Mo (mofic) wrote,

A few more stories about my father

- I spent a lot of time in my teen years in emergency rooms. No, I wasn’t accident prone. My dad was a psychiatrist and he was on an on-call rotation as attending psychiatrist at Hartford Hospital. When it was his turn (once every n weeknights, once every n weekends, where n was the number of doctors in the rotation but I can’t remember what its value was) he would get called by the residents if there was a psychiatric emergency. And he’d always ask me, “Do you want to come?” I always said yes. He liked having company and I liked being with him. So I’d grab a book and we’d hop into his car and talk about all manner of things on the way there. And I’d sit in the ER waiting room with my book until he was done and we’d talk more on the way back. He took confidentiality very seriously so he never told me what the issue with the particular patient was, but he’d talk about psychiatric emergencies in general. And just literature and politics and anything I wanted to talk about. I remember those car rides so fondly.

- My father was drafted into the US Army at 18, during World War II. He was a very young 18 – didn’t even shave yet. He looked like a little boy. And became the symbol of what-is-the-world-coming-to-that-we’re-sending-our-children-to-war for some Jewish colonel, who made sure he stayed out of combat. He ran an office. He told me about a filing clerk he had who used to ask him all the time, “Sarge, tell me again. Does M come before N or after?”

He read more in the Army than he ever had before. It seems my whole adolescence any time I read a classic, or not even a classic but any book not written in the past 25 years, my father would say “I read that in the Army.” He grew up a lot in the army, including physically. He came out of the army four inches taller than he’d gone in. He loved to tell how the sergeant who processed his discharge papers looked at the stats, looked at him, and said “The army’s sure been good to you!”

- My brother Joel and I used to ask my father to get MD plates, so we could park illegally and not get tickets. He refused. He said there’s almost never the need to park illegally as a doctor, and if there was an emergency where you had to, you pay the fine – it’s part of the cost of doing the job.

- Whenever we drove by the scene of an accident, my father would stop the car and say to the cops or paramedics, "I'm a physician. Do you need help?" And then breathe a huge sigh of relief when they said things were under control. He hadn't practiced general medicine for many years and didn't want to have to try. But he was sort of one of the Bones McCoy school of medical philosophy {g} - being a doctor is a sacred trust and you're always required to heal, should the occasion arise.

- Okay, so this one shows up in my fiction. Billy Halverson is from my home town in North Dakota. At one point he tells Scott a story about his home town to illustrate the role of the town doctor in the milieu where he grew up. Here’s the story (it’s in Taking Chances):
“You have no idea what a doctor's position is like in a place like that."

I smiled. "You forget - I'm a small town boy myself. The doctor is among the town's royalty, right?"

"Kind of. I think it's more than that. And I bet it's different where I'm from. Partly because it's so hard to get doctors to settle out there. Doc Sherve's the only MD in a 40-mile radius. There are a couple of physicians' assistants, a few RNs, but he's the only doctor. So he kind of does everything: delivers babies, vaccinates kids, takes care of dying truckers, calms down women whose sons have just come out to them." His wry grin showed he had some perspective on this.

"And he pretty much expects everyone to listen to him," he continued. "Well, they do mostly. They depend on him to keep them alive and healthy, they're going to listen. Look, let me tell you something that happened a couple years ago - it sort of shows what it's like being a doctor there.

"I heard it from this girl I know from Thompson." Billy got a kind of far away look in his eyes. "Our town's small - 1200 people, but Thompson's not even a quarter of that. And almost all farms, really. So, anyway, there was a bad fire in a silo near Thompson - nobody knows how it started. Dry weather, lots of wheat in a silo, kind of an accident waiting to happen. The farmer was trapped inside, probably overcome with the smoke. And somebody called Doc Sherve, since he's the nearest doctor."

Telepaths are great storytellers. The far away look intensified and I knew to let down my mental shields. A clear picture of a burning grain silo entered my head, along with a crowd of worried neighbors and a crusty old doctor driving up in a fast car.

"It took a while to get there and by the time he arrived there was really no chance this guy was still alive. The fire was pretty much out, just smoldering, you know? Well, still pretty dangerous. And hard and scary, to climb all the way up the silo to get to this guy. Doc's not an athletic kind of guy - I think he'd find just the climb real hard. And it would be one thing if Doc thought he was saving somebody, but he pretty much must have known he was just going up there to declare the man dead.

"So, the whole town is standing there watching and he says 'Who's going with me? I need someone to carry my bag.' And the way this girl told me, there was an awkward silence because not one of the townsfolk steps forward. Too scared, I guess. And then this guy nobody even knows, who was just passing through, says 'I will.'" Billy paused and the picture in my mind's eye grew stronger. The silent townspeople shuffling their feet, looking at the ground, and this rugged-looking stranger stepping up - long hair and jeans and Native American features. Looking straight at the doctor as he says he'll help him. Billy continued talking. "So he asks for a length of rope and ties Doc's bag to it and slings it over his shoulder. And goes in front of Doc, kind of talking him up as he goes, a rung or two ahead of him.

"They get to the top and find the guy who was trapped and like they thought, he was already dead. Doc examined him and declared him dead and then they used the rope to lower him down and came down themselves. Well, now that the job was done, Doc was hopping mad, at least the way this girl told me. He just totally reamed the whole town out. Told them that they should be ashamed of themselves, letting some stranger do what they wouldn't do for their own neighbor. And they just took it - stood there apologetically with their heads down while he's yelling at them." Billy, having finished his story, looked me in the eye, bringing me back to the present. "Do you get the point?"

"Yeah, the townspeople listened to him. They didn't get mad back - they're dependent on him and they pretty much have to take it if he's going to scold them." I paused. "And he's got a huge ego and huge sense of entitlement to go ahead and do that - just tell them what they should have done like a father scolding a bunch of errant children. Still, going up there was an awfully brave thing to do. Particularly since, as you point out, he couldn't save the guy, anyway. He sounds like a pretty forceful and complex guy."

Billy nodded. "He is. But it's more than just that he yelled at them. It's all about what your place is, I think. Where I come from, everybody knows their place, knows what they should and shouldn't do. Usually that's what guides everything you do in life. But those people in Thompson were too scared to remember their place, so they didn't do what they should have done. So, some guy whose place wasn't climbing up a burning silo - for someone who wasn't his neighbor - had to do it. And that got Doc Sherve mad as hell because it was his place to tell them when they didn't do what they should.

"But his place was more than that. He wouldn't think he was brave to go up there, 'cause it was his place to do that. I'm sure he wished he could save that guy, but that's only part of his job, part of his place. He's the doctor; the doctor declares people dead; so he goes. I truly think it wouldn't even occur to him not to go." He paused, and smiled again. "But it also wouldn't occur to him to carry his own bag."

It really happened. My father was the doctor in the story. The story meant something entirely different to him when he told it from what I got when I heard it. To him, it was a really interesting story about the guy who stopped to help him. That's a side plot I didn't even include, because to me the story was all about what it meant to be the town doctor in Northwood, ND.

- My father and his partner, Bob Delano, built a medical practice and a clinic –ultimately a hospital – that served the town they lived in and a number of towns around that had no doctors, as well as the farms in the area. A GP in the city spends a lot of time referring to specialists. They were GPs who truly did everything – there was no one to refer patients to. Once they had to operate on a child with a ruptured spleen. Not only had neither of them ever done the operation – neither of them had ever seen it done. That child is older than me, and was just fine. She would have died if they hadn’t performed the procedure. They looked it up in a book. My dad said she would probably hate them for her big scar – they wanted to make sure they made a big enough incision that they could see what they were doing.

- My parents came to Northwood, ND with nothing but debts. When we moved, they left with $50,000 in savings (a lot of money in 1962) and donated their house to the hospital. It was big enough at that point to need an administrator, and if the job of hospital administrator came with a rent-free house it was a much more attractive position.

- One of my father’s sayings was “Planning a trip is half the fun.” We used to tease him by saying, “Plan two and go nowhere. Save lots of money.” But we also took it to heart, because he taught us to. When Joel was 10 and I was 9 (and we were at the time the oldest two of five kids) we went on a family vacation to Washington, DC. We’d never been. Dad bought a book – Washington on Five Dollars a Day – and gave it to us and told us we could plan the trip. And we did! The two of us read it really thoroughly and took copious notes and thought about what we wanted to see. We planned everything but the hotel we stayed in and the route to DC from Connecticut. We had itineraries for rainy days or sunny days, so we could switch them around, planned sights to see and how to get from one to another and where to eat and how long to stay at each. We did monuments at night. We did the FBI, the wax museum, lots and lots of time in the Smithsonian. We had times we were all together and times we divided into Big Kid Activities with one parent and Little Kid Activities with the other.

The Smithsonian is not only a collection of museums but also a research facility. Joel had read about some research that was being done on making food out of algae to solve world hunger. It sounded really interesting but the article (in Scientific American?) said that the facility wasn’t open to the public. He really wanted to go and Dad said, “Let’s try.” So that was the Big Kid Activity one afternoon. Dad and Joel and I showed up and asked for the scientist Joel had read about in the article. Dad said, “I’m Dr. Rosenberg from the Institute of Living and my children are interested in the research you’re doing here.” He said it with such authority that the guy thought he should know who he was. He gave us a great tour. At the end he asked, “Um, what is the Institute of Living?”

“It’s a psychiatric hospital,” my dad replied, leaving the research botanist scratching his head. I still love traveling and I love planning trips.

- My father had a lot of aphorisms that he used to say regularly. One of them was “the worst thing about a bad experience is to learn nothing from it.” It’s a saying that makes up in meaning some of what it lacks in sentence structure. Being rejected by my family of origin was a bad experience, a terrible experience. I’ve tried to learn something from it. Most of what I’ve learned is that family estrangement hurts everybody. It hurts the ostracizer every bit as much as the ostracized. It becomes more and more entrenched over time, because the people who reject you feel like they have to keep doing it in order to justify their behavior so far. So this is what I’ve learned and this is what I’ve done with it: I am not and will not be party to family estrangement. I am the victim of it, but I will not participate. I remain open to contact with any and all relatives and reach out whenever opportunity presents itself, even to those who have again and again rejected me. It’s a horrible thing to do to someone and it’s been done to me and continues to be done to me. But it has never been and will never be something I do.
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