As a base commander, Brigadier General Thomas Read was more figurehead than leader. His staff tolerated him, but with minimal respect, and they spent their careers making essential decisions for him based solely on their knowledge and skills. The General, now sixty-five, labored under insuppressible delusions of an early death, inspired by a series of heart flutters suffered in his forties.
On first examination of the General, and reviewing his medical record, Miles noted, “atrial fibrillation.”
“I know that! I didn’t deserve it,” the General said.
“You were treated well, sir?”
“Of course, I was! Walter Reed for chrissakes! But they said it might come back.”
Miles hesitated. He didn’t dislike the General and wanted to assure him without raising yet more anxious concern—the persistent dread of all neurotics.
“You’ve had no symptoms for thirty years,” Miles said. “Your overall health is good. The possibility of a recurrence is really very low.”
“You’re just out of school, aren’t you?” the General demanded.
“I’m well trained, sir. At the best schools. I spent two years as a director of a research laboratory. And then I completed a rigorous internship.”
“You finished, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. Thanks to the Berry Plan I was allowed to fully train as an MD. When I finish my tour, I’ll return to a surgery residency for specialization.”
“Think about staying in the military, my boy. It’s a good life.”
Miles hesitated, “Of course, sir, I’ll definitely consider it.”
“Keep up with my staff; they take my blood pressure three times a day. Keep my supply of pills up to date. And schedule an EKG six times a year, hear?”
“All will be taken care of, sir,” Miles said.
“And when we travel, take all that’s necessary to keep me alive.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be prepared.”
“You take care of my family, too. My wife and two daughters. The best docs. You hear?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
On his first trip with the General, Miles was headed to Israel to deliver parts for new military aircraft being developed. Parade dress required. The passenger seats installed in front of the cargo hold on the C-118 were half full. Miles recognized the General, an attaché, an adjutant, and two NCOs, but no one else.
“Hey, Ballard, come here,” the General said. He told an attractive woman in uniform in her early thirties sitting next to him to take another seat. Miles buckled up next to the General, and they remained quiet until after the climb-out to cruising altitude, and the four-engine roar abated.
“You married?” the General asked Miles.
“No, sir. I hope to be someday. Have a family. “
“Stay single, boy. Stay focused on your duty. Women distract good men from their assignments.”
“What is my duty on this trip, sir?”
“You don’t know?”
“No one’s told me.”
“See. That’s what I mean about keeping focused. You won’t be any damn good unless you’ve got the gumption to find out what’s needed, what’s going on. You gotta find things out.”
“Yes, sir. And what should I be doing today?”
“Jesus, Ballard. Talk to the lawyer Goggin. He’s over there.”
“Yes, sir,” Miles said. Has he forgotten why he called me over? But the General started talking, poking Miles with unneeded force on the arm.
“And when you’re on your own on these trips, keep in communications with the adjutant every few hours. And look sharp!”
“Talk to these passengers here. You’ll depend on all of them to get your duty right.”
“Yes, sir. And thank you, sir.” I guess that’s all.
“Tell Patricia to come back and sit here,” the General said.
Miles signaled Patricia and went to where the lawyer, Bob Goggin, was seated.
“I’m the General’s physician,” Miles said. “Miles Ballard.”
“You’re not happy?”
Goggin leaned closer to Miles and lowered his voice. “I’m miserable.”
“I’m a slave to the General’s ego. He’s a wannabe dictator without a plan. And a lousy leader.”
“Why do you put up with it?”
“You’re not regular, are you?”
“Going back to complete my surgical training after the tour.”
“Charity Hospital in New Orleans. LSU service. It’s a great place for surgery.”
“Well, I’m stuck, man. I’m twelve years to early retirement. Then bingo. Out of here.”
“So what am I supposed to do on these trips?”
“It’s ridiculous. When they can arrange it, staff gets local dignitaries to meet the General.”
“It’s not logical. It’s not like it’s going to boost international relations or admiration for Americans. It’s to give the General a ceremony. He loves ceremonies.”
“And what do we do?”
“We stand at the end of the airplane stairs, in two lines of you, me, and the General’s staff and flunkies, and we wait for his highness to emerge at the top of the flight steps when the dignitaries arrive at the plane. Then the General descends, ramrod straight, slowly, with faux dignity, and we salute until he’s on the ground.”
“This is your career?” Miles asked.
“It gets worse. With a forced smile, he shakes hands with the dignitaries and chats with anyone he thinks is important enough to deserve his time. Always in English, and few foreign dignitaries understand him. Meanwhile, we’re still standing at attention. And if you’re not sharp, he’ll give you demerits. So he introduces us each as his physician, his lawyer, his nurse, his pilot, his copilot, and the like. When he’s finished, the adjutant steps out in front of us all, salutes, and yells, ‘Dismissed.’”
“Then what do I do?”
“We do what we want on this one. We wander off. We’re here overnight and leave tomorrow before noon. Not much time, but there’s a squash court near the barracks. Do you play?”
“In college. But I don’t have the gear.”
“They’ll lend you a racquet and clothes.”
“And a place to shower?”
“Of course. And a grill for food and drinks.”
“I’d like to play,” Miles said.
“Well, good. Take it easy on me, I’m not worth a shit. And my feelings are hurt when I lose.”
“I’ll play left-handed.”
“You’re a real gentleman. Are you right-handed?”
“I’ll never tell.”
“I guarantee one hand is better than the other.”
“Twenty bucks each to the pot. Winner takes all,” Goggin said, grinning.
Miles had never played squash for money. “You hustler,” he said.
“Second only to you,” Goggin replied.