Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Inez, Can I Please Have My Cigarette?" From The Memoirs

The title refers to a request made four times a day by an Army Captain I once knew, respected and yup ---- loved. If he's reading this from Heaven or Hell (probably the latter) he's probably making puking noises right about now.

After high school and before college, my Dad thought it was time for me to learn some humility, so he got me a job at Pine Knoll Nursing Home here in Carrollton. The reason my father thought I needed taking down a notch or two was because, in his opinion, I had gotten full of myself playing drums in a rock group, so he got me this job to supplement my income from the weekend gigs. I was 17 at the time.

Captain Williams had both legs shot off in WWII, and after being discharged to the VA hospital in Atlanta, finally wound up in the Nursing Home in Carrollton. He served in a paratrooper regiment - don't remember which one, but it could have been the 82nd Airborne. In addition to bathing him and helping with other bodily functions, it was also my job to light his cigarettes. He got 4 a day. They and a shot of Jack Daniels at bedtime were pretty much his only enjoyment. He had no family that I knew of. No one ever came to visit him except some old Army buddies. They meant well, I know that, but I wish they would have come more often; it was one of the few times I saw him smile with sparkling eyes.

During my breaks, I would head straight to his room, sit down and listen to some of his war stories. I wish I had written them down and/or taped them, but I was 17 and full of myself, remember?
He and I had a great relationship as far as it went. I got him extra cigarettes and helped him hoard his booze and one night after I got off (at 11) he and I got plastered together. I don't know how I managed to make it home to Villa Rica, because I was as drunk as Cooter Jones when I finally left.
One of the night shift nurses was a pretty cool chick and turned a blind eye to what was going on in room 15, and made sure the Captain looked bright-eyed and bushy tailed the next morning. He always wore a dour expression, so it wasn't noticeable to anyone who didn't know that he was hung over.

And so it went. Every time I was on duty and not working with other patients, everyone knew where I could be found. On my off-days a date and I would stop and say a quick hello. At those times he was an "Officer and A Gentleman". Until the next day, when he'd critique the poor girl.

One day we learned that Captain Williams had been diagnosed with lung cancer. A lifetime of smoking had finally taken its toll and he was dying.

I have to say he took it pretty well. May even have been relieved - it was hard to tell, but here is what I could never understand: Why in the HELL did they continue to limit his smoking to 4 a day???? He was dying and the smokes gave him some pleasure, so WTF???

Later on, in my forties and working as a respiratory therapist, I thought back on those days and Captain Williams and one day decided to stop my "preaching" to adults about not smoking. "They're adults," I reasoned, "and they made their choice. If it's to continue smoking, who am I to stand in their way?" So from there on out unless someone came to me to ask about quitting, I stayed silent.

Shoot me.

So hell, I bought him smokes and smuggled them in. If any of the nurses or other orderlies were any the wiser, they kept their mouths shut. I'll always be grateful for that, because they felt the same way I did about this sadistic sonofabitch doctor who would not lift the smoking "regulation".

One day I came to work late, got a quick report and went to see my friend, but his room was empty. I didn't need to be told, he went downhill quickly after the diagnosis and with "Sister Morphine" on board, he was beginning his journey to the Elysian Fields.

So I sat down on his bed, cried and imagined him hovering over me shouting for me to shut my "goddam" mouth and get to work. He cussed like a sailor, did  Army Captain Williams, but his heart was pure gold. Many was the time he gave me gas money or helped with buying a new tire. It was against policy, of course, but he always found a way around that particular protocol.

I have a lifetime (his lifetime) of history in my head because of our talks. Mostly about the war; Glen Miller's music (the Captain played clarinet); being sitting ducks trying to land in a war zone as the Germans shot them out of the sky like the hunters many of them were. He even taught this German Boy a little bit about how to please a woman in bed.

He taught me a lot, my friend the Captain, and without meaning to (or maybe he meant to all along) he taught me what I needed to learn: Humility.

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