A few weeks ago I read an installment of Ben Stein's Diary in the paper version of The American Spectator. It was one of the most touching and eloquent tributes to Veterans of the Armed Services that I've ever seen. I was so moved when I read this piece that I actually found myself on the verge of tears in a crowded McDonalds over a lunch hour. I contacted The American Spectator and was given permission to reproduce the article here. I urge you to read the whole piece, all the way through:
Ben Stein’s Diary
The American Spectator, March 2005
Reproduced with permission from The American Spectator.
NEW YEAR'S DAY
What are you in here for?" I asked the gaunt man with glasses sitting on the far edge of a bed in Building 215, the Convalescent Building, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood. It is a Spanish-style building obviously of ancient vintage, extremely well kept, and stunningly quiet. The swish of men moving by with walkers and the muted sound of television in the other rooms are the only noises. The freeway is only a few hundred yards away but cannot be heard at all. We are on the moon.
"Me?" the man said in a lethargic but somehow alert voice. "Me? I'm just basically waiting to die." The man looked amazingly familiar. As if I had known him all of my life. His eyes were brown and soulful. His skin was almost green. His muscles in his neck were wildly knotted.
"Why?" I asked. "You don't look that bad." Actually, he did look bad, as if he were truly just waiting to die.
"Glandular carcinoma," he answered. "The cancer is just eating my organs."
He had a drawing of a liver on his bulletin board next to his bed. Otherwise, on his bedside table, there were no pictures, nothing personal, just medicines and bottles of water.
"I am terribly sorry," I said. "Are you in horrible pain?"
"No," he said. "I'm on methadone. I don't feel bad. But where does the pain go? Sometimes at night if I wake up, I feel as if I'm just going to explode. The pain comes up from my liver and then it never reaches my brain so where does it go? I feel a lot of the time as if I'm going to pop."
"I don't know," I said. "I am sorry. I don't think you're going to pop, though. What were you in the Marines?"
"I was in supply," he said. "But that meant supplying units in the jungle in Vietnam. So it was not behind the lines. I got sprayed with Agent Orange, and maybe that did it."
Many of the veterans here believe they were injured or poisoned by Agent Orange. I have always believed it was poison. How can anything be strong enough to take the leaves off giant palm trees and not cause cancer or respiratory disease? What an idiotic idea it was to use Agent Orange anywhere near where our troops were operating.
I read the sign behind the gaunt man's bedstead, "L/Cpl Gregory."
I asked him where he was from and he gave me noncommittal answers. Then he turned to me with a surprising glint of interest in his eyes. "So what's up, Ben?" he asked. "What are you up to these days?"
"A few little bits of acting," I said. "A ton of writing. Lots of speeches. A few commercials, but never enough. Just keeping busy. Paying the bills."
"I remember a picture of you," he said. "Yeah, I remember it really well. It's a picture of you in a Corvette with really long hair, sort of looking backwards behind the Corvette and you. Like you were a hippie. I saw it on a TV show about you."
I was stunned. The methadone had not dulled his recollection of a somewhat precious photo of little me in 1972, taken by my old girlfriend, Pat (who has not spoken to me in roughly 30 years ).
"Yes," I answered. "That was when I was young. I had a great Corvette. I sold it. One of my many mistakes. My whole life is filled with mistakes."
"Mistakes," he said, and he laughed a slender laugh.
I sat on the chair next to his bed and looked at him. He started to fall asleep.
This is my second visit to the VA Hospital in a week. The first was on Christmas Day. It continued a tradition, long interrupted, that began when I was in a Jewish service fraternity in junior high and high school called AZA. We used to go to the VA Hospital on Wisconsin Avenue (where the Russian Embassy is now) and feed meals and clean the halls so the Christians who worked there could go home for the day. I did it again this past Christmas with my tall friend Peggy, who arranged it in the first place, and her even taller daughter, Jessica. We went around the main building, Building 500, where the patients are considerably livelier. But they are still sick people. Methicillin-resistant staph infections. Cancer. Heart bypasses. They are not in great shape at all. But they are not anywhere near as bad off as the people in Building 215. The ones in Building 500 are alert, and one of them, one of only two Jewish patients I met that day, wanted to play Trivial Pursuit or something like that with me. He had been on Jeopardy as a young man and now he was recovering from hip replacement surgery that had gone seriously awry, and he was full of fight.
Next to him was a Norwegian/American from the Midwest talking cheerily about an aortic abdominal aneurysm that had almost killed him. Now he looks hale and hearty. He has a better sense of humor in the hospital than most comedians have on stage.
The hospital, as I said before, is amazingly well run. Just amazingly clean and cheerful. Whoever runs it deserves praise.
But when I came back a week later--today, New Year's Day--it's a different kettle of fish. The first man I saw, a mischievous-looking black man, with twinkling eyes, said that he was there because he had "a fatal disease."
"You look great," I said, "what's the disease?"
"Lou Gehrig's disease," he answered forthrightly.
He had me there. He was waiting for someone to bring him some food. He actually did look great. I wasn't kidding him. But Lou Gehrig's disease is horrifying. And there were no crowds cheering him as he signed off. Gary Cooper will not play him in a movie. He is not saying that right now he feels as if he is the luckiest man in the world. He is all by himself except for me and my pal Lisa Monet, and I'll get to her in a minute.
I asked the Lou Gehrig's disease man about his service in the Army in World War II, ETO, and where he was from, and then I walked into the next room.
There was "Jackie," an African-American paratrooper named Jackson who still looked as if he could parachute anywhere. He had up his uniform with a million medals. He had long hair and sunglasses. He really did look great and he sounded more lucid than I usually do. He looked, if I may say so, like Superfly. He was alive and lively, and I think he'll be out soon. But I was drawn to the man with the gaunt face and the knotted muscles in his neck. I went back to see him.
I'll say it again: L/Cpl Gregory looks as if I have known him forever. I visited with him about his food, about what he liked to watch on TV (CSI: Miami), and then just watched him. If I were a better person, I would say I watched over him.
He fell asleep and I left. I visited with a man who was in because a dog bit him and he got badly infected and might lose his leg. He was talkative and witty.
I have to tell you again I am here with my makeup girl from Fox, Lisa Monet Agustsson, who insisted on accompanying me. She is conducting herself with so much kindness and warmth you can scarcely imagine. One patient complained about his back and Lisa, without being asked, gave him a brief neck massage and fluffed his pillows. Another wanted his mail from Glendale and Lisa offered to go get it.
There are some people with a lot of native warmth. More of them should be at this hospital. There are few Lisa Monets in this world and the people here are lucky to have her here today.
It was stunning how few visitors there were at the convalescent wing. Stunning.
"I'm your celebrity visitor for the day," I told each patient as I went into his room. "I'm not much but I'm all you're getting today."
I felt profoundly sad by the time I left. I told Mr. Wong, the Public Affairs Officer who is my guiding light at the hospital, that I would be back soon.
And here I am back. I could not stay away from Lance Corporal Gregory and Jackie and the man with Lou Gehrig's disease and the others.
I took up with L/Cpl Gregory as I left him.
"So, what's up, Ben?" he asked me. "Whatcha up to?"
"Just talking to you," I said.
He lay on his side. He looked deeply sedated. "What do you think about all day when you're in here?" I asked him.
"I don't know," he said.
"You must think of something," I said.
"I wish I had lived my life differently," he said.
He waited a long time to answer. "Just more regular. On the straight and narrow. I didn't even know I had a 32-year-old daughter with two kids of her own until just recently. I wish I knew her better."
"Do you want me to call her?"
He shook his head. "She calls me every so often," he said. "Maybe every two weeks."
"She should call more often," I said.
He didn't say anything.
I got up to leave. He woke up and looked at me. "Will you be back?" he asked.
"Better make it soon," he said.
I held his hand for a long time. Cold skin and bones, but I know I have seen this man before.
I went out into the hall and ran into the Lou Gehrig man. He had just seen the De Niro remake of Cape Fear and had a long list of things about it that made it unrealistic. He was in a good mood. Even though he's so sick, he reminded me of my father and also of Col. Denman. I like him a lot. I visited Jackie. He looked even better and I guess he'll be out and about soon.
I visited a man who was paralyzed and blames Agent Orange. I visited a man who has acute malaria 60 years after getting it in the Philippines in 1944. I met a man who was a Marine and then became a hairdresser. It had something to do with his pension, but I could not figure it out.
Many of the men in here are black. Many of them are from the South. I really love these men. They came from a cruelly repressive country, fought for it, got wounded or sick for this country that treated them so badly, and they never complain. They are so much better people than I am that I am literally dizzy thinking about it.
So many of my conservative pals hate the 1960s, and with some reason. But the sixties are when we really started righting the scales and treating black men with the dignity they deserve. Lyndon Johnson deserves a whale of a lot of credit. So does Martin Luther King. So do Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Finally, men like the Lou Gehrig man got the America they deserved. They fought for this nation because of what it could be, not what it was. And how glorious of America to have repaid their faith.
My pal Al keeps asking me why I do this stuff at the hospital. He thinks I'll get an infection and die. I keep thinking there would be no America, no freedom, no Constitution without these men and what they did. Now they're sick and lonely and sometimes dying. Basically, I owe them my life. It's a pretty small thing to go visit them every so often and tell them I love them.
They're waiting to die. I'm waiting to die. But they were incredibly good to me, even without knowing me. If I were President, I would spend a lot of my day visiting VA hospitals and I would encourage other Americans, especially young ones, to do likewise.
God sends His angels to us in many guises. Sometimes they wear camouflage and jump suits and carry a rifle. Sometimes they carry out bedpans at hospitals. It's an incredibly sweet privilege to spend time with these angels who carried us all on their backs. I can't visit the ones at the Westwood Military Cemetery next door. I can visit these servants of the Almighty now and keep them company for a little while.
In every sense, it is the least I can do. And I'm telling you about it so you can do it, too. We all need to do it for these guys and gals who make every breath possible.
I am reading a book about advertising and it says that if a fish could think, the last thing it would think about is water. For us Americans, freedom and prosperity and comfort are our water. If we start thinking about them, maybe we'll start thinking about how we got our elements that keep us alive, and show some gratitude for the men and women who earned it. Here on earth, God's work is our work. John F. Kennedy said it, and it's true.
As for Lance Corporal Gregory, I know I'll see him again.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer in Beverly Hills and Malibu.
Ben Stein’s Diary
The American Spectator, March 2005
Reproduced with permission from The American Spectator.