“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Hungarian Goulash
I reported for duty in Salzburg the first week of October, 1950, to the American consul, William Affeld, having been warned in Paris of problems in the U.S. Public Health Service office here. But never could one have imagined the remarkable experience in store. From the moment I arrived, the acting medical officer in charge, Dr. S., was having none of it. No way, she thought, was I going to be the MOC. That high office was her baby. I was a usurper. She set out to make my life miserable.
I learned that Dr. S. had earlier developed a liaison with a consular clerk and that this had been consummated by their marriage on a trip back to the States. Through the clerk’s influential relative, Secretary of State James Byrnes, a special Act of Congress gave Dr. S. U.S. citizenship during their short visit stateside, and, absent a needed Public Health Service officer in Salzburg, she was reassigned as Acting MOC, USPHS.
I was also advised by officials in Paris before I left, and on arrival at the consulate in Salzburg, that they suspected collusion between this ambitious and headstrong woman, hired on contract by the USPHS, and her husband in the consular office, the chap with the high State Department connections. The couple’s ostentatious lifestyle in postwar Austria, along with complaints about her work from the chief quarantine officer at the Port of New York, brought suspicion on the whole Salzburg quarantine operation. Displaced persons who failed to meet medical criteria were being issued visas and arriving in New York harbor, causing many problems for our government.
From the day I arrived, of course, there would be no more medical shenanigans. I reviewed all medical forms in process, examined a sample of recent visa applications, studied a sample of chest X-rays, and consulted with the Paris office on issues of borderline classifications and eligibility. The medical issues were fundamentally due to the immigration program having reached the “dregs” of the eligible displaced persons (DPs). Five years after the war, we were dealing mainly with people remaining in camps because of active pulmonary tuberculosis or mental, psychological, or “political” disabilities.
The U.S. Displaced Persons Immigration Act was, nevertheless, humanitarian in its intent. Our country was willing to take people who had few occupational skills, in contrast to the Canadians, Swedes, and Australians, who screened and accepted only the cream of the worker or intellectual crop. Furthermore, a practical medical quarantine policy for this high-risk population had been worked out pragmatically, by trial and error. It was decided, for example, that two years of apparent stability of chest X-ray findings, with consolidation of tuberculous infiltrates and scarring, plus negative cultures of sputa and stomach washings, would allow an applicant to be classified as chronic pulmonary fibrosis rather than as arrested pulmonary tuberculosis, and then to be issued a visa.
Despite such objective criteria, it was quite possible to fudge on that crucial distinction between active pulmonary tuberculosis and chronic fibrosis. The concern was that there had been tampering with both medical and diplomatic aspects of the visa applications, and suspicion even that bribes may have been involved. Suspicion arose also because of the personalities of the consular couple, the deviousness of the clerk and the imperiousness of the physician, as well as from the fact that they lived in a veritable chateau, had large cars and personal drivers, and lived in a high style apparently beyond the means of their modest government salaries.
It was not my job to investigate their possible wrongdoing but simply to supervise the visa exams and Dr. S. Once I took over the review of cases, I would presumably interfere with any profitable scam. At the very least, my commissioned officer status and MOC title reduced her prestige and power.
The battle began right away when she refused to give up her desk and large office. I simply put a desk for myself into her office, making it a common one. Though she could not prevent my review of all cases or my writing opinions, she could use subtle and devious methods to make life unpleasant for me. And this she did at every opportunity.
I learned from staff, who held no respect or affection for her, that when I was out of the office on inspection tours to DP camps or other consulates, Dr. S would read my mail through X-ray viewers or actually steam open the envelopes. I learned further that she had engaged a private investigator to follow me, the young uniformed, not-yet-married officer, on my frequent trips to the Vienna office to examine visa candidates. She apparently hoped to obtain personal information on me that would provide leverage. I soon learned, too, that she and her husband were filing petty complaints about me in Washington, bypassing our Paris PHS headquarters.
Within a short time, Dr. S had me feeling quite paranoid, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. I considered requesting an immediate transfer. Nevertheless, plans went ahead with Nelly for us to be married in Versailles the following January. Already our dreams for a honeymoon in Casablanca had been changed by my felt need to stay on top of the boiling situation in Salzburg. We ended up honeymooning in nearby Seefeld-im-Tirol at the same resort where I had earlier “honeymooned” with Al and Tess Sullivan.
In those days, I knew not how to handle such issues (does one ever?), except to do a good job as I saw it with the medical tasks before me. By March, 1951, however, I wrote to my superior in Paris and assumed “my burden of responsibility for the inability to resolve the situation,” and requested “a transfer of Dr. S. or myself to another station, as soon as feasible.”
Eventually, the USPHS sent a visiting team to inspect our station, which included a pulmonologist, Don King, of Dartmouth, and David Rutstein from the Harvard School of Public Health. They reviewed all my decisions over the prior months and backed me fully. I became MOC for the Salzburg, Munich, and Vienna consulates combined.
Mr. Affeld, the Salzburg consul, and I, finally succeeded in setting the record straight, the result of which was that Dr. S. and her husband were decommissioned and returned to the States. I heard that she obtained a plum post as radiologist in a Veterans Administration hospital in the home territory of her husband and of his relative, the Secretary of State.
This trial by fire, deception, and intrigue considerably attenuated Nelly’s and my early enjoyment of life in Austria, of our new marriage, and of our lovely 19th-century farm chalet near Salzburg. Later, however, came the birth of our first child, John, and the irresistibly rich cultural, musical, and outdoor life of this charming part of the world. Many warm and positive adventures eventually replaced the tribulations. And the work went forward in considerable part due to the effective ministrations of my medical colleagues and of my Salzburg assistants, Heidi Fischer and Margot Neumann.
The wedding went off as planned, in Versailles, on January 10, 1951