Dr. Al Munson, director of the Health Effects Laboratory Division with NIOSH, retires today and in so doing provides me the opportunity to rise with the occasion and to recall . . .
Al almost always had an empty chair beside him when he knew I would be talking in front of a crowd. He quickly sized me up during recruitment and figured out that I’m a neurotic introvert which means that in crowds I tend to get over-aroused and not in a good way. That’s bad enough for me, but for people around me, it means they tend to get over-aroused, again not in a good way. When he saw that I was over-aroused and over-arousing other people, he’d make hard eye contact with me, then pat the empty chair beside him. I’d hang dog over, sit down, and begin to relax as my manager talked down his crazy pitcher.
You think I’m joking, but Al knows I’m not. I was pitching a presentation for the NIOSH Board of Scientific Counselors and a Counselor interrupted me while I was in high arousal mode and worse still he interrupted me to misinterpret my remarks for his purposes. I started walking toward the Counselor so I could respond with a high inside fastball near his head when he finished his deep and thoughtful fripperies. Al was sitting just behind this fool and in my light of sight. Normally Al is a paragon of nuance, but he was wildly signaling me with a nose wipe over and over and over, rising out of his seat. When he finally got my attention, he gave me one hard shake of the head, sat down, then looked at the program in his lap like he was reading the latest issue of Cell Biology.
Has Jeffery Koplan sent garlands to Al? Perhaps he lacks Al’s situational awareness and probably has no idea that Al saved him from me at that first NIOSH meeting Koplan called when he became the new CDC director. The NIOSH director, Linda Rosenstock called a bunch of NIOSH folks to DC to greet ‘n grip with Koplan and do some dog and pony show along the way. And, I was invited because I knew how to get a crowd aroused and if you’ve ever attended a Fed meeting, you know those meetings need arousal.
Koplan, however, needed no motivation from me. He decided that he would announce his presence with authority and started throwing at Linda’s head whenever he could. He’d riff off a slide from a show and whack Linda. He’d interrupt a speaker to share an important and rude insight to Linda. He’d interrupt Linda when she took a breath. Hey, Linda was yet another of my bosses, yet another good one. She was cheerfully ducking, and while she needed no help from me or anyone else, Koplan needed a timeout. I was sitting behind Dr. Koplan and to his left about three chairs away. A hop, skip, and a step and I’d have him in a sleeper hold. I was rising from my seat to call out Koplan when I looked across the table to see Al scowling at me like Moses in front of the multitude over the Golden Calf. He looked Biblical, so I stopped sinning, but to this day, I do not repent.
Since arousal quivering in sports metaphors seems to be my main line here I’ll close with a guys in the locker room story. A pharma invited me to participate in one of their well meaning symposia. The meeting was held in San Juan in February and Melanie had found out about it, so I essentially resigned my position with the government for 72 hours to attend. She did make it worth my while. As I toiled with pharma mavens to extract more compliance from more people than even the government wants, Melanie frolicked the beach in her black bikini. When the symposia ended you could follow the pieces of my suit on the sand to that blonde in a black bikini on the white beach. Then, while we played in the surf, I broke the second toe, the long one, on my right foot. Long story, but heed my warning: Never go en pointe in a pas de deux in heavy surf with a blonde in a black bikini.
By the time I got to the office on Monday, that toe was swollen, black and blue, so I limped into Dan Sharp’s office for a free consult. Dan was the Chief Scientist for HELD, an MD along with a PhD. And for an epidemiologist, he’s a good physician! He removed my shoe and sock, then rolled up my pants leg for a careful look.
Dan’s office was next to Al’s and about that time Al wandered into the doorway. Al and Dan consulted wisely about broken toes as they considered the presentation of symptoms. They asked a few deeply nuanced questions, then Dan bent my toe and said, “I’ll bet that hurt.” Al asked how it happened, as if that was important to the diagnosis. So, I explained about blondes in black bikinis in heavy surf. Al and Dan nodded sagely as if this was a common occurrence in their experience with broken toes. I confessed that my largest concern was with sex. How could I proceed without pain.
Al gracefully kicked up his leg and said, “Just keep your foot over your head.”
My work at NIOSH was the delight of my professional life, but more important then and now was every day with Al. I know no man for whom I have more respect and affection and from whom I’ve learned more. The largest regret I had on leaving NIOSH was losing that daily relationship with Al. I know that I wore him out, but fortunately Al is a big man with a big heart, so much must remain. And it is to what remains that I offer,
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.