It was not until his 70th birthday that Jackson learned his IVC (inferior vena cava) was on his left side, not the right as it is for more than 99.5% of all people.
“Oh, my gosh,” he exclaimed dramatically, bursting into the family room where his wife was reading her book club’s latest selection. “I’m left-hearted!”
He didn’t even know what he meant when he said it, but something must have been in the back of his mind connected to left-handedness (which, he’d heard, artistic people tend to be) or left-leaning (as if politics were genetic).
“What in the world are you talking about?” Rita asked, folding All the Light We Cannot See on a finger to keep her place.
“That aortic aneurysm scan I had last week,” he explained. “It showed that this major blood vessel in the middle of my body is on the wrong side—the IVC. All the blood in your lower trunk, abdomen, the pelvis and legs is carried to the right atrium of the heart by this, I guess, giant tube.”
“You do have one, though, don’t you?”
He frowned. “The aorta is on the right side. For all normal people, the IVC is more or less in front of it. But my IVC is on the left side of my body, way the hell from where it’s supposed to be, backasswards.”
“Well, you’ve been that way for seven decades, and you seem to function just fine.”
“How can you say that? All my circuits are crossed; I have been mis-wired since birth, before then, I guess. Who knows what this has done to me?”
As he said it, three incidents rose up in memory, moments when he’d felt such strong emotion that his heart pounded and he thought he might die. One occurred in war (“if the face had been reversed,” the radio man had said), a second in courtship (“star-crossed lovers,” he thought), and the third with a career change (“the road not taken”).
“Well, you’re wired to me now, have been, in fact, for 46 and half years. Better not say that’s not as it should be.”
“Humph.” He wheeled around and stepped into the kitchen. The dishwasher, running, would drown out any more negative comments from her. And he could get himself a beer.
It irritated him when Rita dismissed his concerns, especially if it involved his health, physical or mental. And he had concluded on the drive home from the clinic that his misplaced inferior vena cava had doomed him to a inferior fate. He stuck his head around the corner to assert, “If my stupid IVC had been on the right side, where it was supposed to be, my life would have taken a different course. I could have been famous, certainly wealthy, I bet even a hero.”
Retreating to the kitchen, he muttered, “Damn straight, wealthy from windmills.”
He went to the bar he’d modeled on the style of British pubs. He’s seen on some late- night show that pub masters in the Old Country keep their casks in the cellar and drew beer up to the bar with a long handled pump. He held his own glass at a slant under the mouth of his pearl- handled pump, which was connected to a keg in his basement. He drew slowly to minimize the foam and then took a long drink. (A voice inside his head said, “I hope our esophagus is correctly positioned and attached to our stomach!”)
“Rita,” he called. “I’m heading to the garden.”
After twenty years as a competent mechanical engineer, building water treatment plants and reservoirs, he’d had a chance to switch to a start-up company making turbines for the latest hi-tech windmills.
“Jackson, my man,” he college buddy Quentin said, “this is the chance of a lifetime. We’ve bought the rights to put windmills on a hundred miles of Wichita Mountain ridges. We can generate enough electricity to power half the state of Oklahoma.”
He and Quentin had gone to what was in the 1960s the University of Missouri at Rolla (formerly the School of Mines and Metallurgy) in their home town. Their families couldn’t afford to send them anywhere else, but it was a fine science and technology school.
He told Quentin, “I’ve got great seniority at Hydraulic, Inc., solid pension plan, good salary. Most of what I do now is channel paperwork to the right places—smooth and easy is the flow. Haven’t been out in the field in almost five years.”
“Come out and see our prototype, Jack. Your heart will go pit-a-pat.”
The Molino Gigante did, in fact, make his pulse flutter. The machine was a remarkable piece of workmanship, made out of remarkably strong but lightweight materials. It could withstand hurricane strength winds and its sealed and permanently lubricated parts would need almost no upkeep. Only a tornado landing right on top of one would do any damage.
But standing out on the isolated hilltop, Jackson had a panic attack. It was not just about starting life all over again. He’d have to ask his family to leave the only home they’d known. They would all need to learn the neighborhoods in a new town, find a home, transfer money to other banks, switch church and civic memberships to unfamiliar organizations, hand over their bodies to new doctors.
There was also something in that forbidding landscape—stark red rock, scrub trees battling prairie winds, hot summer baking the dirt, cold winters freezing the living. Rita, the son and two daughters, wouldn’t like it.
He had never been good at relocation himself, suffering from homesickness at college and an almost complete disorientation when he went into the Army. His heart pounded, and he told Quentin no even as he admitted that the prospect was intoxicating. But his breathing was shallow from fear, not excitement. The firm took off, and he could have retired a wealthy man at 50.
If he hadn’t been left-hearted.
He was comfortable in retirement but still worried by a gradual erosion of his assets. So he lived frugally, shopping for bargains and putting up vegetables he grew himself.
When he retired five years earlier, he installed an elaborate irrigation system in his backyard using two rain barrels fed by house gutters. Now all he had to do was turn the faucet and a steady flow would soak beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and eggplants all night long. He loved to watch the ground grow dark over the buried hoses with no charge to his water bill. He could imagine the plants roots wicking moisture up to green leaves and ripening fruit.
“Dinner in thirty minutes.” Rita had opened the kitchen window and called out to him. “Don’t get involved in something.”
Jackson thought of explaining that, like being left-hearted, his auditory system was probably crisscrossed. So what he heard was, “Do whatever you want, darling. You and I can dance naked to Duke Ellington tunes and sip martinis all evening.” But he raised a hand to acknowledge that he understood and said, “So long as my left-sided IVC doesn’t make me veer off to another house and another stern housewife.”
Contemplating his orderly garden—its hilled rows, tall tomatoes cages, pole bean teepees —he recalled the girl who got away. It was before he even knew Rita, which was after he came back from Vietnam. In college, he’d met one of the few female students in this engineering school and was love-struck.
Charlene Waters, a St. Louis girl, was posting the highest scores in an advanced mining engineering course. And she was ridiculously good-looking: cascading blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, and a slim, athletic body that slid into classrooms, seats, clothes. Jackson had never seen anyone like her and was determined to have his way with her. And so was every other unattached male at UMR.
They all quickly learned that Charlene could elude any attention she didn’t desire. Still, Jackson channeled his energy into a single, brilliant (he thought) scheme to sweep her off her feet. He would show her the mine he and two of his childhood friends had dug into the bottom of a limestone cave just west of town.
“That independent project Professor Wells told us to complete?” he whispered to her before class began one day.
“Yes,” she said with a noncommittal smile.
“I know where you and I could install a one tenth-scale mine elevator that would go down into soft Missouri rock. We lower a grabbing mechanism—like what you see in those bowling alley claw machines—and see what kind of rock or whatever we bring up.”
Another smile and a question. “When can we go check it out?”
This was too easy, he thought, but proposed they meet after Friday’s class.
On the half-a-mile hike out he had to control his breathing as he watched her glide among the hickory and oak, dance across creeks on rock stepping stones, slip into the hillside cave as if she’d made this trip a dozen times. A model student, he thought, she was also a forest creature in her natural habitat.
The flickering flame of his kerosene lantern lit up the damp rock walls and ceiling. Jackson pointed out the eight-inch hole he, Bill, and Jody had bored through the floor. They’d linked together sections of metal pipe, jammed an old boat propeller in the end, and cranked it with a car jack wrench until they broke through to an underground cavity of undetermined size. It was one of those silly childhood projects he now hoped to turn into a young adult romantic adventure.
“Listen,” he said, dropping a pebble into the opening. In a second they could hear a distant plunk or splash. “That could be gold . . . or oil.”
“Or uranium,” she said, kneeling beside him. “This is absolutely amazing. I’ll build the grappling jaws and a wench system to send it down. We’ll take pictures with my polaroid and get an A for sure.”
“Let’s use my 35-millimeter Nikon,” he said. “It’s a hobby, and I think we can lower it into our mine, take shots every foot down as we go.”
Again, Jackson wondered at how smoothly this was going. His heart was racing when on the walk back he said, “Why don’t we get a burger or something tomorrow? Go over the designs. You could come back to my house. I have a room in the basement.”
Again, a lovely smile. “I’d like that.” She stood up. “Of course, you do know I’m married.” He felt the sound had just been sucked out of the woods, all air from his lungs.
They did carry out the experiment, got A’s on the assignment and in the course. She squeezed his arm when the grades were posted and said, “I wish I’d met you earlier. We’re quite the team.”
He now knew it wasn’t bad timing that kept him from winning Charlene Waters (who became an astronaut and then manager of major NASA programs)—it was his left-heartedness. As a senior he had decided to take a year off after graduation and work for the National Park Service in Yellowstone. He got to see Old Faithful hundreds of times, but started college one year after Charlene, who met and married a plodding but pleasant geology major. Jackson’s left-heartedness had made him leave when he should have stayed.
“Dinner in ten minutes,” Rita called from the kitchen.
Not that he didn’t appreciate his wife. Still, it was unlikely she’d listen to Duke Ellington, dance naked, and sip martinis with him all evening as he imagined Charlene doing. He had three wonderful children and was generally content with his family. But . . .
He’d always believed Vietnam had been a detour worse than Yellowstone. Many of his friends enlisted to get training and assignment for specific jobs in the military, but it must have been his left-heartedness that waited for the draft and insisted he go wherever the Army sent him.
During his induction he told the personnel specialist in charge of assessing his skills that he’d had his own darkroom since he was twelve and that his work had been in shows in high school. He loved developing his own prints, learning by experimentation how to vary times in the developer, stop baths, and fixers that bring out or suppress colors. The Army declared him a photographer.
It was a fine, if generally routine, military job: taking “grip and grin” photographs of promotions, awards, special accomplishments, completed operations. But one time his Military Occupational Speciality put him in harm’s way. Now he wonders if his imbalanced physiology might account for at least part of the terror that ambushed him.
“You do have balls, don’t you?” his fellow photo specialist, Samuel (“The Sam”) Pool, taunted as they rolled a die to see which one of them would go out with a squad setting up a night ambush. Ninety-five percent of their duties were on their huge base protected by overwhelming firepower; neither wanted this assignment.
“Well, small ones, of course,” Jackson had countered. “Whereas yours . . . still up in your abdomen.”
The roll of the dice rolled Jackson out to the bush with a small group of battle-hardened soldiers. They must have read the fear on his face because they constantly reassured him. They knew what they were up to; it was unlikely they would encounter the enemy; the CO was primarily staging operations to keep the brass off their backs.
“The VC know we’re out here, man, and stay away from this route,” explained Bob, the diminutive radio man. He pointed at a creased map of infiltration trails and the major roads in the area. “You stay back with me, set up your equipment, do what I do.”
You couldn’t film night operations, but Jackson’s commander wanted an authentic sound track for some unspecific future project. Jackson carried two portable tape recorders but also, just in case, a 35-millimeter camera.
The squad leader explained the Claymore mine defense they were putting around their position at dusk. “These babes rip through whatever’s out there—man, tree, animal.” He was placing green plastic cases on short legs just off the ground, each with a convex face. On the top were the words, “Front Toward Enemy.” When the device was detonated, a layer of C-4 explosive blew about 700 steel balls in an arc that could be deadly up to 50 meters away.
“We’re going to hunker back here, pay close attention to our listening devices, use our night vision goggles. If anything happens—and it probably won’t—it’ll be over in a milli- second.”
His calming words were later offset by one man, probably irritated that they were saddled with a green correspondent. “Damn!” he whispered in Jackson’s ear. “Hope I set that somma-bitch up facing the right way.”
At a pre-dawn rustle of brush beyond their perimeter, Jackson felt his scrotum tighten. Then, when the flares lit up and the mines went off, there was a rush in his lower abdomen. The radio man later slipped him a clean pair of underwear.
Simple cowardice, Jackson had concluded and over time learned to live with the painful memory. Now it occurred to him that his system not his valor might have failed him. His vas deferens, the path his sperm was meant to travel on the way from testicle to urethra, had probably been misaligned since puberty, his ability to be a man twisted by biology, not mental or emotional weakness. Fear had taken over because his defenses were reversed, his capacities rerouted. Left-hearted.
“Dinner,” called Rita. He sighed and went in, stopping to draw a second beer. “Feeling better?” she asked him at the table.
“I don’t know. Still unsettled. Remember how, when our children asked our advice about what to study in college, and I always said, ‘Follow your heart’?”
“Well, I just wonder if I —or, more specifically, my congenitally misaligned circulatory system—channeled my own desires away from a higher destiny.” He waved a hand at the room, the house. “All this is fine, of course, but perhaps I could have done more, done better.”
Rita put down her fork. “Remember when your Army friend,”The Sam” Pool, came that time . . . what, twenty years ago?”
“Well, he told me a bit more about your night ambush story—which,” she pointed a finger at him, “I was glad not to know about until fifteen years after the fact. He said you rigged the dice so you would loose. He was married, had less than a month to go, so you took the assignment. I think your funny heart did right.”
He looked down. “That’s his story.”
“And your turning down the Oklahoma job, which you say was your one chance to make it big? Part of the reason was that you didn’t like the area, true. And you had your concerns about whether people would actually accept wind power. But you also knew we didn’t want to move. The kids were happy in their schools. I had started work at the hospital. The family was happy where we were.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “But . . . “
“Don’t even start on Charlene Waters! She wouldn’t have kept you any longer than any of the four husbands and however many lovers she’s had over the years! Your silly heart, however it’s put together behind your bony old chest, took you right where you’re supposed to.”
“And,” she concluded, “you look at some of the pictures of Miss NASA today and then you look at me.” She sat up straight in her chair and tossed her hair. “Would you rather be listening to ’Satin Doll,’ sipping martinis, and dancing naked with until the wee hours of the morning?”
“You had me,” he laughed, “at ‘listening.’”
A native of Rolla, Missouri, Michael Lund is the author of numerous scholarly publications on the Victorian novel, two collections of short stories—How to Not Tell a War Story and Eating With Veterans—and a number of novels inspired by The Mother Road, including Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story (2004), Growing up on Route 66 (1999), and Route 66 Looking-Glass (2014). Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University in Virginia, he teaches part-time and conducts writing workshops for Southside Stories, a free writing instruction program for veterans, active-duty military, and families hosted by Longwood University’s Office of Professional Studies.