|Hell On Earth --- Carterson, 1865, Part 1|
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.
|During the American Civil War (1861-1865)the
United States was virtually torn apart. Three million people (1/3 of those people were
slaves) from the Confederate States of America (CSA) were at war with over eleven million
citizens of the remaining states in the Union. It was a cruel time which is to this day
Prison camps on both sides were rarely survivable. Those men who did manage to be freed where never, ever, the same. The first known medical documentation of "POW Syndrome" began during the post-CW era. The symptoms, facts, and difficulties these men faced are regrettable and astonishingly the same as those documented after the other wars the United States has participated in throughout it's entire history.
The CW continues to effect America each day and in many ways. The price our country has paid, is paying, and will pay for this horrendous time continues to mount. During the CW we fought not some distant enemy across the sea, but Americans fought and killed Americans!
The assumptions for this story are: it is April 1865, the CSA(Confederate States of America) no longer exists, shipments to CSA prison camps which were scant to say the least have been nonexistent for some time, and the Union army raced to known camps as soon as word of Lee's surrender made it out west.
Just in case someone who visits the BV writing desk from around the world doesn't know list:
1)CSA soldiers wore butternut uniforms ... only officers could afford gray material, and gray material was not available in the South after the first two years of the war,
2)common nicknames for CSA soldiers were Johnny Reb, Johnny, John, Reb, or any play on rebel, and
3)common nicknames for Union/Federal soldiers were Billy Yank, Yank, blue boys, blue bellies ... You get the idea.
|Texas was suffering through a horrible drought
during another unexpectedly hot spring. Two years of this crop and cattle killing weather
was to prove one more nail in the coffin of the Confederacy. Wild, angry, and
undisciplined gangs of butternut troops still roomed the Texas countryside claiming to be
soldiers while handing out their own vicious brand of justice to friend and foe alike.
Leaderless and separated by hundreds of miles from their capitol, Richmond, Virginia,
these desperate men had no idea their Commander-and-Chief, General Robert E. Lee, lost and
abandoned Petersburg's trenches at the beginning of the month.
News of the April 12th agreements set forth at Appomattox Court-house, Virginia, didn't filter through most of the South's destroyed communication system. It was heading towards the end of April in Texas and the war between the states was still being fought.
Heath Thomson and the hundreds of Union army prisoners incarcerated at Carterson were the victors. Their army had won, Grant and Lincoln were having parades down the streets of Washington City, and yet for these prisoners each day remained an unbearable struggle to simply survive.
Carterson was hell on earth. A big, dusty, filthy acre of suffering and shame. The barbed wire fence surrounding the camp was in complete disrepair, but no one noticed. Everyone, Yank and Reb, knew the desert beyond those fences meant death with or without the insufferable heat wave which was slowly baking them all. By the end of the war observers of the camp would have a difficult time recognizing captor versus captive. The skeleton figures at Carterson all appeared to be one in the same.
Heath sat under the small slice of shade provided by the edge of the guard's bunk house. His eyes scanned the camp which had been his prison nearly a year. It was early morning and the waves of heat rising up from the endlessly brown landscape promised another furnace-type day.
For a moment Heath closed his eyes and tried to remember what a breeze drifting across your face might feel like. Fighting his eyes open again the young man chastised himself for dreaming. No good providing mental torture since the Johnny's had been very efficient in physical torture. Heath was tired of all the ugliness and pain having made up his mind he already endured more than enough torture of any kind for one lifetime.
Heath smiled thinking though his plan to stick it to the Rebs. NO MORE HOPEFUL DREAMS. Those crazy dreams only messed up your mind. The young boy refused to assist his captors in increasing his own anguish. No, they'd be sorry. Heath Thomson had decided to live. Screw them all! The Rebs weren't going to win this battle. He would live and tell the world what happened here.
A small crooked smile crossed his face. One of the guards sitting nearby happened to glance Heath's way at that very moment. The Johnny shook his head. Too bad about the kid. Sitting there insane with a smile on his face. The guard had son's about the same age back home. He was glad his sons weren't crazy like the Billy Yank he was staring at! The guard returned to his own business ... Trying to keep himself alive.
By the time the mid-day sun was barreling down on him, Heath had dispassionately watched two more blue boys give up the fight. One man simply sat down by the fence but everyone's well trained eyes noticed a few moments later when the life left him. Once you'd been around death, smelt it, felt it, sensed it's peace, and forgotten to fear it's finality ... It was easy to spot the dead bodies from the one's like Heath himself. The barely alive ones.
The man by the fence used the last of his energy to walk to the north side. Maybe he was a Colorado man, Califonia, Nevada, or perhaps New Mexico. Wherever he used to be from the man looked to the north, the Union position. Good on him! He showed those Rebs. The man faced home and accepted his death on his terms. Heath felt pride in a fellow blue sticking it to the Rebs in his own way.
The other man was a suicide. Heath had seen too many of them and simply couldn't associate with the move himself. Not that he felt one way or the other after serving time in this hole, but for him it didn't show enough anger. Poor fella did as so many others.
Managed to drag himself to the small creek which ran through the center of the yard. Really couldn't call it a creek anymore, more like a filthy trickle. At one time it was the only water source for over twenty-thousand men. It was also the only latrine, bath, and more than a few times torture area. This morning's cide, as they were called, simply dragged himself to the edge, pulled himself up, and let himself fall face first into the mounds of human excrement and sludge.
Camp remained still until there was motion when the guards were issued their small portion of clean water and beans for the day, but otherwise no one moved. Heath could swear he heard horses. There wasn't an animal other than these disastrous humans for miles around. Wretched smell of the place saw to that, but through the hot, still, and putrid air the boy thought he heard horses.
Despite his mental struggle Heath let his mind wonder over the barbed wire and out of camp. He was back in Strawberry working at Mr. Corey's livery. A new colt came in with a tender ligament and they all watched as the owner fussed over him. Heath caught the young horse's eye and could see the runner in him. It was a favorite dream seeing, touching, and smelling that colt again.
There were voices, men yelling out, and the guards all stirred. From his position on the side of their bunk house Heath had a clear view of the entire yard. The yelling was louder but it wasn't men screaming or any of the usual noises of camp. Someone was barking orders just like back in the real army. The boy shook his head figuring he'd rather think of horses than officers!
The noise didn't stop. Heath managed the strength to lift his head enough to see the front gate. It was swung wide open and a large company of cavalry with infantry support was moving in. The soldiers were all holding bandannas over their faces and looking around with wild eyes. Heath strained to be sure ... Yes, they did. These men were dressed in blue. UNION! THEY WERE UNION!!
Suddenly catching himself almost smiling Heath dropped his head. Anger surged through his brain. How could he break his own rules this completely? Letting himself dream the Union army was anywhere near this place. NO, hope was too dangerous he must stop dreaming anything of that sort!
"You alive, boy?"
Heath opened his eyes and registered a man in a blue infantry uniform with three stripes on his upper arm. The man was kneeling in front of Heath and using water from a canteen to wet a cloth which he used to wipe the boy's face, lips, and through his hair. When their eyes meet and Heath's somewhat focused the boy realized the man was crying.
"Funny," Heath croaked out around the bales of cotton in his mouth, "I always figured Gabriel for a general."
The sergeant smiled and winked. Heath closed his eyes and relaxed into dying. He was tired of fighting anyway. Hell, all his buddies were long over on the other side. The Yanks would win another day without Heath Thomson. He was tired, so very tired, and this was such a lovely dream. Imagine the Union army in Carterson. Heck, that wouldn't happen until the war was over!
The boy leaned back against the wall, turned his head toward the only direction of freedom, and while searching the sky with his mind relaxed for the first time in nearly a year. Heath knew the danger of his decision but he continued to relax. His mind scanned through the blue boys he moments before imagined ... He tried to see familiar faces. Nice dream!
Heath never felt a thing as the overwhelmed sergeant picked him up and carried him to one of the ambulances. The burly sergeant had seen a lot of horrible things while in this man's army, but nothing prepared him for today. Before the sergeant left Heath to look for other survivors, the well-worn, ox-like, lifelong soldier broke down. He held the boy for a long moment then gently laid him on the cot. He looked down seeing the side of war nobody ever wants to discuss. The sergeant leaned in and kissed the youngster on the cheek.
Quietly the sergeant whispered in the boy's ear, gladly giving the much younger man the ultimate honor, a soldier's salute, "Well done, lad. Well done."
The next few days were confusing for Heath. After deciding to die he somehow seemed to be alive but not in Carterson. Folks washed him, cleaned out his many sores, and treated the oozing wounds from the floggings. Gentle hands guided him back into soft pillows when he continually brought back up anything they poured down his mouth. Perhaps his mother found him? Maybe she was about? If only he could open his eyes? What if he missed her?
One night Heath again enjoyed dreaming of home. Hannah was singing in the kitchen, Rachel was fixing the table, and he was reading a new book. They were all waiting for Heath's mother, Leah, to come home. He started to get excited for he longed to see, smell, and touch his mother. He would allow himself to believe this new dream if only his mother would wrap her arms around him.
Suddenly he noticed the other women crying. What was wrong? Where was his mother? Why couldn't he see her? Heath struggled with all his might to get up, reach out, or do anything to move ... He was paralyzed.
"Take it easy, soldier."
The medic's strong arms pushed Heath's fevered body back on the cot. The boy looked around and began to breath again. He wasn't home. Actually he had no idea where he was. They were in a large tent with lots of beds in it. The flaps were tied up and he could
feel a breeze flowing through the area.
"Here, try this."
The man held Heath up to drink some water. With pure joy Heath realized the water was fresh, cool, and CLEAN!! He tried to gulp it down but the man yanked it away.
"Take it slow, son. There's plenty but it does no good to gulp it down only to bring it right back up on your clean bedding."
Heath looked down and realized he was naked but wrapped inside a wonderfully clean army cot. His body was covered with bandages and liniments. Could this be real? The brand on the top blanket read "US ARMY." Heath took another half cup of water and tried to slow himself even though water never tasted so good.
"Where am I?"
"Garland, Texas. Army hospital #149. You've been here a few days along with most of these fellas."
"I thought I was dead!"
The medic laughed heartily and rubbed Heath's shoulder before moving on to another man.
"Lay back and rest. Thought we lost you quite a few times since you transferred in with the other Carterson survivors. You're not dead, son, but you are back in the loving arms of the US Army!"
The man thought himself humorous but Heath didn't. He was free! He made it. Now, what was going to become of him and when could he go home? Survivor, the man with the wonderful water called him a survivor! HOME, he wanted to go home!
Heath thought about sitting back up and yelling his questions as his mind began to spin into action. The tent attendant was giving water to the others and Heath suddenly felt sleepy. There'd be time later after this fog clouding his mind further lifted. The boy fell asleep with a smile still on his face.
They finally made Los Angeles. Heath remembered the army depot here. He'd been sent here for basic training and won his promotion to the sharpshooter's corps on this base's firing range. If Heath closed his eyes and really concentrated he could feel the sand between his toes on those weekend passes he spent by the Pacific Ocean.
It had been an awfully long ride from Texas. The Carterson survivors forced the train to stop frequently due to their inability to withstand the cramped conditions on the troop carriers. Heath was relieved to step outside the car during most of the stops. Many of the men were still too weak. No one spoke of it, but they all seemed protective of one and other. They now belonged to a small, tragic, and frightening club whose numbers continued to decrease.
Heath spent time trying to remember how he got all the marks, scars, and sores which covered his body. He even had big sores in his mouth and throat which the vomiting he'd been doing lately wasn't helping. The creamed cereal the doctor had him try this morning smelt heavenly but after two bites Heath had to stop. His stomach was doing flops again and he was back to water only.
There was something wrong with his legs too. When he tried to walk he legs wouldn't listen. The medics stood by his bed twice a day and lifted his legs up and down and moved the joints all around. From the pain these actions caused he figured the leg thing might have something to do with the night last February when one of the guards hit him in the lower back with the end of a board. Pain shot up and down his legs then, even though it was his lower back that took the impact.
Slowly the young man appeared to make progress. The survivor's numbers continued to decline as other men found satisfaction in merely showing the Rebs and living to be freed. With that major goal reached they had no energy left to fight.
The doctors and medics seemed to feel the survivors strange when there was no reaction to a tent mates passing. Heath figured it would take a while for the army to publish reports on the thousands of men who walked into Carterson versus the handful which were carried out. Maybe when they saw the numbers they would begin to understand the numbness one could learn to feel against death. Heath didn't figure they would ever understand the men's acceptance of death as a choice, an honorable choice.
One day two officers took him into a separate tent and began the process of identifying him for the army. Heath was stronger but the doctor held the regular army off as long as he could. Years of studying the effect of prison camps on soldiers through history plus the horrors he'd see in this war left Dr. Mullins leery of pushing any of the men too soon.
Heath felt strange being in his light blue hospital nightshirt. He noticed the folks staring at the train station, but it hadn't registered what they must all look like. Scarecrows in nightshirts. The officers were in full dress blues which made the scene surreal. No matter, Heath's skin, back, and entire body was painful and sore. He couldn't have pulled a pair of pants on for his life. Besides he kept finding he'd slept the days away. Might as well be ready for bed if all the day's activities you could manage was to sleep.
The men waited after Heath greeted them. Finally he figured out they were waiting for him to salute them. He pulled his hand up the best he could but the movement yanked at his torn up back. He grimaced and gave up while dropping his eyes. The older man, a lieutenant named Armstrong, rushed around the desk and helped the boy into a chair. The younger officer, Major something-or-other, sat and stared.
"Can we get you anything, private?"
Heath looked up at the man who helped him and tried to smile.
The man returned to his seat behind the desk. Heath wiped some sweat from his brow with his sleeve. My goodness it was close in here. Why were the flaps down and this was such a small tent?
Heath refocused on the major. He stared blankly at Heath while the other man prepared to write.
"Heath Morgan Thomson."
"Rank and company?"
"Breveted corporal, McConnell's brigade, sharpshooter company, sir."
"Age and hometown?"
"Eighteen. Strawberry, California, sir."
Heath put his hands down and held onto the chair. He said he was eighteen the entire two years Heath had been in the army. Nobody seemed to notice or care. He wondered how old he really was? Time, dates, and birthdays eluded him and Heath began to feel the fog roll in. The boy was sweating up a storm and his chest hurt when he tried to take a breath. In an attempt to stop the shakes which were becoming uncontrollable the boy held on to the small wooden camp chair.
Heath managed a quick reply since this question came from the lieutenant.
"My ma, Leah Thomson, also from Strawberry, sir."
"Date of incarceration?", the major was back in charge.
"I'm not sure, sir. I got caught up in New Mexico late last June or it may have been early July."
"Eleven months at Carterson then?"
Heath felt his heart pounding and the room began to spin.
"Could we open the flaps, sir? I feel ...
Armstrong jumped up and opened the front flap. A marvelous spring breeze swept in and Heath gulped in the air. Without asking the older officer helped him drink some water.
"Eleven months then?"
The man's voice was regular army drone but Heath was panicked. It was like waiting for one of Carterson's guards to start barking. They'd drone on and on and then wham you got a surprise. HEATH HATED SURPRISES!
"I don't know, sir. What month is it now?"
"End of April!"
"Oh? Is it '64 or '65, sir?"
The two officers exchanged glances. This one wasn't going to be anymore helpful than the others the doctor let them see. How were they ever going to identify these men, process them, and get them back to their units?
"It is 1865, Heath," the lieutenant intervened then tried to speak on the side to the major.
Heath ran through the months or at least tried to. His panic wasn't allowing for him to think clearly. Why was this happening? These were Union officers ... He was safe, wasn't he?
"Does your mother know you are here?", asked the more caring officer.
"I don't know. Did she know what happened to me, sir?"
"We'll figure that out when we can pull your service records into Los Angeles, son."
The major didn't like the overly friendly turn of events. Identifying these men was his first big assignment in his new post. He intended to get his job done quickly and efficiently, but these men, these survivors, they were impossible and everyone coddled them. He had the names of well over twenty-two thousand Union soldiers reported taken captive and moved to Carterson. The men in this special hospital unit numbered only two hundred and twenty-seven. He had a big job figuring why the numbers didn't match.
"Soldier, we need you to think a minute and give us a list of the men in your company captured when you were. There were others in Carterson with you I presume?"
Heath flashed to some of his buddy's faces. They were all gone. It was awful at first, watching them slip away. Three of the dozen men he was captured with didn't even make it to Carterson. They died on the horrid march to Texas. How long it had been since he let
their names and faces into his conscious thoughts. There was John, Milty, and ...
"SOLDIER, I'm talking to you!"
The major's voice forced Heath to jump and pull back. The world spun around and before he knew what was happening the camp chair dumped him backwards across the floor. Heath was confused and frightened ... Falling was a surprise! The lieutenant reached him first but from an angle Heath couldn't see. Armstrong reached to pull the boy up off the ground.
Heath stiffened completely paralyzed. Waiting for the blows from the guards. His mind fogged and he prepared himself for the beating. The officer immediately responded to Heath's body language and when he turned the boy over the man noted the sheer terror in his eyes. But there was something else ... This boy was no longer in the tent here in Los Angeles. No, his eyes weren't focused. Heath was far away.
The major threw down his pencil and glared angrily at his assistant.
"This boy needs a doctor. He isn't ready for this, major, sir."
The major knew it was true but still resented the fact. As the doctor rushed in the tent the major stormed out. The lieutenant returned his gaze to the young man paralyzed in another world. The officer had triggered something terrible, something the months at Carterson beat into this child.
The doctor helped Heath sit up while keeping everyone including the lieutenant a distance away. They opened up all the tent flaps and a cool spring breeze seemed to revitalize everyone. The lieutenant had a large family of his own back in Pennsylvania, five sons.
The young man before him was no more eighteen than eighty. He guessed Heath might be fifteen or sixteen but no more.
When Heath felt better the doctor allowed a medic to walk near him as he made his way back to his assigned tent. The boy remained emotionless until he exited the officer's tent and saw the lieutenant's horse being held close by. Unable to accept human touch the boy walked over and wrapped his arms around the horse's neck. The normally powerful and unaffectionate stallion moved into the boy and seemed to let Heath draw on his strength. It was an amazing scene. Without a word the boy withdrew to his tent and collapsed on his cot.
The next few days Heath wandered around camp and spent time with the lieutenant's horse. The strength he appeared to gather from these excursions encouraged Dr. Mullins. Heath's rations were increased from creamed cereals to oatmeal and meat based broths. Considering the doctor was dealing with many other Carterson survivor's deaths each and everyday watching Heath keep down food and make his way to the horses gave him hope some men could be saved.
Lieutenant Armstrong and his horse watched for Heath each morning. The boy never spoke unless questioned and continued to have a far away look in his darkly circled eyes. With the doctor's permission the lieutenant walked Heath to the grooming stations and from the hill behind the hospital unit they observed the large equestrian depot on the main base.
While waiting for the lieutenant one morning Heath sat on a bench in front of the hospital administration building. The hospital endured tremendous growth during the war which meant the tents and temporary buildings far outnumbered the solidly constructed buildings.
The sun flashed off the windows behind him catching Heath's attention. The boy turned and sat motionless. He didn't recognize his own reflection. Hairless since he was deloused, the gaunt face, hands, and neck Heath saw in the window didn't look like anyone alive let alone anyone he knew. He stood up and took a step back to see his entire body reflected. The sight truly did not register as being himself.
"Good morning, Heath!", the lieutenant was glad to see the boy waiting again this morning.
Heath stood touching his hands to his face, bald head, and protruding bones. He wrapped his arms around himself and felt each and every bone. His arms made it all the way around until his fingers touched over the area where his sharp spine jetted out. The boy was much taller than the last time he saw his reflection but could the ghost in the window really be him?
The boy spun around and tried to hide his distress from his new friend.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Armstrong, sir."
"Come back here."
Heath walked back slowly and stood in front of the lieutenant as directed. Both men stood staring at their reflections. The officer wasn't a big man but he looked like a giant at this very minute.
"Someday," Armstrong forced a smile on his face and watched Heath's eyes in their reflection, "this will all seem the dream instead of the other way around."
Heath cocked his head.
"When you are an old man like myself it will be Carterson which will seem unreal. Life will be good, you won't hurt anymore, and your mind won't play so many tricks on you. You just have to work hard, work with all your might, and get better."
For the first time in their relationship Heath didn't shudder when Armstrong put a hand on his shoulder. He didn't dare hold the boy as he wanted, but he tried to convey his concern.
"Do you really believe that? I mean, do you believe I'll get better?", Heath turned to face Armstrong but dropped his eyes immediately, "Another one of the men in my tent died last night. He was fine two days ago."
Armstrong bent down and forced eye contact.
"Yes, Heath, I believe you can get better. It is all up to you. Dr. Mullins can only try to fix what's wrong with your body. You must work with him, be honest with him, and then allow your soul to heal. Your mind and soul. You are the only one who can heal those things."
Heath started back for his tent.
"Aren't we going out to watch the grooms with the horses?"
"No, thank you, sir" Heath turned, came to attention, and saluted the best he could.
Heath worked very hard on his letter. The fifth draft seemed to be the best combination of explanation, reassurance, and apology. He ran away from home and joined the army without his mother's permission. They had been fighting all the time. Heath's fault but realizing that now didn't make up for the two years he was away. If Heath made it home he would try to be more understanding of his mother's desires to protect the man who sired Heath. The man who walked out and left them alone. That was if he made it home?
Walking over to the quartermaster's tent Heath felt the tightness creeping into his chest. It had bothered him mostly at night but yesterday and today began to be a constant. It hurt to take a deep breath and he was winded simply lying on his bunk. After he posted his letter Heath sat for a moment and caught his breath.
Heath always hated doctors and fussing. Lieutenant Armstrong told him it was his responsibility to get better. He thought about the note he mailed to Strawberry telling them he would get well and come home. He hated to do it but Heath knew what he must do.
A half hour later Heath sat outside Dr. Mullins' tent waiting for him to return from his rounds. A few men walked in with the doctor and he listened while they talked. Seeing the sweat on Heath's brow and sensing the boy's growing panic Dr. Mullins' aide finally pulled him aside and pointed out Heath's presence.
"Hello, Heath. How are the horses today?"
Heath looked up trying to stay calm but feeling his heart beating way too fast. He clutched the sides of his chair and looked back down at his feet. The doctor shoed everyone else away and knelt down in front of the boy.
"Can you tell me, son?"
Heath fought his desire to run away. Not physically to run but to turn off mentally and sit alone not having to talk to anyone. The doctor waited.
"Lieutenant Armstrong says it is up to me to help you help me get better. Plus I need to work hard on some other stuff."
The doctor smiled with gratitude knowing Armstrong was one of the few staff officers who was trying to understand these ex-prisoners problems coping with their freedom.
"My chest hurts. It hurts more each day. I can't sleep because it hurts so much at night."
"Can you walk back to your tent, Heath?"
The boy nodded his head indicating he could and would. He didn't want anybody to touch him.
"I'll meet you there."
Heath slowly made his way across the encampment. The doctor excused himself and followed immediately behind. When they arrived Dr. Mullins forgot and tried to help Heath then backed off until the boy was sitting on his bunk. He carefully listened to Heath's chest and tried to smile when he put away his stethoscope.
"Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I can tell the medics have been taking wonderful care of your various wounds and I even see improvement since Monday when I examined you."
Heath waited for the rest since he already saw it in the doctor's eyes.
"You have pneumonia in both of your lungs, Heath. I'll get you on some new medicine right away. You eat and drink as much as you can. Rest, please, rest. We'll get this under control in no time."
The boy nodded his gratitude and slid down on the bed. His eyes were heavy and it wouldn't be a moment before he would be asleep. The doctor closed his bag and started to leave.
"Thanks, Dr. Mullins, thanks for being honest with me."
The doctor nodded and rushed back to his tent. Unable to control his tears the doctor thrashed through the records and papers of Carterson's survivors. Of the 227 released, 199 made it to Los Angeles. Once in LA they became Dr. Mullins responsibility, a responsibility he eagerly accepted.
Mullins was so sure of himself, so sure of his research on how to save these fragile men. Now the pneumonia documented by all his peers in other similar clinical situations was settling into his own camp. There were only 162 left ... 162! There must be something he could do? Something to save them? But what?
Whatever the beast was sitting on Heath's chest took over that night. Heath couldn't remember much after Dr. Mullins' visit. He would be angry with himself if Heath remembered relaxing, but he didn't. No, this dark hole he found himself sliding into wasn't welcomed and it wasn't imagined.
Heath didn't feel sure of much but he knew he was in trouble. His chest had a large weight resting on top of it. Each breath was a struggle both mentally and physically. And his heart felt like it was beating so hard and fast ... It was definitely on it's way out the front of his chest. Why didn't anyone help him?
The boy trashed day and night. Like the other survivors now down with pneumonia Heath refused to rest instead he appeared to be fighting through the months of Carterson once more. The camp was eerily filled with the sounds of frightened, angry, and dying men reliving unspeakable horrors. Human touch in an effort to comfort only created more uncontrolled thrashing. It was a unthinkably awful way to die.
The restlessness seemed to be a key for Dr. Mullins. Telegrams to doctors in the east dealing with similar problems in men released from prison camps there offered no hope. He sat inside the tents observing the common symptoms all the victims shared. The pneumonia struck those whose recovery allowed them to increase their intake and activity levels. Although weakened from the months at Carterson, debilitating injuries, and lung choking congestion each and every man thrashed relentlessly. Their hearts raced, respirations were shallow and rapid, and their lungs were filling with liquid. The moment the men stopped moving was the moment of their death.
Dr. Mullins fell asleep while scouring through his medical books one more time. In his dream the doctor remembered his grandmother's death. He was a small boy but the sight of the normally wonderful woman restlessly picking at her sheets, agitated with the slightest sound, movement, or touch, and slowly drowning due to fluid in her own lungs was burnt into his mind. In later years during medical training he finally heard the name for what killed one of his favorite people, congestive heart failure.
Memories and nightmares became mixed up and Heath fought with all his might to make himself think good thoughts. Lieutenant Armstrong told Heath it was his job to heal his mind and soul. The guards, the screams, the sounds which crept from his own body when the whip landed across his back, the terror of accidentally falling asleep only to be kicked or dragged across the yard, and the fights over everything ... Even a small piece of ground on which to die.
The only goodness Heath knew with utmost certainty was his mother's love. The boy wrestled with his demons using Leah's hands, face, smell, and touch as his only weapons.
Heath struggled for two days before there suddenly was a calm, a peace. Heath sank into the cot and took a pain-free deep breath. He wasn't sure what was happening but Dr. Mullins' voice seemed nearby.
Heath gazed up through the fog towards Dr. Mullins and one of the medics. He wasn't frightened and the heavy weight on his chest remained tight but felt better. He fell back into a wonderfully restful sleep. It had been an entire year since the boy allowed himself the basic human need of deep, dreamless, sleep. Dr. Mullins sat down and watched the boy relax, breath, and rest his body and mind. He rubbed Heath's shoulder, said a prayer, and went to the others still surprised the answer could have eluded his as long as it did.
"May I sit?"
Heath smiled and nodded to Lieutenant Armstrong. The man struggled once more fighting his paternal instinct to touch, comfort, and hold the desperately ill child before him.
"How are you, Heath?"
His eyes fought to focus on the smiling man. Somewhere in his mind Heath realized Armstrong had been visiting often, but he couldn't remember why or when.
"I'm trying so hard, sir. I'm trying to do like you told me."
"Good, Heath. You must fight and you must not stop!"
Heath tried to smile before he shut his eyes. After a moment the boy forced himself to refocus on Armstrong.
"Everytime I move forward something drags me back, sir. I feel myself falling and I reach for ... "
"What, son," Armstrong moved a bit closer to hear Heath's whispers.
"I reach for the way home," Heath's eyes watered up, "I'm trying so hard to find my way home."
Armstrong nodded and smiled despite his heartache.
"Before you nod back off, Heath, I have two things."
The boy took in his friend's face. Kind face.
"First, you have a letter. It came in at the quartermaster's and I picked it up for you. I'll leave it on the table next to you."
Heath remained motionless. His last bit of energy was draining.
"I'll come back this afternoon and we'll read it together. Right?"
"The other is your records came in. My God, Heath, you are quite the soldier. That's why I know you can do this, you can. Keep fighting!"
Heath didn't flinch when the lieutenant patted his shoulder while standing to leave.
"By the way, son. I happened to notice you had a birthday back at the beginning of the month. We'll celebrate when you're up and around. How old are you, Heath?"
The officer knelt beside the boy. Heath's eyes were closed but he wasn't sleeping.
"I promise to keep your secret, Heath. I've got five boys and I'm betting you just turned sixteen. Am I right?"
Heath didn't answer for a moment then he took a long breath before he spoke.
"No, sir. I'm eighteen and I'll be eighteen for two more years as far as the US Army is concerned."
Armstrong stood up grinning from ear to ear. For the first time in too long a time he knew Heath would live. The boy was fighting and his mind was like a trap. Heath's mind was strong enough to play a word game and make a tease. The lieutenant left, but he would be back to read Heath's letter to him later.
"I'm just thirsty, that's all, sir."
Dr. Mullins gazed down at another of his recovering pneumonia patients.
"I know, soldier. I'm sorry but we have to wait until your body heals inside. Your heart, kidneys, and other vital organs couldn't handle the liquids and salt after being in Carterson for so long.
"God, I hate army food. Even the creamed cereals are full of salt and who knows what! It WILL get better. Trust me?"
The man looked stunned.
"Trust you, doc?"
"You saved my life. I'm sinful to have complained. I do trust ya."
Dr. Mullins nodded and stood outside to finish his charting. It was a wonderful day. The other army doctors where due in at any time. The progress here in Los Angeles needed to be verified and communicated to army doctors around the world. Mullins colleges back east were enjoying similar recovery rates once his telegrams made it through. Dr. Mullins was overjoyed with his success.
The answer had been so simple. Dr. Mullins opened all the tents, spread the men out, and assigned the same medics to care for the same soldiers day and night. These measures were to decrease the men's anxiety and inability to relax with others nearby. Many of the worst tortures carried out at Carterson occurred in small windowless cells. Therefore he opened the flaps and even if the caregivers were all shivering under blankets the patients responded by relaxing and letting themselves begin to heal.
Medically the answer was even easier. Restricted fluids, no solids, no salt, keeping the upper body elevated on pillows, and morphine. Morphine sulfate was a wonderful drug which most people only thought of in terms of pain relief. But morphine was an effective vascular dilator which acted as a powerful diuretic. The men's pneumonia was water build up when the army insisted on pouring water, water, and more water into their shattered bodies.
Healing was needed internally as well as externally before their systems were asked to perform as they should. The process of treating them must be slowed down even further. Mullins smiled to himself thinking how upset the major would be with this new revelation.
The side effects of using low dose morphine were a mixed bag to handle. A few men experienced increased nightmares and delusions leading Dr. Mullins to severely curtain the drugs use in those cases. But the majority of the men fought the drugs effects briefly then relaxed which allowed them deep sleep. Their minds cleared wonderfully with the rest. The water poured out of them with the vascular dilatation combining with relaxed bodies allowing their damaged systems to begin to heal themselves. The dosage of morphine used to produce these incredible effects was minimal. It was all so terribly easy and safe.
"Good afternoon, Heath."
Heath tried to open his eyes and felt the doctor pull back his sheets and place a stethoscope on his chest.
"Let's roll you over."
The doctor gently turned Heath and listened to his back. Dr. Mullins examined all of Heath's wounds and sores, plus exercised his stiff, aching, and painful legs. The boy was finally awake when placed back in his original position.
"You're healing nicely. And your lungs ... That's what I like to hear."
Heath smiled back seeing Dr. Mullins large grin.
"Clear lungs. Oh, you've still got a rattle or two down low but I'm going to have them start to get you up. Take good, long, deep breaths as much as you can."
"Can I get you anything else, Heath?"
"No," Heath reached out and shook the doctor's hand, "I might be foggy about some things but I know you saved my life. Thank you."
"Well, now," the doctor was pleased, "you are welcome. I shocked!"
"I was expecting a complaint. Seems to be a lot of them around this camp today."
Heath and the doctor chuckled together.
"It is embarrassing. I mean, if that's what the boys are grumbling about."
"No," Dr. Mullins stepped back towards Heath, "They want more water, but I simply can't allow it."
"What's embarrassing?", the doctor folded his arms across his chest and made sure Heath got the message he wanted an answer.
"It's dumb," Heath pulled himself up then collapsed into his stack of pillows.
Heath realized it really was dumb. The thought of his having any humility left after months and months of Carterson and now the typical medical lack of privacy care. The doctor didn't move.
"Okay! The measuring stuff is embarrassing. Your medics measure everything in AND everything out. I've never been under such tight security!"
Dr. Mullins shook his head and smiled.
"See you this evening."
Heath watched the medics roaming from bed to bed. The beds were spread far apart and the tent flaps tied up tight. The area around him was open, familiar, and appeared safe. Heath took a deep breath and fell back into a dream.
The boy drifted back.
"I'm sorry to wake you. I'm leaving tonight on an assignment and I won't be able to see you for a few days. I hated to go without saying good-bye."
Heath pulled himself up and gladly woke himself.
"Thanks, lieutenant. You've been spoiling me with your time. I think I remember your voice even when I wasn't feeling too good."
Lieutenant Armstrong fought back tears. Heath looked good ... Real good. This afternoon there was a bit of color in his face, the breathing was easier, and his mind was clear. Now the boy even lifted himself up on the pillows. It was overwhelming to see. The lieutenant reached over and gently tapped the boy's hand then pulled back.
"Do you have time for the letter before you go? My eyes won't focus on it. I tried to look at the envelope and it was all blurred."
The lieutenant pulled a camp chair close and reached for the letter.
"I see it is from Strawberry, Heath. Let's see ... "
The lieutenant read Leah's letter soft and slow. Heath laid back and listened to all the news of home.
"We are all praying for you, son. Please get well and hurry home to us. In my dreams I imagine holding you in my arms and I'm not sure I will ever let you go. I love you more than you will ever know, Heath. Love, mother," Lieutenant Armstrong glanced over and pretended not to see Heath wipe a tear.
They took a moment.
"Wonderful letter, Heath. Your mother is terribly concerned. I'll help you write back when I return. Great sense of humor your mother conveys."
Heath smiled, replying, "Until I got all stupid and fought with her about .... Well, that don't matter. We used to laugh a lot, sir."
Armstrong stood and they shook hands before he left. Heath agreed to being helped into a chair. The medic was careful to allow the boy to try before offering assistance. Finally Heath gave in and allowed the man to help him. He didn't have any strength at all.
Exhausted from the effort of being moved into a full sitting position Heath laid his head back and drifted off while his mother's letter replayed in his head.
Heath was terribly excited. He and a wagon load of survivors were riding out of camp to a local park to watch the fireworks display. He finished a letter to the folks in Strawberry and walked over to the front of the Administration building. Everyone headed there early since their various ailments meant the walk took a long time. The major watched the various limps, foot drags, and unsteady gaits still at a loss to understand the victims of extreme violence in his charge.
"For, God's sake," he lamented out loud to his office walls, "Why won't they at least help each other? Stubborn oxen each and every one of them."
The men struggled up into the wagons and enjoyed the first time they'd been off base in over three months. A few men weren't unable to get out of the wagons to watch the light show in celebration of the nation they served valiantly, but Heath understood their joy in merely making the trip off base to sit while the others watched for them.
When they got back Dr.. Mullins broke his stringent rules and allowed each man a celebratory glass of apple juice. Heath never tasted anything as wonderful in his entire life. The army opened up funds for the Carterson survivor's care after the higher up docs visited camp and realized Dr. Mullins was breaking important new ground with his treatments.
The survivor camp now enjoyed it's own tent based kitchen versus being served by the base's mess. The cook used all fresh ingredients and added nothing to whatever Dr. Mullins ordered prepared. No canned goods which were full of salt and NO added salt, pepper, or anything close. The food each man was allowed was bland but seemed to be well tolerated.
The medics continued to exercise Heath's stiff legs. Dr. Mullins put him on a walking routine which suited Heath just fine. He noticed when he wasn't winded at the same spot day after day and finally was able to make it back to watch the grooms care for the officer's horses. Between his exercise assignments and the books Lieutenant Armstrong gave him, Heath was doing his utmost to strengthen his mind, soul, and body.
Of Dr. Mullin's 169 charges 150 were doing well. A few men were given leaves to continue their recuperation at home. The invalid leaves were given rarely at first. Dr. Mullins only allowed families nearby to try the experiment. Once these men were examined and proven to be continuing their progress at home the doctor began to grant more leaves.
The original men granted invalid leaves had family members who stayed with them throughout their ordeals in Dr. Mullins' camp. The caregivers were well trained in Mullins' strict program and swore to follow it at home. Heath sat one morning watching a man with five children climb into the family's wagon and head for his home in nearby Hermosa Beach. The cries of "papa" when the wagonload of children sighted their father almost ripped the heart out of everyone in camp.
That evening one of Heath's tent mates whose foot was amputated due to an infection went home too. The man was delirious for days. He screamed and screamed as he relived Carterson. The others listened but once again offered no aide which continued to concern their caregivers. Their physical progress in no way was matched with mental progress for some unknown reason. The camp settled into an ghostly quiet as the man moaned, wheezed, and struggled through his last few hours.
Heath laid in his bed with his face turned from the scene. Death was an acknowledged friend after Carterson and the man's breathing changes were familiar. The boy knew when the struggle was about to end from the sounds echoing through the air. Unable to cry Heath thought through his priorities in life. If he was going to live he better get things done fast. One never knew when death would come knocking and Heath decided to go out working hard and fighting to the end. Finally the noises stopped and the medics took the body away.
Camp went to sleep.
A few hours later Heath woke to a strange sound. It was over in the trees behind his tent. It wasn't a frightening sound and he strained to hear it more clearly. The person was stifling himself but someone was definitely crying. Heath got up and headed for the sound since the medic was asleep on his desk.
The figure sitting crossed legged by the tree had his head in his hands and he was shaking with sobs. Heath quietly walked up and began to sit next to the man. It was Dr. Mullins and Heath wanted to figure out what was happening.
When he moved to within a few feet of the doctor the boy began to bend to sit, but the doctor's head bolted up and the sudden movement surprised Heath. He went to turn and run but his feet slipped in the loose ground cover and he fell flat on his back.
"Heath?", Dr. Mullins felt the familiar stiffness and knew Heath had retreated to the mental place where Carterson's guards were left behind.
These ex-POWs had found a way to endure physical torture of unworldly proportions. They retreated to another world. Refusing to allow their tormentors the pleasure of robbing them of their minds. It was the only defense mechanism left to them and the sad conditions in the prison camp enabled the ones strong enough to attempt survival to fine tune this skill. Problem was how to control what had become a reflex now that these same men needed to find their way in the free world.
The doctor sat a few feet away and waited for Heath to return. When the boy moved slightly and took a look around Heath's mind quickly brought him back. He sat up and leaned back against a tree. It took a while longer to bring his breathing and heart rate back to a normal feel. Dr. Mullins waited with him knowing better than to move.
Finally Heath broke the silence, asking, "You okay doc?"
"I'm fine. How 'bout yourself?"
"Better, thanks, sir."
They sat quiet for a few moments.
"Why were you crying, doc?"
The doctor thought through what to say before he answered.
"I'll tell you honestly if you promise to answer a question for me?"
Heath laughed, responding, "I'll try. Not cause I want to but because I'm curious what you of all people could want to know from me."
"What makes you say that, Heath?"
"Dr. Mullins, you are the smartest man I've ever known. Look what you've done for all these here fellas like me. There's no way to thank you."
"Its my job, Heath."
"Okay, but I'm still grateful. Now, why were you crying?"
"Oh, I was feeling sorry for myself. Embarrassing but true. Hated losing Jones tonight. I take it as a personal affront when one of my boys passes."
"What else? You being a doc and seeing lots of death makes me think there's gotta be more."
For a young man, Heath was very perceptive, the doctor answered, "You men are healing physically but not mentally. The boys who went home are doing great on paper. Problem is most of the fears, nightmares, and distrust continue even with their families. I'm worried I've saved you only to let you suffer more. Does that make any sense?"
"Sorta. I guess Carterson changes your soul. Would be irrational to think it wouldn't change your life. Wouldn't it?"
The doctor immediately felt better. The boy was right. Carterson wasn't something to be cured. It was a fact to be adapted to. Dr. Mullins' mind began to race into new ideas. The men's mental problems weren't a failure. No, they were a challenge to be treated for life.
Seeing the doctor lost in thought Heath got up and started back slowly to his cot. That last fall gave his back a good tweak and his legs were aching something awful. When he was out of the trees and crossing the yard Dr. Mullins quietly called out to him.
"You didn't answer my question. We had an agreement."
Heath turned and stood to listen.
"When you freeze up. Do you remember what is happening or are you in another place?"
Heath took a few steps back and whispered his reply.
"Sometimes I don't remember. Most of the time I freeze up without planning to or realizing I am. If I remember ... "
The boy put his head down and wasn't sure to even trust Dr. Mullins with this personal glimpse of his soul. The man did save his life on numerous occasions so Heath completed his answer.
"I go home. I go home to Strawberry."
Heath turned and continued his stiff walk back to his tent.
"Thank you, Heath."
The doctor got up and returned to his book. This evening's revelation gave him an entirely different angle on what he was looking for. There wasn't a cure so he began searching for coping mechanisms to teach the men. It would be a long night.