“And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of leprosy: who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” Luke 5:12
1965 was the year I befriended a leper. My friend wouldn’t have liked that word very much. He would have preferred being called a
In the old days, which weren’t really that long ago, if you had Hansen’s Disease you would be hauled off and incarcerated at an abandoned sugar plantation in Louisiana along the banks of the Mississippi in Carville. You didn’t really get a choice. Everything you owned was seized and often destroyed by fire and you became essentially a non-person. Most likely you even changed your name to spare your family the grief of having once sheltered a leper. As for the individual unfortunate enough to be stricken, they just disappeared into the bowels of Carville to be attended to by a Catholic Sisterhood called the Daughters of Charity.
This is what happened to my friend. He was diagnosis with Hansen’s Disease, more popularly known as Leprosy. At the age of 31, Sidney Maurice Levyson ceased to exist and became Patient #746. He later took the pseudonym Stanley Stein.
He didn't take his misfortune lying down. He created a magazine specifically to try and educate the world about the truth of this disease. Some of the truths he campaigned about were that the disease was not as fearful as many believed from what they might have seen in Hollywood Epics. It was nowhere near so contagious as portrayed. Casual contact was not going to afflict you. There had to be a long time, close relationship before someone would pick it up from a patient.
Secondly, having Hansen’s Disease didn't mean your limbs and digits fell off. You may look at the photo at the start of this chapter and say, “But what about this woman? She appears to be missing her nose and why is her arm bandaged?” She probably rubbed her nose off trying to scratch it. Usually the patients injured parts of their extremities and face because the disease deadens the nerves and they can not feel pain. They may ignore a damaged body part until it requires removal or they can literally scratch away part of their skin.
Today, Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) is rather easily cured
In 1963 Stein wrote a book, “Alone No Longer: The Story of a Man Who refused to be One of the Living Dead!” I happened to read that book and took a great interest in “Mr. Stein”, so I wrote him a letter.
He was kind enough to respond. Thus we began a correspondence that lasted a while and I did subscribe to “The Star”.
Why my interest in Mr. Stein’s problem? Well, the word leper comes from the Latin for scaly.
I had for the most part ignored my psoriasis. I never made much effort to hide it, of course, at this point of my life it was pretty much in recession. It was to be a stroke of good luck, as we shall see shortly.
I waa not signing up for summer session at Temple, of course, because I lacked the funds to do so. I did write to Ed, who had left Atlantic at the beginning of the year to pursue college full time, that I was thinking of switching my major come fall. I was thinking of entering the science field. Socialization of wild beasts and their relationship to the behavioral scale of human evolution interested me or perhaps the chain of life, Deoxyribonucleic Acid.
Getting ready to abandon our first home was occupying a lot of our time. We were taking some things up to my parents for storage and we had ads out to sell our living room suite and the single bed in our guest room. At the same time, my dad bought him and mom a new car. I bought his old car and put mine up for sale. This was another Studebaker Lark, a 1963 model and it was white. The proceeds from the sale of my old Lark went to my dad, plus $40 a month.
In the outside world, President Johnson signed bills putting warnings on cigarettes. Up until this point ads often played up certain health benefits or downplayed any risks to smoking. Now they had to tell the world that “The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.” The tobacco companies fought this labeling for a while, but they lost.
I had been to the Bob Dylan and Joan Baez concert at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall in March of the year. He was still loved by the folkies at that point.
At that time the Convention Center was located in University City, just off 34th street on Civic Center Boulevard not far from University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field. It was built in 1931 and originally known as The Municipal Auditorium. It was torn down in 2005. Philadelphia built a new convention center in center city, basically destroying history to make way for it in 1993. They tore down Chinatown and built the new Pennsylvania Convention Center basically over 11, 12 and 13 Streets and Arch and Race. We’ll talk about that area later.
As August began we moved the rest of our things from Fahnestock Road. On the Second we made settlement on the house. That night we ate at my parents and then slept on the floor of the empty house, our last night there. The next day our address was officially in Drexel Hill. This would prove to be a great mistake, but it shows our naïve. We might have been 24 years old, but in many ways we were still children. Just as I had not known there were alternate ways to get a college education, we didn’t think we could afford to rent a place to live, and we certainly couldn’t buy a new house. We were fortunate enough to only lose a little bit on our sale after paying off the mortgage and the Realtor’s commission. We sold the house for essentially what we paid for it 4 years earlier. We thought our only choice was moving in with Lois’ father.
The first months sharing his house went by fairly well.
On October 18 the man who brought me into the world and later removed my appendix and my tonsils from it died. Dr. Thomas Parke, I always saw him as this old man, with his white hair and mustaches, but he was only 64 when he died. That means he was 41 when I was born and only in his mid-fifties when we left Downingtown. Hardly an old man at all.
Lois went to some different doctor a couple weeks afterward; I mean she had to, Dr. Parke was now buried in a small Chester County Friends Meetinghouse graveyard. He was Quaker. Lois was having another sick spell. No, she wasn’t pregnant. She was having a gallbladder attack. The doctor placed her on a strict diet. A month later she went into Delaware County Hospital and they snipped out the offending organ full of stones.
Back on August 26, President Johnson had rescinded the married man exception that President Kennedy and had put into place. Like Pharaoh’s refrain in “The Ten Commandments”, “Let it be said; so let it be written” and a couple weeks later I opened mail beginning “Greeting from Uncle Sam”.
I had thought about joining the Army right out of high school at the urging of my friend, Ronald Tipton, buy my parents nixed that idea, and I can say I felt relieved that they did. Now, though, I had no choice and I was too old for my parents to have any say in the matter. Uncle Sam wanted me and I guess he was going to get me. I took inventory of my physical situation, looking for a loophole, but other than my poor eyesight, I could come up with nothing. This was bad news because I knew exactly where I was headed, some little South Asian country called Viet Nam, which essentially was having a civil war.
They herded us onto a bus at 5:00 AM. As we huddled there in the morning chill, it was late November, these ladies from the Gideon’s handed each of us a pocket sized version of The New Testament (King James Version). I climbed aboard thinking, “A Bible? Are they going to ship us right out?” This was given out in good faith, but it seemed like an omen of death to me.
The day is a bit of a blur things happened so quickly, apparently unusual for the Service. We went through a fairly crowded entryway directly into a long room, sort of boxcar shaped, with a long bench built into the wall on each side. We were followed in by a tall Army Sargent, build square, if you know what I mean. He asked us to sit down on the benches. Actually he didn’t exactly ask. He said, “SIT! DOWN! NOW!” He then began to pace up and down between the two rows of us giving instructions, none of which I remember, but at the time seemed very important things to obey fully, if we could only have understood him. He spoke in that odd military cadence where every word is its own sentence and every sentence ended with an explanation point. He did not take questions.
The next thing I recall was standing in a long snake line of undershorts-clad men winding our way through this large room. Every so often we would stop before somebody in a white jacket who would perform a singular task. They were not what you would call thorough. At one of the first stations the white coated guy asked me my name. I gave it and he said, “Hearing perfect,” and he put a tick mark down on this clip boarded sheet of paper. The clipboard somehow followed me along.
At the next station white jacket number 2 stood looking down at the clipboard. “You see that eyechart on the wall?” (He never, even looked up.)
“Passed, next.” Another tick mark on the clipboard and I moved on, knowing there went my one hope, bad eyesight. I think everybody had perfect eyesight unless they showed up with a white cane and seeing eye dog, and even then it was a squeaker.
And so it went and I was sailing through with one tick mark after another. I was doomed, I could see the waiting tiger cage all ready. Then finally a group of us at the front end of the snake were cut off and guided into a small room and the door was shut behind us. There were about a dozen of us, all shapes and sizes standing nervously being gazed at by perhaps a half-dozen white-coated guys, each with a clipboard and a couple nurses just sort of observing.
One of them old us to walk back and forth across the room. We did and came to a stop. We were then told to remove our underpants. So the dozen of us stood there, fidgety, in our all-together being looked at closely by these white-jacketed people in the room. You talk about feeling like a specimen. Question, where do I put my hands?
We are ordered to walk up and down again and then we are told to bend over and grab hold of our ankles while these guys with the clipboards, and the advantage of being fully clothed plus white jackets, do the walk back and forth behind us. Good thing that picture isn’t popping up on Facebook. Even more humiliation followed as we were now commanded to waddle back and forth across the room like a flock of ducks.
Don’t think twice, boys, about
Don’t think twice, boys, about
Waddling across this floor
Bent over bare-assed.
It’s a hut, hut, quack, quack, quack.
“Duck Walk Blues”
From Life Ate Our Homework
By Stuart R. Meisel & Larry Eugene Meredith
Copyright 2005 by the Authors
At the end of this display we all stood at attention as a straight line down the center of the room and the white-coats again walked about us. Suddenly one tapped me on the back.
“What’s this on your shoulder?” he asked.
I had no idea what he was talking about. I was unaware of there being anything on my shoulder. He scribbled something on the paper on the clipboard, we were allowed then to retrieve our underpants and dismissed from the room as they hustled another group of victims in. The physical portion of the examination was over. We were now on lunch break.
I didn’t know where to go. I found some food somewhere in that building and kind of wandered about nibbling. There was a young Black man in the center of several other men. They were all listening to him. I won’t use his various adjectives, so this is a paraphrase.
“Yessir, I’ve had it, man, with everybody telling me what to do. Had it with my parents, with my teachers, I’m sick of being bossed around. That’s why I joined the Marines!”
I’m sure nobody at the Marines will tell you what to do, son.
When lunch was over I was sent into a classroom. I sat down at a desk, one of those school types with a writing surface semi surrounding you. They passed out a booklet of questions we were to answer. Most of these were simple. Their might be a picture of a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver and an apple. The question was which of these doesn’t belong. I think Cooney and Morrisett got their inspiration for Sesame Street from the Selective Service Mental Test.
Although I thought the questions were rudimentary, those around me kept trying to cheat. They either craned their necks to peek at my answers, which I kept covered up with my one palm, or they flatly whisper, “Hey what’s this?”
After the written exam everybody assembled in another huge room. It was like waiting for jury duty, sitting there waiting for you name to be called. Mine finally was. I walked up to the front to a person behind a large desk. They told me to go down the hall to I saw this officer at a desk and he would explain my situation.
I went out and down a long hall that echoed my footsteps and there tucked back in a nook was the Army Officer. He bid me sit on the lone chair before the desk.
“Mr. Meredith,” he said gently, I want to you to know you did extremely well in the mental test. However, you have been classified as 1-F.”
“Oh, and what pray tell is that?”
“Oh, how come?”
“You may be in a situation and have to itch. If you should it may give away your platoon’s location to the enemy. We can’t take such a change.”
Okay, I am thinking, Viet Nam is a warm place. Psoriasis usually flares up in the cold, not the hot, but who am I to argue.
“1-F,” he went on, “means you are fit to serve , but have a condition exempting you from such service, unless circumstances would get to a point we would need you.”
Right, if you have to scrap the bottom of the barrel, then I’m your scraping.
“And, Mr. Meredith, you also have a bit of hypertension.