Arthur Gordon

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Old Ironpuss

Gordon, Arthur

Last Updated: Feb-11-2000
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story


Corky Nixon is a patient in a ward of amputees in a military hospital for casualties of the Korean War. He has lost both legs. The head nurse on the ward has been given the nickname "Old Ironpuss" because she is so fierce and strict and unattractive, showing, as Corky says, "no warmth, no sympathy, no concern" (131). By implication, she is unfeminine. All the patients fear and hate her.

On Christmas Eve, a severely injured patient, Hancock, is brought in. He is conscious but catatonic. Corky is outraged that "Old Ironpuss" should be taking care of Hancock (he says that so sick a patient should get "the best damn-looking nurse in Christendom"!). Corky tries to get Hancock to talk, but is interrupted when the nurse comes in and berates Hancock for being such a difficult patient. Corky is outraged and complains to the colonel, who then points out that Hancock, reacting to the nurse's diatribe, has roused himself, talked back, and begun to recover.

He tells Corky that in cases like this, kindness and sympathy don't work and that the best treatment is the provocation of anger. Corky accepts this, and decides to collaborate with the nurse by having all the men in the ward stage the loud singing of Christmas carols with bawdy new lyrics, ostensibly to irritate her. In the midst of this chaotic display of good spirits, we see "Old Ironpuss" listening to their spirited defiance, and then turn away, alone, weeping.

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