Two days later, Miles started patient care; he sat behind a gray-painted metal desk in his exam room reading yesterday’s International Herald Tribune. A small rectangular window let in a smidgen of morning light that combined with the fluorescent light from overhead to give the room a chalk-white glare. He had only one patient scheduled, for midmorning.
After a knock, a short, stocky doctor entered so quickly that Miles had no time to respond to the intrusion.
“Got a minute?” the doctor asked. He crossed over to the desk, shook Miles’s hand, and, uninvited, pulled up a straight-backed metal chair to sit to the side of the desk, close to Miles. Curly black hair covered his ears and straggled down to his eyebrows. A brown stain streaked his Air Force–issue dark tie, whose knot sagged. His scuffed and scarred black shoes lacked any shine, and his dark-brown eyes and ephemeral smile betrayed both irreverence and irony.
Miles introduced himself. “Miles Ballard.”
“Oliver Stern, here. Welcome to Europe in the Cold War.”
He looks like a dissident, Miles thought. But he only said, “What’s up?”
“I need a friend,” Oliver replied.
Miles’s interest was piqued by this disheveled doctor now; Miles smiled inwardly. “No problem. I haven’t made a friend since I arrived. You’ve got no competition.”
“I’m here to tell you this place drives me berserk,” Oliver said. “And it’s alarmingly friendless. You’ll be insane in six months.”
Miles smiled outwardly this time.
“You trained in Boston,” Oliver continued. ‘Top of the profession. You’re sitting here waiting to heal your fellow man, and you’ve got almost nothing to do.”
“I hope it picks up soon.”
“You’ll regret that. Damn it. Our entire population of eight thousand are healthy lost souls in a foreign land. Sickness for us is tweaky little infections like a cold or the flu. And we have to erase ubiquitous thoughts of suicide usually designed to be unsuccessful. My god, we get pilots and passengers with blocked eardrums—have you ever heard of blocked eardrums as a life-threatening condition?—and never any diagnosis that needs the cutting edge of medical advancement. It drives me to distraction.”
Miles sat in baffled silence.
“You don’t see it now. Wait a couple of weeks,” Oliver said. “You’ll be as disillusioned as I am.”
“I’ll keep alert,” Miles said.
Oliver placed three books on the desk: Larousse French-English Dictionary. Michelin Red Guide to Restaurants and Hotels. On the Genealogy of Morality. “These are for you.”
“To borrow?” Miles asked.
“A gift. These are what we came to value when we arrived.”
Miles moved the books closer to look through them. “Thanks for the Michelin Guide,” he said, “and the dictionary. I don’t know French. But why Nietzsche?”
“It’s from the wife. She’s the intellectual. She believes we’ve been dumped into the remnants of the outrageous atrocities of postwar Europe. We’re living with the mutilated remains of innocent humans, she thinks. Hearts grieving the extinguished lives of friends and loved ones. It’s hard to ignore. She wants to know why it all happened. She’s researching a book she plans to write on the Holocaust. The Aryan belief. She’s all about documenting Jewish families’ losses during the war. She’s troubled by Nietzsche’s analysis of society; she thinks it’s a significant insight into the German psyche at the time. Slave and master ideas. She told me to give it to you.”
Whew, Miles thought. Nineteenth-century German philosophers. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ll understand it.”
“No one ever understands her interests in Nietzsche,” Oliver said, “but she keeps handing copies to anyone near enough to accept, Jewish and non-Jewish.”
Miles couldn’t imagine Oliver as the philosophy type. “Have you read it?”
“Hell, no. I don’t give a damn about the German psyche,” Oliver said.
“Slave and master ideas?”
“Christ. It’s more than that. She goes bonkers when people mention Nietzsche.”
“Is it related to the camps?”
“Obliquely. She says Nietzsche believed that Western democracy was slavish and weak and that the weak would conquer the strong. He saw it as the degeneration of humankind. Those slaves-overpowering-the-masters ideas.”
“Seems ponderous,” Miles said.
“Moronic,” Oliver said.
“But I’ll give it a try. My thanks to your wife.”
“Don’t bother reading. Cliff’s notes, maybe.” Oliver shook his head in disdain. “How did triage go?” he asked.
Miles’s raised eyebrows questioned Oliver’s meaning.
“Your results,” Oliver explained.
“I passed, but Springer seemed disappointed.”
“Springer’s an asshole.”
“The adjutant said Springer was weird, that he hated people smarter and better trained.”
“Every doc believes that,” Oliver said. “But Springer’s pretty damn stupid. He’s disliked by everyone except for a few lackeys.”
“Did he say anything to you?” Miles asked.
“He said I made it as if he expected me to fail. He’s not impressed with my medical training.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s only been accredited for a few years. In Springer’s mind, it’s got no reputation. The school of medicine needed students, and even with me being a Jew with no top honors in college, they accepted me. I was lucky.”
“Where did Springer go to med school?”
“Alabama. He’ll detest your Boston education. You thought triage was valuable?”
“Not really,” Miles said.
“It’s the process that sucks,” Oliver said. The observers aren’t docs. And they don’t grade the treatment of life-and-death decisions. They grade your following the rules and how fast you complete your work.”
Miles shook his head. “That can’t matter. In a nuclear disaster, who would be alive to respond?” he asked.
“It’s ridiculous,” Oliver said. “They triage victims like the wounded on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Feed them booze, saw off a limb, stop the bleeding with a hot iron.”
“Death would be ubiquitous,” Miles said.
“That’s what Springer thinks, too,” Oliver said. “But really, military docs would be the first responders. If we were alive, guys like you and me, on the periphery, we wouldn’t be able to get to ground zero. There’d be no reason.”
Miles shook his head in agreement.
“And even if we were alive, we haven’t been trained in survival prospects, morbidity, and the delirium at the edge of nuclear disasters,” Miles said.
“It’s strange, isn’t it. Tie on some colored armbands and they let you go by instinct from there. Let me tell you. We’ll never learn anything here.”
Miles winced. “The military should train us. Teach every new idea and technique. They’re still studying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s an obligation to tell us what’s been learned so far.”
“Good luck with that,” Oliver said.
“We ought to do something, Oliver,” Miles said.
“Not really interested. It’s the military’s problem. Jesus, they’d fail if they took education on anyway.”
“But think about what might be done,” Miles said. “We could work on a strategy. It wouldn’t take much time.”
“Not worth any time.”
“Come on. It would be good for all of us.”
“Look. I’m not a crusader, Miles, and I don’t want to be involved.”
“It’s not about a crusade. It’s training.”
“Let’s talk about it some other time, my man. It’s toxic thinking about trying to teach the military anything. In the meantime, my wife wants to have you to dinner. Tuesday night? Can you come? She’s one hell of a cook.”
“Where do you live?”
In Brassioux. You know where Brassioux is, don’t you? Built by the military on French land. Off base. Can’t tell one house from another except by the number on the door. Can you make it?”
Miles didn’t hesitate. “Pleased to,” he said. “Maybe I’ll find a place in Brassioux, too.” His first invitation.
Oliver stood. “And ditch the uniform.”
Miles gave a thumbs-up as Oliver turned to leave.
Oliver Stern’s wife turned out to be the same woman who had welcomed Miles at the airport. At first, she seemed to have forgotten their encounter entirely. His memories of their meeting precluded a too enthusiastic greeting. “Hello,” he said tentatively. “Miles Ballard.”
“Ingrid Stern. I’m sorry for my folly at the airport,” she whispered to Miles.
Miles couldn’t make his eyes stray. She had a captivating casual beauty he had not recognized previously. Dressed in a white silk blouse with pearl buttons and open at the neck, white slacks, and pumps with medium heels that made almost no sound as she glided over the wood floor; she had an unpretentious, casual elegance, the exact opposite of the ostentatious, overpriced, feminine styles in Boston. After aperitifs in the living room, they moved to a casually set dinner table in an open space off the kitchen. Ingrid served sautéed veal cutlets with fresh green beans and dauphinoise potatoes. When Miles asked about Ingrid’s background, her intelligence was evident. She had degrees in art history and psychology. She had been a professional dancer in New York and now, in her early thirties, was still trim and athletic.
Oliver had grown up in Yonkers. He attended the State University of New York at Farmingdale. His father was a rabbi and his marriage to Ingrid was arranged by a shadchan. But he wasn’t religious, Oliver made clear. In any way.
Eventually, Miles directed the lively conversation to the lack of training and the inadequacy of triage in the Air Force.
“Do you agree about the triage?” Ingrid asked her husband.
“Miles wants to change the world, Ingrid. It’s bonkers,” Oliver replied.
Miles put his fork and knife on the plate and wiped his mouth with his linen napkin. “Don’t listen to him . . .” he began.
“I ignore him whenever possible,” Ingrid smiled.
“ . . . but I’ve thought a lot about it,” Miles continued. “It’s a Cold War. We’re surrounded by an enemy with nuclear capabilities. We need nuclear disaster training.”
“The military is an intellectual vacuum,” Oliver said. “The military will do nothing.”
“We deserve the training,” Miles insisted.
“They make puny attempts at teaching, but they don’t have a concept of postgraduate education as their responsibility,” Oliver said. “They’ll let anybody work at their level of incompetence until they leave the service and then just replace them with an equally incompetent or worse. They don’t care about doctors like you or me. We’re puppets.”
Ingrid shook her head. “Miles certainly isn’t Pinocchio, Ollie. He doesn’t need a rebirth.”
“Wait till you get to know him,” Oliver laughed, glancing at Miles. “He’ll wooden-salute the masters like all of us.”
“You rarely salute anyone,” Ingrid said.
“A slave to no one.”
“See, Miles, he’s read Nietzsche about masters,” Ingrid said.
“I never really read it,” Oliver said, “and what I skimmed I didn’t understand. But docs are puppets in this military social structure.”
“That’s a little heavy for me,” Miles said. “I want to improve as a doctor, do better than I did today.”
“Well, it may be a little overambitious, scheming to change the training of a military environment that assumes, with invented pride, you’ve been adequately trained when they hire you,” Oliver said.
“I was commandeered,” Miles responded.
“What’s your goal?” Ingrid asked.
“Right now, to convince the military to do something about preparing docs for mass casualties. Be accurate and trained to assess and minimize mortality,” Miles said. “Hire experts to teach us.”
“What will that do?” Ingrid asked.
“If we have training, it’ll make a difference in health care by understanding disasters and using healing to advance medical research.”
“Springer doesn’t want doctors or staff for their education—or competence,” Oliver said. “He’s nepotistic, for one; he hires family as civilian workers with inflated pay. His son services vending machines in the base hospital. In the States, he hired his daughter as a not-really-needed civilian receptionist before she got married to a jerk and moved to Alaska.”
“Is that permitted?” Miles asked.
“Moving to Alaska?”
“No. Nepotism,” Miles replied, annoyed, becoming aware of Oliver’s cynical humor.
“Absolutely. And the military has a lot of civilian jobs available everywhere.”
“I know,” Miles said, “but aren’t there regulations?”
“I’m a civilian,” Ingrid said. “Is that nepotistic?”
“A miracle you slipped through screening,” Oliver chuckled. “But it’s not the same, Ingrid. I didn’t hire you.”
“Seems to me they’re lucky to have you,” Miles said to Ingrid.
“The military hires women civilians who are well built as they can find and know their place,” Oliver said.
“In the military mentality, women are born to be domestic sex icons with parental skills,” Oliver observed.
“Oliver!” Ingrid admonished.
“It’s true. It’s God’s will.”
“We need to change that attitude if we’re to be successful,” Miles said. “And we’d need the support of all the docs.”
“They’re all male,” Ingrid said.
“But not all misogynists, are they?” Miles asked.
Oliver looked to Ingrid. “Tell him training is not possible.”
“I think it’s an admirable idea,” she said emphatically. “And it’s especially important for dependents, too. We’re humiliated and ignored by the military. And we suffer the same threat of nuclear extinction as you do. We’d be left to die in a field of rubble after a nuclear disaster in a foreign country. Why don’t you help him out, Ollie?”
Oliver shrugged. “I believe in saving your important battles for when you really need them.”
“It’s not a battle,” Miles said, “it’s a request,”
“He’s right, Ollie. There’s no risk of retaliation,” Ingrid said. “And it is important. Very important.”
“Neither of you knows Springer as I do,” Oliver said. “And retaliations in a military community are daily occurrences.”
“We could bypass Springer,” Miles said. “Go to the division commander first.”
“Do it, Ollie,” Ingrid said. “It’s not much to ask. You’re not pleased with what the military does for us.”
“I get agitated by thoughts of Springer,” Oliver said. “He is a bastard, but he’s got a lousy job.”
“That doesn’t make his conduct acceptable.”
Oliver shook his head. “Let’s change the subject. Besides, I’m still hungry.”
Ingrid sighed. “You two are the worst dinner conversationalists alive,” she smiled with her eyes. “Thank goodness there’s more to eat.”
“Will you help me?” Miles asked Oliver hesitantly.
“It seems not much to ask,” Ingrid said.
Oliver shrugged compliantly. “Two against one isn’t kosher. I’ll give it a try. But without enthusiasm.”
“Thanks,” Miles said, still puzzled at Oliver’s resistance to change for the better.
The thought of eating more of Ingrid’s cuisine pleased everyone; she replenished as desired.
A few weeks later, Miles and Oliver took a developed proposal for effective triage training for medical personnel to the division commander, Dillinger. In a disaster, they pointed out, doctors and victims would clearly benefit from physician training at the triage level. Saving lives! Responding to mass casualties!
The commander seemed distracted and listened with dim interest.
“Where’s Springer?” he asked.
“Sir?” Miles asked.
“Has he approved this?”
“He knows about it, sir,” Miles said. “Was that necessary? Approval?”
“Jesus, he’s the hospital commander.”
“We weren’t sure he’d support it. And there’s an acute need for all hospital personnel especially,” Miles said. “All the docs support us.”
“That’s true,” Oliver added. “I’m sure he’ll approve if he’s approached with kid gloves.”
“Listen to me very carefully,” the commander said, “We’re in the Air Force. There’s a chain of command. You follow that chain. Involve Springer and get his approval. He’s the one to present it to me.”
“Could you at least give us your endorsement?” Miles asked. “That’s not breaking the chain of command, is it?”
“I won’t endorse it,” the commander said. “I won’t commit without Springer’s approval. I won’t undermine his authority. That’s not wise in the Air Force.”
“But are there alternate ways for us to succeed, sir?” Miles asked.
“You need Springer’s support!”
“Yes, sir,” Miles said. “We’ll try. But confidentially, do you like the idea?”
The commander paused for a few seconds. “It’s a good idea,” he said without rancor. “But don’t ever quote me.”
Miles responded. “That means a lot to us, sir. We thank you. And we’ll follow your directions to the letter.”
Miles looked to Oliver, who had nothing to say. They stood, saluted, and left.
The next day, Miles and Oliver met with Springer.
“It’s shit,” Springer said. “Christ, we got a continuing-education program. We have it every month. We had a speaker from the Army a couple months ago on something. And each of you have time off to go to courses.”
Only if they’re on base, Milesthought. And we’re given all that anecdotal drivel about ‘how I succeeded in my career.’ Never valued education. He said, “But this is an intense effort to get everyone current with developments that we don’t have now, sir.”
“We do damn well if you consider my budget.”
“We could request money from the division commander. He might be responsive. “
“I ain’t going to be indebted to him for some no-count favor. And he would never do me a favor, anyway. He doesn’t give a bird poop about supporting the hospital. He’s a tightass.”
“But again, sir, the overall purpose is better training for triage. Better care. Increased survival. It benefits doctors and staff and, most of all, the patients and dependents.”
“Triage is fine as it is,” Springer said.
“And about training in general? “
“We do great. Don’t be saying otherwise.”
“But . . .”
“No buts. That’s all.”
“We’re sorry, sir,” Oliver said in an apologetic tone. Miles remained silent.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Springer said.
Miles’s irritation left him at a loss for words. It took a full five seconds before he and Oliver stood to leave.
Late in the afternoon the next day, as Miles walked down the corridor toward his exam room, Oliver caught up with him. “You look down, my man. What’s eating you?”
“It’s being the General’s personal physician. It can’t be a rewarding job.”
“I’ve heard that’s an assignment many have wiggled out of.’”
“I tried. Springer said it was an order.”
“Sorry, man,” Oliver said. “You need a break. You been to the Bumpy Landingyet?”
Miles shook his head no.
“It’s for officers. Private. Members only. In Déols, away from Châteauroux and the base. I’ll drive,” Oliver said, “and I’ll introduce you as a potential member. I’m thinking of investing as a part-owner soon and they need new members.”
“The Bumpy Landing?”
“A place for officers to relax outside the military, among their own. Privately run by a retired NCO who didn’t want to return to the States, Patrick O’Leary. Everyone calls him Paddy. It’s like a civilian gentleman’s club. No women. Uniforms not required. No sign on the door. Rank matters. And real private. It’s a gentleman’s paradise, and no member discusses it, even when pressed, with anyone not a member. So, keep a zipped lip. You get it?”
“You up for a little refreshment?” Oliver asked. “We could stay for a meal if you’re not busy.”
“After today,” Miles said, “it’s a dream come true.”
“I can put you up for membership tomorrow. Fifty to join. Fifteen bucks a month dues. I can get you letters of endorsement. Docs always get in.”
Obviously, Oliver was a smooth character. A social magnet, too. But Miles wasn’t sure about the club. It wasn’t really his style.
They were at the Bumpy Landingat the polished walnut bar, seated on carved wooden stools with red leather seats. They faced a life-size oil painting behind the bar, between two wide cabinets, each with glass-paned doors with four shelves filled with sparkling clean glasses.
“You like that?” Oliver asked, pointing to the gold-leaf-framed artwork.
Miles gazed at the canvas. A life-size, sleeping, nubile nude lay on a chaise lounge draped with a gray coverlet trimmed in silver. A white sheet barely covered her right upper thigh and pudendum. A meticulously placed, dainty-white silk wrap covered her neck and right arm but did nothing to obscure any part of her upper anatomy or any of the sulking sensuality of the sleeping pose.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Oliver asked.
“Who did it?” Miles asked.
“Christ, I don’t know.” Oliver raised his hand for the bartender’s attention. “Charlie. Who painted this babe?”
“Local artist, sir. It’s a copy of Sleeping Nude by Gustave Courbet.”
Oliver smiled. “Hey, not bad. Even a French guy in the boondocks can arouse a guy. Right?” He turned to Miles. “What you going to do, my man? Springer squashed us like roaches on a concrete floor.”
“Why is Springer so Springerish?” Miles asked.
“He’s evil, Miles. Vindictive to the core. You’d be crazy to carry the triage thing too far. Springer sees anything done in the hospital that he didn’t initiate as insubordination.”
“It’s military weird. Any slight, any innuendo, any contradiction of an order, any action taken without a superior’s knowing what’s going on can be interpreted as insubordination. The chain of command has precedence over logic or reason. I’ve heard Springer say it many times. He hates insubordination.”
“But we made a reasonable proposal.”
“Not me, my man. It was yours all the way. I was there to support you, not the document.”
“You don’t support the proposal?”
“I’ve got nothing against it. It’s just not important to me—not worth any risk to my career for supporting it.”
“So what would Springer actually do?”
“You never know.”
“How can he think a proposal to provide education for his staff is insubordination? It has nothing to do with him.”
“I tell you, in the military mindset anything that reflects in any way on the career or the impression of a superior officer is a punishable offense. Court-martial. And any penalty except death.”
“Even if a proposal has validity?”
“If it appears you’re disobeying your commanding officer, you’re guilty. Makes no difference if what is done or said is the truth, or valuable, or morally correct. If there’s a perceived hint of disobedience, the accused is guilty of insubordination. It’s not that often. But it happens.”
“Would he do that to me?”
“He would. But I don’t think it’s worth his time right now. And probably not for a proposal for postgraduate education. You got time before dinner? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Miles shrugged. “Sure.”
They walked behind the bar to a room layered with smoke from card players at four tables. A room with three pool tables was visible to their left. They entered the kitchen, saturated with the diffuse aromas of food in preparation. Patrick O’Leary was there—a short man with blue eyes and a full reddish beard talking to a chef in a toque.
They went outside through a side door and walked single file down a narrow alley and turned right on a narrow street to enter a three-story house, then straight through and out the back. They went to the iron fire escape at the side of an adjacent house, away from street views, and climbed to the top floor. Inside, after a knock on an apartment door, they were greeted by an attractive woman in a terrycloth robe cinched at the waist. Her untethered black hair touched her shoulders, and her dark brown eyes held a penetrating but distant gaze. Her attractive, refined smile lacked any disclosure of her feelings. Oliver introduced Miles.
“Captain Ballard, this is Michelle,” Oliver said. “She pretty much runs this place. You got to be a member, and you need Paddy’s approval to get in.” As they walked back into the bar at the Bumpy Landing to have dinner, Oliver said, “Michelle’s really a gem. Kind, discreet. Sort of the mother for the girls.”
“How did she wind up here?”
“Many French women consorted with the enemy during the war. Some voluntarily, I’m sure, but most had lost husbands, had kids, no job. Sometimes they were raped, other times, they didn’t resist in order to survive on pay of a few French coins. Christ, there are more than two hundred thousand children in France today born from Germans and collaborators screwing vulnerable French women.”
“Do you think Michelle was forced by circumstances?”
“Maybe. We’ll never know. But I’ve seen photos. She was humiliated in public after liberation. The resistance shaved her head and marched her through the community as a horizontal collaborator with the enemy.”
“Terrible,” Miles said. “But why support the Nazis?”
“To survive. Don’t think ill of her. She’s all gold,” Oliver said.
“Thanks,” Miles said, but he couldn’t help thinking that upholding prostitution was something he would never do, married or single. How much does Ingrid know about the Bumpy Landing? he thought. And it’s not just an officer’s club with drinks and bar food, gambling and shooting pool. It’s prostitution. I wish I’d never heard of the place. He thanked Oliver for the invitation to join and said he’d consider it. But itstill didn’t appeal to him, and he doubted he’d apply.
“Mum’s the word,” Oliver said.