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Beating the bicillin blues

March 26, 2010

I was in boot camp over 40 years ago, but because it was so intense, so too are its memories.

I won't say I remembered them like they happened yesterday, but that's because at this point I can't remember ANYTHING that happened yesterday.

I can, however, remember all sorts of stuff that took place Way Back When. So when it comes to boot camp, not only do I remember things, but I remember them with a preternatural clarity.

And what I best remember is my first impressions of the place. There were two of them - each one graphic and neither one pleasant.

The first was that the streets were chockfull of loogies the size, and often the color, of egg yolks. They came from the recruits, of course, who, everywhere I looked, were coughing their white-hatted heads off. If someone had told me the place had been struck with bubonic plague, I would've believed it.

Of course, the explanation was much more mundane. The kids at Great Lakes came from all over the States, each bringing his own special immunitiesand his own special germs. So, for instance, some kid from the sticks in Alabama, wonderfully immune to his hometown microbes, got laid low by some kid from inner city Chicago. And vice-versa. I don't know the exact percentages, but on any given day, out of my company of 88 guys, probably twenty of them were hacking and gasping their way to glory.

There was one poor soul in my company who was so sick that he spent at least two weeks laid out in his bunk, tossing and turning, hacking and coughing, cursing and praying.

I never got really sick, but I did have a sore throat for six of my eight weeks there.


The lame and the halt

My second first impression was a sight for sore eyes - or maybe more precisely, a sore sight for eyes: A whole bunch of the recruits were either on crutches or were limping and hobbling as if they'd just survived a kamikaze attack. But since the last kamikaze went down in flames at least 25 years before, that didn't explain it.

So what did?

It was something everyone who went to Great Lakes remembered perfectly - the notorious bicillin shot.

I don't think "bicillin" is a true medical term; instead, it's just what it was called at boot camp. Essentially, it was The Mother of All Shots - a humungous dose of penicillin, to wipe out whatever ailed you, whether you knew it or not. So if you came to Great Lakes with anything from diphtheria to dengue fever, the bicillin shot'd get rid of it. Or at least that was the theory. But since the entire boot camp seemed paved daily with, to use the polite term, expectorations, it obviously didn't cure EVERYTHING.

No matter. Everyone got itor at least almost everyone. More on that later.

And here's why it turned every other recruit into a cripple: You got the shot in your butt, after which everyone went to physical training, which was exactly what we SHOULD NOT have been doing. Instead, we should've been rubbing the bejammers out of the shot site so the penicillin dispersed. So it just sat there, solidified as big and hard as a cue ball, and raising all kinds of hell with your tender tush and turning you into another crippled recruit.


Physician, heal thyself!

Now, remember when I said ALMOST everyone had to get the shot? Well, the only people who didn't were those allergic to penicillin. Luckily, I was one.

When they gave the shots, they announced that anyone allergic to penicillin should report to the infirmary, which I did. And when I got there, I almost had a nervous breakdown.

The infirmary waiting room was about as big as a college gym and full of chairs. And on each chair was a kid who looked as if he was about to croak. Either they were burning up with fever, shaking uncontrollably from chills, turning green from nausea or going ghost-white from God knows what. And they all had to wait to see the few personnel on duty, who seemed not to even see, much less care about their charges.

I didn't mind waiting because that's pretty much all we did at boot camp anyway, I was terrified that before I saw the doctor I'd see some poor sod go into his death throes before my bulging eyes.

Fortunately, no one did, and after about two hours of sitting in Death Valley, my name was called. I went into the assigned room, where a doctor sat behind a desk. He was a young guy, not much older than me, but he sure didn't look it. His uniform was wrinkled, his face was pale, and he had dark rings under his eyes, and it was obvious his temper was as sharp as the smoke rising from the cigarette that hung out of the corner of his mouth.

And why not? I'd only had to sit for two hours with all the pre-cadavers; he had to spend eight hours actually trying to help them. I figured pretty soon after he'd gotten stationed at Great Lakes, he'd either forgotten his Hippocratic oath or had sworn off it completely.

He took a drag of his cigarette, exhaled out of the corner of his mouth and then squinted at me.

"Yeah?" he said.

"Uh, I'm here because I'm allergic to penicillin," I said.

"So whattaya want me to do about it? Make you NOT allergic?"

"No," I said. "Just is, if I'm allergic, I can't get the bicillin shot."

"Oh yeah, the bicillin shot," he said. "Military medicine at its best."

He took a huge drag, exhaled and then shook his head, sending a shower of ashes and smoke over his desk.

"So how do you know you're allergic?" he asked.

"Because when I was a little kid I almost died from the stuff," I said. "I think I was, like, in a coma or something."

"And how long were you 'like in a coma or something'?" he said, his sarcasm obvious.

"I dunno," I said, deciding if he wanted to play the fool, so could I.

"You don't?" he said. "Why not?"

"Well," I said, trying to look as innocent as I could, even blinking twice. "I was a little kidand I was, like, in a coma."

He stared at me and his eyes narrowed. It was obvious he couldn't decide if I was playing him or not.

Of course I was, and for good reason: He may have been jaded, but he was no salty dog. In fact, he was about as much a newbie as I was. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been assigned to the boot camp infirmary, nor would he have lowered himself to bantering with a recruit.

Finally, his eyes widened as he relaxed a bit. Clearly he'd decided I wasn't sarcastic, but just idiotic.

He took out a prescription pad, scribbled something on it, tore off the page and handed it to me.

"Here," he said. "Give this to the loser at the check-in and he'll take your name off the shot list."

Since he was only a lowly lieutenant, I was going to give him a parting shot by saying, "Thank you, Captain," but I didn't.

Even that early in my navy "career" I'd learned how to get by.

I did it by following what in civilian life had been an insipid clich, but what in the service was the guiding principle of an enlisted man's survival.

It was, "Discretion is the better part of valor."



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