I have two Halloween stories I want to tell. At first I was going to do both of them in one long, involved post, but I know that many people—my wife, primarily—cannot, or will not, read anything longer than two or three paragraphs on a computer screen. (And yet, she can spend hours examining and comparing spread sheets the size of Texas until she finds the one tiny discrepancy that shows someone somewhere did something naughty. Go figure.) So in the interests of those people—my wife, primarily—I will tell them in two separate posts that are only sort of long, and not very, by my standards, involved.
The first one involves jack-o-lanterns. Every year around the first week of October each kid on 6-West would get a small pumpkin which we would then carve into the scariest, or weirdest, jack-o-lantern we could manage. The jack-o-lantern would then sit on our bedside stand until a few days after Halloween.
Attentive readers will already have noticed that those pumpkins would be on those bedside stands for three or four weeks. In a ward that always seemed to be almost too warm. Suffice it to say that by the time Halloween was immanent they were well past their prime. Rotten might be too strong a word, but they were definitely ripe. The ward would take on an odor with strong compost pile notes; but then, the ward had so many odors that you really didn't want to identify, that one more was not too alarming. (In all the hospitals I've ever been in hygiene has been a strange and mysterious thing. My advice is to never, ever let your bare skin touch anything, especially the floor, outside your bed—and don't trust the stuff in your bed all that much.)
This particular October was one of the few times my younger brother and I were in the hospital at the same time. You would think that with all the hemorrhages we both had we would have been in the hospital at the same time a lot. Not so. Even though we tended to have entirely different kinds of hemorrhages it is one of those strange twists of the universe that they didn't overlap just a bit more than they did. Whatever the reason, this was one of the three or four times we were in the hospital together. As usual, I have absolutely no idea what was bleeding in either of us.
Mert was actually two or three beds down from me. We were close enough that we could talk, and exchange comic books and stuff by tossing them to the kid between us to pass on, but far enough apart that we wouldn't get on each others nerves. Mom came up to see us every afternoon, and I think it was a little unsettling for her having to go back and forth between the beds, but otherwise it was just another trip to the hospital.
It must have happened during the "Quiet Time" we had after lunch (it wasn't called a nap in deference to our maturity) when everyone had to be in their beds reading, putting a model together, or talking quietly, or some other quiet, non-rowdy activity. Some of the kids actually slept. 'Quiet' is the operative word here, because if you got loud enough for the nurses to hear you out at the nurses' station they would come in and draw the curtains around everyone's bed.
Anyway, this particular October afternoon my brother was talking to the kid next to him. At some point the kid on the other side of that kid said something that Mert took umbrage with. This led to an exchange that got a bit more heated with each volley. Pretty soon about four of them were whisper shouting epithets back and forth. At some point one of them said something that Mert decided was beyond a verbal response, and picked up his pumpkin (remember the pumpkins?) and threw it.
If this had been the first week or so we had them it might have been a serious weapon. Not fatal, but it would have surely left a mark. This was, however, very late in the month, and the pumpkin had the consistency of mashed potatoes. The only thing keeping it from slumping into a mushy pile was the skin which, as it turns out, was not quite up to keeping things together when handled. Those parts of Mert's pumpkin that didn't fall out of his hand onto him went flying off toward the verbal miscreant, but just as the shot from a shotgun spreads as it flies, the portions of the pumpkin that Mert managed to actually throw all took widely varying paths.
Parts hit the kid in the next bed, parts hit their target or at least his bed, and parts fell into the spaces between beds. Naturally the two who had been fired upon retaliated. Most of those pumpkins landed on Mert's bed and the bed of the kid between us, but a fair sized chunk landed on my comic book. Luckily it was one I had read three or four times. I picked the shrapnel up and tossed it in the general direction of the battle. The now four major combatants were busily throwing whatever pumpkin glop they could reach, at whoever was in range. As the neighboring kids saw what was happening they gleefully joined in.
One of the unexplored aspects of the hospitalization of kids is that while in the hospital they have very little opportunity to be annoying, little brats. At that time and at that hospital, no one went in for a day, or just overnight. We were in there for three to six weeks usually, and some kids were there for months, and all too often, for the rest of their lives. Six weeks of having to be a brave little fighter, doing everything your told, and being a role model for the rest of the class will soon have the best of kids wondering about emptying the bedpans out the sixth floor window; or dropping water balloons down the nine floors of the main stairways. (For those who jump to conclusions, we couldn't open the windows, and I've been advised that it's probably best if I don't talk about the stairwells.) It is a kid's instinctual need to test every and all limits placed on him, or her, by parents, teachers, and anyone else hellbent on controlling their behavior, including nurses. We have to annoy those people at regular intervals to make sure we can't get away with anything, and, truth be told, to make sure they still care enough to keep us in line.
Well, the kids on the boys side of the ward released a lot of pent up mischievousness that afternoon.
The arc of pumpkin volleys traced their way up and down the row of beds for fifteen or twenty minutes with all concerned taking hits, but suffering no real damage, except to our olfactory systems. Everyone's bed looked like a brownish orange biological accident. It had come to the point where there was only one pumpkin left. It was mine. I was saving it for the ultimate shot. The other kids were scrapping together globs of pumpkin guts for their next shot, and trying to build a fort out of a pillow and some comic books.
Then I saw my shot. It was this smug kid at the end who thought he was a hot shot because his father was going to bring up a color TV for him to watch. He kept telling us how much he would charge us to watch it for a half-hour. They had set TVs up out on the ward before for various reasons, and they had all been spectacularly unwatchable. They had to rely on rabbit ear antennas, and there was so much metal and stone in the building along with a whopping amount of electronic interference, that the best picture usually consisted of one blob, vaguely male, talking to another blob that might, under the right circumstances, be vaguely female. The last time they brought one in I got a headache that lasted into the next day. Anyway, this twit kept talking about how he would soon be watching "American Bandstand" and telling us what Barbara and Christine and the other regulars were wearing; and my pumpkin was for him.
He was at the near end of the ward next to the linen cart and the main doors to the ward. I was in the next bed. He picked up a handful of glop and threw it. The main bits got me along the side of the head. I had seeds, and the membranes and glop from the center of the pumpkin hanging down the side of my face. He laughed like a hyena. That was his mistake. I had already figured out that if I picked my pumpkin up by its paper plate, and use what was left of the plates sturdiness as a launch platform I would stand a good chance of getting the entire gourd or squash or whatever it was, to my target. While he was busy laughing at the pumpkin guts on the side of my face I carefully lifted my missile by its slightly soggy base. Then I let fly. He was looking down at that moment, and the pumpkin got him squarely on the top of the head. It was beautiful. When he looked up at me he was wearing the cutest, little behive shaped pumpkin gut wig. A fair portion of the gourd had ended up in the linen cart, and I knew that spelled trouble, and perhaps doom, if they figured out who threw what.
By that time the rest of the battle had pretty much ended due to the ammunition being spread fairly evenly over most surfaces on the boys' side of the ward. Most of us were grinning that grin you do when you know you've done something that is very definitely going to get you killed, but it was soo much fun you just couldn't not do it.
About then one of the nurses came in. She walked about ten feet into the ward and stopped. She looked up and down the boys' side of the ward. She closed her eyes, shook her head and looked again. Then she looked at the girls' side. It was clean and neat, with no sign of the great pumpkin war. She closed her eyes, opened them slowly and looked at the boys' side again. I won't transcribe her exact words here. Suffice it to say that it was the first time I ever heard a woman say that particular word. I was shocked.
Then she went back out to the desk to call the troops in.
In about five seconds three RNs, two nurse's aides, and four students came in along with two guys from housekeeping. I can tell you that a group of nurses in full crisis mode will put any SWAT team in the nation to shame with their organization, focus on the objective, and their attitude that one shot, one kill can, and will, be done more efficiently. Getting clean sheets was the real problem. The afternoon linen cart only had enough sheets, blankets and pillowcases to repair the occasional accident. They could deal with two, perhaps three, complete bed changes. This meant they would have to borrow from the other wards. That was the bit that really caused the ax to fall. They hated having to borrow from the other wards, because payback was always so . . . tricky. They sent negotiators out to five other wards, but it was a tense situation. Eventually the needed supplies arrived and the ward clerk made careful notes concerning who had loaned what.
First, wet washcloths and towels were passed out, and we were told to get clean, and we were given pajamas to change into. When one of the guys said it was too early to put on pajamas the nurse just looked at him with one eyebrow arching about two inches higher than the other. He decided not to pursue the issue. Then, those of us who could walk were told to strip their filthy sheets off and remake their bed with clean sheets. Being able to only use one hand because of an IV, or anything else, was no excuse; and the corners had better be done correctly. Those of us who could not walk had their sheets changed by the nurses, and it was done with all the 'vigor' they could muster without causing injury.
The head nurse announced that there would be no deserts that night; but the real punishment came when we saw the smug looks on the girls' faces when they were taken up to the recreation room for that afternoon's activities, and we were told our "rest period" was extended until the next morning.
It was a long afternoon.