Bits and Pieces – A Memoir

Listen to the author, an army medic, as you read.

It was 1966, I was twenty-two years-old, a medic and a psychiatric technician during the Vietnam War. I remember what I believed when I entered the Army―that the war was the sole cause for the physically and mentally wounded soldiers.

Entrance to Grounds.

On my first day at an Army hospital in the hills of Pennsylvania I walked through the corridor past rooms filled with the physically wounded. Some soldiers in or next to their beds were connected by tubes to intravenous stands, with solutions drip, drip, dripping into the patient. One soldier was in a clear plastic tent and I could hear the rhythmic, swooshing sound of oxygen pumping like lungs. A burn patient was enclosed in a hammock while a medic turned a handle as if the soldier were on a barbecue spit. Another soldier had his neck wrapped in white gauze except for the dime-sized metal opening below his Adam’s apple. His chest rose as the hole sucked air inward and made pfffff sound as he exhaled.

I could see that bits and pieces of the soldiers were missing: gauze bandage over an eye or ear; an empty sleeve stapled to a shirt’s shoulder; crutches for a missing foot or leg. Wheelchairs were everywhere. It seemed obvious to me. It was the war; the war was responsible for these wounded soldiers.

I exited the main hospital, crossed the narrow base road and followed a mulched pathway over a grassy knoll to a two-story building that hid secrets; the place where the Army kept the psychologically wounded. I saw young men watching me from the second floor through windows with thick-wired grids.  On the psych ward I saw every type of behavior and illness: Paranoid schizophrenia; catatonia; manic-depressives; obsessive-compulsives; soldiers with delusions and hallucinations; drug and alcohol abuse; and antisocial personality disorders―a person who disregards and violates the rights of others. I had known guys like that in high school. Here on the psych wards the damaged part of the soldier was on the inside. No bandage marked the entrance wound. The war had injured the mind. 

During those years on the ward, I caught glimpses of the soldiers’ past: a visit from fathers, mothers, wives, girlfriends, rabbis and priests, contributors to the healing process to repair the broken part caused by the war. But I also learned during that time there were soldiers who had psychological problems before the war; before the firefights; the battles; the explosions; the fire and smoke; the death. For some the illness had shown itself from the first day of basic training with the constant yelling, “Out of your bunks, Now! Now!  Give me twenty. Now! Now! Crawl faster. Now! Now!” The marches; the physical exhaustion; the separation from home; the fear of the unknown. 

Damage to some soldiers had been done years before by an abusive father, a smothering mother, having no friends, or bullied by classmates. Whatever defense mechanism that had kept their illness in check in civilian life had now failed. War was not the cause but instead the catalyst. I learned that each of them, each of us, takes something from all of the visitors in our life: the good, the bad and the indifferent. 

We are all bits and pieces, bits and pieces.

This text is a Prologue to the novel Crazy’s 8’s: Soldiers Still, a collection of interrelated short stories. The novel is available on: AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Black Rose Writing

Looking Back: The Right Way

At the age of 64, I found myself hustling through the halls of college to get to class before the doors closed. I had written a screenplay about my years as a medic and psych tech during the Vietnam War, which my agent Lew Wietzman of Preferred Artists, now deceased, tried to get produced. Although the screenplay was considered by a number of producers, it didn’t happen. Lew told me to “write the novel.” So I needed to learn to write.

An assignment for the students was to write a poem with the concept of “Looking Forward” in life. Tough assignment for someone classified as a “senior citizen.” Since I was fortunate to be auditing the class and needed no grade, I took it upon myself to change the assignment to “Looking Back.” And if I were to do that in my life, I wanted to do it, “The Right Way.”

To teach a strongly opinionated (hard-headed) person like me, a “senior citizen” who is sitting among twenty-year olds, demonstrates what excellent professors can accomplish. The collection of interrelated short stories Crazy 8’s: Soldiers Still has been published.. 

In the collection, there is a “soldier poet,” partly truth and partly fiction. During my time as a psych tech, on the ward there was a writer. A patient, soldier still, who long after others were asleep or trying to sleep, sat at a table under the soft orange glow of the overhead night lights. He wrote and he wrote.

Shine my shoes

make my bunk

clean latrine

march in step

fire my weapon

The right way

The entire poem by Private Hardy is recited by me on YouTube

The novel is available on: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Black Rose Writing

Crazy 8’s: Soldiers Still

I began my writing and performing career as a teenager in the ’60s and recorded a record that I believed would make me a teenage idol. Not a hit and I became teenage idle. I failed out of two colleges. But it was also at this time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. speak from the steps of the Alabama capitol in 1965 two weeks following the “Bloody Sunday” at the Pettus Bridge in Selma. Not in person but on TV. And it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who gave me a purpose in life. Too late at the time, and I got drafted for the Vietnam War. 

Jim Karantonis
Medic and Psych Tech 1966-1969

I signed up,  became a medic and a psychiatric specialist. Following my three years of service, and thanks to the GI Bill I returned to college, graduated, and went on for a Masters Degree at Howard University majoring in (What we students called) Black Studies. At Howard Univ. I was one of two “White Guys” in the class. The other guy quit after the 1st semester. He gave me his books. And why did I choose Howard University? (That’s a story for another time.)

Having been born and raised in West Virginia and with a Masters from Howard I received my first “white collar” job as Education Director for the West Virginia Human Commission. (More stories later.)

My next stop was on to Washington D.C. with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. I was fortunate to escape and be assigned on loan to The King Center in Atlanta GA. to help plan for the First National Holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. It was there I got to know Coretta Scott King, and Mrs. King got to know me. Surprisingly she selected me, Jim Karantonis, born and raised in West Virginia, a White, Greek “Hillbilly” to direct the Washington Office for the first King Holiday. Only in America.

Jim Karantonis and Coretta Scott King

For me nothing could surpass that first holiday celebration so I went out on my own. Cooperating with Mrs. King, I founded The Freedom Trail Project and directed a staff of one, me, and published brochures and posters that taught the Principles and Steps for Nonviolent Social Change. 

To pay the bills, I founded Human Relations and Communications (HRC, Inc.) and as a presenter delivered “Entertainment with a message,” a method of presenting difficult issues of civil rights to audiences as varied as government agencies; law enforcement and the private sector.

Ten years ago I undertook the final phase of my career . . . to write and tell the stories of the soldiers on the psych wards that I have never forgotten; and, the civil rights movement that gave this White, Greek “Hillbilly” meaningful purpose. 

I wrote a screenplay: Crazy 8’s and was fortunate to have an agent. The late Lew, “of what’s left of Hollywood” Weitzman. After a number of passes on the screenplay Lew told me to write the stories. So I have.

I have never, nor would I ever use the real names of the soldiers. And here is another truth . . . I—do—not—remember—the—soldiers’—names. But I remember them.

Crazy 8’s: Soldiers Still is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Black Rose Writing.