Thursday, March 6, 2014

Iron and War - a Remarkable Conversation with a WWII Nurse

Sunday: “WWII”.

I forgot about it. So the next week, I wrote on my dry erase planner “WWII.”

I also forgot about that.

I read the stories in the morning about old men getting a long overdue purple heart, or their daughters remembering a father they'd never met.

And each week, I wrote “WWII” on my calendar. I wanted to talk to some of these men who had fought with guns and tanks, planes and skill, in distant lands in distant times.

I hadn't thought of the women. Like many young people, my mind had stopped at the story conveyed in black and white, and like the colors presented in the glamourized documentaries, I had viewed the conflict in those monotones.

Then one day I met Tharon.

Sitting at my DJ table, I had finished up a set of big band music at a veteran's home. She approached, thanked me for the show, and we struck up a conversation about classical music. I asked her what her story was. She had been a nurse in WWII, fighting stateside with penicillin and cotton, bandages and skill. She painted a much more complex picture of the war for me – with many colors, and insight that only a woman would have – and one I had never heard before. This is just a small part of her life story, and bit of a Remarkable Conversation.

Undated photo of Tharon and her husband

Irons in the Fire

I had asked if I could return later in the day to sit down and really talk. Stopping by that Saturday evening, we chatted while the Red Sox battled the Tigers during the playoff games on the TV. “I love baseball” she said. “So do I!” But our mutual love of America's past time was sacrificed for the sake of story telling. The TV was unplugged to provide power for the recording devices, and our walk down memory lane had begun.

“I grew up in upstate New York. I loved the piano. I played it all the time. Then my house burned down, and the piano with it. No more piano lessons...”

“Then I got another piano. The middle keys didn't work, so I didn't play it a lot. One day I came home from school, and my mother took me aside in the yard. “Tharon, your father is going to chop up the piano for wood.” He was a carpenter, you see, and he had been eying the piano for quite some time. He built a cabinet out of it.”

Did you mind?

“Well...” she paused.

“It wasn't my piano – it belonged to the family – and it was good wood.”

We talked and talked, and later in the evening, she told the another story from her early years.

“My older sister always used to beat me. I don't know why, but she always did. One day, I was in the shed, ironing clothes. I saw my mother and father get in the car and drive away. I said to myself “Tharon, she's going to come beat you.” Sure enough, five minutes later, she walks through the door, fist in the air, ready to hit me. As she walked up to me, I held the hot iron up right next to her face. We stared at each other, not saying a word. She lowered her fist, and walked away – never to beat me again.”

What were you feeling?

“I was scared. What if I had burned her face? It would have been a lifetime scar. But I had to stand up for myself. And ever since then, I always have.”

“There's a quote from my mother – it reminds me of you” I said. “she took her power back – without permission.” (terri st. cloud/

The War

Tharon enlisted in the Army during the last six months of WWII. Once out of nursing school, she shipped to Virginia Beach, working at a hotel that had been converted to a hospital. Earlier in the day I had asked her the rather indelicate question: “Did you lose any friends in the war?” Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “Yes – my two next door neighbors. They were twins, and they were like brothers to me. We grew up together. One was lost over land, when his plane went down in northern Europe, the other at sea. The military asked the family if they would like the bodies recovered, but the family said no - “they're together, just like they always were.” As the gray sky of the present day filtered light into the community room of the VA home, she choked up, her eyes brimming with tears. I, too, suddenly felt the pain of a loss of two men I had never met – and the war's shadow continued to reach across the years, almost as if adding to the clouds on that already overcast day.

We begin to speak of her service as a nurse. “The men had been lying wounded in pastures, sometimes for days. They were infected with all sorts of things. We would clean them up as best as we could. We'd start off each day with a shot of penicillin right in the Gluteus Maximus” she said, laughing.

She told me quietly “all of my guys died when they went home. I didn't lose any at the hospital – except for one man. He had been shot in the neck, and was paralyzed. He was very hoarse – but we could communicate with him. He had so much infection. All of the patients needed so much care – they would all have chill. That's how sick they were. They were just a couple of steps away from being gone themselves. They were bedridden, but I did get that one up into a chair, and one day, he wanted to go on the porch. I was about to go to lunch, and I asked him if he wanted to go back inside, because there was no one to take care of him while I was gone. “No, I'm fine! I want to stay here!” he said Well, when I got back from lunch, the Chill had come over him again, and there he is, mad at me. He never got over it...because I was gone. Of course, I understood him, and I wasn't there when he got the Chill. He eventually died, because he had so much infection in his body. He couldn't manage with less care.”

The conversation turned to what happened after the war. “They just shut the hospital right down, and sent everyone home. It's not like it is now. The families didn't know how to care for their wounded, and many probably couldn't afford the medication.”

“What did you think when you heard the hospital was shutting down – were you worried for these men?”

“No, not at first. The thought didn't occur to me at that time. Then, when I had heard what had happened to them at that time, I could see that the Army Medical Corps had just sustained them. We never cured them. We couldn't cure them. We just sustained this level of health that required a registered nurse and all of this medication and care that they got. And when they didn't get it, their body couldn't deal with it. So, I think there's a lot to be said for the Army Medical Corps......and also, they (the families) couldn't keep it up because of the expense. Everybody, if they could cut something out, they had to do it. There was no tomorrow.”

Was it difficult to work there?

“No, no, the patients were always pleasant, polite, and cooperative. If they were ever angry at us, well, we got over it. I thought they were very good patients.”

How about seeing these young men return from the battlefields with these serious injuries? Was that difficult to see?

“It bothered me later on...” she said, her voice trailing off huskily. “It's bothered me to this day....A waste of our young's a waste of our young me....that's what war is. And I hate it.”

The Late 40's

“You mentioned earlier that while there was a victory overall, each person didn't feel directly responsible for it.”

“That's true – we were such a miniscule part of it, but in the whole, everyone did our job, and we won, because every little person did their job. Even a big general, he did his job.”

“Walking down the street in 1947, what was your mindset towards the war?”

“ I was very happy it was over with, we were anxious to get back into civilian life – we got out right away.”

I asked her about the post war time.

“You cannot...cannot imagine it. The movies glorify it.”

“Was it a feeling of pride? Of sadness? A mix?” I asked.

“Not that deep. It wasn't that deep. Our immediate lives changed, we were glad to get out, we had no regrets that way, but we no longer had a job, and it was hard for a lot of people to find them. It was easy for me, but hard for other people, especially to find a job that paid a living wage. You didn't have an automobile, you walked everywhere. Automobiles were expensive, and scarce during the war. They didn't manufacture them, they made guns instead. And the cars were older, and always broke down.” Here she chuckled, remembering the mechanical difficulties that plagued post war American drivers.

“What did you think when the Korean War broke out?”

“I didn't know where Korea was. I didn't give it much thought. It seemed so far away, who's going there? It was such a small country, what were we doing in there? Leave those people alone, we don't have any business being in there. That was I thought then, and I still think that today.”

“What did you think when you heard about a new conflict, from a nurses' point of view? We've had quite a few conflicts since then.”

Here she became extra animated.

“We've constantly been at war! Cut it out! Talk it out – you don't have to fight it out! You don't have to fight. Never, never, to put young mens' lives there, to kill them for your satisfaction...Talk it out.”

Did you think that before you went in to the army and saw all the carnage?

“I had no experience – I didn't know what I was getting into. I was always peaceful. I had never any guns around me, never heard a gunshot. I feel for those people who went through all that noise. It ruined a lot of hearing...a lot of hearing. And especially kids – kids are traumatized by war. It's with 'em all their life. And they don't get over it. They think they do, but...but it influences them a lot...”


  The time had grown late, and it was time for me to drive back, two hours to the north on that autumn evening.  I thanked her for the time, stories, and sharing.  I walked through the quiet halls with the occasional warriors sitting peacefully musing in wheelchairs, out into the orange glow of the sodium vapor lights of the VA home parking lot.  When I was little, I used to pretend the moon followed me home on car trips back from my grandparents.  Now that I'm older, I haven't completely given up on that idea.  But, sometimes the light takes a different form.  That night it was the orange street lamp - washing the parking lot with it's glow, twinkling in the seemingly deserted heavy industry of the cigarette plant down the street amid a maze of pipes and railroad tracks, flickering in my face as I sped north on I-95, waving from the distance as my little car sped past sleepy houses with their security lights on the quiet byways...They were like earthly stars, for sometimes the night, like it was then, is cloudy-a fine metaphor for how the passing of the years can sometimes wear us down, and obscure the stars that once shone so clearly on our younger days.

  Maybe those lights are like the quiet people like Tharon, and unlike some planet in the sky that only shines on clear nights, they're here on the ground with the rest of us, despite the clouds, quietly helping, healing, standing strong in the darkness, guiding..and seeing us home safely.

Here's to the lights...

- Josh  

Copyright 2014 Josh Urban and Tharon B.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material with the express and written permission of the authors is strictly prohibited.  

1 comment:

Diane in AR said...

Awesome blog entry Josh, thank you for sharing Tharon's story with us. . .thank you. . .