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.

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