In April 2011, the powers that be razed the Vietnam era Oak Knoll Hospital in Oakland, California. As a young Camp Fire Girl in the late 1960s, I’d visited the hospital with my friends to sing Christmas Carols. A lot of extremely injured men lay in the beds–and I know for a fact we weren’t even allowed into the worst wards, so we didn’t come eye to eye with the most injured. We sang, and some of them smiled, but the ones in the most pain weren’t able to hear or see us.
While editing my novel, Junction, Utah, today, I again read the scene inspired by that day some four decades ago in Oakland with the Camp Fire Girls. I shared the scene in this blog last year when I learned of the hospital’s demise–likely for more residential housing.
I’m sharing the post here again in honor of Veteran’s Day.
Chris learned something he’d suspected but hadn’t known for sure: the medical center was bigger than all of downtown Landstuhl. A dozen hospital buildings housing a thousand beds lay north and south of a mile-long, connecting corridor. Most beds sat empty now, but they reminded Chris of how many wounded the center could hold at the worst times. Neon light filled the lobby, the brightest room Chris saw in all his time in Germany. He hadn’t waited long before Nurse Clark came to meet him, her hand reaching for his. “I’m Janice,” she said, quietly. She had a faint mustache, and her powerful shoulders and self assurance shook his preconceived image of her as a small, pasty novice. “I haven’t talked to your brother in days,” she said. “He’s not officially checked in anymore, you know.”
“Not checked in? Then why would he stay?” Chris felt heat in his cheeks.
“If he’s in the building, he’ll be in Martin’s room. Building Ten.”
“Does he know I’m here?”
Janice signaled for him to wait while she stopped to help a serviceman on crutches. He was one of the many wounded who wore robes and lined the hallway. They sat in wheelchairs and rocking chairs or walked with casts. They lay on gurneys with tubes in their necks and nostrils. Many were missing limbs. They were all kids, Luke’s age and younger, some with burns that covered their skin in red or brown patches; some with legs imprisoned in casts; some with heads and faces masked in miles of bandages. Chris flashed on a thought: if he unrolled all the gauze in that building, it’d take him back to Utah. He wished it would. Janice gave everyone a smile and kind word, and Chris followed her lead as best he could, even though his stomach roiled at the sight of it all.
She escorted Chris past some Frauleins in Girl-Scout-type uniforms. They huddled together singing O! Tannenbaum, their big eyes on each other, avoiding the gaze of the wounded.
“Please, Nurse Clark.” Chris asked again, “Does Luke know I’m here?”
She pushed through double doors marked Building Ten. “I haven’t had the chance to tell him.”
Chris inhaled deeply as she led him past an empty stairwell. They wound through a crowd of medical personnel speaking a mix of German and English. They passed the Girl Scouts again—or so Chris thought—who were now singing Silent Nacht. “Are we going in circles?” he asked.
“That’s a different group. There are three or four choirs here every day this close to Christmas.”
He stayed with her, though he wanted to bolt. With all these men so bad off, how would Luke be when Chris saw him? Doctor Swanson had said, “Luke expressly told me he doesn’t want to speak to anyone.”
“Even his family?”
“Especially his family.”