BT, Phone Home

12 05 2011

While stationed with the Coast Guard on Johnston Atoll in 1974, keep in mind we had two forms of communication with loved ones back home-U.S. Mail, which typically took about two weeks to deliver a letter, and the telephone-and I don’t mean a cell phone. The only telephone we had access to was mounted on the wall in the hall of the barracks. We were allowed one fifteen minute call home each month. The way it worked was the operator, who was Air Force, since the Air Force ran the telephone system, would place the call to the nearest Air Force base to the location you were calling. You would then be billed for a call from that base to your destination. For me it was Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. This was only 28 miles from home, where my wife was at the time. When your fifteen minutes were up, they would pull the plug and cut you off. The Air Force operators were unmerciful.

I sprained my ankle one Sunday afternoon while playing basketball. It was a pretty bad sprain and I had to be taken to the hospital to have it checked.

At the hospital on Johnston Island I was examined, the ankle was wrapped and I was then released. That was the night I went to the USO show at the club (see It Wasn’t Always Boring post).

Did someone say HIPAA?

I returned to the hospital the following Friday for a follow-up appointment. The corpsman who examined me was a fellow by the name of Craig Bertram. Craig was well-known around the islands because, while he was a corpsman by day, he was a DJ on the radio station, AFRTS, by night. Craig, or Mr. B as he was known on air, had at least two personalities I can recall.  

Well, I happened to have an ingrown hair on the top of my right big toe, which was showing signs of infection. When Craig examined my ankle, which was progressing nicely, he noticed the hair and said he wanted to treat it. Now, were it me, I would just dab on a little Neosporin and a band-aid. Craig had other ideas. I was on the verge of completing my SCUBA certification training. All I had to do was an ocean dive which was scheduled for the following day. When Craig heard I was scheduled to dive the next day he admitted me to the hospital. I thought that was a little extreme, but he said he didn’t want to run the risk of spreading the infection to the other divers. Are you kidding me? It’s an ingrown hair with a little red around it. And it’s the Pacific Ocean! I believe in the old adage, “the solution to pollution is dilution”. But I figured he’s calling the shots, plus that’ll give me a few days off. The hospital stay turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I was placed in one of about 30 beds in a large room. I think we used to call that a ward. Not only was every bed in the ward empty, I was the only patient in the entire hospital.

The following morning, Saturday, I awoke to see another patient directly across the aisle from me. He looked as if he had run head-on into a freight train-face bruised, swollen and cut, deep purple surrounding each swollen eye. I was thinking, if he didn’t lose that fight then the other guy must be dead.

It turned out he had been at the club the night before, sitting at a table with several other guys, including a few Hawaiians. One particular guy, a Hawaiian who was well schooled in the martial arts, was showing a picture of his girlfriend. When it got around the table to my new roommate he, according to him, made an innocent statement of how attractive she was. He said the guy then jumped on him like a hound dog on a pork chop and did a little Kung-fu’n and Ninja kick’n and the next thing he knew he was waking up looking at me.

Well, the good news was, he would be okay. The better news was, he was the Air Force sergeant in charge of the telephone system. We got to be good friends over the next couple of days as I survived my near-death experience with the ingrown hair (It was touch and go for a while). As I was preparing to leave the hospital, he told me to feel free to call home anytime I wanted to and I should just tell the operator my name. From then on I called home about any time I wanted and was able to talk as long as I wanted. It was great. That was the best beating I never had.

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