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Long Gone

Richard Willis

Doctors, “Ventinaries,” and Other Violence

Long Gone is what I recall about growing up on an Iowa farm from 1933 to 1947. Two great events shaped that period: the Depression and the Second World War. I served in the Army in Japan as an interpreter, and my story tells of country school, hand-to-mouth farms, old-fashioned farming methods, small town life, and the dark corners where things were concealed that to this day no one mentions. The memoir is framed in my younger brother’s funeral. Within that frame it generally follows seasonal farm activities: spring, planting and school; summer, haymaking and harvest; fall, corn husking; winter, blizzards and death.

Previous installment: A hundred bushels a day

My first serious encounter with doctors - it was called minor surgery, but it was serious enough to satisfy my curiosity for all time - came in the summer of 1934 when I had my tonsils out and was circumcised on the same day. I was seven years old. You may wonder why this uncomfortable business was done so late. I can only say that I was born in Baylor Hospital in Dallas, Texas, where what later became routine was not done at all at that time, things like the circumcision of male infants. Whether that fact reflected enlightened medical views at Baylor, or merely southern lassitude, I have no way of knowing. 

In the spring of the year when I was seven, my tonsils had been badly infected for some time, making it difficult for me to swallow. Worse, the foreskin on my penis seemed to be growing shut. Not yet having developed the compulsive interest in the apparatus that was to plague me later, I simply accepted the decisions of my elders, although why they chose to have both matters attended to on the same day, I still do not understand. Surgery was presented as the sole option for conditions that would only worsen with the passage of time. There was nothing to be gained by waiting. 

All surgery was then done under general anesthesia, and, in preparing me for the operation, my mother concentrated on making sure I would not panic and fight when the ether cone was put over my face, and that I would not resist the effects of the drug as it was dripped onto the gauze. She made it seem like a game, or an adventure - but she didn’t say anything about whether it was going to hurt.

It all started well enough. I marched up the stairs to the doctors’ office, and hopped up on the table. There was nothing about the place to worry me. The two old doctors, Brown and Patterson, looked just as they always did in their vests and shirt sleeves. It may be they kept most of their apparatus out of sight in order not to scare me.

I lay down on the table in their office, and did as I had been told – inhaling deeply to breathe in the fumes of the stuff they poured onto the cone over my nose. I didn’t care much for the smell of it. The next thing I knew, I was sitting upright on the operating table. My first words were, “Oh, my peter!  Oh, my pecker!” Somebody giggled. My small protest was afterward thought to have been very funny. They carried me down the stairs to the street, put me on the backseat of the Model-T, and we drove back to the farm

I was put on a cot made up for me at the foot of the stairs in the front room, and there I stayed for about a week. My grandpa made a bed table for me that served double duty keeping the weight of the bedclothes off my wounded middle, and giving me a place on which to eat and rest my books. 

Mom’s sister, my great-aunt Florence, who then and later had an eye out for my betterment, chose this occasion to present me with an old, twenty-volume set of The Book of Knowledge. It had been published around 1910, and although out of date, it was full of a wide range of fascinating information, just what I needed to fill an otherwise boring interval. I can probably credit the grab-bag quality of my mind to Aunt Florence’s timely gift.

Many years later, an Army doctor peering into my open mouth said, “Someone sure slashed hell out of your throat.” It was the first and only informed critique I ever had on that part of the surgery. As to the rest of it, there haven’t been any complaints. All in all, I recovered well enough, although it was a long time before I could tolerate the smell of anything that had ether in it.

If mere numbers were a true measure, we had more doctors than we needed in our town of 2,200. Doctor Hollis had his office in his home across the street east of the Court House. Doctors Patterson and Brown, and their nurse, Betty Clements, shared offices over Gode’s Dry Goods. And there was one more doctor in the spooky vine-covered hospital that stood, dark and unused, across the street north of the town square, looking like the setting for a horror movie. The doctor there was the uncle of a high school chum of mine, but the building was gloomy, always empty. I was scared of it, and I never went near the place without a shudder. Perhaps there had once been a patient in the old hospital. If so, I never heard of it. There was no other hospital in town at that time.  People could choose to go to one of the big hospitals in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids, or they could die at home.

We also had a couple of chiropractors - a man named Dutcher, and a woman who went by the name of Spence, although her married name was Bates. Doctor Spence was a great favorite of my mother’s, but I hated her with a passion. When I was about three years old, I came down with some respiratory disorder. My mother, in a panic, and short of money, I suppose, called Doctor Spence who treated me with hot packs. 

I was tied into a high chair, and in one-hour sessions for three days running, the pair of them applied hot towels to my throat. Maude could put her hands into water that was near scalding hot, but the water they used for those packs was too hot even for her. I screamed my head off, begging them to stop, but nothing fazed them; they kept on with it. From that time until the day she died, I fantasized about how I would dispatch Doctor Spence should she ever fall into my hands. With the passage of time, my feelings toward her have softened, and I think now I would do nothing more than have her burned at the stake. Maude always insisted Doctor Spence had saved my life, and that may be so, but she also bent my soul pretty badly. 

Doc Patterson was very much a small-town doctor. He was genial and on the tall side, with a pleasant Irish mug on him. He knew enough to get by, and, so far as we were aware, he had never actually killed anybody. Boys my age went to him to get him to fill out the medical examination required for Cub Scouts.
Doctor Brown, on the other hand, was an interesting character. On the short side, if he had been younger, we would probably have described him as burly. He looked a little like pictures of Benjamin Franklin. Because he was a keen diagnostician, Doc Brown was often called in for consultation by the staff of the University Hospital in Iowa City. His daughters later urged him to write the story of his life, but he refused to do it.  His reluctance to set down anything about his experiences was a great loss, I think. He had probably delivered half the population of the county, and performed kitchen-table surgery on a good part of the other half.

Doc Brown did some of the many surgeries our neighbor, Bernice Hartz, had undergone during her life. After one such operation, Brown was getting his things together on his way back to town, but he couldn’t find his hat. Everyone looked high and low for it. Finally, someone came forward with a hat so battered and disreputable they had been reluctant to suggest it belonged to the doctor. Brown accepted it, and put it on with a grunt, saying, “That’s my barn hat.”

Doc Brown drove a Model-T. He was totally blind in one eye, and couldn’t see very well out of the other, so it was a good idea to stay out of his way when he was on the road. He had an extra lens mounted on his glasses frame that he could swing around over his good eye when he really needed to see something. It was just as well, too, that he never drove more than ten or fifteen miles an hour.

Altogether, Doc Brown was a gruff, no-nonsense old fellow. When I was eleven or twelve years old, Maude decided I had better be inoculated against diphtheria, and she sent me to Brown. He looked at me, and said, “How old are you?” I told him. He growled, “You don’t need this.” And that was all there was to that.

When I was about eight, I went to Doc Patterson for a smallpox vaccination. It was an ordeal. Doc broke a little glass vial containing a sterile needle, and then he proceeded to make, slowly, four or five deep scratches – deep enough that they drew blood - on my upper left arm. He squeezed vaccine onto the bloody lines, and packed me off home with the thing loosely bandaged, “Just something to keep the dust off.”

Back at the farm, I spent the rest of the day driving a team on the hayfork. The day following, I wasn’t feeling so good. My arm swelled, I ran a fever and a thick, smelly crust formed over the spot. I still have a vaccination scar as big as a fifty-cent piece.  Although I’ve probably been vaccinated a dozen times since then, and all of them “took,” none was like that first one from Doc Patterson.

When Brown and Patterson died, a doctor named Watts came to Marengo. He opened a hospital in a big frame house on Washington Street just west of the post office.  Watts was not what you would have called a likeable man, short and stocky with an aggressive, big-city manner, a hairline moustache, and a reptilian stare. He had about half the town afraid of him, a fear reinforced by his only-too-obvious willingness to opt for radical surgery no matter what the problem. Watts’ standing was compromised further in our blue-nosed community by the headlong way in which he divorced his wife in order to marry a sexy red-haired nurse. The new Mrs. Watts, the new wife, then immediately (and enthusiastically) set about building a reputation for infidelity.

My grandpa worked for a while as general handyman at the hospital. Pop always said he liked Watts, blaming the difficulties he had in collecting his wages on the doctor’s head nurse. I went to Doc Watts a few times for some trifle or other, to have boils lanced, a big splinter pulled out of my bottom, or to get a tetanus shot after I had punctured myself with a pitchfork. Knowing that he owed my granddad a fair amount of money, I never offered to pay him. A little cheeky for a teenager, I’m afraid, but it was my idea of justice, and, it’s worth noting, he never sent a bill for any of it.

The day after Pop died I was getting on a train in Chicago on my way to Iowa for his funeral, when I met Doc Watts in the La Salle Street station. He had chosen that particular day to take a trip. Watts was, in fact, one of the very few people in Marengo not present when we buried Pop, but his son, Campbell, a doctor in Cedar Rapids, was there, just as he had been so often at my granddad’s house during his last illness. More than fifty years later, Campbell Watts wrote me a note in which he said, “Richard, your grandfather was the finest man I ever knew.” 

Polio was one of the diseases we all dreaded. I don’t believe anyone even thinks about polio now, except to have their children inoculated against it. We called it infantile paralysis because it so often struck kids. Every summer was a fearful time when the polio came. We were warned to avoid crowds, and to stay out of swimming pools. The terror lasted until the first killing frost. No one knew why, but that seemed to put an end to it for the season. 

In a family where going to the doctor was taken to be a moral lapse, the ills and sufferings of our livestock didn’t get a very high priority. We seldom sent for the veterinarian – always called the “ventinary” – but on occasion, with an animal in extremus, we called Doc Gwynne. Gwynne was a good old man, nearly stone deaf, and so short he could barely see over the dash board of his car, a Studebaker coupe with a huge trunk, “big enough to hold all my instruments of war and torture.” Gwynne would come out to the farm, look at the ailing critter, and then tell us, “It’ll be all right,” or, “Knock it in the head.” I never, so help me God, heard him say anything else. During the bone-poor 1930’s, we paid him two dollars for that advice. The old doctor didn’t approve of useless pain, and exploitation for profit wasn’t his game.

If it is true that in our Heavenly Father’s house there are many mansions, I believe Doc Gwynne must have a nice one all to himself, some place where he can sit smiling on his front porch swing, as I used to see him in Marengo, looking out over all the grateful animals he spared unnecessary suffering. 

God knows our livestock paid for it, but the brutal laws of economics made it necessary for us to manage our barnyard surgery on our own. The rule was keep your knife sharp, and cut fast. It was hideous work. There was no thought of anesthesia for animals. It would have been considered outlandish even to suggest such a thing. For the most part, the tasks we had to deal with were docking lambs’ tails, dehorning cattle, and castrating pigs. Cattle have to be dehorned for safety’s sake, and male hogs must be castrated so that they will fatten for market. Getting the lambs’ tails off was by far the least bloody of these unpleasant jobs.

Sheep are not appealing creatures, at least they aren’t as far as I am concerned, and they stink in a way all their own. As to their dim brains, a good illustration is their impervious sense of follow-the-leader. Say you are driving a flock of sheep up a narrow lane. If you were to set a low barrier across their path, the sheep would, of course, jump over it. But, if you were then to remove the barrier, the silly creatures would keep right on jumping over the phantom obstacle. The sickening smell of sheep comes mostly from the lanolin on their wool. This stuff may be good for your hands, but, unrefined, it has an abominable smell, faintly resembling that of roasting lamb, and identical, in my opinion, to the taste of mutton. Still, little lambs have two endearing traits. One is a trick of bounding straight up in the air, seeming to leave the ground with all four feet at once.  The other is, while being suckled by the ewe, their undocked tails waggle furiously. It makes chopping off their tails seem particularly mean, but off they have to come. Left undocked, the tails get fouled with excrement and loaded with maggots.

Lambs lose their tails when they are about four to six weeks old. A hammer, an ax head and a block of wood are the implements used for docking. Lambs’ tails have a separation in the bone about two inches from the base of the spine. The blade of the ax is paced on the tail at that point, backed up by the wood block, and the head of the ax is given a smart rap with the hammer. A little diluted sheep dip is dabbed on the raw end of the stump by way of antiseptic. At least it’s all over quickly.

Sheep dip is a powerful disinfectant that is mixed with water and put in tanks into which sheep are plunged, or dipped. This is ordinarily done after they have been sheared in the spring as a precaution against ticks. Sheep dip has a powerful smell. You knew without asking, even miles away, when a neighbor had dipped his sheep.

A special tool resembling a set of bolt-cutters can be used to dehorn cattle. With   one of those gadgets, the horns can be taken off quickly with one snip. The hard way is to cut them off using a hacksaw, and that is how we did it.

The animal being worked on was locked in a milking stanchion, or its head was tied fast to a post while the horns were being sawed off. The pulp inside the horn contains both blood vessels and nerves. The animal suffers a good deal, and there is a considerable loss of blood. If the horns are just budding, not yet well grown out, the shock of the operation and the loss of blood are both kept to a minimum, but when the horns are well developed, getting them off is a gory mess.

Procrastination was one of Aubrey’s worst faults, one I confess I inherited. He put off dehorning one white-faced bull until each of the horns was nearly a foot long and a good three inches in diameter at the base near the skull. The poor animal never really recovered from the shock of his ordeal. I remember him standing, as if stunned, in the barnyard with great streaks of dried blood running down both sides of his head. He was never any use as a bull afterward, and he had to be sold for slaughter.

 Castrating pigs, simply called cutting them, was the worst of our surgical enterprises. It is a two-man job, and, with Aubrey as the surgeon, it fell to me to catch and hold the victims. Hogs are intelligent animals, and they could sense something unfortunate in the wind as we separated the males from the rest of the herd. As to my feelings about the unseemly task in which I was forced to participate, given the level of antagonism and fear between Aubrey and me, it is just as well that all I knew about Freud at the time was his name.

Diluted sheep-dip again was employed as an antiseptic, although with the filthy conditions of our barns, I can’t imagine any antiseptic powerful enough to do any real good. Having said that, I have to say we never had any losses from infection, and only one fatality during the time I took part in the work. In that one case, the poor creature we castrated crawled into a pile of straw and died there, probably from shock.

Aubrey having assembled his equipment – a can of diluted dip, a whetstone and his castrating knife – a single-bladed pocket knife with a rounded tip instead of a point – he stood by with his hands dripping dip solution while I sidled as quietly as possible among the apprehensively snuffling hogs until one came near enough for me to grab it.

The job is best done before the pigs are too heavy. I never weighed more than 135 pounds while I lived on the farm. It could be a pretty awkward business when the critter I was supposed to hold outweighed me. I had to take the hog’s right hind leg in my left hand, switch the leg to my right hand, grab the right front leg in my left hand, and flop the hog down on his left side, holding him down with my left knee behind his head, and pulling his right hind leg up tightly, but not too tightly, taking care not to press too hard on the hog’s side or belly with my knee, since the weight at that point might cause a rupture through the incision.

Aubreytook the hog’s scrotum between his thumb and forefinger and made a slit about four inches long. Then he removed the testicle, pulling the cords attached to it out at the same time. The cutting was repeated on the other side, and a little diluted sheep-dip was poured into the open wounds. The entire business, of course, was accompanied by hideous shrieks of pain from the hog.

We had a neighbor who used to drop by with a tin can to collect the spoils of our work. His family cooked and ate these “Rocky Mountain oysters,” relishing them as a delicacy, a taste we did not share.

A while back, I read something about salt being used to cauterize wounds. I had seen that very thing demonstrated years before. One of our neighbors, a big, rough character named Everett Sleighmaker, had helped Aubrey slice a tumor the size of two fists off the ham of one of our hogs. The wound bled furiously, and my dad complained to his self-taught surgeon, “That hog’s going to bleed to death.”  Old Ev growled, “He ain’t going to bleed to death. Gimme a bucket of salt.” We brought him a pail of the coarse salt we used to feed to our stock, and he plastered it on the open wound.  I was surprised that the pig didn’t squeal when the salt went on. The bleeding stopped, and the hog survived.

The callousness and indifference to suffering farmers showed toward their animals all to often carried over in the ways they dealt with their own pain. One brutality spawned another. I am not trying to generalize from a single incident, but this is a story that illustrates the point pretty well. 

Our landlord, Tom Willis, had a terrible accident when he was a boy, blinding him on his right side, but he didn’t lose the eye. It wasn’t disfigured, and you had to look closely to see which eye was the bad one. The accident happened during thrashing.

Tom and his brother Will liked to fool around more than they liked to work, and had well-established reputations for getting into trouble. The boys had been running a race to see which of them could be first up on the back of a load of bundles. Someone had stuck a pitchfork down in the rear end of the load so that the tines of the fork curved out between the slats of the rack. Tom was ahead, but he didn’t see the fork when he jumped up on the load. One tine went into his cheek just below the eye, evidently striking the optic nerve.

My great-grandfather, old Dick Willis (he had migrated from England), didn’t stop to ask for details, and he asked no questions about injuries until he had beaten both his sons with a rope’s end on their bare backsides. They called a doctor later. All this took place before the turn of the century. Anti-tetanus vaccine did not even exist, and everyone thought it was miraculous that Tom didn’t die of lockjaw. Whenever Uncle Tom told the story, he quoted his brother Will saying, “I’ve got a ‘O’ on my bottom where that rope hit me yet.”

Farm life was never the pastoral idyll people today try to make it out to have been. We lived with violence all around us – the worst of it, as I think back, was the abuse of livestock. It was an everyday matter, almost a casual experience. Farm animals were kicked and beaten with whatever was at hand – straps, clubs and whips. I watched while Aubrey lost his temper and beat a brood mare, heavy with foal, with the flat of a carpenter’s hammer he happened to have in his hand. 

At a state fair horse-pulling contest, it was a revelation to me to learn that the drivers were disqualified if they whipped their teams or swore at them. One driver who started to lash his horses with the ends of his reins pulled back just in time to avoid being penalized. The crowd laughed at his near-slip.

Men who took exception to these practices were regarded as eccentrics. Billy Sayers raised horses, and people said he made pets of them. One of the veterinarians in town – not dear old Doc Gwynne – complained that Billy was just too soft with his horses, so much so that the vet couldn’t do his work, whatever the hideous chore of the moment may have been. They had to pack Billy off to the house in order that the vet and Billy’s sons could get on with the task at hand.

 Brutality carried over in the ways people dealt with each other. Iowa County’s long-time sheriff was a dapper little man named Chris Englebert, brown and tough as whang leather. Chris had served with Pershing’s cavalry during the 1916 Mexican border campaign - when they chased Pancho Villa all over the region and didn’t catch him. Chris’s wife, Rosetta, was a friend of Maude’s, and I was often in their home. Hanging on the wall of their living room was a framed snapshot of Chris with a man’s legs, one in each hand, cut off just below the knee. The victim was a derelict who had been run over by a freight train east of town. You could see the picture clearly from their dining room table. I often wondered if they glanced up at it while they were eating.

Chris told us how he had subdued an unruly prisoner by whipping him across the face with a pair of handcuffs. The movie actor, Humphrey Bogart, got his lisp from similar treatment at the hands of the Navy Shore Patrol. Casual violence and cruelty were part of the national experience. They weren’t limited to obscure prairie towns.         

About half a mile west of Marengo on County Highway 212, there was once a one-room schoolhouse. An effigy of a man hanged by the neck in a tree was strung up there. The thing wasn’t very realistic, still it was sinister and frightening to me. When I asked my dad what it was, he said, “Oh, it’s supposed to be a bootlegger.” I had no idea what that meant, but it was around the time the 18th amendment prohibiting alcoholic drinks was repealed. Bootleggers had made plenty of money out of Prohibition, and it may have been that feelings were running high enough to justify death threats.

Beginning in 1932 or ’33, the citizens of Iowa agreed on a packaged liquor law they voted in as the law of the state. It limited the sale of hard liquor to state-operated stores where it could be purchased only by the bottle, in a package. It was illegal to have an open bottle of booze in your possession anywhere but in your home. That meant you could not even have an open bottle in your car. The idea behind this curious and unenforceable arrangement was that people who drank would find it more convenient to do so in private. 

What emerged was a de facto local option, county by county. Whether or not liquor was on sale in any given town pretty much depended on what the local community wanted or would tolerate, as well as on who was being paid off. Some places were very strict, taverns serving only 3.2 % beer, closing at midnight and never open on Sunday. In other towns, you could buy “set-ups” in any bar. You could even have your bottle of whiskey open beside you on the table. Still other places featured what were, in fact, nightclubs where mixed drinks of all kinds were served. These establishments were tucked away in remote rural areas. Millersburg, a little town south of Marengo, had a place called “The Flamingo Club” hidden downstairs from a café that was otherwise entirely devoid of customers. I celebrated my twentieth birthday at the Flamingo Club, after which I was glad to know there would be a twenty-first. 

I mention all this because it should be plain enough to anyone who thinks about it that violence and the excessive consumption of alcohol are connected. I started drinking when I went away to the Army, drank steadily for over fifty years and then quit almost entirely. I can honestly say that every lame decision in my life was made when I’d had too much to drink, and I’ve seen enough drinking to know what it does to people who let it run away with them. The Saturday-night fights that broke out between young farmers in taverns or dance halls or out in the street always involved one or both of the parties having had one drink too many. 

There was an upstairs dance hall in Cedar Rapids where the bouncer was an elderly woman, quite an effective arrangement. She had been a carnival wrestler when she was young, and, while she had a muscle-bound look about her, she could still heave an obstreperous male down the stairs if need be. Wearing long, dark-colored dresses, and her hair knotted up on top of her head, she looked like your best friend’s grandma. Nobody wanted it told around that an old gray-haired lady had tossed him out in the street, and the Rainbow Room in Cedar Rapids built up a reputation as a quiet place.  Given only a little leeway, however, our well-lubricated boys of summers would happily beat anyone bloody who was foolish enough to stand up in front of them.

Every August, Marengo held a three-day carnival called Jubilee Days. It was an event that started around 1935. The Depression still had a death grip on farmers throughout the Midwest, so Jubilee Days were in some ways acts of desperation. Everyone was dead broke and teetering on the edge of disaster, but the men in the Chamber of Commerce gritted their plates and got on with their idea for promoting business. Jubilee Days continued to be celebrated in late August every year from the mid-‘30’s until the restrictions of World War II shut it down. 

A big attraction during Jubilee Days was “The Old Athaletic Show.” That’s how the barker pronounced it, with the extra syllable for its rhythmic bounce, I suppose. We kids called the show’s barker King Kong. He was a short, burly man, bald-headed, with a remarkably hairy body, who could produce the most outlandish sounds – a combination of howls and grunts. Public address systems came into general use after the war, but even without one we could hear King Kong stirring up interest in his show all the way from the park to the west end of town – five or six blocks. 

King Kong was in his late 50’s. He always had a young “professional” boxer with him – some kid who knew enough about fighting to keep himself alive in the ring. The two of them took all comers. The old man dealt with anyone who thought he might like to wrestle, although I don’t remember anyone who ever took him up on it, and the boxer faced those who wanted to put the gloves on. 

There was a prize – about five dollars, I think – for anyone who could last three rounds. The pro needed a killer instinct to finish off his opponents in that length of time. I think it is safe to assume that The Old Athaletic Show never had to shell out any prize money. The boxer had one big advantage. He was sober, while his challengers, goaded on by their pals were mostly drunk. The challengers were likely to have been the town bullies, which meant the sympathies of the crowd weren’t entirely one-sided.

They warmed up the crowd with a little teaser exhibition on a raised platform in front of the tent, but you had to pay to see the real match in the ring inside. Sometimes it got pretty gory. I don’t remember anyone beating the pro, and it probably did the bullyboys good to learn that they weren’t invincible. Even so, the Old Athaletic Show could not completely gratify the lust for battle among the young bulls of the town, and we could look forward to one or two rousing good scraps in the street each night of Jubilee. The best place to watch them was from the Ferris wheel, always set up on the street in front of the Old Style Tavern.

Domestic violence was so common everyone took it for granted. Only the worst of it was even talked about. Sophie Stevens, one of our neighbors in Marengo, had a husband who thought it was fun to beat her up. One night her three sons ganged up on their father, got him down, and one of them, Lew, was all set to kill the old man with a poker. Sophie put a stop to it, convincing her son that his father wasn’t worth going to prison for. 

So, my friends, when the evening draws on and people begin to dissolve themselves in nostalgia, don’t let anyone hold up the “good old days,” the pre-violence time out in the country when family values – whatever they may be – were strong. Strength, if you could find it at all, lay in a universal determination to keep matters quiet, or to pretend that they didn’t exist.