Holiday In Hell

E. M. Schmoll

© Copyright 2005 by E. M. Schmoll

As I lay on my cot, locked in an Army hospital building with only an empty iron lung for company, ten thousand miles from home, I wondered--as do so many of us unhappy with the holidays—what I had done to deserve this terrible fate.  Merry Christmas?

I had traveled for almost a month from Boston to the Philippine Islands to join my husband, a Chief Warrant Officer, after waiting to be with him for a year and a half.  It was four days on the train to San Francisco, five days waiting to go aboard, and seventeen days on a huge Army transport ship.  At one point we had encountered a typhoon in the middle of the Pacific, and (after going up on deck, against orders) I had been almost washed overboard.  Someone heard my screams as I hung onto the bottom railing—legs dangling over the side—and came to my aid.  If you have ever seen seventy-foot waves, then you can imagine my terror!

Upon our arrival in Manila, the searing heat hit me like a blow.  After a while, I realized that the weather was bearable only between three and six a.m.  However, my beloved husband was at the dock, waiting to take me to our new home.

It was a twelve-hour journey by Jeep to the northern part of Luzon, the main island—during which Charles and I and our vehicle were kidnapped at gunpoint (but later released unharmed).  This was late 1946, and rebels and Communists were running rampant, robbing and murdering innocent civilians.

The trouble had started in Chicago, between trains:  Although I had had a dental checkup prior to leaving home, I was assaulted suddenly by a painful abscessed tooth.   So after finally arriving in San Francisco—waiting to ship out from the Port of Embarkation—I dashed over to the Army clinic.  They treated the problem, but advised me to see a dentist as soon as I arrived at my destination.  (So much for the 27 pre-travel inoculations punched into my arms for good health!)

This was not as simple as it sounds, as the dental clinic was being moved to another area on the post.  The delay of two more weeks caused the dentist to confirm the diagnosis:  “This tooth is poisoning your whole system and has to come out.  Also, I have to inject you with half a million units of penicillin immediately.”

Okay; but at that time nobody realized what antibiotics could do to cause harm to an unsuspecting patient.  Six weeks later, I broke out all over in large welts, one on top of the other, most about four inches in diameter, with painful itching that was unbearable.  My husband took me to the dispensary; and the diagnosis was elephantiasis!

If you have ever seen the movie or play, The Elephant Man, then you know what a horrible disease I was faced with, and that there was no treatment or cure.  So that was how I ended up in the hospital, a row of long, narrow, wooden buildings, each isolated from the others.

I was locked in, and on a diet of grapefruit and toast.  Someone brought breakfast before I awoke, and also took it away before I awoke.  A nurse came to see me once a day to give words of comfort and encouragement, to no avail.  My husband, who was terrified of contracting the dreaded condition, refused to visit.

So there I was on Christmas Day, all alone, far from home, locked in a dreary building; with no dinner, no Christmas tree, no gifts, no visitors, and no hope.

While lying there suffering, physically and emotionally, I thought back to when my husband had been sent overseas for the planned invasion of Japan in 1945.  We had been married for only eight months; but military wives were expected to keep their spirits on an even keel in those days, so I accepted the situation and made the best of it.  When my turn came to join Charles, housing having become available, I was overjoyed.

However, our marriage was not in any way like the one we had had in Boston:  He had changed into a sullen, morose individual, refusing to sleep with me, and staying out late most evenings playing poker with his fellow officers.  There were five thousand American men on the base, and only about twenty women; so his treatment of his wife was a puzzle to all, and especially to me.  My husband was twenty years older than I, but I was very much in love.
I remembered our first night together after my long, arduous trip.  I had put on a sexy, sheer, black nightgown; but Charles, pointing to the twin beds, just curtly remarked:  “That is your bed, and this one is mine.”

One night we had an argument over him going out again, and I stated that I was going to go with him. He quietly said, “All right,” let me go out the door ahead of him, and proceeded to lock me out.  Angrily I started walking away from our hut, although it was dark and it was forbidden to walk anywhere at night—snakes (human and otherwise) being considered a severe problem in the area.  My clothing consisted of only a sundress and thongs, and I was fair game when five wild mountain dogs attacked me.  As they surrounded me, I picked up gravel, throwing it in a circle around me, hoping to fend them off.  As they jumped me, scratching my thighs and arms, I was terrified; but approaching headlights on a nearby road caused them to turn and run.  I also ran, for my life, about a block, and stumbled up to the first building I saw, pummeling the door.  It turned out to belong to the base Fire Chief, Andy, from New York City; and he was astounded at this apparition on his doorstep.  He pulled me inside, thinking that I had been in a vehicle accident.  Shocked at my story, he laid me on his cot and took care of my wounds.   He had heard the tales of abuse being circulated in the camp, and offered to send me home to stay with his mother until his tour was over.  But I refused, insisting that I loved my husband.

So he offered to drive me back to my quarters; but I was afraid of Charles’ reaction at this point, and asked Andy to drop me off about a block behind the hut.  Warily, keeping an eye out for snakes, and inwardly quaking, I made my way home.  My husband asked where I had been; and for the first time, made bold by the kindness and generosity of the Fire Chief, I gave him a bold answer:  “You locked me out, so it is none of your business!”

To this day, I am extremely frightened of dogs, even small ones; and most of my friends who have canine pets cannot understand this fear.

The Island was strange to me, flat and drab, and I had never seen such awful poverty.  Most of the natives lived in small shacks, without running water.  I did like our little house, though it had no windows, just screening for walls, with roll-down bamboo shades to keep out the rains.  Also, there was only one faucet in the sinks:  COLD.  But the main reason for my unhappiness was the strange behavior of my husband, as he stayed out almost every night until long after midnight, playing poker in a “club” in the jungle with his male friends.  He was hardly ever at home with me; and I was more lonesome than I had been in Boston by myself.  He would actually drive past the house at lunchtime, when I would excitedly jump up to fix a meal, but then he would just keep going on by, without even a wave.

 He did not want me, but, like a “dog in a manger,” he did not want anyone else to have me, either.  He read all my mail, had my phone conversations listened in on, and had me followed when I drove around in his extra Jeep.  I was allowed to go only to the commissary, post exchange, or dispensary.

 One evening, when he took me to a dinner-dance at the Officers Club, I was sickened by the insects flying around the light over our outdoor table, and the ants crawling between our plates.  After the meal, Charles left for the outdoor patio to play poker, and I sat in a booth alone. A Marine Captain came over and asked me to dance.  I was delighted; but we had barely stepped out on the floor when my husband showed up and socked my partner to the ground.  No one ever again asked me to dance; and that night, I waited for six hours for a ride home with my surly mate.

 All these weird events floated through my mind during the long days and nights of suffering in that dreary hospital.

 Finally, a doctor newly arrived from the States resolved that a new medicine named Benadryl might help, and it was flown in from Manila.  I believe it was the first histamine blocker on the market, a lotion to be slathered all over the body several times a day to relieve the itching, swelling, and pain.

 As I lay there alone on Christmas Day, I thought about the constant misery since my arrival in this strange land:  the flying insects that even got into our beds at night, despite heavy mosquito netting; the ants that crawled relentlessly through the house, biting my ankles and covering the ice chest despite daily spraying with DDT bombs; the monkeys that tossed our trash cans and swiped our clean laundry; the silver-dollar-size spiders with four-inch-long legs and the amazing ability to hop two feet in the air and a distance of ten feet; and not to forget the huge, winged cockroaches who devoured all my clothing.

 And worst of all, my encounter with sharks in the China Sea!

 This had occurred on a sunny, hot (100 degrees, and always humid and sticky) day after another cold conversation with my husband.  Rejected and angry, I decided to walk down the cliff to the beach.  As I swam past the raft, forgetful in my emotional upheaval of the warnings about sharks in the sunken battleships offshore, I kept on going, although I was not a strong swimmer.  Suddenly, I heard shots ring out.  I looked up to the top of the cliff, where the Officers Club was perched, and realized immediately what was happening:  The sharks were chasing a lone swimmer—me!--and the men on the patio were trying to save me from a grisly death.
 It seems as though I was suddenly on an Olympian surge, my body flying over the water returning to that raft.  By this time, sirens were approaching, and a boat was putting out from the beach.  Of course, Charles heard about my faux pas, and I was duly punished.

 So perhaps being alone in the hospital was not much worse than being at home in our tiny Quonset hut.  But the constant heat and humidity of the Islands were enervating, and there was no such relief as air-conditioning in those days.  Also, having spent all of my twenty-two years in Boston, I was used to Christmases with lots of snow and ice, skiing and skating.

 Never having been away from my parents and brothers, I felt like someone adrift at sea; and there was no way to phone home.  Sometimes I thought:  Oh, if only that iron lung could speak!

 As the days dragged on, the Benadryl, rest, and diet improved my condition, and the doctors eventually decided that I was not afflicted with elephantiasis, after all, but only a severe allergic reaction to the penicillin.  After a few weeks that seemed like an eternity, the ward was unlocked and I was allowed to leave.

 I felt lucky to have escaped such a horrible fate; but will never forget that sad and lonesome Holiday in Hell.

 So—if you are having a tough time with Christmas—tired from all the shopping and wrapping, decorating and baking; stressed out because relatives are visiting or not visiting; lonely and depressed, overworked and overdrawn—remember my story, and count your blessings.

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