostly benign, very quiet guy, who sometimes looked quite professorial.

He did have his Harvey moments. He would randomly bolt down the hallway as fast as could, for no apparent reason. I think that was Harvey. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

He was one of those guys that randomly uttered words of inestimable profundity, most of which I can’t remember, but he did say this:

“Ooh, shiny!”

It became our catchphrase whenever someone went off on a tangent, or for someone with a short attention span who was easily distracted. Like me.

And then there was Harvey’s hallmark admission. And like so many hallmark moments, it happened in the dark of night.

It was probably around 2005. Harvey had been a patient on my unit a couple of times. None of his admissions had been especially remarkable. We stabilized him and sent him home, or somewhere, until the next time.

On this particular night, it just after midnight. Harvey was admitted once more. We got him changed into VA pajamas and settled into his room by the nursing station. There wasn’t much point in trying to do a thorough admission assessment because Harvey wouldn’t answer any questions, so we got all our information from his old charts and our previous knowledge about Harvey.

Most people admitted in the middle of the night just want to go to bed, but that night, for no apparent reason, Harvey decided to demo his room.

I think he started with the baseboard molding, and ripped it all off of the walls. One of the nurses I was working with asked me what we should do. He wasn’t harming anyone, but he was systematically tearing his room apart.

We tried medicating him with Haldol and Ativan. The meds didn’t touch him.

After he removed all of the baseboards, anything that Harvey could disassemble with his bare hands was fair game. We would check on his progress periodically, and remove all the debris from his room from time to time.

When he started to take his bed apart, we rolled the frame out of his room, leaving the mattress and bedding on the floor. By 5:00 AM, the only thing Harvey hadn’t demolished was the light fixture on the wall where the head of his bed had once been.

Around 5:30 AM, we heard a loud crash. Harvey had somehow ripped the monster light fixture out of the wall, leaving behind a few live electrical wires. We were forced to move him across the hall into one of the seclusion rooms. I can’t remember if we locked him in or not, but we probably gave him another cupful of meds, that would have no more effect than an handful of Tic-tacs. Then I entered a whole lots of work orders into the computer so the maintenance guys would start putting the room back together again.

* * * *

It took the VA Corps of Engineers at least five days to repair what Harvey had done in roughly five hours.

I had at least one day off between getting off of Nights and transitioning to Days. I asked the night nurses how Harvey was doing when I returned to work. He hadn’t demolished anything else, but he hadn’t slept since he was admitted.

I have a couple of clear memories of that day. One, I was assigned to do Meds. Two, it was the first time I met Darrell. He was an LPN, and a new hire. He had never worked in a Psych setting before, and my boss asked me to show him the ropes.

“I’ve been doing this job for a long time. I can play this song in any key. I can tell you how you’re supposed to do this job, or I can tell you how I do it. If you do it my way, you’ll work smarter, not harder.”

“I was hoping I’d meet a nurse like you.” Darrell replied. I was going to like working with this guy.

I spent the first couple of hours explaining my unorthodox philosophy to Darrell, and then I decided to show off a little to the new guy. I pulled Haldol and Ativan from the Pyxis, and told Darrell to follow me. And we went hunting for Harvey. He was standing in the hallway by the dayroom.

“Harvey hasn’t slept since he got here. I’m going to send him to the Land of Nod.” I told Darrell.

“Yeah, the nurses tried like hell to put him down for the count yesterday, but nothing touched him.”

“Hey, little buddy. I’ve got a couple meds for you.” I said, and handed Harvey a med cup with a couple pills, which he readily took. Then we escorted Harvey back ​to his room, and laid him down on his bed.

And I started singing, softly.

“Lullaby, and good night. Go to sleep lit-tle Harvey. Close your eyes, count some sheep, a-and go to fucking sleep…”

I didn’t know many of the actual lyrics, so I kind of made them up on the fly. I sang a few more verses of my impromptu lullaby, and when we tiptoed out of Harvey’s room, he was snoring.

“I don’t know what you just did, but I can’t believe what I just saw.”

“Smarter, not harder.”

“Well, I hope you don’t expect me to sing a lullaby to every one of these guys, because there’s no goddamn way I’m doing that!”

“Nope. It’s probably the only lullaby I’ve ever sung.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know that would work?”

“I didn’t. It was a gut feeling. Always follow your gut. It’s never wrong.”

* * * *

I know some of the stuff I write is hard to believe, but that actually happened. And as weird as it might sound, I had no doubt my intervention would work. I probably didn’t even need the meds.

However, I didn’t have any qualms about giving them to Harvey. I figured if my lullaby worked, the meds would help him stay asleep, and that’s probably what my little buddy needed more than anything.

Almost every field of Nursing is a science, except Psychiatry. At best, it’s an imprecise science, but it’s mostly an art. Only the really good psych nurses understand this.

The essence of psych nursing is guiding people out of the maze of darkness or whatever else they’ve created inside their minds, and teaching them a few new coping strategies, so they can try to avoid having to repeat it again in the future.

It sounds good in theory, but the reality is the majority of the patients we took care of weren’t all that interested in doing anything different.

You can lead a horse to water…

That part of the job was frustrating, but every now and then, someone would come along, and all they wanted was a second chance. And every now and then, you could sing someone a lullaby.

It was those moments that made the whole thing worthwhile.

Radar and The Cosmic Kid

I’ve mentioned the names of some of the guys I shared the Dental barracks with, way back when I was in the Army. It would seem my Muse, or Muses, have decided it’s time to elaborate on at least some of them.

Today’s Muse is probably Urania, but Thalia will certainly be whispering in my other ear.

* * * *

I arrived at Fort Sill in January of 1975. It was my permanent duty station according to the contract I’d signed with my recruiter, Sergeant First Class Robin Hood.

I’m not making that up.

When I arrived at Fort Sill, I had to be processed in because I was new to Army life, and the half a ton of paperwork the Army had already generated on me just wasn’t enough. I was delivered to the Main Processing Station. It was a huge building about the size of a football field with an huge office filled with desks and clerks and stuff. The rest of the building was bunks and latrines and stuff.

It was essentially a way station, like unto the Army’s version of Purgatory. Once all your paperwork was processed, a clerk from the MPS would contact your company, and someone would come pick you up so you could begin your Army career. It usually took two or three days.

I was at the MPS for a week. The clerk handling my paperwork was new to his position, and he forgot to call my company.

I didn’t mind hanging out at the MPS. I didn’t have much of anything to do except get cleaned up and dressed in the morning, and march to the nearest mess hall to eat with the rest of the guys being processed in. The rest of my day was free time, which I spent reading, or writing to Maureen.

I would’ve been happy to do that for the next two and an half years, but someone in the MPS finally asked what the hell I was still doing there and my company was notified that I had been processed, and someone came to pick me up.

That person was PFC Randall J. Paul.

Randy was from Los Angeles, CA. If there’s such a thing as a Valley Guy, Randy would’ve been one. Totally, man. He was a tall, pudgy guy with a huge honker of a nose. He looked like an older kid that had never lost his baby fat. Or a really tall cartoon penguin…

“Hey, are you PFC Rowen?” he asked. I was lounging on my bunk, reading. I looked up at him and nodded. “Well, c’mon, let’s go! I’m here to take you to Dental Headquarters. My name’s Randy. You can be my roommate.

“Well, okay, we won’t be roommate roommates, but we’ll be kinda roommates. There’s a shared bathroom between our rooms at the barracks. You’ll see what I mean when we get there. The room next to mine is empty, so you can bunk there.

“I’m so fuckin’ glad you’re here, man! Now you can take over my job and I can become a dental lab technician! I’ve been waiting to do that for a year…”

* * * *

I’m pretty sure Randy talked nonstop for the next six hours, like he was a manic bipolar trying to tell me his life story and everything I’d need to know about the Army without taking a breath in between. Randy’s monologue was punctuated with a whole lots of “…you’ll see what I mean–You’ll figure it out–It’ll all fall into place.” And, “Fuck the Army!!”

Well, it’s not like he was trying to do that. That’s exactly what he did. And years later, when I was a psych nurse, I’d discover Randy really was bipolar…

Our first stop was Dental Headquarters, where I would learn I wouldn’t be a dental assistant, I would become the new supply driver, and Randy would train me to replace him. James Toney, the clerk who would possibly save my ass with his testimony during my court-martial, couldn’t stop shaking my hand.

“Thank God you’re here.” he kept saying.

That first day was a blur to me. We stopped off at the barracks to drop off my gear, and Randy showed me my room, and I got to see what he meant when he said we’d be kinda roommates.

I accompanied Randy as he picked supplies up at the warehouse, linens from the laundry, and he introduced me to everyone at the four dental clinics on base. And when the work day ended, he introduced me to everyone in the barracks. They actually threw a little impromptu Welcome to the Barracks party for me in the dayroom.

Don One and Don Two. Mike. There were two Mikes, but Mike Two was called The Horne. If you fuck with the bull, you get The Horne. Tommy. Johnny. Virg. Brother Al. Lightning Bob. Jesse. Roger. And, Randy.

We drank beer and I tried to remember everyone’s names. They told me where they were from, and stuff. I told them where I was from, and stuff. And Randy rambled on philosophically about anything and everything.

“So, what do you think about your new kinda roommate?” The Horne asked me, when Randy finally did stop talking long enough to take a breath.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know. He’s too…cosmic…for me.”

A stunned silence filled the room, and you could actually see it, the lightbulbs coming on over their heads.

“Yeah, cosmic!” Roger said softly, followed by an equally soft chuckle.

“W-w-wow!” Don One said. “W-w-we’ve been trying to figure him out for a year, and you fuckin’ nail it in five minutes!”

“It’s like he has radar or something.” Don Two said.

“He fuckin’ looks like Radar!” Johnny added.

So two nicknames were born that day. Randy and I became Radar and the Cosmic Kid.

* * * *

What can I say? Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then. You might think I’m overly critical of myself, and I probably am. I tend to see clearly now the things I couldn’t see at all back then, but I’ve skipped ahead, and I know how this chapter turned out.

And the things I was able to see, well, they were so obvious that probably anyone could’ve seen them.

My early adult life appears to be the perfect example of what can happen if you don’t have a plan. How I ended up faring as well as I did is probably one of the great mysteries of the modern world, but only if you don’t believe in God.

What I see looking back is a really smart guy who was seemingly addicted to doing stupid stuff. Add in loss, heartbreak, rue and regret. Gently mix in drug and alcohol abuse. Rinse. Repeat.

That’s the part that kind of chaps my ass now. I really wish I had chosen to do something differently sooner.

* * * *

So, I moved into the barracks and essentially disappeared for about a month while I painted and decorated my room. I hated the pale puke green color the interior of the barracks had been painted back in World War II. I picked up some cheap ass carpeting and folded it to fit the two parts of my room.

Then I went for a cross country night march in the rain and broke my ankle. Randy and I started spending a fair amount of time with each other while my ankle healed, and we talked a lots.

“Wow. You might have a lotta book smarts, but you really don’t know much about life, do you.” was the Cosmic Kid’s assessment of me. I couldn’t really argue much with that.

We hung out with Roger and I unknowingly became his student.

Maureen and I broke up, and my free fall into Hell began. I started smoking pot, and because it’s a gateway drug, the Doorway to Oblivion opened, and I walked through.

Hashish. Amphetamines. PCP. LSD. Cocaine. Psilocybin mushrooms. Codeine. Oxycodone. Peyote. Mescaline. Heroin.  I eventually added all of them to my resume.

I stopped learning things out of books.

* * * *

Some of my cousins did a family history, tracing back our ancestry to the 1700’s. I discovered that I come from a long line of suicidal alcoholics. The successful people in my family tree were the ones who kept drinking.

So, the question is, would I have wandered down the path I chose even if Maureen and I had stayed together? The answer is yes. I wasn’t a leader back then, I was a follower. And seeing how all the cool kids in the barracks were doing drugs, and I wanted to be cool, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have ended up where I did.

The only other question is, would I have embraced the drug culture as fully as I did if I hadn’t gone completely rudderless in the prevailing currents of the time?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe. Probably.

Yeah. That’s probably it.

* * * *

As exhausting as being around Randy could be, given his manic energy and cosmic consciousness, we ended up becoming good friends. We played Frisbee. We became storm chasers during tornado season. We played pool and fooseball in the dayroom. I helped Randy paint his room.

We drank and smoked and snorted and popped pills while we did all of the above.

Randy bought me a set of Mickey Mouse ears when he went home on vacation, and I wore them one day when I made my deliveries.

I went to dinner with Roger one evening and became a superstar the next day. I was found innocent of all charges when I was court-martialed, and became an even more legendary superstar.

“You have done well, my son.” Randy said. “Maybe you should go back to reading books…”

* * * *

“Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” – Freewheelin’ Franklin

* * * *

The life of a marijuana aficionado revolves around weed. When it’s abundant, life is good. When it isn’t, there are no words to describe the indescribable hell that life becomes.

Back then, pot wasn’t legal anywhere, and you had to know a guy or twenty to make sure you could almost always get it. Thanks to Roger, I knew a lots of guys, and after he left, I became the guy everyone came to see when they couldn’t get what they needed.

I never became a dealer, but I became a great middle man.

There came a time when no one had any pot, and there was a great drought of weed, and a terrible famine lay all upon the land, and all the people languished.

“Man, you gotta do something!” Randy said to me. “I’m fucking dying here!”

“Let me make some calls.”

From Roger, I knew I had to be smarter than the cops, and you never knew who might be listening in on your conversations. So I invented a code word for weed with the guys I dealt with most. I would say I was looking for Bob, and had had they seen him lately?

It was perfect.

But the cupboard was bare at the home of every dealer I knew, and none of them had seen Bob in awhile. One of them said he didn’t know who Bob was anymore, and even I started panicking.

I decided to call a guy I had met once. I tended not to deal with guys I didn’t know very well, but desperate times require desperate actions.

This guy wasn’t in on my code.

“Bob? Who the fuck is Bob?”

“You know, weed.” I whispered into the phone.

“Oh! That Bob! I’ve got one ounce. Forty bucks. You get here first, you get it” Click.

I have no idea what an ounce of pot sells for now, but back then the going rate was twenty bucks, so what this guy was asking was ridiculous.

“I’ll split it with you.” Randy said, handing me a twenty.

I had a little trouble finding the guy’s place. I had only been there once, but he still had the bag when I got there. He was a Mexican guy named Felix or something. There was only one problem. The weed he wanted to sell me didn’t look like any bag of weed I’d ever seen before. It looked like dried beans sprouts or something. And the baggie wasn’t half full, it was totally full, and was as fat as a proverbial singing lady.

“Is this even weed?” I asked.

“If that shit doesn’t knock you on your ass, man, I’ll give you your fuckin’ money back.”

Drugs never come with a money back guarantee, so I gave the guy forty bucks and drove back to the barracks.

“What the fuck is this shit? This isn’t even dope! What is that? Bean sprouts?!? Give me my money back! Let’s go back to that beaner’s house and beat the shit out of him!!!”

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we try it first.”

“Well, it doesn’t taste bad…” Randy said as we smoked a bowl. “Actually, that tastes pretty good!” he decided. “Holy shit! What is this stuff? My head feels like it just floated away…” Randy said, and his voice sounded like it was floating away with his head. “Jesus, man! I think you better take me to the Emergency Room…”

I turned to look at Randy. He was pale as a winter morning, and drenched with enough sweat that he looked like he’d been standing outside during a monsoon. Swarms of beads of perspiration were literally running down his face in waves.

“I’m serious, Mark. I think I’m going to die. You gotta do something, man.”

“Where would you like to be buried?” I asked, then started laughing as if that was the funniest line ever spoken.

“Goddamn! That’s cold, man! I can’t believe you’re gonna just sit there and let me die! You’ve become a real bastard, man!”

“Hey, Cosmo, take a couple of deep breaths and get a grip. I smoked the same stuff you did, and I’m not dying. Suppose I take you to the ER. What am I gonna tell them? Well, doc, we were just sitting around the barracks, and we weren’t smoking pot or anything, when all of a sudden my buddy decided he was fuckin’ dying? I’m not taking you to the ER, try taking a cold shower or something. Maybe that’ll help.”

And, it did. Fifteen minutes later Randy returned, and he no longer looked like the world’s worst weather system.

“What’s that?” Randy asked, as I handed him a twenty dollar bill.

“You said you wanted your money back.”

“I changed my mind. Give me my half of the bean sprouts, bitch.”

I have no idea what the fuck was in that bag, but I know it wasn’t pot. And even if it was bag of baby pot plants, those suckers had to have been laced with something, but again, I have no idea what.

Whatever it was we smoked, it was enough to get to get us through the drought, and there was much rejoicing.

* * * *

Life can be unpredictable when you’re in the military, but one thing that you can count on is the people you’re stationed with are only temporary. The Old Timers started leaving. Roger left, then Don One, and Don Two, and Mike. The Horne, Virg and Lightning Bob were gone. The FNG’s came in to replace them.

Tommy, who had never been part of our group–he’d hung out with the Dons and Mike–started hanging out with me and Randy.

“I at least know what to expect from you two. Nothing but trouble. But it’s better than getting to know someone that just got here.”

Tommy was a good old boy from Texas, and that was his given name. Not Thomas or Tom. He was a big man, and he didn’t look anything like a Tommy.

Tommy and Randy actually became real good friends, I wasn’t at the barracks a whole lots by that time in my life. I had become a legendary party animal, and I had rounds to make in my community.

Randy was next up to depart, so Tommy decided we should take him out for dinner, seeing how we were the only three Old Timers left. We decided to take Randy to a place somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. And seeing how it was the last time we’d ever be together, Randy decided to pull a nothing but trouble prank on Tommy Boy.

I know it wasn’t in Lawton, it was an out of the way place that you had to know about to find, but just where it was I have no idea. It was a big place, one of those family style country restaurants that serve Mom’s Home Cooking kind of meals.

The huge restaurant was packed. The tables were filled with families, Mom and Dad, a lots of bunches of kids of every age. Gramps and Granny were sporadically dotted around the tables in the restaurant.

We had drinks. We had appetizers. We had a down home meal with all the fixin’s, and dessert, then Randy unleashed his surprise attack.

For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 70’s when drugs were cool and paraphernalia was even cooler, you could buy strawberry flavored rolling papers that were an electric pink color.

The only thing anyone ever smoked in a paper that color was pot, but Randy rolled a tobacco cigarette in an electric pink paper, a good old big one, and put it in his pocket.

“Man, that was a damn fine meal. Good food, good friends, cold beer, man, I can’t think of anything else that I need right now. Actually, there is one thing. The only thing that could make this better is a joint. Oh! I have one right here in my pocket, and I’m going to fire this bad boy up!”

He reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out the electric pink cigarette. You could smoke cigarettes in restaurants back then. Tommy’s eyes just about jumped out of his skull.

“Randy! Jesus! What the fuck are doing, man!” Tommy whispered furiously at Randy. “What are trying to do, get us arrested?!?” as Randy put the monster pink cigarette to his lips. “Randy! Have you lost your fucking mind!! If you light that–”

And Randy lit it.

I wish you could have been there to see it, the range of emotions that raced across Tommy’s face as Randy lit that cigarette. Surprise. Shock. Stunned shock. Fear. Anger, rage and then relief, followed by,

“Oh, you sonuvabitch! I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you for that. Did you know about this, Radar? I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, too!”

* * * *

Randy left in early October of 1976. Only Tommy and I, and Raoul remained of the original barracks bums.

We sent Randy off in the evening, he got off to a late start for a guy that was getting out of the fucking Army! But then, he wasn’t the most organized guy I’ve ever known.

“I’m gonna miss that cosmic motherfucker.” Tommy said.

* * * *

I wouldn’t have to. Randy and I stayed in contact for years. He called me all the time when I was still in the Army. He even came to visit me once, driving from California in an old pick up truck. He couldn’t believe Raoul and I were best friends.

He’d call me at work when I was a psych nurse at the MVAMC. He called me at home. My lovely supermodel wife would shake her head and leave the room when he called. Randy moved to Wichita, KS, got married, had a daughter.

He called me at home early one morning after I gotten off of a stretch of nights. This was probably in the mid-ninties. He said he was depressed. He had a loaded gun, and he was going to kill himself.

“Where’s your family?”

His daughter was in school. His wife was at work, but she’d be home at noon. I kept him on the phone for four hours until his wife came home and convinced him to go to the VA for help. He was assessed, and sent home.

I called to see how he was doing the next day.

“Oh, they told me I was bipolar or some bullshit like that, and they wanted me to start taking a bunch of fuckin’ meds, man. I told them to go fuck themselves, and they told me to go home.”

* * * *

He called several months later at work again to tell me he had six months to live. He had cancer. It was a Friday in April. I told my horrible boss what my Army buddy had just told me on the phone, and  I was driving to Wichita as soon as my shift ended, but I’d probably be at work on Monday.

“Go! Let me know if you need anything!”

Maybe she wasn’t all horrible…

,* * * *

Lea and I arrived in Wichita at 4:00 AM. We checked into a no-tell motel, got a couple hours of sleep, took a shower, then went to see my dying buddy. His wife answered the door.

“Hi. I’m Mark. I’m Randy’s Army buddy–”

“Mark!! Oh my God! I’m so glad to finally meet you! I’ve heard so much about you! I feel like I’ve known you all my life!” she said, giving me a bone crushing hug. She was a big woman. “What’re y’all doing in Wichita?” She saw my wife, so she stepped outside to hug her, too.

“I’m so sorry,” Lea said. “This must be so terrible for you. Randy called yesterday and told Mark he had six months to live. We jumped in the car and drove all night, but we’re here!”

“What? Six months?? There’s nothing wrong with Randy! He’s not going to die!”

“The hell he isn’t!” my wife said. “I’m going to fucking kill him myself!”

“He doesn’t have cancer?”

“Oh God no! The doctor told him he needed to quit smoking, or he’d die from cancer…  I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you. Thank God you’re here. Thank God!”

I explained to Lea that Randy was bipolar, and she decided not to kill Randy. She finally calmed down, but I don’t think she’s ever forgiven Randy for that.

We spent the day with Randy and his family. As evening fell, Randy and I went for a walk so I could explain Bipolar Disorder to my friend, and the treatments available. Randy actually listened to me without interrupting every five seconds, and he appeared to be thinking about what I’d said.

“Do you have any questions?” I asked. We were sitting on a picnic table in a park near his house.

“Yeah. What was it like fucking Raoul’s wife? Man, she was hot! Jesus, Rowen, you should see your face! You look just like Tommy did when I lit up that fake joint in the restaurant!” Randy said, laughing as if he’d just uttered the funniest line ever spoken.

I have no doubt that my face perfectly mimicked Tommy’s face that night. And for a moment, I thought I might kill Randy myself.

My affair with Nadina had happened just before Randy left. I know I didn’t tell him I was tapping Nadina while her husband was out of town. Did I?

“How did you know?” I decided to ask.

“Because you went over to her house every day after work that week Raoul was at Fort Sam, and you didn’t come back to the barracks until the sun was coming up! What else could you have been doing? Playing cards? You should have seen yourself, man, you looked like you were going to die, man! And every day you looked worse! By the end of the week, you could barely walk!”

“Who else knew?” I asked, when I could finally speak.

“Only me. I was kinda your roommate, remember? I knew when you were home and when you weren’t. I didn’t tell anyone, I promise! Not even The Horne, or Tommy. And I sure as hell didn’t tell Raoul!”

I was able to breathe again, and that was good, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I stared at the ground for the longest time, unable to even think.

“Hey, are you okay? Jesus, maybe I should take you to the ER. Or maybe you should take a cold shower…”

Yeah, maybe…

I eventually looked up, and found that I could smile.

“I gotta tell you something, you’ve got the biggest balls of anyone I’ve ever known. And the most guts. Remember when we met? You were that naive kid from Montana who didn’t know the difference between pot and acid.

“You were the FNG who walked halfway across Fort Sill on a broken ankle, man! We went tornado chasing in the dark because you said you’d never seen one in person! We goddamn near died at least twice, but you never let a little thing like almost dying to death stop you!

“You were a heartbroken trainwreck that tried to kill himself and couldn’t smile for a month, and next thing anyone knows, you’re dating strippers, smoking weed, dropping acid, snorting drugs and popping pills like candy, and getting drunker than everyone else in the barracks, combined!

“You were the ultimate party animal, man! No one could keep up with you! You beat the fucking Army at its own fucking game! You took those fuckin’ fucks in Headquarters on, and you won! Remember that!

“You didn’t have a clue who you were, but you became the leader of the barracks. You fucked with The Horne, and you put that fuckin’ loudmouth in his place! Man, I still can’t believe you did that!

“And to top it off, you make love to the most beautiful woman on the planet, and then become best friends with the guy whose marriage you destroyed, and you didn’t even blink! If that doesn’t take balls, I don’t know what does!

“And look at you now, all straightened out, registered nurse, married to a fucking supermodel! You aren’t human, man. You have to be some kind of a god!”

“Oh, I’m not all that straight.” I finally replied. That was a lots for me to take in. “I still drink, and smoke pot. I’m human, man. Just like you. Just like everybody else. I don’t see myself in the same light you do. It seems pretty dark to me now, looking back. I have no idea how I survived.”

“Dude, no one else does either! I’ll tell you something, I never knew if you’d be dead or alive when the morning came. None of us did! We were going to have a pool on how long you were going to live, but Roger wouldn’t let us.”

“I miss him. I loved that guy.”

“We all did, he was the best. But you became even better than him.”

* * * *

I never saw Randy again. We talked on the phone frequently. His daughter grew up and went to college. His wife left him, she told him she couldn’t take it anymore and had to get off the roller coaster.

After that, I don’t know…

A friend of mine who reads my posts once commented that I have lived a crazy life. Well, I did hang out with a lots of crazy people.

If you ever want to know what’s happening on a psych unit, ask a patient. Randy was never one of my patients, but he had a psychiatric disorder or two. He never missed a trick, and he never forgot anything. Randy’s assessment of me was spot on.

I’ve been blessed with a lots of really tremendous friends, even when I probably didn’t deserve the kind of friendship they offered.

Thank you Randy, for your honesty and candor, and your cosmic viewpoint. I credit Roger the most for helping me become the person I’ve become. His humility and common sense were qualities I’ve tried to incorporate into the man that I am.

Okay, I haven’t done so good with the humility part…

But there’s a part of Randy in me, too. That’s the part that looks at almost everything from a different point of view. The part that looks for other solutions than the accepted ones. The part that seeks the Truth. The part that keeps searching in the dark, even if it’s dangerous.

Hey, you can’t let a little thing like the threat of death stop you. You only live once, and we all have to die from something.

God Save the Queen

My favorite patient of all time has to be Fiona. I met her at Aurora. She started out as a patient on another unit, but was transferred to my unit because her behavior was too disruptive. She needed to spend some quality time on the Canyon. My unit had a reputation for taking care of ‘problem’ patients.

Fiona’s reputation had preceded her arrival. We had all heard stories about her. She was bipolar, totally manic, and pretty much a hot mess. In fact, the day I met her she was screaming at the top of her lungs when I walked onto the unit. I walked in her room, sat down on her roommate’s bed, and waited for her to come up for air. She screamed for about another forty-five seconds.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, once she caught her breath.

“My name is Mark. I’ll be your nurse today.”

“Excellent. I suppose you have some shots to shoot in my ass, don’t you, Mr. Maark?” And she showed me her ass. She had a funny way of saying my name.

“Nope.”

“Then what the hell do you want!”

“I want to know what you’re so afraid of.”

Fiona ran a hand through her tangled hair, and sat down on her bed. “What am I NOT afraid of! People are trying to KILL ME!!”

“Why?”

“Because…I’m the QUEEN OF THE BLOODY WORLD!”

Fiona was from England, so she had that whole British royalty accent thing going on.

“Your Majesty,” I said, and bowed to her. “I am here to protect you. I am here to keep you safe. I will not allow any harm to befall you while you’re under my care.”

“Really. Would you take a bullet for me, Mr. Maark?”

“Only one?” I gave her a little smile.

“Oh, thank God!” Fiona sighed. “It’s about time I get some decent help in this dump.”

I wish I could say that’s all it took. Fiona was a handful. Team Canyon had to scramble to keep the peace. I ended up giving her shots in her ass, probably more than once.

“Man, that gal’s a trip! She thinks she’s a queen!” one of my techs said, laughing.

“I know.”

“What do you do with someone like that?”

“Treat her like one.” I said.

“For reals?” he asked, and he stopped laughing.

“Yep, for reals.”

So, Fiona got the royal treatment while she was on my unit. We changed the name on her door to Queen Fiona. One of the evening shift staff brought in a plastic tiara for her to wear. She steadily settled down; her mania wasn’t as tenacious as some I’d encountered, and she was a whole lot better by Day Three.

The Queen also liked to hang out near the nursing station and chat, but she didn’t monopolize the counter. She had other subjects, and they needed to see her, too. However, she was quite taken with me, and even offered to make me her personal Beefeater.

“Do I get a hat? I like those hats.”

“We shall see. You have to earn it.”

Once the Queen was stabilized, we discharged her. It was a sad day for me. However, she did return to Aurora at least once afterwards, maybe twice. But she had graduated with honors from the Canyon, and she would never be my patient again. She’d stop by and chat briefly as she walked past my unit.

“Mr. Maark,” she would say, and extend her hand.

“Your Majesty,” I held her hand, and she would flash her crooked smile. Half of her teeth were missing, but she still managed to look regal somehow.

“I haven’t forgotten about the hat!” And she’d have to dash. “Ta ta for now, Mr. Maark!”

I wasn’t present on the day she died, but the story goes something like this: She went to a Psychiatric Urgent Care, begging for help. There was something wrong, she claimed. The staff at the Urgent Care disagreed, gave her a bus pass and more or less pushed her out the door.

I can imagine her, distraught and crying, walking to the bus stop, then screaming for help as she collapsed. Someone on the scene called 911, but by the time the ambulance arrived, Fiona, the Queen of the World was dead.

She always said people were trying to kill her, maybe she was assassinated. More likely, she had a heart attack. Either way, part of me felt like I had failed in my duty as Queen Fiona’s personal Beefeater.

But the other part of me felt God had taken her out of her imagined kingdom, and had welcomed her with open arms into his Eternal Kingdom.

It’s only fitting. After all, she was a queen.

Risky Business

There are a couple of iconic things about this movie. Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear, and this line: Sometimes you gotta say, what the fuck.

Spoiler alert! If profuse profanity offends you, stop reading now.

One of my all time favorite patients at the Minneapolis VAMC was Harold. He looked like the Muppet Professor guy, minus the lab coat. And he was more…round.

Harold was bipolar, and he often came into the hospital extremely manic. His mania was med resistant; it took a looong time to get him stabilized. When I worked nights, we would talk for hours. Well, Harold did most of the talking. I nodded a lot. Harold had a kind of old guy cartoon voice. I loved to hear him speak.

The same thing would happen when I worked the day shift. Harold would shuffle up to the nursing station and ramble on and on and on about anything that popped into his head. Some of the nurses I worked with found Harold to be very annoying, and they wanted me to tell Harold to go away.

“Well, I see it this way,” I said to my annoyed co-workers. “I can either let Harold come to me, or we can move the entire nursing station into his room. This seems like the easiest thing to do.”

But we discuss private information! Harold could overhear something about the other patients!

“When have you ever seen Harold actually listen to anyone?” I replied. Some of my co-workers started thinking I was pretty annoying, too.

All things must pass, and even Harold’s mania eventually lost its grip. We set a date and prepared him for discharge. I tended to be Harold’s nurse most of the time, for good or bad, so I was helping him get dressed after he had showered. I had him sit on his bed while I tied his shoes, and then Harold started crying. And by crying I mean he sobbed like a toddler that had just dropped his ice cream cone.

“What’s going on, bud. Aren’t you happy to be going home?”

“Yes, but you guys have been so nice to me, and I’ve been such a pain in the ass!” More sobs.

I had been a psych nurse for 13 years or so by this time, and I had learned to read people pretty well. And by read I don’t mean read like reading a book. I mean read in the same way a blind person reads Braille. It’s a feeling. It’s a touch.

“Harold, have I ever lied to you?” I asked. I was sure I’d never lied to him, mostly because I rarely got to speak to him.

“N-no,” he stammered through his tears.

“Well, I’m gonna tell you the truth. You were never a pain in my ass.”

“Really?” he stopped sobbing. “I’ll bet you’re gonna say, Man, I sure am glad that son of bitch is out of here after I leave.”

“Harold, I would never say that about you.”

“Oh yeah, I’ll bet you say I sure am glad that bastard’s out of here.”

It was at this precise moment I decided to say what the fuck.

“I would never say that about you, you son of a bitch.”

“Ha!” Harold snorted. He had stopped crying. “I’ll bet you say I sure am glad that motherfucker’s out of here!” I resumed tieing Harold’s shoes.

“I would never say that about you, you bastard.”

“Hahaha!” Harold giggled. “I’ll bet you say I sure am glad that cocksucker’s out of here!” I finished tieing his shoes, and looked him in the eye.

“I would never say anything like that about you, you motherfucker.”

“Hahahahahahahahaha!” Harold laughed. He looked like he was going to do a cartwheel across the room. “Godammit, Mark! I like you! I’m gonna buy you…a new refrigerator!”

Home run.

I don’t recommend using this technique with patients to anyone. Ever. If I were anyone other than myself, I doubt I would’ve tried it. But I do lead a blessed life, or so I’ve been told of late, and right now that appears to be an indisputable truth.

I wonder if any of my former co-workers are saying, I sure am glad that son of a bitch is out of here…