George Bird was nineteen years old when he went off to France, and he would forever remain a nineteen-year-old in France, even though the VA computer said that he was a ninety-year-old in the Langston facility, but that’s the problem with computers. While they can tell you the facts, they can’t tell you the truth, and the truth was that he was still nineteen years old and in France. Oh, he might have looked ninety, but he was still nineteen and still waiting to leave the trenches and march to Berlin, just as he was for the past seventy-one years, which was why he was in Langston in the first place.
I was part of the skeleton crew on the night shift, which was a pretty good job because you got paid more and nothing happened. We’d look around the halls, see that they were clear, and then go back to the lobby and gab. Sometimes there’d be a medical emergency, but we had trained staff for that, and once we notified them, it was usually back to the lobby. The greatest threats we faced were bedpans full of diarrhea.
Well, this one night, Les and I were walking through the dining room, and we heard this crashing sound in the kitchen. The lazy young guys on the kitchen staff didn’t always put the pots and pans and lids back where they were supposed to be, so we figured that we’d just leave them there for them when they returned in the morning. Served them right. Then we heard a loud thud, and knew we had to check.
When Les pulled the door open a crack, she saw an old guy in his pajamas. “Jim, it’s just one of the patients.”
“Simple,” I answer. We’ve trained for this.
So we went in the kitchen towards George. That’s when Les got hit in the face with a single-serving size can of pineapple juice, and the yellow stuff drenched the front of her clothes.
George must have ducked behind the table by the time we recovered. Trolley carts clogged the spaces between the tables and the ovens, while bags of flour were stacked on the central table. He had tied electrical cords together, stringing them over the carts and bags to form an additional obstacle. I still wonder how he cut the cords without electrocuting himself.
I repeated “George, George,” several times. “We’re just hospital workers. We’re just here to take you back to your room so you can sleep.”
I heard a grunt, followed by the thud of a veteran bumping against cabinets. A can flew over the cords, but Les and I retreated from the kitchen before it could hurt either of us.
We decided to call for Ralph, the nearest security guard. It took him a while for him to shuffle over and grab the kitchen door. A jerk yanked the door open.
George was well prepared. Just after Ralph stepped into the room, two more open cans of pineapple juice came flying over the table in quick succession. The guard shuffled backwards, giving time for some additional cans of flying pineapple juice to land on the floor before he pushed the door shut.
Ralph, lost in thought, stroked his whiskers. After a while, he seemed pleased with himself. “We gotta come up with somethin’,” he said just before he scratched his right buttock.
I piped up. “There’s no way he can stop all three of us.”
Ralph looked at the ceiling, then turned to Les. “I got it,” he said. “A W-W-Two vet can’t take all three of us at one time. We’ll go in together.”
Les corrected him. “W-W-One vet.”
Ralph nodded. “That’s even better. If he’s that old, only two of us need to go in there.”
I said, “Two of us couldn’t handle him. That’s why we wanted your help.”
Our guard rubbed his whiskers again. “Oh. I got it. If two can’t stop him, all three of us can go in together. I’ll go into the center. Jim, you go towards the right side. Les, you take the left.”
We pulled the door back a crack, and looked in. A hairless scalp and a pair of brown eyes emerged from behind the flour bags.
“Ready,” Ralph said. “Set. Go!”
We walked in behind Ralph. After a few steps, I moved right, while Les darted to the left. Then I heard a pop, followed by a fizz. A coke can landed on Les’ head, spilling its contents over her. Les then darted back to the dining room. Another can would have hit Ralph, but he managed to catch it.
I shouldn’t have looked at Ralph. An additional can of pop landed near my feet, soaking my right foot. I called “Retreat!” The two of us left the kitchen.
We three huddled together in the dining room. Ralph was the first to comment. “We gotta try again,” he said.
Les answered, “I’m not going back in there. My doctor said soda would hurt my health.”
I said, “We don’t have to break up in there.”
Ralph, who had been drinking from his can while we spoke, tapped his feet. “All right, coming in from three angles didn’t work. We don’t have to do that. You two stay behind me as I go in. Then we overpower the trolleys and trap him.”
Les groaned. “We’re going to need protection.”
Ralph scratched his left buttock, saying, “We should have protection. I’m going to go get my helmet.”
That could take a long time. On other hand, while Ralph would be gathering equipment, George just might fall asleep from sheer boredom. So the two of us agreed to wait in the dining room while Ralph went for his gear. He told us not to make any noise.
So we waited in silence until someone entered the room.
“Hey, Jim, Les, what’s going on here? Why haven’t you come back to the lobby?” Nobody had told Will not to make any noise.
Les and I went “Shhh!” in unison.
“OK, you two, why are you whispering?”
Les said, “There’s someone holed up in the kitchen. Ralph’s getting his helmet.”
Will asked, “We have an invader?”
I answered. “No, it’s just a patient who won’t go back to his room.”
“You need three people and a helmet for this?”
“Yes, Will,” groaned Les. “He’s throwing cans. You see these clothes? He’s opening the cans before throwing them.”
“Oooh. Those big cans are dangerous.”
“Big?” I asked.
“Seven-pound cans of pudding.”
Les said, “He’s using individual cans of juice and soda.”
Will thought out loud. “We can go in low and cover our heads with trays, but the trays would be in the kitchen, so we can’t get to them, but the medical staff might have something, and they’ll surely protect us from the soda cans, but if he starts with the pudding, they won’t work, and we won’t be able to see the incoming pudding.”
“OK, OK, I’ll whisper.”
“Quiet,” I whispered.
By then, Ralph walked in with his helmet and shield. “I’ve got it. I go in first, then the three of you get behind me, and, Will, how come you’re in the dining room?”
“Because they weren’t in the lobby.”
“So you thought you’d sneak out and get something to eat?”
“Hey, I’ve got my granola bars with me. I don’t need to go to the kitchen for food.”
I had to stop this. “Ralph, Will, before you forget, we have a patient in the kitchen throwing things at us. Are we going to go in there, or just wait him out?”
Ralph reached around to scratch his back. “We could go in there, or wait for him to come out. I say we go in. Line up behind me.”
Ralph jerked the door back. “I see nothin’.”
He stepped into the kitchen. “Nothin’.”
He took two more steps, then we heard something hitting his shield. “It’s vegetable juice.”
Les asked, “Why’s he using that now?”
Will said, “If you had to throw cans, I’d use the vegetable juice first. That way, I’d still have good stuff to drink. If I threw the soda, all I’d have left is the vile V-8.”
Les said, “You eat granola.”
Will answered, “I still don’t like V-8.”
We proceeded towards the right of the room until I slipped on a mixture of juice and sticky pop remnants. I took out Les behind me.
The thud must have disturbed George, for he flung a knife over the table.
Ralph said, “He’s got knives. Let’s get back to the dining room.” He edged backwards, providing protection as Will walked, and Les and I crawled, out of the kitchen.
We regrouped in the dining room.
Les declared, “I injured my knee again, and I’m not going back in. It’s time we get the professionals involved.”
Ralph stroked his whiskers. “We need people who know what they’re doin’. I think it’s time to contact the cops. Les, Jim, you go back to the lobby and phone them. I’ll sit here in case he comes out.”
Les said, “Good enough.”
When we returned to the lobby, our receptionist, Marge, was in her usual position, chair back, head further back.
“Huh?” She jerked forward, forcing the front legs of her chair to the ground. “Les?”
“We got a problem, Marge. Give us the telephone.”
“Les, employees can’t call here. You know where the pay phone is.”
I jumped in, “We’ve got someone with a knife in the kitchen.”
“I’m getting Ralph.”
Les said, “Ralph is waiting for him in the dining room. We need the police.”
Marge stared at her. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
I grabbed the phone and dialed. “Police?”
“This is Jim Watson at the Langston VA. There’s a guy with a knife who’s taken over our kitchen.”
“Got it. Can you describe him?”
“He’s about five-eight, thin, bald, ninety years old, wearing tan pajamas.”
“You said ninety years old?”
“And in pajamas?”
“Yes, he’s wearing pajamas.”
“Listen, Jim or whoever your name is, we police don’t like nuisance calls. If you call back again, we’re going to arrest you. Understand?”
“Hold on.” I thrust the headset at Marge. “You do something.”
Marge started. “This is the ... Oh, hi there, Dot. What’s up? ... I’m fine, but we really do have a little problem here ... Yes, there really is a nonagenarian knife-wielder in our kitchen ... Seems our Ralph couldn’t quite get him out of there ... Yeah, Jim’s wasn’t lying ... The scheduled dispatcher never showed up, that’s a real shame ... OK, I’ll let you go ... Catch you later ... bye.”
I spoke very slowly through clenched teeth. “You ... could ... have ... called ... her ... yourself.”
Marge shrugged. “I didn’t know Dot would be there.”
She’s even worse than the kitchen crew. Those people are capable of working, and working well, depending on whether they have proper supervision. Marge just doesn’t care. Anyone could file a complaint, but, even if someone does something with it, by the time it’s done, she will have retired, and she knows it.
So Les and I returned to our regular hall checks, and nothing happened until Eddie came out of his room.
“You two! I knocked my bedpan on the floor, I want someone to clean it up!”
We reached the dining room in time to see two officers arrive. The young, tall, crew-cut guy introduced himself as Officer Carl Zimmermann. The smaller guy with doughnuts mumbled, “Officer Peter Langley.”
Ralph rose up, scratched himself on the side, and said, “Pete, did they tell you what to expect?”
“Yeah, Einstein. You have a Jim Watson here?”
I stood up. “Present.”
Carl took out his handcuffs. “You’re under arrest.”
“For threatening people with knifes.”
“I wasn’t doing it.”
Carl declared, “The dispatcher told us Jim Watson was threatening people with knives.”
Les said, “The guy with a knife is ninety years old. Does he look ninety?”
Pete Langley answered, “Maybe, if you’re going by IQ.”
Will said, “He’s not as stupid as he looks.”
Carl asked, “So he’s not the knife guy?”
Ralph pointed towards the kitchen. “No, knife guy’s in there.”
Carl looked at his partner. “I’ll get the flashbangs and smoke bombs. We’ll put on our night vision goggles and tackle him to the floor.”
Pete said, “SWAT tactics?”
His partner nodded.
Pete replied, “You’re crazy, Carl. We aren’t dealing with a gang of terrorists holding hostages here. We’re dealing with a nutty ninety-year-old with a few screws loose. For all we know, he’s fallen asleep.”
Carl pulled his gun out of his holster anyway. “I’ll open the door a smidgen and look. Does he have a gun?”
Les answered, “Doubt it. He’s been throwing cans of coke and juice. He tossed a knife over the table, but he hasn’t rushed at anyone.”
Carl said, “How big?”
Ralph grabbed one of the doughnuts. “Looked like a butter knife.”
Pete asked, “How’s the kitchen set up?”