The Inspector

In 1957 I was a Senior Air Force Medical and Surgical Technician at Lackland Air Force Base. That is the year the Air Force dedicated Wilford Hall Medical Facility, the newest “crown jewel “military medical hospital. The nine-story building was quickly dubbed, “Big Willie.” A couple of months before the opening there was a contest of which I had no knowledge or participation. Then, one day Doctor (Major) Ferris Cook rushed to me and announced, “Alex, we got it.” That kind of announcement from a doctor prompts a quick explanation or diagnosis, so I asked, “Doc, is ‘it’ curable, contagious, or life threatening?”  He admitted that there had been a contest among department directors to occupy the special space on the first floor reserved for a clinic and ward. Doctor Cook said the urology clinic and ward were selected, and that I was chosen as the Ward Master.

Ward B-1 became the showplace for visitors. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force made his visit there, national medical and academic notables came, and Bob Hope even reclined on one of the fancy beds that could be electronically configured into multiple positions for patient comfort.  

Each Friday, between the hours of 0800 – 0930, a designated medical officer or the hospital Executive Officer conducted an inspection of each ward and medical clinic.  As the inspector approached the door of the ward, I came to attention; saluted and announced,” Sir, I’m Sergeant Alexander, the Ward Master, reporting that Ward B-1 is ready for inspection.”  I then followed the officer to note his findings.                          

One Friday at approximately 1000 hours, the patients, who had been told to keep their areas uncluttered for the inspection, complained of the wait for the inspector.  So, Staff Sergeant Alexander marched down to the office of Colonel Johnson, the Executive Officer, and initiated this dialogue:                                                                                        

Sgt:  Sir, when do you plan to inspect Ward B-1? 

Col: Alex, I have inspected your ward.

Sgt: Sir, I didn’t greet and report to you, so as far as I’m concerned, there was no inspection.

Col:  Alex, I told you I inspected your ward, but if you insist, follow me.

Colonel Johnson marched forthrightly down the hallway of Ward B-1 – without turning his head to the left or right. I interpreted that as the worst inspection I had ever seen, and I protested.  “Sir, you maintained clear focus straight ahead, without giving any attention to the rooms or offices.” Colonel Johnson looked at me and said: “Alex, I told you I already inspected this ward; now you can go and pick up that paper under the sink in the utility room and empty the trash basket by the bedside stand in room three.”  I went and removed the paper and emptied the trash basket.      

Four years later, after I had cross-trained from medicine to journalism, I visited March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. On such visits to other bases, I routinely visited the hospital to say hello to old medical colleagues who might still be in uniform.                

Upon entering the hospital at March AFB, the directory listed the Executive Officer as a Colonel Johnson. I went directly to his office. He was on the telephone. Even though his back was to the door, I recognized him, and I asked his secretary to let me announce myself.

When his telephone call ended, and before he turned to face me, I asked, in a loud voice, “Colonel Johnson, when do you plan to inspect Ward B-1?”  Without turning, he replied: “Alex, I told you, I already inspected that ward.” Then the laughing and hugging began. And, I offered my very belated apology.

(“Alex” – now James Edward Alexander, Esq., retired from the United States Air Force in 1971, and currently lives in Bluffton, SC.)

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