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The Corpsman

by Jeffrey Paolano

The Start

The round enters above my wrist, tumbling its way up my forearm, converting the muscle to milled meat. The ball exits above my elbow although I do not feel of it. Corroborating evidence is the hole in my triceps and the sleeve of my blouse.

I see it although there is no sensation, no pain. The arm is numb, hanging limp; the blood now pours down over my flaccid limb.

My right hand still grips my piece. I can still fire, still fight, still make a contribution, still support my squad. I am not out of it yet.

My mind bathes everything I see in crimson.

The world has never before appeared to me blood red as it does now. I marvel at this, examining the strange sight. I try to see past the rufous, see again the green, yellow and brown but the bloody red permeates all.

Crapman reaches up, grabs at my K belt and tries to pull me down. I look down at him with languid curiosity. His lips stretch wide as they scream a word repeatedly. “Corpsman, Corpsman,” the meaning slowly emerging from the miasma so that now I look about me in wonder. Who is wounded? Who requires assistance? Whose life or limb is in danger?

With frightening ferocity the Corpsman tackles me, knocking me to the ground. His body shields mine from additional harm as he pulls my combat bandage from the rubber band encircling my helmet. He sprinkles antiseptic powder on my arm, wraps the bandage about the hole and retrieves my morphine vial which he rubs between his hands before ferociously slamming it into my thigh.

His features are blurry to me, bathed in crimson as they are. I cannot make him out, could not identify him in a line up, and would not know him at a picnic. This will not do; I must know his facial contours.

He pulls me up by my right arm, slings me over his shoulder and trots to the evac Huey. He flips me deftly onto the chopper deck.

The empty morphine vial is secured to my blouse collar by its needle.

I stare intently at his face, forcing myself to see through the cerise, to sear his countenance onto my memory so that I may never forget him.

This man risks his life to save mine. The Corpsman will repeatedly risk his life this day as he has done on previous days and intends to do on future days.

I escalate the pressure on my mind, forcing a clearing away of the red fog. I am rewarded with a dimming of the crimson and the emerging definition of his visage. The picture is almost clear. I nearly have a grip on his mien when of a sudden his right eye disappears, replaced by a bloody, gooey, pulsating mass. His head is blown back, which drags the remainder of him with it. I see only his body flying backwards. With the bird lifting, the deck edge extinguishes my sight line.

I see, hear, feel no more, blackness envelops me. My will to observe weakens, overwhelmed by the drug and the debilitating effects of shock.

The Race

Sliding onto the leather seat, a slide the like I’d made a thousand times, I raise my hand to attract the barman.

“Hi, I’ll have a Jameson neat, thanks,” I give a glance up and down the bar to ascertain target density then swing around for a view of the whole room.

My left hand remains nestled in my lap only to be raised and revealed in the face of the greatest necessity. The Navy saved the arm and the hand but so much of the muscle tissue was destroyed that the appearance is off-putting.

I take a pull on the liquor that I already know will be the cause for my blackout around midnight. Without the depressing effect of this drug, sleep would be unattainable for me.

Just behind my eyes the memory of the Corpsman persists, preventing sleep, inducing alcohol consumption, the root cause of emotional outbursts.

Together these factors have prohibited the forming of strong family ties, either with my wife or my children. They have underwritten an irascible demeanor at work, irritating to my colleagues but a decided contributor to my success.

At times my fantastical historical rehash is such that I actually blame the Corpsman, in my replications, for surrendering his life in exchange for mine.

I find I cannot forgive the Corpsman for the slur he has bequeathed to me. Further, I cannot forgive myself for having failed to imprint his topographical visage on my memory. As a result I am unable to pay due homage to him and this failing eats away at the remainder of my being and eviscerates what character I should be hauling along life’s way.

The effect is a constant polluting of my spirit. I imagine the foul, bitter taste. I am compelled to retch into my mouth unexpectedly. I wash away the bile with water but the acidity remains.

In this manner I have stumbled through life these many years.

I have prospered financially more through the expediency of discovering the ease with which money may be acquired than any other factor. The only effect is an increase in disdain in which I hold those who are unable to realize this modest goal.

The horizon is bleak. It is as though I look out upon the heaths, uniform in their composition, unremarkable in their verdure and lacking in sustenance. There is no appeal in such a future, no reward awaits me. No realization in exchange for a lifetime of striving.

The Finish

My space is on the third floor of the parking deck with easy access to the elevator that conveys me to the floor on which my office is located. Without reason, I turn and walk down the slanted exit decks until I reach the ground floor.

I deceive myself by thinking my intention is to retrieve a cup of coffee at the shop on the corner. However, I neither regularly drink coffee nor need to obtain my own. My secretary would provide the beverage in a porcelain cup upon my request.

No, this is something else. There is meaning here, purpose, I am meant to make this pilgrimage, meant to pursue this deviation, meant to discover a new path.

On the street, a girl sits on the curb with her feet in the gutter. She appears to be sleeping, nodding off really; a doze would be more accurate. Possibly she’s in the throes of a substance induced stupor. In any event her circumstance is precarious.

She appears to be detritus, apparently having been on the street for a time. Her boils, pocks and tattered clothes suggest the ravages of the life.

The building employs a private security force and one of their number closes just now. Just as I notice her, just as I approach her, just as I appear on this spot. Do I feel the Corpsman’s breath? Is he speaking to me?

I address the security man. “Good morning, this lady appears to be in distress,” nodding towards the woman with as sincere an expression as I am able to muster.

The security man looks at me in a quizzical manner. He may not recognize me, but he recognizes the clothes and the briefcase and knows to be polite and amenable. Failing to treat a suit just right could result in a lot of unnecessary trouble.

“Sir, I was just thinking the same thing, that possibly it would be fortunate if I got her inside and notified the authorities. They would know best where she could get the assistance she requires,” he said, smiling broadly, confident there was nothing in his monologue the suit could find offensive although his motives still eluded the guard.

I look at the security man, trying my damnedest to discern his sincerity. Would he in truth see to her needs, did he have her welfare foremost or was he positing for my benefit and would cast her aside at his earliest convenience?

Peeling from my roll I hand over the bills saying to him, “I want this woman cared for, and I believe you do too. Take this money and use it to aid her. Here is my card, let me know what has happened to her and what else I can do to help her,” I try my best to contrive an expression that conveys I am in earnest and believe that he is too.

I’m enlightened. I experience a substantial sense.

He looks down at the money and the card as he grasps them; more than a week’s pay at his ten dollar an hour rate. Here are clothes for the kids, something for his wife, the payment of overdue bills. No one hands money out to assist him but this druggie on the street gets rewarded.

The machinations are unfathomable.

Serving in the Navy from 1964 to 1968, Jeffrey Paolano was assigned to USS CORRY, DD-817, berthed at the D&S Piers, Norfolk, VA, and to MCB-9 at Chu Lai, South Vietnam. He was honorably discharged as a DK3. A labor economist for the past 30 years, he has recently returned to writing with pieces to be published by Frontier Tales (Western) and Italian Americana (mainstream).

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