This is the second installment of 4 parts. Click here for Part 1.
After I had applied for a commission into the Navy Medical Corps, Mary Lou found an alternative that I had never even considered, in one of the “throw-away” medical journals that cluttered our mailbox: “Options for your draft-eligible medical student son.” It described the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service, the oldest but next-smallest of the seven Uniformed Services with some 6000 officers on active duty (The NOAA Corps is the smallest, and the Coast Guard the next larger– you know the other four!).
I learned that USPHS served as the medical arm of the US Coast Guard. I had considered joining the Coast Guard Reserve back when I was in college, but quickly changed my mind after I attended my first drill and recognized one of the Petty Officers who gave us the orientation as someone who had recently dated Mary Lou— yuk! (I had only recently started paying attention to her, but that’s another story!).
In addition to providing medical care to American Indians on reservations and American Seamen at port cities, and staffing the National Institutes of Health and the CDC (then called “Communicable Disease Control”), the USPHS also fielded teams of Epidemic Intelligence Service officers who were dispatched to investigate disease outbreaks all over the world, something that sounded very exciting to me. So, I completed an application for a PHS commission while still awaiting word from the Navy about appearing for a physical exam and negotiating a date for my call to duty.
The telegram notifying me that I had been drafted into the Army arrived on the last Friday in January. I immediately called the Navy, and was told that they had an agreement with the Army that blocked anyone from being commissioned into the Navy after receiving an Army draft notice. After an anxious weekend, I called the PHS from my medical office on Monday morning and was put on a long hold. When the clerk returned to the line she said that she could not locate my application. The person who handled it was on leave and would be away for more than a week!
After seeing my morning office patients, I headed back to the hospital. It had snowed overnight and the streets were freshly plowed. As I drove along Ridgewood Avenue in Glen Ridge, I encountered an unusual hitchhiker. He was a nicely dressed man in suit and tie and black overcoat, standing in the plowed part of the roadway in dress shoes, quite out of place. I stopped and asked if I could help him. He asked if I would be so kind as to drive him a couple of miles to Bloomfield Avenue, where he might catch a bus to the tubes in Hoboken that would take him to New York for a business appointment. Seems that his car was in the shop and the only cab in town was someplace far away.
Since I had some time to spare, I offered to take him all the way down Belleville Pike to the train station. I recognized him as the man who sometimes walked his dog past our home. He told me his name was Max. After we exchanged pleasantries, I told him of the recent significant events in my life. He seemed shocked at the inefficiency of the government bureaucracy. He told me to write a description of my experience in a Special Delivery letter, addressed to my Congressman and stamped with the proper postage. He would come by my house at 7:30 that night and we would drive to Newark Airport to deposit the letter in a mail receptacle there. This would assure delivery of my letter to Rep. Pete Rodino’s desk tomorrow morning. I was to plan to fly to Washington DC on the first Eastern Airlines shuttle in the morning.
It sounded crazy, but as he exited my car he reiterated the instructions, saying he would see me at 7:30 PM and to be sure to clear my schedule tomorrow. After a short stop at the hospital I got back to the office a little late and had a busy afternoon. One of my afternoon patients was Jack, with whom I shared my story of the hitchhiker.
Jack was a prosperous businessman who owned the major cold storage facility at the Hudson River terminal of the Erie Railroad. He said that he was going to call one of our US Senators and ask his staff to provide me with any necessary assistance. It was an unbelievable set of experiences.
Continued in installment #3 of 4