A Soldiers Home Companion

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, as seen from an exit on I-91. Photograph Source: Wikipedia User Simtropolitan – CC BY-SA 4.0

Vicomte de Valvert:   Monsieur, your nose… your nose is rather large.
Cyrano de Bergerac:  Rather?
Vicomte de Valvert:   Oh, well…
Cyrano de Bergerac:  Is that all?
Vicomte de Valvert:   Well of course…
Cyrano de Bergerac:  Oh, no, young sir. You are too simple. Why, you might have said a great many things. Why waste your opportunity?

Not long ago my neighbor Carol suggested I apply to live at a soldier’s home. She knew I’d done a tour in Vietnam as an infantry medic in 1970.

“My father lives there,” she said. “The food is great. The rent is cheap. They take care of everything.”

I’m on two housing lists but figured why not? I filled out an application; two months later I had an interview at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home in Boston.

On a chilly New England morning Salem veteran’s’ agent Kim Emerling and I visited the Home. We arrived early and waited in the car. I would have to take a rapid Covid test to enter the three-story building. After a time, a nurse I’ll call Hank emerged from the blue canopied front door. A tall, muscular man, he carried a basket filled with medical supplies suited to his present task. Ambling toward us, he stopped abruptly to chat with an elderly female veteran. A few minutes later, he leisurely conversed with the driver of a delivery van. During this time Kim growled words which I will not relate. Finally, as if in a dream—mine or his I could not tell—Hank sauntered toward us. I had the curious impression that here was a man bereft of intellect and medicinal insight.

Leaning into the passenger side window, Hank confided that to properly administer the rapid antigen test I would first have to blow my nose. My neighbor had warned me of this.

I told Hank “No,” I could not do that.

“Is that a medical condition?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “My nose will bleed if I blow it.”

Nose bleeds were the scourge of my childhood and continue, less frequently, to this day. I’ve had my nose cauterized several times. Hank returned to the building to check with administrative staff. He came back a few minutes later.

“You can’t enter without taking the test.”

I had a bad feeling. Something told me things would not go right. What to do? I did not blow my nose, but reluctantly allowed Hank to swab my nasal passages.

“I’ll try to get a good sample,” he said, and swabbed diligently three times inside each nostril.

As Hank inserted the swab into a container, loud and clear I said, “I’m bleeding.”

Hank looked up from his task. He saw the blood on my face. “You weren’t kidding,” he said.

Undeterred—or, inspired by the sight of red liquid dripping down an old man’s chin—Hank said he would return the swab sample to the building, wait fifteen minutes for the results, then revisit me to administer a PCR swab test, also required—with results in five to seven days.

While we waited, I contemplated my reflection in the visor mirror. A shiny red rivulet coursed from my nose, over my lips, down my chin, and splashed onto my tan Carhartt jacket, branding it with a distinctive red scar. Kim handed me tissues to stanch the bleeding. I pushed the tissue into my nose. This is absurd, I thought. Do I really need to be twice bludgeoned by a public servant incapable of mercy? It is one thing to knowingly cause medical injury without thought of consequence. But to even consider inflicting soft tissue insult a second time is most ricky-tick cause for alarm.

When Hank returned, I announced, “Never mind. I’ve lost enough blood for today.”

Almost cheerfully, Hank said he would talk with admin to see if I could enter the building without the second test. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I imagined calling in heavy artillery from LZ Ranch—a remote firebase in Cambodia which I’d had the pleasure to occupy while it was overrun—and moments later I swore I heard the welcoming sound of incoming 155 shells whistling overhead. In the eye of my mind, I witnessed their fiery crrrumpBANGs exploding upon the building’s immense front door. Seconds later I fancied power diving Cobra gun ships unleashing salvos of white-tailed rockets, 40 mike-mike grenades, and withering miniguns into the black tar roof. I imagined that inside the home it was pure havoc. I was momentarily elated. Please note that I am not discounting the proven efficacy of the B40 RPG, the primitive but deadly Chicom grenade, or the wicked tripod-mounted 30. caliber machine gun. In my reverie only American weapons were employed.

When Hank returned, he asked that I call Admin. I did so. A woman I’ll call Linda stated I could not enter the building without taking the slow result PCR test. Three times, quite clearly, I half-shouted, “Miss, I’m bleeding as we speak!” Three times Admin Linda ignored my distress. Anger. I had murderous anger and wilting anxiety, but somehow asked Linda if the interview could be done by phone

“Absolutely not,” she declared.

I inquired about rescheduling the war. Pardon me. The visit. Linda asked me to wait in the car while she consulted a doctor.

“You can’t enter the building without the PCR test,” she sternly repeated. “But don’t worry. The swab will not enter your brain.”

Perhaps not my brain—but what about hers? I called in another air strike. Four squadrons of B52s roared overhead. When the trembling earth quieted and the thick smoke cleared, alone amongst the ruins, there stood Linda, grinning triumphantly. At this point, bleeding and agitated, I somehow summoned a civil tone to terminate the visit. Veterans’ agent Emerling, at the wheel all this time, handed me a fresh set of tissues, then us drove us back to home sweet Salem.

Two week later, for reason’s known only to itself, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home called and asked if I wanted to reschedule my visit.

“Of course, you’ll have to take the Covid test,” said the polite female caller.

“Ahhhhh…No,” I said. I noted that complaints had been filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs. With the VA Inspector General.

There came a gulping noise. “Oh,” she said.

“Oh,” I echoed, and politely hung up.

A month later I received a letter from the VA IG. My complaint had been forwarded to the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs. A full two months after the initial nasal attack I received a phone call from the director of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. Our conversation was cordial. I emphasized the beguiling way my conspicuous bleeding was ignored—by Hank, the Nurse and Adminda Linda. The director offered to consider my suggestions on how to improve patient care in anomalous circumstances. Several times he encouraged me to reapply to the Soldiers’ Home.

Politely, I said, “That’s not gonna happen. But thank you for calling.”

Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: silverspartan@gmail.com