The tropical breezes of Pearl Harbor offer no relief from the relentless Hawaiian sun. I am standing on the windy deck of the USS Missouri. In my pocket is an orange Parker Duofold fountain pen and my father's sterling silver airman's wings from World War Two. Our tour guide, "Doc," is a masterful storyteller, regaling our group with facts and lore about the big ship that have us all hanging on his next word. I am discovering that almost every nook and cranny of this fifty thousand ton battleship has a story to tell.
Our first stop on the tour is the foredeck just under turret number one. Under foot are miles of teak boards and over my shoulder are six sixteen-inch guns mounted on the two forward gun turrets. Each of the gun barrels reaches out over sixty feet and is capable of tossing a two thousand, seven hundred pound projectile (think a VW Bug) over twenty miles with formidable accuracy.
As I round the starboard side of the turret, I cannot help but reach up and slap it. Just as I figured, it is like slapping a steel mountain. There is not an ounce of resonance, no sound sans my flesh contacting battle-hardened metal, nothing. The steel mountain of a gun turret juxtaposed with the teak wood deck is a poetic partnering.
We escape the tropical midday heat by ducking into the combat engagement center where Doc entertains us with stories of tomahawk missiles over Beirut and of the movie stars who have sat in this room. The actual markings from the last time this room was used in "real life" are still on the grease board.
The guided tour finishes up on the surrender deck, the place I really came to see. Under the canopy is a display case protecting a copy of the Instrument of Surrender signed by commanders of the Allied forces and the representatives of the Japanese government to end WWII. There is one other item in the case: an orange Parker Duofold fountain pen.
On September 2, 1945 Allied military leaders and representatives of the Japanese government met to conduct the surrender ceremony. At 8:59 AM General MacArthur stepped out of Admiral Halsey's quarters and was angered that the Japanese contingent had still not arrived on the ceremony deck. Offended, he took a step back into the admiral's cabin and waited three minutes before exiting, forcing the Japanese to wait for him and not vice versa.
Prior to the ceremony General MacArthur ordered that all officers were to wear everyday khakis, not their dress uniforms. He said that we were in our work clothes when we had been forced into the war on the morning of December 7th, 1941 and we would end it the same way.
In Tokyo Bay that day the Allies assembled an armada of several hundred ships and an even greater number of aircraft. Aboard the Missouri almost all anti-aircraft batteries were armed and manned in case of a surprise kamikaze attack, and fighter planes circled high overhead, keeping a lookout for incoming enemy aircraft. Had the signing not gone as planned or if the Japanese contingent failed to capitulate, General MacArthur was prepared to bring the war to downtown Tokyo. From the muzzles of her sixteen-inch guns to the Japanese Imperial Palace was 22.8 miles, well within Mighty Mo's striking distance.
At 9:02 AM, as thousands of sailors and officers looked on, the parties took their positions and twenty-three minutes after the ceremony commenced, it was over.
A famous quote states, "Behind every great man there's a great woman." Behind General MacArthur was a great woman with an orange Parker Duofold. Prior to leaving for his mission to oversee the Japanese surrender, Jean, the General's wife, took her pen from her purse and handed it to him. This was her everyday pen, the one she used when she wrote checks for the groceries. She asked her husband to use the pen during the ceremony. There were five pens used that day. The first two were given to General Jonathan Wainwright and British General Percival. Two of the remaining pens are part of the collection at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, VA. Jean's original Parker Duofold was lost (stolen) in the years following the ceremony. Currently on display at the MacArthur Memorial is a commemorative version of the orange Parker Duofold.
I study the orange Parker Duofold on display with the surrender documents on the USS Missouri, trying to discern as many details as possible. After a few minutes I take a seat on a bench, bathed in the essence of saltwater, machine oil and diesel fumes. I unfold my notebook and with my own orange Parker Duofold start to write.
There are three smells that can linger in my nose for hours. The first is a burn victim. The stench of charred flesh will stay with me for up to a day, even affecting the way my food tastes. The second is GI bleeding, and because of the nature of this publication and some of the gentler sensitivities of some readers, I will not expound. The third is nursing homes. The strained attempts to both clean and mask the odors of the deteriorating and dying are unforgettable and at times unforgivable. The baseline olfactory insult is urine, then urine and bleach and finally urine and pine cleaner and bleach. The gist here is that the urine stink never goes away; it just morphs into a mélange of funk.
It was a boring ambulance day, doing routine transports, what we called the "nursing home shuffle." During shifts like this my partner and I would find ourselves restless, hoping that our next call would be something "good," getting us out of the nursing home-to-hospital loop. We wanted action but there was none for us this day.
The dispatch to the nursing home usually came with instructions on where to park our ambulance. Knowing most of the nursing homes in my zone, I knew when I could break the rules. The instructions were usually to pull around back, which was fine in some cases if "around back" was not the laundry loading dock with a clear view of the dumpsters. No way. In those cases my bright, shiny ambulance would occupy the front driveway and my patients would feel sunshine on their faces and smell as much fresh air as I could muster up for them.
I viewed my job as not only providing the best medical care as possible but also bringing as much dignity and compassion to the situation as I was capable of. Some people (staff and administrators) just needed a little push in the dignity and compassion direction. I have no problem giving that nudge.
All of this was before I understood the business of ambulance/EMS. These routine transports were either paying customers or a negotiated contract with the nursing home. Either way it was a positive cash flow issue. The calls provided more income for the company than emergency calls, which were usually run at a loss. I do not think it would have changed the way I did things but ignorance was bliss. I always wondered why my boss was usually mad at me.
For my part I am not indicting the entire nursing home industry. I now realize there are many good and caring people fighting the good fight every day for their patients. The problem is the classic "one bad apple" syndrome. Some of the staff are barely keeping things together with minimal resources and when a staff member comes along who does not pull their weight, a whole cascade effect takes place.
I know this because my mother, in the twilight of her career as a nurse, became a weekend supervisor in a nursing home, often caring for patients younger than herself. She would tell me stories of lazy and uncaring staff members and how their indifference caused caregiving across the board to be compromised.
The patients we transported were usually bent up and contracted with dried egg on their faces and urine-soaked diapers underneath them. We were doing them a favor by getting them out of their imposed and subsidized hell and into a hospital where the nursing care was better and where I knew they would be made clean and kept warm and dry. I can remember on more than a dozen occasions mustering the staff to assist in moving a patient either because of size or angulated contracted positioning, only to be met with, "They don't talk anyway; just do it yourself." That is one of my "buttons" and when it is pressed what happens next is not pretty, but to my credit I do stop short of bloodshed or criminal charges.
These brief but intense encounters, when I would impose my will on the nursing home staff, were more often than not followed up with a phone call to my boss from some administrative wonk at the facility. The nice part was on return trips I seldom had to ask twice for assistance with moving the next patient. That was the part I loved about these days. We were doing good work for people who were weak and could not stand up for themselves. Many of these folk were alone in the world and for that hour we could be their champions. My boss became very adept at fielding the calls he got from the nursing homes' management.
We finished our third or fourth transport and then grabbed lunch, already knowing our next assignment was to head back to Heaven's Gate nursing home for another transport to St. Elsewhere. I did get the "please be nice" speech from the office before heading back.
As a result of the type of calls we were running, the disappointment in our voices became apparent on the radio and would cause a cacophony of mic clicks when the other crews would hear our next dispatch boning. It was my colleagues' friendly way of saying hahahahah. I never really minded because it was usually me starting the chorus when other crews were having our kind of shift.
We pulled our stretcher and made our way to the nurses' station to find out that this next patient was coming from the Adult Congregate Living Facility side of the place. These patients were in better health and were more functional, allowing a supervised but more independent living situation.
We maneuvered the stretcher through the urine bouquet hallway to the Pine-Sol paradise of the ACLF wing. The door opened slightly from the couple of knocks I gave it. "Hello, ambulance," I announced. The man inside responded with, "Enter." We did and realized we could leave the stretcher outside. "Have a seat," the voice coming from the bathroom offered. "I have just a couple of more things to pack." Arranged neatly within the walls of the ten-by-ten room was a lifetime's worth of memories.
My partner sat and I stood. The man exited the bathroom with his dope kit in one hand and some clothes in the other. He put them both into his suitcase that was sitting open on his freshly made bed. "I just need a few more minutes," he said as he walked around gathering things. The room was done in dark wood and paint. The bed was to the right with its headboard against the wall and a curtained window halfway down its length. Against an opposite wall was a writing table with an integrated bookcase that went to the ceiling. A well-worn wooden chair completed the ensemble.
Pictures and books filled the bookcase. There were assorted photos that I assumed were family. At eye level was a photo that suddenly grabbed my attention. It was a famous photo taken on the deck of the battleship Missouri. I initially thought it was odd and out of place with all of the family- oriented pictures. The photo depicted the signing of the declaration of surrender in Tokyo Bay. In the picture you can see Japanese generals sitting across the table from General MacArthur. Flanking the ceremonial table were rows of officers and enlisted men. On the gun turrets were journalists and dignitaries.
The patient closed his suitcase and was about ready to leave when I commented on the picture and how I had seen it in most of my history books growing up. With that, the gentleman took a few steps to his left, turned toward the bookcase and drew his index finger to the picture. He pointed to one of the officers flanking the table and said, "That's me." I was humbled and silent. For years I have been looking at this man's face and now he was within inches of me.
The hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck. I was in the company of somebody who had a front row seat to one of the greatest moments in history. The moment he witnessed brought to a close a war that is being analyzed by military scholars to this day. I do not remember talking much during the ride to the hospital. I was probably still in awe but I have carried that memory with me my entire life.
Hope Springs Eternal
My father never spoke of his experiences in WWII before he died. Hell, we never spoke about much of anything before he died. In the grand scheme of things, I always believed I was the result of a fun-filled weekend at the Jersey shore. Following my mother's death last year, my brothers all but confirmed my suspicions.
You see, I came along late in the game. My mother was thirty-eight when I was born. The family already consisted of twins, age eight, and my oldest brother, age thirteen. By the time my umbilical cord was severed and I drew my first breath, my father was done being a dad. His plan did not call for a baby at that stage of his life and growing up I learned that the hard way. However, I had always hung on to the hope that as I made my way in the world we would evolve and grow into an adult father-child relationship.
Alexander Pope wrote that, "Hope springs eternal." It certainly was the case with me. He died when I was twenty-two, putting an end to my hope. I never had the chance to talk with him about the war and the things he experienced, and I carry that void to this day. In retrospect, that patient was a connection to my father, or at least to a major event in my father's life. Meeting this man further served to fuel my sense that there is a "connectivity" that runs through people, history and events that in some cosmic way binds all of us together.
Through the years, I worked a lot and wrote a little, and thankfully met and started dating my wife. During our early years I toyed with writing, but made no serious attempts. At some point the "pen bug" bit me. I loved pens. Cheap, expensive, fancy, plain: it did not matter.
I first spied the Parker during a trip through Atlanta. We were returning from a vacation in the mountains of north Georgia and I convinced my fiancé to let me sneak off the highway in Atlanta for what I promised was a quick stop into a very big pen store. The store had the biggest selection of pens I had ever seen under one roof. It was all there. Pens I had only seen in pictures were now smiling back at me from well-lit display cases. There were pens for fat into the thousands and others for under a hundred. There was much drool.
The Parker case held my desire. The Duofold reclined in its velvet cradle with the confidence of a prizefighter and the allure of a smoky gin joint brunette. If it had had hips they would have been wiggling a happy hello. This pen oozed passion and confidence. I could tell it had the ability to put down words that would make the world sit up and take notice. It begged to write seven figure checks and sign autographs. Every wand chooses its wizard and this pen chose me. In a moment my ever-practical fiancé brought me in for a hard landing by letting me know it was too expensive. We moved on. There was very little buying that day but all the necessary seeds were planted.
Money was tight in the early years and the first fountain pen my future wife bought me was a Waterman. I love that pen and use it often to this day. However, it was not my dream pen.
A few holidays passed, money was a little more abundant and my fiancé was now my wife. The day came when a present I opened had the familiar "Parker" logo on the box. Inside was my "pendom" holy grail, the orange Parker Duofold fountain pen. It has not inked any seven-figure contracts yet and the only autographs are on the checks I send out at the end of the month, but I still love this pen.
My desire for the orange Parker Duofold started before I knew there was a MacArthur/WWII connection and I did not discover the story until years after owning the pen. I simply wanted that pen because of style and reputation.
I carried that orange Parker Duofold with me today during the tour of the Missouri. I stood on the spot where my patient stood during the signing of the surrender and for a moment the circle was complete. I paused, put down the pen and started thinking about my father, my patient and the threads of life that bind us all.
Better writers than me have inked fantastic essays on fate, serendipity and degrees of separation. This story has been my effort to add another small voice to that large body of work.
When I put it all down on paper it looks like this: that man, that photo, my father, that war, MacArthur's wife, my wife, this ship, my work and a pen that runs through it.
On a recent Saturday morning I found myself making the rounds of two local post offices in an attempt to find one open. Having failed at both and more than a bit annoyed, I left post office number two and started walking back to my truck. Suddenly I noticed a license plate on the front of a car that read, "BB 63 USS Missouri Sept. 2nd 1945 Tokyo Bay." I walked back inside and found the owner. His name was Frank and he served on the Missouri during WWII as a gunners mate in turret number one. He was on board the ship during the surrender ceremony. We talked for about twenty minutes. I thanked him, shook his hand and then made my way back out to my truck. Sitting there, not really going anyplace, I thought to myself, "One more thread."
Last, but by no means least, courage, moral courage, the courage of one's convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It's the age-old struggle, the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.
I would like to thank the following for their assistance:
Harold "Doc" Simpson, My tour guide on the USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Reggie Johnson, Tour guide USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Stephen Kavalin has been an EMT/Paramedic since 1980. He completed his undergraduate education in nursing at the University of Florida in 1992, and then became employed at Shands Hospital (Gainesville, FL) in the Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit. During this time he also became the lead paramedic instructor and interim program director for EMS at Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, FL. He later completed his Masters Degree in Anesthesiology at Barry University in Miami, FL and is currently employed as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) at Winnie Palmer Hospital, Orlando, FL.