Day of the Dead

(A diversion from all the seriousness of this week; a brief excerpt for today – All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar, and commonly celebrated as one of the Days of the Dead in the borderlands – from Book 1 in the continuing series of the Chronicles of Luna City)

Day of the Dead

The dead are always with us – their memories, if not their actual presence. Some of the residents of Luna City do claim a casual speaking relationship with the dead, through some medium or other. Judy Grant claims to see auras and to sense otherworldly presences. The rest, especially those over a certain age – are acquainted with the dead. The oldest residents; Miss Letty McAllister, Dr. Wyler, Adeliza Gonzales, all of whom have passed into their eighth decade at the very least, are now in the curious position of having more friends among the dead than they do the living.

Such is the custom in the borderlands, which includes Luna City; there is a time to formally acknowledge those gone on before. In the Catholic Church, the first and second days of November — All Saint’s and All Soul’s Days – are set aside to honor and celebrate saints and martyrs, and then to remember all the others. Such orthodox Catholic rites and traditions of observing All Saints and All Souls merged, or were grafted onto more ancient customs. In Mexico, such observances merged with a traditional festival honoring an Aztec goddess of the underworld. It is believed that over the Days of the Dead, they are allowed to return for a visit to the living. It is considered a fond and courteous gesture to put out refreshments for those visitors, especially the deceased’s favorite food and drink. In Mexico and in the southern borderlands, the dead are honored with representations of skulls, and offerings of marigolds and special food and drink. Families visit the graveyard, and adorn the grave of a loved one with flowers, or build special private altars adorned with pictures of the deceased, with flowers, candles and significant memorabilia. It’s just one of those things.

The most visible Day of the Dead observance in Luna City appears stealthily around the War Memorial on Town Square – a grey granite obelisk on a four-square base, upon which are carved names of local men from both world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, and a single freshly-incised name of a Marine, L.Cpl. J.W. Ellis, dead in the aftermath of an ambush near Fallujah in 2004. There is also the name of a single woman; an Army nurse who perished at Anzio in the Second World War.  She was a girlhood friend of Miss Letty’s – who brings and leaves for three days a bright red lipstick and a tiny vial of Coty Emeraude. Bottles of beer also appear, almost by magic – Pabst, Shiner, Lone Star and Pearl. On his way out to the Wyler ranch to participate in Doc Wyler’s hunting trip (the first days of hunting season coincide with Day of the Dead – a coincidence which some have found bitterly ironic) Chris Mayall brings a half-dozen cellophane-wrapped Moon Pies for J.W. Ellis. Those were J.W.’s favorite, and he always shared them out with his buddies in the company when they got care packages from home.

In the little office in the Abernathy building, Jess brings out the silver-framed picture of her mother Beth, luminous in a bridal gown and veil. She waits until after Martin and her grandfather have gone to the Wyler ranch, wondering if Martin still grieves for her mother … if he does or doesn’t, Jess doesn’t want him to think that she is reproaching him. Martin has been the best and most devoted Dad ever. Perhaps he has finally dealt with the death of his wife, since it has been twenty years and a bit. Jess was ten when Beth died; if she has come to grips with her loss, she is not certain she wants to know for certain if Martin has. She sets up a modestly-Anglo version of a Day of the Dead altar; some yellow and white silk irises in a glass jar and a small Franciscan Desert Rose-patterned plate with some home-made raisin oatmeal cookies on them. Yellow was Beth Abernathy’s favorite color … and she always made raisin oatmeal cookies for Jess. The smell of oatmeal cookies baking – butter, brown sugar, cinnamon brings the memory of her mother most piercingly back to Jess: but not as she last saw her mom, skeletal and shrunken, stuck full of needles and plastic tubes in a hospital room in a big hospital in San Antonio. Jess’ fondest memory is of her mother mopping the floor of the Abernathy’s little house three blocks from Town square, her hair tied up in a scarf, and scolding Jess affectionately for tracking across the clean floor with dirt on her shoes, while the smell of baking cookies perfumed the air.

Miss Letty, sternly Methodist and with no inclination to follow any custom or practice which smacks of either high church or pagan practices does, nonetheless, put out a dusty bottle of aged Courvoisier on the mantle of the old-fashioned parlor, where a tinted sepia portrait of her grandfather, Arthur McAllister sits beside a smaller one of her brother, Douglas … the professor of history at the notable university in San Antonio. Douglas was three years older than Miss Letty, and she recalls him quite fondly – although with some disapproval over what she viewed as his inappropriate sense of humor.

Joe Vaughn and the half-dozen officers of the Luna City Police Department do set up regular memorial alter in the little foyer of the police department building, at the edge of town. It honors those officers of notable memory who served Luna City over the years, a few with some distinction, but most with quiet day-to-day devotion to their fellow citizens, their town, their community. Joe brings in a large box of donuts from the Krispy-Kreme in Karnesville. There is one picture not of a police officer among them; Hernando ‘Nando’ Gonzalez, who was a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. His taste for speed and dangerous living unappeased by the end of that war, Nando worked as a stunt pilot in Hollywood for several decades afterwards. Being barely tall enough to qualify as a military pilot back in the day, and as lightly-built as a jockey, he also performed (disguised with suitable padding, costume and wigs) as a stunt double for a number of different actresses and child actors. In retirement, crippled by arthritis, age and the inevitable accidents attendant on that kind of life, he returned to Luna City, and lived in contented retirement in a comfortable residence just down Rte 123 from Miss Letty. He was in the habit of driving into town every day at 11:00 AM sharp for lunch at the Café … at the wheel of a massive boat-like late 60’s Cadillac … which in the beginning was in pristine condition. Alas, as the trials of old-age shrank Nando even farther, he could barely see, or be seen over the dashboard of the Caddy. In fact, the Caddy usually appeared to be driving itself, with a pair of tiny gnarled hands and the top of Nando’s jaunty tweed flat cap just visible over the steering wheel. The Caddy suffered from a number of glancing collisions with the curb, telephone poles, fire hydrants, trash cans, the massive oak tree in the middle of Oak Street and West Town Square, the ornamental bollards in front of the Café itself and numerous other motorists. Damage was never extensive, mostly as Nando usually wasn’t traveling much faster than fifteen miles an hour. Still – Nando and his Caddy posed a hazard, especially to pedestrians.

Nando could not be made to stop driving; someone who in his time had faced Chinese MIGs over the Yalu River was disinclined to follow the orders of a police officer who most likely was one of his nephews anyway. Lunaites had no real stomach for revoking his driver’s license, either. Chief Vaughn’s predecessor devised an interim solution at last. When alerted by a phone call from Miss Letty upon observing Nando’s Caddy rolling menacingly past her house, the duty officer, or the chief himself would set the ancient air raid siren to roar briefly into life – alerting everyone along Nando’s favored route to get the hell out of his way. Nando, quite deaf by that time, was happily unaware of the daily siren alert.

This is why the air raid siren at the Luna City Police station sounds at 11:00 AM on the 1st of November every year. In case you were wondering.


6 thoughts on “Day of the Dead”

  1. A Day of the Dead remembrance,

    Fifty years ago today, The Los Angeles Loop Fire occurred, killing 12 young men, members of the “El Cariso Hotshots.” This was the worst fire disaster in California history.

    The combined fire departments of the US Forest Service, for which they worked, the LA County and City Fire Departments held a memorial service in “El Cariso Memorial Park in Los Angeles. The park is just below the mountain where the young men died.

    They were caught in a fire flare and about 15 of them arrived simultaneously at LA County Hospital Burn Service, were my partner Tom Shaver was the resident. He admitted them and began the therapy that saved all but two of the burned firefighters. They were the survivors of two fire crews totaling 31 men.

    Silver nitrate had been used in the eyes of newborns for years to prevent blindness from gonorrhea in the mother’s birth canal.

    In 1965, silver nitrate solution was first advocated for the topical use in severe burns.

    Although a significant improvement in the mortality from burns that cover less than 30% of the body surface has been observed in the last 60 years, there has been little or no decline during this time in burn mortality from injuries covering 50% or more of the body surface. During the past 12 years, there has been no decrease in the area of burn that kills half of those affected (LD50).9 Moreover, the mortality attending deep burns of as little as 30% to 40% of the body surface is still unacceptable, approaching 30%. Sepsis originating in the burn wound accounts for the greatest share of this mortality. Until now, no effective means of preventing bacterial colonization of major burn wounds has existed.

    With that report, the Burn Service of the Los Angeles County Hospital converted all therapy of severe burns to silver nitrate solution. This was a daunting task since the use involved covering burned patients with wet dressings soaked in dilute (0.5%) silver nitrate solution. Burn patients have little to no control of heat loss from burned skin as this organ controls heat loss in the normal individual. Therefore, it was necessary to cover the wet sheets with dry sheets and blankets to minimize heat loss.

    Prior to this innovation, large burns of more than 35% of body surface area had a very high mortality, over 50%. THe use of silver nitrate had over effects as sunlight turns silver dark. The entire ward, including the clothing worn by staff was dyed brown to match the stains of silver.

    The El Cariso Hot Shots arrived less than a year after the change to silver nitrate,. They were the first large number of severe burns to be treated this way. The only other burn center at the time capable of this treatment of severe burns was the US Army Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center.

    My later partner, Tom Shaver, was the burn resident that day and did all the initial care. Later in the year, I rotated in as the intern and months later, after I began my residency, I was the burn resident caring for those who were still on the service. Some remained over a year.

    My son, Joe, is a firefighter for the state of California and, when he heard about the memorial service, suggested we might like to attend. I called Tom, who is now 80 (I am 78), he agreed that he wanted to go. We especially wanted to see how these men, whose lives we had saved, were doing with the rest of their lives.

    The park is about 60 miles from our homes so we left early to avoid some of the LA traffic. We left at 7 and arrived about 9. We had breakfast at a nearby restaurant and then returned to be present at the ceremony.

    The survivors were there and we looked at their hands and ears especially, as hand burns were a big problem in the early days, as these cases were. Several of the men had lost fingers and we could see the scars. We talked to one of them a bit.

    At the ceremony, several told their stories. We did not attend to seek any praise for our own role. It was interesting that one of the survivors mentioned that, after a few weeks, he was transferred to a Naval hospital and he commented that “It was the best care I ever received.” No one mentioned the County Hospital Burn Service or expressed any appreciation for our work. I was not terribly surprised as the firefighters later sued Los Angeles County for compensation for their hand injuries. I don’t know if they ever got any money.

    Anyway, it was a nice ceremony and we were pleased to see that our work of months had resulted in 19 survivors who had lived 50 years and whose wives and children were present.

    After all these years, I have learned not to expect thanks.

  2. I think that remember that fire, Mike — that was the one that came in, when we were living in a house at the base of La Tuna Canyon.Smoke filling the sky, our neighbors layabout sons volunteering to clear brush… I remember that my parents packed the car – the Plymouth station wagon – with books in a layer, and then clothes and bedding on top of it. And that night, my parents were awake, listening to the reports on the radio as my brother and I slept fitfully. That fire was huge.

  3. in response to Mike K, was wondering what if any long term effects there were on the fingers of those burn victims you mention? Did they develop ‘burn contractions’?

    I was lucky in that my own burns were only 10% of total body area. But I did develop the burn contractions on my fingers several years after treatment. My right hand is the worst now resembling a claw. I was treated at a burn ward on the USS Sanctuary and later at Zama Army Hospital in Japan 47 years ago. They did not use silver nitrate there. Of course my own burns were only 2nd degree but deep and would not have needed that treatment. But there were other patients there that had 3rd (or 4th?) degree charring in beds next to mine (it was an open ward) and I believe they did not receive silver nitrate treatment. But perhaps those with 3rd or 4th degree over a larger percentage of their body were sent to Brooke (which BTW I believe is an Air Force Hospital, not Army).

    Our main complaint about the treatment at Zama was the untreated pain. No painkillers were allowed. The Army Medical Corps was determined not to create another generation of opioid-addicted veterans like what happened to many burn victims after WW2 and Korea. Even aspirin-type analgesics were given out rarely. Those precautions I now realize were probably a good thing. In any case most of us patients used our own form of pain management. In order to keep from screaming or whimpering in the constant pain, the majority of us screamed out constant obscenities. Those poor nurses on that ward took it with good grace. I wish I could apologize to them today.

  4. Brooke, I’m pretty sure, is still an Army Hospital.

    Burn care is extremely difficult for all concerned and nurses usually burn (sorry) out after a few years. It is worse than ICU nursing, which also takes a toll.

    If you have burn contractures, your hand burns were third degree. The skin of the dorsum of the hand and fingers is very thin and almost all burns are third,not second. The skin of the palms and fingers on the palmer surface is very thick and rarely does a burn victim get full thickness burns there.

    The claw contracture is a result of the very delicate extensor mechanism at the joints of the finger. It dissolves pretty quickly if exposed. Now, hands are grafted right away. Then, we were more concerned with keeping them alive.

    I’m sure they were in a lot of pain, although we did give them pain meds. Another huge problem we learned about is nutrition and ll serious burn patients are now tube fed, even if they can eat,

    In an example of the irony of fate, Tom, my partner was severely burned about 1986 when his boat exploded and burned. He went through the whole thing but it took only about 4 months for him to recover. For years, he had skin graft patterns on his arms, They are almost gone now.

    As I said, I didn’t go there to be thanked but the comment by one of the survivors seems a bit of a gratuitous slap in the face. My firefighter son is furious.

  5. Brooke still is an Army hospital, although it is now a huge complex. I was seen there just last week for a routine test.

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