My Generation

My Generation by William Styron Read Free Book Online

Book: My Generation by William Styron Read Free Book Online
Authors: William Styron
around the globe to discontinue a syphilis treatment called arsphenamine therapy and to commence using penicillin as it became available. Arsphenamine—better known, variously, as Salvarsan, 606, or the magic bullet—was an arsenic-based compound developed in 1909 by the German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich. He discovered that his new drug (the six hundred and sixth version proved successful) could knock out syphilis without killing the patient; it was a remarkable advance after several hundred years during which the principal nostrum was mercury, a substance that worked capriciously, when it worked at all, and was for the most part as dangerous as the disease itself.
    Because the disease sprang from the dark act of sex,
syphilis
was not a word uttered casually in the Protestant environment of my Virginia boyhood; the word raised eyebrows around America even when it was discreetly murmured in
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
, a 1940 movie starring Edward G. Robinson, who I thought was a pretty convincing healer after his parts as a ruthless mobster.
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
didn't make much of an impression on me; I doubtless was too young. But even if I had been older I wouldprobably not have realized that the movie failed to tell an essential truth. While the doctor's magic bullet was a vast improvement over the forlorn remedy of the past, his treatment was shown to be sadly insufficient; the drug rendered patients noncontagious, but it wasn't a very reliable cure, and the treatment required dozens of painful and costly injections over such a long period of time—often many months—that a great number of patients became discouraged, and were consequently prone to relapses. So the epidemic suffered a setback but was not halted. It would take Alexander Fleming's surefire bactericidal fungus to produce the real magic. And I was in the vanguard of those victims upon whom this benison would descend. Or so it seemed, until, with a gradual dawning that was sickening in itself, I began to suspect that health was not so readily at hand.
    As a diagnosed syphilitic, I had good cause to think passionately about penicillin during the interminable hours and days I spent in the Clap Shack, as such wards were known throughout the Navy. But, from the first day following Dr. Klotz's announcement, I had the impression that I was a very special case. I was not an ordinary patient whose treatment would follow the uneventful trajectory toward cure, but one who had been hurled into an incomprehensible purgatory where neither treatment nor even the possibility of a cure was part of my ultimate destiny. And this hunch turned out to be correct. From the outset, I was convinced not only that I had acquired the most feared of sexually transmitted diseases but that I would at some point keel over from it, probably in an unspeakable cellular mud slide or convulsion of the nervous system. As an early-blooming hypochondriac, a reader besotted with
The Merck Manual
, I had a bit more medical savvy than most kids my age, and what my diagnosis actually portended made me clammy with dismay. I believed that I was beyond the reach of penicillin. I was sure that I was a goner, and that certainty never left me during the days that stretched into weeks of weirdly demoralizing confinement.
    My bed was at the very end of the ward, and I had a view from two windows, at right angles to each other. From one window, I could see the sound, a shallow inlet of the Atlantic, on the edge of freezing; from the other, I had a glimpse of a row of barracks not far away and, between the barrack buildings, concrete laundry slabs, where marines bedeviled by the cold—I watched them shake and shiver—pounded at their near-frozen dungarees beneath sluiceways of water. What nasty little Schadenfreude I might have felt at their plight was dispelled by my own despair at having been separatedfrom longtime buddies whom I'd gone to college with, officer candidates like me—or like the

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