It’s a very hilarious proceeding—for men who can laugh when they want to weep
PERHAPS I’ll get a pension, perhaps I won’t. That isn’t important. I sold one back to a careful government many years ago, and another thoughtful government has sent for me in order to check up and decide whether or not the pension should be reinstated. It has sent for a lot of other men, no doubt, and that is important. It makes us feel that we are not forgotten. Whether we get reinstated or not, we haven’t been forgotten. To us that is very important.
We have forgotten the war. We wanted to forget, but we did not want it to be forgotten. It must be remembered. Whether we are remembered or not, the war must be remembered. That’s why, I suppose, that at night or in quiet places, whenever two or three men are gathered together, having forgotten, they try to recall the war; why they applaud the comedian who comments that the plotting old men of Europe are fools; why they discuss the truth of “All Quiet,” or the manner of men in the militia and such.
I don’t think that many men nowadays, receiving after a number of years a call to report for a board, like to go— that is, not at first. They have drifted so far from the barracks and "orderly-room stuff” that the thought must be repellent. I know it was to me, and I would no doubt have ignored the summons had not my domestic “war department” decreed that I was getting more impossible day by day and that it was time something was “done about it.”
“AH right,” said I, “I’ll go.”
I expected to find the usual line-up—a sergeant at least to marshal a squad, a sick parade in mufti, a few old soldiers in the soldier sense, a few familiar faces, a few with whom it might be interesting to reminisce, a few crutches and a smell of whatever it was the M. O.’s office smelt of—a rather primitive set-up and a little profanity perhaps. You know the kind of profanity I mean.
The Labelle Building is in the east of Montreal. It seems to be tucked away between cigar shops, gents’ outfitters and general stores. On the side street there’s a little printing shop, and over that a window. There are a lot of windows up this street and all round the Labelle Building, out of which torsos protrude.
Anyway, I was late for parade. Ten o’clock, and ordered there for nine-thirty. That would mean the end of the line and probably waiting on a bench, stripped to the waist, waiting for hours till the official, corporal or orderly, came to one’s name on the list, called out the last part of it as it hadn’t been called for years, opened a door and ushered one into the board. The members w'ould each have a copy of one’s medical history. They would pound one with rubber mallets, ask one to say “ah,” ask how long this had been going on, tap one’s chest, whisper together, say “All right;” and then one would leave, feeling thoroughly ashamed for having dared to think that there were still any “effects.” And, after all, are there?
Gosh, this is worse than going to the dentist ! When I left home this morning I knew' there were a lot of things I should tell them. What are they? I dunno. Anyway, If they are good doctors they’ll find out. But these army doctors—
The Pensions Department is on the third floor. Three floors up. But there’s an elevator. An elevator in a place like this, where the Army Pensions Board is ! What blooming swank !
This must have been a factory building, but the big doors open into a reception room. On one side, facing the doors, a long corridor. On the left, a glass partition with a slide, behind v'hich a gentleman telephone operator sits; behind him, an office. Still, there’s a settee, two wooden settees. It’s a real reception room.
On the settees, some men and two women. Several wnmen are waiting. They must be interested in pensions, too. It’s like a doctor's office, with all those people. They just sit and wait. They haven’t been introduced.
The gentleman operator gives out a number or twn. He looks at the letter calling me to report and tells me to go down the corridor, turn to the left and ask for Mr. Reddy. Mr. Reddy doesn't even wear a button.
“Sit down, Mr. Evans,” he says. “I have your file here.
Did they ask you to come or did you ask for a board? Have you any children. Really? How old are they? Well, I must put that down. Are you still living at the old address! Mr. Evans? Well, if you wouldn’t mind waiting over there for a minute or two, Dr. Robertson will see you.”
Did I mind waiting—Mister, Mister, Mister? Say! I’m only a corporal, a ranker. I had a number—458115. The mister business doesn’t quite fit when one calls upon the Army. I want to go over to the little girl in the green smock beside the file cabinets and say, “You know, somehow you’re different.” They’re all different!
f^ANCE I labored in the office of a paint company, and w this might have been the same office. Studious youngold men finger card indexes as if they were in business instead of “swinging a cushy.” Business, big business, it seemed. Typew’riters going as if they meant it. More green smocks, and a couple of flowered ones, huddled over a book. There’s an advertising manager and the general manager busy dictating; and, by golly, there’s a red-headed office boy flipping paper clips !
Dr. Robertson, however, is what I expected. If he is the board, I might as well have stayed at home. I can take my own weight and tap my own chest, and I take my shirt off every night or nearly every' night. A very sharp fellow'.
"What’s your complaint?” he asks.
Dam it, I hadn’t been complaining ! His smile, when he tells me I won’t have time to smoke, is a rebuke. How is he going to find out what it is all about? No leading questions, just a few taps and measurements. Medicine and duty, I suppose, with a few number nines !
But, no! I am to wait outside for something else or is it someone else? Perhaps I shall have to sign something. The clerk at another desk in the bend of the corridor looks brightly up as if he has discovered something. He has the
If you don t mind waiting, Doctor McKay will see you. He should be in now, but he’s a little late. If vou don’t mind waiting—”
W ell, here’s the same old buck-passing, one thinks. I am a
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little bug in a trench coat. I have made up my mind to crawl up a piece of red tape. I don’t know how long it is, but I’m going to get to the end somehow. And when I get to the end I may find myself hopelessly entangled in it. I may be picked up and cracked between two thumbs. I may drop off into space. I may find myself back where I started—or I may get a pension ! This is very important.
So I join the others. There aren’t enough seats, but that doesn’t matter. I stand. Here, in the corridor, in the “Hall of Broken Men.” That’s what I call it. There are little offices off the corridor—chairs and porcelain basins, instrument cases and cabinets and bottles, doctors’ names on the doors—everyone very comfortable.
HOW long is it since the war? Thirteen years. And yet more than a hundred men must be hanging around here, or have, at least, passed through here this morning. Soldiers with umbrellas on their arms and wearing rubbers—soldiers! Bad men who went out with guns purposely to shoot people fifteen years ago; who threw explosives at whom they called the enemy; who mentioned such things as “guts,” for instance. Rip-snorting fellows these— fifteen years ago. Fighters, killers, bombers. Out for blood, to avenge, to protect, to save a nation, to keep a flag waving—fifteen years ago.
Now, my boy, see what might happen to you! Hush, shsh. Do you see that corpulent little man over there—the one with the round, pasty face and the derby hat? Don’t let his looks deceive you. He was once a soldier. He sneaked through the mud on his belly and stabbed. This man who has just come in, the man with the spectacles—yes, he does look like a broken old ledger keeper—he once killed a man with a shovel. He lost his rifle as he was going over the top. That fellow he's talking to—he was once a company sergeant-major, a terrible man for squad drill; used to send men to the clink for talking in the ranks or for not shining buttons—smart fellow in those days. He got buried once, but they dug him out and h~ carried on. I don’t know what happened to him afterward.
Funny, isn’t it? You’d think so, to stand there in the hall. They don’t look like soldiers; they don’t look as if they ever could have looked like soldiers, most of them. Sometimes one catches a familiar motion, but they don’t converse in groups. They just wait. No one bums a cigarette; no one tells about how he told the sergeant where to go.
One or two men have buttons, several buttons, and striped shirts. These must be the men one met before on sick parade.
Some of these fellows look as if they have been waiting for years. They’re dressed like the man on the street, but, when you come to think of it, a good number of them don’t look like him. Their faces are different, their eyes are different. There is no life in them. Their shoulders droop more maybe. On some faces hopelessness, on some just dullness; dulled by waiting perhaps fifteen years—for what? By the dispensary window, the same mixed type, unwrapping medicine bottles, shaking them and looking at them.
Pipes, umbrellas and rubbers. There’s a man with an eyeshade, waiting. There is a tall, anaemic-looking fellow just going out. He hasn’t an overcoat or an umbrella, but he has a little girl by the hand ; a little girl with a cotton dress and a little cotton
bonnet with flowers on it. She says, “Aren’t we going some place else, daddy?”
ORE men come in.
“Dr. McKay is late. Will you wait, please, and I’ll let you know as soon as he shows up?”
Here’s a whispering group with a demonstrating finger waving. “If they refuse you, I'll tell you something else.” Where have I heard that before?
Wait, wait! Fifteen years have changed us a lot. Fifteen years ago we would have known how to wait for the doctor. Now it is irksome.
The file clerk in the corridor phones to Dr. Patterson and makes ah appointment for someone, who promises to go.
The electrician comes in, knocks at an open door, takes off his hat and goes into an office as if into a drawing-room.
Men in overalls and without coats, evidently employed here, come out of the sink room, surreptitiously shoving pipes into their pockets. One man, an older man, has gone into the sink room several times, and each time he comes out looking for something as if he hopes he won’t find it. But he does find it. It is a nice yellow sponge with which he can sprinkle the floor of the corridor. He must be the sanitary sergeant because a younger man in overalls brings out a soft-haired broom and begins to sweep.
I do not move. He says, “Excuse me. please.” He should have said, “Pick up your dirty feet, you so and so.” Oh, well.
“All right, Mr. Evans; this way, please. This way, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones, Mr. Palenske, Mr. Hall—this way, please.”
And so a dozen or more of us are ushered into a little cubicle off a little office in which a green-smocked stenographer is polishing an engagement ring with a typewriter brush. Through an open door one sees another little cubicle; and Doctor McKay is sitting on a window seat beside an examination
HE HAS a pile of files beside him. One of them must be mine. Which one, I wonder. Top or bottom? Bottom. I hope he isn’t long. There is no place to sit down. There is a confidential man who has been waiting for three hours. “Ruddy red tape,” he whispers. “We do all the waiting and they get all the pay for it.”
Now, here’s a soldier. I ask you1 The gentleman in the black coat who carried a walking stick has developed a shaking hand. I observe now that the hand is shaking very badly. No doubt the doctor will notice this.
The typist has a “correct posture” chair and likes Maxfield Parrish calendars.
The doctor seems to ask a lot of questions. He pulls down the light and looks into men’s eyes. What does he find?
Each interview takes about four minutes. The confidential man comes out wreathed in smiles. “He’s going to send me out to the hospital for a rest.”
Other men go in and come out, and then Mr. Evans’ file is arrived at and in he goes. Dr. McKay looks through the file. He must have seen it before. He asks a lot of questions.
He thinks that Mr. Evans should go into the hospital for observation and just a little treatment. But Mr. Evans thinks not. He doesn’t like the idea a bit. Unless the doctor insists Oh, no. How can
Everything has changed. The old hospital wouldn’t be the same. It would be full of Misters. And if it were the same, who’d want to go after fifteen years?
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