Country Doctors – A Fading Memory

House Call (CCBY20 tedkerwin)

At eighty-seven, Dr. Russell Dohner still sees patients who come by his office off the town square in Rushville, Illinois, just like he has done for the past sixty years. But time marches on, and Dr. Dohner has been forced to more than double his fee for a first-come-first-served office visit. On their way out, each patient now pays Edith Moore, the eighty-five-year-old secretary, a five dollar fee.

Dr. Dohner doesn’t accept medical insurance–he says it’s not worth the bother. “I always just wanted to be a doctor to help people with their medical problems and that’s all it’s for. It was never intended to make a lot of money.” You can read more of Dr. Dohner’s story here, in the LaCross Tribune.

From the late 1950s, I grew up in a small, rural town in northeast Ohio. There was a little white house across the street from us, where Dr. List had his office. With wisps of gray hair, black-rimmed glasses, and a white coat, Doc List stitched me up when I fell partway through a glass storm door, prescribed medicine whenever I got sick, and he even fitted me with my first pair of glasses. My parents always paid him in cash. Back then, Doc List either didn’t take medical insurance, or we didn’t have that kind of insurance. I’m not sure which was the case, but whenever we needed medical care, we just walked across the street.

Fortunately for me, Doc List’s son followed in his father’s footsteps. When I was about thirteen, and too sick to even walk across the street, the young Dr. List made the last house call I can remember. He ended up sending me straight to the hospital with a 105 degree temperature, and a bad case of viral pneumonia.

In the story, An Irish Miracle, Doc McGowan makes a house call to look after Alastar Connolly, after he took a nasty fall and split his head open. Dr. Dohner, both Dr. Lists, and Doc McGowan are caring, dedicated country doctors. The only difference is that Doc McGowan was a large animal veterinarian, affectionately, a horse doctor. Since his patients usually weighed well over 1000 pounds, it wasn’t really his fault that he might have been a little heavy-handed with the local anesthetics he administered to Alastar.

Would you trust an old country doctor, like the ones in this story, with your medical care today? Their training and methods might have been from a bygone era, but they each cared deeply for their patients, many of whom were also friends and neighbors. Going to a doctor’s office these days seems to begin with “Has your insurance changed?” instead of “It’s nice to see you, how are you feeling?”, and end with a string of cryptic billing statements and frustrating telephone calls that can stretch out for months afterward.

Something in between might be nice.

All the best,
Rob

Homeless Horseman – A Real Life Alastar Connolly

Horse-Keeper (CCBY20 BRAYDAWG on Flickr)

In the story, An Irish Miracle, Alastar Connolly’s horses were not only his companions, they were his best friends. Friends that always listened. Friends that never judged. (Well, almost never.) During dark times, Alastar’s horses were his only family, and he often slept in their stalls, burrowed deep in the fresh hay.

A real-life Alastar Connolly made the local news recently. A state fire marshal inspection on the backstretch of the Cal Expo Harness Racing Track near Sacramento ousted farrier Johnny Walker, and many other grooms, from the barn tack rooms where many of them had been living for years, near the horses they cared for and loved.

From the report in The Sacramento Bee:

Farrier Johnny Walker, who has owned and trained horses at Cal Expo
for 20 years, has been sleeping on a cot outside the stall of his
only horse, The Goose.

"He's my family," said Walker, 64. "I've had him since he was a baby.
I just love him."

"As long as we're racing and keep making money, that keeps me going,"
Walker said. "But if I couldn't keep (my horse), that scares me."

Hopefully, after renovations ordered by the fire marshal are completed, Johnny Walker and his fellow farriers and grooms will be reunited with their living quarters, and their horses, at least in the short term. Tack rooms were never meant to be permanent places of residence.

Alastar Connolly would have empathized with Johnny’s physical and emotional plight. As a boy, being separated from his beloved Molly and Wilbur started Alastar on a journey that took him half way around the world. Fortunately, looking back on his life in Ireland, Alastar wrote:

"I lived a life filled with horses that I loved as friends and
friends that I loved as family."

You can read the story of the real Johnny Walker (not the pipe-smoking gentleman in the picture above) and his horse, The Goose, in the article Cal Expo racetrack workers scramble to find housing during renovations, on The Sacramento Bee website.

My editor, Robin Martin of Two Songbirds Press, brought Johnny Walker’s story to my attention. Having an editor who expertly helps me polish my words, and who watches out for me between manuscripts, is truly a blessing. Thanks, Robin!

All the best,
Rob

A Skyline Drive Memory

Pig Farm from the Skyline Drive

A dear fellow blogger, Cameron of growing grace farm, wrote about a recent drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway with her daughter. Her post, What Tunnels Can Teach Us About Awareness, is a lovely metaphor about remembering to travel through life with a heightened sense of the world around us … and it sparked a childhood memory I’d like to share.

Cameron’s mention of the Blue Ridge Parkway brought back a childhood memory of my dad. A 1960s family vacation found us on the Skyline Drive, winding along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, above the Shenandoah River, and through some of the most beautiful countryside in America. At one scenic overlook, Pop pointed out a pig farm down in the distant valley. The white farmhouse had a lazy curl of smoke rising from its chimney. In the sunshine and crisp, late summer air, a slight breeze brought a hint of woodsmoke and further evidence of the pigs far below up to our noses. It was a good, earthy smell. It told us of the family farm, teeming with life below.

The Skyline Drive is over a hundred twisty miles long, and the speed limit back in 1966 was something like thirty-five miles an hour. But with so many sights to see along the way, Pop drove it slowly, with frequent stops for “Kodak moments”. It was late evening by the time we reached the northern end of the route in Front Royal, Virginia. We hadn’t planned ahead very well, with only a bag of butterscotch candy in the car, so we were all very hungry by the time we found a restaurant. I’d never seen grilled pineapple on ham before, but the smoke from the charring steaks didn’t sit well with my over-hungry, eight-year-old stomach, and I couldn’t eat much.

The smokey restaurant didn’t bother Pop in the least, however, and that night he had what he said was one of the best meals he could remember. He had a huge Black Angus steak, but he talked about his baked potato, rubbed with rock salt, for the rest of the trip. When we got home, he looked forward to duplicating that delicious potato for himself.

It’s odd how certain things stick in an eight-year-old’s memory for the rest of his life. My guess is that Cameron’s daughter will forever remember the drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway with her mom, and how all the dark tunnels through those thick, old mountains made her feel on that late summer day, way back in 2012.

All the best,
Rob

We Love Our Animals

Have you ever wondered why we humans form such strong bonds with our animal companions? Here’s a simple thought-experiment to illustrate one possible reason:

Put your spouse / significant other and your dog in the trunk
of your car. When you let them out several hours later, which
one will be happy to see you? (Seriously, this is only a
thought-experiment. Do not try this at home, or anywhere else,
for that matter!)

The unconditional love of companion animals, coupled with their unique ability to listen to everything from our superficial complaints to our darkest fears–without uttering a single judgmental word–is a beautiful thing. Here’s a brief look at just a few of the many animals that have touched the hearts of my family over the years.

Jocko the Spider Monkey

My dad grew up in rural Ohio, the youngest of several siblings. Along with the regular farm animals, horses, and hunting dogs, he and his brothers had a few more “exotic” pets. About once a month, a traveling salesman Pop described as a self-important little bald guy in a sweat-stained suit would come around to take orders for feed and grain. One particularly hot summer afternoon, the salesman walked, uninvited, into the barn to get out of the sun. From the hayloft, Jocko silently dropped onto the little man’s back and wrapped his long tail around the man’s pudgy neck. I’m sure my dad and his brothers were hooting with laughter as the salesman ran from the barn, screaming about the huge snake that was around his neck, about to strangle him.

Rumor had it that there was also a six-foot-long alligator living behind the warm stove in the kitchen of that farmhouse, too. Someone had brought it back from Florida as a baby. Family legend? Maybe. Maybe not.

The Old Farmer and His Pigs

I heard this story from my grandma, a wise and illiterate woman who emigrated from Romania to America in the early 1900s, babushka and all. The old farmer that lived across the road raised pigs to supplement the family income during the Great Depression. Every year, the farmer would sell two pigs to the local butcher, and every year, he would cry his eyes out for three days afterwards. Grandma thought he was a silly man, but I think those pigs must have listened to the old farmer’s darkest fears. If you’re interested, The Dictionary is a short story about my mother growing up in Grandma and Grandpa’s house with only two books, and you’ll know why the house I grew up in looked a lot like a library.

Wilbur and Molly, Two Shaggy Horses

These two horses put in their time on my other grandparent’s farm, plowing and pulling wagons. My dad grew up with them, and he loved them dearly. A few years after he’d gotten married and moved to his own house, Pop brought my mother and my older brother by the farm for a Sunday family dinner. He parked his pride and joy, a shiny black 1952 Chevrolet, in the yard, under the shade of a big tree near the house. After dinner, my brother and his cousins went outside to play, while the men smoked and drank coffee, and the women chatted in the kitchen and washed the dishes.

It was early evening when Pop walked out to his car, and the low sun highlighted the deep scratches running the length of the Chevrolet’s hood. As the story goes, Pop started yelling for my brother, sure that he was somehow responsible for the damage, and ready to mete out a harsh punishment. Just as my brother came skidding to a halt next to him, unaware that he was in deep trouble, Molly reached her head over the fence next to the car, and continued to scratch her itchy chin along the hood, the rivets in her halter peeling paint off with every stroke, as Wilbur stood beside her. Confused, my brother watched the expression on Pop’s face go from dark to light, as he started to laugh. He was still laughing when he walked over to hug Molly and Wilbur’s necks and scratch Molly’s chin, a safe distance away from the hood of his favorite car.

So now you know that it’s no coincidence that shaggy little horses named Wilbur and Molly play a prominent part in the story of An Irish Miracle. I only said that any resemblances to actual people were purely coincidental. Some of the horses? Well . . . not so much.

Cricket, My Family’s First Schnauzer

There have been a lot of Miniature Schnauzers in our family over three generations, but Cricket was the first. I was a first-grader when we brought her home, supposedly a puppy for me. But it wasn’t long before we all realized that she was my dad’s dog. He would make her wait by the garage when he went to the mailbox, and when he came back, she greeted him like he’d been gone for half her life. Cricket rode everywhere with Pop in his pickup truck, her head poking out the window right below the pipe clamped in his teeth. When he got out, he taught her to wait on the seat. When he clapped his hands, she would launch herself straight into his arms. On the rare occasions it happened, Cricket hated to be left alone. To this day, I still don’t know how she reached those high curtains, but they were shredded and tattered when we got home.

Pop has been gone for over thirty years now, although I still hear his voice with a hello or a word of encouragement from time to time. Cricket has been gone even longer, but I’ll bet she’s still riding on Pop’s lap, with her fuzzy face in the breeze. And I’ll bet that pipe is still clamped in his teeth, too.

Corky and Yankee Joe

Yankee Joe was a sweet, seventy-pound Dalmatian (all ‘a’s, no ‘o’s) and big brother to Corky, my immediate family’s first Schnauzer. At fifteen pounds, Corky was the boss, and Yankee was happy to go along. His joy in life was to run at top speed until something solid got in his way. He took my wife lawn-skiing on several occasions. An unlikely pair, Corky and Yankee got along famously, despite their size difference.

We adopted Yankee Joe from a Dalmatian kennel owned by Karl and Barbara, and in turn, they adopted us. (As a gift, I photographed their daughter’s wedding, even though I was more nervous than the lovely young bride.) Karl and Barbara invited us to bring nine-month-old Yankee Joe and go with them to the Dalmatian Club of America’s national show in Fort Collins, Colorado. Four-hundred-and-fifty spotted dogs in one extremely well-run Holiday Inn was a sight I will never forget.

I won’t ever forget the eager-to-please, sit-in-your-lap Yankee Joe and his little-tough-guy buddy, Corky, either.

Bandit and Murphy, My Writing Companions

Bandit is around thirteen years old now, still very healthy, although going a bit deaf. He’s the sweetest, most gentle Schnauzer I’ve ever seen. Three years ago, the amazing veterinarians and students at the University of Georgia Small Animal Hospital pulled his little behind out of the fire for us, after ten days in intensive care. The clinic was ninety miles from our home, and the vet or the student taking care of him called me twice a day, every day, without fail. They took as good a care of me through that ordeal as they did my sad little Bandit, and for that, I am forever grateful.

Murphy is the eternal puppy. Even though he’s fully grown, at seven years old, he’s about half the size of a “normal” Miniature Schnauzer. I thought his litter mates looked a little odd, and when we brought him home, he fit in the palm of my hand, but by the time we realized we only got half a Schnauzer, he was too entrenched in our hearts to even ask for half of our money back. Everyone still asks if he’s a puppy, and they say he’s really cute. My response to that is always, “He’s cute alright . . . ’til you get to know him!”

I could go on and on about these two, who listen to me, and never judge me, but if you want to, you can read more about them in my post entitled My Writing Companions.

The strong bond between humans and horses is a recurring theme in the story, An Irish Miracle. As you can see, we Mahans love our animals. If you read this entire post, I know you love yours, too. Please feel free to comment and leave a story about a special animal companion in your life.

Good night, Nippy, Cricket, Gabe, Muffin, Bucky, Daisy, Yankee Joe, and Corky. I love you guys.

All the best,
Rob