Two weeks before I graduated from the University of Illinois, the Korean War started. As soon as I got home from school, I went to the Navy Recruiting office in downtown Chicago. The place was packed; so I stood in line, holding my birth certificate, college transcript and Social Security card.
When I got to the head of the line, a guy with several stripes on the sleeve of his white jumper looked at me from behind a desk.
I paused and said. “I want to be a Navy Fighter Pilot. “Go out that door, turn left, and go in the first door on the right.”
His eyes said “Move,” so I did. The first door on the right opened easily, exposing a very large room containing at least 200 guys my age, in various stages of undress. For the next six hours I became like them, answering more questions about my physical condition than I ever had before.
About 5:00 p.m., those of us who remained were told to come back the next day for more tests. These turned out to be IQ, psychological, and psychiatric evaluations. At the end of these exercises, we were told we’d be notified whether we passed and if we had, when to report to Pensacola.
Five months after being accepted, and while still awaiting orders to Pensacola, I developed a toothache.
Off, I went to the family dentist. His office was a second floor walkup in an old building in Blue Island, a downscale suburb south of Chicago. Dr. Cibock didn’t make appointments: you just showed up, signed in on a legal pad, and waited your turn. The space wasn’t air-conditioned and the doctor didn’t use Novocain, so it was best to have a tooth problem in cooler months.
When I was finally seated in the dental chair with my mouth open, Dr. Cibock asked, “What’s the problem?”
“This tooth hurts. I think it’s touching a lower molar.”
“Yep. You have some other cavities, too. What are you doing?”
“Waiting to go to Pensacola to be a Navy pilot.”
“Oh well, we’ll just fill this one and let the Navy take care of the rest after you report in.”
“Okay with me,” I said.
And that’s the way we parted. I was five dollars lighter, but pleased that my dentist was willing to hand me out to Uncle Sam for future care.
Four months later, my orders arrived. They read something like: Report to Naval Air Station Glenview, IL., Building 21201 at 0800 on 1 June 1951, for processing to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., as a Naval Air Cadet (NAVCAD).
Whoopee! In the Navy at last. Well, almost… The first thing that began after we all assembled was clothing removal – much like we’d experienced nine months previously. When I reminded one of the medics we’d already been down this road, he replied, “That was then – this is now.” The look that accompanied his statement clearly meant backtalk wasn’t allowed.
So. I went along in silence until seated in the dental chair. The dentist was a full Navy captain, probably about 50. He poked, prodded, pushed, and finally said, “Sorry, son, we can’t take you.”
“You what”? I asked, leaping from the chair.
“You have too many cavities. You don’t qualify for the NAVCAD program,” he answered.
“Doctor, ever since I was accepted nine months ago, I’ve told every pretty girl who’d listen how I was going to fly the Navy’s newest and fastest jets. If you don’t let me in, I’ll be destroyed.”
“Sorry, Embs. You have too many cavities.”
“I’ll get them fixed.”
“A dentist would have to stay up all night.”
“I know one who will.”
“What’s his name?”
“Please, Doctor, I’ve gotta get to Pensacola.”
“Okay. Meet me here tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m.”
It was 4:45 p.m. Next door was the Ship’s Store. I ran inside and headed straight to the cash register, where I traded two one-dollar bills for 20 dimes. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a telephone booth. Inside hung a phone book for the North Chicago Suburbs, with both white and yellow pages. I flipped to “D” for dentists and started calling. My pitch was simple: “I need an appointment right now, to get some cavities filled so that I could go to Pensacola the next morning, to learn to be a Navy pilot.”
The 14th call hit pay dirt. The dentist had been in the Navy and told me to get to his office as soon as I could. I called a cab, and 20 minutes later, he pulled up. The dentist had a Glenview address, so we were at his office in less than 10 minutes, the fare was five dollars.
The dentist smiled as I bolted in. I grinned back. His assistant had left, so it was just the two of us. Fortunately for me, he had the latest in equipment: high-speed drills, water circulating devices, and Novocain.
For the next three hours he drilled and filled. When it was over, he told me he’d repaired 17 surfaces. At three bucks a crack, that came to $51.
The cab fare back to NAS Glenview was another five dollars, leaving me with thirty-seven dollars from the one hundred dollars I’d started with that morning. I found my room in the B.O.Q. where we were billeted and set my travel alarm for 6:00 a .m. My aching jaw didn’t impair my sleep, and the next thing I heard was the buzz of my clock. At 07:30, I was waiting for the dental office to open. When it did, I went in and sat erect in the waiting room. The doctor arrived and gave me a half nod.
Soon my name was called, and I went to where the enlisted man pointed. The doctor with four stripes stood beside the chair. I sat down and he ordered “Open up.”
“Well, I’ll be dammed. Go catch the train with the rest of your pals. Good luck.”
Later that night, I thought of the dentist who saved my career. Without his help, my entire life would have been different from that point on.
In 1963 President Kennedy remarked, “I can imagine no more rewarding career than the Navy. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”