Bethesda Naval Hospital was an interesting place, known to most in the area as Roosevelt’s last erection. There were tunnels underground that led to who knows where and rooms full of blinking lights and communications equipment for use by The President or whatever High Ranking Officer should happen to be caught there in a National Emergency. Tower 19 was the VIP Unit. I had worked there for a couple of weeks when Admiral McCain, Commander of the Pacific Fleet had his mild stroke, most likely caused by smoking green Cuban cigars. I worked the night duty and only meet him a couple of times. I wasn’t very impressed with him but then he wasn’t trying to impress me, because he was to busy trying to impress the pretty young nurses and I heard that he even ended up arranging for some of them to fly back to Hawaii with him, I assume to follow up on his recovery treatment.
The tower elevator went up to the 21st floor but when the doors opened, there was only a boarded-up barricade and it was rumored that the brain-damaged President, John F. Kennedy, was being kept there, safely away from public view. The fact that his body had been brought there after the assassination and that on occasion, and I had witnessed it myself, a lone man could be seen walking on the rooftop of Bethesda, kept this suspicion alive within the community for several years and perhaps still does.
I had never bothered to go on the 20th floor of Bethesda even though at times the elevator door would open and one could see a large meeting Hall with a few scattered tables and dust-covered chairs that suggested the room had not been used for some time. Perhaps it had never developed into what the designers had originally intended or maybe the room had just lost its purpose as the world developed outside its doors. The Court Marshal was held there, in a room at the back corner of the Hall and as we waited outside the door, I could see more clearly that the Hall may, at one time, have been used for large important meetings. Perhaps Presidential News conferences had taken place here and I tried to recall some of the Presidents who might have actually entered the room. Perhaps Roosevelt with his wife Eleanor at the dedication of the hospital, or maybe Truman held some important conference here with flashbulb cameras going off around the room as they made some important announcement. Ike Eisenhower was President as I was going up and maybe he had come here as well, though he was Army and more than likely would have gone to Walter Reed Hospital. I knew that because he had died there just a few months before. Coincidentally, I happened to be taking care of his boyhood friend and the ex-Marine Corps Commandant, General Alexander Vandegrift at the time they announced his death on the television.
General Vandegrift was a feisty old man who at one time could demand as much respect as his Army counterpart and close friend General Eisenhower, They had been boyhood buddies and had decided their roles in history long before anyone even knew their names. When I met him however he was bedridden and blind and couldn’t even get someone to boil him a three-minute egg in the morning. He had refused to eat for several mornings because none of the Corpsman on Tower Ten could fix his eggs and toast the way he liked them. My friend Mary, who was working at Tower Ten, knew that I had done previous work with geriatric patients in civilian life, and so she came to ask me if I would give it a try.
“Good Morning Sir! I said as I entered his room, “How are we doing this morning?”
“I don’t know about you, but I am damn hungry!” he barked.
“And how could I solve that for you Sir!”
“You can fix me two, three-minute, hard boiled eggs. Not two and a half minutes or three and a half minutes, but THREE-minutes! Do you understand that?”
“Yes Sir, I think I can do that for you.” I said politely.
“Well if you can, you will be the first one in this damn hospital that understands anything at all!” he snapped.
“And how would you like your toast, Sir?”
“TOASTED!” he said, almost jokingly, “not some piece of bread that is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.”
“No problem, Sir. I will be back in a minute… well make that three minutes, Sir.” I said, jokingly as I left the room, though I doubted my words were even heard.
I prepared the food exactly as he had requested and returned to his room with the tray about ten minutes later.
“I thought you said three minutes!” he barked as I entered the room. “A man could die of starvation around here.”
“Sorry, Sir. It took me a bit longer than I thought.”
“Now that smells like toast,” he said, as I put the tray down in front of him.
“Would you like me to help you with eating, Sir?” I asked politely.
“NO! I don’t want you to help me,” he responded, “but since I can’t see a damn thing I may need some assistance.”
“No problem, Sir.” I said, as I pulled a chair up to the bed.
“What time is it?”
“It’s five minutes to Eight, Sir.
“Turn on the television, I want to listen to the, morning News.” he requested, almost politely.
I did as he asked and began to feed him his breakfast. There were no complaints as he quietly chewed his food. When he was finished eating I asked if he wanted anything else.
“No, that will be all,” he responded, contentedly.
“Then I will be leaving you now, Sir,” I said, as I put the chair back in its place by the wall.
“And tomorrow? You will be here in the morning again?”
“If you like, Sir, I can be here.”
“Yes, please do come again.” he responded.
I did return for several more days, always preparing the same meal for him, which he ate while we watched the morning news. He didn’t talk much but he did develop a better attitude towards everyone and that was worth the effort.
On the 28th of March 1969, I turned on the TV and heard just the end of a Special Report. “We repeat, President Ike Eisenhower died this morning at Walter Reed Hospital, stay tuned for the story on the Morning News.”
Tears were coming down from the General’s sightless eyes as I turned to feed him his breakfast, “Is something wrong, Sir?” I inquired, sympathetically.
“We never talked about this,” he said, thoughtfully.
“Excuse me, Sir? Talked about what?”
“The ending, we never talked about how it would end.”
“I am not following you, Sir.” I said, as I handed him his toast.
He slowly lowered the toast to the table and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Ike and I talked about everything,” he said slowly, “we grew up together, made plans for our lives, our careers together. We were good friends, but we never talked about dying.”
For the next several minutes I sat and listened to the General tell his story. It was a Historical Event, witnessed by only me. The ending of an Era being broadcast on the television with live comments coming from one of President Eisenhower’s closes friends, lying in a hospital bed just an arm’s length away from my chair.
“Matthysse! Let’s go!”
“What?” I responded, as my mind raced back from the past.
“Let’s go, they are waiting for us in the courtroom!”
I couldn’t recall ever seeing a court-martial hearing in any of the movies I’d seen and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was nothing like a civilian courtroom; there was no elevated bench for the judge to sit at, no jury box, and no crowd of people trying to find a seat so they could hear the gory details of some hideous crime or learn the intimate secrets of someone’s life as the prosecution emptied out its trashcan of incriminating evidence. It was just a long table and chairs in the middle of a drab windowless room.
Two Lieutenants and a Navy Commander sat behind the table and I noticed my two friends from ONI sitting at one end, staring down at their papers, appearing to be unaware of my entrance. I came to attention and saluted the Commander and was told to sit at the far end of the table with my lawyer. The Commander introduced himself and his team then called the meeting to order.
The first order of business was to read the charges against me and so he called on the ONI officers to present their case. The youngest one of course accepted the honor and began telling how they had followed us for some time and finally apprehended us. I listened to his story but some parts were hard to believe and I thought to myself that he most likely concocted much of his story from hearing our confessions. “…and as a result of our investigations we are filing these charges against Mr. Matthysse;
“1. Three counts of theft! We have seen videotapes from the supermarket showing Matthysse and his gang stealing record albums by putting them under cases of Soda drinks.”
‘This caught me off guard; of course, the cameras didn’t lie and we suspected that they were on to us the last time we did it. What surprised me was his implying that I was somehow the leader of the group. It was Randy’s idea and somehow it made sense, at least at the time. We always calculated the amount we were going to spend on food supplies. Usually, it came to about $100.00, which meant the store profited at least 20% of that and so, because we were military and our wages were low, we split the difference. Ten dollars worth of records for us and a $10.00 profit for the store.’
“2. Aiding and abetting a known deserter of the American Military!”
‘Randy was a friend who was going through a difficult time in his life. Turning him in would not have helped him. It was something he needed to do on his own. If helping him out by buying food was what they meant then I guess I was guilty but what would I be guilty of if I didn’t help him out?’
“3. Participation in and planning of Anti-American activities and protest!”
‘I nearly jumped out of my seat on that one, Anti-War! Anti-Military! Anti-Government! Yes, guilty on all charges, but never was I Anti-American. If anything, we considered ourselves to be the true Americans because we represented the people and that is what America is all about. Expressing our displeasure with the government was a freedom that no one, including the government or the military, had a right to interfere with. Participation in the Washington Peace March, discussions in our home with those who wanted to take medicine to North Vietnam, or attending the preliminary discussions held at the University for the Roger Priest Treason trial, were not Un-American, even though it was strongly suggested that we not participate in these things. They were the Freedoms I thought I was protecting when I joined the military.’
“4. Ten counts of use of illegal drugs!”
‘The number was actually about 100 times that but they were so shocked with Mary’s admission of 10 times that I didn’t want to cause them to go into heart failure by telling them that it was more. Yes, I was guilty but then so was half the staff of the hospital and hundreds of thousands of other Americans around the country.’
“5. And ten counts of sales of illegal drugs!”
‘Again, the number was actually much higher than that but we never actively sold our stuff. Because of the rapid demand, there was a lot of bad stuff being sold and people came to us because we were trustworthy.’
“And because of the severity of these charges, we are recommending to the court that the maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment be imposed with subsequent Dishonorable Discharge from the Military and no military benefits!”
“What!” I exclaimed, in disbelief, startling everyone at the table.
“Quiet please!” the Commander responded, “You will get your turn in a minute.”
“Tell me he’s kidding,” I whispered to my lawyer.
“I wish I could, but I told you from the beginning you were in trouble.”
The Commander thanked the prosecution for their work and then turned to me. “And Mr. Matthysse, how do you answer to these charges?”
“Not Guilty, Sir!”
“I see you have counsel with you. Do you want to speak for yourself or do you wish your counsel speak for you?” the Commander asked.
“I am sorry, Sir. Yes, he will speak for me.” I answered, embarrassed by my foolhardy response.
My lawyer stood and acknowledged the facts but then went into detail about how the evidence they obtain would not hold up in a civilian court and how the picture they painted of me was not at all what others saw in my daily work. He presented excerpts from some of the letters and ended by saying that while there were some laws broken he did not feel that the punishment should be severe.
The Commander thanked him and then asks that we leave the room while he discussed the case with the two Lieutenants. As we waited outside I felt numb. I knew that there were many guys in the military who didn’t always follow the rules and some had even done things that were quite serious, but I never knew anyone until today that ever really got court marshaled. ‘Was I really that bad?’
“If someone wanted to get some Grass, how would they do it?” my lawyer asks, from out of the blue.
“What?” I responded, not really sure I had heard the question right.
“If I wanted to try some Grass, could you get me some today?”
“Well, I am not sure about today, you would have to be checked out first,” I answered, “but I’m not so sure I want to do any more dealing, Sir.”
“Oh, I wasn’t actually interested in you getting it, just wondering if it could be done,” he responded.
All of a sudden I felt like I had been set up the whole time and that, even though he was my defense lawyer, he was still working for the military, trying to piece together the extent of the drug problem at Bethesda.
“It could be done, Sir,” I assured him, “as much of whatever you wanted, delivered to your doorstep in a pizza delivery box.”