|Painting courtesy Duane Dorshimer dorshimer.com|
Recently I’ve been trying to sort out my earliest memories from childhood. Considering my dearth of memories prior to about third grade, one could conclude that I was a child prodigy in the art of not paying attention. I’ve always had a dreamy, introspective mind, subject to flights of fancy, impressionistic wandering and habitual drift. However there are a few actual events I recall with clarity. They’re quite ordinary things, but for some reason they’ve managed to stick in the gooey, discombobulated jumble between my ears.
My first memory is standing in a tobacco field on a bright summer afternoon; the waxy plants billowing over my head in a hot breeze. A tall, muscular black man who worked for my father leaned down to my eye level. With rivulets of sweat dripping from his forehead and an unfiltered Camel dangling from his lips, he asked me how old I was. I deeply pondered the question for a few moments and said “I believe I’m four.”
Whether it was my long deliberation or the solemness of my young voice I can’t say, but the man erupted in a fit of hysterical laughter that ended only when he was overtaken by a spell of phlegmy coughing. When he’d sufficiently recovered he reached into his pocket and handed me a dime - a princely sum in those days - and told me to buy myself some candy. He turned away and hocked up a few foamy bits of mucus which he casually spat onto the chunky red clay of Southside Virginia. I have tried to remember the man’s name but it’s been lost to history’s mists, and why this banal exchange stands out in my mental clutter I really don’t know.
The next clear memory I have is my mother taking me to Dr. Bill Haywood’s rural clinic for my pre-school vaccinations. Along with the required injections Dr. Bill, as everyone called him, told my mother that I should also have the newfangled polio vaccine. The shots had hurt like hell, and neither me nor my mother were too crazy about the idea of additional punctures. Dr. Bill said not to worry, that I could take it orally. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he then produced a sugar cube that had been impregnated with the magic medicinal, and instructed me to eat it. We only used powdered sugar at our house, and I had never seen a sugar cube before. It was delicious.
Dr. Bill was our family doctor, not to mention the only doctor for miles around. He was the sort of jack-of-all-trades physician you don’t find much anymore. He set broken bones, removed suspicious cysts, treated childhood maladies, cared for incontinent elders and rarely faced an illness he couldn’t lick with a combination of time tested meds and a jovial bedside manner. He was a very important person in my young life. He delivered me at his office when my mother went into labor a few weeks early. He attended to my various youthful poxes, infections and boneheaded injuries. When I was 10 years old he drove me to the hospital, quite rapidly as I recall, because I required an emergency appendectomy. He even assisted in the operating room while his brother Walter, the town’s only surgeon, removed the seriously inflamed but wholly unnecessary organ.
My recollection of the details concerning that hair-on-fire trip to the hospital are a little hazy, probably because I was writhing in pain and dehydrated from projectile vomiting, but I assume it took place in Dr. Bill’s prized 1953 Jaguar XK-120. He was passionate about that car, and after long days of caring for us country bumpkins, he certainly deserved to blow off a little steam by zipping along our winding roads with the top down. Unfortunately that car also indirectly led to his untimely demise during my junior year in high school. By then Dr. Bill’s beloved Jag was 20 years old and, while never a highly reliable car, it had become extremely hinky in its dotage. Very early one morning Dr. Bill noticed the car was making a strange clanging noise, and decided to drop it off at Mr. Barnwell’s garage. The garage had not yet opened, so he dropped the keys in a special box Mr. Barnwell had installed on the front door for such purposes. The clinic was only about a mile away, and Dr. Bill decided the walk would do him good. But it was still quite dark out and a thick fog was rising out of the nearby Staunton River. As Dr. Bill ambled across state road 501, he failed to notice an approaching truck full of chickens driven by a man from Red Oak who wasn’t yet fully awake.
The loss of Dr. Bill stunned our community. The Episcopal church in town overflowed with mourners at his memorial service. It also represented the end of an era. Dr. Bill’s practice was eventually taken over by Dr. Shuthanaporn, a recent arrival from Thailand who spoke English with a thick, exotic accent the provincial ears of southern Virginia found indecipherable. Unlike Dr. Bill, Dr. Shuthanaporn did not know you, the names of your kids or your grandmother’s medical history. He was very busy and didn’t have time for your thoughts, emotions or funny stories about fishing trips. To him you were a page of vital signs, statistics and test results. He was the future.