She had dreamed the last moments her husband’s life and the first moments of his death so often and so vividly that when the time finally came, Joani Taylor kept wishing she’d awaken. But this was no dream. They were at his parents’ house in Southeast San Diego; it was a little after 11:00 a.m. on December 18, 1979, and Dewey Taylor’s heart was about to give out. It had been growing in size and weakening in strength for more than five years, and were it possible for him to walk, Dewey Taylor would have been a walking nightmare that morning. From a vigorous, muscular, six-foot, one inch, 200-pound man, Dewey Taylor, at the age of thirty-four, was now a drooling, nearly blind, wheezing, 120-pound invalid. Pus ran from his eye sockets; much of his hair was gone; his head looked out of proportion to his withered body; his urine ran black; his skin was dry and scaly. He was conscious of only two presences: his wife Joani, and death.
It seemed so weirdly familiar and predetermined to Joani Taylor, it was as if she were watching the whole scene from the wrong end of a telescope. Dewey’s mother had gone to work; his father was out buying tires for his new diesel tractor rig. There were others in the house, but it was really just Dewey and Joani now. Joani wore the same red blouse and beige pants she had on in the dream, and she sat beside Dewey on the water bed in the den. At one side of the bed was the staircase, at the other, the brick fireplace. The color television at the foot of the bed flickered with the game show Pyramid Club. Joani had given him a pain capsule, the last of thousands of pills he had swallowed since 1975, and it seemed to relieve the severe chest pain. “I’m ready to go home today,” Dewey told Joani in a low whisper but with a touch of childlike glee. A moment later he squeezed her hand and said, “Guess what?” She put her ear to his lips. “Today’s Tuesday.” The same day it always was in the dream. “Lay down beside me,” he breathed.
Joani took her clothes off and got in the bed. Her warm, pale skin contrasted starkly with his. “Just hold me,” he whispered.
“I am,” she said. “I love you. Don’t leave me.” “
Do you love me?” he asked.
“Yes, I love you,” she replied.
Dewey took in one long, slow breath as he looked into Joani’s face. His dark, muddy eyes drank her in with a final flash of knowing, and then he placed his head on her breast. Three breaths later he was dead. Family Feud was just coming on the television as pandemonium broke out in the room.
Wailing, weeping, screaming relatives began to gather and policemen arrived, while Joani Taylor stayed in bed with her husband, pleading with him to wake up, rocking him, hugging him. It took two hours before her younger brother was finally able to pull her arms from around Dewey’s body, and get her on her feet. “But he promised me,” she kept sobbing. “He promised that if he went, I’d go with him.” As she was helped upstairs, and just seconds before she lost consciousness, she saw them pull a sheet over the face of her dead husband and heard someone say to the men picking up the body, “Yeah, it was the Agent Orange gas that killed him.” To which she thought she heard the reply, “Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.”
The typical Agent Orange story begins with a living Vietnam veteran who suffers from a variety of mysterious symptoms ranging from nervous disorders to liver damage to rashes to reproductive difficulties. Typically, this veteran knows that the government’s use of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam is the source of his problems, and he knows the government knows it too. He also knows that the Veterans Administration is dragging its feet on looking into the effects Agent Orange on American servicemen and that once the massive studies are completed, his maladies will be attributed directly to Agent Orange, and he’ll be entitled to government compensation.
But Dewey Taylor’s is not the typical Agent Orange story. Though that chemical may very well have been a major factor in his death, his heart condition has never been listed as a common complaint among veterans who believe they’re victims of Agent Orange. And so far as his widow and his ex-wife and his brother and his best friend and his parents know, Dewey Taylor has never mentioned the words Agent Orange; and he never spoke about why he was dying. Talking much about it would have required that he admit to himself, and to Joani, that he was in fact headed for his grave at the age of thirty-four. And that’s something he never really admitted, which is probably why he lived for three years instead of the six months the doctors gave him December, 1976. Unfortunately, it’s also why Joani’s life remains at a standstill, stuck like a broken record on the sight a sheet passing over her husband’s face, and the sound (did she dream it?) of “That’s what we’re here to find out.” White sheet, black face, That’s what we’re here to find out…White sheet, black face, That’s what we’re here to find out…. White sheet, black face... “How can I be a widow at the age of thirty-two? I wish to God it could have been a car accident that killed him. At least then I’d understand it.”
The first time they met, Dewey was wearing a white suit, white shirt, and brown tie, and Joani was struck by how dark he looked. He owned a print shop in Sorrento Valley and was well known in those parts, or so claimed the other women tellers who worked with Joani at the California First Bank on Tripp Court in the valley. She hadn’t been working there long before the morning of March 3, 1975, a Monday, when Dewey came to her window and engaged her in his easy conversation. He seemed very tall to her, and a little loud, and much too forward. He asked her out to lunch that day but she turned him down, explaining that she didn’t date. It frightened her a little, made her knees sweat, but as he left, greeting many of the bank employees by name, she noticed he had nice teeth.
Joani had moved with her parents to San Diego from Cape May, New Jersey, a couple of years earlier, and was living in Coronado. She’d graduated from Duke University with credentials to teach history, and before that, from the eighth through twelfth grades, had lived in a Catholic convent. She’d considered and discarded the idea of becoming a nun. She had never had a bona fide beau and never felt the need for one, gaining all her sustenance from an old-fashioned Italian upbringing in a family with five brothers and two sisters. And in the East, where ethnic groups tend to stay in their own neighborhoods, she didn’t have much contact with black people.
It wasn’t long before Dewey found an excuse to come into the bank nearly every day. On Mondays he’d make a company deposit and Tuesdays he’d cash his paycheck. Wednesdays he’d come back to make a withdrawal. He’d always deal with Joani, and eventually his persistent efforts to get her out for lunch or drinks or dinner — anything — became something of a joke around the bank. More than once when he drove up in his dark green Jaguar coupe with the spoke wheels, Joani would quickly close her station and run to the bathroom. He’d wait.
Though Joani didn’t initially think he was particularly handsome, the other women in the bank found him very attractive, and Joani first heard the word strapplins applied by one of them to a tight pair of green pants Dewey often wore. He’d never had problems dating women. Born in San Diego and raised in Logan Heights, Dewey had always been outgoing and aggressively friendly. He and his brother James, two years older, weren’t very close to their parents or their four younger sisters, and were frequently left to their own devices. Dewey was a star basketball player at Lincoln High School in 1962 and 1963, and was chosen as a second-team guard on the all-city basketball team one year. James thought Dewey was a great team player but that he didn’t shoot the ball enough and wasn’t as physically intimidating as he could have been. For a while, James even offered him money to shoot more often. But Dewey was a passer, a playmaker, and he’d usually feed the ball to someone else dashing toward the basket on the fast break. Dewey needed teammates, on and off the court. James used to tease him by saying that from the moment he was born, Dewey wanted to be married.
Which he was, technically, while doggedly pursuing Joani. He told her he was divorced, but he was really just recently separated. One Tuesday in June he came into the bank with a pretty Italian girl named Donna, and to Joani he looked terrible. She heard he’d been in the hospital for a few days and he told her it was because he had the flu. His face looked gaunt and his dark eyes murky. Joani felt bad for him, and when he called her at the bank later that afternoon and asked to meet her for drinks that evening, she didn’t have ready excuse. He sensed her fear, and defused it. She and a friend, Genivee, met him at the Little Bavaria Restaurant, about a mile from the bank, at six o’clock.
When they arrived, Dewey was sitting at the bar sipping orange juice. Joani was immediately struck by the clash between the brown argyle sweater vest he wore over a brown plaid shirt. He also had brown pants, and what Joani came to call “bozo shoes”: shiny, thick-heeled pumps whose uppers were dark brown around the outside, light brown across the top. He still looked sick. As they sat down and ordered — Joani a tomato juice, Genivee a whiskey sour — Dewey handed Joani four roses, two red, two white. They talked about motorcycles (one of Joani’s favorite subjects) and ate corn nuts for about forty minutes, and then Joani left. The next day Dewey came into the bank with a poem for Joani he titled, “Written on a Tuesday,” and he passed out little bags of corn nuts to all five tellers. He still looked bad. Joani found out earlier that he’d had his first heart attack about two weeks before.
In late October, 1979, when Dewey had less than two months left to his life, he was in the intensive care unit at the Veterans Administration Hospital in La Jolla. A doctor was explaining to Joani the reasons for a catheter being pushed through an artery into Dewey’s heart, and at the end of the explanation he asked her if anyone had talked to her about Agent Orange. “Lately, that’s all I’ve been hearing about,” she replied, referring to passing mentions of it from other doctors, interns, and medical students who’d recently ministered to Dewey. The doctor explained that cases like Dewey’s hadn’t been noted before in relation to Agent Orange, but it could be a factor. His condition had long been diagnosed as “idiopathic cardiomyopathy,” which means a disorder of the heart, the origins of which are unknown. The doctor explained to Joani that a theory being discussed involved the possibility that some particular chemical in Agent Orange had somehow blocked the flow of oxygen to the heart tissue itself, thereby causing it to swell in its efforts to circulate more blood and deliver an adequate supply of oxygen. Once a heart starts swelling, it does damage to itself and is eventually destroyed. Joani says the resident doctor told her, “We’re not sure what Agent Orange does and we’re having so much trouble with the government releasing information, how the hell can we treat it? It’s sort of like walking around in the dark.”
About a month after Dewey died, this same doctor called Joani and asked if she had gotten a copy of the post-mortem, or autopsy report, which she had requested. She read aloud a letter she had received from the chief of the autopsy service at the VA Hospital. The letter listed the six major symptoms Dewey suffered at the time of his death: congestive heart failure, enlargement of the heart (it had increased in size to about eighteen inches and weighed twenty-two ounces, more than twice normal), accumulation of fluids in the lungs, heart attack, infection in the lungs, and narrowing of the blood vessels.
“No, no,” said the doctor after hearing the letter. “You need to call up and ask for the complete copy of the post-mortem.”
“What are you saying?” asked Joani.
“I can’t get involved. Call up and ask for a complete post-mortem.”
She called the hospital and made the request, and she was told they’d get a copy out to her right away. In the interim, the same doctor called her two more times. He asked that she not call him at the hospital and that she never reveal his name. “He thought a lot of Dewey and me,” explained Joani. “He felt the government should have stepped in at some point and taken responsibility for Agent Orange. He said, ‘You can’t believe how many guys really should be on disability or total pensions. But do you realize the lawsuits the government would be up against?’”
Before the doctor called again, Joani had received from the hospital exactly the same letter as before. On the phone the doctor asked her if she’d received any information about what was found on the inner wall of Dewey’s heart. She had not. She called the hospital back and was told she had received all the information available.
“Are you satisfied with that answer?” the doctor asked her.
“What are you trying to tell me? Do you know what the results were?”
The doctor said he couldn’t be involved anymore and there wasn’t much more he could tell her.
Sometimes it seems the only vivid memories Joani has of her life with Dewey are those of the good times, and she asks herself if he was ever sick. Other times she can only remember him dying, and she has to force the recollection that he was once a normal, active, athletic, laughing young man. There was an epigram he often repeated that somehow defined their first year of living together, 1976: “Nothing more, nothing less than a cool summer breeze. That is what I am. So when the breeze is gone and the summer’s over, then I’ll be gone.”
They rode to work together from their apartment in Penasquitos every day, and the only time they didn’t share lunch was on Fridays, when a bunch of buddies would gather at Dewey’s print shop in the early afternoon for rousing games of poker. The other days Dewey would drop by Choy’s Deli on Sorrento Valley Road and pick up a number sixteen on pumpernickel cut in half for Joani, and a tuna or turkey sandwich for himself. He’d get Joani at the bank and they’d drive down to Torrey Pines State Beach and feed the squirrels as they ate lunch among the rocks beside the ocean. That first year was filled hours in the sunshine, windy days flying kites from the Penasquitos hills, walks among the sights in San Francisco, and laughter on the hot nights during a trip to Jamaica. Then came November, and Dewey started to grow short of breath. The cool summer breeze had begun its long, slow fade to stillness.
“You always think you know everything, but you don’t know anything,” says Joani, looking back now on the diagnosis of an ulcer to explain the swelling of Dewey’s abdomen. She fed him milk and gave him some of the pills she took for her own ulcers. But his breath got shorter and he had trouble climbing the stairs, and in December he discovered that he could sleep better if he bent his torso over the bed and put his knees on the floor, allowing him to breathe more freely. He started to look as if he had a beer belly, but he seldom drank beer and wasn’t even hungry anymore. At Joani’s insistence he finally agreed to go to the Veterans Administration Hospital, but he imposed several conditions: she could only drop him off and not go in with him, and if they kept him, she could not come visit him. Neither could she phone him at the hospital. She dropped him off the morning of December the twenty-third. He called her that afternoon and said they were going to keep him a few days. On Christmas Eve he called again and told her that if his parents called, she was to tell them he had gone up north to buy a printing press or something. Not only did he never want his parents to know about his sickness, but he especially didn’t want his ex-wife (technically still his wife) to know. “I don’t like people around when I’m sick,” he explained, “and least of all, people that want something from me.” Dewey’s mother did call and Joani told her he was out packing the car for a trip to Oregon for the holidays. “And so began the first of so many, many, many lies,” says Joani.
It was nearly two weeks before Dewey was allowed to leave the hospital on a half-day pass, and before he walked into the bank the afternoon of January 3, 1977, Joani had no idea of how seriously ill he was. She didn’t find out until much later that the day she’d dropped him off at the hospital doctors were unable to get a pulse reading because he was so swollen with fluids and his heart was beating so faintly. Dr. Ralph Shabetai, the chief cardiologist, told her that he couldn’t believe this dead man had walked into the hospital.
And Joani couldn’t believe this dead man had walked into the bank. He’d lost twenty-two pounds since she’d last seen him, and the dark-brown turtleneck sweater, leather jacket, and beige gabardine pants that fit snugly two weeks before now hung loosely on his haggard frame. Joani was shocked nearly to tears and got the rest of the afternoon off. They drove to Del Mar to have lunch at Carnegie A-440 Pizza Hall. She ordered an antipasto salad but neither of them ate much of it — he sipped ice water, she picked at the anchovies and worked on a Seven-Up. They were both frightened: she of his condition, he of being away from the hospital. He was glad to see her, but he kept saying he had to get back to the hospital. She asked how he was feeling, how the food was up there, and then she started to cry. “Dew, are you really alright?” He said yeah. He wouldn’t tell what was wrong with him and she wasn’t allowed to ask. It was part of the deal to get him to enter the hospital initially. He never much liked questions anyway. If he’d wanted her to know the doctors had said his condition was terminal, he would have told her. As they got up to leave, she noticed the full and somewhat exaggerated buttocks he had had two weeks ago were now indiscernible beneath the baggy seat of his pants.
Dewey Taylor was a starting guard for the Mesa College basketball team when he was drafted into the Army and inducted on November 9, 1965. He underwent basic training at Ft. Ord in Monterey, California, and took advanced training as a radioman at Ft. George G. Mead near Washington, D. C. He and his buddies, including San Diego photographer Roy Porello, another guy from Porterville, and a little fellow named Rubino, kidded themselves about being smart enough to get sent to Germany. But nobody was too surprised when in the summer of 1966 orders came through for their outfit, the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment, to be shipped to Vietnam. In August, they boarded a ship in Oakland, and three weeks later a thousand men debarked at Long Binh, South Vietnam.
Dewey never talked much about his experiences in Vietnam. Examinations of VA records show that he spent time with the Eleventh Cavalry at Bien Hoa, in the central highlands, and that he “accidentally” stabbed his right index finger, his trigger finger, in December, 1966. He underwent surgery to reconnect the tendon and remained in Vietnam. Then, on May 9, 1967, while on patrol near Chu Lai, he was injured in the left hip and the right leg by mine fragments. In one of the few war stories he ever told Joani, he explained that an officer who’d been through West Point stepped on the mine as he walked right in front of Dewey. “If that white boy hadn’t walked around with his nose up in the air all the time, he would have seen that mine,” said Dewey, “and wouldn’t be dead.”
Perhaps Dewey Taylor himself wouldn’t be dead if his own nose had not been taking in so much of the Vietnam air that carried the brown mist from 10.65 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on the countryside between 1965 and 1970. Whether or not Agent Orange or other herbicides widely used in Vietnam contributed to the destruction of Dewey Taylor’s heart is a question that may never be answered unequivocally. But it is a question that must be asked. In fact, whether or not Dewey actually inhaled Agent Orange may never be answered unequivocally, but that question, too, must be asked.
Agent Orange was one of several herbicides sprayed on the jungles and agricultural land in Vietnam by the Air Force under the codename “Operation Ranch Hand.” Twelve hundred men were involved in the defoliation activities that used C-123 twin engine transport planes, each one capable of covering in four minutes a trip of land ten miles long and eighty yards wide. Within days, the oily brown liquid turned a sprayed area into a wasteland, killing all the green foliage and destroying enemy cover, as well as decimating food crops relied on by the Viet Cong. Though the Department of Defense still officially views Agent Orange as “relatively non toxic,” several studies have shown the components of the herbicide can cause cancer and birth defects. And despite earlier claims by the DOD that ground troops in Vietnam were not allowed to enter affected areas for four to six weeks after Agent Orange spraying, one Government Accounting Office study showed that at least 5,900 Marines were present in sprayed areas on the day of application. The GAO study also concluded that Army troops were undoubtedly exposed, but that Army records were too disorganized and incomplete to track down who was where, and when.
Veteran groups maintain that any or all of the 2.4 million men and women who served in Vietnam could have been exposed to Agent Orange, and thousands of veterans are claiming that their current maladies are directly related to that exposure. They are satisfied with the studies that have shown two chemicals— 2,4-D and 2, 4, 5-T — the main ingredients of Agent Orange, to be carcinogenic, and they need no other proof that dioxin, a contaminant in the herbicide, is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. Though few would argue that dioxin is extremely dangerous, most scientists agree that definite links between the chemical and the plethora of veterans’ complaints have yet to be proven. Out of approximately 6,000 Agent Orange-related claims received by the Veterans Administration — including liver damage, muscular weakness, testicular cancer, numbness, loss of libido, and birth defects in children of veterans — only cases of skin rash, chloracne, are acknowledged by the government to be attributable to Agent Orange. Angry and strident in their belief that the use of Agent Orange was the epitome of government bungling in a disastrous war, the veterans have taken to the courts their battle for compensation. Since the government cannot be sued for negligence by servicemen who have been injured while on duty, the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange have been named as defendants in class-action suits filed on behalf of all veterans who served in Vietnam. The chemical companies, in turn, have filed suit against the government, claiming Agent Orange was misused.
Though heart conditions such as Dewey Taylor’s are not unheard of among veterans who claim exposure to Agent Orange, his disorder was untypical. And so was his own response to it. “He had every right to be selfish, depressed, feeling sorry for himself, but he never conveyed that,” says his brother James. “He never verbalized that he was dying. I feel he knew he was dying and that he knew it was Agent Orange that caused it. Call it brother’s vibes. I just feel he knew it was Agent Orange.”
In late January, 1977, Dewey came home from the hospital and sat Joani down and told her, “I want to talk to my friend.” This meant that he wanted to confide not in the lady Joani, not in the girlfriend Joani, but in the friend Joani. And it also meant that whatever he had to say was all he had to say; no other questions were required or allowed. “There’s something wrong with my heart,” he told his friend. “And they don’t know what’s causing it.”
“But what’s wrong….?”
He cut her off. “You’re asking questions, and if you ask questions, I’ll tell you nothing. The main thing is, I do not want anyone to know.”
The air of ominous mystery engendered in Joani a kind of frightened dependency on Dewey, and perhaps that was a way he compensated for his own increasing dependency on her. They proceeded to build themselves a little island of security that nothing — not parents, ex-wives, jobs, or approaching death — could invade. Joani’s father cut himself off completely from his daughter over the issue of her living with a (presumably) divorced man, and it was a year and a half after they began living together before Dewey introduced Joani to his parents. Dewey’s mother and father, who were very close to their son’s ex-wife (his divorces wasn’t final until April 8, 1978), hopefully awaited the reconciliation of Dewey and Ernestine. As a couple, Dewey and Joani had almost no friends.
The stated excuse for Dewey’s absence from his print shop in January was that Joani’s mother was gravely ill and Dewey had to take her down to the Laetrile clinic in Tijuana. This had the sound of plausibility to it, since Joani’s mother was truly sick and Dewey could speak fluent Spanish. (He’d had a Mexican girlfriend a few years earlier and taught himself the language from cassette-taped lessons.) When he started back to work, it was for only four hours a day; the rest of the time he was supposedly taking Joani’s mother down to the clinic. In fact he was going home to nap, and visiting the hospital’s cardiomyopathy clinic every Tuesday and Thursday.
Through 1977 and into 1978, Dewey put on weight, started playing racquetball and riding bikes with Joani, and led a relatively normal life. Hospital staffers took to calling him the Dave Winfield of the cardiac department. He got back up near 200 pounds, and depended on Joani to administer the seven or eight different drugs he had to take daily. They were married on April 11, 1978, three days after his divorce became final. Except for when he was at work, Dewey would never let Joani get very far from him. He also felt that Joani, who was deeply religious and attended church every Sunday, had a direct line to God. They were driving along late one night at about sixty miles an hour on Miramar Road. They were kidding around and Dewey made a remark that cast aspersions on the relationships between priests and nuns. A Linda Ronstadt tape was playing. “God’s going to punish you for saying bad things like that,” jested Joani, and at that instant the car’s engine shut off, the headlights blinked out, and the tape stopped. And just as suddenly, they all came right back on. “Girl, you gonna make my hair go straight,” Dewey yelled in mock terror. Another time they were driving and were just about out of gas. Dewey said, “Baby, we might not make it to a gas station, you better pray.”
“You can pray too,” said Joani.
“No, baby. He’ll listen to you ‘cause you’re clean.”
Joani was Dewey’s good luck charm, which was why she was called and not an ambulance, one day in October, 1978, after Dewey’s heart stopped and he went unconscious at work. He was standing there in his green pants and green polka dot shirt talking to Bob, an employee, and the next thing he knew he was lying on the floor, his head was bleeding, and Bob was on the phone frantically trying to call an ambulance. Dewey got angry and told Bob to forget the ambulance and call Joani. “Just get Joani here and I’ll be all right,” he told Bob. When Joani arrived, Dewey just wanted to go home and have a baloney sandwich. She convinced him to go to the hospital. The last downward slide toward the grave had begun.
When are you no longer married? Is it when the sheet has been pulled up over your beloved’s peaceful face? When are the vows no longer applicable? Is it when you drop your rosary beads into the casket with your mate, as Joani did, because they’re no longer of any use to you? When is a marriage finally ended? Is it when you know why your loved one died? If that’s the case, then Joani may be married to a dead man for the rest of her life.
Had Agent Orange never been brought up as a possible factor, her life been brought up as a possible factor, her life might not still be in suspension a year and half after Dewey died. She tends to the print shop he left and stops by his grave at El Camino Cemetery nearly every day, and then she comes home and waits for him to return, or for the reason he died to become clear. Their room is just as he left it. She entered it a couple of months ago for the first time since his death. The first thing she touched was his hair brush. It still smelled of him.
The autopsy report says Dewey Taylor died due to idiopathic cardiomyopathy, that his heart had been damaged by unknown causes. Dr. Ralph Shabetai, chief cardiologist at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, who was Dewey’s principal physician, says that for a person like Dewey, once the known heart diseases such as hypertension or rheumatic illness have been ruled out, ninety-five percent of the time the cause of the heart condition is never discovered. By the time Dewey came under Dr. Shabetai’s care, his heart damage was irreversible and the cardiologist says that even if had been able to discern the cause of the illness, it would not have changed his treatment. The doctor went through all the standard procedures for screening a heart patient, looking for clues in every way he knew. Shabetai is considered by his colleagues to be one of the finest cardiologists in the country, but even he admits he knows nothing about Agent Orange — its makeup or its effects on humans. But even if he did, he would have had to embroil himself in controversy in order to test Dewey Taylor for dioxin poisoning.
On September 14, 1978, the VA circulated an order which read, in part, “No VA hospital should attempt to measure tissue dioxin levels in any of its patients without prior consent from the VA central office.” The VA at that time was just beginning its own limited study of dioxin poisoning on Vietnam veterans, and wanted to centralize and control the release of information. Since then, a government task force has been formed to coordinate a wide-ranging investigation into the effects of Agent Orange exposure. The 1,200 members of “Operation Ranch Hand,” which handled the spraying of the defoliant, are undergoing extensive testing. Criticized by veterans groups for being primarily under the aegis of government scientists, the investigations are not expected to produce finding for several years.
Since the question of Dewey Taylor’s exposure to Agent Orange has been raised, though not fully explored, there is one clue in the autopsy report that could perpetuate inquiries about his mysterious death. “Another finding which was not totally expected,” reads the autopsy’s summary, “was the severe degree of testicular inactivity, totally inconsistent with the patient’s age.” Experts generally agree that testicular dysfunction is very often associated with exposure to man made poisons in the environment. But then again, Dewey Taylor had taken so many powerful drugs, in varying dosages and combinations, that almost any unusual finding could also be laid there. And the liver damage mentioned in the autopsy and often cited by veterans as evidence of exposure to Agent Orange can also be explained away by the failing of the heart. As organs receive less blood, they tend to fail too. If you’re looking to link his death to Agent Orange, there are just enough curiosities to keep the question open, but if you’re inclined (or forced) to explain his death as an unfortunate and unexplainable incident, the evidence is there to seize upon. “Whether it was a freak of nature or a freak of mankind,” says Dr. Shabetai, “the outcome is the same and irreversible. And Joani will probably never know the answer.”
Though Joani was told by several staff doctors and interns and even medical students that Agent Orange was being considered in the diagnosis, not a word to that effect appears in Dewey’s medical file. And of all the inquiries Joani made to politicians, government agencies, government officials — the useless replies pile up into a garbage heap of form letters. Everybody in government knows that once you start writing letters that might have anything to do with requests for compensation….well, you’re branded a nut and your name gets around to all the offices. Or so she’s been told by a knowledgeable friend. But she’s not even interested in compensation. In response to her efforts to locate other members of Dewey’s unit (to compare notes), the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis sent a form letter declining her request for names and addresses to be typed on sealed and stamped envelopes she supplied. “We regret…..Many man hours…..Additional work…..We are therefore returning your request without action.” Period. A similar request sent to Dewey’s old regiment, now stationed in Germany, has yet to be answered.
Dewey told her once that he didn’t want her memories of him to be of a man waiting to die. That’s one of the reasons he turned down a heart transplant; it would have required acceptance of the fact that he was dying. It also would have required that he become one of those hundreds living around Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, waiting and hoping for some healthy person to get killed so he could take a new heart. Living under those circumstances often in itself does people in, and Dewey was determined not to live in hell. “I don’t want to talk to you about death all the time,” he told Joani. “I want to talk about catching butterflies and flying kites and making love and eating sweet potato pie.”
On September 7, 1979, they left San Diego in their Toyota pickup, destined for Mazatlán and what they thought would be two weeks in the Mexican sun. Those few days have replayed themselves many times in Joani’s mind. The two of them departed on Monday and drove out to Yuma and got a room at the Stars Hotel. They ordered dinner from room service; she had soup, he had shrimp. The made love that night.
The next day they headed across the desert to Tucson. He drove, she drank three cans of Coors through a straw, trying to relieve the pain of root canal work she’d had just before they left San Diego. That night they both had vegetable soup at a restaurant and watched a John Wayne movie, The High and the Mighty, on television in their motel room. The next day they drove south toward Mazatlán.
They made it as far as San Carlos, a couple of hundred miles down on the Sea of Cortez. It was 107 degrees outside and almost nobody else was staying at the San Carlos Hotel, overlooking the placid turquoise waters and the surrounding golf course. Dewey was feeling sick and light headed when they arrived, and that night he started to vomit. He continued to vomit for the next three weeks.
They got up at four-thirty the next morning and turned back north. Joani drove for fifteen hours, all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona, as Dewey lay on the seat or propped against window and dozed. They theorized that he’d eaten something bad and that if they just got out of the heat he’d be okay. He continued to vomit and swell that night in Flagstaff.
The next day they drove over to the Grand Canyon, took a quick look, and then dropped down through Cameron, Indian country, all cobalt blue and sandy red and jagged. Countless leaky water trucks, stern faced Indians at the wheel, trundled along the empty highway. They made it Lake Powell and Joani was ecstatic about the scenery, but all Dewey could do was doze. She felt guilty about waking him up to look.
They kept driving and stopped in Fremont, Utah, that night. They paid twenty-four dollars for a room at the Fremont Family Hotel and Joani went out for Chinese food. When she brought back the little cartons, Dewey was in the bathroom vomiting. Later he picked at some chow mein while they watched television, and though he was exhausted, he didn’t sleep well that night.
Figuring they’d gotten far enough north to avoid the heat, they headed out across the barren Nevada desert the next morning. The sagebrush and sand and endless highway were hostile. Joani drove with the pedal to the floor at eighty-five miles per hour into a stiff headwind. They mad Reno at five o’clock, paid forty dollars for a dingy room, and ate soup at Sambo’s across the street from the motel. Dewey felt a little better.
The next day, after arriving at Lake Tahoe, he had such a voracious appetite that he ate three Big Macs, an order of French fries, and two colas. Joani said a silent hallelujah, but when they got back to their room at the Holiday Inn, he felt sick again. That night he slept with his knees on the floor and his torso on the bed. Joani curled around his head.
The next day the truck had mechanical problems, dirt clogging the carburetor, that had to be fixed in Santa Cruz. “Start to pray,” Dewey told Joani as the truck coughed its way across California. “You pray,” she snapped, “I’m tired of praying.” Dewey was so sick and weak he could hardly walk in Santa Cruz. All he wanted to do was get back home. They reached San Diego the following day, but he kept vomiting. The doctors at the hospital couldn’t figure out exactly why he was vomiting, but Dr. Shabetai eventually concluded it was due to the deterioration of this stomach, liver, and intestines. Shabetai remembers one doctor wondering out loud if somehow Agent Orange could have something to do with it.
Just after the trip, on the night of September 25, Joani had a particularly bad dream. For the past year it had been recurring every few weeks, but had never until that night been so vivid, detailed, or immediate. She saw where it would happen, what she would be wearing, heard what would be said. She quit her job the next day to be with Dewey all the time.
Just before Thanksgiving Dewey was in the hospital for a change of medicine. He’d stopped vomiting but his deterioration was continuing and Joani had finally informed his parents. Everybody but Dewey knew Dewey was dying. One afternoon while he was getting ready to leave the hospital, he was standing in his room in the open ward eating an Eskimo Pie and complaining to Joani for arriving at the hospital forty minutes late. Suddenly his eyes rolled back, he started shaking spastically, and fell onto the bed in total cardiac arrest. The code flashed through the ward and Joani stepped back, disbelieving she’d just seen him die but watching in shock as doctors and nurses pumped on his chest and a defibrillator was wheeled in. She knew he was dead, and it was because she had been late, just as she knew he’d gotten so sick on the trip because she’d taken him into such hot climes. The defibrillator was hooked up as she stood sweating in the doorway, and she heard the continuous, high-pitched tone that indicated his heart was not beating. “Clear,” said a doctor’s calm voice, and everyone stepped back as a jolt of electricity bolted his lifeless body up off the bed. The tone stayed continuous, flat. More voltage, another command, another jolt. The tone started beeping. It all seemed so unreal until Dewey came to and called Joani to his side. She bent down to his lips. “Don’t cry, baby,” he whispered, clear and lucid. “You know what death is like? It’s like stepping over a hill. I didn’t feel anything. Death ain’t bad. I’ll never be afraid of it anymore.”
A month later Dewey stepped over the hill for good. According to those who knew him, he never expressed curiosity as to why or how he got sick. He knew better than to raise questions for which there are no answers.