An Airplane Ride Without Clothes

Marian Robertson

© Copyright 2005 by Marian Robertson

The plane trip that generated this story was only a small part of a longer story of a teenager with a cough no one could diagnose, through the experiences with Army hospitals and eventually to surgeries for an unlikely cancer.  This story is a small part of a lifetime of adventure, misadventure, and survival of the highest order.

In late May of 1962, before I had been married two months, I was admitted to the hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, with pneumonia.  The doctor, a kaki clad captain with a crisp white medical coat hanging open over his uniform, explained, “You have an abscess in the lower lobe of your left lung that will take three or four months of hospitalization to heal.”  He held his pencil like a pointer and showed us the light area on the x-ray that the abscess encompassed.

 On June 5, 1962, after lying for almost two weeks in the sweltering small Army hospital built of attached single story World War II barracks, the Army scheduled me to fly to Colorado.  My doctors, all U. S. Army officers, decided to send me to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado.  They explained to my husband and me that I needed to go to Fitzsimons because it was the “lung capitol of the world.”  They explained that respiratory problems from all over the world were sent there because the doctors had more experience in dealing with them than any other hospital.

 The nurse who setup medical transports came to me the day before I was to be moved and explained that I would be flying on a MATS (Military Air Transport Service) hospital plane.  “Although you’re ambulatory, your deep chest cough might make the other passengers and patients on the plane afraid they will catch something from you; so we have decided that you will fly on a stretcher.”  A tall not yet nineteen year old, I thought, I wonder how that would make my cough less contagious sounding.

During the almost two weeks that I had been in the hospital, I had worn, in rotation, my assorted frilly shorty pajamas, and the one knee length gossamer nightgown my mother had insisted I buy as part of my trousseau.  When one of my doctors, a captain, had suggested that I might like to wear more conservative nightwear so that my husband would find his visits to me easier, I had replied, very sincerely – and very naively, “These are all I have.”  I didn’t share my dad’s comments before I was wed, ‘If you showed up in my bedroom in what you wear around here at home, I’d throw you out.’

A few minutes before I was to leave the hospital, the woman who had explained the traveling procedure to me brought me a pair of wrinkled cotton men’s Army issue pajamas accompanied by a matching knee length seersucker bathrobe for the trip since the nighties and peignoirs I had were “Not really the thing to wear for the trip.”  She explained, “The Army does not issue women’s pajamas so this is all we have for you to wear.”

I tried on the bottoms, which had a fly, without a snap on it, that went all the way to the inseam.  They were baggy, didn’t close in the front, and would have tangled my long legs in bed; I wadded them up and lobbed them over the bed into the corner.  They would be uncomfortable.  I viewed myself in the mirror of the dresser in the room.  The top covered my panties, like a nightshirt.  I show less leg than that in shorts, I reasoned.  I put on the striped seersucker robe and folded it over in front tying it with the matching tie.  That looks acceptable.  Who will know whether I have those uncomfortable baggy bottoms on or not?

When it came time to pack the little cosmetic case I would be taking for the trip, I put in Don’s clock radio, which had been my main entertainment for two weeks.  It took up all but the amount of space I would need for my few odds and ends of makeup – lipstick, eyebrow pencil, mascara, eyelash curler, and light blue eye shadow, some underwear, and the paperback book Dark Brother I was reading.  I won’t need clothes because I’m flying into Denver and Mom and Dad can bring me something.  I haven’t been dressed in two weeks; so a few more days without clothes I can’t wear won’t make any difference, I reasoned to myself.  My mom, dad, and sister lived only seventy-five miles from Fitzsimons and I anticipated an early then frequent visits from them.

A corpsman wheeled a gurney into my room and said, “Hop on.”  I hopped on the padded white sheet covered contraption and he wrapped the white cotton blankets around me allowing my arms to rest on top of the cover.  The nurses packed up my medicine and medical records, tucked them under the blanket on the stretcher, and I was wheeled outside to a waiting large green military ambulance with a red cross painted on the side.  The double doors were opened and two sturdy corpsmen shoved my stretcher in.  I rode looking up at all of the medical stuff stored at the sides, rolling from side to side as the awkward top heavy vehicle would go around corners.  The interior of the large box was painted Army green.  All of the drawers and metal boxes were Army green.  It had two small windows in the back doors which let in a small amount of light from that end, and the front was open so the corpsmen driving it could tend to me if needed.  I wished I had my book out of my suitcase.

When they started to unload me I asked, “Could I have my book out of my suitcase?”  One of the ambulance personnel got it out and handed it to me.

Thank you.”  I put it under the blanket so it wouldn’t be in the way as they carried me up the narrow portable stairway and maneuvered me into the side door of the plane.

The plane was a small twin engine prop plane with MATS in large letters on the side.  It had a large red cross in a white circle on the side and said “Hospital.”   Inside on the left side there were racks for six stretchers – two columns wide and three rows high.  On the other side were regular passenger seats two deep with six or eight rows.  There were a number of nurses and corpsmen to take care of the patients.  I was put on the top rack in the back stack of stretchers.  I watched with interest as they brought five more patients on stretchers and hooked them onto the wall beside and under me.  They looked really sick.  Two young men seemed to have tubes coming out of them everywhere.  They had been in the other ambulance that left the Fort Harrison Hospital at the same time I did.  My corpsman said they had been in a nasty car wreck.  I felt like a malingerer lying on a stretcher when I felt fine.  The pneumonia I had checked into the hospital with was gone; except that I had a loud rattling cough that came all the way from my belly button as I coughed up revolting green slime.

It was the first time I had ever flown alone.  I had never flown on a small plane so it interested me.  I looked around at the other passengers wondering why they were all going to Fitzsimons.  My head was toward the front of the plane so I had to struggle onto my stomach, turning in place so as not to fall off the stretcher, to look toward the open door of the cockpit to try to see the pilots.  My insides revved up right along with the plane’s engines the thrill going all the way to my toes.  When the engines sped up to rocket speed just before it zoomed down the runway and lifted off the ground, I laughed right out loud.
As the small airplane droned along above the clouds, it thrilled me when it would hit an air pocket and bounce and I would hit the ceiling, like driving down a bumpy road too fast.  The stretcher was so close to the ceiling I couldn’t sit up and read.  It was about twenty-four inches from the ceiling, which made it hard to do anything but roll on my side to read, or just lie there.

Before I knew it, the plane was landing, but it wasn’t landing at Lowery Air Force base in Denver.  It was landing on Scott Air Force Base at Belleville, Illinois.  I figured they were stopping to pick up more patients or something.  When they took me off the plane, I figured I was changing planes.  Instead, they put me in another ambulance and took me to a small red brick building that looked like a hospital and deposited me in a room that looked like a hospital room.  “What is this?” I asked.

This is an evacuation station,” said the corpsman helping me from the gurney to the hospital bed.  “In the morning another plane coming through headed for Lowry will pick you up and take you on.”

What a surprise!  Mom and dad are expecting me in Denver, today, and I’m in Belleville, Illinois.

This place wasn’t like a hospital in that there wasn’t a call bell with which I could call a nurse.  There weren’t nurses or corpsmen or anyone else, for that matter, working on the ward in which I found myself.  I was the only one there.  The Twilight Zone, I thought in a ghostly tone of voice.  At suppertime, a young soldier brought me a dinner tray.

What time will I be leaving tomorrow?” I asked.

I don’t know.  I work in the kitchen.”

Thank you,” I told him as he turned to leave.

My food was sitting on the bedside table on a tray, just like at Ft. Harrison.

After supper, I walked up and down the empty dimly lit halls, in my pajama top wrapped in my military hospital robe – barefoot, looking for a telephone.  I found a pay phone and called Don and told him where I was – making sure not to talk more than the three minutes my coin deposit paid for.  Then I called my mom and dad and told them I wasn’t in Denver but would be there the next day.  Before I got through talking to them, the operator came on and told me I had to deposit an additional fifty-five cents.  That was too much.  I was alone, isolated alone, unsure of what was happening with no one to ask.  I cried, deep stress relieving tears from inside the well of my soul.  I blubbered and my nose ran and I had trouble talking in less than a squeak.   I cried because I had tried to talk less than the three minutes allowed by my initial deposit.  I thought they would warn me when my time was up.  As a private just out of basic training, my new husband didn’t have extra money to be spending; so, I had left Ft. Harrison with less than two dollars with no foreseen need for it.  I put in another fifty-five cents and hurried up and finished my words.  I dragged my feet back to my room discouraged.  The euphoria with which I had left Ft. Harrison had evaporated.  I lay in bed and listened to the radio until I fell asleep.  It was cold and I shivered all night under the thin hospital issue bedspread with no one to ask for a blanket.

In the morning, my breakfast materialized carried by another soldier who had no idea when I would be leaving and had no answers.  My lunch materialized the same way.  I couldn’t go anywhere, even if I had clothes, because I didn’t know when they would come get me to put me on the plane to fly on to Denver.

When the soldier delivered my supper, I gave up flying to Denver that day.  “Could I have a blanket?” I asked before he could get away.

Sure.”  He walked out the door and came back within a minute and handed me two green army blankets.

Thank you.”  I was already spreading them on my bed as he left.  I then went back to the pay phone.  I used the last of my change to call Fort Harrison.  “When I get to Denver, I will call you.  I can’t afford to make any more phone calls.”  I called my parents collect and talked very briefly because collect phone calls were expensive.  I went back to my room and got under the warm blankets.

On the third day not too long after my hearty breakfast, personnel materialized to take me to the plane and I flew on into Denver.  I awoke with a terrible cold with a sore throat and runny eyes and nose to go with my existing cough.

It was raining on June 7, 1962, when my plane landed at Lowery Air Force base in Denver.  As they took me, on my stretcher, off of the plane, they threw a transparent plastic sheet over me to keep me dry.

I was put into an ambulance that looked just like the previous three in which I had ridden, driven to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center and entered through what looked to me like a basement garage.  It was dark with bare gray concrete walls and lit with bare light bulbs down the middle of the ceiling.  The corpsman pushing my gurney parked it in a hallway and someone came and got my records and asked a lot of questions.  After I was checked in, I was taken to ward 2-E. and put in an inside room with no window.  There were other patients and nurses.  It was warm.  I was near my family.

My new doctor greeted me that afternoon with, “How are you today?”

I complained, “Terrible.  I have a cold.”

He laughed and said, “Get pneumonia.  We can cure that.”  But he did prescribe something to make me more comfortable.

The trip turned out to be one of the most important trips of my life.  After two surgeries, one to figure out what the problem was and remove a damaged section of lung as big as an orange and one to take the lower lobe of my left lung to make sure there was no more alveolar cell carcinoma left in me, I have been cancer free for forty-three years.

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