Aboard the old Orient Express on the way from Vienna to Istambul in nineteen sixty three, Eric Ross, John Irving, and I had eaten nothing but Semmel rolls and cheese for three days. So, as we were nearing Istambul, we went to the dining car for one regular meal before the trip was over.
By the time we finished eating that fateful meal, the train was in the station, we hadn't been given a bill, and the waiter was nowhere to be seen.
We went back to the compartment for our baggage, and we got off the train.
But as we were dealing with a kid who hooked for a student hotel, the waiter ran up and made us pay.
I don't remember that we added a tip, and I doubt it, but we were going to pay for that meal the rest of our lives; my next payment being made that night, simultaniously into a toilet and the bathtub of that student hotel.
No doubt but that meal was the source of what we might well have called the "Orient Express", and we three later referred to as " Water Pig Fever". Dr. Rudolf Faulkner, the Russian doctor of internal medicine I visited in Vienna, said it was a rare form of disentery - but in my case (he advised me) was as much a metaphysical as a physicial affliction. By my nature, said the doctor, I had the disease of a philosphic mind: a mind unable to turn away from the emptiness at the heart of being.
Those, or something like them, may have been the words of the Russian writer Ospenski, whose "Fragments of an Unknown Teaching" Doctor Faulkner prescribed for me to read. I may get around to that someday.
Anyway, it was convieniently enough, pretty much what I had come to Vienna to study and would encounter there in the form of Sartre's La Nausea, and Victor Frankl's popular and positive version of Existentialism, none of which you need to read.
I avoid philosophical abstraction now days, my insides are healthy, and I have tediously trained myself to at least imagine pattern and meaning between me and the famous black hole at the heart of being, but I'll never totally rid myself of Water Pig Fever.
I may not even WANT to be totally free of it, if only for the reason that, without the continuing story of misadventure and suffering, I might not remember much of my past life at all.
And here is great and valuable pleasure in remembering … even in remembering the painful and wrenching past, which you can always remember differently and in better humor than we actually experienced it. there is great pleasure and education in remembering togehter, as we differ in such novel ways in our memories and experiences of the same event.
According to Irving, I was the only one who spent the night using the bathtub and the toilet simultaneouslhy … and that does make sense… seeing as there was only one of each, and three of us..
We each came down with our own version of the Water Pig Fever.
Irving's own crisis came after we had taken the boat to Greece, and a ferry from the port of Piraeus to the Island Hydra where, for a month, we would pretend to be writers.
Irving was better at the writing act and had brought along his portable typewriter, which he lugged to the harbour front cafe each day, but within a week he had his own long, drawn-out bout in the bathrorom, after which he lay in a coma for a couple of days, drooling into a pan beside the bed while we waited for the mayor of Hydra: a doctor who traveled the islands seeing patients on a three day rotation.
When he finally did arrive, the mayor told us that John had Typhoid Fever, or maybe it was Typhus, ask him… anyway, the Doctor said that if John had gone another day or two without the medicine, he would have died.
As for Eric, it might suffice to report that he had his rectum rebuilt a few years later, and is functioning well in Colorado.
All three lived to tell the tale and I have been telling it over and over for the last forty years. I remember that month in Hydra so very well now, having reinvisioned and told it so many times, and I am likely to tell it again here…. but I don't believe the other two guys about the events of that month, and I am not so sure about myself.
Not a problem: It is just marvelous what seperate worlds we inhabit, even when we are together and supposedly having the same experience.