Welcome to New York

My first adult trip to New York City happened freshman year of college. My two best friends took me with them to a debutant party in Providence, RI. I was exceedingly naive and had no idea what a debutant was, or why they would celebrate “coming out”. Coming out of what? I went because they explained that a debutant was a rich girl, and there would be a bunch of them there. And beer. Going wasn’t a hard decision after that.

Colgate University - 1968

Colgate University - 1968

Travel from upstate NY to Providence was accomplished by the normal college conveyance – hitching a ride with someone. The party was everything it was supposed to be, but I didn’t end up with a rich girlfriend. The picture is all the explanation you will need to understand why.

OK – the New York part. One of my friends suffered from migraines, and when it was time to leave, he got a one. A gone-blind one. We got a ride as far a NYC and pooled our money to put him on a train home, and my other friend went with him. So I’m stuck in NYC, alone, hungover, nearly broke, and needing to get home to Maryland.

No problem – I have a checking account, and I only needed a couple of bucks more to get a bus ticket. Problem – no one, and I mean not even the Chase Manhattan Bank, would cash a two or three dollar check from me. I spent about four hours wandering from place to place trying. Hungover. Finally, a gas station attendant took pity and charged a couple of dollars on my gas credit card and gave me the cash. I do not heart NY.

Many years later, someone at a cocktail party was telling me about tectonic plates and how eventually Los Angeles would be somewhere in the frozen arctic. My immediate response was, “Could it take New York with it?”

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The Orange Cloud of Death

I’m at the National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Conference this week, and it reminds me of one particular radiological emergency that I wasn’t prepared for (for which I wasn’t prepared?). The parenthetical comment is there so I don’t end the sentence with a preposition. (http://tinyurl.com/3sohqf)

It happened in 1970, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the Inner Sub-Pile Room. A room you won’t find on your Clue board, and Colonel Mustard wasn’t involved, although the color of the gas-to-come reflected his name. The Inner Sub-Pile Room name implies that there is an Outer Sub-Pile Room (which in turn implies that there is a Pile Room somewhere above, but we’ll ignore that).The Outer Sub-Pile Room was where I was stationed when the Orange Cloud of Death chased my tech out of the Inner one. Is all that clear?

The incident took place in the middle of the night. They had a nuclear reactor in those days, used for research, and for creating super-cockroaches to be used in the inevitable Asian land war. But once again, I digress. I was in charge of a graveyard-shift crew that was tasked to clean the radioactive contamination out of a stainless-steel sump in the ISPR (that’s my new acronym so I don’t have to keep typing Inner Sub-Pile Room. Oops, I did it again. (Quick – who sang the song?)) (Nested parentheses – you’ve got to love that.)

I should call this story the Parenthetical Comment because I can’t seem to stop.

Anyway, the ISPR is this little concrete cave below the reactor. You had to crawl through a short tunnel into a room about the size and shape of a refrigerator laid on its side, and all it had in it was pipes and this sump – a kitchen-sink sized tub recessed into the floor.

I referred to the guy being chased by the OCoD (Orange Cloud of Death) as a tech, and that might be overstatement. In actual fact, he had about a sixth-grade education and his response to most conversations was to grab his crotch in a pre-Michael Jackson move and say “I’ve got your (fill in the blank) right here.” His qualifications to be working on a nuclear reactor were suspect. But then, so were mine.

Picking up where I left off three paragraphs ago, I was in the OSPR, biding my time waiting for the “tech” to complete his task. That was to take container of nitric acid and swab the steel sump to clean it. He was fully clothed in protective gear – gloves, plastic coveralls, hood, and a respirator to filter the air he was breathing – and supposed to work for a very specific amount of time for radiation exposure control purposes. Well before that time, the air-lock door to the ISPR opened and he came running out. My initial reaction was “What the …,” and then I saw the OCoD following him and realized we had a situation.

We closed the air lock doors, capturing the cloud, and then I had to figure out what it was and what to do. This is where my own suspect qualifications came into play. With no outside communications readily available, I decided that the solution was to get the acid out of the sump and stop whatever reaction was going on. So I put on all the protective gear and the emergency breathing gear (a scuba tank for dry land) and went in myself.

Let me set the mood. It’s probably 3 AM plus/minus, the rooms are mostly dark, it’s deathly quiet, my only backup is in the OSPR mumbling, “I’ve got your orange cloud right here,” and it’s crowded. Claustrophobia crowded. The trip in, with my crawling further impeded by the air tank, was quite unnerving. Getting the acid soaked up in rags and into many layers of plastic bags was simple enough, and the story might have ended happily if only the alarm hadn’t gone off.

My training with the Scott Air-Pac was woefully inadequate, and while I knew there was a finite amount of air in there, and that you would be alerted when it was getting low, I had never actually heard the alarm, and certainly not echoing off the concrete walls of an underground mausoleum. So when it went off, I had a seizure and banged my head on the ceiling, knocking the face mask loose, and getting a breath of what smelled like decomposing rust.

After I repositioned the mask, and determined I hadn’t done anything untoward in my pants, I gathered up my acid-soaked, plastic-wrapped rags, and backed the hell outta there. I stripped off the protective gear and got dressed, and we waited for the day shift to arrive at 7 to take over. By then, both of us had developed some unusual breathing symptoms, and we were eager for diagnosis and reassurance.

The Project Manager was understandably nervous about the problem (it was his idea to use the nitric acid) and dispatched us to the hospital for checking over. The problem, as it turned out, was that nitric acid and steel produce fumes that can cause severe lung damage and even death. (https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/5300/1/cm05037.pdf)

According to the doctor who examined us, the solution was copious amounts of beer administered by cheap floozies. Years later I discovered this was not true. Floozies are never cheap – there’s always a price to be paid.

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I died, once.

First things first – there is no white light. Forget it. It just gets dark and silent.

Second thing – after it was all over, my heart doctor told me that death was one of the possible side effects of the drugs they had me on. Why do you suppose he didn’t tell me that before I died?

Third thing – OK, so I’m alive again. Death, apparently, is reversible.

Anne, my wife, was at work, and she had the car. I worked from home, and some mornings I would get right to it at 6 AM, and then shower at lunch time. Or not, depending on who might have to physically interface with me that day. This was one of those late-shower days. I’m finishing up in the shower and surprisingly tired. Noting that I wasn’t that dirty to start with, I figured it had to be something other than the effort to scrub.

I have an inconvenient heart condition known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. It causes an occasional rapid, irregular heart beat and shortness of breath, like I suddenly got real old. (Instead of getting real old slowly, which is the actual case.) At first I dismissed the symptoms as a-fib, but they felt different than the usual episode, so I called Anne to come and get me to go to the hospital.

I must have really been hurting because I never volunteer to go to the hospital. My default cure for anything is to wait and see. By the time we got there, I was in pretty bad shape, even considering my normal shape isn’t all that notable. As a 54-year-old male with chest pains, I jumped right to the head of the line. Even so, they took the time to be sure I could afford to be diagnosed and treated, and then wheeled me back to the emergency room, Anne coming along without any objection from anyone.

The nurse was connecting me to machines, and I was trying to look recuperative, smiling as best I could, to calm Anne. When the nurse had plugged in some device, she stopped and watched the displays behind me and then turned, calling to someone, “Doctor, you’d better look at this.”

I’ve never thought I was immortal, but for some reason, I haven’t really ever had a fear of death. It is simply too hypothetical too me. (See Asthma-induced Hallucinations, below.) And I wasn’t scared at that moment, just curious and concerned for Anne, who was still at the foot of the bed, holding my foot and trying to be brave.

A woman in a lab coat with a stethoscope came over and looked at the display, and I heard her yell a word that you only want to hear on TV – stat. It came at the end of a short sentence that I don’t recall, and was obviously an order because the next thing I knew, there were people hustling all around me, doing things in an orderly if somewhat frantic way.

Doctor using defibrillator on patientThe action was sort of stop motion. Everyone doing something urgently, then they would all freeze and stare at the monitors. Then someone would mutter something and they’d start all over again. They repeated the process several times before the doctor told me that I was in ventricular fibrillation and they were going to have to use the defibrillator. She said they usually didn’t do this without some kind of prep, anesthetic or sedatives or something, but there was no time.

“This is gonna hurt,” she said. And then she said “clear.” And it hurt.

Here’s how it hurt. Imagine an infinite number of Mike Tyson’s at the prime of his career. Imagine that they surround you from every direction, from inside your body and out, that your cells have all somehow become Mike Tyson. Then imagine that they all hit you in the chest at the same time.

Anne said I levitated, a hang time Michael Jordon would envy. I remember that much. I remember shouting, “Whoa! Jesus!” And I remember seeing Anne so scared I could have died from sadness.

Then there was no white light. All that happened was that my vision narrowed from the outside in until it was dark, but I was dead before I went blind.

When I woke 30 or 40 minutes later, Anne was at my side. She told me they’d used the defibrillator again, and got my heart going.

And probably hers as well.

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Our 20th Anniversary

It was probably my second-best idea ever, the best being marrying my wife, Anne, in the first place. For our 20th anniversary, I used every frequent-flyer and hotel reward I had, and we spent a week at a resort in Palm Springs, California. As a surprise, I arranged a wedding with the help of a romantic concierge.

All of Anne’s frequent flyer miles came from the only airline she would fly – Air Valium. She took the first pill in the car on the way to the airport to catch the transcontinental flight in our First-Class seats. The instructions from the doctor said to take it thirty minutes before departure, like an airsick pill for the mind, but she decided she needed a pill just to get into the airport. The second pill at the gate was probably a little more sedation than required, and as we boarded, the stewardess asked if she was all right. I briefly explained the Air Valium theory, and she looked at me like I was doing date rape.

Somewhere over Colorado, Anne sobered up, and for the rest of the trip, she kept a grip on my arm like a tourniquet and wanted everyone to sit down so they wouldn’t tip the plane over. Somewhere over Arizona, the stewardess came to appreciate my theory and was offering Anne champagne. She mixed it with a little, a very little, orange juice, and Anne started enjoying flying.

Our ground-floor suite on the golf course in a first-class resort in Palm Springs is just what you’d expect – extravagance. It was bigger than our first apartment, and we had a dining room with a table that would seat six. Among all the other little touches, they provided two silk bathrobes that were so soft it was decadent. In the mornings, Anne and I sit on the patio wearing our robes, watching the ducks and geese in the pond not twenty yards away.

Fowl, gathering for the attack.

Fowl, gathering for the attack.

One morning Anne decided she would feed the fowl. When the Cheerios ran out, they chased her, pecking at her toes and at her ass, and she ran across the fairway with the robe flowing behind her like a naked superhero’s cape. She might have gotten away with little notice if only she hadn’t been screaming.

Anne trying not to cry with joy.

Anne trying not to cry with joy.

When it was time for the surprise ceremony, I tricked her into getting all dressed up by telling her that because of my Platinum level frequent traveler status, we were invited to a private cocktail party where she would get to meet Peter Allen, who was performing at the resort. So we dressed and went to a private meeting room, and on the way, I gave her an anniversary card. Hallmark’s hyperbole was never more evident, and at the end of their description of the perfect marriage, I had hand-written “If you had it to do over again, would you?” She said, “of course,” and got the surprise of her life when I took her up on it.

After that, whenever my son wanted to do a little good-natured bitching at me, he would complain that he wasn’t invited to the wedding. I finally shut him up when I told him that was because we skipped the reception, and went right to the honeymoon.

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