Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chapter 6. Dr. Fishberg

As preventive medicine officer, I started out spending my mornings seeing the soldiers of the Division Headquarters Battalion on sick call. These soldiers were the clerks and other people who kept the paper work flowing. In the afternoon I would go back to the Division Surgeon's office to push and generate more paper. But after a few months, I was free to push paper all day long because another doctor came to take over the clinic. He was pleasant, conscientious, did his work, and got along well with everyone, but after a very short time he was rewarded for his diligence by being sent to a desolate outpost near the DMZ (demilitarized zone). The reason was that he was replaced by Dr. Fishberg who was brought down from that very same desolate outpost to the relative comfort of the Division Headquarters at Camp Casey. It's not that Camp Casey was some luxury resort, or even had the amenities of a place like Yongson Compound in Seoul, but we did have running water and flushing toilets. The place was bigger, so there were simply more people around. If you went off the post, you did not have to worry about stepping on a land mine, and for whatever it was worth there was a town across the road.
So why did fate so reward Fishberg and punish that other guy? Fishberg did not get along with the Army. There was the Army way and there was the Fishberg way. They were like oil and water. Up there in the small posts near the DMZ it was the real army, really military. At least at Camp Casey in the evening when work was over you could find a place somewhere to shut it off. But up there it was togetherness all the time, a small group of officers who worked, ate, and drank together in a small space. Dinner was served when the colonel sat down to eat. Dinner conversation was about military things which did not hold any interest for Fishberg. Fishberg was a New Yorker. He grew up in a suburb on Long Island, a town with one of those funny eastern names like Long Neck Nook or something. His fellow officers were mostly from small towns in Texas or Alabama or places like that. To them, northern cities, particularly New York, were centers of disorder, immorality, and filth, not their America. Fishberg's liberal ideas at the dinner table did not set well with them. At times he would utter socialist or communist slogans, even though he did not himself accept those ideas, just to get a reaction. After dinner all would retire into the bar for an evening of drinking and singing along with certain records on the jukebox which the group had accepted as their songs, the same songs over and over again. They could put away glass after glass, but more than one and Fishberg found the room twirling around him in a circle. And those songs, he didn't even like them in the beginning, but evening after evening, he just couldn't take them any more. They kept pounding into his head as the room would twirl. Eventually he would wear ear plugs after dinner and drink only soft drinks. This really offended the group. Not drinking with them (and drinking meant alcohol, not soft drinks) meant being unsociable. He was rejecting them. Eventually he would lock himself in his room after dinner.
When the big build up occurred in Vietnam, some of the really gung-ho young soldiers were volunteering to transfer to Vietnam so they could get in on the action. Maybe for an infantryman stuck in a little outpost near the DMZ anything might seem an improvement. Anyway, a physical exam was required before transferring out. That's where Fishberg would get involved. Along with the exam would be a lecture that usually went something like, "Are you crazy? You can get killed over there! That means dead! Nothing! The end! They'll bring the pieces of meat back in a bag and deliver them to your mother and father!" That significantly cut into the transfer rate while Fishberg was there and certainly did not add to his endearment. He continued the same counseling when he was with us at Camp Casey. Personally, I had a different philosophy on the subject. I figured every screwball who volunteered to go there saved someone who did not want to go there, and every time Fishberg dissuaded a voluntary transfer, some other poor soul was forced to go instead.
The final straw came when Fishberg's battalion went on field maneuvers. Fishberg got into an argument with the colonel. I don't remember what it was about, but Fishberg went back to the medical platoon and ordered them to fold up the tents and return to the post. It all happened very quickly, and they were on the road before the colonel or any of the other officers knew what was going on. Fishberg's sergeant had an inkling something unusual was happening, but reasoned in is mind, "What the Hell!" This was an opportunity to escape to a slightly higher level of civilization without any blame to himself. "After all, I'm just following orders."
Needless to say, the colonel and his officers were infuriated, this time, rightly so. There is a certain amount of danger to field maneuvers. The chance of accidents and other screw ups is high. It was really criminal to leave those guys out there without medical back up, no matter what the argument was about. By rights, Fishberg could have been court marshalled. In some other country's army, he could have been put to the wall and shot. But, fortunately, although it often doesn't seem that way, American values really do reach into our army. So instead of execution, Fishberg was banished up the civilization chain to the relative comfort of Camp Casey and that other poor doctor was pulled down to Fishberg's old outpost.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Thoughts On No Child Left Behind

The schools need to have realistic expectations of students. Students who start at different educational levels will not necessarily arrive at the same place at the same time. Some students will not go to college and would be better served by learning technical skills geared to their needs and abilities. Children who come from non-English speaking backgrounds should be taught concentrated only English for 6 months or whatever it takes before being dumped into general classes. There should be less time wasted in testing to allow for more teaching. There should be more teachers' aids and less administrators. Students with mental disabilities should not be mainstreamed where they will interfere with the teaching to the other students. They will be better served in special education classes. Rather than no child left behind, we should strive for providing the most we can do for each child to make him into a productive citizen according to his or her ability and environment

Chapter 5. The School Girl

This is a story that was told to me by one of the girls at The Green Door.
When I was in school, I studied English. Can you believe that I was once a school girl with a white blouse, blue skirt, natural face, and hair cut from a bowl? Well, I was. As I was saying, I studied English. It was my favorite subject. As you might know, American soldiers sometimes volunteer to come to our English classes so that we can hear the correct pronunciation. Well, it happened that this American came to our class, John Blake. Oh, he was so handsome. All the girls immediately fell in love with him. He was tall and thin with blond hair and large blue eyes. I had never seen such eyes before in a person. After class, we girls would talk about him and giggle and be sad in a happy way with longing as though he were a movie star.
After a while, he would stop after class and talk to me and my group of friends. It was a chance to practice English, but it was also a chance to see him, to absorb every word as though each one was more wise and witty than the previous. He could have said anything, and it would have sounded wonderful. As we listened and laughed, we each wished to be his favorite.
But as time went on, he began to favor me, to speak more directly to me when he was speaking to the group, and eventually to speak to me alone without the group. Sometimes, he would take me to lunch or to a tea house. How jealous my friends were.
John was a Christian, and I a Buddhist. At first we never spoke of religion, but as time went on, and we became more involved with each other, the subject arose more and more. John was from a small town in a place called Wisconsin. Perhaps you have heard of that place. He told me about the wooden church painted white where he would go to pray with his family. That was very important to him. All the people in Wisconsin are Christians, and they all go to church on Sunday. You say that is not true? Well, anyway, that is what John said. So, when he asked me to marry him, it seemed obvious that if I were to go with him to Wisconsin as his wife, I must become a Christian.
It was most difficult. You know the U.S. Army discourages soldiers from marrying Korean girls. John was lectured by his sergeant about how "you are from different cultures. It will not work. It is simply a temporary infatuation. Everything will look different when you are back home. Then it will be too late." We both had to see the army chaplain. His lecture was the same. It must have been from some book.
We were married by a Korean Christian minister. You know, many Koreans now are Christian. My Buddhist parents were most unhappy about it and have not spoken to me since then. I did this for John.
We rented an apartment in Yong Dong Po. Those were the happiest months. I became pregnant. But then the time came for John to go back to the States. John was happier than ever. He always spoke of our new life, a home in Wisconsin, raising a family, going to church together. What we had been dreaming of and talking about would finally come true.
But I did something foolish which I regret to this day. America seemed so strange, so far away. The unknown is always so frightening. How could I go to live in a strange country with strange people with strange customs. I had already learned English although not yet as well as now. And also it is not my first language. There are certain feelings and thoughts that I can not say in English and never will, and there are things that Americans say to each other that I will never completely understand. Everything was happening too fast.
I told John this and said that he should go ahead without me. I would stay here to have the baby. We would write. When the baby and I would be ready to travel, we would join him.
John protested. He could not understand. It would be better to have the baby in an American hospital with American doctors. And how would I manage here alone since my family had disowned me?
I answered that I was perfectly capable of managing alone (although in reality the thought petrified me). Also, my older sister and her husband were still friendly to me and took the place of my parents. They are modern people and understand me. As for the hospital and doctors, I said that he was an American chauvinist insulting my country. Korean hospitals and doctors are just as good as American (but I did not actually believe that).
Finally, John relented. There was nothing else he could do. We would send letters twice a week, and he would send money once a week.
And so it happened. John left in the summer. Our baby was born in Autumn. My sister was a great help to me. My parents never saw me or the baby. Children of mixed marriages are not well accepted in Korea.
I sent John pictures of the baby every month, so he could see how he was growing. John wrote about his new job and that he was going to college in the evenings. He was saving money for our new home. He wrote that he missed me and was anxious to see me and the baby. Every letter said to get on the next airplane and go to him right away. And I wrote to him that I also missed him and would come soon, as soon as the baby and I were strong enough to travel.
This went on for one year. After one year, his letters stopped coming. I wrote more frequently and asked why he was not writing. I was worried. Was he sick? Did something bad happen to him?
After three months, I received a letter from John. He said he could not wait forever. He had married another woman, an American woman, a Wisconsin woman, a Christian woman who lived in his town. He did not consider our Korean marriage a real marriage, and so I was not his wife and the baby was not his baby.
I could not believe it. I cried and cried. I started to write a letter about how foolish I had been, and I was now ready to come to him, but I tore it up. What was the use? He was already married, an American marriage.
Later, I went to a lawyer. He said my case had merit, but it would be difficult and take much time. I gave him money and waited. Months passed. I kept giving the lawyer money, but nothing happened. Finally, I decided it was useless and gave up.
Then I realized there is nothing left for me here. There is no place for a perhaps married woman with a half American child. No place for me and no place for my son. What will he become? Maybe a bar tender in a G.I. bar. I no longer have a family. I have even become an embarrassment to my sister who has been so kind to me.
So, I decided we must go to America, my son and I. Not to find John. That is hopeless, and I do not want him anymore. But I hear there is more to the U.S. than John's town in Wisconsin. There is opportunity if one has a good brain and is willing to work. Maybe I will find a different husband there. But to go to America I must first have money. So that is why I am working here. In one or maybe two years, I will have enough money. Then my son and I will be ready for our new life.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Chapter 4. to the Field in Winter

Every now and then, we went on field maneuvers. Usually it was planned ahead, but not always. We had to always keep a bag of stuff packed in the closet. For example, in the Spring of 1965 when the Gulf of Tonken incident occurred in Vietnam, we suddenly went out to the field. Actually in that case, we went to a spot just outside the camp with our jeeps, ambulances, tents, helmets, and various paraphernalia. We sat there for a few hours and then went back to the camp. I guess the purpose was to show the bad guys that we were ready, or maybe it's just how generals react to any exciting news. Anyway it was brief and symbolic.
Actually when the weather is nice, field maneuvers can be somewhat pleasant if you have the right job, like being an army doctor. You get to go for a ride in a jeep to an outing in the country. I went on a field maneuver in early November. It was kind of chilly when we started out because it was it was still dark out. As the sun came up, you could see frost on the rice paddies. It was a beautiful ride up and down winding dirt roads through terraced hills dotted every now and then with small villages made up of little houses with thatched roofs. Sometimes I had the feeling that if I looked hard enough, I could see Genghis Khan riding out over the next hill. By noon we had arrived at our destination, a field next to a cemetery in a valley far from everywhere (at least far from everywhere I know). The air had warmed to a comfortable temperature. The sky was clear and stayed that way during our entire stay of a few days. Sick call was once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, and always brief in the field. The brevity was probably because the regular soldiers were too busy with their military games and, more importantly, scattered over too large an area to come in for the usual complaints. Most of the paperwork was left behind, so most of the time was spent hanging around, enjoying a few quiet days in the country. The Medical Corps enlisted men set up the tents, and even they had relatively light duties after that. The Korean houseboys and cooks also came out to the field, pitched their own tents (with portable wooden floors unlike the dirt floors in our barbarian tents) and provided us with many of our usual comforts. The main drawback was boredom, particularly since the weekend was included, preventing the usual visit to Seoul. But all in all, the field wasn't bad, a time to contemplate and enjoy the fresh country air.
The next field maneuver was in January. I was assigned to stay behind to run the infirmary at the Medical Battalion which also functioned as a kind of front line emergency room. At first I was disappointed, thinking back to my pleasant experience in November, but Major Fratelli advised me that I was fortunate to avoid living in a tent in the snow, mud, and freezing temperatures. It would not be the idyllic experience of the warmer seasons.
On the other hand staying back at the infirmary wasn't so great either. First there was terrible boredom. Hardly anyone was left behind. Then it happened by chance that a howling blizzard coincided with the maneuvers. Those bumpy, winding, primitive mountain roads were not so great in good weather, but in the snow and wind they were horrendous. Trucks and tanks were sliding off the road all over the place, but the army had to be ready for any kind of conditions, so on they went. I received a call from a frantic colonel to come out to the field and treat a soldier who was in shock after his tank had tipped over. Now when a doctor hears the word shock, he thinks of medical shock which is a life threatening condition usually secondary to trauma, illness, or blood loss where the blood pressure falls dangerously low. I forgot that a lay person usually thinks of emotional shock. Even so, I explained to the colonel that I was the only doctor in the infirmary which I could not leave unattended. Bring the soldier here. So he pulled rank. He was a colonel and he was giving an order to me, a lowly captain. Then in a moment of weakness I reasoned this way. He was a higher ranking officer giving me an order. What if the poor soldier died out there? Might I be blamed? If I give the grand gesture and he dies anyway, at least I will have done the most that I could have. My conscience will be clear. Maybe coming out with a bottle of saline and starting an I.V. will make a difference. Besides I was bored sitting in the infirmary with nothing to do.
So in that moment I made the decision, and off we went, a driver, an aid man, and I in an ambulance, sliding and slipping along one of those snowy mountain roads. Finally, we found the scene of the accident. The major casualty was a heavy set sergeant who had been sitting in the turret of the tank and because of his width had not been able to duck down into the tank fast enough when it turned over. He was completely crushed and had died instantly. The soldier "in shock" as it happened was simply emotionally overwrought by the incident and had already been taken away in a jeep somewhere. The frantic colonel was also gone from the scene. I was in a hurry to get back to the infirmary and was able to get a ride back in a jeep with some soldiers who were delighted with an opportunity to escape the winter debacle. The driver and aid man stayed behind with the ambulance in order to scoop up the remains of the poor sergeant.
When I got back to the infirmary, I had been gone about two hours. Fortunately, no great catastrophe had occurred while I had been away. The ambulance followed an hour later with the body. They laid the sergeant out on a table while waiting to have him taken to the mortuary. The sudden pressure on his spinal chord had caused his eyes to pop out so they were hanging out of their sockets. It was grotesque. The few soldiers who were there stared at him, like some curiosity. Maybe it was the lack of anything else to do. Probably it was just the way people are, this fascination with the bizarre. Finally, reality took over, I told them to cover him up with a sheet. It was enough of a show.
Later that day, the general realized that enough was enough and ordered an end to the maneuvers. Little by little the troops came back. It was a relief. Boredom was over. The place livened up. Both work and comradery returned. Most of the soldiers who were injured in the many accidents out in the field didn't start arriving at the infirmary until the maneuvers were ended and they started filing back into the camp. By that time the usual Medical Battalion doctors had returned and taken over. All things considered, most of the injuries were minor.
When Major Fratelli found out that I had left the infirmary to go out to the scene of the accident. He was furious. "You do not leave your post! I don't care if the President himself gave you an order! You left our only emergency room without a doctor in the middle of a dangerous field maneuver! What if someone had been brought in with a serious injury while you were out there?" Eventually, he calmed down, attributed it to my inexperience and blamed the colonel for his intimidation. "Fortunately, no harm was done, but this should be a lesson for the future. No matter how high ranking that colonel was, he was not your commander, he was not a doctor, and he certainly should not have been making medical decisions." That night I returned to the BOQ at Division Headquarters, happy to be back in my own bed.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chapter 3. Joe Brown

One Thursday, Joe Brown had one of his things. Mr. Conrad, his boss, the safety director, apparently had said something to him about how he wouldn't be in such a "rut" if he weren't so "hard headed." Joe stormed out of the office, went to his room which was down the hall from mine in the B.O.Q. (Bachelor Officer Quarters), pulled out a bottle of whiskey and began a state of siege. By Saturday, a few of the lieutenants in the B.O.Q. decided that something had to be done to help "old Joe" and therefore told me to go in and do something about it.
"What can I do?"
"What do you mean what can you do? You're the doctor. You're supposed to help people, especially a good friend like Joe."
When they put it that way, what could I say? If I didn't go in and face Joe, my whole reason for existence would be meaningless, not to mention being a spineless coward who turns his back on a friend. And so, I weakly tapped on the door.
"Who is it?" growled a drunken voice that sounded louder than it had ever sounded before.
"What do you want?"
" To talk to you."
I pushed open the door and, with shivering knees and hesitant steps, meekly stepped into the room.
"The guys on the floor asked me to see if anything's the matter."
"I'm fine."
"You haven't been out of your room since Thursday. You might get sick if you keep drinking."
"I can handle my liquor."
"Can I help you in any way?"
"Maybe if you saw Dr. Kagan," I hesitated. "He could help you."
With that, Joe became furious. I could see the anger welling up in him. "Kagan the shrink? You think I'm crazy? I thought you were my friend. Get the hell out of here!" He grabbed me by the seat of my pants and literally tossed me out into the hall. He was a physically strong man. The group picked me up off the floor and asked what I planned to do next.
"I can't do anything."
"What do you mean? Something has to be done. You're the doctor. Think of something."
But at that moment, being a coward began to seem preferable to facing Joe again. I retreated back to my room to think. The siege continued all weekend. I made a few attempts to reason with Joe through his door, standing out in the hall. It was useless.
On Monday, I reported to Major Fratelli what was going on. I had barely slept all weekend.
"You're a doctor. You're not supposed to get so emotionally involved. You should put the matter in its proper perspective and deal with it accordingly."
Easy for him to say. He barely knew Joe, didn't live down the hall from him, and didn't have the guilt patrol on his back.
"So, Major, what should we do?"
"First of all, we can't let this guy remain there indefinitely, being crazy."
"Exactly what are we going to do with him?"
"This guy has to be removed. He's in a sensitive position, and we can't leave a nut in that kind of job."
Did I mention to you that Joe was the assistant safety director? He and his boss, Mr. Conrad, were civilians and retired army officers. I won't say what they actually did (in fact I don't know the specifics), but it was one of those "secrets" that the enemy apparently knew all about, and we (the U.S. Army) knew they knew all about it, but no one was saying.
After assuring me that I shouldn't worry and he'd take care of the problem, Fratelli trudged over to the G2, his boss, to solve the problem. The next morning when I asked Fratelli what the G2 was going to do, he threw up his hands, stared at the ceiling, and said, "Nothing!" They tell me this has been going on for years. You know, he once got mad at some captain in the Kimchi Kabana (an officer's club at Yongson Compound in Seoul for transient officers who are in town temporarily for army business or recreation) and ran after him with a chair. When the captain escaped, Joe threw the chair through the window. Can you imagine, pieces of glass and wood spraying down from the second floor? The M.P.s carted him off to the nut house for a week. But they won't fire him because, in his sane periods in between, he's the only one who knows the work, and he's a nice guy. Its a crazy situation. He's been here forever and has had a string of bosses who never stay long enough to really know what's going on, not the way he does. On the other hand, because of his craziness he never gets promoted to safety director but remains the perennial assistant. After about a week, Joe emerged from his siege, somewhat shaven, somewhat sober, and said to me, "Doc, I'm sorry I threw you out of my room. I've just been feeling kind of low. My health hasn't been just right. Food doesn't seem to go down the way it should. I'm tired all the time. I'd like to spend a week or two down at the MASH (in peace time the local military hospital). I need a good physical exam to find out what's wrong with me so they can fix me up. I hear Kagan goes down there sometimes. Maybe I can see him there, and he can help me see things right."
Relief and joy welled up in me. I immediately picked up the phone, fortunately got a line, and made the arrangements then and there. I congratulated Joe on his good judgment. By that evening he, a driver, and a suitcase were dispatched down the road to the MASH and life returned to normal.