It’s hard to explain the VA to civilians. When I was working at Mohawk Machine, I sometimes would get caught in the traffic jam on Route Nine at shift change. The VA cop would come with his pushbutton; and let everyone out. For ten minutes the light would be red for us and they would come pouring out of there, smoking up the rubber, all these shut-down faces, a “let me the hell out of here” attitude. I never thought I’d be part of that horde, but here I am.
From the road, their Medical Center looks great, acres and acres of green rolling lawn, two ponds joined by a small waterfall, and ornamental plantings. A pine forest shields the complex and gives it a little privacy. Coming up the driveway, it’s reminiscent of a military hospital, six brick cottages with large screened-in porches with the names of the doctors on little signboards. In the summer heat you would expect to see the doctor himself in a white suit and a pith helmet smoking his pipe. The main complex of buildings is up on the crest of the hill. It was surrounded by forest on three sides, open in the east to views of the Connecticut River. Like a great circle of Conestoga wagons, eight two storied brick buildings were connected with roofed-over walkways. Patients out to get exercise could walk and walk and eventually end up back where they started. There are worlds within worlds out on the back wards. Things happen there that no one on the outside ever hears about.
On the first day, when I put my application to be a psychiatric aide, the floors shone like mirrors, and the sounds of buffers and lawn mowers buzzing everywhere. Groups of weather-beaten characters hung out by the clinic entrance, passing cigarettes around and sucking on them greedily. The health care professionals were all badged up, quiet and serious people, walking back and forth with folders. I read one of the posters pinned up on the wall about quality care and the mission of the VA. It sounded okay. The application was ten pages long, and I took it to the cafeteria to work on it. I had hoped for a little peace and quiet and a good cup of coffee, but the coffee was awful and the din was something terrific. It was old home week, everybody bumming cigarettes and laughing at nothing in particular. I put the paperwork down.
A patient sat down at my table and smiled at me. He had this yellow and blue Bardahl cap, and a T-shirt saying KISS ME I’M A LITHUANIAN worn under an old tweed jacket. He introduced himself as Edward Trompfeller and said he was a former colonel. He looked the part, like an old sunburned Marine with spare grayish hair in a brush cut. He had an authoritative air with a lunatic kind of sparkle occasionally showing in his eyes. He quickly briefed me about his posting to Turkey in the fifties, and about the top-secret capabilities of ozone-scatter in long-distance target acquisition. He seemed to know what he was talking about. He shook his old head sagely, felt badly about what happened to Gary Powers and the whole U-2 project. He had let Gary go out that morning when a KGB agent in Bodo, Norway, had already leaked the flight schedule and flight pattern. Langley, he said, had their heads up their asses like usual and decided to make their most ambitious flight on May Day. “Fuckin’ May Day,” Trompfeller shouted, his face flushing deep red. He told me most of Russia’s routine traffic was on the runway and their pilots were out on the parade grounds, so that one lonely blip coming out of Lahore headed north was spotted right away.
The colonel, as he talked, leaned forward and started whispering. He wanted me to keep my voice down. There were communists there in the cafeteria, he said, and pointed them out. His voice dropped even lower.
“Someone is killing patients here,” he said so softly that I could barely catch it, and then his eyes twitched in both directions as he looked around in a classic paranoid manner. Someone was listening? Then a great hulk of a heavily drugged busboy dropped a stack of trays, and I felt right at home. These were my kind of people. In Chelsea down by the Norcross building they were out on the streets on sunny days, taking the air. Here they were living in a sheltered workshop of sorts, taking their medicine, or not taking their medicine.
I got an epic freeze at the job interview two weeks later, sitting all alone with five health care professionals staring at me, wondering what I could do for their patients. There wasn’t a smile in the room. The attractive black woman in charge of the inquisition handled my application as if it was contaminated, pushing it around in front of her with her index finger, and tapping on it impatiently as she waited for my answers. I don’t quite understand where you are coming from, she said. I didn’t get the job.
About a month later the phone woke me up at eight-thirty in the morning. People have no respect for us second shift people.
“Callahan, is this you?”
The rough amiable voice was familiar.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Rusty Marchand. How’s the kid doing?”
“Rusty, this is really you?”
“Where in hell is West Chesterfield?” he said. “I never heard of it.”
“Twenty miles from Pittsfield, thirty miles west of Springfield. Nowheresville, Rusty. How the hell did you find me?”
“We have our means, brother, we have our ways. Your old man used the cabin as collateral for a small loan he took out with his bank. Jesus, you did a good job of disappearing off the face of the earth. Look, you’re not still into the shit, are you? You sober, keeping your nose clean?”
I should have known that if someone could find me out here it would be Rusty. A great sleepy amiable cop, always scratching his hoary head, and coming up with the right questions and making the right phone calls. Chelsea’s finest, stuck forever at Detective Third.
“Yeah?” His tone of voice said that Rusty had his doubts.
“So what’s up?”
“What’s up is that we got a visit from the FBI on Monday, and they wanted to know all about you. Very cagey, very discreet. The Chief probably bad-mouthed you up in the front office, I don’t know. You’ve not in trouble, are you?”
“What’d I just say?”
“You must be doing something. All these fucking questions they threw at us. Two of their finest were here at morning roll call wanting to talk with any of us that knew you. Being your old partner, I came in for a share of the grilling. Those goddamn zombies. All take and no give. They must all go to training camps for the effect. So what you doing with yourself these days? “
“Working in a machine shop.”
“Huh,” Rusty said, “You okay with that?”
“It’s a job, Rusty. I find I need to go somewhere every day and do something that has some money attached to it.”
“Well, whatever. Us poor donkeys miss you. These kids I am saddled with now are too fucking serious. Young suburbanites, home at six to mow the lawn. All they care about is scoring their work-site details. Drop by and say hi next time you’re in town.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. And let me know if you hear anything about what’s going on.”
“It’s probably nothing to worry about. The Feds send those guys out for all kinds of routine security clearances. Someone might be thinking of giving you some position more befitting your bloodhound abilities. You know, all these fucking questions about character. I put in a good word for you.”