Entering the Veterans Administration lobby, I was overwhelmed by its sprawling WPA mural that celebrated work and freedom, cities rising bolt to beam, the red blooded and able bodied. Everywhere I looked, brawny men hoisted iron, their steel muscles rippling—a Depression-era vision of boundless strength and optimism. And then inside the elevator, I saw the operator, a man with one arm. He sat on a small, low stool and kept up a cheerful banter during his endless exertions—manually pulling open and closed a metal accordion inner door and outer door as he stopped on every floor, workers streaming in and out.
It was the first day of my first grown-up summer job. A classmate and I had scored high enough on the civil service exam offered at our all-girls parochial school to clinch decently paying employment. Working at a Manhattan office struck me as a huge improvement over my cashier’s job the summer before at a local supermarket under the shadow of the noisy elevated train.
Our VA work site was an old building on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street in what straddled then-seedy Chelsea and the still-thriving but gritty Garment District. After the first week, I lost touch with my classmate. She worked somewhere else in that building. If this were science fiction, I’d say that she had gone to live in another zone or quadrant, probably as alien as the one I was assigned to, but altogether different. And it wasn’t long before I realized that I needed to summon all my capabilities just to hold body and soul together, so I adopted the self-imposed isolation of a stoic.
My assignment: the Dictaphone Unit responsible for transcribing psychiatrists’ reports of veterans’ outpatient visits and group therapy sessions. At the supermarket, long before the scanning of barcodes was possible, my fingers ached from pounding the keys down on the heavy cash register. In this job, my fingers would punch typewriter keys for seven hours, but my feet and ears were also engaged. For those who have never heard of Dictaphones—once considered advanced office technology—they were tape players with a wire that led to the ear, and another wire that connected to a foot pedal. Users played the tape, typing the words heard through an ear jack, stopping to advance or rewind the tape with one foot as needed. In this way, hands were always left free to type.
Now as an adult I understand why this job had an indelible effect on me. I’d just turned sixteen two months earlier and, as a striving writer, was hungry for every impression and experience beyond my sheltered life. But to be immersed in the intimate problems of veterans for hours at a time—a child who hadn’t known real sorrow, men, or war—was to inhabit a complex and sometimes disturbing world. I was physically tethered to their stories through the Dictaphone, which I came to regard as a Pandora’s box of secrets.
To be privy to another human being’s inner life was hard enough. But these patients were all men and, in my limited experience, males didn’t talk about their problems. Now, hearing about rages, alcoholism, the frustrations of chronic pain, impotence, and so many other struggles, my mind shrunk away, then reeled. All the while, my right foot pumped the pedal like a piston and my fingers tapped, a super-fast machine.
Whatever knowledge I thought I had about human suffering came through my love of film and literature, the awareness that all good stories need conflict. In the family, when tragedy moved in, the adults held it at a remove, as if shameful. “He has cancer,” I once heard my mother tell my aunt Anna in hushed tones, referring to a friend. The stigma of mental illness went even deeper. When my cousin’s wife became psychotic after giving birth to her first and only child, the family closed ranks, a few relatives taking turns to care for the baby. For “outsiders,” they invented creative excuses along the lines of “Laura had to be with her dying mother in Oregon,” which usually stopped further questions.
I worked in a large room painted bile green with fourteen other Dictaphone typists, all full-timers, all sitting at identical gray steel government-issued desks with in-boxes stacked high with tapes each morning. Despite all of these office mates, the ear plugs kept me—and everyone else—cut off from one another. Every desk was like a separate landing field. New tapes came and went, but each typist held her ground, listening to the stories of one veteran after another. It was literally a head-to-toe, whole-body experience.
I began to feel like a reluctant witness, as if I were nine years old again, back in the children’s wing of the hospital, having fallen off a fence I’d perched on, cracking my skull on the pavement. It was not sleeping in an institutional setting for the first time that shook my world, but what I had seen and heard, alone in the night: a distraught toddler repeatedly crying out for someone to retrieve his fallen teddy bear, and the nurse growling, “Shut up or I’ll give you the needle!” I had pretended to be asleep with all the other children, which increased my feeling of isolation. It was as if evil had passed close to my bed, and a shiver ran through me. Plugged in, listening to each veteran’s painful story, I felt the same isolation of the witness. And although I knew the men were supposed to be receiving therapy to ease their suffering, I wondered if they were actually being helped.
Over the course of that summer, many vets returned for regular appointments with their therapists. I found myself wondering, then anticipating with some curiosity, how Pete might be coping with his night sweats, Tom with his drinking, and John with his anger and marital conflicts. But by the end of each day, my ears ached and head throbbed with their troubles as they retread the same scorched ground. Occasionally the doctors had the outpatients speak directly into the tape, and their agitated voices were like the sounds of drowning men thrashing in the well of my ears.
The oldest men were World War II veterans, my father’s generation, and others had served in Korea. The Vietnam War was in its early stages. Not many of its soldiers had returned yet or, if they had made it back, they decided against turning to Uncle Sam for help with their demons. The few Vietnam vets who did visit felt like brothers to me because the standard DOB information on the doctors’ reports indicated they weren’t much older than me or my brother, Bob—at nineteen, in college, he was beginning to worry about being drafted.
The vets whose voices I heard helped me imagine their faces. The youngest ones had beards, mustaches, sideburns, and long hair, of course—the full-blown hippie styles they were denied in the service. I was sure that the polite World War II guys looked like my dad—clean shaven, wearing glasses, button-down shirts, maybe a little overweight. But unlike my father, who served as a medic in the 16th Armored Division in Europe but never discussed that time, they did talk, at least during their one-hour sessions. I was saddened but initially surprised that decades after the war had ended, they still were struggling with the horrors of the experience. I hadn’t heard of post-traumatic stress—I’m not sure PTSD was in the general vocabulary then—but I learned in a visceral way that it’s not always possible to “snap out of it and move on.”
Facing all fifteen of us was Rose, our supervisor. Meeting me for the first time, she mentioned that she had won the Harvest Moon ballroom dance contest several times. I thought it was strange that she bragged about her dancing skills and displayed competition photos and award plaques on her desk. But maybe it was to announce, “Although I’m in this dreary job, probably for the rest of my life, I am far more than this. I am a woman capable of soaring.”
Petite and compactly built with a blonde, every-hair-in-place coiffure, Rose wore bright-colored high heels that clicked loudly as she flounced up and down the rows, surveying our progress—so different from the nuns in elementary and high school who padded along silently before swooping down to announce some infraction. On the days that she wore red or blue dresses, they seemed like billowing flags. The president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, grim-faced on the wall, regarded us all.
Rose was benign, all the while encouraging her “ladies” to increase daily production, measured by the number of tapes moved to the out-boxes. I remember the embarrassment I felt when she held me up as an example of efficiency—“and she’s just a summer employee,” Rose said, emphasizing my separateness. Still, I was relieved that my coworkers showed no hostility towards me. I chatted with them during the ten-minute morning and afternoon coffee breaks. Never did we talk about the material we were privy to.
That summer of ’67 there were over 465,000 members of the armed forces in Vietnam. More than 12,000 Americans had been killed by then and 70,000 wounded. Before the internet, of course, newspapers were the main source of information, reporting daily the names of the missing, dead, and wounded from the metropolitan area and describing, in great detail, the latest land, air, and sea battles with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
Reviewing archived New York Times articles returned me immediately to that time. On July 3: 51 marines killed in fierce battle near buffer zone;170 wounded. On the same day: us casualties exceed saigon’s. July 18: 611th us plane downed in north. July 23: budget deficit hits $9.9 billion as war costs rise; second highest since wwii. And another: president johnson: ‘this is not the time to alter scope of bombing pressure.’
The newsstand in the lobby carried all the New York dailies, and the headlines almost always shrieked bad news. Antiwar protests were becoming angrier and more frequent. And another kind of war with its own casualties raged at home that summer: riots spreading from city to city, domestic combat zones that led to the deployment of 1,700 army troops in Newark and Detroit. Before long, the papers were reporting those dead and wounded, too.
For the two months I worked at the VA, I didn’t have a single exchange with any of my coworkers about the war in Vietnam or at home. For myself, such conversations probably would have pushed me over the edge where I teetered, fighting waves of emotion that ranged from sorrow and frustration to rage at life’s unfairness. And so our banter stayed safely apolitical.
A few feet to my left sat Sally, who had once dreamed of being an actress but abandoned auditions long before. I wondered if the stories she heard and transcribed, so full of drama, conflict and complicated relationships, were like plays to her. I felt that way about the veterans I began to “know” that summer. How would their stories end? I wouldn’t be there long enough to find out, but maybe the full-timers wouldn’t learn the endings, either. Maybe there were no endings, just the ongoing struggle.
On the other side of me was Sheryl, a former gospel singer. “I don’t believe in any of that stuff now,” she said, and I supposed she meant she no longer went to church. Sheryl seemed to have several boyfriends and loved dancing to soul music on weekends. Sometimes, running into her in the elevator, I heard her humming or singing under her breath. But like everyone else in the unit, she became silent once she was plugged into her Dictaphone. Removing the ear jack for a bathroom break was to hear only the stop-and-start tap of feet on pedals and the bells of typewriter carriages.
I worked in the Land of the Wounded. Some of the outpatients were on crutches or wore bandages and splints. For others, the damage was internal but their eyes gave them away, like one unforgettable supermarket customer I had the summer before, a handsome young man who told me in a conspiratorial whisper, as I rang up his groceries, that he had just returned from “’Nam.” His blue eyes had a kind of crazed radiance, as if he couldn’t quite believe his escape. I thought of him again, wondering if he were now one of the outpatients.
In the cafeteria, the World War II-era cashier was blind, and I remember musing about the government’s touching faith in the honesty of diners who had to state the denomination of the bills they placed in his hand. I used the cafeteria only on days of heavy rain, preferring to eat a brown-bag lunch at my desk to maximize my free time outside. There was no shortage of heavily discounted clothing stores nearby. In my brief break to freedom, I felt almost giddy as I examined racks of paisley miniskirts, acid-green tunics and purple bell-bottom slacks, treating myself to a purchase after every biweekly paycheck—a complete disconnect from life inside the building. Even during New York’s most unbearably hot and humid days, those fifty minutes brought me back to the “normal” world I’d return to at home in the evening, first strengthening me for the hours of work that lay ahead.
I spent one more summer at the VA—same Rose, same full-timers. The war had escalated by 1968, and I noticed that I was hearing more psychiatric reports on the Vietnam vets, more references to battles with drugs, more prescribing of pills. There was no escaping war or its aftermath, which the vets carried back home. The war was also becoming personal for me. Ricky, a red-haired, freckle-faced kid I grew up with in Queens, was in Vietnam then, and so was my cousin Michael (a cigarette lighter in his chest pocket later deflected a well-aimed bullet). One year later, the draft lottery would hover like a bird of prey over Bob and Bill, my boyfriend, now my husband.
Recently, trying to learn the fate of that VA building, I found a reference in a 1998 New York Times real estate article. “An old Veterans Administration ambulatory care center, at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 25th Street, is being converted into housing,” I read. Although curious, I can’t bring myself to return to that location, knowing it will be unrecognizable, the mural probably whitewashed or, much more likely, the entire building torn down and replaced with a luxury high-rise.
I felt lucky when I was assigned to the VA, knowing it meant a steady summer paycheck, but my compensation was long-lasting and I remain grateful for that job—one like no other before or since. My experience with the veterans began as a disembodied physical connection running through a wire to my head and evolved into a much deeper connection, which has continued to pull me towards those profoundly affected by war.
In 1995 on a train ride from Bath to London, my husband and I had a chance encounter with a British WWII vet who had been imprisoned by the Japanese in Burma. For two hours, Fergus Anckorn, a slightly built, soft-spoken man, held us spellbound as he recounted his harrowing, near-death experiences when he was forced to build the railroad made famous in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Bill and I hung on every word, oblivious to everything else—the passing scenery, the conductor’s announcement, the flow of passengers on and off the train, the heat, our own hunger and thirst. As soon as we returned to our hotel, we wrote furiously, combining what we both recalled to reconstruct, as faithfully as possible, his remarkable narrative.
“I never hated anyone, even when I was being beaten,” he said. “Almost all my mates died—it wouldn’t be right for them if I spent my life hating, would it?” As he shook his head slowly several times, a strand of sandy-gray hair fell onto his brow, and I noticed then his face was nearly unlined.
Fergus told us that he had recently traveled to Japan with other veterans on the invitation of their government. “We were treated like heroes wherever we went. We talked to schoolchildren, everyone we met, even some former prison guards. Most people had no idea of what had happened to us—they wept when they heard our stories. Some people here, even our vets, criticized me for befriending the Japanese, saying I dishonored the memory of those who died. I feel the opposite. I blame no one. It was just the war.”
I hadn’t written down contact information or even noted the spelling of his name, but felt a nagging need to track down Fergus after we returned home. Through a “six degrees of separation” adventure, I managed to have a letter personally delivered to him in England, and we have been in touch ever since—now by email. Participating in a peace-themed poetry reading, I had the opportunity to tell his story. He’s ninety-six now, but up until his late eighties he traveled the world, speaking in his quiet, deliberate way to people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. He even visited the site of his torture and told me that afterward his lifelong nightmares finally stopped. I can’t help wondering if the American veterans whose stories I heard were also able to put their demons to rest, and why war burns some to hatred and cauterizes others to forgiveness.
Once while browsing in the library, I came upon After the Noise of Saigon, the first poetry collection of Walt McDonald. Reading that the author served as a US Air Force pilot from 1957 to 1971 and was then a college professor of poetry, I once again felt an overwhelming need to contact him. This time it was easy. For several years, we exchanged long letters about the writing life.
In his first letter to me, sent by US mail and dated September 9, 1998, he wrote: “I came to poetry late, as a middle-aged Air Force pilot, after Vietnam. After some of my friends went off to Vietnam, and one was shot down, then another, I felt a need to say something to them, or about them. I turned to poems when nothing else worked; I could talk with their wives or widows, but my first stumbling attempts were like letters to the dead, or to someone unable to hear, like a poem I wrote for my little daughter when I got my own orders to Vietnam …. As a young pilot, when I applied to teach English at the Air Force Academy, all I wanted to do was hang around some of the best-used language in the world, some of the most moving, exciting words I’d ever heard—and to share them with others.”
Words are what make the difference, I realize, thinking about that summer at the VA. Isn’t that what the so-called talking cure is all about? Isn’t that why I have to write about my summers at the Veterans Administration now? The outpatient vets came, the psychologists and psychiatrists summarized the sessions in their oral reports, and I played my role recording them. Words and more words—and I wonder, where are those words now and the lives behind those words?
My mother had told Bob and me as children that my father won her heart with his eloquent letters written almost daily as he rode through Europe with his convoy. As Alzheimer’s began to rob him of language, I steeled myself and took the plunge, not knowing what to expect from the veteran who never talked about the war. I untied the fragile blue ribbons around the bundled letters, and read them one by one. A few letters a week become one a day, as essential to my father as breathing. Though there may be noise and confusion all around, reading a letter from you lifts my heart with an intense joy, he wrote. I don’t have my mother’s replies, but later on my dad wrote: Love is a fire that must be nourished or it will die.
Through Normandy, Poland, Czechoslovakia his truck rumbled, and every day he wrote his thoughts down, sealed the envelope, and mailed the letter off across the ocean. In ravaged Rouen, where dad carried messages to a hospital, then lost his way back, he wrote:
I passed blocks of debris, the spot where St. Joan of Arc died, a French soldier making a watercolor painting of a ruined church—then all at once I found myself where I wanted to be. Now it is late evening, darling. I sit here, reading your letter over and over. Tell me you won’t lose courage.
I believe that it was the courage of the wounded who kept returning, week after week, seeking solace and some kind of meaning that made such an impression on the girl I was. Hearing and typing their stories was the work of my own becoming, and these stories still resonate as the narrative of my life unfolds.