The Dean of my med school was a woman, I’m pretty sure. But the details were clouded by all the flash appearances and disappearances, overlapping fade-ins and fade-outs of faceless characters, fleeting flashbacks, and loops, stroboscopic, special-effected like a cable TV new-age documentary or a TV commercial for some geriatric medicine with seniors waltzing in slow motion. And it happened last night, towards dawn. Looking back, my brain is a little less muddled but the story is even fuzzier. It wasn’t clear whether I, when made King, was a medical student – that was 70 years ago – or middle aged, – that would have been several decades ago – but that I wasn’t my present advanced age seemed more certain in a hazy way. But I’m pretty sure that it was a she, a faceless she, who somehow arranged for me to be King of Norway.
That I would be, and already was, King of Norway emerged as the one stable thing. It seemed to be a done deal, the leitmotif of the story. My kingship was not the question. But by the same token I was also somehow distantly aware of questions, they seemed to be my own, in the background like muted muzak or a ghostly voice in the wings. Shouldn’t there have been some sort of official notification from Oslo, a delegation of officials, probably all faceless and nameless men in tuxedos at least shaking my hand?
My kingship was not in question, but that's absurd. I have no business being a king. Sure, I was top in my med school class, but that would qualify me for honors and membership in an academic honor society, a sort of royal society even in royalty-free America, perhaps the Alpha Omega Alpha, but not the Norwegian crown.
Also, I’m not Norwegian. Not a Norwegian gene in my genome. About 5’8”, I’m not tall like a Norwegian. I don’t even ski. Never have, not once. I was born and raised in North Hollywood in the days when we could see beyond the Hollywood hills the searchlights raking the night skies celebrating the premier of another movie starring Clark Gable, undisputed King of Hollywood. Hollywood is never without a King and multiple pretenders. The Queen was Sonja Henie, as Norwegian as they come.
But my wife is Norwegian – half Norwegian and half Danish. But she was born and raised in Denmark. Danish is her native tongue. But now, after having came to California to learn better English, work for a year or two, and then return to Denmark, she married me and stayed here, with me. After over 50 years she speaks American-English flawlessly but with a residual faint but unmistakable Danish, or generic European, Accent. She still speaks Danish when she can find fellow Danes to converse with, but English is what she speaks in dreams and checkout lines. Even with her Norwegian connections she wouldn’t have engineered my elevation. She keeps a pretty low profile on just about everything, day and night. Danes, if not Norwegians, are famously phlegmatic.
Later that morning, after wrestling myself awake, I confirmed from Google that Norway does still have a King and Queen. The Queen’s name is Sonja. Now that’s exactly – I’m not making this up -- my wife’s name, even to the spelling.
My Sonja didn’t seem to know about Queen Sonja. Being culturally Danish, she follows Danish royalty like millennials follow Miley Cyrus, and knows what the current Danish Queen’s name is –Margrethe. In Norwegian royalty she has only passing interest.
Last night as we were in bed, I descending into murkiness, my Sonja was awake with her iPad in hand making her nightly rounds of online Danish newspapers, Greek to me. In these she had learned, as she this morning reported, that the Danish Prince Consort, a Frenchman named Henrix, age 83, who had been for a year certified as demented, a status that ramped up his famous lifelong pique of not having been elevated to King Consort, died yesterday. “His job is open,” she informed me this morning. “But,” I replied, I’m not a Consort, I’m The King, and furthermore the King of Norway, not Denmark. And you’re my Queen, Queen Sonja!” A good 6’3” tall am I, clad in a uniform, probably naval, duly but not unseemly sashed, epauleted, beribboned and bemedaled. A crown would be anticlimactic.
I assumed that she hadn’t heard a word of the Norwegian King business. As I was telling the good part while fixed upon myself in the mirror shaving, she was heading towards the kitchen and her regal ritual of squeezing my morning navel orange juice, a royal treat indeed. Over the roaring juicer she shouted, “How was you night? Any more strange dreams?”
“No. Well, yes.” I acknowledged, “I did have a strange experience, I'm not ready to dismiss it as a mere dream, in which I was a young med student age 19 or 20.” Yet, when we went to bed last night I was legally, undeniably, certifiably 89. My med student days were so long ago, about 70 years ago when I was an honest 5’10,” that the Dean, they were all men in those days and had faces, hadn’t heard of the Alpha Omega Alpha Society. It probably hadn't been born yet. An AOA certificate to hang behind my office desk never crowned my office, my lifelong pique. But on my regal uniform one of the medals, a special one on a ribbon and hanging around my neck like the iron cross, is emblazoned with the AOA logo.
A pretty surrealistic story that somehow prompted me to remember that tonight will be my med school class’s reunion – the 65th. My wife will be laying out my clothes so that she’s sure I’m presentable, a practice she instinctively started long ago. “I would have put out your fanciest King-of-Norway dress uniform but I thought it too pretentious for a class reunion,” she announced playfully. “You’re actually wearing Dockers dark pants that I just got back from the cleaners and a Norwegian patterned pullover sweater.”
Our sixty fifth medical school class reunion is happening at the usual time, 6:00 p.m., the only similarity to previous ones. It should be our last.
All sixteen surviving class members are in their 90s, except me. Close enough. I’m a year shy of nonagenariancy. If the whole class of 100 were living the average age would be 100. The oldest would be 110. That’s because our class, the class of ’53 (we actually graduated in 1952 but in those days diplomas were not awarded until after internship), was the first to be demographically so strikingly skewed by the horde of returning veterans of WWII, creating a distinct generation gap. They had been non-coms, sergeants and the like. Having been used to commanding and being commanded, this battle-hardened mature generation was promoted in med school to the higher ranks and took over all class offices. I used to draw cartoons of our sergeants as goose-stepping field marshals. But time has passed and almost to a man, and woman (one crusty old army nurse who may have been the only actual officer), the old soldiers have fallen. Taps has sounded for most of them. Will any materialize tonight?
It is more likely that the 4-5 of us who as freshmen were 25 or younger (at 19 I was the youngest) will be there. Young then, not now. And none of us, me included, have been immune to age-related issues, as young doctors delicately put it nowadays. We said “complaints.”
Our medical school has changed even more than we have, if possible. Sixty five years ago we graduated from the College of Medical Evangelists (CME), a name that to me, all out academically oriented, was a bit embarrassing. But the name, and so much else, has changed. A small campus hard against oceans of orange groves in our day, it has become a burgeoning university composed of schools of medicine, public health, tropical medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing, even religion, plus affiliated technologies, with nearly 5000 students. It’s not yet a liberal arts institution, except for religion, which is liberal with a bang. Being thoroughly academically and humanistically oriented, the school of religion seems embarrassed that there ever was a College of Medical Evangelists. An old grad, I’ve come around to being biased towards the old CME, increasingly unembarrassed by its name, even proud of it, and proud of the several of my classmates who spent much or all of their careers of medical-evangelism in small mission stations in jungles.
After two years of excavation of a 4-story deep hole in the earth and installation of huge springs and rocking devices against earthquakes, the double thickness steel skeleton of the new flagship all-glass new 1.8 billion-dollar hospital is beginning to emerge, to loom over half the state in 2020 if the schedule can be followed. That monumental structure will join the present 3-tower 5-story hospital which will remain as an office building to accommodate the army of development officers and VPs and more, the children’s hospital, the research building, and a sixty-million-dollar basic sciences building, and many more scattered like strip malls all over town. Not an orange tree in sight and hardly a parking spot.
Our 50th reunion was a banner event. I estimated that at least 75 of the class of ‘53 came, distinguished now by gray hair and Olympic-style minted medals around our necks, presented by the Alumni Association. All together about 150 people were there, including our spouses and offspring and a few local news reporters and several photographers. The Association, keenly aware that a gray-haired 50th anniversary class is peculiarly susceptible to calls to donate living wills and trusts, sent a nice lady “development officer” to make the plea, and, while we ate a catered meal, to provide entertainment, background piano music. The first class president – an aging army medic veteran of D day and still going pretty strong – officiated. It proved to be the last reunion he would ever attend.
The big event was held at a spacious home perched on the crest of the hill that shelters the university. Owned by a jolly roly-poly classmate, one of us class youngsters, she is famous not only for her mansion but also her roly-poly humor that never fails to crack up her table or to lay an audience in the isles with helpless belly laughs. She was the life of the lively, laughing, even raucous 50th party.
Although all subsequent reunions have been held at the hilarious lady’s cavernous home on the hill, they have been increasingly sparsely attended and anticlimactic if cozier. The dear old sergeant who had served as class president for 50 years had died, as had almost all the old noncom class officers. Into this void marched my old roommate, giving a cartoon salute and taking over at all reunions since the 50th as organizer, host, MC, and chairman and one-man government. At last our generation had taken over.
2-3 of us who hadn’t served our country before med school were later drafted as officers, outranking our class officers but hardly equaling them for military esprit or harrowing experiences. Inducted while interning, I was a captain in the army medical corps at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The commanding general came to work in uniform and huaraches. My roommate was lieutenant in the navy. Stationed in San Diego he spent a lot a time at the famous zoo. The ex-naval lieutenant has officiated by a sort of pidgin Robert’s Rules as evolved by non-military doctors who find themselves committee chairmen, in his casual famous wry and droll style, good for scattered grins, not guffaws or smart salutes.
Well, in the last couple of years our MC’s style has been more droning than droll and more dry than wry, and the jovial lady’s anecdotes have been increasingly rare and abbreviated and lacking the old pizzazz. Three months ago she moved into the local Assisted Care and Memory Management Unit. Her mansion is up for sale. Who should be her next door neighbor at Assisted Care but my old roommate and his wife, diabetic and disabled. I was best man at their wedding. For them time has looped back to dorm days, when all of us singles, young and frisky then, lived together. For me and my wife, time had repossessed our 5 acre modern house in Ohio and sent us to California and a smallish HOA-assisted retirement house.
When I learned that the big house on the hill was for sale and its owner and my organizer roommate had both moved into Assisted Care, I fatuously predicted that our 65th reunion would be at the Assisted Care unit. In the Dining Room. It turned out that I was unwittingly prophetic rather than whimsical. For that’s exactly where it was actually held, at Assisted Care!
And that was just the beginning of far-fetched firsts. It turned out that the class of ‘53 didn’t have its 65th reunion in the Dining Room as I had figured, but in the Executive Conference Room, as the guests of the Assisted Care Villa yet. The class had footed the bill for our 50th. Each of us had forked over $50 to the gruff old army nurse for a bounteous catered vegetarian smorgasbord. But Assisted Care sponsored our 65th festivity and picked up the tab. The house gourmet geriatrics chef concocted uncharacteristically edible food characteristically skimpy and salt- and sugar-free. Plus each of us was given a gift-sack of goodies of our era such as Uno Bars and Crackerjacks. What, no Camel cigarettes for WWII vets?
My roommate, soldiering on as host, calls our 65th to order. “Do I hear a motion?” “So move.” I believe I said that. “Second?” None is heard. If our 50th was as noisy as New Year’s Eve, our 65th is as silent as Silent Night. Not much is heard from anybody all evening.
For one thing, we’re all deaf. I had prided myself on being not only the youngest but the deafest. But my dear friends are all stone deaf, deafer than I? Or are they just too vain or forgetful to stuff their ears with hearing aids. Not me, I tout my bionic ears, shoutingly tout them. Magic Ear but not miraculous. It’s disappointing that hearing aids amplify sound but can’t decode speech, thus opening a cornucopia of humor that only us deafies can catch. I recite my prize example, “I bought cat food” coming out “…got tattooed.” But my dear classmates just sit there looking vacant, oblivious to my humor.
Some unassisted ears try to wing it. That may not fly well. “How are you?” “Five. Three boys and two girls,” and out comes the dog-eared photographs.
That not a single classmate noted the 5 conspicuous Band-Aids on my face where a dermatologist had plied his specialty can’t be blamed on deafness. Nonagenarians are famously deaf but also for being dull or disoriented, or all three. MDs, that’s us, seldom can make a definitive diagnosis and instead offer, with a flourish, a list of differential diagnoses, take your choice. Using the Victorian-era method of only observation (inspection, palpitation, auscultation, percussion), still enthusiastically taught to us by Vienna-trained virtuosos, the toughest differential is between deafness and Alzheimer’s. Both kinds of patients, that’s us, show the same dumb look. To ascertain the exact diagnosis, ignore mere inspection and auscultation whether by hearing aids or stethoscope, and go straight for a CAT scan. Then it is demonstrated that more often than not the DD (differential diagnosis) isn’t tough after all; the same person has both. That’s us?
The jocund lady, coiffured in burgeoning curly distinctly pink hair or wig (she has survived lymphoma and chemotherapy, as she once heartily informed us), is ensconced in a Tesla wheelchair. She won’t utter a syllable all evening, or laugh, or smile. Her mouth is frozen half open, frozen. The dear girl!
Somebody ought to take over as chuckle-master. Shall I step to bat? Since school days I’ve considered myself a gentle curmudgeon and sardonic in a subliminal or crushing sort of way, evoking not even grins but confused or disapproving frowns. Nobody can tell whether I’m serious or not. I considered playing the stand-up comedian and telling the screamer about the 65th anniversary that was held in an Assisted Care Unit. I forbore.
My age group is famous for being subject to no end of maladies from halitosis to deafness and dullness to terminal cancer, and everything known to Dorland’s Medical Dictionary in between. Assisted Care hadn’t included name tags with its goodies, so when I encountered one of the older classmates I hadn’t seen for 65 years, I figured he couldn’t possibly recognize me, now so wrinkled and gray bearded. With a shout (like as I did as a kid intern at a huge county hospital 65 years ago – “HEY POP!” –), I introduce myself. Without turning his head to look at me, he replies quite audibly, “I recognize you. Don’t shout!” So at least one of us, perhaps the oldest in the room, still has good ears and good perceptive powers, but is croaky of voice, like all the rest of us. As for not turning his head maybe my old friend has cervical ankylosis, poor old fellow. That’s not a common geriatric malady but it seems epidemic in our class.
Sitting right next to my dear unvarying-voiced roommate MC, I figured I was hearing him as well as possible. “The first order of business,” he said, “is to give our annual report on who couldn’t make it to the reunion this year because they died. I’ve heard of three. All in favor?” I remember back when reports and gossip were about who went into psychiatry and Esther, the class bimbo, into neurosurgery, and difficult patients, and a daughter just starting medicine or was it the ministry or a car rental; divorces and baldness. Later it was of strokes, insomnia and obstipation and horrendous uninsured dental bills, second wives, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Now, deaths.
Actually the event was better attended than I expected. Seven of the 16 survivors (make that 13), materialized. All of us youngsters came plus an token aliquot of the residuum of the ancient oldsters. All together, about 25 people, the majority being widows.
“The next order of business,” murmured the chairman, “is to congratulate Wes on being the King of Norway and he finally got his AOA medal.” I learned later from my wife he had really said “….spring nosegay….” She hadn’t caught the rest.
I am more certain that our host didn’t express the appreciation of the Class of ‘53, or is it ’52, to Assisted Care for its hospitality as he would have at our 50th, with the beaming class responding with a standing ovation. That’s the way we were; that’s not the way we are. But that’s OK. An Assisted Care Center assisting us with token largess as well as enemas is not any more out of order than the Alumni Association providing an opportunity to donate living trusts with our-era jazz background music, or pharmaceutical reps slipping us trinkets. I realize that Assisted Care facility occupant turnover is as rapid as in battle. Let us eat our salt-free spam and sugar-free cola for tomorrow we die. A steady supply of new customers is necessary to keep the place going. And we nonagenarians are as prime potential clients for dying there as for donating living trusts. But there was no such motion of gratitude and no seconds to the motion that wasn’t made. Likewise, nobody from the Alumni Association showed up to pump us for donations. No background music. No photographers. We were left to rest in peace.
As for entertainment, a copy of the nice spiral-bound book of memories prepared by our class for our 50th anniversary, is passed around. I’d been studying my copy for 15 years and had just reviewed it to refresh my memory of names, but just to appear loyal I start a perfunctory scanning of the book, and then, only then did I notice the little item about the famous first anatomy test and how we’d all flunked. The highest grade was 14%, the item said. Hey, that’s way wrong! The highest was 32%. I know because I got it. The grades had been made known by individual report cards in our personal mail boxes rather than by posted listing. So when I saw mine I figured 32% had to be the lowest in the class, and was on my way back to the dorm to call my dad to come and get me – I’d just flunked medicine. On the way I encountered the rest of my classmates bemoaning their grades, 6, 12%, 14%. I sighed with relief, but for some reason didn’t proclaim that my score was more than 100% higher than the next. Oh well, I’m keeping my being king of Norway a secret too.
But now our chairman is in the process of declaring the 65th reunion of the CME class of '53 over and ended, history. I expected him to entertain a motion that this be our last reunion and that no plans for any future events be made now or ever until we all 100 of us meet again in heaven where Christ Himself will be our host, and there will be no deafness and the memory of our griefs, only those memories, will surely fade, and we doctors will be out of business. I would second that motion con brio. But instead I hear my old friend say, “I would like to entertain a motion that next year, our 66th reunion be held right here at Assisted Care. Do I hear a motion?” I ratchet myself up and croak, “so move, so to say, but in the Dining Room.” I hear no seconds.
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