During visits to dad in the Eisenhower Unit, a ward for demented veterans, I met many men with interesting backgrounds. In addition to Ray—who served on a famous World War II destroyer and insists he spent the day with Doris Day while recovering from severe battle wounds (See “A Gallant Vessel”)—there is Marion.
Marion was a medical aide man in the Army during World War II, from the Normandy invasion to the conclusion of the war in Germany. Dr. Dan, the unit neurologist, says Marion can speak French and play a harmonica. Another veteran is a former military boxing champion. (For Dr. Dan's story, see "A Dementia Care Philosophy" in my blog entry on February 9)
One day I get the idea that someone could make an intriguing documentary about the Eisenhower unit. Why not me? I have a video camera, and there are several family movies to my credit. The latest project was my cousin’s wedding, and she and the groom were happy with the DVD I sent to them a month later. Especially since, one year later, they were still waiting for the $1000 video they paid for in advance. I came to think of myself as an independent filmmaker.
I had a lot to learn.
I mention to Tammy, the hospital volunteer coordinator, that I am looking for families who are willing to cooperate with a documentary film project, and a few weeks later, she stops me in the recreation room at the hospital and says Marion’s wife, Gwen, will allow me to film her and Marion.
I call Gwen and we discuss the interview. We soon discover that we share a similar Christian faith. She and Marion have faithfully attended church their entire marriage.
We set an appointment for the next Sunday afternoon in the hospital library and agree to pray about the interview and ask God to help Marion be lucid and understandable. Gwen says it is impossible to predict Marion’s ability to communicate and stay focused, so she gives me a brief summary of Marion’s life:
Marion Lee Bell was born on February 26, 1912 in Wayne County, Kentucky. He was 6 weeks old the night of the Titanic tragedy, 29 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and 57 when man stepped on the moon for the first time. Marion was the first of ten children. He attended a one-room school several miles from home, but quit in the fourth grade to help the family earn an income. He made 75 cents a day. Marion and his brother cut and shucked corn for a few cents a shawk (a bundle of corn stalks), and they also cut wood with a crosscut saw. Although Marion did not have much formal education, he had a thirst for learning throughout his life. He married Gwen on December 27, 1965. They never had children. Now Marion is legally blind, hard of hearing and has severe dementia.
The next Sunday, April 17, Marion and Gwen are waiting for me in the library. Coming straight from church, Gwen arrives first and brings Marion down to the library in a wheelchair. He was dressed in a navy blue sweatshirt, sweatpants and matching fleece jacket. His head is topped off by an old fedora hat with a white paint stain above the brim. Gwen says Marion has never gone anywhere without his hat, and he insisted on wearing it to the interview.
I retrieve two wooden chairs from one of the tables in the library and place them in front of a bookshelf. This is a good place because the light from the large library window falls on the shelf. It is an overcast April afternoon. Momentary breaks in the cloud deck subtly change the lighting, but I don’t think this is dramatic enough to affect the filming.
Gwen and I help Marion from his wheelchair and place him on the chair to my right, and then Gwen takes the chair to his right. I kneel on one knee and hold Gwen’s hand as I ask God to bring His Holy Spirit into the interview. Marion takes off his hat as I turn on my video camera.
Marion asks Gwen if it is 5 p.m. and she says no, it is 2:30 p.m. He often asks if it is five in the morning or five at night. I wonder what it is about 5 o’clock that makes it stick in his mind. Did something significant happen in his life at 5 a.m. or 5 p.m.?
My first question is, “Do you remember much about being in World War II?”
Marion stares in my direction for a few seconds, then leans over to Gwen and asks, “What did he say?”
I repeated the question, and Marion looked anxiously between Gwen and the sound of my voice. He smiles and politely says, “Sir, I can’t understand you.”
Gwen puts her lips close to Marion’s right ear and says in a slightly elevated voice, “He wants you to tell him about being in the war.”
Marion grins and answers, “Well, to be frank with you, I didn’t have much time to learn much.”
I ask him to explain.
“We had to keep movin’ on, you see. And so, I wasn’t scared too bad. I’d say the hardest part was about the first three days in there for me. Outside of that, I got along good sleeping in foxholes and dugouts. I think I got along about five weeks in that battlefield.”
He says he was in southern France and it was so long ago he had forgotten. Despite his claim Marion continues, “I wouldn’t want to go back now. I guess if I was as young now as I was back then, I wouldn’t care to go back. But you gotta learn to dodge the bullets. Our foxholes were in the ground. I’d find out which way they were shooting and I’d get over on the other side and they’d shoot over my head into that bank above my foxhole. I’m sitting there laughing at them.”
Marion looks at Gwen and laughs heartily. What kind of man laughs while the enemy is trying to kill him?
Marion’s speech is slightly slurred, and it is difficult for him to pronounce words beginning with “t” or “r.” I find after a few minutes that I can understand most of what he is telling me. The interview is turning into something completely different than I anticipated. This severely demented man is articulate, witty and entertaining. How long will it last?
Marion discusses waiting to go across the British Channel for the Normandy invasion.
“We were waiting around, and a British officer came up to us and asked how we were doing. I said when it gets dark we’re going to slip across that water to the other side. The officer laughed and asked how we were feeling about that and I told him, well we’re still on two legs.”
Following a couple of chuckles Marion says, “Our casualties were building up over there. Most of my work was running back and forth between the front lines. I was a medic through it all. It was long hours sometimes. Sometimes when there was a raid, it was pretty hot and heavy, and sometimes it was light. But I lived it through it, and got back here, thank God. I didn’t get homesick. I knew it was to win or lose. I didn’t want to lose, so I stayed right in there.”
After a moment or two, he starts talking again. “But now, I don’t want to go back over there again. I done been there.”
I ask, loudly this time, what he did as a medical aide man.
He replies, “I doctored lacerated wounds, broken fingers, cut legs and all that. If I found a guy who needed to go to surgery, I would have to holler at the surgery team. And if I’d find a guy that had to be sewed up, he had to go right over to the operating table to be sewed up. See? I would not take that responsibility.”
He suddenly says, “All right now, we’re movin’ on.”
After a short pause, he says, “I was in there 12 months as a medical aide man. I was a lot older than the other boys, too old to be in there, but I tried my best to do my part. I never drank any alcohol or whiskey. I never gambled a dime or a nickel. I never laid out nights. I wanted to get it over with and let me get back home.
“One time my captain came by and said Doc Bell, I better put you in the delivery room.” Gwen and I laugh as Marion leans forward in his chair toward me, chuckles and says, “I asked him how many pregnancies did he have. He said a lot of these officers around here are in that way.”
Marion drops his hat at the end of the story, bends over gingerly to retrieve it and puts it back on his lap.
The captain was a pleasant memory for Marion. “One day the captain came in and asked me, ‘Doc Bell, which end of that boat did you ride comin’ over here?’ I said the wrong end. He said why was that? I said if I’d fallen off I’d of fallen in the water and then they would have run over me. And so that was a big laugh to him. The captain said, ‘Doc Bell, you like to ride on the water, don’t you?’ I told him, ‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have a flat tar (tire).’”
Marion continued talking about the boat ride over to England from the United States in 1943. “One day as we were riding on the boat, I decided to go up to the crow’s nest. I wasn’t supposed to, but I did anyway. An officer said, ‘By golly, if you can go up there, I’ll go, too.’ So here he was, right after me. We went up there and got in that crow’s nest. You see, that thing was about 35-foot above the boat.”
Marion stretches out his arm to the right across Gwen, and sways back and forth in his chair. He describes the rocking motion of the crow’s nest as the ship crossed sizeable waves. Gwen folds her hands on her lap and smiles, as her husband again is a young soldier on the way to liberate Europe.
“We were w-a-a-a-a-y out over the sea, it wasn’t no more than 20 feet down to the ocean from where we was sittin’,” Marion continues. “The officer asked me, ‘Are you scared?’ I told him ‘No, if I was, I wouldn’t be out here.’ Well sir, that tickled him good. Later we were walking on that rocking boat, and he said, ‘You know water, don’t you?’ I told him I can walk that boat easy. I walked everywhere I went.”
Marion waves his right hand back and forth to show me how the ship rolled in the waves.
“See, you had to keep your balance. The officer asked me, ‘What do we do now?’ I said, ‘I guess you and me better take a boat ride.’ We went up to where they had the boats hooked up. We got in and took a boat ride.”
Marion raises his right hand to shoulder height, sticks out his forefinger and describes a large, upside-down arc in front of Gwen as he recalls the swaying action of one of the troop’s transport lifeboats. Gwen eases her head back and out of the way as Marion rocks his upper body in rhythm to his tale telling.
“That thing went w-a-a-a-a-y over here, and it looked like you could reach right out and touch the water. People down on the deck down there started laughin’ and clappin’ their hands and said ‘Throw water on him! Throw water on him!’ I said, ‘No, he’s a frog and he’ll jump in directly. Boy, we had a bushel of fun outta that—something to break the monotony. See, nobody wanted to go in there and face all those guns. But we had it to do it.”
Marion lowers his hand, stops rocking and his face became somber.
“I was fortunate. I was a medical aide man, and I’m glad of it. It was nasty work, but somebody had to do that. And I did it. When it was all over with, I got a lot of handshakes, and I headed back to America.”
Marion drops his head and a smile spreads across his face.
“I seen trucks transportin’ soldiers, they’re tryin’ to get across a railroad track and the drivers of the trucks was soldier boys, you know. Alright, one of them trucks was loaded with soldiers and an ol’ train come through at high speed, and the whistle blowin’ and the truck drivers—they don’t know what in the heck is goin’ on, and a driver cut across.”
Marion glances from me to Gwen. Since he is nearly blind, he never looks exactly at us. He makes a fist with his right hand and punches the air as he remembers the driver of one of the trucks trying to beat the train to the crossing.
“But the tail end of the truck hit this truck and it had some soldiers in it. It got up on two wheels and then rolled around to the other two wheels. The soldiers all hit the ground on foot and run off and left it.”
Marion split the first two fingers of his right hand and moved it rapidly from side to side as he said, “You see them old tandem wheels kept it from rollin’. They just jumped out and got away from it.”
His shoulders rock with delight at the memory of the soldiers jumping from the truck. Marion’s expression suddenly changes again as he looks pensively in my direction.
“But you can expect anything in the midst of war when you’re in it. Stay out of it, if you can.”
Marion talks about using penicillin and how it was a lifesaver to the troops. He describes working from six in the morning until midnight, sleeping a few hours and then getting up with half a cup of coffee to start a new day. Maybe he got up around 5 a.m. Marion’s days in the hospital were mixed with dangerous trips to combat areas to retrieve the wounded.
“I wasn’t too well educated but I learned fast, thank God, and I didn’t have a mishap,” he says. “Belgium, France, and Germany was mostly where I was. German people were good, and the French people were good. I didn’t have no problem with them.” Marion grows quiet and waits for the next question. Gwen asks Marion if he will speak in French to me.
He doesn’t hear her, and Gwen grins at me as Marion continues his last thought.
“You see southern France is big apple country,” he explains. “They haul them apples across the ocean, and they cost five dollars a bushel. Well, when I’m not on duty, I prowl around. You need to speak two languages, so I took off on that, and I could have good conversations with them.”
He looks at the space to my left and stops talking.
Gwen then makes a request directly into Marion’s right ear, “Speak some French for him.”
He is confused initially, but then says, “Would I …oh!” A huge grin appears. Marion waves his right hand as if he is gesturing to an audience and astounds me with, “Comment allez-vous, Monsieur? Combien d’heures vous travaillez aujourd’hui? Combien d’heures vous partez pour manger? Onze heures?” While keeping his grin and looking expectantly at me, Marion secretly taps Gwen’s left knee as if telling her, “Let’s see if he knows what that means.” After another few seconds, Marion translates for us, “How are you, Sir? How many hours do you have to work today? How long do you have to eat? An hour?” I lived close to the French border. I had to speak French to the French soldiers and English to our boys. They didn’t teach me to speak French, I picked it up as I worked, you see. He scrunches up his face in pure joy, enjoying how he is able to stump me with his French. I laugh with him.
“It didn’t do me no good to speak English to the French soldiers,” he says. “ It’s all unknown words to them.”
Gwen asks him to count in French. Marion says, “Now that’s easy.”
Grabbing each finger of his left hand with his right hand and then repeating with the other hand, Marion counts while Gwen watches him tick off each number with a finger: “Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix. Wasn’t that something? I used to pick the guitar for them, and they took a shine to that. They’re nice people after all, but you got to get used them. They have their style of living, just like we do in America.”
Marion continues to give me a French lesson. He tells me how to ask, “What time do we eat,” and “where do you work” and other simple expressions. He says he did a lot of interpreting for the new soldier boys coming in as replacements. French soldiers who had been patched up by Marion before going to the field hospital came back to “parlez-vous” with him after they recovered. Marion described bombs dropping on a building and how he had to go in and dig out the soldiers who had been wounded. Some of the men were badly burned and blistered by the exploding shells. I ask Marion what it was like to be in combat.
“You’re just about as safe in one place as you are another,” he answers. “Now, the trench is the safest place. You should never stick your head up and start speculating. Keep your head down in there, and pretty soon you’ll learn which way the bullets are coming in, and you know good and well you ain’t going the way they’re a comin’ in. My foxhole was a square hole.”
Marion makes a square over his lap with his long, slender fingers. He then pulls his hands apart and uses them to gracefully describe a road, the position of his foxhole in relation to the road and bullets hitting the ground above his foxhole.
“There’s a big highway. They started shooting, and they hit this bank to the southwest,” he says. “The bullets started hitting that bank, and from the top of that bank to where I’m layin’ is about five feet.”
Marion splits his hands vertically to indicate five feet.
“All those bullets are hitting the bank, they’re just a rollin’ in and all the dirt is pourin’ down on me. I rolled over to the other side of the hole, and they started coming in on that side. They didn’t realize that way was working. I was in combat for a year. It was dangerous as hell for a while.”
Marion had moved toward me in his chair as he recounts some of his combat experience. Gwen still had her hands folded in her lap, and she has a far away look in her eyes as Marion talks about people trying their best to kill him. He shifts his head to the right and waits for a few seconds. Returning from his foxhole, he turns back to me and says thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t want to go back over there. Of course, I’m too old now. Back then, I didn’t pay no attention to it. I could jump pretty good and I could run like a rabbit.”
Gwen shifts her loving gaze from Marion over to me and gently laughs as Marion brags on his athletic abilities.
“If I heard the signal, why, I took cover,” the veteran continues. “Them that didn’t take cover, they soon took it.”
Marion grabs the brim of his hat, now lying in his lap, and chuckles merrily as he remembers greenhorn soldiers diving into his foxhole after the incoming shells arrived.
Gwen told me earlier that Marion had picked up soldiers from the front lines. Now she asks Marion about going to the combat areas. His hat falls to the floor again, and as he retrieved it he says, “Oh yeah, I was on the front lines. I had an underground tunnel I could use for an air raid shelter.”
Marion stares intently to his right and stops talking. Abruptly he resumes, accompanying his storytelling with elegant, flowing movements of his hands.
“Them tunnels over there—you run like it’s right there—and you jump down in there, jump down. Now you don’t know which way to go, and the enemy chasing you, they don’t know either. So they think you gone that way, but you ain’t cause you took back that-a-way.”
Marion points back and forth with his fingers in front of Gwen to show us how he ran in the tunnels during an enemy attack. Gwen stares intently as Marion tells us more.
“When they get where you want ‘em, then you shoot ‘em down back in there. It was a crap shoot, wasn’t it?”
Marion drops his eyes to the floor and slightly shakes his head as if it could have been him instead of the enemy who died in the tunnel.
Marion’s entertaining and suspenseful monologue fascinates me. For a moment, I consider that here is a severely demented, 92-year-old veteran who is articulately recounting his experiences during World War II. Before today, I never heard Marion say much more than one or two sentences that were properly oriented with respect to time and place.
“It didn’t last long cause the Germans give up,” Marion says, regaining my attention. “We went across from where we had camp and sat down beside a highway, like I was a sitting here, and we would talk to Germans. And they would take German cigarettes, and one thing and another, and of course they had the whiskey.”
Marion bends over, stares seriously at me and proclaims, “I don’t drink it!” Relaxing his posture and flapping a section of his soft cotton jacket, he confided, “The American boys would slip a bottle of whiskey under their coats, and the Germans would start drinking it, and there would be lots of hand shaking.”
He cocks his head to one side, raises his hands in a sign of innocence, and says, “I had nothing to do with that. But that’s where old Hitler lost the bill. They give up.”
I ask Gwen if Marion remembers growing up in the hills of southern Kentucky. Gwen draws Marion close to her and says, “Tell him what you did as a little boy.”
He immediately shifted gears and returned to the 1920’s.
“To get a little money in your pocket, come Saturday, your daddy might not have to work. Okay, but you got three boys. Getcha a hoe and go to the mountain and dig ginseng. Now that’s for each one’s money.”
Marion spreads the fingers of his right hand and rapidly shakes it to emphasize the importance of what he is telling me. Ginseng is a medicinal plant found in thickly forested areas, and it resembles the figure of a man. Some holistic drug companies buy quantities of dried ginseng root.
“I drove with Daddy, Uncle High Jenkins, and two or three more uncles,” Marion recalls. “Oh, I had a field full of uncles. We’d go out deep into the mountains, you had to look straight up to see the sky, and you couldn’t really see it then.”
Marion lifts his head and stares at the ceiling of the library. Lowering his eyes back to my level he says, “I’d find a bunch of ginseng. I’d say that’s a two prong ‘seng, and I’d put it over there, and that’s a three prong ‘seng, and I’d put it over here.”
He points his hand to his right to show us the spot in the forest where he inventoried his ginseng plants.
“Now I’d get all my ginseng together and put it in a paper sack and tie that sack off. Then I’d put it on the porch, and the sun would come through and dry it out. Now, that was my spendin’ money. One time I took 14 dollars worth, and one time I took 20 dollars worth. I took it to the freight house and sold it. But that bunch was a long time a diggin’ it.”
Marion says he was disappointed with the poor work ethic of his daddy and uncles when digging up the medicinal plant. I wonder if Marion’s dad and Uncle High may have gotten a little high in the woods while young Marion excavated the ginseng.
Gwen asks Marion how much money he made per day working as a young man.
“Oh, when I started working I was making 75 cents a day.”
Marion pats right knee and proudly says, “Then I went to work for a company and went up to a dollar a day. After that, I went a little higher to two dollars a day. Then we started in to counting the hour. Well, by the time we got to counting the hours, why, new makes of trucks made it too handy and too cheap to hire labor. So I lost out on that deal. I wasn’t able to give 7,000 dollars for one of them hoister trucks, and I didn’t need it no way; I was a poor boy.”
At one time, Marion worked in the logging industry and lost a job due to the mechanization of logging with diesel power tractors and hoister equipment that began in the 1920’s. The tractors pulled the hoisters, and both were used to transport logs.
Marion continues talking about the pre-war years.
“I finally growed up and went on my own,” he recalls. “Got my own truck and went on. Now I broke down here like this and have to sit around and take it easy.”
Marion has some idea of his condition.
“I did not get married on account of the expense. And, of course, 75 cents a day was big money. What did I want with a woman and a bunch of kids and not own no house?”
Gwen is smiling again now.
“The minute I’d get enough money ahead, I’d have to help Daddy with a delivery bill till he had 10 babies delivered,” says Marion. “There went my money.”
Gwen nods toward me in agreement, and whispers that it is true.
“Of course I couldn’t say no,” Marion says. “So Daddy wound up, I believe it was, with ten kids.”
Gwen begins telling me how they met, but Marion jumps in and says, “I was 23 years old when they took me to the Army at the outbreak of the war.” Marion is mistaken about his age—he was 30 years old in 1942.
“Before then, I had never stayed a night away from home. Daddy would come with a lantern at midnight to get me when I was playing checkers with my uncle and my cousin in front of the fireplace. My daddy would come in, and I’d have to go or he’d beat the hell outta me. So I’d have to give up and go.”
Gwen raises her eyebrows in surprise and laughs. This is the first time she has heard this story.
Marion grasps his hat tightly; the aged fedora is his security blanket. Perhaps it is his only link to a past life.
“I came into this world in 1912,” Marion shares. “As I went through life, I made many changes. My grandma on my mother’s side taught me a lot. She had four girls—maybe six girls—I forget which, and one boy. He in turn made a lawyer. And grandma raised her family with no husband. The girls all married and went out. Grandma was a good worker. She had a good education. She was a good horseback rider.”
Marion suddenly speaks French again. He teaches me French for several minutes and is having a grand time stumping me with questions. I become worried that we might lose him to dementia and if there are any more stories left.
Gwen tries to tell me again how they met, dated and married, but Marion interrupts her with comments like, “My daddy wouldn’t let me leave the house till I was 22,” or “Daddy would say ‘Help me with these kids!,’ and I’d tell him they’re yours, Daddy, do with them as you please,” or “Daddy didn’t make no money. They was rich farmers but they wouldn’t pay him nothing.”
Marion hears a bit of what Gwen says about dating because he turns completely toward her and exclaims in a mischievous tone, “Ahhh ... now, you’re gettin’ private ain’t ya?!”
The next moment is the most endearing of the interview. Gwen has her legs crossed, her right arm on a crossed leg and the other arm draped across the back of the yellow wooden chair; she is completely relaxed and enjoying Marion’s jovial mood. He tenderly pats her right knee with his right hand and reflectively says, “I met many mademoiselles, but I never met one like you. Comment allez-vous? How are you?” Gwen’s eyes soften as her husband expresses his love the best way he can. I think it must have been a joy to spend life with Marion. Still is. Gwen answers, “I’m fine. How about you?”
Marion’s chin sinks to his chest. He stares at his hat and replies, “I guess I’m all right. I don’t know.”
Gwen speaks of the work Marion did as a carpenter and some of the things he built for their church, the Monticello First Church of the Nazarene, in Monticello, Ky. He made the cross that adorns the sanctuary. At that moment, I know I must visit Monticello to learn more about Gwen and Marion.
Marion is silent for several minutes while Gwen takes her turn in front of the camera. When she finishes Marion says, “I was a joy to the preacher. He liked to see me. Now I don’t get out much and see much anymore. For the last two years, I been bogged down. I can’t tell nobody about anything I saw here today.”
He moves his hand in a wide circle to show he can’t see what is going on in the library. Marion gazes at Gwen and adds, “Outside you. I saw you!” They chortle together and Marion reaches for Gwen’s hand and holds it while she elaborates on the cross Marion built for the church. Marion interrupts her with, “I told her daddy I’d take care of that little girl.” Gwen shushes him by patting his arm, rubbing his shoulder and gently moving him from side to side and Marion releases her hand while Gwen tells me how two song evangelists persuaded the preacher to let Marion build a cross for the Monticello church.
Marion takes Gwen’s hand once again and says, “She was a good driver. I helped her buy a car. She would sit down in the driver’s seat, hold the steering wheel and say Giddy up, Bess!”
Marion opens his mouth wide and lets out a series of guffaws that rock his whole body. Like a teenage girl, Gwen slaps his back a few times in embarrassment as Marion thoroughly enjoys a fine, long laugh. They remind me of a young couple sitting on a couch enjoying each other’s company while they chat with a good friend. Marion lets go of Gwen’s hand and says, “Lord, Lord” when they got the laughter out of their system.
Gwen had brought Marion’s army uniform. The uniform is on a wooden hanger and in excellent condition. There are two stripes on each sleeve of the jacket, with a “T” underneath the stripes. They represent Marion’s rank as a Technician 5th Grade. Four yellow bars are at the bottom of the left sleeve, and each equals six months overseas for a total of two years. One slanted black stripe below the yellow bars was awarded for Marion’s three-year enlistment. Two ribbons and a medal are fastened to the left breast pocket, and the pants are on the hanger underneath the jacket.
Gwen holds the hanger and places the lower half of the uniform on Marion’s leg. He feels an olive-green sleeve and says, “That’s heavy quilt. That’s army stuff.” Gwen agrees and asks him if he knows whose uniform it is. Marion says he didn’t know, so Gwen tells him it is his. Marion asks, “Does it have an ‘old fogey’ stripe on it?” Gwen says she didn’t know about his stripes, and Marion replies it is a black stripe on the sleeve—he means the three-year enlistment service stripe. Gwen takes her husband’s hand and rubs it across the service stripe.
“I can’t see it,” Marion says. “It’s an old fogey stripe. That’s for old soldiers. Why did you bring it here today?”
Gwen replied that she wanted him to look at it again. Marion glances at me and cackles while he says, “I’ve seen that thing enough!”
Gwen and Marion investigate the medals and ribbons, but Marion can’t remember what any of them mean.
Marion sings a little jingle for us, “This is the army, Mister Jones, no private telephone.” Later, I enter these words into an Internet search engine and find they are the first two lines of an Irving Berlin song written in 1942:
This is the Army, Mister Jones.
No private rooms or telephones.
You had your breakfast in bed before,
But you wont have it there any more.
This is the Army, Mister Green.
We like the barracks nice and clean.
You had a housemaid to clean your floor,
But she wont help you out any more.
Do what the buglers command.
They're in the army and not in a band.
This is the Army, Mr. Brown.
You and your baby went to town.
She had you worried but this is war,
and she won’t worry you any more.
I ask Gwen to give her husband one of the two harmonicas he owns. The area where Marion grew up was called Gap of the Ridge, and he honed his musical skills playing in a family band called The Gap of the Ridge Roughnecks.
Marion accepts the smaller of the two and tests its tune with a few short notes. With his hat perched precariously on his right knee, Marion wraps both hands around the mouth harp and expertly toots a few seconds of a familiar sounding bluegrass ditty. I am surprised once more at Marion’s abilities. I push the zoom button on my camera and hope for a tighter shot, but he drops the harmonica too soon for me and sings in a warbling voice, “Ol’ freight train blues …” Marion claps the harmonica against the palm of his hand to clean it out, then he tells Gwen that his mouth is too dry to play. She gives him a bottle of water with a straw, and Marion draws a refreshing drink of the cold beverage. Gwen say Marion used to play the harmonica frequently.
After the drink, Marion blows one chord as a warm up then plays a rift resembling a segment of the Christmas carol, Noel. He uses his hands to get a nice echo effect from the harmonica, and the melody is beautiful. Too soon again he stops, laughs, taps his palm with the harmonica and gives it back to Gwen while saying, “Lord, Lord.”
After about an hour, Gwen and I help Marion out of the wooden library chair and into the metal and fabric wheelchair. Marion departs 90 years of memories and returns to his final foxhole and last campaign.
* * *
Gwen comes back to the library to review how she and Marion met and explain the struggles she has experienced when dealing with Marion’s dementia. I also film this conversation.
Back in the day, Gwen’s father was building a new home, and he hired Marion to help with the carpentry. That was when the couple met for the first time. As the work on the house continued, they got to know each other, started dating and fell in love. Gwen wanted to finish school and become a teacher before marrying. She graduated from Cumberland College in 1963 and started what was to become a 35-year teaching career. Gwen and Marion decided to elope, and they drove to Tennessee and married on Dec. 27, 1965.
Gwen and Marion started building a ranch-style, brick home on the outskirts of Monticello, Kentucky in 1966. Gwen helped Marion lay brick before she went to work in the morning and again in the evening when she returned from school.
Marion was self-employed as a carpenter and looked after his aging parents until they required long-term nursing care. In 1966, he developed a heart condition, and in 1976, his health began to deteriorate seriously. In 1991, Marion began to exhibit signs of dementia. He entered the Eisenhower unit in 2004.
I ask Gwen to discuss her trials while coping with Marion’s dementia.
“Marion’s sickness started about 12 years ago and it was very, very gradual, Gwen recalls. “It didn’t happen overnight. I could see things, and I guess you deny it. I didn’t want to think he was getting sick. Through the years Marion gradually got worse and worse.”
Gwen recalls a specific time when she knew something was wrong with Marion.
“Since he was a carpenter, he began repairing things in the house,” she says. “In the bathroom, for instance, he took the sink apart. When I came in from work, he couldn’t get it back together. I had to call a plumber to come and fix the bathroom. We had always worked together, did all of our repairs ourselves. A big issue for me was to find people to do things. I didn’t know how to do the things that Marion had done before. Like the lawnmower. He said I’d need to use it one day. But I refused to become a mechanic. Now I could use the ability to do some of those things.” Gwen smiles and sighs as she recalls learning how to use a lawnmower for the first time.
She continues, “But, those were some of the things that were happening. Physically, he was also going downhill. He began to fall a lot, and he would fall on the concrete on our patio. I tried to pick him up, but I couldn’t. He begged me to just drag him across the concrete, but Marion is six foot two, and I couldn’t drag him. We have two nephews, Gerald and Eddie, and they’re just like my children. They came to my rescue. I feel the Lord sent them at the right time. It had to be the Lord taking care of me.
“Eddie lived much closer to me than Gerald, and I would call him at two in the morning, at four in the morning, and he always came to help me. He never complained, Gwen says. “He always said, ‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’ It was a very difficult situation, a very stressful situation, and as you know, it’s still stressful for them to be here.”
Gwen describes how her life has changed due to Marion’s dementia.
“There have been so many changes in my life to deal with. We had only been away from each other for three nights in 38 years, except for two deaths in my family and a few short trips to the hospital for me. When he was in the hospital, I just packed up and lived with him—if he stayed a week, I stayed a week. But the dementia takes its toll. I couldn’t leave him and trust him to stay in the house, so I gave up any kind of life on my own. Nighttime seemed to be when Marion had most of his problems. One night he went to the garage and accidentally cut himself with a knife—we had lots of nighttime mishaps. All of his emergency runs to the hospital were at night.
Gwen credits God with helping her through the hard times.
“With the help of the good Lord above, I was able to take care of him, and I would do it again,” she says. “My doctor warned me for four years that I was under too much stress taking care of Marion, but you forget yourself and do what you have to do. Since he’s been here, I’ve been able to take care of my health problems. It’s still stressful with Marion being here, but not like it was.” Gwen stops to wipe a tear from her eye.
I share with Gwen how my mother misses Dad terribly, and occasionally wishes he were still at home, even in a demented condition. Mom knows this isn’t possible, but the loneliness can be overpowering after decades of marriage. Gwen agrees and says, “You don’t realize until they’re gone how lonely life can be without them. I never came home unless Marion was there waiting for me, for years and years and years.”
Gwen obviously has a strong Christian faith. She says, “The advice I would give to any wife would be to leave your loved one in the Lord’s hands. Pray daily that He will take care of your loved one and also take care of you.”
The last question I have for Gwen concerns what she thinks of the care Marion receives at the center.
“I thank God every day for this nursing home and the people He sent here,” she says. “They are so efficient, they are God-loving people and I thank them so much for every act of kindness they show Marion. They never waiver; they are always the same.” I feel the same type of gratitude.
We say our goodbyes. I ask to come to Monticello and visit Gwen and Marion’s home and the First Church of the Nazarene. Maybe I can also meet their nephew Eddie and one of Marion’s surviving siblings. Gwen says to call and set up a visit on a weekend. She suggests I catch her nephew Eddie and Marion’s baby sister, Savannah, the next time they visit Marion. They probably will come in the next week or so. I eagerly anticipate meeting more of Marion’s family, and seeing the church and the Bell’s home in Monticello.
Please pray for Marion and Gwen; Marion is not doing well.
Art by my good friend, John Foster, a Louisville-based commercial artist.
To learn more about the Eisenhower Unit, please read my Blog and “Stories by our Users” entries listed below:
Reveille/August 15-January 1 (Blog)
Bricks of a Different Color-January 4 (Blog)
A Show of Love-January 10 (Blog)
Moving Day-January 13 (Blog)
Introductions-January 18 (Blog)
Sharing Our Grief-January 22 (Blog)
Love Stories-January 25(Blog)
Trashman-January 29 (Blog)
Holiday Gatherings-February 2 (Blog)
A Conversation About Alzheimer's-February 6 (Blog)
Nursing Dementia-February 8 (Blog)
A Dementia Care Philosophy-February 9 (Blog)
Ministering Demented Veterans-February 12 (Blog)
In The Shadow-February 17 (Blog)
A Gallant Vessel-February 17(Stories by our Users)
Memorial Day-February 19 (Stories by our Users)