A bit of navelgazing is in order by way of introduction. In the course of trying to resolve my current career crisis, which was brought on by a variety of assholiness on the home front in my alleged home state of Oregon, my dad and I have been on the phone for almost unduly long stretches discussing, among other things, my relative career prospects as a nurse and as an atttorney. He and my mom agree that I’m temperamentally better suited to the law than to nursing, partly on account of the longstanding tradition of physicians and charge nurses making shit flow downhill. They have a point. I also have a point (actually a counterpoint, if not also an Opposing Viewpoint) when I note that more than a few lawyers aren’t quite right in the head, either, as the law has more than its share of vindictive sadists and highstrung drunks. My friend Lord Wallingford, a practicing attorney and recent law grad in Washington, DC, has referred with some unease to the latter sort, which he does not consider a credit to his profession or a selling point for law school.

If there’s a Twilight Zone analog to my career destiny, it’s probably Henry Bemis, the small man with the large glasses, glasses that are broken in (you guessed it) the Twilight Zone. “You aren’t a banker, Mr. Bemis, you’re a reader! You don’t understand numbers and balance sheets, you understand words and ideas!” The law is certainly much less about numbers and more about words and ideas, very specific words and ideas, than nursing. There are very specific, circumscribed protocols in the law for pretty much every sort of argument that one might wish to make, including specious, underhanded arguments that opposing counsel and his client are goddamn liars and fucking assholes. In many legal matters, these are very important arguments for one or both sides to make because otherwise they wouldn’t have a case. Attorneys are just careful to use other, approved words and forms of argumentation in their ad hominem smear campaigns. They’re a lot more polished than the average layman in the presentation of their goddamn lies—I mean, alleged material misrepresentation that my client vigorously denies and that opposing counsel will not be able to prove because he in fact made no such material misrepresentation.

It doesn’t always have to be true to be admissible. In some circumstances it does, but in others the applicable rules are Sedge Thompson’s rules for audience true stories: legible and plausible.

It probably is easier for me to bloviate at length about arcane points of law than to chart some fat sick guy’s urinary and fecal output all day in between fruitless searches for a usable vein. On the other hand, eight hours checking off boxes indicating that said document is privileged or not privileged, as Lord Wallingford often does at his day job, might bore me even more than it bores him. I’d probably be scouting the neighborhood for a 400-pound veinless wonder in need of a central line. I guess the take-home message is that I know how to bring my own Opposing Viewpoints to the table; not too serendipitious for my present circumstances, I’d say.

But, as I said, lawyers are trained to follow very specific protocols for accusing the other side of being wrong. Even if the purpose of an argument is to make a thinly veiled ad hominem attack, unless the attorney in question is an unhinged jackass who has earned the disrespect of his colleagues the smear is presented in the form of a claim of specific conduct; the more specious, the more ridiculous, and the more ridiculous, the less the sting. Or something like that. For the most part, the rules of engagement are very evenly enforced. (Ignore Constitutional law for the time being.) Some jackass attorney may curse you out in the hallways or over the phone, but he’ll think better of it treating a colleague in that fashion in the courtroom, since judges don’t look kindly on such flourishes. It’s a courtroom, not an operating room. You’re a lot more likely to be held in contempt of court than in contempt of your scrub nurse.

Usually. It depends on the dean. Back in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvagina a few years ago, at a training hospital renowed among followers and practitioners of public relations for its world-class care and among its more cynical clinicians for its third-world-class care, the chief of neurosurgery cursed out one of his scrub nurses, in accordance with ancient sacred tradition. The nurse, apparently a man of delicate sensibilities, had so little respect for this tradition that he went to the dean of the medical school and filed a grievance. Word on the street had it that he cried about it, too, but it was his grievance, and he could cry if he wanted to. You would cry, too, if it happened to you. I’m not kidding about that last point; as we’ll see below, neurosurgeons aren’t the most controlled sorts when they aren’t playing with brains, or sometimes when they are playing with brains, but in a cruder fashion.

Incidentally, in 2004 I saw a priceless billboard on US 22 in Allentown, its pastel cursive script proclaiming: “Brain surgery: there IS an alternative!” Knowing who wields the knife, one would hope so; as I’ve suggested above, this story gets worse below.

The dean, sensitive to this scrub nurse’s tearfulness and hurt feelings, and maybe to his litigiousness, dealt with the problem by removing the chief of neurosurgery. He excised the chief glioma from the institutional brain, and the institutional medulla along with it, as they were one and the same. Keep in mind, though, that this hospital had a long history of muddling along with important parts of its body of medicine missing; no worries, mate. Actually, be very worried; the clinical staff were. The chief of neurosurgery wasn’t the only senior clinician who was, to paraphrase noted managerial guru and showboating broke guy pretending to be rich Donald Trump, fucking fired.

The consensus at this (third) world class hospital was that the scrub nurse and the dean had greatly overreacted. Since I’ve presented this case based on thirdhand testimony, which I should hope I would not be allowed to do in a court of law, I have no way to offer a qualified opinion on the matter. For that reason I’ll instead offer my unqualified opinion, which is actually less speculative than it sounds at first glance. It probably wasn’t the first time that that loose cannon had gone off. The poor scrub nurse, the sniveling scrub nurse, prettyboy—by any name, his snitch in scrubs had probably been in his line of fire before. The neurosurgeon was probably an asshole who had a grievance coming from one disgruntled underling or another.

These are guesses, but educated ones. Years ago, I spent several years at a summer camp in another, even prettier, part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvagina. That is, the other, either non-Pennsylvanian or non-Virginian part of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvagina is, after all, a literary device of sorts, a Land of Make-Believe for adults established for the express purposes of obscuring Alma Mater’s location sufficiently to vex its libel attorneys and annoying Billy Fish and his sycophants with gratuitous indecency on the part of a disgruntled alumnus. More Alma Mater-themed indecency, specifically a lengthy treatise on its founder, the Venerable Healer, and his association with lascivious medicinal plants, is in partial draft form. Site statistics indicate that much of my audience came for the indecency, so I say this: come for the indecency, stay for the social commentary. That business model works for Playboy.

If you want more indecency right now, you’ll have to settle for a brief story about poking a guy’s eyes out, skull-fucking him and shitting down his neck. Amazingly, this is not gratuitous indecency, either. One of my counselors at the summer camp that I mentioned above used that very imagery at lunchtime as a way of bullying the boys in his cabin. As one of his boys, I got to hear this sick tale straight from the horse’s mouth. Mind you, it wasn’t a proposition of his own making; Specialist Skullfuch was just telling us a story about his former life in the military, since one of his drill sergeants threatened members of his recruiting class with that particular style of sexual assault as punishment.

God, let’s not even call it sexual assault, because that gives garden-variety rapists an undeserved bad name; this was a lot worse. As Spc. Skullfuch saw it, on the other hand, it was just humor in uniform, maybe not the kind that Reader’s Digest would publish, but a heartwarming taste of military life. And we wonder why the enlisted have a dubious reputation.

My point is that eight or so of us were around his sadism for almost a week, and other boys had presumably been around it in previous sessions, before Spc. Skullfuch crossed the Rubicon by shoving a boy up against a wall in a fit of anger. He probably figured that this kid was, in his parlance, a fucking pussy. It didn’t matter. The kid snitched to the camp superintendent, who summarily shitcanned Spc. Skullfuch midweek. The superintendent heard other stories of the Specialist’s menacing behavior in the course of investigating the assault, and he felt bad that he had unwittingly kept such a man on staff at his camp. As I said, Spc. Skullfuch’s termination was quite expeditious. My cabin made do for the rest of the session with our other counselor, a very decent Moroccan fellow. It was good riddance as far as the Specialist’s roommates were concerned.

If nothing else, the Spc. Skullfuch episode was a scary window into the composition of the US military. Maybe he was recruited on a bad conduct waiver; these were pretty common under Clinton, and under Bush II they were handed out like candy. Maybe that’s how his drill sergeant got in, too; one kind of hopes so. The sick thing is that that sort of depravity seems to be a longstanding goal among military recruiters. Fred Reed has described similar language from his Vietnam-era combat training, but in his class’s case directed as a third-person threat against a character called “Luke the gook.”

Fine chaps. The one thing I can say in defense of Reed’s drill sergeant is that his imagery was just sadistic, not sexually sadistic. And as Reed has pointed out, soldiers are trained to be cold-blooded killers, the main drawback being that they sometimes go freelance and kill absent battlefield orders, as we recently saw in Afghanistan. They’re doing what they were taught, just not at the precise time and place as they were instructed. Oops.

What some people don’t get is that there are ways to maintain good order and discipline without resorting to sadistic imagery and foul language. Some of you may have heard me mention a Det. Sgt. Mark Van Abel of the San Diego Police Department. Some of you may have heard enough about Sgt. Van Abel to last you a lifetime. This is assuming that any of my friends, acquaintances or enemies are reading this, as opposed to people who vaguely know me through the internet. It may be a bit presumptuous to refer to a readership at all.

In any event, Sgt. Van Abel scared the hell out of most of my test block, but it’s worth noting the rather innocuous content of his threats and insults: “If you have tattoos on your necks, you’ll be out in eighty-five degree weather wearing a wool turtleneck, with a core body temperature of one hundred fifteen degrees. My advice: no more ink….You know what they say in the military? If you’re on time, you’re late….I sent a guy home to Ohio once for being late….Some of you are being smoked by forty-something and fifty-year-olds, and frankly that’s disgraceful….Some of you don’t seem to really want this job.”

I certainly didn’t dispute the last point. There were a lot of reasons for not really wanting that job, up to 360 of them on the Pre-Investigative Questionnaire. They like their paperwork, all 60 pages of it, plus the other 29 in the homework assignment due two weeks later, much of it duplicating the first 60. More to the point, they like to know things about their applicants, for instance, whether they’re known in the neighborhood for freaking people out with gratuitous stories involving mayhem to the eyes followed by orbital rape. The Recruiting Unit has heard some gnarly stories, and asked some gnarly questions, and damn straight it’s sent some people back to Ohio for worse offenses than tardiness.

Speaking of which: one guess as to Spc. Skullfuch’s home state. (Hint: it’s the one with Cincinnati.)

The point is that there’s no need to resort to foul language or physical threats to make one’s charges walk in fear of the Lord. I guess a 115 degree core body temperature is a phyical threat of sorts, but Sgt. Van Abel was yelling at us about 85 and sunny. Having flown in from Philadelphia in August, I found that a bit ridiculous. It’s also important to note the Sgt. Van Abel did not have an anger management problem. Far from it. He managed his anger exquisitely, for utmost dramatic effect. He never wasted a word. His partner in the Recruiting Unit’s good cop/bad cop routine, Officer Vernon Kindred, kinda sorta wasted a word now and then.Their boss, Lt. Ernesto Salgado, rarely said a thing that was coherent.

There’s a huge difference between the way my test block was yelled at by our recruiters and Spc. Skullfuch’s coarse banter and procilivity for assault on boys half his weight. The foulmouthed chief of neurosurgery who got the Donald Trump treatment from the dean probably fell somewhere in between, but I’d guess towards Spc. Skullfuch’s end of the continuum. I don’t know what he actually said, but my guess is that it wasn’t entirely pertinent to an actual mistake that the scrub nurse had made.

It might have been, “I said, I need the fucking scalpel!” My guess is that it was more along the lines of, “Give me the fucking scalpel, you motherfucker! Jesus Christ, you’re a fucking idiot! Goddammit, I could fucking strangle you right now, you asshole! When I want the fucking scalpel, I get the fucking scalpel!” I wouldn’t be surprised that he made use of some impromptu projectiles at some point, too. Surgeons are traditionally known to throw things.

Historically, the only real behavioral standard applied to surgeons was that they not cause injuries or botch an operation during their tantrums. More recently, more equitable heads took a fresh look at the culture and determined a lot of surgeons weren’t so much demanding as out of control. For one thing, the beancounters weren’t thrilled to by the high absenteeism and substance abuse rates among clinical staff on account of the constant shit storms. For once, the process-oriented weenies at HR actually had their heads on straight. They were right that, no, doctor, you can’t hurl a piece of fat at a resident and threaten to shove a cauterizing iron up his ass just because he put a Beethoven CD on the OR stereo when you wanted Bach.

That was just a made-up example that I offered for purposes of illustration. Now for a real one: A few years ago, a military neurosurgeon posted to Madigan Army Medical Center honed his outpatient skills on a driver who had cut him off on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The surgeon, Dr. Dennis Geyer, followed the much older and unfortunately named Robert Speed to a stoplight, got out of his car and confronted Mr. Speed for cutting him off. Dr. Geyer, Mr. Speed and a third-party witness gave conflicting accounts of exactly what had happened after that, but it was established at trial that Mr. Speed took a metal thermos—his own metal thermos—to the face, as well as Dr. Geyer’s fist, and that Dr. Geyer abandoned him at the scene, where he lay bloodied and injured on the pavement. Mr. Speed claimed that he nearly blacked out during the assault and had substantial memory loss from a period including the latter part of the battery. It was a remake of “The Fast and the Furious,” in which the fast provoked the furious; sorry, I couldn’t resist.

In his defense, Dr. Geyer claimed that he had battered Mr. Speed in self-defense after being threatened, and also that he was upset by a recent operation in which he had saved a teenage kayaker’s life.

Two brief sidebars of historical interest regarding the Tacoma Narrows Bridge: First, the original bridge was the one that famously rocked back and forth until it was a pile of its components at the bottom of Puget Sound because its engineers hadn’t calculated its resonance. Oops. Second, the new bridge figured prominently in the final minutes of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame and his family. That’s the police chief who shot his children, his estranged wife and himself in a parking lot in Gig Harbor. It was a tragedy for him and his family, and a big recruiting oopsie for the Tacoma Police Department, as Brame’s father had been the chief when Brame was allowed to retake his psychological exam after failing it the first time. As a Tacoma cop, the younger Brame was known to stalk women.

A fine chap, and a fine city.

Dr. Geyer was convicted on a lesser included felony assault charge. Press reports at the time of his conviction indicated that he would likely face discipline from his military commanders, although I couldn’t find an account of what discipline he ultimately received, and I’ve done all the online research I’m going to do to fact-check this case until someone starts paying me for this gig. All I know is that it was assumed that the Medical Corps command would consider Dr. Geyer’s Speed incident conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

I might add, unbecoming a guy who might be called upon to put a knife in your brain.

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