True Tales of Togus
I was up at the V.A. in Togus the other day. It’s an amazing place — so much not the dreary Dickensian horror that springs to mind at the thought of a veterans’ medical facility as to give rise to cognitive dissonance.
Fun facts: Togus is the oldest veterans’ facility in the United States, founded nearly two centuries ago. It sits amid vast grounds -- over 500 acres, all within the Augusta city limits, mostly in pristine condition, laced with a network of walking paths and footbridges — miles of them. It also contains an honest-to-God, Arlington-style national cemetery with more than five thousand burial sites, the earliest dating from 1837 and the latest 1961.
The grounds are peculiarly beautiful, a cross between an aged Army base and a private health spa. If you imagine the Betty Ford Clinic-meets-From Here To Eternity you have the general picture. The prevailing architecture is rather fine in a New Deal/Art Deco/WPA way, unusual for Maine, reminiscent of the landmark Bethesda Naval Medical Center outside Washington (known in impolite circles as something else) right up to the tall central tower of the admin building, a full eight stories at Togus, though unfortunately mostly entombed in a latter-day expansion.
It’s also a friendly place. The people who work there seem happy. They want to help. This can sometimes be striking.
True story: Last spring my daughter Callie, then 17, dropped me off for an appointment, then drove off to look for some kind of girl-friendly magazine. When she got back she was hopelessly lost and ended up wandering down this endless corridor that connects all the major buildings of the complex -- it's more than a quarter-mile long. Some random Togus employee noticed her discombobulation, approached to offer help, and ended up walking her through the maze, up four flights, and down more hallways to the door of the cardiology clinic. She was saying goodbye to him when I strolled out.
Another true story: On my last visit, after routine tests, I had questions that the technician couldn't answer, so the poor woman made two separate trips to a physician's office down the hall. She was perfectly cheerful about it, but I felt guilty and muttered some kind of apologetic blather. She smiled at me and said, in the most unaffected way, "Thanks to men like you, I'm a free and happy American."
I would never write that scene in a work of fiction. It is simply not plausible. But it was the third time I’ve had that kind of conversation at Togus.
I suppose in a way this subject is topical now, as we seem to be edging toward a national conversation about whether to expand the government’s role in health care. Most of the debate is couched in large, fuzzy, ideological terms. At Togus, ideology begins and ends with the bumper stickers in the parking lot. It’s a real place, staffed and patronized by real Mainers — barely visible to the thousands of people who drive past on Route 17, but an important part of our society and our history.
It’s 100-percent cool. And it’s something to be proud of.
Richard Grant is a novelist and contributing editor to Down East. He lives in Lincolnville.