Whenever I see Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, or Ernest Borgnine I think of the movie The Dirty Dozen. I love that movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it over the years since it first came out, but I loved the story even before that. Before it was a film, it was a novel, of the same name. When I first read the book, I was working at Western State Hospital.
Before I attended the University of Puget Sound I attended Olympic College in Bremerton (1964/65). The last quarter I commuted with an old friend of mine from Clover Park High School and fresh out of the Air Force, Ken Armitage. He brought along someone else from Tacoma, Phil Kinkade. We each had cars from 1953. We traded off driving. We were a little crazy . . . perhaps, a lot crazy. When Phil drove, Ken and I would play our harmonicas and sing Beatle songs. In-between we would chomp on kippered salmon. We couldn’t afford good pieces of smoked salmon so we got the portion that still had the salmon backbone and ribs. To amuse ourselves we would make believe and play the stripped bare bones of the salmon like they were harmonicas. No matter who was driving, if we encountered a red light. We would stop and rev up the engine and then we would all rare back like the g-force of a dragster was sucking us into the car seats as we pulled away from the intersection. People in other cars just thought we were weird. Phil worked at Western State Hospital and got me a job there so I could afford to attend UPS.
I worked the night shift, so the patients were mostly asleep when I came on duty, but I had to help get them up in the morning. I was the only male orderly for the ward. Ward X was the violent ward for senior women. When I was first introduced to the staff it was on a day shift. They wanted to see my reaction to a certain patient. She was alone in a room and under restraints. She was bare naked and raving. Even though she was cuffed to the bed (hand and foot) she still managed to claw at the concrete wall. Welcome to Western State.
Generally, the women were quiet (some sedated). They either sat in chairs or wandered the halls and day room. They could seem normal, but then just go off. In the year I worked there I had my face slapped so hard my glasses flew about twenty feet; my Spidel Twist-O-Flex watch band, which was almost impossible to break was wrenched from my wrist and torn apart; and for years I bore a scar on my left hand where one lady dug her nail into it. I remember only once working a day shift, when I relieved someone else on another ward. When I went with the patients to the lunch room, there was a scuffle across the room. I remember vaulting over a table and helping restrain someone while more help arrived.
There was a decent library at Western State, which is where I borrowed The Dirty Dozen. I returned the book during the day and began talking to the librarian. Within a few seconds I realized that she thought I was a patient. So, I quickly explained that I really was an orderly. She just nodded her head and began looking around for help. Finally, I patted my pockets and pulled out my keys to show her I could leave anytime I wanted. I turned and walked out, while I could. I think she watched me every step of the way until I got into my car and drove away . . . just to make sure.
The more I thought about it, the more I believed, and still do that sometimes the only difference between insane people and sane people, is having a set of keys.