Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Corpsman Chronicles XII: Tree farmin'

There are a lot of trees in Virginia and, consequently, timber is a rather large industry. Of course there are a lot of trees all up and down the east coast, and a lot of trees extending westward from the coastal states as well, until they fade away and the land becomes the grassland of the Great Plains.

Having been born and raised on the shortgrass prairie of the High Plains, my experience with trees, forestry and the timber was sharply limited. In my neck of the woods, there was no woods. I understood the concept of "forest," had seen pictures of the things, and had even spent a month in the heart of the northwest forest at Prospect, Oregon when the family visited my maternal grandparents. I enjoyed that visit immensely.

But I didn't know from trees.

My first few months of naval life were spent in San Diego, which is not exactly a forested area.

From there I made my way to Florida,

then Virginia,

and found myself in the heart of lotta-tree country.

In lotta-tree country trees grow in exactly the opposite fashion as they do on the plains. On the plains trees are largely (some exceptions, of course) limited to the places where people live, having been planted by said people. In lotta-tree country the only place trees are absent is where people live, the people having cut the trees down to make space for their humble abodes and businesses.

The largest treeless plots in lotta-tree country seemed to be military air bases. Fourteen thousand-foot runways will do that. I always felt a little more at ease on the wide open spaces of the jet bases. Gave me a bit more air to breathe, it seemed, and I could expect a few more precious seconds to plan and react should hordes of hostiles erupt from the woodlands.

On the plains of my youth I always had a clear horizon all around and was thus able to effortlessly orient myself. In lotta-tree country I had to develop new skills and tricks to keep my internal gyro from tumbling. It was a struggle at first.

I grew accustomed to the crowding trees of lotta-tree country and eventually grew to love the place. I loved the smell and the micro-climates and the woodland ecosystem and the sound of wind moving through the trees. Sure, there might be murderous savages hiding in the forest, but it's also a lot more fun playing hide and seek in the forest than on the prairie. More challenging, too.

Once I settled in at Oceana and had a few deployments under my belt and a tiny bit of experience in meeting and visiting with the natives I began to appreciate that the folks living in and around Virginia Beach were more than paper cutouts, that they were real and interesting people who led real and interesting lives. I met some local farmers, and for some reason was vastly surprised to discover tiny (by Great Plains standards) corn and soybean fields being cultivated just on the other side of the NASO fence. I also met folks who grew and marketed timber for a living. That was a new one on me, but with my background it wasn't hard to do the math and realize that a cash crop is a cash crop.

And one of the most astonishing things I discovered about these Virginia Beach farmers was that quite a few of them were retired sailors. Not a majority by any means, but a good solid naval representation.

So you might be wondering where this disjointed tale is going...

I don't remember exactly, but I believe it was the autumn of 1984. It was likely a weekday afternoon, and I was working in the ER at the Oceana Clinic. The ER was on the back side of the clinic building, and the building was oriented with the front facing southwest and the back facing northeast. Which doesn't matter at all to this story.
NAS Oceana Clinic. The ER entrance is under the portico to the rear. And look, trees and farm fields!

I was standing at short leg of the L-shaped counter of the check in desk, scribbling notes in a chart. The ER entrance doors were about 10-15 feet to my immediate right, and the four-bay treatment area was behind me and just slightly to my right.

As I stood there scribbling I heard the loud blat of an approaching Harley. It pulled to a stop just outside the automatic doors, which, unsurprisingly, opened automatically. One glance was all it took to shift me into high emergency gear. The rider was wearing jeans and boots and a tee-shirt and one of those black biker vests. His hair was long and tangled and he sported an even longer and even more tangled beard. He looked to be about 35 years old. A real scruffy looking cat. Obviously not military.

The bike stopped and the moment seemed to freeze. Bright red blood flowed in a steady stream from the scruffy civilian cat's neck. His tee-shirt was sodden, as were his jeans, and the stream of blood was dripping off his boots and puddling on the ground. I took in the scene, decided to act, and after a seeming eternity my motor neurons began receiving the "move your ass!" message.

As I turned and began to dash toward the injured man I shouted for assistance from the corpsmen behind the counter. As I took my second or third step the bike and rider slowly toppled over and crashed to the concrete. The engine on the bike gave out a final blat and was silent.

Reaching the downed and heavily bleeding man I instinctively slapped my hand down on his neck in an attempt to find the wound and staunch the flow of blood. My shipmates lifted the nearly-unconscious man and bodily carried him into the treatment room where they deposited him on the nearest gurney. All the while I was frantically trying to locate the neck wound. This guy was going to exsanguinate if the bleeding wasn't stopped.

Then two interesting things happened. Well, three actually. Firstly, the man loudly groaned, "Oh, my leg!"

Oh my leg? WTF?

Secondly, as he groaned out his misery he exhaled great clouds of booze breath. What we charted as "heavy odor of ETOH on breath."

Thirdly, I couldn't find a neck wound, but did find that his left ear had been neatly and nearly completely sliced off. It was attached only by the earlobe. This was the source of the spectacular but not-quite-so-catastrophic hemorrhage.

This combination of discoveries served to lower my pulse rate.

The scruffy civilian was clearly in a lot of pain, and kept moaning about his leg, by which he meant his ankle. It must have really hurt, because he was also as drunk as a three-eyed rat. And had a cut-off ear. Now what the hell do you do with a patient like this in a military clinic emergency room?

Well, first of all, you don't let 'em die. Secondly, you try to figure out what's wrong with the guy, and formulate a plan for "turfing" him to the appropriate civilian facility. We immediately set out to do these things. In the course of executing the evolution a few things became more clear.

"ID's in my wallet," he groaned. I extracted his wallet and fished out a...

Wait for it...

A retired Navy ID card.

Hmmm. Our responsibility then. Well, the responsibility of the military medical establishment as opposed to the civilian medical establishment anyway.

So with the bleeding controlled and stable vital signs, we were no longer dealing with a real emergency. That's always a good thing. The patient's continued moaning about his leg prompted me to remove his boot for a better look. Because his foot and ankle were massively swollen, I actually had to cut the boot off. And the guy's ankle was trashed, clearly badly broken. Interestingly, he had no idea that his ear had been sliced off or that he was bleeding.

Over the next few minutes we pieced together his story. He was a recently retired E-6 who had decided to buy a large wood lot southwest of Virginia Beach and spend the rest of his working life as a gentleman tree farmer. He'd been out working his land and had somehow got his foot caught in a tangle of felled trees. He'd "had a few nips" while working. When his foot became trapped and he realized how stuck he was, he panicked, braced himself, and pulled back with all his might. His ankle snapped but his foot came free. As the foot trap loosed him he fell over backwards. He'd apparently been holding his razor-sharp ax in his left hand, and as he went down, inertia caused the ax to travel through a short arc which intersected with his ear. He struggled to his bike, somehow got it started, killed the rest of the fifth of happy juice for pain control, then blatted his intoxicated, broken and bleeding self to the closest medical facility he knew of. Surely a remarkable feat of navigation.

After we got him cleaned up, got a splint on his leg and a dressing on his ear, we loaded him in the duty ambulance and turfed him on over to Portsmouth Naval Hospital (which at the time was probably more properly Naval Regional Medical Center Portsmouth).

As far as I know I never saw the guy again. I've often thought about him and I hope he recovered completely and has had great success in the tree farmin' business.

Over the years I saw a zillion funny things in the ER. This one was and remains a favorite and cherished memory.


  1. My best friends parents own a tree farm. I have trimmed a few trees in my day!

  2. Man, that's priceless!

    FWIW, growing up in Vermont, we were the savages lurking in the forest. The Great Plains made me nervous at first, not enough trees.

    Then I visited Louisiana, OMG, too many trees!

    As Buck was wont to say, "It's always sumthin'..."

    1. People do the most remarkable things. There are a million stories in the ER. This has been one of them...

      You get used to things being a certain way. Little changes can be unsettling.

  3. I much prefer a long "see 'um comin'" distance. The Hill Country around here is nicely populated by Oak and Pecan trees, but about once a year or so, I need to head out towards Big Bend to settle my soul. I'm about due.
    Good Story, though. I like happy (somewhat) endings.

    1. The biggest part of me will always prefer far horizons and wide open spaces. There's still a lot of uneven terrain where savages can lurk though.

  4. Great sailor story!!! On the topic of trees, forested area in the US has actually increased since the 1920s, and that does not count such "Unofficial" forests as Interstate medians and my back yard.

    1. Thanks, Captain! Sailors have a way of generating great stories. I've seen a lot of legendary behavior, and been responsible for generating some myself. :)

      I didn't know that the forested area has increased, though it sure doesn't surprise me. Timber operations obviously have to plant trees to stay in business, but it also seems a very popular activity for most Americans. It's really satisfying to watch something you've planted grow over time.