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The Performance of My Life :
How I avoided Leavenworth Prison and wound up in a World War II Army Psychiatric Hospital

Not much of my theatrical venture was made a fuss over back at Plattsburg, which was fine with me since I hadn’t advertised it. I asked Steve to say as little as possible, but most of the guys in my barracks, as well as my riding instructor pals, knew I wanted to be an actor after the war. What I didn’t know was that our Captain (a veterinarian who was our commander at work) took my good fortune as a personal insult. He hadn’t been consulted about my three-day passes and was really pissed off. He found extra duties for me and, if there were no extra duties, he created them. Toward the middle of July, I’d about had it with him, with the army, with the war, with just about everything. As much as I loved being around the horses, and riding whenever I chose, I requested a transfer to other duties. Nothing happened. I figured he was sitting on the request.

As I was finishing up in the tack room, late one Saturday afternoon, he stepped in. Standing just inside the door, he told me that I was doing a piss–poor job and he was not at all satisfied with my performance.

"I’m sorry about that, Captain," I said, "now if you’ll excuse me I have to get over to the stable."

"You’ll leave when I tell you to leave and not a moment sooner. You understand me, Jacobson?"

I could feel the blood rising in my face. My hand, resting on the top of a cane-backed chair, began tightening around it. "I’m going over to the stable, Captain, to finish my work, now kindly step aside from the door, sir."

He planted himself.

I picked up the chair in my hand. It was quite light in weight. "Please, get out of my way."

I slid the chair at him, almost as one would play shuffleboard. He jumped aside and I walked out the screen door. It was starting to rain. Instead of going to the stable, I headed across the parade ground to my barracks. By the time I got there, I was soaking wet, and in a little shock. I sat down on my foot locker. I have no idea how long, I just sat there.

Arrested by the M.P.s

Most of the guys had already showered and left for town. Presently, two M.P.s in rain ponchos showed up, told me to come with them, and stood me on my feet. They marched me to the post stockade where I was placed in a cell. I hadn’t said a word since I’d left the tack room.

Striking an Officer During Wartime

Early the next morning, one of my barracks buddies, Herb Klein, came to see me. He was a Tech Sergeant in the Adjutant General’s office on the post, a lawyer in civilian life. I’d known him in Nashville; he was a fellow New Yorker and I’d invited him to several parties at the hotel. As a draftee, he adjusted to the system, and learned how to make it work for him.

"What the hell did you do, schmuck!" he demanded.

I told him.

"Well, that’s not what your Captain says. You’re facing a general court-martial for striking an officer during wartime. If he wants to be real mean about it, you’re looking at twenty years in Leavenworth."

"I guess it’s too late to do anything about that," was all I could think to say.

"All of us on the post who are Jewish know enough to give that sonofabitch a wide berth. What’s the matter, couldn’t you handle it?"

"I guess not."

He sat and thought for a minute. My breakfast still sat on a steel tray next to my bunk. "Did they bring you any dinner last night?"

"I don’t remember. I went to sleep as soon as I was brought in here."

"And you haven’t touched your breakfast."

"Not hungry."

Hunger Strike

"All right. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do." I looked at him. "You’re going on a hunger strike. No food, you understand me? A little water when you need it."

"For how long?" I asked.

"Until I can get you out of here. Another thing; you’re going to stop talking. I want you on your cot, in the fetal position. You understand me?"

I nodded.

"Don’t you once, for God’s sake, vary from those instructions. You wanna be an actor? Well, buddy boy, you’re going to give the performance of your life. Understand me?"

I nodded again.

Two days later, I was moved to the post hospital, strapped to a stretcher. Rather than a cell, I was placed in a chain link cage. My belt and shoelaces were taken away. I lay on the new cot and said nothing. After awhile, a doctor wearing a long white coat over his uniform came into my cell.

"Sergeant, I’m going to have some soup and crackers sent in. You’ve had nothing to eat for three days. If you don’t eat what I send, we’ll force feed you." Then he turned and a guard opened the gated door for him and locked it shut again.

I ate half the soup and a few of the crackers. By then I was starving, but I followed Herb’s instructions. The following morning I ate a little of the breakfast they brought.

In the Army Psycho Ward

About an hour later two male attendants came and escorted me to an adjoining wing of the hospital. I found myself in a huge ward, all the men either lounging on their beds, reading, smoking, or both. Some wandered around or visited other patients. I was issued hospital pajamas and a robe and shortly was dressed like everyone else. A female nurse came to my bed and handed me a paper cup with pills in it and a paper cup of water. I took them without a fuss.

Our meals were wheeled in on large carts, and trays were dispensed at mealtimes. I ate very little, but at least some of everything. Whatever was in the pills made me sleep a lot, and I wasn’t really hungry. Three days later, Herb came to see me after evening mess. He sat on the bed and we had a conversation in such a low voice I could hardly hear some of what he said. Mostly I listened.

"I’ve been working on that prick veterinarian. Reminded him that the war is winding down." Germany had sued for peace in April and the war was now all in the Pacific. "I asked if he’d like to make Major before it’s over."

"How you going to do that?" I asked.

"Same thing he said. Buddy boy, I’ve got a few friends in high places in Washington."


"Sure, he’d like to make Major. He came in three years ago as a captain and he’s been stuck with it ever since. Jesus, Rick, sometimes I think maybe the army does have a brain after all. Anyway, he had to know what I wanted in return, so I said he’d have to drop all charges against you or no deal."

"Then what? I go back to duty?"

"Hell no. You just stay right here in the psycho ward."

"Psycho ward is right," I said. "See that red-headed guy sitting on the bed across the aisle? He sleeps right here next to me. Has nightmares. Wakes up the entire ward every night screaming in his sleep, ‘We’re going down. On fire…Oh, God! Help! We’re burning…we’re gonna crash, oh Jesus.’ The nurses come in and give him a shot of morphine and that’s it for the rest of the night."

"I know about him," Herb said. "He’s a real one. Going out on a Section Eight. Poor sonofabitch has never been in an airplane in his life. His papers are on their way through my office now. He’ll be on his way to a veteran’s hospital by the end of the week. Has the psychiatrist seen you yet?"

"This morning."

"What happened?"

"We talked for a while, I didn’t say much, like you said. I’m playing this to the hilt. Tell you something, Herb, I’m actually starting to really feel depressed."

"Don’t overdo it, buddy boy. I want to get you out, but not into a veteran’s hospital. Gotta go. Thought you’d like to hear some good news." He left and I didn’t see him for several more days. He didn’t want to call attention to himself visiting me too often. It was a crazy feeling, which perhaps isn’t the best choice of words, but I was elated and was working at being depressed: both at the same time.

Meanwhile, my gums started to bleed because I hadn’t been taking care of myself; not brushing my teeth, etc. I was escorted to the post dentist. He held up the front page of that day’s newspaper. There was a full page photo of a mushroom cloud. He said, "Whaddaya think of that? We dropped an atom bomb on Japan today."

It was August 8, 1945.

Medical Discharge from the Army

The next time Herb came back to see me, he had the best news I could have hoped for. "The charges against you were dropped three days ago and I kept my promise. That chazzer (a Yiddish word for pig) will become a Major next week. It looks like the Japanese are going to sue for peace, the war is over. Soon as it’s official, you’re getting a medical discharge."

"Herb, I don’t know how to thank you."

"Buddy boy, I expect to be at your first opening night on Broadway."

"Jesus, I hope I won’t have to play a depressive."

I was feeling so good it was difficult to continue feeling lousy, but I tried my damnedest, and I guess it worked. I even passed the ink blot Rorschach test — if passing is the proper word.

End of Part I —Continue to Part II

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