John D. Bridgers M.D.
Click Shaggy to return to the home page
Memoirs and personal remembrances

Dedication  About  Shaggy Dog Chronicles  Crick  Naval Years  Medicine  Edie  Edie's Family  Teakwood Ballads  Contact  Related links 

Naval Years
Big Feet and Weak Eyes - Dr. Tom Duane

"Big Feet" and "Weak Eyes"
Dr. Tom Duane

As I said in another story about my feet, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

I've found that life is often much like the thread on which beads are strung -- running through many things which seem unrelated, but which hang together because there is someone common to them all.

It's singular how lives are strung together and their tales string themselves into a larger yarn.

That's the nature of story-telling, at least as stories occur to me and I pass them along.

These are the tales I've a yen to tell and hope others enjoy hearing.

Also of interest is that some of those involved have proven notable.

A loud voice sounded through the open door, "That foot can only belong to Jig Bridgers!"

Just as surely my own recall of the traits of friends told me that this voice could only belong to Tom Duane.

We were in the Pediatric Clinic of the Memorial Hospital of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Thomas David Duane was touring medical schools across the country for an academic foundation to survey the status of medical education, particularly ophthalmology.

I was at the University taking leave from my pediatric practice in High Point, to the west of Chapel Hill, for a weekly session with the medical students.

Thus, our encounter happened when we were both busy doing something else.

Tom, as did most folks, had always found my feet amusing.

My feet are unique, and it isn't difficult to understand how Tom could have recognized me after seeing little through that door except my right foot dangling across my left knee.

They are size 14AA -- long, narrow and flat -- and I consider them elegant, though most others think them grotesque.

I was 6 feet 3 inches tall before the osteoporosis of my senior years began to rob me of height, and it has been said that I might have been really tall had not so much height been "turned under" to form my feet.

Though good friends, Tom and I had not seen each other in several years with this incident occurring sometime in the late 1960's or early 1970's.

Our paths had first crossed at the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine in 1950 during the Korean War.

Tom had taken a voluntary sabbatical from his ophthalmology practice in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania -- having obtained a waiver for myopia, which had kept him from receiving a commission in the Medical Corps in World War II.

At that time, the physical requirements for all officers were the same be they aviators, engineers or physicians.

He wore the thick-lensed spectacles typically prescribed for near-sightedness in those days and often described as lens that "look like the bottom of Coke bottles."

I had just finished a "Navy" internship at the Boston Navy Hospital after having recently completed medical school following a 5-1/2 year stint as a Naval aviator in World War II.

Tom and I became close friends and boon companions for the six months we were together in Pensacola, Florida at Flight Surgeons School -- each bringing singular things to the table which the other admired, an estate which ever persisted for the pair of us.

Tom's wife, Julia, and their youngsters were back at home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania while Edie and our children -- such as had come along at that time -- were with me in Pensacola.

Tom was in our home at least weekly in those early days so that he became a friend of the entire family.

Tom, of Irish descent and the son of an ophthalmologist, had been raised in Peoria, Illinois.

He went to undergraduate school at Harvard and took his basic clinical training at Northwestern School of Medicine in Chicago.

He interned at the Hospital of the University of Iowa School of Medicine where he met Julia McIlnerny, an Iowa lass who had gone there to medical school, and was then training in pediatrics.

Tom stayed there for ophthalmology residency and then for extra training, which led to a PhD in physiology.

They began to accumulate their brood, and, for Julia, taking care of her own children gradually pre-empted her energies and pulled her attention away from the practice of medicine.

With his training finally behind him, Tom joined a group practice in Minot, South Dakota, but the "cabin-fever" of one snow-bound winter was enough, and they moved to eastern Pennsylvania.

Tom started a practice in Bethlehem, mainly because it was convenient to a farm in Bedminster where a colonial stone house had been remodeled into a unique country home.

To live in that place was a decision that Tom and Julia ever cherished, never regretted and never abandoned.

Getting back to our story --  after we were designated Flight Surgeons, Tom and I went our separate ways.

Being versed both in basic and clinical medicine, he went into a research position at the Navy's Human Centrifuge Laboratory at Johnsville, Pennsylvania near his home.

I remained in the Training Command for refresher flight training and re-designation as a Naval Aviator as well as a Flight Surgeon.

I was then assigned to Experimental Squadron Three (VX-3) at the Naval Air Station at Pomona, New Jersey outside of Atlantic City.

So in less than a year, Tom and I found ourselves within shouting distance of one another, and we again saw each other frequently.

That's when Edie and I got to know Julia, fairly often visiting their country place -- now with swimming pool -- that was to become a favorite for our kids.

VX-3 existed to develop squadron tactics for the use of new type aircraft being released from research and development and placed in production for deployment in the carrier fleet.

VX-3 was truly an elite outfit.

Despite my considerable background as a fleet and combat pilot, the operational aviators in this squadron easily outshined me.

Most of the pilots were products of the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxset River, Maryland.

Its skipper -- Cdr. Noel Gayler -- was an Annapolis graduate, a decorated World War II fighter pilot and one of the Navy's early test pilots.

He would retire 50 years later following the Viet Nam debacle as a four-star admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet.

Ours was essentially a land-based squadron, but every several months we went to sea off the New Jersey shore to see how well the tactics being generated would serve carrier operations.

Usually one or more operational units went with us to test how easily our innovations could be assimilated.

On at least one occasion Tom Duane went to sea with VX-3, which worked to my benefit.

To my frustration, our Senior Medical Officer insisted that I not fly but stay aboard ship and cover the physician-watch on the flight deck while flight operations were underway.

Having Tom aboard arbitrated this impasse.

All this came to an end in 1954 when the Korean War ended, but the Duanes and the Bridgers remained in proximity with Tom returning to his practice in Bethlehem and I entering pediatric training at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, an arm of the School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania.

We were to remain in Philadelphia for nearly a decade where after completing residency training I eventually became the Director of the Out-Patient Department of C.H.O.P., and an Associate Clinical Professor at the University.

Julia's children were then well along in their schooling and she was able to come down to Children's each week and work with the medical students involved in ambulatory care.

Thus, time continued to weave new threads into the tapestry of our friendship.

I had remained on at Children's Hospital following my two-year residency at the behest of Dr. Joseph Stokes, Jr., Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and President of the Medical Staff at CHOP.

I also joined Dr. Stokes as an associate in his private practice, with -- at first -- his bringing to us consultations from literally across the country while I did the "grunt" work in evaluation and treatment.

In addition -- during the academic year -- I had a coterie of junior medical students who were taking an elective in ambulatory pediatrics each quarter, and hospital residents rotating through my service.

These were merry times with the work interesting and Dr. and Mrs. Stokes' finding a home for us near their own and becoming alter-parents for Edie and me.

I eventually became a Senior Physician at Children's but never rose beyond Associate Clinical Professor at the University -- failing to accrue tenure because I was not involved in research and did no publishing, having little interest in either.

Unfortunately, politics in an academic medical setting is much as it is in other bureaucracies and equally virulent.

I served at the pleasure of the Chief and thus shared his enemies.

So when Dr. Stokes reached mandatory retirement, I was among the assistants "on the bench" who weren't retained.

Children's Hospital was an internationally prominent center for pediatric care and training, and turned out "cookie-cutters" as well as "cookies" -- the upper echelon of its faculty and staff going on to produce department chairmen in other academic institutions.

I considered myself well regarded by those I taught, but obviously was not counted among the "heavy-weights" by some of my colleagues on the faculty.

My inability to hack it out and advance in academic medicine was the single failure of my adult life but was -- though long a thorn-in-the-side of my self esteem -- an outcome that in the end proved beneficial.

From such lessons I have learned that the true blessings in life often start as a burden.

In any event, this was the juncture at which we returned to North Carolina and I joined a private pediatric group that included my boyhood friend, Dr. Jack Lynch.

After getting situated I drove down to Chapel Hill each week to keep a hand in academia by consulting with the students in the outpatient clinic, learning from them and from the UNC faculty.

In the interim, things had moved ahead for Tom.

He had given up his private practice to become Professor and Chairman of Ophthalmology at The Thomas Jefferson School of Medicine. 

He now commuted to Philadelphia from Bedminster rather than  Bethlehem.

During this time -- as academics are wont to do -- Tom kept busy at many tasks, despite commitments to research and teaching.

In due time he became Chief of Staff at The Will's Eye Hospital, and was a prime mover in having this venerable institution rebuilt on the campus at Jefferson.  (I had served as Pediatric Consultant at Will's when I had been at Children's.)

It was in this role that we ran into each other in Chapel Hill during his survey of medical facilities.

His tour resulted in a book-long report and yielded insights that led him to see the need for an Eye Institute as part of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

He again was a mover and shaker in seeing this to fruition.

Over a period of years he compiled a loose-leaf text of ophthalmology, which bears his name and persists as a basic tome in the field.

He worked himself up in The American Ophthalmologic Society hierarchy to the vice-presidential level from which eventual elevation to the presidency was usually automatic.

But it wasn't all work.

He had a life-long interest in Shakespeare's sonnets and other literature.

He was also a golfer, and though this was an avocation we both enjoyed, we never shared in it.

We did share our interest in baseball, but his kids say they think he took them to games more to buy hot dogs than to watch the play.

Just so all this doesn't sound one-sided, I too was enjoined in many activities at this time professional, civic, religious and recreational but my involvements were more provincial than were Tom's.

We next saw the Duanes in the late 70's or early 80's when one spring night they stayed with us in High Point on their way back north from their winter condo in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Hard luck had befallen them in an unfortunate and unexpected way.

Tom had retired due to the onset of Parkinson's.

His neurological dysfunction had largely been held in check in those early days of the disease, but his colleagues on the board of AOS knew regression would soon come, both in mentation as well as locomotion.

He was greatly disappointed to have been replaced in the hierarchy of the AOS never having reached the presidency of this the most prestigious organization in his profession.

His disabilities had also precluded further eye surgery and he had given up his practice.

We last saw Tom and Julia one Saturday in the late 1980's when Edie and I drove over to see them in Bedminster from southern New Jersey where I was now serving as Medical Director in a community hospital. 

Tom had gone downhill and continued so until his death in the early 1990's.

He and Julia continued to live at their country place in Bucks County after their youngsters had all moved on in their own lives.

His waning months were in part filled with the compilation of an oral history honoring him as one of the generation's giants in ophthalmology.

An editor and writer had been provided, but because Tom had slipped so much, Julia had to rewrite much of the text.

Edie and I were still in New Jersey when I attended Tom's memorial service  in the auditorium of Will's Eye Hospital which was that day being re-named in his honor.

A large photograph had been hung on one wall and brought home to me why the lady-folk had considered Tom handsome, though I had always considered the two of us somewhat ordinary looking fellows.

All his accomplishments and attributes were appropriately extolled by his children and his many colleagues from his widespread interests.

As on the best of such potentially sad occasions, many anecdotes -- personifying Tom's penchant for high humor and bon homie --  lifted the clouds of bereavement leaving all with warm sentiments.

Memories of our half-century of times and climes were brought to mind this past fall by a phone call from Julia now living alone in Bedminster, though some of her youngsters are nearby.

It appears the Duane children have carried on their family's pattern of achievement.

Joe, the eldest, studied Chinese languages then law, now follows those together in corporate work and lives in neighboring Westchester County.

Alexa, second and oldest girl, became a clinical psychologist and married a pediatric neurologist with whom she worked in Boston until his tragic early death.

Rachael, next in line, followed her parents into medicine and practices dermatology along the southern tier of New York State where she lives with her internist husband.

Andy, the youngest-- after a stint as a shore-patrolman in the Marines -- took his college training in law enforcement and then entered the F.B.I. with his wife in similar work with the D.E.A. and both stationed in Miami.

They have provided Julia with a gaggle of grandchildren of whom she speaks warmly but whom I know not.

As with most fellows with whom I have enjoyed close friendship, the exchange of favorite yarns produced much of the glue of our togetherness.

As indicated earlier, Tom often found something laughable about my feet, but he particularly favored the fate of my shoes at the Battle of Midway.

When the U.S.S. YORKTOWN was listing dead in the water after being hit by an aerial torpedo, the ship was judged to be doomed and we were ordered to abandon ship.

I let myself down a knotted lifeline many feet into the sea, adjacent a destroyer, which from the height of the flight deck seemed close alongside.

However, at water level my chosen haven now seemed far, far away, as I inflated my Mae West life-jacket and struck out for it.

Not perceptively gaining on the ship I realized I was growing tired and realized my large water-soaked shoes figured greatly in my fatigue.

It was with great reluctance that I untied the same and let them sink into the depths, wondering whether I would be able to find another pair in the Pacific theater, which would fit.

Finally I managed some gain on the destroyer, which to my chagrin, steamed off elsewhere before I could get alongside.

In despair, I rolled over on my back to rest, and lo, the bow of another destroyer rose above me.

An officer on the prow shouted down, "We've been chasing you for fifteen minutes."

I was too tired and enfeebled to climb a line to the deck, so they hauled me aboard.

Once aboard a tall junior officer gave me a pair of moccasins, which fit quite well.

These served well until we reached Pearl Harbor and I was able to find suitable regulation shoes and then as my bedroom slippers for the duration of the war.

My favorite of Tom's stories came while we were studying nucleonics -- in very primitive terms -- at the School of Aviation Medicine.

The Nuclear Age was still in its infancy -- Navy training courses at the time included a beginning course in nuclear mechanics.

Tom told a story of a "mustang" involved in such training.

A "mustang" was a commissioned officer that had risen from the enlisted ranks, in this instance a boatswain's mate or "bosum."

"Bosums" are mainly involved with handling the ship and small boats.

During one class the density of neutron stars was being discussed -- a matter of tons of weight in cubic centimeter portions.

To which the former "bosum" remarked, "Man, what great anchor material that would make!"

Good stories are a grand way to remember great friends.


February 1997


Back to Naval Years index

Click Shaggy to return to the home page
Creative Commons License
John D. Bridgers M.D. by Carl Bridgers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Copyright ©