October 27, 1947

[continued from the previous entry]

I wipe my lips of hot soup, devour bread, wolf down a dish of chopped fruit, and finish that off with a cup of tea. I’m getting weary of wearing these plain institution-issued outfits. But I hardly have the means to buy any threads of my own.

The lobby area of a 1940s-era mental ward is just what you’d imagine: a couple couches, end tables, mismatched lamps, and several tables where I find fellow patients often playing cards. Usually poker. Hard tiled floor. There’s a large Zenith “Trans-Oceanic” AC-powered portable shortwave radio sitting on top of one of the end tables. Having been a shortwave radio fan in the 1990s before the Internet arrived and began wiping out the need for such long-distance broadcasts, I am fascinated with this vintage shortwave.  Or, I suppose, vintage to just me.  Fairly new to everyone else here, of course. I start thinking about all the news stories that hadn’t yet happened that would be carried over those airwaves in the coming years.

Eloiseroom

Tonight, in this cozy lobby, I’m listening to a radio drama program called Quiet, Please. Per the radio announcer, this episode’s title is “Don’t Tell Me About Halloween.” It sounds like an audio pre-cursor to the Twilight Zone as I listen to the host character describe his creepy evening with a witch and the Salem witchcraft trials. I’m drawn into its supernaturalism and think about my own dark twist of fate that, for all intents and purposes, is supernatural. I would typically only find these program clips as an mp3 on old-time radio download sites. Now here I am, listening to this live.

The surrealism makes my mind reel.

Yet the simple dialogue between the protagonist and his witchy wife, coupled with sporadic odd sound effects and sci-fi musical interludes, appeals to me for some reason. I wouldn’t want to watch color television or browse the Internet, reminding me about home. Listening to this program and its story unfold distracts me. I find myself curious, if only to enable me to momentarily forget about my problems.

I’ve had many bad moments the past few weeks, but I’m thankful that I haven’t revisited the horrific mental state I had when I attempted suicide a couple weeks ago. I occasionally get sick and heave into the toilet, my sleep is erratic at best, and the periodic visits from the resident mental counselor hardly help. Though being fair to him, I doubt the best shrink in America could fix my head.

There’s an older man, I’d say around 70, in a button down shirt and glasses sitting in an adjacent chair as I’m curled up on the vinyl couch.

I introduce myself.

He introduces himself as Ted and immerses himself back into the Quiet, Please dialogue, chuckling here and there at the dark humor. I wonder why he’s here, in this place.

My stomach burns into knots as I think about Amanda, with her sandy blonde hair and green eyes. The boys, Nicholas and Connor. The buddies at the pub.

I quickly force myself to refocus on the radio, trying to keep up with the plot. An organ blares from the program and the lead voice actor talks through his encounter with some other woman named Candace. Ted lets out a combination of a grunt and chuckle. I’m not following the story that closely and not particularly interested in how it all ends. But as “Red” said in The Shawshank Redemption, in prison – which is my overall life at the moment – a man will do almost anything to keep his mind occupied.

Ted and I chit-chat in between gaps in the radio story.

I wish this program would run all night.

I don’t want to go back to my room and let thoughts flood my brain again.

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October 31, 1947

[Continued from the previous entry]

I lay awake after darkness, per usual. It’s quiet now at Eloise, despite there being a couple thousand other patients in this building. Every day is a toxic mix of insomnia, confusion, anxiety, and utter sadness. But this being my first holiday in this strange world, I’m really feeling the emotional punches to the groin.

It’s trick or treating tonight here in 1947. Although from what I understand, the whole notion of begging for candy, door-to-door, isn’t much of a thing yet.  Mildred down the hall thought I was a bit nutty for even suggesting that children roam the streets semi-unattended during the evening, searching for goodies from total strangers on strange doorsteps. 

But evidently Halloween parties exist here, as do pumpkin carvings and apple bobbings.  The costumes are mainly home-made and assembled from whatever crap you found around the attic (per Mildred).  Like tin foil and cardboard and goofy hats or whatever else is laying around. Those gaudy big-box costume stores you see temporarily popped up in strip malls in October haven’t found their footing yet here in the 1940s. 

If I were a kid today, maybe I’d dress up as one of those characters on that Quiet, Please radio show.  Yeah, that’s it. 

Boy Wearing Knight Costume --- Image by © Michael Martin/Corbis

I recall Halloween last year – that is, last year in my era. Pumpkin-shaped holding bags in tow, the boys raced down the stairs costumed up in their matching Nemo fish outfits. As I watched them get increasingly excited about getting outside and dashing to the nearest neighbor’s home with the beckoning porch light on, I can see myself in them thirty years earlier. Oh, the hours of build-up and anticipation that hounded me and every other kid in the school classroom throughout the day. It would only be a matter of time before I’d get my own superhero outfit on and start my door-to-door collection of candy.

After a couple hours of hitting as many neighbors’ porches as we could in the waning daylight, I’d sit on the living room floor with the boys and watch them inspect their loot.

My eyes burn from visualizing those images in my head.

It’s been over a month since some unknown hand of the Universe steered me to this place. It’s nearing the end of August 2018 back home, if I’m doing my math right. Will I make it “back” in time to watch them don Halloween costumes again?

Of course, I haven’t the slightest clue how I’d navigate back. Even castaways on a deserted island can hold onto hope – however small – of a passing ship or plane spotting them. Perhaps you could even create a makeshift raft, roll the dice, and see if the ocean’s current sends you to somewhere populated, if you didn’t die of starvation first. Survival was highly unlikely, but certainly not impossible. There is always hope.  Always options available even if they carried a microscopic chance for success.

But here? There are no ships or planes or ocean currents that carried Tom Hanks and his volleyball Wilson off to home. No, this is far different. So different that I can’t even begin to understand the basics of it, where even my faintest of hopes are nearly gone. Everyone could at least understand getting lost on the ocean or in a desert. But no one has ever heard of getting lost in time. 

I am a stranger here.

Indeed, I’ve read a few fantastic stories, allegedly true stories, of people experiencing something called a time slip. There was an account of two women during the turn of the twentieth century slipping back to the time of Marie Antoinette while visiting Versailles in France. Of course, their story was ridiculed, and I recall reading it for simple pure entertainment as well. The stories were easy to debunk. But now I’m curious if these slips are real, and if I’m participating in one right now.

However, in those time slip anecdotes, the individual experienced it for just a matter of a few minutes, at most. Sometimes the reports of stepping into a historical scene passed in a matter of seconds. And just as swiftly, and for no apparent reason, they were thrust back into their own time.

Can’t I be thrust back?

Yet here I am, approaching six weeks of this experience, which has certainly broken all sorts of records among alleged time slippers. I just hope and pray that my time here is up soon and come one morning I’ll open my eyes face-down back on that park path. In good old 2018, with a crazy story to tell.  Or keep secret. 

I want so badly to see Amanda and the kids, my stomach consistently hurts because of it.

When will this agonizing dream finally end?

November 30, 1947

[Continued from the previous entry]

The Eloise Psychiatric Hospital is into making things festive, and they got to work as soon as Thanksgiving festivities were done.  And what a festive environment it was last Thursday, with turkey and thick brown gravy doled out to all. I haven’t devoured food that heartily since my time slip.

Today a haphazardly decorated Christmas tree stands along one of the hallways, flanked by tinsel, garland and stockings hanging from walls. A plastic Santa head watches over us by the window.  Just outside in the chilly air, a music therapist is leading Eloise choir members in song who are, of course, patients here.

This place feels like its own incorporated city. It has a farm, cannery, bakery, and onsite police officers and firefighters. Its property covers fifty acres. I wonder when it closes and what becomes of this property in the future, because I’ve never even heard of this sprawling compound until now.

I had just finished my first art class, led by an African-American woman as our quasi-instructor. Using something like chalk pencils, about a dozen of us stood by makeshift easels – basically a large sheet of paper draped over those wooden chairs from the lobby – and drew things like fruit, vases, tables, plants, and so on. A woman next to me named Helen wearing a polka dotted skirt mumbled to herself as she quickly constructed a brilliant drawing of a poodle.

A hundred feet down the hall from the warm and upbeat art class is a creepy-looking surgical room, as if to remind you that this ain’t a hotel. A flat steel “bed” rests in the middle with large alien lights hovering over it. A series of trays, cabinets and odd-looking devices encircle that bed. The waning sun casts eerie shadows on the wall. Maybe I’ve been in here sprawled out a few times while unconscious. I wonder what they’ve prodded me with.

Both staff and patients are friendly enough, even the odd ones. But I hear the stories, and I try to separate folklore from reality. A couple years ago an inmate named Casmir shot an officer, a child drowned somewhere in this place a decade ago, a laundryman was clubbed by a woman off her meds, and an employee was shot down this hall by her enraged husband a few years ago in 1945.

The stories go on. I guess I am in a mental facility, after all. People snap.

Yet I also hear the endearing stories. Apparently, a woman by the name of Sallie, known as the “Sunshine Lady” in this building, died back in 1943 after seventeen years here. She is still talked about by those who knew her. Sallie would be the party-pleaser, always arranging birthday celebrations for workers and fellow patients, bringing rays of joy to their days. Someone who was always lending an ear, so I’m told. I wonder if there’s a new Sunshine Lady roaming the halls here.

Life could fall quickly into a routine in this complex. Draw some artwork, play cards, listen to the radio, watch television with fifteen others, stroll around the grounds, take a baking class, perhaps join the Christmas caroling group. Lest I say it has the feel of a modest resort. The activities and distractions are key in occupying my mind. And in some respects, these haphazardly decorated walls already feel like my 1947 home away from 2018 home.

I’m damaged goods, just like everyone else. It’s easy to slip into a level of malaise.

Sometimes I’ll run into Ted and we’ll listen to another radio show together. I found out yesterday that he’s also from Rochester. Hearing him talk about my town from the perspective of decades prior my own time blows my mind.

I’ll sit in the Men’s Day Room and hum a tune that’s over sixty years beyond today’s date. In some ways, humming a future song keeps my mind in line. It continually convinces the rest of my body that, no, I’m not crazy. The songs whispering from my mouth are from songwriters and musicians who have yet to be born.

I carry with me some guitar-strumming skills.  Perhaps one day I’ll get my hands on one, and sing a few bars of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  At least a decade before the author of that song – Bono – is even born somewhere in Ireland. 

I will greet familiar faces with a smile and hello. I probably know about ten fellow patients by name at this point. I feed off the camaraderie.

Still, my pain persistently runs deep, I still sob at night once rooms go dark. I’m continually frustrated that no one understands me, that I’m really not insane. Not that I can blame them. Yet my darkest, craziest episodes have at least been dormant these past few weeks. I hope I can come to terms with whatever happened to me. I’m still unsure I can win this fight, and if I can’t, I’ll be taking up residence here for a long while.

December 7, 1947

[Continued from the previous entry]

Six years ago at this moment – just six – Pearl Harbor was bombed.

President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Johnny, a muscly guy aged in his late 20s, now occupies one of the unused beds in my room here at Eloise. For whatever reason, he transferred over to my neck of the woods yesterday. As coincidences have it, he was at the navy base in Pearl Harbor when hellfire rained upon him. Needless to say, he’s in particularly bad shape today.

He still sports a military buzzcut and a crucifix dangles off his silver necklace.

“You were there, huh?” I ask, attempting to make conversation.

“Yes sir, right on the West Virginia docked on berth F-6. I can still see it plain as day. I’d just woken up and heard a lot of commotion on deck. And here she comes, the Japs torpedoed the port side. Two big holes. Bam! Bam!” He slams his arms downward twice.

I flinch at his shouts.

“It must’ve been chaos,” I say.

“Carnage on that base,” he continues. “Watched friend after friend get blown to bits by those bombs.”

“Wow, sorry you had to see that. Thank you for your service.”

“I didn’t head home. Naw, I had revenge in my blood. Went to Iwo Jima.”

“You were at Iwo Jima?”

“Absolutely, sir. Beat the hell out of them Japs, too.” He makes a bunch of bomb and gun sounds again and stretches his neck around, so it cracks like a knuckle. “But let me tell you one thing. I live it every day. I live it every night. I see it. My wife and son. They know, they know. Whiskey soothes the pain.”

I get it.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m not certain if PTSD is an official acronym or diagnosis in the medical community in these days. I find myself amazed that I’m speaking to a young veteran from WWII.

“You’re from around here, then?” I ask.

“Yeah, Lincoln Park.”

He looks at me intensely, perhaps a few too many seconds for my comfort.

“You?”

“Me?”

“What are you in here for?”

This is the first time a non-doctor or non-counselor has asked me this question. I’ve always answered with pure honesty. But now I am confronted with explaining my exceptional situation to Johnny. I decide to go vague, but not veer far from the real story: I tell him I have a strange amnesia where I can’t remember anything except for a family and life that doesn’t seem to exist.

“I’m just trying to figure out what’s wrong with me,” I conclude.

He points toward my head.

“Nothing’s wrong with you. We’re all right, sir, we’re all right. It’s the world out there that puts us in our place. To make us need fixing. Do you understand?” He salutes me, military-style.

I reflexively and perhaps awkwardly return the favor.

“You don’t remember where your home is?”

“Rochester Hills.” I pause. “I mean, Avon Township.”

Johnny chuckles. “Sir, you don’t remember your home town? Your house. Do you know your own house?”

I shrug. “I think I know, but I’m sure where I think it is, it’s just wetlands at this point.”

He pauses again. His body doesn’t move.

Then he offers a slight grin.

“You’ll find it, sir.”

He leans down on his bed with a Life magazine he pulled from the stack in the lobby. It’s got the distinctive red logo with a “15 cents” label on it. He lays on his back and holds up the mag above his face and starts flipping the pages.

“Love this issue,” he says without looking away from the pages. He points to the cover.

“Is that…?”

“Rita Hayworth, sir. Sexy.”

I’m noticing he still carries the formal “sir” around with him from his service days in the war. He reaches down on the floor, picks another Life up and tosses it to me.

“I’m not reading this one now. You can check it out of you’d like. You get to read about Peck.”

I reach for the magazine and see Gregory Peck gracing the headline. It’s the December 1, 1947 issue. Again, for just 15 cents.  Brand new with just a little wear and tear from being passed around in the lobby, resting on my bed. 

Peck is that young.  Now.  Gentleman’s Agreement is actually a current movie. 

Lifemag

I flip through its pages and find myself more interested in the ads. I’m fascinated.

Here’s one for Campbell’s soup. A husband in a full black suit is peering from behind a door and asks his apron-donning homemaker wife standing in front of the stove, “What’s cookin’, good lookin’?”  A few pages later, a two-page spread for Columbia Records, with a little section of children’s albums complete with a drawing of two kids sifting through vinyl records.

Next ad screams, “Come on, try this one with all-joy, no-work Birds Eye Spinach!” I’m amused at an accompanying picture showing a woman yelling at her husband because he bought an off-brand box of spinach instead of Birds Eye. The image reminds me of Alice and Ralph Kramden, characters that probably won’t be on the black n’ white television screen for a few more years.

A bit later in the magazine, adjacent news blurbs on Siam and Palestine, an ad for glycerine tablets, for stubborn coughs – according to the little black n’ white ad.

A couple more pages on, the RCA Victor, which promises “clear as carols on Christmas Eve.” The massive box changes twelve records automatically with a lot of storage cabinets for your vinyl collection. Every hipster I know in the twenty-first century would be drooling at this. It also comes complete with AM-FM radio. I wonder how much this finest tone system in RCA Victor history (per the ad’s description) costs.

Finally, a full-page ad for the Green Dolphin Street movie starring Lana Turner.

No Marvel or DC Comics movies bathed in CGI quite yet.

I nearly ask Johnny his thoughts on some of these records I see – anything for casual small talk – but I notice the magazine is resting on his belly. He’s sound asleep.

I’m still in awe of this guy. He’s about five years my junior, yet he’s gone through World War II. Saw Iwo Jima up close and personal. I’m too used to old men, many of them with walking canes and wheelchairs, as being the last voices of wisdom on this war. Yet in this era, it’s flooded with them, young, back home and ready to produce families. I’m witnessing the advent of the Baby Boomer generation.

It occurs to me that we’ve all got a story here. Although it’s not lost on me that my soliloquy would be the oddest by far. Whenever I hear a strange tale being told by one of the patients here, I find that I can’t totally dismiss them, can I? No matter how bizarre their claims. Suddenly, outlandish stories don’t seem so outlandish anymore.

I’ll try to get to know Johnny better, hopefully hear more stories from the war with it being so fresh in his head. Then again, I want to be careful not to trigger something. He’s mentally skating on thin ice.

At the same time, I’m a bit jealous of Johnny. Once he finally gets “better” with medication and counseling, he’ll be rejoining his young wife and little girl. That’s not the case for me, no matter how long I take up residence in this place. Amanda and the boys exist… somewhere in time.

But not here.

Once I get better, however that’s measured and defined, I’m still that future fish out of water.