Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 8


On the next night, Tom went out to dinner with a friend from freshman year. Charles Hobbs was originally invited to join the group moving into K-Entry, but had declined. He had said, in a humorous way, that he wasn't athletic enough, and also that his disposition was too solitary to allow him to live successfully with other people. True to his word, he managed to obtain a single room upstairs in the student union, where the freshmen took their meals. He also ate there, but since he didn't know any freshmen, he generally ate alone. It was, in its way, a bit of an honor to be invited to dinner by Charles, whose hospitality made it hard to believe that he was really as solitary as he claimed to be.

Charles always ate late, and Tom had hardly arrived when a storm broke, sloshing great quantities of water against the tall windows of the little alcove where they sat. By the time they got to coffee, the freshmen had almost all left. Tom and Charles lingered comfortably, unmolested by the staff, as the smell of the rain came through a partly opened window.

Charles was a pre-medical student, like Howie, Steve, and Eric, but different from any. He didn't drive himself, like Howie and Steve, but he had an interest in medicine which was both stronger and more whimsical than that of Eric. It was natural, for example, for him to speculate on the last illnesses of the various worthies whose portraits were scattered around the room. The one nearest them had been, according to Charles, "an excellent candidate for a massive and fatal heart attack."

Tom had hardly taken a sip of the hot smoking coffee when Charles announced that he had arranged to spend his Christmas vacation as an orderly in a Veterans Administration Hospital. Tom was amazed. After all, Charles was the most fastidious and elegant of young men, and it was hard to imagine his doing the things that orderlies are called on to do. Charles then added,

"I don't think I ever told you that I put in a couple of weeks there in August."

"Then you've already learned whatever there is to be learned from such a desperate experiment."

"Not at all. I intend to discover how a hospital runs at the lowest levels, and how the various staff members and patients interact to produce the results that we all observe. Such a study could easily take a lifetime, but I'm only devoting a few weeks here and there to it."

"Are you going to write about it?"

"Probably so. Perhaps a little monograph loosely bound with a photograph of a recently deceased patient on the cover."

Tom was far from being shocked by Charles. They had originally met in their first week at Harvard, Charles having just arrived from Alabama. He was, in fact, one of only a handful of blacks in the class. His speech was quite unusual. More accurately, he had two kinds of speech. One was that of his home. The other had been learned from books, and from imitating newscasters on the radio. He often intertwined the two for comic effect, and it was extraordinary, and a little eerie, to hear him shift from the speech of a cotton-picker to something that sounded quite a lot like Raymond Grant Swing.

After the first hour exams, Charles asked Tom, in his cotton-picking voice, to pick up his grades for him at the Dean's Office in University Hall. He was, he said, afraid that one of the deans might come out into the hall and grab him. Tom, quietly confident that deans weren't ogres who grabbed people in corridors, humored him. As it turned out, Charles' fears were well grounded. He had all A's, without even an A minus, which was highly unusual. One of the deans might well have grabbed him to offer congratulations, and, indeed, Charles might have been dragged into an inner office for a spot of conversation.

By this time, Charles had a lot more A's. But he also tended to venture beyond his course work to undertake projects entirely on his own. On this occasion, he had a hypothesis which he wanted to confirm at the Oliver Rumfoord Sipperly Memorial Veterans Administration Hospital. Before he could get started, Tom asked him,

"Is that the worst hospital in greater Boston?"

"I haven't done any comparative studies."

"But I bet you know in your heart."

"I chose it in the hope that it would be the worst, and I think I may have chosen well."

Charles smiled in satisfaction and continued,

"My premises come from my older brother's experiences with the army in Korea. The privates have their own culture which is partly hidden from their superiors, who often don't know, for example, which men hate each other. But, still, the sergeants, at least the good ones, do know a lot about their men. They know, in general terms, what they're capable of doing."

"They know whether they can attack and take a particular hill?"

"To an extent. But, when Robert became a sergeant, he discovered that the sergeants know some things about the men that they won't admit to knowing."

"I imagine that's because they'd have to take action if they amitted knowing."

"Correct. For example, there's a lot of theft of all kinds in the army. Good soldiers are allowed to get away with it, but it can be used as an excuse to get rid of bad ones."

"Your brother didn't try to overturn these conventions, did you?"

"Not in the least. Robert isn't a revolutionary comparable to, say, Lenin. In his turn, he told the officers what he thought they needed to know. They, in their turn, didn't press him for information which would have forced them to act in unproductive ways."

"I take it that, in a hospital, the orderlies are the privates, the LPNs the corporals, the nurses the sergeants, and the doctors the officers."

"Something like that. The nurses are a bit more important than most sergeants and some would correspond to master sergeants. So my overall hypothesis is that information gets passed up the ranks selectively in a culture which tolerates, and even encourages, a certain amount of censorship of varying kinds at all levels."

"It sounds like a Ph. D. thesis in sociology."

"It may be if I find medicine not to my taste."

"If you can deal with being an orderly, being a doctor will be practically paradise. What did you find out last time?"

"Only anecdotal material. But there was one interesting experience, a good example of something. I'm not sure exactly what."

Charles had taken his cotton-picking accent to work, and had dressed appropriately. He was a slim man of medium height and medium coloring, not physically remarkable in any way. He may have learned his duties a bit more quickly than the other orderlies, but he probably impressed his superiors only as being reliable, a good worker, and deferential in manner. Tom didn't ask him how he had managed to clean up vomit, urine, and feces, but there was something of the Buddhist or Hindu ascetic about Charles. He probably did it with his mind fixed firmly on higher things.

The story began with the arrival of a new nurse in a ward of a dozen men.

"These were all long-term patients. It's not called a psychiatric ward, but the men all have psychological problems which are at least as severe as their physical ones. Most are alcoholic, and, as long as they have access to liquor, which they mostly do, they'd rather be in hospital than trying to cope with ordinary life."

There had recently been some scandalous news stories about VA hospitals and the former soldiers who found it impossible to adjust to peace time. It sounded as if a lot of human wreckage ended up in the wards. Once there, it remained there for months at a time. Charles went on to explain,

"Since very little happens from week to week, anything that does happen is big news. Even the arrival of a new orderly, like myself, was commented on, but the arrival of a new nurse was a major event, rumored in advance and speculated on for hours."

The young lady, a Miss Smithers, was a graduate of Regis, a Catholic college for women, who had then taken nurses' training. That would have made her, in theory, one of the best-educated nurses in the hospital, a fact which was probably not lost on her.

Charles saw her on her first morning at the hospital, before she came into the ward.

"She was being shown around by the nursing supervisor when I first saw her, a pretty blonde girl in just about the whitest cleanest uniform I'd ever seen. The supervisor, Miss Tompkins, is direct, without much small talk, and she was showing Miss Smithers where things are kept and what to do with them. Miss Smithers didn't look too happy, probably because she didn't want to be in a VA hospital in the first place."

"I wonder how she ended up in one."

"She might not have had very good recommendations from her training program. She was willing to be Florence Nightingale, but she didn't want to get any blood on her uniform."

"Did she make you do all the dirty work?"

"It never really got that far. I wasn't actually introduced to her, just pointed out as an orderly who'd be helping her. I stood there, smiling and looking down, as if I'd fall to my knees and start scrubbing the floor unless actively prevented from doing so. She looked in my direction, and then looked away quickly.

A little later, just as I'd come out of the men's room, I met her in a corridor, all alone. Of course, I knew that she might not want to recognize someone of my color who'd just come out of the men's room, suggestive as it is of dropped trousers and exposed genitalia. So I shuffled backwards out of the way with a half bow and said, 'Mornin, miss.' That turned out not to be good enough. She looked startled and hustled right by without saying anything."

Tom knew that Miss Smithers had made a serious mistake at that point, and he could rather imagine her. Regis was a college for Catholic girls with highly protective families with lots of money. The girls weren't usually very bright, and they, and their college, had low academic status in an area which was highly competitive.

But, still, there was a niche left open for the patrician nurse, one motivated by the highest ideals. She would, of course, be a virgin. Not only that, she would confess to her priest only sins of a ladylike sort, perhaps a failure to love certain unfortunates trusted to her care. Miss Smithers must have been walking something rather close to a tightrope in order to maintain that particular kind of credibility in a place where the other nurses told crude jokes in the lounge.

Charles would have understood all that, and he would have helped her, very effectively, if she had made the slightest gesture. But, then, she must have seen him, the least threatening of men, as a threat on account of his color. Continuing his account, he said,

"Once the men in the ward found out that I'd seen her, they wanted to know whether she had big breasts and whether I could see through her uniform. Some of them had been brought up not to talk of women and sex with a black man, but they found it exciting to break the prohibition. And, of course, they hardly thought about anything else. By that time, I'd learned how to give them most of what they wanted."

Tom knew that Charles, like himself, liked to speculate about people on the basis of very little acquaintance. He must have fashioned some sort of story about Miss Smithers, and he might even have given the men some idea of the way in which she would react in certain circumstances. But he would have thought it inappropriate, for example, to have given them an estimate of her bra size.

Miss Smithers aarrived right after lunch. Charles was cleaning the windows at the end of the ward near the main entrance, alternately squirting and wiping, when he heard her footsteps in the corridor.

"Everyone in a hospital comes to recognize the footsteps of all the regulars. These were much too fast to be those of an older nurse, and, anyhow, the men had been told to expect Miss Smithers. I'm sure they knew that it was she."

When Miss Smithers came through the swinging double doors at enough speed to whang them noisily, her uniform was in perfect order and her posture erect. She also had an authoritative look on her pretty face. She had probably been warned that this was a difficult ward, and, as Charles said,

"She looked as if she were about to take a strong line with anyone who seemed at all degenerate."

He then took a drink of the somewhat cooler coffee and added casually,

"By the time that she turned the corner, the eleven men in the ward were all masturbating with their covers flipped off."

"By God! What did you do?"

"An orderly has a quite restricted function. I squirted another pane and gave it a wipe. Of course, if Miss Smithers, as a nurse, had given me a legitimate order, I would have obeyed it. But she was screaming rather dramatically and I couln't make out any words that she might have uttered."

"What happened then?"

"Miss Smithers fled. She showed a rather nice turn of speed as she went out through the doors."

Of course, there had to be repurcussions. It wasn't long before Miss Tompkins arrived, not as quickly as Miss Smithers had left, but, still, in impressive fashion.

"By that time, the ward was perfectly quiet. All the men were covered up and half of them seemed to be asleep. Miss Tompkins looked at me and asked me to come with her."

"So you were the private being summoned to talk with the master sergeant?"

"Yes. She asked me if anything unusual had happened in the ward, and I replied that Miss Smithers had taken off, seemingly quite upset. She seemed to know that, but asked what had made her run."

Tom speculated,

"The sergeant wants to know something that the private would rather not confide. But he can't overtly refuse to give information."

Charles smiled and replied,

"Correct. The private claims that his meticulous attention to his immediate duty prevents him from noticing anything that might have been going on around him."

"So you said that you were washing windows and didn't notice anything else."

"Yes. Of course, Miss Tompkins knew what these men were like, and what they were likely to do. But she apparently decided that Miss Smithers had been unhinged by something quite minor, and that she wasn't a suitable nurse for a VA hospital. I never did see Miss Smithers again."

"When Miss Tompkins reported to her superiors on Miss Smithers, I don't suppose she said anything at all about any sort of sexual display."

"Certainly not. The hospital administrators wouldn't want to know that veterans of the United States' armed forces masturbate."

"I suppose that I deal with my mother in much the way that Nurse Tompkins deals with her superiors."

"With regard to masturbation?"

"Yes, and many other things as well."

"That's probably quite wise of you."

Charles and Tom finished their coffee rather reflectively as the rain subsided to a mere drizzle. Outside in the cool fresh air, Charles accompanied Tom to the gate and asked about Eric. Tom replied,

"He's holding his own, but no one knows what'll happen."

Charles offered no opinion, but smiled and put his hand on Tom's arm. Then, as Tom turned to go, Charles waved and disappeared in the direction of the now darkened building.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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