1914. Somewhere in France …
All he could hear was the raspy chop chop chop of the machine gun and the sickening thud of its bullets hitting the dead bodies of his two best friends. Joking just before, the three of them had been hit almost immediately after the call to charge. Now he was trapped. Their company’s deep, safe, straight trench was fifty yards away. Hit on his left leg, he couldn’t make that in one go. But he could not stay. He thought he had seen a shell hole nearby, so he made the move. Lurching low he fell with brief gratitude into the hole, but instead of relief he found mustard gas! It lingered from an earlier gas attack. He inched back up the hole as high as he could.
OH GOD! GASMASK. CAN’T REACH IT. MUST MOVE GEAR TO GET TO IT. STRETCHING UP. SHARP PAIN. BLACK.
A bullet saved him from the gas. He joined his two friends.
My imagined trenches were the long straight grooves between the cinderblocks in the wall of the school nurse’s office. Lying on the old vinyl nurse cot, I traced story after story on the wall, fox holes big and small in the cinderblocks. At nine, my fascination with military history bordered on obsession. My desire to leave class due to “illness” crossed the border into annoying. One day my father arrived and kindly but firmly put a stop to me faking sick. I shipped back to school, leaving the battlefield behind. I would give anything now for my illness to be a nine year old’s fake.
Heat is my mustard gas. Any foxhole– any room or car or space I enter is scary for a few seconds. Getting stuck in heat starts to melt me like Frosty the Snowman trapped in the greenhouse. Weakness, numbness, pain, chest tightening and blackouts may follow, depending on the temperature. If I rush to escape or reach my gear, I may fall. I suddenly go from lighthearted to scared and then frustrated and dark. It’s hard for people besides my friends and family to understand. To my loved ones, I shake my head and say “I melted.”
Walking into any new space, I am always thinking, “how hot is it?”
SHIT, IT’S TOO HOT (anything above 69 degrees fahrenheit). CAN I LEAVE? WHERE IS MY KIT WITH COLD PACKS? OH GOD.
It happens in an instant, and the fear is always there, mostly in summer, where even air conditioning does not completely solve it. In summer’s office elevators, the AC always weakens, and I can feel the heat off the bodies of the people who just survived the walk outside. When I start my car in summer, the two to three minutes before cooling are hell.
In winter, rooms get overheated, and here we are again. Do I wear a suit jacket? A sweater? Probably never.
And yes, I have equipment. And yes, I sometimes get ahead of the heat and ride it out. But it is always there, and life does not always unfold in slow easy stages. I don’t know what would happen if I got stuck in heat without relief, like if, for example, a car ran out of gas in summer sun. I just don’t know.
Compared to my many symptoms, including loss of most of my walking and some of my good mind, the heat is still my greatest Great War. World War II may follow, but that’s another day.