May 6th 1966… Corps School

I took boot camp leave, two weeks… and then it was off to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, arriving on May 9th 1966 for 15 weeks of Hospital Corpsman “A” School. While this was a step up, and there were still a lot of formations, marching, etc., it was a little more laid back. We were treated at least like semi-humans.

We had classes in pharmacology, bandages, and anatomy. INJECTIONS… (No oranges…we used each other!) Triage, burns, wounds…. on and on. This was on top of the regular barracks and personnel inspections (we were always 4.0). You could shave in the mirror-like polish on our barrack's tile floor! We rode on the buffer to insure it.

Our Company Nurse was LtCdr Munoz. A nice lady, but a bit shy, considering she had to put up with our antics! We had a dummy for classes; the Nurses called it George. During a class on T-Binder bandages, the dummy was wheeled to the front of the class, always covered by a sheet. Miss Munoz was called away from the room for a few minutes, and George was replaced with a black guy who name just happened to be named George. Munoz, came back in, continued her lecture, never once looking down at the sheet covering the “dummy”. Every time she said the name “George”, in referring to the actual dummy, there were stifled chuckles from the class and the sheet would start jiggling. She never noticed it!  

Eventually, she reached down, and after holding the corner of the sheet for what seemed like an eternity; as she came to the proper moment in her presentation, she whipped the sheet off, looked down at this grinning black guy! She jumped straight back about four feet propping herself against the wall, gasped, turned pale, started unbuttoning the top buttons of her uniform, saying “You shouldn’t do this to me, I have a heart condition!”. Well, it was funny for a split second, but then the guilty feeling set in for having frightened her so badly; she was truly revered by us, and we didn’t want to lose her. There were no more of that type of shenanigans with Miss Munoz.

However, … the sister company’s nurse was a LtCdr Steinacher. The name was appropriate. She took no guff from anyone! When we had the Intra-Muscular injections class, she wound up being our instructor for some reason, but I believe it was so Miss Munoz would not get any surprises like the one a few days earlier with “George”.  

She asked for “volunteers” to be her subject in the demo. Several hands went up, which she ignored, probably being savvy through years of dealing with these crafty Corpsmen in the making. She pointed at one guy, and volunteered him. He laid butt up on the table, and she covered him partially with a sheet, he lowered his trousers under it, and she continued her lecture. Now he is on his belly, with his face toward the class, grinning from ear to ear! She finally got to the point of doing the injection, carefully folds the sheet back to expose a butt cheek, stares disbelievingly for a moment…. She is looking at a tattoo of a skunk! The class roared! I think she was less than delicate giving that injection…. Revenge is mine, sayeth the Nurse!

During the course of my studies there, on a weekend days Liberty, I made the beach! We were in blues (wool) at that time, so it must have been before summer, when we went to whites. I went to sleep, face down, on the beach, after damn near drowning body surfing, and needless to say the back of my legs became the color of a cooked lobster! Sunburns being self-inflicted injuries, I couldn’t go to sick call. So lot’s of suntan oil, and grin-&-bear those scratchy wool Blues on that burn! Eventually the area behind my knees peeled in huge thick patches of skin, adding to my misery. No more beaches for this puppy.

Other free time was spent under the trees in Balboa Park across the street north of the Hospital, writing poetry. What a pseudo-intellectual I was! I turned 20 years old midway through “A” School. I believe I graduated 16th in a class of 42. Now I am officially a Hospital Corpsman. Look out world!

September 4th, 1966… Off to Chelsea Naval Hospital

After graduation on about the 24th of August 1966, with 5 days leave and 5 days travel time, I chose the duty station of United States Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Massachusetts. I figured that would get me as far from Viet Nam as possible, and still be on dry land! Arriving at the Hospital, I was assigned to Med Supply.

Most newbies were assigned to the Wards to tend to patients. I however, got 9-5 duty. Hmmm…not so bad. No bedpans or urinals to clean…. No night ward duty! Far out! But after several months of delivering supplies, I felt I was learning nothing of real value. I began spending my nights at the emergency room, helping out some, and learning a little actual hands-on of sick call, minor surgery, and so forth. After a couple of months, it seems the word got around of what I was up to, so the LtCdr at supply sent me to see the XO, and I got assigned to the ER for the duration of my stay there, which was another six months. I worked daytime sick call with occasional night duty for a while, then it seems I remember working nights for some time. This pleased me. Now I could begin to pick up the gist of being a real Corpsman. 

I began to learn suturing, and other emergency procedures. My first suture job was on an Army medic who had cut his wrists. The duty intern looked at the guy then told me to sew him up. I motioned him outside the ER and let him know I had not sewn anyone up before. He replied, “You gotta start sometime Hoppy.”  

So, he cut a gurney pad’s cover, and showed me how to make the stitches. I picked it right up, and he started the local anesthesia, handed me the syringe, and said “Finish him up Hoppy.” I did, and did so superbly, I might add. This poor guy had no idea he was my guinea pig! Enthralled, I waited sadistically for new victims. I did many a suture job, sewing on drunks’ heads and faces, and other assorted lacerations. I took great pride in doing some really fine sutures that would leave a minimal scar. I finally felt I was a real Corpsman !!! 

Of course, I do remember this one poor soul who came in with his chin lacerated deeply. I was busily trying to debride it of these strange white things, when I finally realized that I was removing his chin whiskers, from the inside! It was another lesson in anatomy!

Part of my duties was the weekly ritual of preparing the ER for inspection. Someone turned me on to using acetone to polish the stainless steel cabinets and fixtures. Worked great! However, I began to get sinus headaches that were unbelievable. I would eventually gag myself to empty my stomach, and they would ease. I now believe these attacks were due to food allergies, but not that sure, however they persisted for 15 years.  

Later on, I had two of my impacted wisdom teeth removed, the lower ones. The Dental Officer who accomplished this was an Intern, and I think I may have been HIS guinea pig! Justice is served! He broke the damn things into pieces, (they were growing straight forward instead of upward), having me hold my lower jaw in my hands to brace while he hammered away. Needless to say, he bruised the hell out of my jaw, resulting in a couple of trips to the ER for Demerol injections during the next night or two. I would barely make it back to my bed before that stuff would take effect, and then sleep like a log! (A few years ago, a couple of slivers of one of those popped out thru my gums...)

The one Corpsman I remember well from that time was Thomas P. Coppess. I think we went thru boot and Corps school together. He was a good friend, and we went thru our duty stations parallel from then on. Not necessarily the same units, but the same bases or areas. I remember about four of us took a liberty trip up the coast, stopped and ate, in Salem Massachusetts, and I got my first taste of New England Clam Chowder. While not being a seafood aficionado, I do, to this day, still enjoy a bowl occasionally. We also took in the Pops, and explored Boston together, the Commons, the cobblestone streets, the Old North Church, and so forth. I recently made contact with Tom, and he's just retiring from a career in the VA. 

There was a little Sub shop a few blocks from the main gate that I used to frequent. They made the best pepper-steak sub I have ever had. Never since have I been able to find any place that could duplicate it. It was all done fresh from scratch, and was really outstanding!

Eventually, we began receiving casualties from Vietnam. They would ship them back to a military hospital nearest their home of record, regardless of their branch of service. These guys would come in swathed in disposable sheets and blankets, virtually straight from the battleground, it seemed (at the time), although they had been to a field or offshore hospital already. Though relatively clean, there was always that god awful strange smell. Opening the blankets, we would find gaping wounds, occasionally with maggots in them, etc. Additionally, I vividly remember the strange scars and lesions on their torsos, legs, arms and faces. I would eventually discern that this was something called “Jungle Rot”. I never quite got the gist of what it was, and thusly was puzzled by it. It was something I definitely would not forget!  

Much later, I found out this was a staph infection, caused by small cuts to the skin from jungle grass, and was due basically to the lack of any hygienic facilities in the bush, along with the lack of attention by the individual to treat the cuts immediately. It would start as a small fester, and spread out in a round pattern, eating the skin as it went. It was treatable, and preventable, but in 1966-early 1967, it was not widely recognized I guess. I took this situation to heart, and began to have some trepidation concerning my future. Nearly 3 years to do yet, anything might happen. 

I also remember that far away look in their eyes. Even though they seemed happy to be home, there was a strange distance (later familiar as the 1,000 yard stare) ... that was a second thing I could not forget. (In fact I would see it in myself one day.)

My year there took me through all four seasons, and in Boston, there ARE four seasons.  
I remember shoveling snow down by the Bachelor officers’ quarters, which was a gray granite structure, actually the original hospital.  

Then there was an old powder magazine at the NW corner of the compound. A Civil War structure most likely, or perhaps even older, it was now merely storage for outdated materials, but was uniquely memorable to me, because of the arched, vaulted ceilings, all of brick. We didn’t have anything like that back in Oklahoma. There was also a long concrete tunnel leading from the Main Hospital building down to the dependents unit and the radioisotope area. Along the course of it were vaults built out off of the ramp, and filled with Civil Defense survival supplies. A remnant of the 50’s and the Red threat I assume. Then was the storage building for the Oxygen and anesthesia bottles, which was a small red brick building on the west side of the campus.

When I worked supply, I used to have to use a Chevy panel truck or alternately a dump truck, go to this little brick building, load the cylinders about 6’ up into the bed of it, and cases of 6 smaller cylinders of “laughing gas” up into it also. This was difficult for someone of my physical stature at that time, being skinny and not really muscular. I suffered with extreme back pain after each trip.

Years later, I would go thru 3 back surgeries. Hmm, any connection you think?  

While working supply, I would stand ambulance driver duty, or walk security around the hospital grounds; usually a wash as far as activity went. On one day, I was called down to transportation, with an emergency duty Corpsman, and drove about a block and a half on compound to the area where the Mystic River Bridge passed overhead. Some poor schmuck had managed to wind up on our compound, after having either fallen, or being “helped” off the bridge. He landed on Navy property, so I assume the Navy had to deal with his “disposal”. I don’t remember ever learning the who-or-why of it all.

I turned 21 during my tour there, and made HN (E-3) and was introduced to the niceties of the Enlisted Club.  

However, the Navy, in its infinite wisdom, decided it was time for me to move on.  

In a halfhearted effort to forestall this event, I applied for EEG school. However, due to the fact that Corpsmen were dropping like flies in the Nam, they denied my application, and my orders to the dreaded FMF were in force. Well there went my post-service career out the window!

I bought a little red … 1961, I think … Austin Healy Sprite, similar to an MG, while in Boston, and Tom Coppess and I left Chelsea on leave the 1st of September 1967, driving across country to Iowa, where he lived, and then myself going on to Oklahoma. The starter mechanism on that thing was a pull cable in the dash. It gave out somewhere in Pennsylvania, and then in Illinois an exhaust valve burned. The wheels would shimmy horribly between 56 and 65 mph, so it was a long trip, keeping just under or over shimmy speed so the damn thing wouldn’t shudder, and parking on slopes so it would roll to start the engine in gear. I later found that it was a simple dynamic balancing of the front tires to correct the horrendous shimmy, and replaced the burned valve and repaired the starter cable. This was the first car I had owned with 13” tires; my first two vehicles, in High School and my one-year of College, were 1955 DeSoto’s ... real tanks.  

I left the little Sprite at home after leave, and flew to Camp LeJeune NC for Field Medical Services School. I had made Hospitalman (E-3) during my duty time at Chelsea, and had taken the exam, and passed it for Hospitalman 3rd Class. I got the rate advancement on September 16th, 1967 while on 30 days leave, so I got to LeJeune, and FMSS on September 30th as an HM3 (E-4) and only 1 ½ years in service. Moving on up!!

Doc Tales