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What is memory? What is time? What if memory eludes time and lasts a lifetime? Such is the case with me.
In 1951, I graduated from the College of Charleston at the early age of 20 and was immediately drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict.
Six months of basic training was spent at Camp Gordon, now Fort Gordon, in Augusta, Ga.
I was sent to the West Coast to a repo depot for possible assignment to Korea. Fortunately for me, I was sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif. It was a beautiful post right on the Pacific Ocean at Corps Headquarters with lots of high officers, including colonels and generals.
I was a lowly private first class working in the adjutant general's office laboring over an ancient typewriter. It was easy work with a lot of time to see the sights in Los Angeles and Hollywood.
When I was in high school in Charleston, the Dock Street Theatre had a program that led to bit parts in adult plays and major roles in some student plays. My father also played in old-time minstrel shows that no longer exist.
I learned some songs and thought I could sing a little. What a fantasy. But with a little bit of experience in acting and song and dance, I thought I was ready for every opportunity that came along.
Well, things did come along. I met a fellow soldier in the same outfit at Fort MacArthur who also thought he could sing and dance. He was about as good as I was but willing to give it a chance. We practiced a little but not enough to overcome our lack of talent.
Nevertheless, we performed several times in the post hangouts for enlisted personnel and must have made some impression because we were invited to appear at an officers' group. This did not go too well because our then-piano player did not show up. We did have a nice meal with the officers and received their thanks for showing up.
A few weeks later, our piano player called us and wanted us to perform at a local hospital, which astonished us for many reasons. But we agreed.
It was a revelation in many ways. It was a holiday season and we were about as prepared for what was coming as if we were in a foxhole. I do not remember much about the hospital except that it seemed to be made mostly into wards of people with various illnesses and disabilities.
The piano had wheels so that it could be rolled from ward to ward with us doing our musical renditions as best we could.
We were received with polite applause at every ward we went into. The big mind-bending event was when we were ushered into a ward where we saw iron lung machines, something that we had never seen before.
Without resorting to medical terms, these are large, round tubes made for polio victims to help them breathe. The disease is now mostly eradicated. But to our untrained eyes, these machines were ominous.
The iron lungs were 15 to 20 feet apart, four on each side of a wide aisle, with the head of the patient toward the aisle.Since each patient had to look into a mirror to see, the field of vision was severely limited. So we had to improv our entertainment.
We found to our greater sorrow that each iron lung machine was occupied by a teenage girl not much younger than we were. Each was laying on her back with only her head sticking out.
Since they could not turn their heads, they had to look into a mirror to see an image.
How do you do a song-and-dance routine in front of that many beautiful girls in that many iron lungs?
As inexperienced as we were and with little talent, we proceeded to sing and dance individually in front of each girl.
To see the smiles on their faces was worth the whole world to these two privates. I will never ever forget the silent applause and the wondrous looks on youthful faces when we left that ward.
I have never seen an iron lung since then and hope to never again. I will always wonder what happened to those young ladies. I will never forget them.
Buddy Hilton lives in Charleston with his wife of nearly 58 years, Joyce. He is retired from The American Mutual Fire Insurance Company and a graduate and former foundation board member for the College of Charleston.
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