In Memoriam: Lieutenant-Colonel Nathan B. Bluestone, M.D.
On August 26, 1948, Nathan B. Bluestone, M.D. ended his suffering that began four years earlier on the fields of France. My father was a country doctor. His love was medicine and he tended to the ill and wounded. It was his calling. In the small upstate New York town where he practiced he delivered babies in the office house where we lived. He drove out to remote farms to give the five daughters of a farmer their vaccinations. He healed broken bones and cut foreheads. But nothing prepared him for the slaughter that he encountered after he landed with the fourth wave at Normandy in June 1944.
My experience of the war was my father’s absence. He would send my mother and me funny little letters that would have sections blacked out. This was V-mail. I always thought it was strange that other people would read my father’s letters to me. But the censors did read them and blocked out areas that they felt were sensitive to national security or something.
He wrote me a continuing story about a friendly amoeba. There even were illustrations. In later years, when I visited India, I found it strange that people feared amoebas as much as they did.
To my mother and aunts and grandparents he sent letters and watercolors. He was an artist as well as a physician and would, in those rare moments when he had a minute or two, paint a watercolor of where he was. We cherished those postcard size pictures painted with love, for they were not only beautiful but they represented a part of the artist that could not be expressed in words.
This was the time when the Germans made a desperate attempt to counterattack the American forces. The German forces under the command of Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt had encircled the American forces centered at Ardennes, France. This was the Battle of the Bulge. And for over a month, during the bitter winter, American and German soldiers slaughtered each other. Nineteen thousand American soldiers died. Six armies locked in battle in the coldest winter on record. Over a million men fought in what was to be recorded as the worst battle of World War II.
Torn, ripped, cut and blown apart, young men passed through the field hospital that my father headed. It was X-ray after X-ray after X-ray. It was an assembly line of death and dying. There was no time for the physicians to protect themselves from the deadly radiation. And it was this radiation that caused the skin cancer that later was to take my father’s life.
When he returned from that war I was six years old. My father rarely spoke to me about that war, only once, that I remember, to joke that he had a rifle in the back of his jeep and that’s where it stayed. He was a healer, not a killer. He even received a Bronze Star for bravery and never told me what he did. It was half a century later, when my brother and I were cleaning out my mother’s house that I found the citation from the Major General to my father and the reasons. My father received the Bronze Star for his service tending to the wounded from France through Belgium and Germany, often on the front lines under enemy fire. He was a lieutenant-colonel. He was chief of surgery. And he went to the front lines, not as a hero, but as a healer. He knew that, for a wounded soldier, the journey from the front lines to the field hospital could mean the difference between life and death. He was just doing his job.
My memories of Dr. Nathan Bluestone are fragmentary and impressionistic. Mostly I remember how we would sing together in the car, my father and I. “I’ve Got Sixpence”, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” and rounds and rounds.
Much later a psychic told me that my father had been deeply wounded by his inability to heal in the face of such overwhelming carnage. His soul, as much as his body, had been gravely affected. That rings true.
We moved back into the office house and my father continued the practice that he had left four years earlier. But the cancer, first on his finger, spread and slowly, he began to die. Bit by bit the doctors cut away my father. First they took his finger. Then they took his right breast. And then he died.
On this day each year we are called upon to remember those who have died in the service of their country. Politicians give speeches, flags are unfurled and hot dogs are consumed.
What we tend to forget is what General William Tecumseh Sherman once reminded a group of young men. “War is hell.” And the hell is for the living, for those who survive the deaths of their beloveds as much as it is for those who die on the fields of battle or in the hospitals.
What we tend to forget is that war leaves lots of fatherless sons and daughters. Today, for example, thousands of American and Iraqi and Afghani sons and daughters will grow up without their fathers and mothers. And for what?
What we tend to forget are the children who are left behind. We forget that fifty years from now there will be adults who still grieve for the loss of a father or a mother–who still cry at the remembrance. Let us truly remember.