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In this passage from A Spent Bullet, Elizabeth Reed’s father has an infected cut on his hand from being tusked by a hog. An Army Field Hospital is near their home. She cajoles her father, a veteran of the Great War (what World War I was still called in 1941) to go try a new wonder drug being used by the military. *At the end of this passage, I’ll tell the story behind the story.
Only One Chance
Elizabeth didn’t sleep well that night, worried about her father’s hand. At breakfast the next morning, she anxiously studied the cut. “Poppa, it’s worse. That red streak’s moving up your arm.”
He clenched his fist. “I believe it’s better.”
“You are going to have it looked at.”
“I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s where people go to die.”
“It’s not a hospital—it’s a medical headquarters.”
“I’m afraid ol’Sawbones is waiting on me.”
“You heard the medic say you could lose your hand. You’re going, and I’m taking you.”
He stormed out of the room as her mother said, “You can get him to do things no one else can—not even me, his wife of twenty-four years.”
“It’s just that I won’t take no for an answer.”
Peg, standing at the kitchen door, said, “It might be ‘cause you two are just alike.”
Elizabeth winked at her twin. “You think so?”
“Honey, I know so.”
Poppa returned with his hat and boots. “Well, if we’re going, let’s get it over with.”
They walked along the road in the early morning sunshine. He wiped his brow. “I’ll be glad when the first cool spell blows through.”
He put his good arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry for being ornery.”
“Poppa, you are ornery, but I’m worried about you.”
“And I appreciate it, Lizzie. I really do.” They came to the creek crossing on the low water road. He nodded. “You know they say you can’t stand by the same creek twice.”
Elizabeth had heard her father expound on this theme for years, but still asked, “You really think so?”
“I know so. You can return to the creek, but it will have changed and so will you.” He winced as he bumped his hand. “I came back from France and expected for everything to be the same as when I left in 1917, but it wasn’t. Most of all, I’d changed. Everybody noticed it. It was like they expected me to cross an ocean, fight a war, and come back home and just pick up where I’d left off.”
A lone plane was crossing the horizon. He studied it a long time. “They had no idea what I’d seen or done.” He sadly shook his head. “They had no idea what I’d done.”
They crossed the creek on the narrow foot bridge. As they walked up the far bank, he said, “You came back from Natchitoches changed.”
They walked up White Onion Hill to the medical camp. A large sign read: 53rd Battalion Medical HQ. Behind it were three large tents. Her father’s hand was shaking. “What’s wrong, Poppa?”
“I can’t go in there.”
“This isn’t a hos…”
He cut her off, jerking away, “I can’t go in there.”
“You’ve got to.”
“No, I don’t.” Elizabeth felt the panic in her father’s voice. She knew her power to get him to give in to her will, but this same sense let her know when she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, push him.
He sat on a stump and pulled out a tin of Prince Albert. He shakily poured tobacco onto the cigarette paper, spilling most of it on the ground. She knelt beside him and saw the tears welling in his eyes. Taking the tobacco and paper from him, she began rolling it for him.
“Poppa, why can’t you go in that tent? What happened over there?”
She handed him the cigarette and held his hand to light it. He took a deep draw that seemed to settle his nerves. “One day four of us got caught out in No Man’s Land. That was the crater-filled area between our trenches and the Germans.
“The Hun—the Germans—pinned us down with machine gun fire, so we just lay there in the mud hoping not to die.
Then they dropped mustard gas on us. Three of us put our gas masks on, but the fourth guy, a brand new soldier, had left his mask in the trench. He didn’t want to carry the extra weight.”
Poppa was staring at something that Elizabeth knew she couldn’t see. She was glad she couldn’t.
“It’s a horrible thing to be in the mud with a man dying slowly from poison gas.” Darkness finally came and we scampered back to our trench, carrying the fellow with us.”
They took all four of us to the medical HQ.” He pointed at the tents. “It looked exactly like those.’
He coughed, then took another drag. “Gas doesn’t kill a man at once, it chokes him slowly. I can still hear him dying.”
Elizabeth pulled her father closer. “I’m sorry.”
“You know what bothers me? I can’t even remember his name. But I can still hear him in that tent.” He bowed his head. “And that’s why I can’t go in there.”
Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek. “You don’t have to go in there. You wait here and I’ll get the medic. He can work on you right here.”
She hurried to the tent and soon returned with Corporal Crawford.
He knelt beside her father. “Hey, Mr. Reed. I figure I’d better pay you back for those biscuits with some good medicine.” He pulled out a packet and tore it open. “This white powder is supposed to be a wonder drug. It’ll clear up that infection in no time flat.”
“What’s it called?”
“Sulfa powder. Does the trick, real quick.”
Holding the swollen hand, he dusted the powder on the cut and used a dampened swab to work it into the wound.
The medic stood. “Don’t mean to rush off, but we’re pulling out in a minute. If it’s not better by tomorrow, come back by. If I’m not here, someone’ll help you.”
He squeezed Elizabeth’s arm. “I predict his wing’ll be good as new in a few days.”
They walked home quietly. Both father and daughter knew how to enjoy being together without words. Poppa stopped at the creek crossing, standing for a long time watching the southward flow. “You know that water will eventually run into the Gulf of Mexico down at Cameron.”
He put the toe of his boot in the water. “Bundick will run into the Ouiska Chitto down below Doodlefork. Then it meets the Calcasieu and winds its way to Lake Charles and then to the Gulf.”
Elizabeth waited for him to complete the thought, but he stood silently. He sat on a log, rolled another cigarette and smoked it leisurely as she sat beside him, rubbing his shoulder.
He tossed the butt into the creek, and it was pulled into an eddy, soon disappearing beneath the dark water of Bundick Creek.
He nodded toward the eddy. “Yep, you can’t stand by the same river twice.”
He stood facing toward home. “I reckon sometimes that’s a good thing. You only get one chance. When it’s gone, it won’t be back again.”
In A Spent Bullet, Daddy’s hand healed within a few days. This same wonder drug, sulfa powder, would save thousands of lives in World War II and when penicillin was added later in the war, deaths plummeted from infections.
The story behind the story: As I wrote and spoke about A Spent Bullet and the 1941 Louisiana Army Maneuvers, everyone over seventy have a good story.
Franklin Miller, a lifetime friend of our family told me this:
“My Dad, Frank Miller, had a bad cut from a hog. It was definitely infected. Right up from our house on White Onion Hill (named after an old logging/turpentine camp) was a medical field hospitial. One of the medics ate supper with us and examined Daddy’s hand. ‘Mr. Miller, you come by the camp in the morning and I’ll put something on it that’ll heal it quick.
It’s a wonder drug.’
Franklin told me that his dad went the next day and the medic used penicillin on the cut, which cleared up in a few days.
Now here’s the fun on historical fiction: you take these stories and compare them to history and timelines.
My research revealed that the 53rd Medical Battalion had a field hospital “about 2 miles west of the community of Dry Creek.” It matched up with Franklin’s story.
However, the penicillin didn’t fit with this. Although it had been developed, its widespread use among the military wouldn’t occur until 1943 on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
Further study, revealed that sulfa powder was the “wonder drug” of this time period and every medic in the Maneuvers would have kept a good supply.
Now Franklin Miller still insists that his daddy insisted it was penicillin.
I’d never argue with my mentor and friend, Mr. Frank Miller’s memory.
One more story that shows you can’t make up a story better than the grains of truth.