My Life In North Battleford
On my first day in the dining room, I noticed two of the staff members looking at me and talking. They were dressed in white coats and looked as if they belonged—unlike me. I smiled back at them and they came over to sit with me.
The taller one introduced himself as John and asked, “Are you here for the summer?” I replied, “Yes. You guys are permanent here?” “Yep. I’ve been on staff here for 5 years. Dan here will finish his training this year and then he will be permanent.” Dan reached across the table and shook my hand, enthusiastically. “Are you getting settled in OK?” “Pretty much. It looks like my roommate and I are on different shift schedules so I’m mostly on my own. So far we have just passed in the hall once.” “Dan and I are going to town tonight for a few drinks. You want to come?” “Sure. That would be nice.” “There is no beer here at the hospital, unless you find someone’s stash cooling in a toilet tank.” “We used to do that at the university, too.”
The three of us and one of John’s friends spent the night at the local beverage room in North Battleford sipping draft beer while they told me stories about their life and the operation of the hospital. Mostly I listened, basking in the warm feeling of having made three friends on my first day . . . and having cold draft to drink.
On the drive back, Dan and I were in the back seat of the car talking and laughing. “Drive slowly,” Dan called out to John. That struck me as a bit odd, but I didn’t think anything more of it until Dan put his arm around me and pulled me closer, with his hand on my knee. “No, drive faster,” I shouted to John. He ignored my plea and I realized he knew what Dan was up to—probably way more than I did. The trip back was spent mostly in keeping his hands off me and holding him far enough away from me so he couldn’t kiss me. You need to realize that at this stage of my life I had necked with a few girls, but that was all. I was vaguely aware that there were homosexual people in the world, but I had never occurred that I would ever meet one, let alone be trapped in the back seat of a slowly moving car with one. In fairness to Dan, I must admit he really didn’t do anything scary. It was more that I didn’t know what he might do or try to do. The several beers I had consumed earlier in the evening probably helped me to view the whole thing as kind of a dumb, but not really annoying, game. I would push him away and he would gradually sneak up on me again. It was a slow motion game of cat and mouse with me being the mouse. The realization that I had always expected to be the cat in any romantic situation made me realize I had spent too much of my life concerned with interaction between chemical compounds and too little time with the interaction of human emotions. The next morning, I was awakened to find Dan standing by my bedside. “How did you get in?” I mumbled sleepily. “Tony (my roommate) let me in. I brought you your mail.” “Thanks,” I muttered. Dan handed me my mail and left as I dropped off back to sleep. Again, the next morning . . . and the morning after that, the scenario was repeated, with Dan staying longer to talk and sitting on my bed beside me. I started sleeping with my arm across my chest just in case he tried to kiss me while I was asleep, but he never did— as far as I know. I came to realize he had a crush on me and he had accepted that I wasn’t interested in him. After a couple of weeks of being awakened daily, I asked him to stop bringing me my mail. We remained on friendly terms but he began avoiding me rather than seeking me out. I was happy to have the ‘male’ delivery stopped. Life was much the same as it would have been in any small rural town in northern Manitoba or Saskatchewan at that time. Working, eating and sleeping took up most of the day because there was were no recreational facilities closer than those in North Battleford and you needed a car to get there. Fortunately, John and his car were usually available for evening fun whenever my shift work allowed, because he didn’t work shifts. So we, and usually two or three other staff, would do the usual things people do: driving around, going to town for a snack, stealing a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, going to a movie, and drinking beer. Oh, so you think stealing a turkey isn’t a usual activity? You are probably right, but at the hospital it seemed everyone except me thought it was a great idea. Being raised on a farm I had some first hand experience with turkeys and the process of getting one from the barn onto one’s dinner plate. It is a much more complicated process than foreseen by their plan. The extent of the plan was to drive to a nearby turkey farm, sneak into one of the barns and snaffle a nice fat bird. Our total preparation for the escapade was to have an empty flour bag to carry the bird. Off the top of my head, I could think of a few possible problems such as: - Our society has a convention of eating only dead and cooked meat—preferably without feathers. I doubted the cook at the hospital would be happy with our request to cook a squawking, wing-beating bird. - Turkeys are not quiet when excited, and they excite very easily. - Turkeys are possibly one of the most stupid things alive. A clap of thunder will panic them into rushing into one corner of the barn and smothering each other, or possibly us if we happened to have also chosen that corner. - Oh, yes. And it is also most likely illegal. My subtle protestations were politely ignored as we sped on our mission. John turned off the lights and we drove slowly and quietly halfway down the lane. The consensus was that it would be best, in the interests of concealment, to walk the last 100 yards. We got partway to our goal when we heard menacing barking from what sounded like several very large and really annoyed dogs. My training as a runner finally paid off. I was easily the first to get back to the car. Unfortunately, it was locked. After we regrouped in the car, we realized the dogs were probably tied up but still an effective deterrent. That night we ate our hamburger dinner without comment. One day I developed a sore throat, which rapidly progressed to the point where I couldn’t breath or speak. Being in a hospital setting, there was easy access to a phlegm pump and lots of available beds. I spent a couple of days in the ‘staff’ room in the hospital ward. I hadn’t seen Dan for a long time, but suddenly there he was at the foot of my bed. “I have to change the sheets,” he said in a most professional manner.
My eyes must have betrayed my panic at the idea of his stripping off the sheets and exposing me in my near nakedness and helplessness. I was having my first (and only ever) attack of homophobia. I was afraid, and it was only because he was homosexual— not from anything he had said, done, or was likely to do.
“Relax. It will be alright,” he said gently. I would have said something like, ‘Yeah, right’, but fortunately I couldn’t speak. He seemed to understand my irrational panic about having him see me exposed without a sheet. I would still have a gown on but I felt I needed more protection than that. I still don’t understand my panic as well as he did, and he was right. As the professional nurse he was, he slid the new sheets onto the bed, rolled me onto them and pulled the old ones off without ever exposing me below the neck. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but for him it was fast and easy. At that moment I think I could have kissed him (figuratively speaking, I mean) in relief at his recognition and consideration for my feelings. The phlegm kept increasing so it was decided I should be moved to a ‘real’ hospital in North Battleford. It would have to be a trip without the pump (they didn’t have a long enough extension cord) but with shallow breathing, coughing gently, and not moving, I could get just enough air. Fast-forward to the hospital admittance desk clerk saying, “Your Saskatchewan Health Insurance Card, please.” This presented a problem: I had Manitoba Health Insurance, but not for Saskatchewan, and even if I had insurance I wouldn’t have had the card with me. I grabbed a pen and filled out the form with the first nine digits that came to mind. I sometimes wonder if they are still trying to match up someone to those numbers. I was hustled into a room with a cot, still wearing my hospital gown.
An official looking person in white peered at me, “What seems to be the problem?”
I gasped, choked, coughed and gestured to my throat.
“A hot compress should help that,” he said.
I may not be a doctor, but I am pretty good with science and my best guess was that a hot compress would cause expansion of the phlegm and further close my throat. I shook my head negatively as emphatically as I could.
I regained consciousness in time to hear him say, “Humph. Maybe this cold compress will work better.”
I realize now that I must have gasped and choked for at least a minute before losing consciousness, but I had absolutely no memory of that period of time—not even of his getting the compress or putting it me. A similar thing had happened once before when I was a kid. I ran full speed into an iron pipe that caught me just under my nose, knocking me unconscious. I woke up flat on my back. There should have been some memory of my face hitting the pipe and the pain of hitting it, but my mind was blank for several seconds before the collision.
The cold compress worked well enough to get me moved onto a ward and into the bed I would call mine for the next ten days of tests.
John came to see me every evening and reported on what tests had been done and the lengthening list of negative results. As a last resort they did a spinal tap, which was excruciatingly painful. However, by this time my throat seemed to have decided to behave and I was functioning quite well. One evening, John smuggled in a bottle of beer for me, so I knew I must be alright. He would never have done that if I were still considered to be at risk.
The next morning I overheard a nurse remark, “He really slept well last night.”
After that they stopped waking me up in the middle of the night to give me a sleeping pill.
By now I wanted to get out of the hospital. I had been told that I had a growth removed from my neck when I was very young, and I recall being kept home from school for a month or so with blood poisoning in my left arm, but this was the first time in my life I had been required to stay overnight in a hospital and I wasn’t enjoying it much. I suggested to the doctor I was well enough to leave. He wasn’t too sure. I offered to hop out of bed and do ten push-ups for him as proof. He declined the offer, but did say I should be able to leave on Friday. When Friday came, I told the nurse I was supposed to leave now. She replied that there was no order to that effect and the doctor had gone to his cottage for the weekend. That evening, John came to visit and heard my story. He found my clothes stashed away in a closet and brought them to me. He and I left through the front door to the sound of the nurse loudly repeating, “You can’t leave the building without the doctor’s permission.” She was wrong. We could and we did. A couple of years later I had my tonsils removed and have never had a recurrence of my undiagnosed malady. The rest of my term at the Mental Hospital was business as usual except for Dan.
One night, John told me Dan was in the hospital with severe internal injuries. It seemed, according to John, that a group of staff members took it upon themselves to lay in wait for Dan with a large sheet, fists, feet and baseball bats.
Dan recovered after a significant time in hospital. I am still sorry for not having visited him while he was recovering. I don’t think it had anything to do with homophobia. John did suggest it might be wise for me not to be seen publicly with Dan any more.
As I was leaving the institution to return to university, Dan gave me a small gift and a card. I thanked him and we shook hands (I had still not learned to hug male friends) but I didn’t look at it until I was back in the safe privacy of my residence in Winnipeg. It was a slightly mushy card and a set of cuff links—an appropriate gift for the mid-1950’s when people wore shirts with cuffs. I wrote him what I thought, at the time, was a polite note of thanks but indicating we could never be anything but distant friends. He responded with what I now know is called a ‘hissy fit’ note demanding the cuff links be returned to him. I sent them to him with a note of apology. I can only hope that I hurt him less by being honest than I would have by leading him on. I felt I had failed him as a fellow human being, but I didn’t know what else to do at the time. I still don’t how I should have handled it. The hospital held dances periodically for the socialization of the male and female patients. Very rarely was there anyone from the outside world except staff at them, but it always surprised me how well the patients functioned in that setting. At one dance I got chatting with a fellow, named Sam, in his early 20’s. He seemed to be totally normal, sane, and sensible. He asked me how he could get out of the hospital. It seemed to be a fair question to me, so I said I could do some checking for him if I knew who was his psychiatrist. He didn’t know because he said he hadn’t seen one for the past 3 years. I discussed his comments with John (my source of all information at this time). John said there was supposed to be an evaluation every year but he would look into it. In the meantime we should get to know Sam a bit better. John and I took Sam for a night out. We played some pool, did some drinking, had burgers with fries, and talked a lot. Sam tried, without success, to pick up every girl he saw. We got back late to the hospital, but John knew how to sneak him back onto the ward unnoticed. I did wonder how it was that I got reprimanded for taking Sam out of the hospital, but it wasn’t a big deal. Probably Sam had needed to tell someone about what a good time he had. John and I agreed Sam was probably saner than we were, so John pursued the project of getting a reassessment. Within two weeks Sam had been discharged from the hospital. John told me afterwards that the assessment consisted mostly an interview enquiring into whether I had made any improper advances to Sam or had shown any interest in him sexually.
It is interesting to note this was 1954. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later (1973) that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychological disorders. I guess Sam and I passed that sanity test.
I did meet up with Sam after he had been released from the hospital. He was living on his parents’ farm part way between Swift Current and Regina. I needed to get some machinery parts in Regina so I phoned him and asked if he would like to keep me company. We had to put in a couple of days waiting for the parts to be available (or maybe that was just an excuse to spend a couple of days in Regina. My memory fails me on that point. ) We stayed in a hotel, drank a bit, went to dances and behaved like normal young bachelors out on the town. One night Sam drank way too much and was really drunk. He somehow managed to fall against the sink in the bathroom and severely bruised (probably cracked) a rib. I had heard stories about drinking yourself sober. Sam changed instantly from a staggering, word-slurring drunk into a clear-speaking sober-acting person. Even his brain seemed to work normally. We took a taxi to the hospital, got his chest taped up and came back to the hotel. He was still appearing way more sober than I was, but we decided the party was over for the night. Off the top of my head, I think this phenomenon is somehow the same as when a skilled typist or piano player goes into an ‘automatic pilot’ mode and can carry on a conversation while typing or playing. His brain just went into an automatic living mode. I finished my stint at the Mental Hospital without further incident and returned to the University of Manitoba to complete my B. Sc. degree.