Wednesday, June 1, 2016
I think it was an ongoing Readers Digest feature. “The most unforgettable character. I’ve ever met” not sure, but it was something like that.
But, at least for me, that is one impossible order. I can think of so many people I’ve met throughout my life. People who seem to clarify a chapter of that life. Each is of great significance, and if there is one thing they all have in common is that I learned something from them which has stayed with me throughout my life. So I’m thinking of this as item one of a series.
I worked in a Naval Dental Department during the Korean War. (Yes, there are those who remember that time.) As dental technicians came and went, there was substantial personnel turnover but a relatively stable department.
At least until Charles Bihm from the Bayous of Louisiana showed up. Charlie was an affable enough fellow. But his strong Cajun accent made him nearly impossible to understand. We wondered how he had successfully completed the rigorous study required in that Navy School, in which one of three entrants washed out. In looking back, I realize we were assuming that his lack of communication skills was somehow a sign of reduced intelligence. Some assumptions are just bigotry in disguise. It was obvious that Charlie sensed the discomfort whirling around him. He probably could feel the fact that he was the center of unease. But he maintained, at least outwardly, a spirit of ‘belonging,’ and a knowing that he would eventually truly be accepted.
But the job of the technician was to assist the professional dental surgeons, and Charlie went from one to another of the dentists, all of who made their displeasure with sharing space with an assumed sub human known to the commanding officer.
So when Charlie ran out of dentists willing to work with him, the dilemma of what to do with him arose. You don’t fire someone in the military for real or perceived incompetence. If you did, half of the personnel would be gone, most voluntarily,
So the task of what to do with poor Charles Bihm fell to the senior Chief Petty Officer.
There was a sub specialty called “dental repair.” We had no one in the clinic who filled that spot. Mainly in that time’s Navy we didn’t repair things. When things broke or wore out it simply was easier to buy new ones. But it would serve to give Charlie something to do, and more importantly in the eyes of some, would save us from trying to relate to him.
So on his first day of being “in charge” of dental repair, Charlie was put in a room and tasked to fix, not a dental device but an ancient mimeograph machine which was not only defunct, but would be of no use even if restored to original specifications.
At the end of the day, the Chief looked in to see what Charlie had managed. There were about a dozen parts scattered around the room. But also, there was a perfectly operating mimeograph machine on the table. It was placed back into use and as far as I know, may still be operating with half of its innards gone. Don’t ask me to explain. I know it’s true, but I haven’t a clue on how. Over the next few months, items which had been set aside as no longer of use were, one by one, restored to their former usage in the clinic.
And Charlie was happy in his role. He even became more willing to engage in conversation with the rest of the enlisted members of the Dental Clinic. While it was still sometimes difficult to understand him, our ears were becoming attuned to the Cagin Drawl. And when we did discuss things with him, we came to realize that this man was far from being stupid. He had deep thoughts on current events like the integration of our base in the deep south, the nuances of our war with half the country of Korea, and the rigidness of military life…even in the benign setting of non combatants performing dentistry.
I was one of a few living in that dispensary’s barracks who had a car. It was important that it maintained life since it was variously used to go out
on pizza runs, or lent to one of our crew that had achieved a date with one of the women Marines on the base.
At one point, my beat up Chevrolet’s battery would not charge. I took it to a local garage and was told me there was nothing wrong with the battery, but that I needed a new generator to act as a charger. This would represent quite a financial shock on an enlisted man’s pay, so I had them charge the battery which enabled me to get back to the base. I parked the car, intending to return to the garage on payday to have a new generator installed. I related my tale of woe to my compatriots, advising that the Chevy would be temporarily unavailable.
“Let me look at it.” It was Charlie. The next day, armed with a square of emery cloth and a screwdriver, Charlie eschewed lunch. He took my keys, and returned in about half an hour. “It’s fixed,” he said. I re turned the rotor and reshaped the brushes.” I had no idea what those items were, but it worked as long as I owned that wreck, and when I finally had to junk it, the charging system was one of the very few things that still functioned. I’ve thought of him often when I am on the verge of judging another human.
I lost touch with Charlie when I was transferred. After all these years I wonder what he did with his life. I wonder if that old mimeograph machine continued to work, (and if it did, would anyone under 70 know what it was?) Did he open an auto repair shop in Louisiana? Did he return to school and get a degree in advanced engineering? Or was he a kind of savant, whose abilities and intellect would be forever submerged by an unaware society?
Charlie was one of many who helped me reconsider stereotyping people. Jumping to conclusions based on any preconceived notions…race, religion, physical appearance, or even, as in this instance, a limited ability to verbally communicate.