Recalling adventures from days as a military physician in France

September 15, 2014

In retrospect-even though Army life was not for me-going to France was a unique opportunity for a young man to gain perspective on the culture of Western Europe. With my 2-year “vacation” at an end, I was ready to focus on my future in ophthalmology.

 

By Jules Baum, MD

When I was inducted into the U.S. Army-having to go in under the Berry Plan, as a Captain, after finishing my 9-month basic science course in ophthalmology at New York University (NYU) in 1959-luckily, I was sent to France (1959 to 1961).

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Prior to being sent, I had to undergo training at Fort Sam Houston, TX. There were classes in map reading, the use of firearms, and the triaging of wounded Army personnel. I was assigned to a base in Croix Chapeau, a small town outside of La Rochelle, on the Western coast of France and was the only ophthalmologist at a base. This was before my residency at NYU/Bellevue.

If I saw a red eye, I would tell the patient I would be back in a few minutes and go to the library to look up “red eye.” If a patient needed more than my inadequate knowledge in medical ophthalmology or required surgery, I would get on an Army plane with the patient and fly to Orleans, where there was an Army ophthalmologist who had just finished his residency.

Learning from adventures

Not liking the army, I traveled a lot. “Leave,” in the Army, for officers, was based on the Honor Code. My 30-day, allotted leave time grew to 110 days-interesting Honor Code system. I traveled all over France and visited Italy, Switzerland, Germany-including a ravaged East Berlin-Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. I lived in a small room in Army housing (BOQ). We ate on base and at the Officers’ Club in La Rochelle. Better food at the Officers’ Club. A scotch on the rocks was 50 cents. I heard regular Army officers talking and wishing for war. When I asked why, they said it was the best way to advance in rank.

 

My friends and I would eat at the French restaurants in town. La Rochelle was a seaside town, and the fish, shrimp, clams, mussels and oysters-all freshly caught-were delicious. The local wine, Muscadet, went well with fish. Other white and red I wines-from all over France-were listed. This was all new to me. The only wine I ever had before this was Manischewitz at Passover Seders.

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Being near Bordeaux, I went to the vineyards. In those years, one could visit all the cellars, unannounced, and talk to the chief winemaker (maître de chais). He would let us taste the wines in the barrels-Chateaux Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Cheval Blanc, Haut Brion-Samuel Pepys called it the Irish wine, O’Brian-Latour, Margaux, Petrus, and d’Yquem.

When visiting d’Yquem one time, I saw men wearing brightly colored ribbons with a silver cup (Tastevin) attached around their necks. I was told the group was called La Societe des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Years later, I was inducted into the Society.

On other trips, I meandered around the chateaux of the Loire and Burgundy. In Burgundy, I visited all the famous vineyards. Probably the most exalted of them all is the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. In the caves, the winemaster let my friend and I taste Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux, La Tache, Richebourg, and the great Romanée-Conti from 1959, 1960 and 1961. That’s 15 wines! When we left in my Peugeot 403, I knew I had had too much to drink. The car was weaving across the midline and back.

I went to Clos de Vougeot, the home base of Les Chevaliers du Tastevin. While there at a dinner to which I was graciously invited, we heard a dog bark and someone said: “Throw the dog a Beaune.”

I had learned to ski while at Dartmouth, and I skied on the slopes of the Pyrenees and Mont Blanc-all while on leave. I saw the 24-hour race at Le Mans, camping out and sleeping only 2 to 4 hours, adjacent to the track at night. In those days, visitors could walk on the track near the starting point before the race, seeing members of the press photograph the drivers with their beautiful women friends and wives. A Ferrari won.

 

One trip was to the Dordogne. I saw the original Lascaux cave, before they restricted its visitation due to mold growing on the wall paintings. I also visited Font de Gaume and Les Eyzies. They removed the rocks with the originals and replaced them with duplicates. I went back some years later and the duplicates are seen with brighter colors than the originals.

Treasured travel companions

I always traveled with two essential books in my Peugeot: one was the Michelin Guide and the other was Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France. Even a restaurant with no stars could be a delightful discovery-everything was homemade. (At present, “homemade” can be deceiving. Many restaurants now claim to have homemade foods, but the chef may open packaged products labeled as fresh or frozen.) The French government sends inspectors to those restaurants where the chef or owner verifies a homemade meal is prepared from scratch. At such establishments, the inspectors affix a sign in the window that states such. However, the government lacks the manpower to inspect these restaurants.

When eating at a 2- or 3-star Michelin restaurant, everything is fresh and the experience is ethereal. Over a period of 45 years, I have eaten at 23 restaurants rated with 3 stars. The best meal I ever had was at Joel Robechon’s first restaurant in Paris. He won his third star award at age 39, the youngest 3-star chef in the history of the Michelin Guide. Robechon closed the restaurant 3 years later because he said it was too hard to maintain perfection. He now has other restaurants around the world. Ask me about his mashed potatoes (1 pound of butter for every 2 pounds of potatoes). Memories.

 

In retrospect-even though Army life was not for me-going to France was a unique opportunity for a young man to gain perspective on the culture of Western Europe. With my 2-year “vacation” at an end, I was ready to focus on my future in ophthalmology.

 

 

Jules Baum, MD, is emeritus professor of ophthalmology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Readers may contact Dr. Baum at 212/222-1024 or juleslbaum@icloud.com.