Friday, September 21, 2012

An apocryphal story from the V.A. Hospital.

The last year has seen the passing of the final American (Frank Buckles 1901-2011) and British (Florence Green 1901-2012) veterans of World War I. 

Old soldiers, it has famously been said, never die they just fade away.  Or in the case of our recent troubled history get shouldered aside by another cadre of returning veterans with memories more recent and compelling.

Back in the late 1970s when I was starting my clinical rotations there was a story circulating at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Hospital.  Supposedly one wintery night a really old fellow turned up at the door and said they had to admit him.  There wasn't much specific wrong with him, he was just very, very old.  Various alternatives were offered to him, but he said "Nope, you have to admit me.  I am a veteran of the Spanish American War."

Well that was at the time one of the "no questions asked" indications for admission so the old soldier was admitted.

He got rested up, probably some needed nutrition, and had a few minor issues tuned up.

But the paperwork was proving difficult.  You see, nobody could find any record of him in the V.A. system.  A lot of military records were lost in a fire at one point, and it was actually not all that unusual for the paperwork to slip up in the sprawling V.A. system.   But still, some diligent folks were put to work on finding this man's service record and came up blank.

Until some brighter than average functionary thought to ask him which side he fought on!  (He got to stay nonetheless).

As A.E. Houseman once wrote: "I tell the tale as I heard told", but it may represent not an actual event but an archetype.  I have for instance been told by another physicican that the exact same story was in circulation in a V.A. Hospital in Chicago some years earlier.

And maybe it is just one of those stories that pops up spontaneously.  I have another physician acquaintance who tells a similar story of an old timer who liked to hang out at the members only VFW club and enjoy a drink or two.  Almost unique among his peers he was reticent about telling stories of his military service.  As well he might have been, seeing as how he had been drafted into the Latvian Legion, a unit of the German S.S. on the Eastern Front!  As he was a nice fellow, and as he had only been fighting against Communists anyway, he was allowed to continue his membership.

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