Now, about Cagle. He came, fresh meat out of Danang, onto the eye ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital in, it must have been, the summer of ’67. He was a handsome, wiry mountain boy out of Tennessee. In a rice paddy he had endeavored to fire a rifle grenade at several of what were then called “gooks,” but are now more commonly known as “mathematicians.” The grenade exploded on the end of his rifle, and jellied his eyes.
For about three days he lay curled in a ball on his rack, in those blue pajamas they gave us, saying nothing. New blind guys always did that. Then he began to pull out of it. They made them tough in Tennessee.
It turned out Cagle was a natural socialite, connoisseur of poontang, and raconteur extraordinary. He fit right into the life of the ward, which was fairly strange.
There was Jawless, who had taken an AK round in the jaw at Plei Ku, shattering the bone, which had to be removed. While the doctors looked for a replacement jaw, he had an NG tube coming out of his nose so he could eat nasty mush and talked like he was gargling Silly Putty. Rooster was a jarhead whose retinas had begun peeling for unknown reasons at Khe Sanh. And McGoo, a tall doofus squid who had done something heroic on a PBR–that’s Patrol Boat, River–and gotten a major medal and shot up doing it. He wore thick glasses like glass base-plates for a mortar. Navy guys are weird.
An open-bay ward wasn’t a bad place to be. It was certainly better than where we’d been. Washington was nearby, bursting with beer and women. Cagle liked both. We started taking him downtown to go sightseeing. He liked sightseeing. We’d take him down to the Mall in the afternoon and point him at the Washington Monument. Cagle would say, “Oh man. God that’s something. My brain-housing unit can barely wrap around it. Out-blanking-standing.”
The tourists could tell he was blind as three bats in a leather bag and thought we were terrible to be tormenting him that way. Once we pointed him at a tree, and told him it was the Capitol. He went into raptures about how he recognized all the Senators coming out. The tourists weren’t sure what to make of that. Jawless and his tube didn’t help them decide.
Anyway that night we came back through Friendship Heights, the closest the bus came to the hospital, and we were several sheets to the wind, and probably the blankets and pillowcases too. It was dark and rainy. We ducked for shelter into a doorway and discovered a high school couple trying to cuddle there. They really didn’t want four shot-up jarheads without jaws and other parts to share their doorway. But it was raining.
The guy kid had one of those red soft-cotton fender covers mechanics use to keep from scratching up your car. He gave it to us so we could use it for an umbrella and go away. We did.
I forget whose idea it was, but somebody noticed that the fender cover looked like a cape. So we got a marker pen and wrote, “Bat Cagle” on it, and Cagle wore it with his blue PJs. He also had a pair of jungle boots without laces that he slopped around in, just for the hell of it. Discipline wasn’t too bad on the ward. The doctors realized we needed a little room to reassemble ourselves. And as Cagle said, “What are they going to do? Send me to Vietnam?”
That would have been the end of it if we hadn’t found somewhere a garrison cap–the hat with the visor and the cloth cover on top. If you take the cloth off, there’s a little white wire pole with what looks like a halo attached. We gave it to Cagle and let him feel it. He sort of liked it. His own halo. He thought maybe he could deceive women with it.
For some time nothing happened. We took Cagle to parties arranged by Senators who didn’t give a damn about us but thought giving us parties might get votes. We didn’t care. Beer was beer. The Senators always stocked the pond with college girls. Cagle could work the disabled-hero routine to get more poontang than any six guys needed. He had the drawl and the aw-shucks yes-ma’am cute-and-dumb-as-seven-foxes patter and looked like Elvis.
Well, one day they said there was going to be a huge inspection of the ward. The nurses went into a prevent defense, cleaning everything up. For days it went on. They told us we were supposed to stand at the end of our racks and come to attention on command. I’m not sure we got into the spirit of the thing.
The big day came. We stood at the end of our racks. The commanding admiral’s entourage swept regally into the ward–the big guy himself, a cloud of friendly low-ranking nurses, and the head of the nursing corps. This was before many heterosexual women went into the career military, and the head nurse looked like a front lineman mixed with a pit bull.
So help me, Cagle was there in blue pajamas and the Bat Cape, in the unlaced jungles, with the black visor and his halo on its little pole. And holding his white cane. I guess he didn’t care any more.
As they came by, Cagle snapped up the cane a in a precise rifle salute. It was awesome. The admiral took one look at this apparition, said, “At ease,” and swept by. He probably had a sense of humor, and anyway what was he going to do? Put a blind Marine in irons? It was the wrong hill to die on.
The young nurses smiled despite themselves, since Cagle really did look like Elvis. The head nurse glared hatred. She was ready to eat a doorknob. She wanted to stop and kill him, but the admiral wasn’t in the killing mood and so she had to go with him.
Cagle was our hero. Someday I’ll tell you how Jawless got another jaw.