Michael Ellman is a retired physician (please note the photograph taken during his heyday) and a writer. His stories have been widely published: Grey Sparrow, Third Wednesday, Black Heart Magazine, etc.; and a collection of his stories (Let Me Tell You About Angela, Stories by Michael Ellman) have been published by Windy City Publishers.
A Short Story
By Michael Ellman
Saturday afternoon and I’m working the emergency room. It’s quiet, no airborne drop, no alert for a Russian ship transiting the Canal—although mobilization to stymie the Russkies would be a respite from the tedium. Venereal disease, the ER mainstay, wouldn’t be lining up until Sunday or Monday, depending on the strains. That’s when the hot line went off. It was General Talbot. His wife was short of breath.
You wouldn’t think the Panama Canal Zone, the five-mile strip on either side of the fifty- mile-long Canal, would need a four-star general. But it was 1966, with the Cold War and Vietnam, and this was The Southern Command, military headquarters for South and Central America. The jungle training school, the tropical testing laboratories, the test planes zooming fifteen feet above the cypress and palm trees, Gorgas Memorial Hospital, the Canal, the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, someone had to be in charge. It was General Talbot, he was on the phone, and I was the doctor-in-charge.
Generals, especially four-star generals, were bigger here even than movie stars, except maybe for John Wayne, who just so happened to own an island several miles off the Pacific coast and would swagger by every once in a while to pump up morale. Although he never actually served in the Armed Forces, the Duke surely knew how to play a warrior.
The MPs cleared the roads, making way for the ambulance, roof lights flashing brighter than a nighttime cruise ship navigating Miraflores locks. Such authority we had, such juvenile fun we had, whizzing toward the Pacific Ocean and the entrance to the Canal, and Ft. Amador and Residence #1.
The General, in shorts and a khaki-colored tee shirt with four stars in front circling our national bird, was still the General, straight and fit, holding the door open and pointing the way to the living room after my “Sir,” salute and hustle inside.
“Doctor,” he said, although he could have put me in my hierarchical place and called me Major—Doctor was nicer. “Mrs. Talbot, June, ate shell-fish the chef inadvertently added to the spaghetti, and everyone knows that June is allergic to shell-fish.”
And the wheezing was audible from across the room. Mrs. Talbot was SOB, short of breath in medical parlance, with ugly hives beginning to sprout on her arms and neck.
“Sam,” I yelled to my medic, no Corporal or Private or Sergeant, I didn’t believe much in the ranks of enlisted men, “I need your stethoscope.” My hands had scurried through my pockets and then over my neck and chest, but my stethoscope was not on my person.
Sam stretched his hands horizontal to the ground with the slightest negative nod of his head. He carried no stethoscope. I pointed my thumb to the ambulance, but received another negative nod.
I smiled at Mrs. Talbot before lifting up her blouse, mumbling softly “lost stethoscope.” Christ, this was the General’s wife. I placed my ear flush on her left chest and then the right and then on her back, hearing the prolonged expiration: the air was getting in but not getting out—classic findings for asthma.
“0.3 ml. of 1-1000 epinephrine and 25 mg of Benadryl in separate syringes” I yelled to Sam, who handed me the injectables with a “Yes sir, no need to shout, sir.”
Sam wiped her right deltoid with an alcohol swab while I administered the epi. I’ll receive the kudos, so to speak, because doctors are kings here, after Generals and John Wayne. Benadryl IM for the left arm injected with flair, a quick purposeful jab like I was the guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony.
I’m also good at small talk, making eye contact with the General and June, Mrs. Talbot, explaining the treatment with that reassuring smile that doctors learned during their first year curriculum.
“Doctor, what kind of kinky thing did you just do to Auntie June?” Doctor is a two- syllable word and this one’s second syllable was drawn out as long as it takes to transit the Canal. “Jesus, don’t you have a damn stethoscope—what is this, the Middle-Ages?” A voice from the doorway to the kitchen exploded in my ear, like an aria from a Wagner heroine entering stage left.
“Don’t mind, April,” the General said, “and April, be nice to the doctor.” The General alternating looks at me and the young lady, my age, no younger, and a lot prettier, hazel-toned hair fluffed by tropical winds, skin dark from too much sun, and body lean from too much exercise, still breathing hard from some sort of routine.
“April’s my niece. My sister’s youngest. April, honey, be sweet,” the General laughed. Merriment was OK. Mrs. Talbot was perking up, her breathing now quiet; epinephrine works quickly.
“Mrs. Talbot, please stay put,” I said, and listened to her chest again, ear to her back. I took her carotid pulse, only 100, epinephrine speeds up the heart as well as relaxing the bronchioles. “I don’t think we need oxygen,” I said to Sam, who hadn’t planned on dragging the oxygen tank in from the ambulance anyway.
“Doctor,” April said, “should I ask the General to requisition some stethoscopes for you and tie one around your neck?”
The Canal Zone in song was reminiscent of a hit Broadway musical: We got sunlight on the sand, and moonlight on the sea…but what we need is what there’s no substitute for… It was fair to say that women were in short supply here.
Hollywood was the name of the street between the Canal Zone and Panama City and was lined with ladies of the night, but in our case it was ladies of 24 hours waiting for the enlisted men. The officers were graced with the Spanish descendent ladies, Panama’s nobility, who walked around with their duennas; and truthfully, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t stop glancing at them, the duennas, I mean. Maybe it was their mustaches or hooded steely eyes, because they made small talk difficult when struggling with your Spanish, and your young lady fracturing her English. And handholding, don’t even think about it.
“The General is right. Doctor, ignore April. She spends too much time with us old people. Maybe you have some volunteer job for her at the Hospital or Dispensary,” Mrs. Talbot said, finally able to speak in complete sentences.
It was my turn to laugh: an improving patient, a General, and a minx. Young women residing with parents or uncles or any relatives in the Canal Zone were only here to shake their drug or alcohol habit, or shed boyfriend trouble, or escape misdemeanors. Volunteer work! I didn’t think so, unless it was offering to splash suntan oil on Mr. Wayne.
“Miss April,” I said, “René Laennec, French of course, as you surely know, didn’t introduce the stethoscope until the early 1800s. Before then, doctors plastered their ears on patient chests, front and back, just as I did with your Aunt June, Mrs. Talbot. It works quite well. Maybe someday you should try it.”
Or let me try it on you. My thoughts were hopefully inaudible, over my gazillion dollar smile.
“Doctor, join me on the porch for a smoke, will you? June and April don’t let me smoke inside,” the General interrupted. “You know, between the 25-cent packages of Camels and the cheap booze, the military kills us off early—it saves on pensions—don’t repeat that please—I’ll deny it. And April will have a chance to change clothes.”
Both of us stared at the sky and even the porch lights couldn’t dim the splendor of the stars in the equatorial tropics. “‘Star Light, Star Bright’—remember the nursery rhyme?” the General asked, pointing skyward—“see that big red one—Betelgeuse, it marks the right shoulder of the hunter Orion. The sky here loses no detail. There are no atoms and molecules of battle or urban blight. Come back sometime, we have a telescope we set up and name the stars; April and I make a good team. It’s like a relay race run in the universe.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s exactly what the doctor dreams about—the Milky Way,” April said, now in silky blouse and shorts, offering a smile sweeter than the Holy Ghost Orchid, Panama’s national flower. “Doctor, do you like cavorting in the ocean, or sitting on the verandah reading Chaucer, or listening to Poulenc, because if you do, don’t bother to telephone. But if you have other ideas for fun, or actually any ideas for fun down here please take my number,” April spoke, now with a half-smile, like somebody recognizing a favorite melody.
“April promised to name her first child May someday, so we’re covered for at least three months in a row,” the General said. “June also likes the idea, but if I know April, she’ll name the baby October or November,” the General laughed. Me too: this was familiar family banter, more like my sister and me competing for parental attention, and I missed it.
“Sir, Miss April, let me check on Mrs. Talbot one more time and then I need to head back to the dispensary. I’m it for emergency medicine tonight. Please call if you need anything. I’ll phone Mrs. Talbot in the morning if that’s OK with you, to check-up on her.”
Sergeant Mullen delivered the dinner invitation Monday afternoon—our clinic nurse didn’t stop him from entering the examining room because an invitation from a General carried more weight than an appointment.
“Casual dress, Sir, I’ll pick you up at 18:30 sharp. There will be eight people dining including Miss April, Sir.” Mullen’s salute was as smart as any I had seen for a while, but by the time I thought about returning it, he had made a crisp about face and departed.
It was called the Berry Plan—an all-out physician draft for the Vietnam War. The only other choice was Canada. Happiness squared or maybe cubed was being stationed in the Americas. Cousin Charles, son of the brother of my uncle by marriage, happened to be regular Army stationed in D.C. at the Pentagon, and had something to do with duty assignments. My gracious letter of salutation penned as only I could and taped to the Sears gift certificate must have struck a chord. I’ll remember him again at Christmas.
The official manila envelope came regular mail, way before FedEx, fax machines, and email, and in spite of the military gibberish, my future was spelled out in easy to read font: Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, for Medical Officer Training, then off to Charleston, SC for the flight to Panama and the Southern Command. Tired of the sleepless nights and the ceaseless grind of pre-med, medical school, internship, internal medicine residency, and strained romances, I welcomed the respite and the adventure of the Canal. After all, I remembered very well the grade-school palindrome—A Man a Plan a Canal Panama—and my 9th grade Latin: Pro Mundi Beneficio—For the Benefit of the World.
“Strained romances”—let’s skip over that quickly. Monica, my ex-soul-mate, pursued by both me and the heart surgeon, accepted his offer of a three-week honeymoon in St. Maarten with two “a’s” rather than a one night nuptial at the downtown Marriott.
“Thanks, Doctor, for being here,” April said, offering her hand to be kissed. “Usually they scrape up some Regular Army somebody—no unattached women sitting alone at dinner are allowed in this military —so no need to enthrall me with the military tactics at the Battle of Agincourt, or quotes from Sun Tsu’s The Art of War. I’ve heard them. Hum opera or a give me a word quiz. Wow me, and later maybe listen to my chest like René Laennec. He’s French you know.”
There are multiple definitions of casual. Having drinks on the patio before dinner with well-defined social choreography and VIP guests was not one of them. The party included me, Dr. Ted; Iowa Congressman Smith and his wife from the Armed Forces Finance Committee; Admiral and Helen Stuttgart; General and June Talbot; and of course, April.
“Doctor, I want you to meet Helen Stuttgart, the Admiral’s better half,” the General said.
I was the doctor who saved Mrs. Talbot’s life, and yes, it was hot down here, and no, I was never on an aircraft carrier—my misfortune, and a cure for cancer was within sight, maybe by next January; serial five minute pas de deux with each guest, until an authentic handheld Chinese gong, strung from thick red twine, was struck by Sergeant Mullen, announcing dinner.
“Pull my chair out from under me, Doctor. I’ll fall gently back into your arms after I scream. We need to create a little pandemonium,” April said.
“No,” I answered, “I’m having too much fun playing straight—you wouldn’t know, but this evening is a far, far cry from the Monday night officer’s mess.”
The military men and Congressman Smith excused themselves after the five courses, the older ladies gathered for after-dinner sherry, and April and I walked the garden, and then walked some more. The Pacific Ocean was close and pacific and the frangipanis colorful and scented.
“It’s lonely down here,” she said. “Have you any idea how hard it is for a girl to get a date when she’s the General’s niece? It’s like I’m suffering from furunculosis or some other beastly malady.
“Let’s hold hands,” April said after a while, and we did.
Romance and happiness, most times they were synonymous, began that way: a touch, eyes meeting, mutual telepathy, and then a kiss, and another kiss; then the mundane, and mundane was not pejorative: tennis; church on Sunday, not my denomination, yet satisfying and uplifting in its way; dancing to the Panamanian melodies; and more—life settling into an understanding.
Some things, however, fell short of glorious expectations. Our lovemaking, for example, in the back seat of the jeep at Ft. San Lorenzo, the Spanish fort sacked by Henry Morgan and left deserted except for the macaws and the howler monkeys, was like reading in the bathtub, or necking on the wet sandy beach, or sharing the hammock with a poodle—it sounded a lot better than it actually was. Yet we were not going to be deterred, a trip together, home alone when the General and June travelled, things we talked about. We had high hopes, and I was beginning to care.
The dry season extends from mid-December to April; then comes the rain, and the knobby hills turn lush and the green spreads like kudzu. No winter or summer here. And the rains often required your attention. Torrential from the Latin torrent works well as a descriptor. Running for high ground works also—and so do the creatures deserting their nests and burrows. Iguanas are OK, but not their cousins, the fer-de-lance, the bushmaster, and the coral snake, the latter abruptly putting an end to our tryst. I was going to say roll-around, but you couldn’t actually roll-around in a jeep. If you ever make love in the back seat during the rainy season, remember well the following: red and black, a friend of Jack, red and yellow, kill a fellow. Truthfully, we didn’t wait around to take a photograph of the “mother” of all coral snakes to check the color pattern, but five feet of it was reaching up to the open front door to escape the rain. Its anti-aphrodisiac properties and our youthful reflexes left the beast in the mud.
Sergeant Mullen still struck the gong, but there was no further need to spout orders in my office announcing the place and time. I had become a regular, almost a family member. Well, sort-of. Military business was never discussed. But mentioned in frank and open discussion was April’s prior love ballad, her graduate school philosophy Professor back at Penn who “lied whenever his lips moved.”
Dinner one night featured John Wayne and a movie director. I didn’t quite catch the latter’s name. He, the Duke, was bigger than life, towering over us like the statues in Easter Island. “Doctor,” he said, “whatcha got for my hip pain? It only hurts when I laugh.” And he laughed, his great movie laugh—the sound echoing around the room.
“Here, let me show you how to use a bayonet,” he said, nudging me with his left fist and right elbow.
It was all in good fun, I kept telling myself.
“You’re not some left-wing-pinko liberal now, are you, who doesn’t know how to defend our way of life?” the Duke said, spending too much time with me until he spotted April.
“The young-un is here. What a beauty. General, you didn’t tell me about this one. What’s your name, honey?”
And so it went. Much to her credit, April kept quiet, offering only mannered responses, while holding my hand tight and for all to see.
“War Wagon,” he said. “My next movie. I steal gold from the man who wronged me. Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern—two honchos also in the film—I can take them both with my hands behind my back. Ha, ha. Heck, it’s a shoot-em-up, a Gatling gun, Kiowas, they’re Indians dontcha know; heck, you know, it’s a John Wayne spectacular.”
That Sunday after church and right after our tennis—a space of time combining peace and desire, the drops of sweat surrounding April’s lips tasting like vintage port—it seemed we had never been closer.
“I sent in an application for the graduate English program at Stanford,” she said. “Come with me. California needs good doctors, but only if you pass my test. If you flunk, I get to name the baby any darn month I choose—and right now I’m visualizing February.”
I pronounced Terpsichore, simulacrum, and sidereal, straight-out. I’m no dummy science major. “How about Benjamin or Charles,” I said, and we kissed, a purposely sloppy kiss.
I remember the day. Busy clinic, every one ill with something or other, even malaria— anyone with a fever of 105 degrees had malaria, it was true, Vivax malaria—a little quinine and they were back on duty in a few days. Non-stop rain was heavy on the windows and rooftops, although the rainy season was coming to an end, when my nurse, a very upset nurse, barged in telling me that General Talbot was in the waiting room, quietly sitting there until I could fit him in.
“General Talbot! You know, Doctor,” Nurse Angry said, “We need to know when the General comes to clinic. I hope you have his chart. It’s not my fault if he complains about no chart. I hope you have it for your sake.”
My Colonel pushed through the back door, red-faced, his words intermingling with spittle: “What’s going on with the General? You’re supposed to tell me if there is anything wrong with him and for God sakes, you’re not going to keep him waiting out there, are you?”
The General and I laughed, the commotion, the salutes, the shirts tucked in, rigid postures—he loved it. And you know what, so did I.
“Ted,” he said, “I just came here to relay a message from April. She insisted. I just got her off from Howard Air Force Base on a flight to Charleston and then commercial to Atlanta for her flight to Los Angeles. It seems that a role as a Kiowa Indian maiden spouting witticisms has been offered her. Just a simple screen-test first, and Mr. Wayne will be with her for that.”
Truth was, if you think about it, any month would have been OK. Even December and January are fine names. Amidst the nostalgia and the harvest of regrets, time in the Panama Canal Zone passes quickly. General Talbot was reassigned to the Pentagon—but he and I kept in touch. His influence still made life easy—no duty covering airborne drops in the jungle, or joining the troops in the jungle survival school where helicopters dropped live chickens to be caught for food. I attended a medical conference in D.C., about tropical diseases, courtesy of the General. A message from April was waiting. She had yet to find anyone, other than me, who could correctly pronounce Terpsichore. “And thanks for all of the good times,” she wrote. “Forgive my abrupt departure, but you know, and I hope with all of my heart that you do, that the world never ends—it just becomes something else.”
April Can Slip Right Through Your Fingers is a work of fiction. John Wayne was rumored to own an island off the Pacific coast of Panama where there was excellent shrimp (camarones) harvesting. I do not believe he visited any of the military posts in the Canal Zone.