Monday, June 04, 2007

"Across the fields to the Health Factory (or something)"

As I’ve delved further into the box of World War II letters that my dad wrote my mother, I've discovered new rewards.

I’ll share more about (and of) the letters in the weeks ahead. The history of the letters are hung up on a mystery of sorts. So far a preliminary search of government data bases fails to show Dad serving with the Army Air Force units he used as return addresses on the letters.

Is sleuthing this 60-year-old mystery worth it? Right now, let's face it, the Veterans Administration has its hands full.

So time — my time, and the government's — will tell.

In the meanwhile, my search of the letter box has uncovered a different kind of writing. I’ve come across some of the “stories" I encouraged Dad to write and share with me after he was forced to retire when a sudden on-set of delusions overwhelmed him. In the months and years that followed, Dad lost all direction, falling into despondency. Literal shock therapy hadn’t worked. Now I hoped writing might.

I knew from the letters Dad had written me that he was a fine writer, although he disparaged his efforts. He had a keen eye and brisk, easy style. I wish he had written more.

Though he wrote in the third person, his stories (so far I have found four) were mostly about his life as a surgeon and a urologist. You will see that he was much in demand and self-conscious about how he was seen, particularly by his patients and their families. He was a sharp dresser and had a no-non-sense, in-charge style. For all that, he liked to joke disarmingly at the bedside that, as a urologist, he was nothing more than a “glorified plumber.” Hospitals were no more than “health factories.”

In surgery, beyond the waiting room and the bedside, he was unpredictable: Charming, moody, funny, petulant.

But he was always professional — galvanized, and at times haunted, by the potential for and terrible consequences of surgical error.

I came to know him in this unfatherly role because I worked three summers in high school and college as a surgical orderly with him and other surgeons.

He was openly known to the surgical staff as “Wild Bill.”

In addition to practicing where we lived, in Rockford, Illinois, Dad was regularly called to the small towns that anchored farming communities. He raced along back roads in his Buick Century convertibles. “Dyna-Flow” captured their ride, power and flair. His cars were never more than three years old — comfortable rewards for his frenzied but rewarding life.

Let him tell the stories to you as he did to me.

Here’s one – a reflection really — which he openly suspected of being "9th grade." It's about a trip to a rural outpost — a Genoa, Belvidere or Freeport.

The throw-away, self-mocking title is his….

Across the fields to the Health Factory (or something)

Two kids rode the same horse down a dusty side road. The deep blue porcelain silos sparkled in the morning sun.

The back and white dairy cows gathered in the corners of their fields.

The oats were the lightest green of all. The darker trees in odd arrangements moved softly in the morning breeze.

A muddy creek oozed slowly beneath a rusty, one-track bridge. A red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail beside the creek.

The invisible meadow lark’s call came from nowhere, but somewhere.

An old farmer drove his tractor down most of the black-topped road

A sway-backed barn rotted on a deserted homestead. But nearby, just down the road, a huge white, working barn stood with its guardian silos. A collie barked as he drove past the farm.

Only the kids and the old farmer seemed to tend the country for many miles.

The road signs were rusty and leaning at crazy angles. Usually the signs bore no relation to the map. There must be a million “Town Line Roads,” all dwindling into “County Trunk F” at the wrong angle.

Often the surface dropped quickly from smoother black top to loose gravel and dust, then back again. He had learned to choose the next turn by gauging telephone poles in the distance.

Where was everybody?

No matter that he left the surgical schedule at home. He made mental lists of things he needed for the next case, the doctors to be called, tests to be run. He continually checked the rear-view mirror, the telephone poles, the road ahead.

He had learned to start with a full gas tank. No filling stations in dairy country. A few phones, but always on party lines — again he’d learned the hard way. A credit card call to a country phone operator was greeted with a sneer between suspicion and down right disbelief. If he didn’t call direct from one hospital to the next, he knew the line would go dead.

Gradually as he closed in on familiar ground — a water tower, a radio tower — he cut his speed to a reasonable limit. No hurry now. He knew the operating schedule would be late anyway.

The houses were newer, closer to the road, closer to the ground, closer to each other. And he knew he was closer to more trouble.

He had no time for food — a cup of coffee only. No time to think of the last case, of yesterday, of tomorrow. Only time to unpack his instruments, change into scrub clothes, cap, mask — and operate.

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