From the handmade pine table next to me, I pick up the camp newsletter, The White Rock News, and open it to the humor page, but there’s no time to read. The door bursts open.
To the Bone
“The doctor? Is the doctor here?” a fellow of about twenty shouts as four young men in bloodstained uniforms stagger in carrying an injured boy. From the looks of him, it’s serious. His leg is covered in a crude bandage of white rags drenched in red and his face is alabaster.
The secretary rises so fast she knocks her chair over. “Oh, Lord . . . not another one!” She flings the infirmary door open to reveal four white metal beds with a scale in the corner and a blood pressure cuff mounted on a stand. I jump up, throw my pocketbook on the chair, and, without even thinking, begin to shout orders.
“Here, lay him down. Someone get my medical bag in the Pontiac. What happened?” The young men, by this time, are running out the door, either to get my bag, or more likely, to escape the scene of carnage, but I grab one by the shirtsleeve. “You! Explain!”
“It happened at the sawmill, ma’am. Awful bad. Halfway cut off. Where’s the doc? Is the doc here today? Can he save his leg?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try.” My informant is about to be sick so I let him slink away. “My bag!” I yell after him.
“Mrs. Ross, a pan of hot water. I’ll need to wash the wound to assess the damage. Does anyone in the camp know first aid? Is there a medic?”
The round woman is now cowering against the wall. “Come on now, Mrs. Ross! Pull yourself together.”
“No medic,” she whispers.
“Call the physician at the other camp. Tell him registered nurse Becky Myers needs him here as soon as possible.”
“There’s no phone. It’s a shortwave radio. I can try.” Mrs. Ross starts for the kitchen to get water and then spins around like a top and points to the wooden CB set on a table in the corner. “Which first?”
“Water and clean rags first. Hold on the radio. This may not be as bad as it looks.” Just then the young man who’d given me the report returns with my bag.
“This it, ma’am?” He’s no longer so white and a cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, thank you, but you can’t smoke in here. There’s a pair of scissors and a packet of gauze in the satchel, get them out, please. Don’t look at the wound if you can’t take the sight of blood. I’m going to unwrap his leg.” The young man runs to the door and flips his cigarette out into the yard.
Removing the crude bandage, I finally get a look at the injury. The cut is below the knee and down to the bone, but it’s straight, not jagged, and there’s no dirt or sawdust in it. Most important, the bleeding seems to have slowed.
The boy rummages around in my bag, pulls out what I need, and places it on the small pine table that Mrs. Ross brings in.
“What’s your name, son? And what’s the patient’s name?”
“I’m Boodean Sypolt. His name is Jed Troutman. I didn’t know there were lady doctors.”
“Mmmmm.” The injured man is coming to. He groans and then groans again.
“Boodean, hand me the blue bottle of merthiolate, the one with the cork. Also, I’ll need the tin box of suture needles. I’m a nurse, not a doctor. A registered nurse.”
“Fuck!” The victim shakes his head and there are tears in his golden-brown eyes. “What happened? Oh, fuck. What have I done?”
“It’s okay, Jed. It’s okay. I’m Nurse Becky and I’m going to give you a teaspoon of laudanum before I sew you up.” This I do sparingly, since the liquid in the blue bottle is the last of Dr. Blum’s supply. Within moments Jed falls back into a stupor, and I can get on with my work.
For the next half hour, by the big wooden cuckoo clock on the wall, I cleanse the wound, carefully stitch the layers of muscle and skin back together, and anoint the deep cut with merthiolate. Boodean serves as my surgical assistant, cutting my suture when I need it and handing me the instruments, but otherwise concentrating on a poster above the bed, this one in green and yellow, exhorting the virtues of the Forest Army with an image of a tall evergreen and the Civilian Conservation Corps logo below it.
By the end of the procedure, I notice the young man is looking down at the surgical field and actually anticipating my next move. Finally, I’m finished. Boodean stretches his back.
“Nice job,” I tell him, and when he smiles I notice one of his teeth is missing, the eyetooth, the one with the point. Otherwise he’s a good-looking lad, with clear skin, kind eyes, and curly brown hair. His nose, which appears to have been broken at some time in the past, is the only other feature that mars his handsome face.
“Thanks,” he says shyly. “I never did nothin’ like that before. Will he still be able to work? His mother is counting on the twenty-five a month that Jed sends from his CCC pay. She’s a widow with five other children.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. He should heal okay, if he keeps his wound clean. Do you know each other from home?”
“Both our dads went down to Hawk’s Nest to work on the tunnel they put under the mountain. Out of the four men from home who traveled together, my dad is the only one that made it back alive.”
I’m familiar with the situation at Hawk’s Nest. If you read the news, you couldn’t miss it. In 1930, Union Carbide decided to improve their power plant by diverting the New River under Gauley Mountain. To do this they hired unemployed Appalachians and blacks from the South.
It was a big scandal, even got hearings in Congress and in the federal courts. Four hundred men died, both white and colored, the largest industrial accident in the United States. Some, who had no family living close by, weren’t even buried, they were just dumped over a cliff.
Dr. Blum had been livid. “The workers died of acute silicosis,” he told me after attending a medical meeting in Torrington, where the tragedy was discussed. “The silica in the rocks coated their lungs and no one gave them masks or breathing equipment, although management knew enough to wear them. Those workers died within a year. . . . A waste of good lives. A crime.”
Things like that used to really upset him, back when he had his mind.
I’m just washing up when Mrs. Ross cracks open the infirmary door. “They’re coming!” she whispers. “Outside . . . the truck just pulled up . . . the captain and the superintendent.”
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