Nearly twenty years ago, I heard a remarkable story told by a World War II veteran, who, as a young army surgeon visited his friend for one month at George Patton’s headquarters, somewhere in liberated France.
His friend was Patton’s personal physician, and the veteran tells the story of how Patton and his closest entourage of aides and officers had encamped in a French chateau, using it as their temporary base of operations for what was to be the Third Army’s remarkably successful campaign.
In this setting, in the midst of this, the world’s most monumental conflict, a formal dinner was served nightly. Patton, the visitor explained, traveled with his own private, full china, silver, and crystal service. The officers wore their dress uniforms; civilians, if present, black tie. And after dinner, the men retired to a large sitting room for brandy and cigars. Here Patton with great flourish would regale those assembled with stories and lessons from military history. Which stories, I didn’t get a chance to ask. With Patton, however, one imagines that they ranged from the Peloponnesian and Punic Wars, to Waterloo and Gettysburg; from Hannibal’s elephants to Pickett’s charge.
Now, perhaps equally remarkable, was that the veteran who told the story to me and a small group of medical students in 1996 was Michael Debakey, the pioneering cardiovascular surgeon. Dr. Debakey, himself a larger than life figure, would have been eighty-seven years old at the time when we met in his office (as he did monthly with the students on their surgery rotations). During the war, he explained, he had helped to coordinate the formation of what would later be known as the MASH units. However, his regard for that month, this memory of his time in the company of Patton, was clearly evident from the vigor with which he told the tale.
But when Dr. Debakey’s telling of the war-time story ended– as sycophantic medical students are wont to do - my colleagues quickly changed the subject from Patton’s castle, to questions about the good doctor’s early aortic surgeries. My opportunity to ask more questions had passed, it seemed.
So, the above re-telling is from memory. A cursory internet search reveals a few mentions of the story, but not in any greater depth. I wish I would have pushed to politely request a few more details, or offered to – reporter-like – record it for posterity.
A lesson, perhaps, for the young listening to the old.