US Navy Memories I
The Fox and the Hound
“The spotlight hadn’t dimmed as Molly
aged but had changed its glow instead.”
I was drafted into the US Navy three years after the Tet offensive. The number of US troops in Vietnamese soil had diminished, but by no means was our presence in that unfortunate country paltry. I had strong objections to the war. In addition, I am Puerto Rican. In those days, all Puerto Ricans were subject to the draft, although they had no representation in Washington. In other words, America could send your children to war without allowing you to vote against this intervention. I thought this was unjust and immoral. I had secretly decided that I would refuse to be inducted into the military. This “draft dodging” was a felony. A young Puerto Rican objector was being prosecuted at the time.
I did not go to my induction physical. I got a call from a military officer son after. He warned me about the consequences. I told him that I would stand my ground. He told me that as a convicted felon, I would never be able to practice medicine. That swayed me a bit: medicine was my one and only dream. Then he said something that sent chills down my spine.
“The president wants you to do this.”
He really believed this. The president, for whom I had little respect, knew nothing about me. He did not care. Yet this educated, successful man was talking to me as if he earnestly believed that the president had superpowers.
I swallowed hard. I told him that I would show up for a rescheduled physical. In order to save face, I told him that I would only go if the exam site was closer to my home. He agreed to do this.
I passed the physical exam. I was assigned to the Navy. I figured that if I would be in the military, I should ask to be sent overseas, so that I could travel. I was single and had no attachments. I had no surgical training: I knew that I would not be sent to a battlefield. I checked “Vietnam” and “Southeast Asia” in the form where I was asked to list my preferences. One of my friends during internship volunteered for the Navy. If you volunteered, you got your choice of which branch of the service you were assigned to, but your commitment was extended by six months. There were rumors that your preferences were strongly considered if you volunteered. Everyone felt that the Navy was a better assignment than the Army. He asked for any naval station on the East coast.
He was sent to Vietnam. I was sent to Virginia Beach. Go figure.
I was assigned to a small dispensary inside a huge Naval Air Station. This base was a training site for fighter pilots. Thousands of people who had anything to do with keeping a sophisticated aircraft in tip-top shape were on duty at the base. I took care of wives and children of the fighter pilots, plus the many retirees that had chosen to move to Virginia as their permanent home.
It was the best thing that ever happened to my career. The dispensary was packed during working hours. I learned how to see six patients an hour without compromising quality. At first, I knew next to nothing: I called for help so much that soon I was on a first-name basis with many specialists at the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, where the complicated cases went. I grew up. I matured. I became a man, and a damned good doc.
The dispensary CO was a physician in his late 40’s. He was a Navy Captain. He was a few months away from retirement, and he had no intention of letting work spoil his leisure. He showed up two hours late, left two hours early, and never bothered to leave his office, which was as far away from the patient care area as the building allowed. Even when the waiting room was full to the gills, and there were dozens of sick children with fever screaming loud enough that they could be heard half a mile away, he refused to see himself as a clinician.
He had the dispensary docs to his home a couple of times. He collected art and fine wines. His wife was a very elegant woman who spoke with a British accent. She knew nothing about medicine, and never asked us about our work.
The captain’s secretary was an aging southern belle who exuded sensuality. She had a thick accent and addressed everyone as “honey.” What they used to call a “fox” in those days. If we needed anything done, we knew better than to ask the captain. She had been running the dispensary for more than a decade. Even though she wore clothes that would have been better modeled by much younger women, even though she was an incorrigible flirt, even though one was tempted to label her as a ditz on first meeting her, she knew her stuff and she cared. We gave excellent care because she made sure that it would be easy to do so.
After two weeks at work, I realized that our secretary despised the captain. She had a nasty nickname for him, which she did not hesitate to use even in his presence. She laughed out loud if he offered an opinion on how to run things, and she proceeded to ignore his wishes. There was the time when the captain’s wife came by for a rare visit to his workplace. After she left the secretary saw me walking down the hall.
“Did you get to meet the hound?”
I acted like I had not heard her. I had become good friends with the pharmacist, a young woman who had also been working at the dispensary for several years. I went straight to her.
Who is the hound?
She laughed hysterically.
“That’s the name our secretary has for the captain’s wife.”
She treats him like crap. And she calls his wife a hound? Why does he let her get away with that?
“First of all, she is civil service, and she has tons of seniority. Second, the captain used to date her.”
“The captain had proposed to her, or so she thought. I do not know if he had purchased a ring, but she let everyone know that they were a “thing” and that it was serious. Then the captain showed up on a Monday after a long weekend and he told everybody that he was newly married.”
To the hound?
“Exactly. Ever since she has made his life hell. If you ask me, he deserves it.”
Maybe this is why he does not like to come to work.
“I doubt it. He does not care. About her feelings, about patients, about anyone other than himself and his collections. He is a jerk.”
Over two years I became close to our secretary. She was smart and caring. A great mother. She had this “thing” for Navy officers. Soon after I arrived, she married a Navy fighter pilot: officer #3 for her. They divorced within six months.
There was this day when two of the docs talked me into going to the officer’s club for drinks. I was not much of a socializer in those days, and I am not now, but I had refused a few times already. I let them drag me in. Our secretary was at the bar. Maybe because she was drinking, I had the opportunity to see her in a vulnerable mood.
You look sad. And alone; I have never seen you by yourself.
“We are getting divorced. You knew, right?”
“It is so sad. It is always sad. We end up hurting each other, for nothing.”
I leaned over and hugged her.
You are the best. If I were older, I would take you in a minute.
One lonely tear showed up.
“I love you guys. All the docs; not a rotten apple in the bunch. You do a good job.”
Thanks to you. We love you too.
I finished my drink and headed home. Our secretary was back in top form the next day: loud; brassy; bossy. Her old self. I never saw any more introspection in her.
Two years later I went back to the dispensary on a tour of duty as a reservist. Most patients had been shunted to a new facility. The place was eerily quiet. Our secretary still there: older and maybe quieter. The captain was long gone.
We hugged, for a long time. She filled me in on her life. The kids were doing great. She would be able to retire soon.
She was dating Navy officer #4. Maybe this would be the right one.