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That hospital gig didn’t work out but it led to something much better

I hope nobody tells my kids. I’ve been thinking about a tattoo.

Just a little one.

I read that there’s a fast-growing trend among women over 60 to get inconspicuous tattoos as private gifts to themselves.

It makes sense. You don’t have to worry about what damage the years will cause with wrinkles and gravity. They’re already there. You just work them into the composition for a tasteful, three-dimensional effect, something expressing the inner self.

Maybe a butterfly or, in my case, a double pat of butter. No matter what you choose, the past has a way of catching up to you.

A woman I didn’t recognize stopped me on the way out of church last Sunday. Her name was Carmen, she said.

“You don’t remember me,” she observed. “But a long time ago, in Bangkok, we worked together. “

The years came flooding back.

Carmen and I met as Red Cross volunteers at Fifth Field Army Hospital in Bangkok. I had just finished training. I suspected I had no aptitude at all for hospital work. I was proved right beyond my wildest dreams.

My first task was taking and recording temperatures. At least, thank heaven, they were oral thermometers. I was so nervous I couldn’t read the temperatures.

In desperation, I hit on the brilliant plan of surreptitiously copying what was written by the previous volunteer, who, I reasoned must know more than I did.

I thought I got away with it, but the next week when I reported back, there was a sign on the bulletin board which said, “Red Cross volunteers no longer take temperatures in this hospital.”

So they let me pass water. Which is to say, I was given a cart and pitchers full of ice water with the expectation that I couldn’t get into too much trouble.

That turned out to be incorrect.

I was doing all right until I got to the orthopedic ward, where a combat photographer lay suffering from a spine fractured in a helicopter crash.

In a transport of sympathy for the injured man, I moved close to the side of the bed and bumped his leg, which was unfortunately attached to his spine.

Nobody could have guessed that would happen.

He screamed quite a lot but no real damage was done. I know this because I saw him some weeks later in the PX, and he was able to cover the distance to the exit with remarkable speed. It’s unusual to see a man with that kind of injury move so fast.

The really incredible thing was that I received a call the very next day from the chairman of volunteers, Mrs. General Westmoreland. (Our version of military protocol required that she be called by her first name – Mrs. – and her husband’s rank.) I had no idea what her given name was. I certainly would never have used it.

Gen. William Westmoreland was just coming to the end of his service as commander of the military forces in Vietnam.

Mrs. Westmoreland was calling to offer me the opportunity to create a volunteer recreation service for the hospital.

“We think your talents are” – she paused, searching for the right word, which I feared would turn out to be “non existent.” She finally settled for “not fully utilized.” Then, I’m practically sure she said, “And for God’s sake, stay away from the sick people.”

There were no funds, just a card table in the Red Cross lounge and some kind soul donated $25. Carmen worked with me. We started with dried-out clay and yarn, teaching macramé to unenthusiastic soldiers. A year later we had a fully funded service with more than 100 volunteers.

I had learned something. It would have been so easy for the director to say, “Look, we’ve given you every chance, but you’re just not working out.” Instead, I was given the chance to succeed at something that would provide me with a way to make a living for the rest of my life.

I’ve changed my mind about the tattoo. I don’t need it.

In these days, when we’re bombarded at every turn with mean-spirited thoughts and words, it’s good to remember that sometimes we have the ability to reach out to those we meet and offer a chance for success or joy.

That is engraved on the heart – permanently.

Just to be on the safe side though, please don’t say anything to my kids.

Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.

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