The morgue

a slice of memoir

By 1949, the Army base where a million and half people were processed for service in WWII stood deserted. This had been the last stop before boarding ships for western Europe. All branches of military personnel, not just Army, passed through here — even some civilians on secret missions. Surely these young people made time for the cantina, laughing and maybe dancing to big band music, or for a show in the base’s theater before they left American soil, maybe for good… how many wouldn’t return to see the wooden arch bearing the message WELCOME HOME at the camp’s entrance, erected over the wide road cut through the forest? And how did the Axis POWs feel, seeing this sign on their arrival? Did they wonder what welcome awaited them here in an Allied prison? They would be put to work; they would also be given their own canteen.

All that remained four years after war’s end were empty buildings, ephemeral fliers, yellow canteen coupons occasionally spiraling in the wind, and weeds growing tall in their eagerness to swallow it all, to satisfy the hungry forest.

A local man overheard talk that the decommissioned land was being sold and if you had a way to move a building, you could buy one cheap.

He had a way of moving a building. He had a place for it, on his own land right beside his own house. He signed the papers and took his building.

It made for a nice little home, he thought. It had a concrete floor with pipes running through for radiant heat. Solid. It would need a little paint, a little work here and there. He could do it. He was pleased with himself. He would rent it it out, make a little money…

Quite some years later, a young man came to ask about the house: We can’t stay in the apartment where we are anymore. It’s not working out… he and his wife had a baby. They wanted to be in a safer place.

The older man, now gray-haired, pursed his lips for just a moment before agreeing.

And that is how I came to live in the house which was once part of a bustling World War II Army base at a port of embarkation.

That was my dad and mom who needed a place to live.

That was my step-grandfather, Pa-Pa, the sometime opportunist who’d moved the building. He’d married my mother’s mother.

I, of course, was the new baby.

This house is the first home I remember. In this place, my memories would first come into being while I watched the interplay of light and shadow on the walls. Here I would dream my first dreams and cry out in the darkness until my father came to settle me back to sleep, sometimes holding me in his arms all night when I suffered asthma attacks. Here I would begin to recognize the distant rattle and whistle of trains, long before I first crawled on the warm, warm floors in wintertime or knew the cold and silvery moon.

I wonder if this is where I first came to understand the word ghost.

The little white house with the heated floors was, after all, the Army hospital morgue.

Photo: Shocking Wonder. CC BY

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

21 thoughts on “The morgue

  1. Okay, wow! I can’t decide if I appreciate the preview you gave us with your title or not. I’m going to say I do, I think. {smile} I would love to know that thoughts that went through your Pa-Pa’s head as he made his decision. He knew what the building was, but he also knew the need. As always, thank you for sharing this with us!

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    • Tim, do you mean “a slice of memoir” here on the post, vs. the blurb on the SOLSC page? Truth is – I struggled even with the blurb (how much do I reveal -?). Starting this piece was another challenge: where to begin with the story of this house? Classic answer: at the beginning…which was the decommissioning of the base and my savvy Pa-Pa seizing a unique opportunity. Since I started with 1949 and the scenes began to feel sort of novel-esque, and because I needed something at the top of the post to (hopefully) create a sense of intrigue (reader thinking: where is this going-?), I put in the memoir tip-off. I did have great fun trying to bring the story of the morgue to life…my father didn’t tell me what the house was originally used for until I was grown with children of my own. This, for me, was a huge exercise in saying more than “The first house I remember living in was a morgue…” Thank you, Tim – I so appreciate your thoughts!

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      • Fran, instead of “title,” I should have said “post name.” The URL is “the-morgue.” The more I think about it, the more I like how you presented things.

        I really do like the beginning. So many times our “slice of today” started in the recent or distant past. Your novel-esque treatment of the scene is nice — I read it in black and white with that big band music playing in the background. If I was your father, I’m not sure when I’d have told you, but he did give you a great story!

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  2. Well, it had heated floors. I can completely see my father taking this very practical view of a useful building. This is an amazing story. I love the way you don’t reveal the relationships at first. I’m thinking about Tim’s comment, too, about the title. It didn’t stop me from reading or appreciating, this story. I wonder, though, what the affect might have been with a more ambiguous title. As I think about it, though, I’m guessing that you didn’t want the identity of the house to be the only surprise. More that the homeyness (sp?) of the place was primary to you. Anyway, thank you. I’m amazed that you haven’t written about that before…at least that I’ve seen.

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    • Ah, you and Tim have both hit on the biggest challenges I had with this story! It’s intriguing by merit of its factual nature alone, but I had to keep asking myself: How do I set this up for maximum effect? How do I let just enough of the intrigue speak before the story-? I felt that the word “morgue” was certainly an attention-getter, and even if readers quickly put together that this house moved off of the decommissioned base was actually a morgue, they wouldn’t know the full connection or personal importance to me until the end (I hoped). All I’ve ever written of this before are short references along the lines of “the first house I remember living in was once a morgue” or “When an Army base was decommissioned after WWII, they sold off the buildings and my Pa-Pa bought one of them and moved it to his land. It’s the first house I remember living in and it was once the hospital morgue.” This is the first time I’ve attempted to let the story unfold, with all these challenges, including where to begin! Thanks so much, Peter – I value your thoughts.

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  3. Fran, what a neat story of your earliest days – the sounds of a train whistle, the history of the place, the heated floors – this house is a character itself. Its lungs have breathed the life of people across time and space, including you. From the very beginning of you, where the footprint of the future generation was already present in a very tiny way, the promise of a son who would become one who takes care of those who cross to the other side was there, waiting……and these shadows on the walls and the spirits of those who live on beyond this life are fascinating to me. I’ll read this again today and be just as engaged as on the first reading. So many questions and wonderings……

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    • I so appreciate this response of how the story speaks to you, Kim – it is one I’ve wanted to write for a quite some time and it’s been hard to frame – where to begin? How to let it unfold? – and oh yes, I want to take it to the next generation, to my son, who now takes care of preparing the dead for burial. Everything is connected, everything. Couldn’t fit it all in here, but I will, eventually… thank you for seizing on the threads. ❤

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  4. Fran, the structure of this slice is lovely. The reveal at the end is quite surprising. When did you learn the prior use of the house? Your family history is beautiful. I lived in my great grandmothers old house for around six years, but there’s so much of the story that has gaps and no one left to fill them in.

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    • I was grown with kids of my own when my dad casually mentioned that the house had been moved from the base after the war and that it was the hospital morgue – my response was “WHAT?!?!? How long have you known this?” Apparently for years. It sent my imagination spiraling… wish you knew more about your great-grandmother’s house. I often think about all the stories old walls have witnessed…becoming part of the fiber of place. I had to do some of my own backfilling for this post with research – and I will do more.

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  5. This unfolded beautifully, from the impersonal institutional structure of a building on a base, to the arrival of an anonymous actor, to the entrance of our sympathies for a young family, to the revelation that it all has led to who you are. The ironic shock at the end has tremendous power. The terminus of life has become life’s locus and meaning for you. Truly artful.

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  6. Yes, this is such a lovely slice, it’s a true memoir and you have unfolded it in the telling so well. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments of others and your replies for further understanding. I do have a feeling you have mentioned living in a morgue (in passing in another slice?). I love reading about people’s past and how they grew up…One thing that struck me is how long it could take to get to war in those days going by ship. Now I guess you get there in hours or it’s on your doorstep.

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  7. My first thought at the end of the story was a practical one: why did the morgue have heated floors? Wouldn’t it have hastened decomposition? And then, from a creative perspective–what a wonderful opening to a ghost story this would be! Fran, you never seem to run out of fascinating material!

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    • I have so wondered about those floors, too, Chris, and the incongruity of warmth in a morgue; I JUST DON’T KNOW! I have had to do quite a bit of online research already to be sure that family lore checks out, and I feel like it’s likely going to send me back to the area at some point dig for more. My dad said he thought the floor would be so nice for a baby learning to crawl. It was a very hard floor, though – I fell and chipped my baby teeth. I have wanted to write some ghost stories, have even imagined a little collection – Chris, you make me believe. 🙂

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