To Ellen, glad you came to our little hobbit hole!
I woke up a quadriplegic and I hadn’t even shared my deepest secret yet.
That’s what the old man told me when I sat beside his hospital bed trying to convince him that the mush the home served was good. If I was honest with myself, it wasn’t good. It tasted as bad as it smelled and that was horrid. I’d tried to show the old dodger that it was tasty and took a bite for myself. I instantly regretted it. It tasted like a combination of the same glue we all used to sample in kindergarten and boiled snot. Ok, so I’ve never eaten boiled snot, but I figured it would taste like that gelatinous ooze they called Turkey Delight. It was a salty, gooey and utterly disgusting mound of mystery meat. I eventually gave up trying to serve dog shit on a spoon covered in gravy and set his tray aside.
“What do you mean you woke up a quadriplegic? Wouldn’t you have known what happened? I definitely think I’d know how I lost the fun in life,” I chuckled.
“Bah! You think you’re so smart, don’tcha? Wise crackin’ youngun thinks he knows the world! Let me tell you a thing or two, boy…” The old man wheezed out each word like a hissing tire letting out the last of its air. “You ain’t seen nothing like I’ve seen. Oh sure, you’ve got the internets and all your fancy gadgets but you haven’t seen!’
The way he hissed the word “seen” sent shivers down my spine. My usual cocky demeanor fell to the side as I leaned over to prop myself up, chin cradled in my upturned palm, to look at the man. He didn’t seem all that intimidating. Hell, the only remarkable thing about him was negated by the lack of ability to use his legs. He would have stood at least 6’5” if he could stand. His condition had robbed his muscles of anything close to resembling muscle tone and left him with thin skin stretched over frail bones.
“Well hell ya old coot,” I said affectionately. The old man was my favorite patient and he knew it. We had a symbiotic relationship based on a mutual understanding of sarcasm and smartassery. “Enlighten my wise cracking ass why don’tcha?”
“Boy,” he started, motioning with as much force as his limited range of motion would allow. “You ever seen the horrors of war? Nah, your lily-livered hide woulda been runnin’ with a trail of yellow behind ya.”
I chuckled and shook my head. No, I hadn’t seen war. I was one of the lucky ones that couldn’t go to war even if I would have wanted to. My bad knee had cocooned me in a warm bubble-wrapped safety net known as “not medically fit for service.” I didn’t feel like the man really wanted or needed to hear that.
“The damn bombers had hit our base down on the island, you know the one? That pretty little slice of paradise with the women that dance with coconuts on their tots?”
“Yeah,” I said through my laughter. Hearing an old man refer to breasts as tots tickled my funny bone. A mental picture of women with huge tater tots covered by coconut shells just wouldn’t leave my mind. “Hawaii, you know, the 50th state? Go on….” I hoped I wouldn’t regret urging him to continue.
“When those damn bombers opened that can of whoopass, I was right there in line to join the ranks. I was 17 when I marked my X on those enlistment papers on January 2, 1942. I remember it like it was yesterday. I wanted to shoot me a Nazi or a commie, I didn’t rightly care which one it was.”
I listened to him recant his tale of boot camp, the battles that he was a part of in the following years. His voice lost its odd wheezing and became strong as he wove his tale. I still wanted to hear how he’d lost total use of everything about nipple level down and greatly reduced the use of his arms. I hated to admit it, but I was really enjoying the way he lit up as his story unfolded. I’d read about the places and battles he was recounting with first hand knowledge. His battalion had liberated Buchenwald in Germany and that’s when his story got really interesting. He spoke of going AWOL to find the German leaders at the helm of the genocide. His tale began to grow more peculiar and strange as he told of assisting suicides of high ranking officers in the SS. My brow furrowed knowing the story taught in the history books. His story didn’t match up.
“You don’t believe me do ya boy?” His wheeze had returned. His dark eyes narrowed on me as if trying to read the innermost thoughts in my mind.
“It’s not that I don’t believe ya, but I mean I passed history in school and that’s just not what was taught.” The old man laughed. He pointed to the locked locker that each patient has to keep their personal belongings in. Long ago he’d given me the code to his combination lock, so I went and opened it.
“Bottom shelf, that locked box there. No, not the paper box ya numbskull! The metal one. What the hell good would it do to lock a paper box? I thought you had graduated from that fancy hoitey -toitey school, huh?” His cackle sounded like a broken squeeze toy.
“Alright, pops, enough with the romance. What did you want out of this box?” I asked as I made my way back to the bedside. He pointed to the old clock on his nightstand. It was one of those old fancy mantle clocks. It always looked out of place on the small nightstand because of its long base hanging over the edges. I furrowed my brow and put the metal box on the bed and picked up the clock.
“Underneath,” he said as he pulled the box closer, inch by slow and painful inch. Sure enough, old tape held a small key in place. I pulled the key and the tape disintegrated around it. Holding the now freed key out to him, I sat back down beside the bed. The old man had fumbled his way through opening the lock. He pushed the now open treasure trove my way. I reached over to pull it into my lap.
“Go ahead, look through them since ya don’t believe the old fart wheezin’ his last breaths.” The man chuckled as my jaw dropped. I knew those faces from the history books. Here he was, standing with the men that had been wanted by Nuremberg tribunals for their war crimes. I gulped as I flipped through the pictures wondering just who I had befriended. The pictures started out as happy go lucky pictures like you would take while on vacation with your friends. As I continued to flip through, they began to take a darker more sinister turn. I paused to look up at him to find him studying my reaction.
“It was after that last picture that I woke up a quadriplegic. That damn old boy got one over on me. I know, it don’t happen often. That’s was ok because what he didn’t know was that I had been balls deep in his wife the night before. All that and I haven’t even shared my deepest secret yet.” He laughed and closed his eyes.