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JOSEPH N. BELL

Affable 71-Year-Old Doctor Keeps Tuned for Adventure

May 12, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

In front of the rambling Brea home of Dr. Frank Haigler stands an old British telephone booth. When Haigler found out they were being removed from the streets of London, he commissioned a British friend to buy him one for $450. He considered that a bargain until the phone booth arrived with freight charges of about $1,000. By the time Haigler sandblasted the years of accumulated crud off the phone booth and spruced it up, the cost had escalated to about $2,000.

But Haigler, true to form, found a bonus in all this unexpected expense. In cleaning out the interior of the phone booth, he found a note from a woman offering "expert massages" to "tired businessmen."

So Haigler phoned her. She said she was, indeed, still in business and would be glad to accommodate him. She was somewhat startled--and more than a little flattered--to find he was calling from California. So to show her pleasure, she promised Haigler a free massage the next time he's in London. And he may very well take her up on it. Frank Haigler gets around.

He got around to serving briefly in the Israeli army early this year, which was the reason I stopped by to see him. Not a large number of 71-year-old non-Jewish physicians choose to spend three weeks of their lives unpacking crates on an Israeli army base. Haigler did, and he calls the experience "fantastic."

It all came about through an organization called "Volunteers for Israel," started six years ago to provide volunteers from all over the world to take over menial tasks for the Israeli army and thus free its soldiers for more important assignments. Over those years, 20,000 people have thus given of their time and energy.

Haigler stresses that it's no vacation. He had to pay his own air fare (half-price under a special arrangement), and accommodations were in army barracks. The army food was "lousy," he said. And the weather was "mostly cold and miserable."

"But," says Haigler, "the enthusiasm throughout the country was infectious. Israel is a paradox. Basically, it's a peace-loving nation. Its people are hard-working, industrious and very bright. They are spontaneous, emotional, friendly and courteous--not aggressive or hostile.

"Yet, Israel is an armed camp. Many of the young people, both men and women, are heavily armed and in uniform. You see them everywhere with submachine guns slung over their shoulders. But nowhere did I ever witness any boisterous behavior or aggressive machoism."

Haigler learned about "Volunteers for Israel" through a fellow member of the Los Angeles Adventurers Club, of which he has been a member many years. "I'd traveled all over the world," he said, "but never to the Middle East. So I signed up."

He went with the biggest contingent in Volunteer history, 2,000 people who embarked for Israel last New Year's Day, virtually all of them Jews wanting to contribute in some tangible way to Israel. Haigler didn't tell them that he was a physician "because I didn't want to end up emptying bedpans in some hospital." Instead, he ended up in a dismal munitions depot near the Golan Heights opening crates of machine guns and meticulously pounding out the nails. ("They don't waste anything in Israel," he explained.)

He saved an inspection report from one of the crates, and, typical of this gregarious man, called the inspector when he got back home. "Those guns," said Haigler, "had been packed in 1978 and had apparently been in storage ever since. I thought the inspector would be interested in knowing what happened to them, and he was. It hit me over and over that the Israelis are paying full cost for old--sometimes very old--surplus war material."

On weekends, tours were provided for the volunteers, including a visit to Jerusalem. Volunteers were not allowed to wear their Army uniforms off the base, but Haigler did meet some tank officers who told him that he was working with "the dregs of the Army," and they wished he could see it at its best.

Even so, Haigler came back with totally affirmative feelings about Israel. "I went over there," he said, "knowing very little about Israel and with no fixed political views. I came home impressed at the tremendous value we get from our investment in Israel. An armed and strong Israel keeps the peace in the Middle East. And the strongest impression I brought back was of a proud, intelligent and hard-working people who have converted a barren desert into a beautiful nation."

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