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The New Patient

For her, the war had never been personal, but the new patient had fought there and been wounded.

On a hot Friday afternoon in the summer of 1970, a young nursing student left work at the VA hospital, and hurried out to the nearby bus stop on First Avenue. The usual stop-and-go Friday traffic appeared to be stuck on stop. From the open windows of a gypsy cab came the sound of an all-news station.

“In other national news, a Defense Department spokesman said 18,000 of the 31,000 US troops ordered into Cambodia by President Nixon have been withdrawn.”

Before this summer, news about Vietnam had been little more than the background noise to her life. She wanted the war to end—had worked at a student-nurse-run aide station during the Wall Street riots—but cared most about those serving over there, and wept when the weekly list of U.S. fatalities appeared on TV. But the war had never been personal. Now things were different. The new patient had fought, and been wounded, over there.

“Investigations are continuing into the killing of protesters at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Authorities are discounting recent allegations by Mississippi officials that both incidents were started by snipers firing from student dorms.”

Two weeks ago, the South had been just a blur to her. Now, that had also changed. She’d met someone from there—the new patient.

The noisy arrival of an over-crowded bus drowned out any more news. In Gwen Kaplan’s opinion, getting on a city bus during rush hour was a form of hand-to-hand combat. People in front and back pushed and shoved while you battled to hang onto the handrail and whatever you were carrying plus your tokens or exact change, and good luck finding a seat.

She had to stand on the First Avenue bus and then on the long subway ride, but lucked out and found a seat on the Q65A Queens Transit bus. All she had to do now was endure the pothole-filled ride from the subway stop in upper crust Forest Hills to her home in working-class Flushing. Well, that and endure the usual welcome home grilling from Mrs. Esther Katz and Mrs. Irene Goldman.

As Gwen got off the bus, the ladies were in their accustomed spots on the front stoop of their four-story, brick apartment building. They tabled whatever subject had been under discussion to give Gwen their undivided attention.

"Evening, doll. Hi ya doing?" asked Mrs. Katz, who had known the newcomer all her life.

"You always look so nice in your pretty nurse's uniform,” gushed Mrs. Goldman. “So tell me, dear, do you still like working at the VA?"

"Yes ma'am," replied Gwen, in a brief, consolidated response to all their questions. Both women had well-deserved reputations for knowing practically everything about everyone who lived in the building. This included Gwen’s summer job as a nurse tech at the Manhattan Veteran’s hospital.

"Those old vets aren't giving you a hard time, are they?" Mrs. Katz gave her a knowing wink.

"You know they are, Esther," teased Mrs. Goldman. "I mean, as cute as she is, especially with those pretty legs of hers and the short skirts all the young girls wear these days."

Gwen felt her skin flush under the appraisal. “Now, Mrs. Goldman, remember I'm working on an ophthalmology ward. Most of the patients are pretty old and have such bad eyesight they couldn’t tell if I even had on a skirt, much less notice its length."

Of course, that most definitely did not include the new, twenty-something patient. But no way would she ever mention that to these two gossips.

As the ladies teased her about “dirty old vets,” Gwen made a show of checking her watch. “I hate to scoot, but I really need to change before Danny comes for me.”

Avoiding the inevitable questions about when she and her longtime boyfriend were getting married, Gwen said her goodbyes and headed inside. They’d be waiting for her on Monday morning, but she didn’t mind. She’d be heading back to work, back to the new patient, the one wounded in Vietnam—the tall, charming Southerner named Mark Cahill.


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