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DocBill Annett Salem-News.com
The best doctor in the world is your veterinarian – he can't ask his patients how they feel. He's got to just know.
(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - There is perhaps no greater cliché in the history of the Western United States and the Canadian Provinces, than that of the kindly old country doctor. He's been depicted by Norman Rockwell, chronicled in the real person of Dr. Dafoe, who delivered the Dionne Quints under primitive conditions, and his role has been overdone ad nauseum in literary mag and popular press alike, endlessly trotted out in personal reminiscences by women who populate clubby writers' groups. But for me, the platitude takes on three-dimensional shape, stark realism and, from the vantage point of some 75 years, human, lifelike form in the person of the Doc of my childhood in a little western Canadian town.
Dr. Arthur M. Day was I think a graduate of McGill or perhaps Queens, not that it matters. God knows how he found his way to our town, which was pioneered and shaped its tiny Main Street around 1912. He was a rotund, balding man, Doc: the tradition, naturally, would have it no other way. The inevitable blue serge suit was baggy, of course, the horn-rimmed spectacles perched on a florid nose above a perennially smiling mouth.
I'm talking about the Dirty Thirties, and it goes without saying that they were dirty to a degree difficult nowadays even to imagine. Doc's role was quite simply the universal backstop for any and all pain, suffering or basic necessity of life. In return for which, I doubt very much if he ever sent out a bill or an invoice in his 50 years of practice. I try to imagine him in the context of today's farcical mechanized Medicare, and there is just no fit.
How did Doc succeed as a living contradiction in terms, ministering both wisely and too well, including throughout a solid decade of unrelenting crop failures in a region devoted to wheat farming? Doc was not somebody you paid, except as an expression of bonhomie, or perhaps personal amity. He delivered your child on your farm in the middle of the night, in a howling 30-below gale? You might give him a chicken, or a $10 cream check, or perhaps just a makeshift meal or a belt of home-made liquor.
At an early stage, perhaps in settlement of some medical service, he acquired a few acres of land (the going rate was about a dollar an acre), added a few head of white-faced Hereford cattle, and almost by default Doc saw it build itself, even in the worst of times, to become a working ranch. He hired an old unemployed (who wasn't?) cowhand named Mark Sebry to run his spread, and in an environment where nobody had anything, the Herefords paid the freight.
Doc was not without financial acumen, although he never showed any sign of using it, simply because he didn't have time for that sort of thing. A.P. Henry, the town's banker, once told my father that Doc would come into the bank perhaps once a month, confront a teller and begin to disgorge the capacious pockets of that baggy blue suit. Out would come extraneous crumpled banknotes, scribbled postal money orders, the faint financial detritus of that depression-racked town and surrounding country.
Doc's deposits may have seemed a lot for that time and place, when the Provincial Government's stipend for a farmer's family “on relief” was nine dollars (that's $9) a month. But it was hopelessly scant revenue for the running of Doc's nonstop circus. Financial smarts? Years later, when an act of Parliament created the Bank of Canada, the nation's central bank, Doc was named to the board of directors.
His bailiwick, that is quantifying the total area devoid of any other medical practitioner, as closely as I can remember, extended 35 miles west, 50 miles east, 45 miles north and 30 miles south. What's that? Call it more than 7,000 square miles. He always, in my recollection, drove a sagging dusty Chevy sedan that got him around, whatever the time of day or night, through sunshine, dark of night, in rain and snow. House calls? He did nothing but. It was assumed.
Our town hospital was a three story house on Main Street. Doc owned it, as well as the property it stood on. I have no idea concerning the funding or the logistics of the government's medical care in Alberta at the time. Perhaps there was none. In our town, nobody paid to be hospitalized. I've always assumed that Doc paid the overhead on that establishment, the power and light, the provisioning, the staff – a matron, two or three nurses, a cook and a janitor. I don't recall that there was ever a book keeper, much less an accountant. I doubt very much if there were any books of account. Nobody seemed to complain or wonder about it. Least of all Doc.
Two anecdotes will suffice.
One summer evening, Doc and my father and George McFetridge were sitting in George's office in the front of his Chev dealership and garage – one of the principal institutions on Main Street. They were addressing a bottle of Johnny Walker, one of the rare but staple elements in the lifestyle of the mid-Thirties. It was early, but all was quiet on Main Street.
Into this pastoral scene burst the figure of Roy Sprung, a wizened rancher from the Neutral Hills north of town. Roy had a white kerchief around his swollen jaw. He was obviously in terrible pain. “Doc,” he gasped, “you got to pull this gawddam tooth.”
Needless to say, if there was not another medical practitioner in 7,000 square miles, there was not a dentist in three times that area. Doc of course did it all, just as he performed marriage counselling, obstetrics and gynecology, frequent surgery, simple death trauma therapy, and often served as veterinarian in the case of horses or other livestock.
Doc leaned forward and peered through his glasses, aslant on his nose, into Roy's mouth, permanently stained by a continuous chaw of tobacco. One hand extended behind him, Doc intoned: “George, give me a pair of pliers.”
George, Johnny Walker bottle poised, said: “Doc, you can't operate without you give Roy a shot of this anaesthetic.”
He handed Roy the bottle and then reached to hand Doc a greasy pair of pliers. Roy readily elevated the bottle and gurgled for an alarming length of time. Then Doc inserted the pliers, and in seconds had seized, twisted and removed a huge nicotine-stained molar, dripping with blood.
“That should fix you up, Roy,” Doc said, wiping his hands.
Roy wasn't quite so sure. He groped with a dirty finger in and around the opposite side of his mouth. “I think I got another bad one on this side, Doc,” he said.
George, in his wet-nurse role, answered for the surgeon. “Roy, I don't guess we got enough Johnny to get through all your dental work.”
The other story is more elemental. Doc had spent all one night delivering a baby to a farmer's wife 30 miles to the south of town. It had been a difficult delivery for mother, child, and of course Doc. The farmer had little to offer, but he sat Doc down to a breakfast of oatmeal porridge.
Driving back to town, Doc encountered a service truck from Alberta Government Telephones, and stopped to talk to the driver. It turned out the AGT man was heading toward that same farmer's house, where Doc had recently attended.
“They haven't paid the bill for three months,” the phone company guy said. “I got to cut their phone off.”
“You shouldn't oughta do that,” Doc said. “New baby and all, they need that phone.” He proceeded to dig in his baggy pockets and paid the farmer's phone bill.
The telephone company employee proceeded to the farm, where he informed the farmer that his phone could remain operative because Doc had paid the bill.
“Ol' Doc, he's quite a guy,” said the farmer. “He left a $20 bill under his plate when I give him breakfast.”
In the final paragraph of “The Razor's Edge,” Somerset Maugham wrote something to the effect that, in this world there are very few men who achieve something that most of us would like to attain but rarely do – a state of elemental goodness. To me, Doc was one of those few good men.
There is a story about a doctor in a small midwestern town, who maintained a second-storey office over the general store. At his door's entrance, there was a sign, with an arrow pointing up the stairs, which stated simply: “Doctor upstairs.” As the story goes, when the doctor died, the townspeople took the sign and hung it on his tombstone.
I don't know if that story is true. I don't even know if there is an Upstairs. But if there is, I'm sure that Doc would qualify.
Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.
At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.
He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.
Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.
You can write to Bill Annett at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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