Fraternity Paddle

Psychiatric Times, Vol 38, Issue 9,

A true war story is never about war...

POETRY OF THE TIMES

— And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.

Tim O’Brien

Pandemic basement cleanout,
the paddle balanced on a beam
above boxes filled with old
med school texts, a pine plank
inlaid with Phi Epsilon Pi,
Jerry Berlin burned into the handle,
a relic with war stories to tell.

Rutgers 1943, my father Jerry
and frat brother Irv join forces—
knowing the draft board will ship them
to combat they enlist in the Army Air Corps,
study a few months in meteorology school,
fly to Greenland, and weather two years
dotting and dashing Morse Code
wind and temperature data to pilots
on course to Europe, winters survived
smoking Kents and shooting pool,
home alive in ’45 with sergeant’s stripes.

Northwestern 1968, when I pledge
Jerry and Irv’s Phi Ep, my draft lottery
number a guarantee of a grunt’s death
in Da Nang if I can’t ace organic chemistry
and nail a med school deferment.
Like my father, I enlist a frat brother,
Doctor-To-Be Joey G, our desks
stationed side-by-side for a year
of nightly drills on carbon
and its compounds, a second year
grinding for MCATS, brothers in arms
when we necklaced our first stethoscopes.

I’ve told these war stories for decades,
made them tales of friendship, savvy,
good luck, and brotherhood’s strength,
though you might read them as fairy tales
about four rich white kids who go to college,
join a frat, and figure out how to save
their tails from combat, war stories
about how the privileged survive.

But how do the stories change
if I tell you my father and Irv were first
in their families to attend college,
only to spend their lives sweating
for a buck in the garment industry,
that Joey G was a Chicago South Side
Black man, first in his family to finish
high school, a surgeon at thirty-one?
No, I’m the only privileged character
in these stories, a middle class suburban
white boy who earned a few stripes
in medical training and practice,
reborn in midlife as a poet-doctor
who survived his secret wounds,
the truth of my war stories contained
in a life that answers the old riddle—
What’s the difference between a poet
and garment worker?
One generation.

Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 23 years in Psychiatric TimesTM in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.