Uncle Sam Doesn’t Need You!
After the war the army was scraping the bottom of the barrel to get the guys for the occupation forces in Germany. Up until then the army deferred people for some reason other than physical first (I was deferred because I was working on the bomb), but now they reversed that and gave everybody a physical first.
That summer I was working for Hans Bethe at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and I remember that I had to go some distance—I think it was to Albany—to take the physical.
I get to the draft place, and I’m handed a lot of forms to fill out, and then I start going around to all these different booths. They check your vision at one, your hearing at another, they take your blood sample at another, and so forth.
Anyway, finally you come to booth number thirteen: psychiatrist. There you wait, sitting on one of the benches, and while I’m waiting I can see what is happening. There are three desks, with a psychiatrist behind each one, and the “culprit” sits across from the psychiatrist in his BVDs and answers various questions.
At that time there were a lot of movies about psychiatrists. For example, there was Spellbound, in which a woman who used to be a great piano player has her hands stuck in some awkward position and she can’t move them, and her family calls in a psychiatrist to try to help her, and the psychiatrist goes upstairs into a room with her, and you see the door close behind them, and downstairs the family is discussing what’s going to happen, and then she comes out of the room, hands still stuck in the horrible position, walks dramatically down the stairs over to the piano and sits down, lifts her hands over the keyboard, and suddenly—dum diddle dum diddle dum, dum, dum–she can play again. Well, I can’t stand this kind of baloney, and I had decided that psychiatrists are fakers, and I’ll have nothing to do with them. So that was the mood I was in when it was my turn to talk to the psychiatrist.
I sit down at the desk, and the psychiatrist starts looking through my papers. “Hello, Dick!” he says in a cheerful voice. “Where do you work?”
I’m thinking, “Who does he think he is, calling me by my first name?” and I say coldly, “Schenectady.”
“Who do you work for, Dick?” says the psychiatrist, smiling again.
“Do you like your work, Dick?” he says, with that same big smile on his face.
“So-so.” I just wasn’t going to have anything to do with him.
Three nice questions, and then the fourth one is completely different. “Do you think people talk about you?” he asks, in a low, serious tone.
I light up and say, “Sure! When I go home, my mother often tells me how she was telling her friends about me.” He isn’t listening to the explanation; instead, he’s writing something down on my paper.
Then again, in a low, serious tone, he says, “Do you think people stare at you?”
I’m all ready to say no, when he says, “For instance, do you think any of the boys waiting on the benches are staring at you now?”
While I had been waiting to talk to the psychiatrist, I had noticed there were about twelve guys on the benches waiting for the three psychiatrists, and they’ve got nothing else to look at, so I divide twelve by three—that makes four each—but I’m conservative, so I say, “Yeah, maybe two of them are looking at us.”
He says, “Well just turn around and look”—and he’s not even bothering to look himself!
So I turn around, and sure enough, two guys are looking. So I point to them and I say, “Yeah—there’s that guy, and that guy over there looking at us.” Of course, when I’m turned around and pointing like that, other guys start to look at us, so I say, “Now him, and those two over there—and now the whole bunch.” He still doesn’t look up to check. He’s busy writing more things on my paper.
Then he says, “Do you ever hear voices in your head?”
“Very rarely,” and I’m about to describe the two occasions on which it happened when he says, “Do you talk to yourself?”
“Yeah, sometimes when I’m shaving, or thinking; once in a while.” He’s writing down more stuff.
“I see you have a deceased wife—do you talk to her?”
This question really annoyed me, but I contained myself and said, “Sometimes, when I go up on a mountain and I’m thinking about her.”
More writing. Then he asks, “Is anyone in your family in a mental institution?”
“Yeah, I have an aunt in an insane asylum.”
“Why do you call it an insane asylum?” he says, resentfully. “Why don’t you call it a mental institution?”
“I thought it was the same thing.”
“Just what do you think insanity is?” he says, angrily.
“It’s a strange and peculiar disease in human beings,” I say honestly.
“There’s nothing any more strange or peculiar about it than appendicitis!” he retorts.
“I don’t think so. In appendicitis we understand the causes better, and something about the mechanism of it, whereas with insanity it’s much more complicated and mysterious.” I won’t go through the whole debate; the point is that I meant insanity is physiologically peculiar, and he thought I meant it was socially peculiar.
Up until this time, although I had been unfriendly to the psychiatrist, I had nevertheless been honest in everything I said. But when he asked me to put out my hands, I couldn’t resist pulling a trick a guy in the “bloodsucking line” had told me about. I figured nobody was ever going to get a chance to do this, and as long as I was halfway under water, I would do it. So I put out my hands with one palm up and the other one down.
The psychiatrist doesn’t notice. He says, “Turn them over.”
I turn them over. The one that was up goes down, and the one that was down goes up, and he still doesn’t notice, because he’s always looking very closely at one hand to see if it is shaking. So the trick had no effect.
Finally, at the end of all these questions, he becomes friendly again. He lights up and says, “I see you have a Ph.D., Dick. Where did you study?”
“MIT and Princeton. And where did you study!”
“Yale and London. And what did you study, Dick?”
“Physics. And what did you study?”
“And this is medicine?”
“Well, yes. What do you think it is? You go and sit down over there and wait a few minutes!”
So I sit on the bench again, and one of the other guys waiting sidles up to me and says, “Gee! You were in there twenty-five minutes! The other guys were in there only five minutes!”
“Hey,” he says. “You wanna know how to fool the psychiatrist? All you have to do is pick your nails, like this.”
“Then why don’t you pick your nails like that?”
“Oh,” he says, “I wanna get in the army!”
“You wanna fool the psychiatrist?” I say. “You just tell him that!”
After a while I was called over to a different desk to see another psychiatrist. While the first psychiatrist had been rather young and innocent-looking, this one was gray-haired and distinguished-looking—obviously the superior psychiatrist. I figure all of this is now going to get straightened out, but no matter what happens, I’m not going to become friendly.
The new psychiatrist looks at my papers, puts a big smile on his face, and says, “Hello, Dick. I see you worked at Los Alamos during the war.”
“There used to be a boys’ school there, didn’t there?”
“Were there a lot of buildings in the school?”
“Only a few.”
Three questions—same technique—and the next question is completely different. “You said you hear voices in your head. Describe that, please.”
“It happens very rarely, when I’ve been paying attention to a person with a foreign accent. As I’m falling asleep I can hear his voice very clearly. The first time it happened was while I was a student at MIT. I could hear old Professor Vallarta say, ‘Dee-a dee-a electric field-a.’ And the other time was in Chicago during the war, when Professor Teller was explaining to me how the bomb worked. Since I’m interested in all kinds of phenomena, I wondered how I could hear these voices with accents so precisely, when I couldn’t imitate them that well … Doesn’t everybody have something like that happen once in a while?”
The psychiatrist put his hand over his face, and I could see through his fingers a little smile (he wouldn’t answer the question).
Then the psychiatrist checked into something else. “You said that you talk to your deceased wife. What do you say to her?”
I got angry. I figure it’s none of his damn business, and I say, “I tell her I love her, if it’s all right with you!”
After some more bitter exchanges he says, “Do you believe in the supernormal?”
I say, “I don’t know what the ‘supernormal’ is.”
“What? You, a Ph.D. in physics, don’t know what the supernormal is?”
“It’s what Sir Oliver Lodge and his school believe in.”
That’s not much of a clue, but I knew it. “You mean the supernatural.”
“You can call it that if you want.”
“All right, I will.”
“Do you believe in mental telepathy?”
“No. Do you?”
“Well, I’m keeping an open mind.”
“What? You, a psychiatrist, keeping an open mind? Ha!” It went on like this for quite a while.
Then at some point near the end he says, “How much do you value life?”
“Why did you say ‘sixty-four’?”
“How are you supposed to measure the value of life?”
“No! I mean, why did you say ‘sixty-four,’ and not ‘seventy-three,’ for instance?”
“If I had said ‘seventy-three,’ you would have asked me the same question!”
The psychiatrist finished with three friendly questions, just as the other psychiatrist had done, handed me my papers, and I went off to the next booth.
While I’m waiting in the line, I look at the paper which has the summary of all the tests I’ve taken so far. And just for the hell of it I show my paper to the guy next to me, and I ask him in a rather stupid-sounding voice, “Hey! What did you get in ‘Psychiatric’? Oh! You got an ‘N.’ I got an ‘N’ in everything else, but I got a ‘D’ in ‘Psychiatric.’ What does that mean?” I knew what it meant: “N” is normal, “D” is deficient.
The guy pats me on the shoulder and says, “Buddy, it’s perfectly all right. It doesn’t mean anything. Don’t worry about it!” Then he walks way over to the other corner of the room, frightened: It’s a lunatic!
I started looking at the papers the psychiatrists had written, and it looked pretty serious! The first guy wrote:
Thinks people talk about him.
Thinks people stare at him.
Auditory hypnogogic hallucinations.
Talks to self.
Talks to deceased wife.
Maternal aunt in mental institution.
Very peculiar stare. (I knew what that was—that was when I said, “And this is medicine?”)
The second psychiatrist was obviously more important, because his scribble was harder to read. His notes said things like “auditory hypnogogic hallucinations confirmed.” (“Hypnogogic” means you get them while you’re falling asleep.)
He wrote a lot of other technical-sounding notes, and I looked them over, and they looked pretty bad. I figured I’d have to get all of this straightened out with the army somehow.
At the end of the whole physical examination there’s an army officer who decides whether you’re in or you’re out. For instance, if there’s something the matter with your hearing, he has to decide if it’s serious enough to keep you out of the army. And because the army was scraping the bottom of the barrel for new recruits, this officer wasn’t going to take anything from anybody. He was tough as nails. For instance, the fellow ahead of me had two bones sticking out from the back of his neck—some kind of displaced vertebra, or something—and this army officer had to get up from his desk and feel them—he had to make sure they were real!
I figure this is the place I’ll get this whole misunderstanding straightened out. When it’s my turn, I hand my papers to the officer, and I’m ready to explain everything, but the officer doesn’t look up. He sees the “D” next to “Psychiatric,” immediately reaches for the rejection stamp, doesn’t ask me any questions, doesn’t say anything; he just stamps my papers “REJECTED,” and hands me my 4-F paper, still looking at his desk.
So I went out and got on the bus for Schenectady, and while I was riding on the bus I thought about the crazy thing that had happened, and I started to laugh—out loud—and I said to myself, “My God! If they saw me now, they would be sure!”
When I finally got back to Schenectady I went in to see Hans Bethe. He was sitting behind his desk, and he said to me in a joking voice, “Well, Dick, did you pass?”
I made a long face and shook my head slowly. “No.”
Then he suddenly felt terrible, thinking that they had discovered some serious medical problem with me, so he said in a concerned voice, “What’s the matter, Dick?”
I touched my finger to my forehead.
He said, “No!”
He cried, “No-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!” and he laughed so hard that the roof of the General Electric Company nearly came off.
I told the story to many other people, and everybody laughed, with a few exceptions.
When I got back to New York, my father, mother, and sister called for me at the airport, and on the way home in the car I told them all the story. At the end of it my mother said, “Well, what should we do, Mel?”
My father said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Lucille. It’s absurd!”
So that was that, but my sister told me later that when we got home and they were alone, my father said, “Now, Lucille, you shouldn’t have said anything in front of him. Now what should we do?”
By that time my mother had sobered up, and she said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Mel!”
One other person was bothered by the story. It was at a Physical Society meeting dinner, and Professor Slater, my old professor at MIT, said, “Hey, Feynman! Tell us that story about the draft I heard.”
I told the whole story to all these physicists—I didn’t know any of them except Slater—and they were all laughing throughout, but at the end one guy said, “Well, maybe the psychiatrist had something in mind.”
I said resolutely, “And what profession are you, sir?” Of course, that was a dumb question, because we were all physicists at a professional meeting. But I was surprised that a physicist would say something like that.
He said, “Well, uh, I’m really not supposed to be here, but I came as the guest of my brother, who’s a physicist. I’m a psychiatrist.” I smoked him right out!
After a while I began to worry. Here’s a guy who’s been deferred all during the war because he’s working on the bomb, and the draft board gets letters saying he’s important, and now he gets a “D” in “Psychiatric”—it turns out he’s a nut! Obviously he isn’t a nut; he’s just trying to make us believe he’s a nut—we’ll get him!
The situation didn’t look good to me, so I had to find a way out. After a few days, I figured out a solution. I wrote a letter to the draft board that went something like this:
I do not think I should be drafted because I am teaching science students, and it is partly in the strength of our future scientists that the national welfare lies. Nevertheless, you may decide that I should be deferred because of the result of my medical report, namely, that I am psychiatrically unfit. I feel that no weight whatsoever should be attached to this report because I consider it to be a gross error.
I am calling this error to your attention because I am insane enough not to wish to take advantage of it.
Result: “Deferred. 4F Medical Reasons.”