Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rage Against the Pharmachine: Drug Dynasty, Part 1 of 2

Drugs sure are funny critters, aren't they?  Scummy folks, in lieu of any other tangible reason to live, risk their lives and the lives of others by running illegal varieties across U.S. borders every day and every night on behalf of far scummier people who bask in the profits of destroyed lives and death.  Border agents do their best to keep the pathway narrow, of course, but shackled as they are by Washington hacks (many of whose lives are probably infested with drugs when they make vital national decisions) and regulations friendly only to drug runners and illegal aliens, the welcome mat for criminal activity hasn't budged much.

Me, I never tried marijuana in any form, nor sampled the other illicit drugs.  I tend to believe life is horrible enough, and we should just tolerate it the way nature intended in order to get that truthful hit of, you know, absolute emotional misery.  But drugs?  That's not to say I could avoid illegal drugs..  I served in the Air Force during the Vietnam Era, when it was common to find pretty much any drug you wanted, either on or off base.  We, the medical corpsmen (or corpse men, in President Obama's words, bordering upon illiteracy) worked in hospitals, and off-base drug parties among some medical personnel were not uncommon -- not that I could blame them, because they really needed escape from the human agony and stress encountered every day, thanks in no small part to LBJ's ongoing indecisive self-panic regarding the seemingly endless Southeast Asian conflict. 

One of my roommates, "busted" off base for drugs, was hospitalized for a while and then kicked out of the Air Force.  To this day, I'm not altogether sure he didn't want it that way all along.  Remember, these were years when the military draft was in effect, and -- unlike the wonderful, dedicated military members whom today enlist of their own accord -- a good many servicemen weren't exactly serving because we were patriots, we were there to avoid draft-dodger prison sentences.  The vast majority performed assigned duties expertly.

But just because I never indulged in illegal drugs doesn't mean I wasn't addicted to a medication.  My final 15 months of service occurred at an Air Force base hospital where I was the one and only medical person trained in a particular specialty -- physical therapy -- and I operated my own clinic, and my entire chain of command was the chief of surgery, followed by the hospital commander.   Their first impression of me may have been lacking, because the very day I breezed into town, outside the base I got a speeding ticket from a local cop (I contend this was only because my car had NY plates and this was Georgia, no fan of northerners. . .), and though I paid a fine right away there was still a chance that the entire chain of command would be called into court.  As if.  Didn't happen, seems physicians were needed at the hospital more than at some kangaroo court of the deep South.  Not to digress. . .

At some point I developed a nasty cold or viral infection, and after days of illness ended up with an overbearing cough.  By then, I knew all the hospital physicians and routinely treated patients referred by each, so it was no trouble to get a prescription -- in these less-regulated times -- for anything I wanted.  So, I needed something for the cough, and a script for a brand-name cough syrup containing codeine was provided.  Oh yeah, that stuff did the trick.  The syrup, brown like Coca Cola, curbed the cough until I didn't care about the cough anymore -- but I cared about the codeine in the syrup.  A lot.   That was some pretty decent cough syrup.  So decent, in fact, that I went from hospital doctor to doctor, none knowing of my similar requests of their colleagues, for extra prescriptions.  For a few weeks I downed a fair amount of "cough syrup" both on and off duty and achieved a bit of very nice tranquility.  The mild addiction was brief and I eventually knew enough to extract myself (and my precious liver) from its joys, but I entertained a better appreciation for harmless medication addictions gone wild.

That was a lesson I should have learned during a duty assignment at another Air Force base, when a pharmacy specialist airman (and friend) who filled a prescription for me replied, when I asked if a particular medication was "good" for me, "Bob, none of the stuff in this room is good for you."  I knew what he meant right away.  Wrong word, good.  He was always witty and intellectual and right to the point -- and, not too much to my surprise, in later years I discovered that he held a high position with a U.S. government cabinet-level department..  Apparently, his talents extended far beyond an occasion where, despite my protests, he easily picked two locks on my locked briefcase in less than one minute.  Maybe in less than 30 seconds.

Though not having much interaction with the hospital pharmacy at my final USAF base, I did make some very basic observations.  First, the staff displayed a large jar in which was deposited one each of every pill in stock, and even in 1971 that glass jar, stuffed with capsules and pills of all shapes, sizes and hues, reflected rainbow colors like a kaleidoscope.  Why so many pills in the world?  What's the cost and who makes the money?

Second, I frequently witnessed the arrival of what I almost assumed were fashion models, a never-ending cavalcade of impeccably attired young men, routinely making their way to either the pharmacy, physicians' offices or administrative areas.  These, I was to learn from folks who knew, were the pushers -- the sales people representing various drug companies.  And they brought presents -- not only medication samples, but little forget-me-not gifts such as pens, posters suitable for framing, paperweights and the like.  Things to keep visits and drugs fresh in the minds of those with the power to purchase and prescribe medications.  I still have a series of artists' adventure scene posters -- given to me by the chief of surgery (my boss), who received them from a salesman, and probably would have thrown them out otherwise because such "gifts" materialized constantly.

More?  Okay.  As my final Air Force weeks wound down in 1972, I started collecting my own personal pharmacy to take into civilian life.  Just in case.  Just in case.  It wasn't difficult.  I simply visited the emergency room up the hall from my clinic and grabbed whatever I desired from the medicine cabinet (yes, life was so carefree back then. . .) with the approval -- make that nonchalance -- of fellow corpsmen who were counting their own days until exit.  By this time the military was really cracking down on illegal drugs, but nobody was really watching the legal medication treasure chest.

When my discharge day arrived at last, I had already packed up my personal belongings, and at customary Air Force expense they were shipped back home by a major moving company.  Among several cardboard boxes of stuff accumulated over four years of service  -- and, fortunately, not searched for by them -- was, I guess you could call it, a generous pirate's booty of Darvon, Librium, Valium, Compazine and a wealth of enough other bottled goodies to make a street corner drug fiend lapse into ecstasy.  Just in case.

Alas, there really is no exciting climax to this story.  My ill-gotten collection of colorful capsules and pills remained concealed and safe for a few years, untouched.  Just in case never came, but I stayed ready, just in case.  I nearly forgot about them, but one day I simply gathered the tokens of just in case together and threw them out, no longer even sure why I shipped them home (over multiple and  forbidden state lines, yet, wha-hoooooo!).

Okay, so much for my personal tour of memory lane's "drug dynasty."  Next time, we'll fast-forward to the future.  The pharmaco-now.