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Last week I mentioned Louisa May Alcott and said I would do excerpts from her "Hospital Sketches". As I began reading this I saw that it would be doing her an injustice if I just gave it a "once over lightly" job. So I think I'm going to treat this the same way I did the tidbits on Phoebe Yates Pember. The first chapter discusses how she came to be a nurse. If any of you have read "Little Women" you know what her writing style is like and this book appears to be the same way. Not just a cut and dried diary of her experiences. I hope you will forgive me when I say the first chapter is quite amusing and as I quote her I hope you will agree with me.

"I want something to do," said Louisa addressing the world in general. When she got no reaction, she repeated it to her immediate world and received the following suggestions.

"Write a book," quoth the author of my being.

"Don't know enough, sir. First live, then write."

"Try teaching again," suggested my mother.

"No thank you, ma'am, ten years of that is enough."

"Take a husband like my Darby, and fulfill your mission," said sister Joan, home on a visit.

"Can't afford expensive luxuries, Mrs. Coobiddy."

"Turn actress, and immortalize you name," said sister Vashti, striking an attitude.

"I won't."

"Go nurse the soldiers," said my young neighbor, Tom, panting for "the tented field."

"I will!"

With that decided, the Periwinkle's set up a model hospital in their home with Mr. P. the chaplain, Mrs. P. the matron. The news that "Miss Tribulation" was available as a nurse reached a townswoman, who set up an interview with someone in the sisterhood Louisa wanted to join. The interview resulted in three things: Louisa felt she could do the work, she was offered a place and accepted it promising not to desert.

It would take several days for her request to be forwarded to headquarters and for the letter with her commission to return. But all in all there was no time to lose. She rushed home and burst in on her family with the announcement -- "I've enlisted!"

She immediately became military, calling her dinner my rations, saluted all new comers and ordered a dress parade the afternoon of her announcement. "Having reviewed every rag I possessed, I detailed some for picket duty while airing over the fence; some to the sanitary influences of the wash-tub; others to mount guard in the trunk; while the weak and wounded went to the Work-basket Hospital, to be made ready for active service again. To this squad I devoted myself for a week; but all was done, and I had time to get powerfully impatient before the letter came." However, the letter presented her with some disappointment. It seems the place she was to fill had already been filled, but she was offered a less desirable position at Hurly-burly House instead.

"That's just your luck, Trib. I'll take your trunk up garret for you again; for of course you won't go," Tom remarked, with the disdainful pity which small boys affect when they get into their teens. I was wavering in my secret soul, but that settled the matter, and I crushed him on the spot with martial brevity --

"It is now one; I shall march at six."

But Louisa's departure was not to be easy. She left her family trying hard to overcome all show of unmanly emotion. But when onboard the train, she "took the veil, and what I did behind it is nobody's business; but I maintain that the soldier who cries when his mother says "Good bye," is the boy to fight the best, and die bravest, when the time comes, or go back to her better than he went."

She spent the next couple of days running last minute errands and trying to get a free pass to Washington. To accomplish the latter, Louisa had to face the president of the railroad. "I'm a bashful individual, though I can't get any one to believe it; so it cost me a great effort to poke about the Worcester depot till the right door appeared, then walk into a room containing several gentlemen, and blunder out my request in a high state of stammer and blush." But her anxiety was ill founded. The president of the company was very courteous, "but it was evident that I had made an absurd a demand as if I had asked for the nose off his respectable face." He referred her to the Governor and with that Louisa left.

Being the shy thing that she was Louisa thought she'd never be able to do this but the thought of Tom crowing over her inability goaded her into overcoming her fright and she went to see the Governor. From here on she got nothing but the run-around. No one in the Governor's office was able to help her and she was sent to another gentleman's office, a Mc K., who was purported to know all about tickets. When she reached Mc K's office no one knew of his whereabouts. "If I had been in search of the Koh-i-noor diamond I should have been as likely to find it there as any vestige of Mc K." After searching everywhere in vain, she met her brother-in-law, Darby, who said he would help her. After doing some checking, he told her all was well and Mc K. would take care of her.

Unfortunately, she was disappointed again. "You will have to get a pass from Dr. H., in Temple Place, before I can give you a pass, madam," answered Mc K. And so she was sent off again. "He might as well have asked me to catch a humming-bird, toast a salamander, or call on the man in the moon, as find a Doctor at home at the busiest hour of the day." But off she went, tramping through the mud and "quite sure that the evening papers would announce the appearance of the Wandering Jew, in feminine habiliments."

But to her surprise, after a short wait, the good Doctor was more than happy to give her not only the order for the pass but a paper of directions to make the passage between Boston and Washington smooth. She no longer felt like "Martha Struggles" and returned to Mc K. who proceeded to write the needed papers. After a lengthy wait she received the precious order enabling her to get the ticket. This was at three o'clock and she was to depart at five o'clock. She had little time to go purchase her ticket and eat dinner.

"Why I was sent to a steamboat office for car tickets, is not for me to say, though I went as meekly as I should have gone to the Probate Court, if sent. A fat, easy gentleman gave me several bits of paper, with coupons attached, with a warning not to separate them, which instantly inspired me with a yearning to pluck them apart, and see what came of it. But, remembering through what fear and tribulation I had obtained them, I curbed Satan's promptings, and clutching my prize, as if it were my pass to the Elysian Fields, I hurried home." (home was her sister, Joan's) After a hastily eaten dinner and goodbyes, "I mounted the ambulance, baggage-wagon, or anything you please but hack, and drove away, too tired to feel excited, sorry, or glad."

Alcott, Louisa May, "Hospital Sketches", Applewood Books, Bedford
Massachusetts, 1993

So ends the first chapter. Just think of what she had to go through just to get here and her war experiences haven't even begun. Hope you enjoyed tonight's and we'll pick with more next week.

See Part II

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux