Danny Duke, M.D. A Texas Voice
Edited By Jerald Winakur, M.D. and Lee Robinson, J.D. Foreward by Abraham Verghese, M.D. 1
front cover photograph: Gone Fishing, Cuatro Lake by Danny Duke, M.D.
Danny Duke, M.D. A Texas Voice
Danny Duke, M.D. January 21, 1947 â€” July 5, 2004 4
Foreward by Abraham Verghese Danny Duke was a beloved husband, father, physician, columnist, musician, gourmet cook, and photographer. And he was my friend. We were members of a workshop we called the Physicians Writing Group, in spite of our singular attorney participant. Ostensibly, I was the group leader, but I learned far more from my “students” than I ever gave them. They suffered early sections of “Cutting For Stone” with grace and good humor. We all came to look forward to our monthly gathering. The food was lovely and the wine flowed. We talked writing and critiqued each other’s work seriously. Most everyone in the group ended up publishing a piece developed there, a list that would include at least four books. And now, I am pleased to say, we can add another. Here at last is Danny’s. Danny was born in Shreveport, LA on January 21, 1947, the son of Mozelle and C.B. Duke, Jr. In his essays, Danny often harked back to his childhood in rural Texas and the values he learned there. A gifted musician, he was one of the last two students of his piano teacher, Mrs. Wideman; Van Cliburn was the other. Danny played piano at The Barn while attending college at U.T. Austin. He continued his music career through medical school at the U.T. Health Science Center in San Antonio, playing at Dirty Nelly’s and The Old San Francisco Steakhouse. He completed his internship in San Antonio before moving with his wife, Judy, to Rochester, Minnesota for his ophthalmology training, which included a three month stint in Nigeria. Upon his return to San Antonio in 1977, Danny opened his private practice. I have many and varied memories of Danny: his great cooking, his fabulous photographs of Texas wildflowers, his indefatigable story-telling, and his inexhaustible musical repertoire. When Danny sat down at the piano, the party became truly unforgettable --“Unforgettable” appropriately being a song that he sang in duet with his daughter, Lisa. Danny took his life on July 5, 2004. His death was devastating to those who knew and loved him: unexpected and tragic. I spoke at his memorial service, as he had requested, held in the medical school auditorium, just ten feet away from the room where our writers group met. Finding and delivering the words to eulogize Danny proved to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. But it turns out we haven’t entirely lost Danny. This collection of Danny’s essays and poetry, so carefully compiled by Dr. Marvin Forland, and edited by Lee Robinson and 5
Dr. Jerry Winakur--all members of our writers group-- brings Danny back to us. He is still chuckling and cracking us up with his bon mot, his turn of phrase, his fine ear for dialogue and dialect. Who else would reference well-fed men with rear ends, “a meter across as the crow flies”? Or locate a man in his palatial home with--and here you have to imagine Danny’s East Texas drawl--“He’s back in there somewhere bawged down in his carpet.” Reading through these stories again, I was struck by Danny’s piece inspired by Amy Tan’s quote on the subject of writing about someone who was gone: “You can’t bring that person back, but you can make their death more than simply a terrible tragedy. As we continue to speak about people and their impact on us, we continue to change the meaning of their lives and what their deaths meant in terms of fate and destiny.” It’s as if Danny anticipated this volume, understood our need to honor him, to make meaning of his life using the part we knew best--his writing. I’d like to think Danny would be pleased at this volume, though he would likely chuckle, and say something self-effacing. But, down deep, I suspect he’d have been proud to present himself through these pages. It is all Danny. A Texas voice.
Contents Foreward by Abraham Verghese Generosity of Spirit ........................................................................................... 1 What The Eyes Now Miss The Heart Will Remember ................................... 3 Winter Thaw ....................................................................................................... 5 Walker’s Drug Store ......................................................................................... 8 Ice Cream (haiku) ........................................................................................... 11 Pappy ............................................................................................................... 12 Ouida Guest: A Tribute .................................................................................. 14 Rather Like Hearts .......................................................................................... 15 Anxiety (haiku)................................................................................................. 16 A Father’s Gift ................................................................................................. 17 Daniel (photo) ................................................................................................ 27 To Daniel’s Boy Scout Friends ........................................................................ 28 Daniel, Your Friends Remember .................................................................... 29 Two Small White Crosses .............................................................................. 31 Children Amidst Wildflowers (photo) .......................................................... 32 Heart (haiku) ................................................................................................... 33 Home Economics ............................................................................................. 34 Awakening (poem) ......................................................................................... 35 West Texas ...................................................................................................... 36 Tap Dancing in Heaven .................................................................................. 37 Class of ‘73 Officers (photo) ....................................................................... 39 Dancing With Beauty, Flirting With The Truth ............................................ 40 Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland .................................................................... 41 Ode To Chicken Fried Steak (poem) ............................................................ 43 Le Sofitel .......................................................................................................... 44 The Day After Christmas ................................................................................ 46 A Life (poem) .................................................................................................. 48 Editors Notes.................................................................................................... 49 Acknowledgements......................................................................................... 50
Generosity of Spirit Why must we save the most thrilling comments about our friends for the memorial service? Maybe the honoree hears the kindnesses, maybe he doesn’t. We seem to have no trouble expressing our disapproval, indeed take pleasure in it. God help the man who disappoints us. But those we love, those we admire must only guess what we think. And the world would be so far better a place if we opened up a bit. My father’s father never one time told my father he loved him. Never. My dad told me his father said, every so often and in a tender way, “Isn’t his hair black.” That was my grandfather’s way of letting my dad know he was loved. My dad knew, but he really wanted more. When I came along, he made sure he used the words, “I love you,” every day–each day of our forty or so years together. Writing, as I am doing now, serves several purposes. Writing heals the writer. Writing is the great catharsis. If you try to make a living writing, you earn no money unless some editor likes your work and puts it in print. Getting published is the aspiration of most writers. For those who have chosen the calling as a life’s work, getting published puts food on the table. Getting published affirms that you have something worthwhile to say. Since I happen to have a good day job, getting published is far less important. Hootie Johnson, Chairman of the Augusta National, when facing off with the National Women’s Organization over whether or not a woman would be admitted as a member at Augusta was quoted as saying, “Threats mean nothing to me.” Rejections of writing I submit for publication mean less than if I depended on the income to eat. But, to borrow from Hootie, rejections don’t mean nothing to me. They do mean something. I prefer acceptance and the affirmation. Getting published is not easy. You see, editors who control such things are deluged with material. Most of the pieces that come across their desks have served their purpose, and that is, have served as therapy for the writer. But for public consumption, the writer’s work must be skillful and interesting. That’s the rub. Most of it isn’t. Editors, I am told, throw the countless submissions into a “slush pile.” Most of the pieces in the slush pile could never be printed. But the editor’s job is to take pieces out of the slush pile, one at a time, and read them. My Lord, what a job! But, every so often--just as a prospector in the old days panned for weeks before finding a gold nugget--the written nugget shows up. I guess that is what keeps the editor going. Yesterday, a friend who likes some of the pieces I write sent a letter to an editor 1
he knows. That letter was the most comprehensive compilation of my talents, such as they are, I have ever seen in print. I will not repeat a single word of it, so as not to embarrass us all. And yet, I could not put the letter down. I just kept reading it again and again. The more I read, the better I felt. Whether or not all of the generous compliments my friend gave me in this letter are true or not, seeing it in print meant much to me. At that moment, I decided to begin writing random letters to friends letting them know how much I value their friendships. And in those letters, I will pick out the very best about these friends and tell them straight out. We should all be doing so. Some evenings, late in the day, I pull a bottle of Scotch whiskey out of the cabinet and pour myself a drink. I sip. After a while, all the vicissitudes of the day seem to evaporate, peace arrives, and I am content. But not yesterday. I did not want any type of intoxication to interfere with the words on the letter I held in my hands. Healing words. I love my friend for doing that. Actually, I love my friend.
What the Eyes Now Miss the Heart Will Remember My mother is going blind. Not totally blind in a way that would leave her unable to make her way around in familiar surroundings, but blind, nonetheless, from an inherited disease called macular degeneration. My parents pushed me to be a doctor. Sometimes I think parents, on a deep level, unknown to themselves, hope for a doctor in the family so they will not have to die. I cannot save my mother’s sight. As an ophthalmologist, I am frustrated by macular degeneration all the time. The disease conflicts with the doctor’s desire to make people better. People with this disease do not get better. And the response to progressive blindness is different for each patient. Some become angry and depressed. Some blame the doctor. Some have a philosophical view that sustains them. I do not doubt that most patients, given the magnitude of such a loss, travel through the stages of grief elucidated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Acceptance. That is where you will find my mother. Years ago, I knew we were headed for trouble. She came in so I could examine her eyes. Although her vision was good, signs of macular degeneration in the early stages caught my attention. Over the years, I listened as she, unaware of what was happening, described increasing visual disability. “I seem to need a lot more light reading”... “I cannot believe they have made the print in the telephone book so small.” Eventually, she gave up the car keys. Before doing so, she remarked she could no longer tell if a traffic light was red or green. My sister asked, “What do you do?” She said, “I just do what the car in front of me does.” Joe, her third husband, takes care of her. I did not take to Joe for a long time, just as I did not take to the first man she brought into our lives after my father died. But she could not, and would not, live alone. Joe is a blessing. He takes her arm and guides her up and down steps. He tells her what programs are going to be on television. He reads her mail to her. If God took a cookie-cutter and punched out the center of what you are looking at, the effect would be that of macular degeneration. The area, compared to your total vision, is small, yet the cut-out part is what allows us to “see.” To see colors. To read. To 3
recognize faces. Mother and Joe will be coming for Christmas. When I see her struggling to read the tags on the Christmas gifts we present to her, I will hurt. But when she looks at me, perhaps she will see the young man I once was, rather than the old man I have become. With the distraction of eyesight gone, she can now move on, sustained by memory and imagination alone.
Winter Thaw This morning, as I take up my pen, I am looking out of a hotel window at the tops of buildings rimmed with snow, and at streets where the plows have moved huge compressions of snow, brown with the dirt of the pavement, to the side of the roads. This is early March and it is seven degrees below zero this morning. I ask you to consider that: seven degrees below zero. Not 31 degrees, which will freeze your plants in Texas, but seven degrees below zero. And the temperature will rise only slightly above zero during the day, not nearly approaching on its way up the mark at which things freeze. The phrase “bitterly cold” does not even touch it, nor does “painfully cold.” Cold beyond a Texan’s capacity to understand how cold cold really can be. And this is March. In January the thermometer--for weeks at a time--does not get up to zero at all, but rather hovers somewhere about five to ten degrees below. This country is unfit for human habitation for six months of the year, and yet in this place, Minnesota, two doctor brothers built the finest medical facility in the world, Mayo Clinic in Rochester. And, Minneapolis-St.Paul--the Twin Cities as the locals say-- are centers of tremendous economic power, natural beauty (in the summer), and a gathering of cultured minds. They are all blond and blue-eyed, these Norwegian descendants, so different from those you encounter on the streets of San Antonio. At my hotel a Norwegian Festival is taking place. A choir of little girls from Norway, sweet-faced blonde girls with their hair pulled back and braided, garlanded with flowers, sang harmonic Norwegian songs for a gathering crowd. Some older Minnesotans knew the words and sang along. The girls’ parents looked so proud. And they, these girls, appeared so innocent and lovely. This time of the year, all of Minnesota and the environs have been frozen for months, like a huge ice chip stuck in the freezer. Everything is brittle. When you turn the wheels of your car, whether you are moving or not, there is a stiff crunch beneath the tires, just like that under your shoes when you try to walk. I say try, because the snow that fell in October, is still on the ground, the same snow, but gray and ugly at the side of the streets and on the sidewalks. You learn not to slip on it. That takes a while. I learned about Minnesota in 1974 when I came to Mayo Clinic for training. Judy and I lived there for just over three years. We learned the hard way that ice formed on the inside of windows during the winter: that if you did not stick a device into your oil tank with a plug connected to an electrical outlet, your car would groan once and give up when 5
you tried to start it. I learned that Texas tricks do not work in Minnesota. One morning I found my windshield solidly iced over, at least a quarter inch. I went back into the house and brought out a pan of hot water and poured it all over the windshield. Before I finished pouring, a solid inch of ice had now formed there. I discovered that only the grass, flowers, and sweet corn know when winter is really over. When that time comes--within a week--the whole Midwestern landscape bursts forth with green, and the color of flowers, and the tips of corn plants, and it is all magnificently triumphant. The living plants here know that life is short. When it thaws, they waste no time in living. I had not been back to Rochester for nine years. In that time, stupendously wealthy patients of the Clinic had expressed their gratitude by giving money for buildings that have changed the skyline of the Rochester I once knew. Buildings with marble floors and fine oak paneling, state of the art presentation halls. The busts of the Mr. and Mrs. who gave a particularly spectacular building greet one just inside the front door. Despite all this, I do not think the doctors at Mayo were able to keep these generous people from dying. They died anyway. But they did leave a generous legacy. I stayed at the old Kahler Hotel, just across from the Clinic. Those sitting in the lobby seem, for all the world, to be those who sat there twenty-five years ago. Their purpose in coming to Rochester was—and still is--for healing. Some came year after year, always sitting in the same chair, developing a social relationship with other patients, just like kids at summer camp. They would return to their homes saying to each other, “See you at the Clinic next year.” One moment of my trip back was particularly poignant. Proust talks about how the smell of madeleines baking brings back not just the memory of an experience (a kitchen of childhood), but allows one to relive the experience itself. The night I arrived in Rochester it was snowing which, combined with the cold, stung your face and made your eyes feel sandy. I drove to a party for alumni ophthalmologists. On the way I passed St. Mary’s Hospital where generations of nuns have ministered to the sick. In 1974, Christmas Eve, I had taken my wife there to have our first child. Lisa, our daughter, beat Christmas Day by an hour. Trying to put something tangible in place of feelings I did not have adequate words to express, I bought Judy a coat with a fur collar–her ‘Minnesota coat’-and brought it to her in the hospital. One subzero morning, time came for us to leave the hospital for our own little home, new baby in tow. I have a video recording of the event, but I do not need it. I will never forget that morning, Judy in her new coat getting into the warmed and waiting car, a nurse behind her carrying Lisa bundled up like a papoose. The nurse handed Lisa to Judy. I got into the car and drove home with my expanded family. 6
Looking at the entrance to St. Maryâ€™s Hospital, I know now what I did not know then, that my life and this babyâ€™s life would be entwined for the duration in a complicated series of hopes and dreams. Not that it was going to be easy, you understand. I was boiling Lisaâ€™s bottles, that sort of thing. And that was just the beginning. I tried to protect her for many, many years. Maybe too many years. But like the other living things which emerge at just the right time to feel the warming of the sun at the winter thaw, my daughter, right before my eyes, has grown a life of her own.
Walker’s Drug Store Wayne Walker was my first employer. Mr. Walker, a pharmacist and owner of Walker’s Drug Store, was shaped like a penguin, bald, sporting a fine, impeccably trimmed moustache, and navigating with an affect as flat as a West Texas landscape. “The store is on fire, Mr. Walker!” “Well, I guess we should call the fire department.” Mr. Walker was imperturbability personified. I learned of his calm demeanor early on, before he actually hired me. I was about 15 and presented myself at the drug store, hair butch-waxed back and exceedingly clean from head to toe. Mr. Walker said he might be interested in employing me, so why didn’t I stay for the day and do some work. He sent me to the back room, the storage area, to straighten up. In the course of arranging jars on the shelves, I knocked off the biggest jar of petroleum jelly I had ever seen, pounds of it. When the jar crashed to the floor breaking, the mess was also the biggest I had ever seen. Horrified, I scooped both hands into the pile of goo and glass. To my consternation, I then found myself with hands covered in petroleum jelly and shards of glass. I shamefully slunk out to the pharmacy counter, where Mr. Walker quickly assessed the problem, and said simply, “I guess you’ll have to clean that up.” That job took what seemed hours. I had failed. I now had no hope of getting the job. At the end of the day, Mr. Walker said quietly, “Why don’t you plan to come tomorrow at 6:30 in the morning.” My indoctrination fell to the competent care of Susie, a career soda jerk. Susie wore her blonde hair cropped short, and lived out in the country. She had worked at Walker’s for ten or fifteen years, where she had seen everything. Susie opened the store each morning, made sure all the wells were filled with toppings, such as crushed pineapple, strawberries, chocolate syrup. The coke machine had recently been automated, but coke syrup had to be added. We made our own sugar syrup in five gallon jugs. The process was tiring, and one I tried to avoid. You put pounds of sugar with a funnel into the jug and then water to the top. To make the syrup, you placed a cup towel on the counter, placed the jug on its side, and agitated the contents by rolling the jug back and forth. To dissolve the sugar probably took half an hour but the job was so tedious and boring it seemed much longer. I became reasonably adept at handling the cash register. And then someone 8
would come in, make a sixty cent purchase and present a dollar bill in payment. As I reached for the forty cents in change--easy enough--the customer suddenly changed her mind. Seems she needed a different mixture of change, so she would give me an extra quarter and stand there expectantly as I tried, in the days such calculations were made in one’s head, to resolve this mathematical impossibility. At 10:00 each morning the beauty shop called for their morning order: three coffees, two cokes, one coffee with sugar, one black, one with cream AND sugar, one of the cokes with cherry syrup, (and it had better, by God, be right.) I walked with a tray, carefully, across the street and down the block. It was my first introduction to the concept of tipping. The small change in excess of the bill seemed, well, appropriate. Not that it was more than small change. Too much generosity might set a precedent the beautician and beautees would regret. So, a bit of change expressed their appreciation, however grudgingly. You could set your watch by the appearance of the regulars each day. At least a few were mentally challenged men who had nothing to do but roam the streets of our small town. They were not at all threatening but rather amused us. We became experts at imitating Oliver Gwinn, a sixty year old man who behaved like a first grader. Oliver took pride in wearing something green each day. That so he could report in his affected voice: “I’m green as a green leaf on a tree.” And then there was the son of a local attorney who wore a cap pistol at age 25, and whipped out the pistol pretending to shoot us. Even perfectly normal citizens showed their quirks. One man came to the fountain asking for a “dish of cream,” meaning he wanted ice cream. When I made banana splits, I discovered that I could also make some points with the girls at Mr. Walker’s expense by adding extra topping. Oh, those dishes were overflowing with sticky, sweet goop over ever-so-large gobs of ice cream! It isn’t a bad way to be remembered. Mr. Walker was the consummate businessman. Each day he went home for lunch. But, if someone came in with a prescription to be filled while he was away, he had instructed us to call him at home, whereupon he would get in his car and return to fill the prescription. At my age, and in that part of the world, the sale of condoms was an activity of interest. Mr. Walker kept condoms behind the pharmacy counter so the hapless customer who needed some had to ASK. Lord, what a sadistic arrangement. Occasionally, when Mr. Walker was at lunch, the request came directly to me, a responsibility I filled with the best teenage smirk I could muster. At the end of the day the counter had to be sparkling clean, every implement put 9
away, and that would have been 9:00 p.m. sharp. After work, I was liberated to explore, whether at the baseball field, where little league games brought kids together, or circling the Dairy Queen, hoping in vain for some sort of action. Invariably, however, someone would suddenly realize they had only two or three minutes to spare before the store closed--and if they didn’t get a banana split or some other involved dairy creation, they would simply not make it through the night. So, at 8:59, every counter wiped down, every glass washed and put away, car keys practically in my hand, the insane person would appear at the door, and ask, “Are you still open?” My heart hit the soles of my shoes those evenings. I wondered if it was a sin, you know, wanting to kill this person. But I just got out the stuff, messed up the counter as carefully as possible, made the creamy bomb, whatever that might be, and sent the customer on her way with one of those smiles that stops at the top of your mouth, leaving your eyes staring daggers. Mr. Walker died some years ago. I guess he is now where pharmacists go in the afterlife – dispensing condoms in heaven.
Ice Cream Scoops stacked melting tall Creamy luscious licks so sweet Sticky fingertips.
Pappy In the days of my growing up, a drugstore stood on the south side of the small town square. As you walked in you would find Lucille Cadenhead, the youngest of the Lacey sisters, presiding over the cosmetics counter. My uncle called her “Baby,” and her face was the most beautifully painted lady’s face in town, her cheeks blazing with rouge, her eyes works of art. To the right, the stools in front of the soda fountain invited one to sit and rest, to enjoy all kinds of refreshments made from scratch. One afternoon in 1951, maybe 1952, my grandfather, C.B. Duke, Sr., came into the drugstore while I was there with my father. The day is one of a handful from that time that remains clear in my memory. Pappy, as he was known, bought an ice cream cone for me, but didn’t wait until I had finished the cone. His driving had become a matter of some concern to my father, but Pappy still puttered around in his old car, mostly making short errands, maybe a visit to a relative, or to town for some small acquisition. Catastrophes bring simple memories, incidental memories, along with them. If my grandfather hadn’t had the right change that day and had to wait for the ring of the cash register, or if he had tarried a while to watch me eat the ice cream, or to engage in idle chat with my father, or even with “Baby,” then the car that hit him that afternoon--broadside as he made a lazy left turn--might have been miles past and his life would have remained the normal life of an old man in a small town. He must have been in a coma for a long time. I was too young to go into the hospital; rules wouldn’t allow it. Several weeks later, after he woke up, I can see him in memory waving to me from the window of his hospital room. He survived the accident but had what is commonly called brain damage. He could never function independently again. My parents arranged a room for him at home in what would ordinarily have been our dining room. But only after becoming a grown man myself could I begin to understand how difficult for the family that arrangement actually was. People who have sustained head injuries, bad injuries, may behave differently depending on which part of the brain is injured. But they are never the same as before. In the case of my grandfather, he turned out to be mellow, quiet, but entirely unpredictable. You can deal with difficult people if they are consistent. The people that throw you off are those who are erratic– 12
who may be deceptively rational in one moment and bizarre in the next. That was my grandfather. At night he began roaming the house after we were all asleep looking for the little boy who had been his son, but mistaking me for my father. So they locked him in his room, only to be disturbed throughout the night by his banging on the door as he tried to get out. His days were spent in a chair in our front yard, as he watched the comings and goings at the Hull house across the street. Spring arrived, and a small tree in the Hull’s front yard leafed out, blocking his preferred view. So he cut the tree down. Our neighbor’s tree. I think the ultimate crisis came when he began dumping garbage in the clothes hamper, this utterly mysterious behavior simply the last in a series of odd events for which there was not then, nor would there ever be an explanation. Because of government social programs nursing homes can be found in every locale nowadays, city or country. That was not true in the early 1950s. But in that time and some distance from Carthage, my parents placed Pappy in a home. I recall making the drive once with my father to visit him. It seemed a long way off. And then, later, word came that he had suffered a stroke. My father went to be with him. He would later describe for me sitting at his father’s bedside, telling me that Pappy’s breathing became slower and slower, and finally, one last breath and he died, the transition from life to death as ordinary as a single heartbeat. My father also told me that his father never told him, not once, that he loved him, his way of explaining, I think, why he told me so often. The taste for ice cream I picked up as a kid has stayed with me. Some nights, before bedtime, I eat an entire pint, one soothing spoonful at a time.
Ouida Guest: A Tribute Forty years ago, as a sophomore or junior at Atlanta High School, I wrote a poem. Likely, the poem was not very good. I gave it to a soul mate, who happened to be my English teacher. She didn’t have much to say about the poem, I recall, but she asked if I would autograph the poem for her to keep because someday--when I became a famous writer--she wanted to have it. I never became a famous writer. She probably knew that I wouldn’t. But asking for my autograph was her way of showing that she believed in me, believed in my potential. She wanted to be sure I was not limited by my own expectations and encouraged me to go for the gold ring, wherever that quest might lead me. Such is a truly great teacher. That woman was Ouida Guest. When an email popped up on my computer with her name on the subject line today, I already knew what I would read. My face is streaked with tears as I write this morning. Mrs. Guest was prematurely gray, which, if we had had any life experience, would have told us teenagers that she had wisdom to impart to us. But, the lessons of great literature and the lessons of life itself would have to wait. At the time, her classes were what I would call ‘accepting.’ She was ultimately patient. I have thought since how satisfying it would be to just open up the heads of children and pour in what you have learned the hard way. And Mrs. Guest must also have felt frustrated at times that her students were so young, inexperienced, and vulnerable – kids who didn’t have a clue of their own vulnerability. Fine teacher that she was, she never revealed frustration to us, and in time we all discovered the truths about life for ourselves. I last saw her about ten years ago at a class reunion. She was invited and attended almost every reunion our class has held. That night, seated around banquet tables, each of us was asked to tell in a few words what had happened in our life since the last reunion. Mrs. Guest, something over seventy years old, had bought a red convertible. Outside Linden, she told us, some boys in a car pulled up beside her, then backed off, then pulled up again. Finally, she told us, she realized this was an invitation to race! “I left them in my exhaust smoke,” she laughed. She left a lot of teachers in her exhaust smoke, too. Now she joins her beloved Smitty, reunited in joy together forevermore. 14
Rather Like Hearts In the short story, “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote describes the thoughts of his character, Buddy--now a young man in college, when he learns of the death of a beloved aunt. “And that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein has already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.” This morning my former Atlanta High School music teacher had a heart attack and died. Mildred Collins was the most positive human I ever met. She was stricken by polio as a girl and walked with one leg short, rocking side to side, the short leg almost dragging. And yet, she smiled. She took me on, as a freshman in high school, to play accompaniment for the school chorale. This chorale was different from most–fifty girls, no other boys--and me. In the 1962 high school yearbook, I am seated squarely in the center of these girls, in the first row. A grin is frozen on my face. Frozen, because directly behind a girl had what little of the skinny flesh of my back she could get between the fingers of both hands and was pinching the life out of me. You might consider what this arrangement could mean to a teenager. And yet, I was like their puppy. Or little brother. It was okay that way. I loved them all. Each day we gathered to rehearse. I did not take well to the discipline of repeating the same song until perfect. I would suddenly engage a musical tangent, flying off into some popular tune or other diversion. Mrs. Collins pretended to be angry, but she wasn’t. As far as I know, she was never angry at anyone, or about anything. She just continued smiling. Her husband died a few years ago. Still, she recovered her smile. A few years later, her son died unexpectedly. Last time I saw her she was confined to a wheelchair from the ravages of diabetes. She never appeared more cheerful than that day. She wrote the book on courage in the face of adversity. Her music was contagious and enduring. She lived her faith. And only death itself could erase her smile. I feel terribly sad. And yet she is in a better place, a place where she walks gracefully and teaches dancing to those who never learned. 15
Anxiety Scary fantasies haunt in dream of missed exams forty years later.
A Father’s Gift A year or so ago, I went back to East Texas for my high school reunion. Late in the afternoon, on a cloudy day, I drove under a wrought iron archway and into Odd Fellows Cemetery to visit my father’s grave. I had not been there since his funeral, but found the place where he had been buried for over twenty years as easily as if I went there every day. As I walked slowly among the gravestones, I passed familiar names dimly visible on marble stones in the failing light: Cooke, Gholston, Clabaugh, my father’s friends. The headstone of my father’s grave read: “Chalmers Bledsoe Duke, Jr.” Born July 16, 1916: Died February 4, 1980. Only one man on the face of the earth would have done that to a child--given him such a name: That would have been Chalmers Bledsoe Duke, Sr. My father’s parents were over 50 when he was born. At the foot of his grave was a small American flag, to be found at the graves of all veterans in this cemetery. My father told of having to force-feed himself for two weeks when World War II began so that he would weigh enough to finally be accepted for service. Not to serve would have been unthinkable. On the monument next to my father’s name is the name of my mother, Mozelle Gist Duke. Problem is, she is not only still living, but living with her third husband. And, I think she wants to be cremated anyway. I grew up in a small East Texas town, fed by a single water tank which was etched with graffiti and which stood majestically over pine-shaded streets. The very air carried in it an evergreen fragrance. On Friday nights in the fall, the sound of cheers from the football field echoed off the darkened old brick buildings of the town square. Elderly men gathered in the corner drugstore each morning to drink coffee and talk about those who had not yet arrived. A deafening whistle heralded the arrival of a train several times a day, the tracks running directly through the center of town. Within a short walking distance of downtown, cattle grazed in green and fragrant meadows. Multicultural education in a little town like this --of which there are many in Texas-involved exposure to Southern Baptists, a few Methodists, and the occasional Catholic or Pentecostalist, the devotees of each faith not just believing--but saying outright--that the others were bound for Hell. Change of any kind came slowly to East Texas. The system had changed little since the Civil War. “Separate but equal” schools provided for the education of black children. 17
Our own schools were a pale homogeneity, both in skin and in attitude. Two drinking water fountains side by side at a crossroads gas station reflected the local sentiment, one being labeled, “colored.” The painted words remained long after the law, if not the belief, had changed. Crime, as reported in the local newspaper, usually involved personal disputes in the black section of town, which got settled, as often as not, by murder. Burglary was unknown. White-collar crime such as theft of public funds by elected county commissioners was known about but ignored. A handshake consummated business deals. Lawyers were few, and those few spent their days at the office drawing up routine real estate documents or wills. My family life was predictable. My father ran the local bank, my mother played golf with friends at the country club. As was the custom in our part of the country, my parents employed a housekeeper. Such women were always black and invariably underpaid. Molly was cheerful, fat and flashed a prominent gold tooth when she smiled. Molly cooked for us, her specialty being strawberry cobbler. I watched closely as she worked lard into flour with her fingers, trimming the berries picked fresh from a neighbor’s garden, measuring out sugar. Lunch in our home was the main meal of the day, with cornbread and greens, yams, or field peas steeped in bacon, and fried meat--pork chops or chicken or round steak, which Molly brought in large bowls and platters to the table. My father came home from his banking job, and with no school in the summers, we sat together around the table, Molly passing a pitcher of sweetened iced tea like a ritual of communion. We had moved north to Atlanta, a Texas namesake of the Georgia city, from a town much like it, where my father had been a third generation resident and, as such, was accepted, well-liked, and appreciated for who he was, not necessarily for what he had done. He came to Atlanta to manage a bank. When he arrived the records of loans were kept in a small box containing 3 by 5 cards. My father’s style of banking was different. It was a high volume business-- loaning car dealers money to buy inventory, and then providing the financing for those to whom the cars were sold. The bank prospered under this arrangement and my father made appreciative friends. My father was respected for his professional position and looked up to by the locals, most of who either ran small shops or lived off the land as farmers-- this in the era before Wal-Mart killed small town business. One year, as the result of his successful effort to get an underwear factory to locate in Atlanta, he was named “Citizen of the Year.” 18
Eventually time came for me to go to college. When decision time came, there really was no decision. That I would attend The University of Texas Austin (simply called Texas in those days) had been always assumed. On a bitterly cold day in January my father and I made our way up the steps in front of Littlefield Fountain – site of Aggie dunkings and near drownings of drunken U.T. students over the years– and onto the mall before the Tower at the University of Texas at Austin. The two of us had taken an early plane that morning from Texarkana through Dallas and to Austin. In those days, neither he nor I were accustomed to flying. In fact, nobody else I knew was accustomed to flying. The plane was small, noisy, and pitched violently in the wind. Nonetheless, I felt excited when I looked out of the window, my first trip to Austin, and saw from the air the State Capitol of Texas, and the Tower looming over the University of Texas community. I happened to be the first of the entire Duke clan to attend college. My father had lived with that disability-- no formal higher education-- and in many respects had overcome it during his lifetime. He was a man of small physical stature with jet black wavy hair and a pencil thin moustache. His feet were so small he had to order shoes, double-A width, from Houston. He moved with a cannot-sit-still contagious energy. His ready laugh and utter lack of pretention earned him new friends easily. He was very quick. “Money doesn’t make you happy,” I would test him. “Yeah, well try being happy without any.” He was proud that he had become a bank president without a college degree. But, eventually I watched him shoot back to hide the discomfort when the question came up, as it always did, of where he had gone to school. “The school of hard knocks,” he laughed. The purpose of the trip to Austin from East Texas was to look over and secure my place in a dismal men’s dormitory called Robert E. Lee Hall. That was, at least, the excuse for the trip. In reality, my father wanted to walk the campus of the University of Texas as he might have walked it as a prospective student a generation earlier. There was the matter of World War II, and no precedent in the family for attending college, and a gaping hole in his resume as the result. So, we walked. And I do not believe our exploration lasted for more than fifteen minutes because we had not brought with us coats heavy enough to keep warm. Into the wind, coming directly at us from behind the Tower, my father lifted his chin and pulled his jacket around him. However brief, our presence on campus had served its 19
real purpose. My father had seen for himself that, from his perspective at least, I would do better than he had. As a student hours away, I was insulated from my father’s escalating problems in Atlanta. That I should be unaware was his intention. When I visited home, he and my mother created a façade of security and well-being. I was in medical school when the façade crumbled and my parents’ lives fell apart. On taking the job of running the Atlanta bank, my father found himself with the unenviable task of not only running a bank, but also trying to reconcile two warring factions on the Board of Directors, the Bright clan and the Ralston clan. There existed a “Hatfield and McCoy” personal rancor between the two clans. One family generally runs the affairs of such a small town, publishes the newspaper, owns the bank, controls the local elections. For two generations, the Bright and Ralston clans had vied for such control of Atlanta. The Bright brothers were small town doctors. They were well-fed men with rear ends, as was once said of Hermann Goering, “a meter across as the crow flies.” Dr. Jake had a hooked nose and an eagle stare. Dr. Bill was generally sloppy, clothes wrinkled, and he talked with an exaggerated East Texas drawl. “He’s back in there somewhere, bawged down in the carpet,” he said of Dr. Jake in his palatial new home. Their father, a dentist, had acquired large parcels of property in the area. Dr. Jake had married a Houston heiress, which provided him means to access political power for which he and his brother, Dr. Bill, hungered. The two doctors contributed generously at election time and thereby earned powerful friendships in Washington. They built a hospital for their practices, and at the inception of Medicare, enriched themselves further. Lawrence Ralston, Sr. headed the Ralston clan. My father thought he was the stupidest man he had ever met. Lawrence had also inherited enough property from his own father that he had been relieved of the obligation of earning a living. He spent his days wandering around aimlessly at the bank, playing cards with cronies in a back room nearby, and enjoying the life of an affable moron. His son, Lawrence, Jr., was hotheaded and determined to protect his father’s financial interests. My father, unable to assuage either faction without offending the other, knew that the Brights were men to be reckoned with – smart, ruthless and greedy, and that Lawrence Ralston, incompetent as he was, had to be accommodated out of respect for his bank stock holdings. On one occasion, in my father’s private office after a particularly contentious bank board meeting, Lawrence, Jr. knocked Dr. Jake Bright to the floor with a punch to the 20
nose. My father was a gentle person and not a fighter. He ran out of the office and left them to settle it. It was in such an environment that, for whatever reason, my father was finally asked to resign from his position with the bank. After he left, the Ralstons, who held a majority interest, attempted to run the bank. The car dealers and their clients--with whom my father had a good relationship--despised the Ralston management team and stopped paying on their loans. Large losses from these charged-off loans (loans that debtors owed the bank but failed to pay) ensued. The officers of the bank, including my father, were covered by a fidelity bond, an insurance policy that pays for losses which result from employee dishonesty. To recoup losses, the bank board under the control of the Brights and Ralstons filed a claim alleging that my father had defrauded the bank in some complicated scheme, resulting in loan losses, which the board now expected the insurance company to pay. On the day they affixed their signatures to the document that made the claim, as casually as if they had been writing a check for groceries, they ruined my father’s life. After an investigation, the insurance company denied the claim, having found no evidence whatsoever of fraud or dishonesty. Furthermore, at least one of the loans for which the board had filed a claim was made by Lawrence Ralston himself--a source of some amusement for my father and his attorney. Naïve enough to believe that he could obtain justice (the bond claim filed against him had finished him off as a banker, the only career he had ever known,) my father filed a libel suit against the Ralstons and the Brights. It was a fatal mistake. According to my father’s attorney, the Ralstons and Brights applied pressure through Washington to obtain a criminal indictment against my father for bank fraud. It happened to be the best--if not the only-- defense they had against the libel suit he had filed against them. I recall one afternoon in San Antonio (I was still in medical school) my father calling with a tremulous voice: “Son, I am about to be indicted by a federal grand jury.” “What have you done?” I asked. “I haven’t done a damn thing. It’s the Brights and the Ralstons.” It is only in maturity that I can fully appreciate how difficult a phone call this was for him. Later that day, the indictment came down. The United States attorneys working on the case were listed in the indictment. One of the names listed, however, was not a U.S. Attorney at all, but an attorney from the law firm defending the Brights and the Ralstons in the libel suit. This defense attorney had spent so much time working to get the indictment 21
that the clerical staff in the U.S. Attorney’s office just assumed that, he too, was part of the federal team! It was a triumphant moment for my father’s attorney. He amended the original libel suit to include the element of malicious prosecution. Turns out, the Brights had obtained the cooperation of the Chairman of the House Banking Committee in the United States Congress--who happened to be the United States Representative from Texarkana. Of course, the Brights had always supported his campaigns. The Federal Court building was located in Marshall, forty miles south of Atlanta. The week of the criminal trial it rained, and we went in and out of the courthouse under the protection of black umbrellas. The courtroom was practically empty except for the prosecution team on one side, my father and his attorney on the other, the jurors of course, and my mother, sister, and I. It all seemed so casual and relaxed, considering the stakes. At recess one day, the prosecuting attorney, he and I resting our backs against the wall close to each other in the hallway said, “You know, your dad seems like a pretty good old boy.” I could only mutter, “He is my father.” Over several days, I listened to the tedious and technical testimony. No one suggested that my father had taken a dime form the bank, but rather that technical violations of banking laws were somehow involved in the complex financial transactions with the car dealers. Even as a college graduate, I could not understand what they were getting at. The jury was an uneducated lot. To them, his mere presence as a defendant was damning. That jury was out for several hours. I could not imagine, based on what I had heard from the witness stand, that they would convict my father. I felt cold when the jury reported back that they had a verdict. My father’s attorney turned to us and said, “Don’t react.” When I heard the word “guilty,” I felt as if my heart had simply stopped beating. My mother hugged my father. We all left the courtroom arm in arm. My mother was crying. My father looked sick. On the front page of the Marshall News-Messenger the next day, appeared a black and white photograph of my family holding on to one another, walking down the courthouse steps united but, at the same time, very much alone. After the conviction, my father lost the will to fight, and I became consumed with anger. These men had run over him like they might have run over a dog, never even looking back. For a while after leaving the bank, my father worked for a manufacturing firm. During the years following the criminal indictment, he was unemployable. His modest savings were soon exhausted. Once a week he drove to Linden to stand in line with pathetic 22
men for an unemployment check so that he and my mother could eat. His face became puffy, expressionless. Within months his hair began to gray. He rarely shaved. Between weekly visits to the unemployment office, he sat in a comfortable chair, drink in hand, and watched daytime television. My mother got a job in a department store in Texarkana, selling cosmetics to women with whom she had once played golf. I, being unaware of the slow pace of the legal system, resented my father’s attorney. He had appealed my father’s conviction, which was in the hands of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but seemed to be dragging his feet on the civil lawsuit, which was our hope for justice. On a trip home I stopped by the office of my father’s closest friend, Tim Miles, the lawyer who had done work for the bank when my father was in charge there. I told Tim I didn’t think my dad’s lawyer was working hard enough on his case. “I hear,” I told him, “that he’s working on another case for which he has had to take forty depositions. If he’s got that sort of time, he should be able to get my dad’s case to trial.” “I’m the one who sent your dad to see him in the first place,” Tim said. “I had a case against Plumb (my father’s lawyer) when he was just getting started, and he nearly beat me. He’s smart.” “I wonder if the Brights have gotten to him, you know, paid him off,” I said. “Good God, no,” Tim said, almost snorting. “That’s like someone paying a doctor to throw an operation.” He continued, “The Brights have been doctors to a lot of people around here, and some of them may end up on the jury. I told your dad when he asked me about a libel suit that he had to be completely clean.” Tim paused and took a puff on his pipe. “Before they filed the criminal case,” he said, “an F.B.I. man came to see me, asking questions. He asked me if your dad drinks. I said he’d be a damn fool if he doesn’t!” Medical school work kept my mind off the problems back home. One morning as I was working in an outpatient clinic at the Robert B. Green Hospital in San Antonio, I got an emergency call. My father had shot himself and was being taken by ambulance to a hospital in Texarkana. I took a plane to Texarkana and a taxi directly to the hospital where my sister, my father’s sister, and my mother were gathered in a small waiting room, outside the intensive care unit. They had the look of women who had come to understand that no matter how 23
bad things get, they can always get worse. The bullet, fortunately, had bounced around off his ribs but had not damaged any vital structures. He would survive, and within a week, be back at home in front of the television. Nearly thirty years later, my high school reunion over, I stopped by Tim Miles’ house. I knocked on the back door but got no answer, so I went into the house. There sat Tim, in his late eighties, the TV on and a Playboy magazine across his lap, wearing a bib to protect his clothing, if he should decide to eat. An aluminum walker stood before him as he sat on the couch. A cigarette hung at an angle from the corner of his mouth, dangling like a disappointing erection. “My God,” I said to him, “if you don’t quit smoking, you are going to die of cancer!” He looked at me and smiled, but did not get up. “I’m glad to see that a man enjoys looking at beautiful women, no matter how old he is,” I suggested. “That’s right.” Tim was a stunning sight, not just the bib and the walker, but his hair tussled, his weight all gone, the crusting on the face of a very old person. I found myself talking more than I wanted just to keep the conversation alive. If I stopped asking questions, Tim looked over at the TV in silence. His responses were inappropriate but somehow very much to the point. “I notice the buildings around town are the same, but the signs are different,” I offered. “Oh really? I thought they were the same.” “This cool front sure is nice for a change,” trying again. “Is it cool?” I began to realize that he didn’t know if it was summer, winter, or in between. He didn’t care. There is a place, hard to describe, somewhere between life and death--a place where the capacity to enjoy does not exist, but neither does the burden of concern or regret. And that place, nowadays, is where you will find Tim. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually vacated my father’s conviction. It was never retried. Before the libel suit came to trial, the Brights and Ralstons offered a settlement and, having been reduced to desperation, my father took it. But for him, it came too late. Within a year or two, he was found to have stomach cancer and died from it. 24
Twice a week, the newspaper from my old hometown arrives in my mailbox. Over the years I have mused over the obituaries of first Lawrence Ralston, then Dr. Jake Bright, and recently Dr. Bill Bright. In final ignominy, Dr. Bill died having been stripped of his license to practice medicine. Only Tim, barely alive, is around to remember, and he no longer even cares. And as for me you will find, where anger once gnawed a hole, a capacity for empathy. It is, after all, the most reliable healing force a doctor has to offer. [Editor’s Note: Shortly after Danny presented this memoir to the Physicians Writing Group, he sent the members the following addendum] Amy Tan has given me (unknown to her) help with my father’s story. And let me tell you about my quest for more specifics on his criminal prosecution–one of several excellent suggestions that came out of our writing workshop group. I have a document– actually in my own memorabilia file–that details the scheme on which the fidelity bond claim, alleging my father’s dishonesty, was based. The idea is beautiful. If my father had actually conceived and perpetrated such a fraud, I would have new, if belated, respect for the level of his intelligence. My lawyer-daughter obtained a copy of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion (from 1974) that reversed my father’s conviction. The two prosecuting U.S. Attorneys are listed. One still has a license to practice law in Texas. From the State Bar website, I obtained his mailing address. A few days ago I sent him a letter asking if he recalled the case, and if so, to answer some questions about it. I have not heard back yet, and may not. The final document I am trying to locate, through a paid website that does legal searches, is the actual transcript of my father’s trial. After almost thirty years it may no longer be available. But, maybe I will be surprised. All of this for maybe a one paragraph addition to my story--but also to satisfy my curiosity. And how did Amy Tan help? I came across an article this week in Pages Magazine about Tan, entitled “Rewriting Fate.” Time and again she has used in her writing the unhappy fates of members of her Chinese family. Her grandmother’s husband died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Afterward, the grandmother was raped by a wealthy man and then forced to be his concubine. She committed suicide in front of her 9-year-old daughter, Tan’s mother, Daisy. 25
Eventually, Daisy told Amy the story and Amy wrote about it. Amy’s uncle, who was the son from the rape, criticized Daisy for telling her daughter Amy “...these useless things. She can’t change the past.” Amy’s mother responded, “She can change it. She can change it by telling everybody, telling the world.” Tan says this was an epiphany for her. “You can’t bring that person back, but you can make their death more than simply a terrible tragedy. ...As we continue to speak about people and their impact on us, we continue to change the meaning of their lives and what their deaths meant in terms of fate and destiny.”
To Daniel’s Boy Scout Friends May 23, 1990 To Daniel’s Boy Scout Friends: Having grown up with Daniel, you know how very proud he would be to have a tree in his honor, but most important, a tree planted by the friends he loved. Daniel wanted each of you to know that you were good to him always, as you are even now. As you enjoy the adventures of scouting and as long as memory lasts, Daniel is with you in spirit. The good turn that you do for him today is a kindness that will last forever. As the years pass and the tree you have planted matures in stature, you may come here again. And when you do, the tree, having grown handsomely tall and strong, will remind you of a friend who shared with you in the experiences of just being a boy. With love, Daniel’s Mom and Dad
Daniel, Your Friends Remember [Editor’s Note: This piece, written by Bob Greene, appeared in the Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1992.] In this season of renewal, when we strive to find hope even among the most grievous news, the story of Daniel Duke and of his young friends is a source of light in the darkness. Daniel’s father – the father is Daniel G. Duke, an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon in San Antonio, Texas – is precise and careful when he explains what happened to his son: “One afternoon, our 11-year-old son, bright, apparently well-adjusted and happy, abundantly loved by everyone, located the shotgun my father had given me at the same age, sought out ammunition, loaded the gun, put it to his head and pulled the trigger.” No one among Daniel’s family or friends had any hint of Daniel’s despair, Dr. Duke said. In the newspaper obituary for Daniel, his 5th-grade teacher said that Daniel was so popular that when new seating arrangements were made, all his classmates wanted to sit near him: “He had an effervescent quality and bubbly enthusiasm which made everyone want to be around him.” Yet the youngster loaded the gun and turned it on himself and pulled the trigger. His father, in trying to put into words the family’s frailty in the wake of Daniel’s death, puts it simply: “I did not think we would survive.” Daniel left a suicide note, in a boyish handwriting on lined classroom notebook paper. In the note he told his parents: “I love you a lot.” He added another sentence, a sentence that, in the context of the note, may be one of the saddest ever written: “Please tell my friends that they were really good to me.” Daniel’s suicide was more than three years ago. “It was and is unexplainable to us, even at this point,” his father said the other evening. “We never had a second’s trouble with Daniel. He earned good grades, he had many friends, he was a lovely child. And yet something triggered this in him, and now he is gone.” For Daniel’s family, it sometimes seems fruitless even to try to draw lessons from what happened; when an 11-year-old takes his life, the people left behind have not much of a hunger to look for a moral to the story. They do know that human anguish can hide in plain sight and fester until it destroys a world, and that the anguish can be concealed behind a bright and youthful face; they know that the compassion of strangers can provide comfort even in times when comfort seems impossible. 29
But Daniels’s young friends have taught the family something too. Most of them were 11 when Daniel died; they are 13 and 14 now. “When I see Daniel’s friends,” his father said, “I guess it allows me to imagine what Daniel might have been like had he lived. It’s a very bittersweet feeling, because when I see them I just wish he could be one of them.” After Daniel died, his friends were confused. “The depth of what had taken place was absolutely incomprehensible to children of that age,” Dr. Duke said. One of the things that his friends did, to band together, was to start a Boy Scout troop. Last spring, all 13 of the boys in the troop, which is sponsored by St. David’s Episcopal Church, became Eagle Scouts together. It is thought to be one of the highest, if not the highest number of scouts from the same troop ever to achieve scouting’s highest rank at the same time. And the individual Eagle Scout project devised and carried out by one of the boys – James O’Brien, one of Daniel’s best friends – was to build a plaza at the boys’ elementary school in memory of Daniel. The Daniel Duke Memorial Plaza is in place today, at San Antonio’s Cambridge Elementary School. It is meant to be a peaceful area, with shade and benches, where children and their parents can rest. Daniel’s father visits the plaza occasionally, always alone, to think about his son. At the dedication of the plaza last spring, Dr. Duke spoke. He said: “As generation after generation of Cambridge students pass by this plaza, the question will undoubtedly be asked time and again, “Who was Daniel Duke?” I hope the answer will be something like this: “Daniel was a Cambridge student, just like you, loved by his parents, friends and teachers more than he could ever understand.” Dr. Duke said that people who see the plaque in the plaza in future years may also wonder who James O’Brien was. Those people, Dr. Duke said, should know that “James was also a Cambridge student. And when he was 13 years old, he took the most important event in the life of a 13-year-old–the magnificent accomplishment of becoming an Eagle Scout–and shared it with a friend.”
Two Small White Crosses I was in Devine a couple of years ago, taking a picture of two kids in the glorious wild flowers when I saw, barely visible among the thick flowers, two small white crosses side by side. Wrapped around the crosses were ribbon bows, faded to pale yellow. Small letters on the face of the cross spelled the name Billy, on the left Sammy. Sammy was born in 1979, and Billy in 1980. They died together at that place in 1996. I have noticed before, along Texas highways, families sometimes mark with crosses along the road, the place of traffic accidents at which a family member was lost. This way of remembering seems new to me. We did not see these crosses when I was a young man. The crosses signify not where the loved ones are buried, but rather the place where their souls took flight. I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s true, but I have heard that meadows in France are brilliantly green, beyond the usual green, because of the iron in the blood of soldiers who died there in World War II. Families who visit those meadows must be comforted by that thought, the essence of a loved one in color, life renewing itself in a different form. Somewhere, a South Texas family knows the place of the two crosses hidden in wildflowers. And the flowers themselves prove to us once again that the enduring face of nature is not death, but life.
Children Amidst Wildflowers 32
Heart Organ donor’s mom Ear against a stranger’s chest Hears her son’s heartbeat.
Home Economics On an old high school message board discussion, the topic of home economics class came up: Yes, the very fact of a home economics course, in which there were all girls and no boys, reflected an attitude common in our growing up that, unfortunately, diminished women and their potential. But the system diminished boys, too. As a youngster, I would have liked--except for the embarrassment--to have learned some home economics myself. Instead, over time, I became the cook in the family by my own self-educationâ€Śand nobodyâ€™s complaining about the food! Tonight, I enjoyed dinner out with my twenty-nine year old daughter, Lisa, just the two of us. She, more than anyone else, has enlightened me about gender issues. At Alamo Heights High School, Lisa founded the Womenâ€™s Issues Club, a forum for like-minded females determined not to be held back by sexist attitudes. She bravely withstood ridicule and abuse on account of it. And she has continued to walk the walk, competing successfully with men as a young lawyer, and as a sports enthusiast whose knowledge of college and professional football and basketball is nothing short of amazing--particularly since I care so little. She has taught me well. I admire her courage. As a consequence of her sensitivity, I recognize gender prejudice almost by reflex. In my medical school Class of 1973, there were four women. In the Class of 2004, over half are women. The world is better for the change.
Awakening At the Village café table breathing garlic borne of burnished copper pans, my daughter, eyes like mirrors lacquered black, nibbles at her father’s secrets, tasting. The poison of her brother’s suicide, a ripple in some ancient distant galaxy, struck dumb and choked us into years of quiet rage. So much unsaid, so much to know. Small questions, like the first surprising prism drops that close a long and scorching drought, feel cool. Is there a script you use to tell a patient’s family that they died? Looking past curiosity, I see across a life the new doctor, clean, untested, sterile as his starched white coat, placing glassed, pointless relic, into trembling virgin widow hands. In the radiating glow of wine-painted laughter, I, drowning in a long-forgotten well, suddenly begin to cry.
West Texas The gateway to Big Bend National Park is Marathon, Texas, about 300 miles west of San Antonio on Highway 90. That part of Texas is vast and isolated, expansive prairies with a backdrop of the West Texas Mountain ranges. You can drive for half an hour and never see another car, not another human being. To me, the isolation carries its appeal. You can imagine our ancestors who first explored that part of Texas awestruck by the grandeur of it. In Marathon, nothing more than a wide spot in the road, is an amazingly cozy spot called the Gage Hotel. Wedding parties from distant parts gathered there last Friday and Saturday nights, celebrating well into the night, under the West Texas starry clear sky. Judy and I spent one night and drove on to Marfa, site of the famous spooky Marfa lights. At the Gage, your sleep is interrupted from time to time by the blast of a train passing through the only crossing in town, just across from the hotel. It sounds as if the train will soon pass through your room. A courtyard and ice blue pool are surrounded by brilliant bougainvillea and the air is heavy with the perfume of honeysuckle. We wandered into the hotel bar, the White Buffalo, at about five o’clock in the afternoon. It is a tight space, this bar, only four or five tables, and with the namesake head mount of a white buffalo projecting from one of the walls. Soon enough the place was alive with middle-aged men, filling the bar seats, then spilling out to the tables, bikers dressed in leather jackets, some with leather riding chaps. Various insignia on the jackets revealed affiliations, in some instances to Vietnam, some to the Confederacy, most to the Harley-Davidsons parked in front of the hotel, each at exactly the same angle and tilt. In the courtyard one of the bikers pulled out a guitar and began entertaining the fifteen or twenty other bikers. These men have tough skin, wind burned faces. They are not the criminal Hell’s Angel types, with big women strapped behind them on the bikes, just guys who disappear from time to time into another world, leaving wives behind in pursuit of a singular kind of freedom, that of life on an endless road in the company of like-minded comrades. In Marfa, another group of bikers arrived late afternoon at The Paisano, the hotel where the cast of the movie Giant–Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean–were put up while filming. I was taken aback to see a good friend, dressed in all the get-up, riding a Harley. In his work as a neurosurgeon he has dealt with the tragedies of the motorcycle set as a much as anyone. But here he was, leather riding jacket, do-rag, and in the company of a covey of San Antonio business moguls. Middle aged men, these guys, trying to recover their youth by taking to the road. Fact is, I almost wish I was blessed with the stupidity to join them. 36
Tap Dancing in Heaven We knew something was wrong. Our group of friends had gathered at the restaurant, started a bottle of wine, and recounted the events of the week as good friends always do. The missing couple was never very late. And when they had to be, they called. I got up from the table, made my way to the telephone (this in the era before cell phones), and called their home. One of the daughters answered. “They took Mom to the emergency room.” She had no idea what the problem was, or how bad. When our group arrived at the hospital, Roneale’s husband, Scott, met us outside the ICU. We had interrupted his conversation with a chaplain. “It’s not good,” he told us hoarsely. Decades before, Roneale, Scott, my wife Judy and I had gathered with wine and cheese on the wooded banks of the Zumbro River in Rochester, Minnesota, a terrain of rolling hills and lush timber. Last century two brothers, Will and Charlie Mayo had found this place, in the Zumbro River Valley, and had set up a clinic which would eventually draw patients for medical care from all over the world. Scott was training in Dermatology, I in Opthalmology. Scott knew me on sight since he had been in the medical school class ahead of me. When we ended up face to face in the check-out line at the grocery store in Rochester, Scott introduced Roneale, his petite and lovely new wife. We gathered a few extra provisions and headed together to the Zumbro. Roneale was vibrant, beautiful and forgiving. I think that is why we remained best friends. As Scott and I worked to establish ourselves in San Antonio as young doctors, the women worked to produce and nourish families. Scott and Roneale had one girl, then another, and then some years later, a boy. Judy and I trailed by one. Each weekend we met for dinner in those days, our house or theirs. One weekend, Roneale suffered a bad headache and cancelled the dinner. Turns out, the headache came from a small aneurysm in her brain which had bled ever so slightly. She underwent nine hours under the hand of a neurosurgeon. He clipped off the small defect and saved her life. After that, Roneale was different. She was, after all, someone who almost, but not quite, died. She taught us more about enjoying each day. At night, after dinner and after drinks, she pulled out a pair of honest-to-God tap dancing shoes, the kind theater people wear with bows, satin strap to keep them from flying off your feet. She regaled us with tap routines. I played the piano music. 37
The night they didn’t show up at the restaurant, the aneurysm had, after ten years, finally prevailed. She was lost before the ambulance arrived. At the hospital all that was left was waiting for her heart to realize what her brain already knew. In the short interval after a death and before the memorial service, friends traditionally gather to comfort those who are most affected by the loss. At times the atmosphere is that of a party. Only the honoree is missing. On the afternoon before Roneale’s funeral, several of her best female friends put a smile on Scott’s face by asking his permission, and then seeking his help in locating the tap shoes. He produced them At mortuaries you encounter men in dark suits who are paid to look somber. This request must have challenged them. But the shoes went on her feet. It is like us to believe those who say there is tap dancing in heaven. And who knows? Maybe they’re right.
Class of â€˜73 Officers Steve Houston, Curriculum Review; Danny Duke, Secretary; Fred Olin, Treasurer; Bob Winegar, President; Jerry Dreiessner, Social Chairman; Ira Chasnoff, Vice President; Hal Woodward, Curriculum Review
Dancing with Beauty, Flirting with the Truth Two events in the past few days got me thinking about beauty and what it really means. First, Jan Jarboe Russell wrote a column for Insight applauding actress Kathy Bates for “letting it all hang out” in the movie About Schmidt. Bates, middle-aged and unenhanced, gets naked in front of the camera and climbs into a hot tub with Jack Nicholson. If she is imperfect, she flaunts it. The second is a poem I came across by C.K. Williams titled, “The Dance.” The poem begins, “A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and somewhat stout, to be more courteous still…” Williams goes on to paint a picture of this woman getting up to dance with a “rather good-looking, much younger man.” In the telling, the woman becomes beautiful and graceful, one elegant gesture at a time. When I was in my early twenties and a medical student, a group of couples went to a place we had heard about on the top floor of the Wedgewood, at the corner of Loop 410 and Blanco Road. The Wedgewood was a high-rise retirement home, rather upscale at the time. On Saturday evenings, a small space on the top floor came alive with music, our parents’ music, setting the stage for a group of old people--residents of the floors below--to dance. On arrival, I was handed a sports jacket to put on. In this jacket I looked clownish; it was one step below a rented jacket, the type given to those who arrive not having the sense to have worn their own. We found our way to a small table and watched as old women in sparkling dresses, red lipstick defining their otherwise dim faces, and arthritic old men in dinner jackets made their way to the dance floor, moving to the music as if remembering being as young as we who were watching. They must have thought we were adorable–and felt sad, really, knowing full well the transience of youth. Something about these dancing elderly couples embarrassed us, the way they ignored that they were old, too old to be dancing. But, oddly, they also inspired us. Williams closes “The Dance” by saying that we underestimate ourselves–that such transient moments are within us all, physically attractive or not, and that when we watch something such as this plain woman dancing, it “sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.”
Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland Recently, our usual group of friends gathered for dinner at a local restaurant. They placed us at a round table. You may have noticed that a rectangular table kills conversation if there are more than six guests. I have been to dinner at a long table after which I did not know if those at the other end had uttered a single word. Knowing our group, the waiter kept the glasses filled with wine. Each of us ordered food enthusiastically and without restraint. As the hours passed, we seemed to glow with conviviality. Possibly that glow seemed a little bright to those nearby, but it did not matter. We were happy friends. One participant called me the following day to reflect on how liberating it is to be with people around whom you need no guard. “You know me and all my faults,” he said, “so there is no need to pretend.” Those are the best evenings, pretension abandoned. Someone once said a friend is someone who knows you for what you are and likes you anyway. I worry that it won’t last, this group. Some other friends our age have cancer or chronic diseases and look (as well as feel) terrible. So I do savor these times together with friends, but with the knowledge of transience lurking in the background. Our toast at the beginning of the evening was MFK Fisher, the great food writer, quoting Seneca: “When shall we live, if not now?” Long ago in East Texas my parents enjoyed such nights together with friends. They brought the kids along so I got instruction early in the art of grown-ups having fun. After dinner, everyone gathered around a player piano, arguably the most remarkable and thrilling mechanical musical device of all time. This model required pumping with one’s feet, an exercise in which I took great pleasure, scooting up to the front edge of the bench so my short legs could work the pedals. As the tiny patterned holes rolled down before us, along came the printed words of the old songs, many of which are now forgotten. The faces of my parents and their friends came close and the smell of whiskey spilled out with the singing, a smell we children had come to expect and find familiar, if not understand.
Oh the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing, The breeze is sighing, the night birds crying, For a far, far away her brave is dying And Red Wing’s crying her heart away. 41
Almost all the voices that sang that song are stilled, but I now remember the magic when I reproduce the melody, my hands finding the chords on the piano keys almost instinctively. In those days, childrenâ€™s bedtime was ignored as we harmonized around the piano. As kids it never occurred to us that these evenings would not go on forever.
Meet me in dreamland, sweet, dreamy dreamland, There let my dreams come true.
What is left of those dreams are memories of the harmony and the singers â€“and the music still echoing around in childhood recollection. Also, the understanding that time is short. So why not live now? And do your children a favor. Bring them along to watch.
Ode to Chicken Fried Steak The line cook finds a plate that will contain, if only just inside the rim a French fried, crust-beknighted slab of hungry Texas beef. He grabs a hanging ladle out Of which come gobs of gravy, drowning in a sea of cream the substance of my lunch. The waiter sets it all before me in the presence of my friends who nibble at their salads and begin to stare. Therein begins a flight of fancy, words like heart attack, cholesterol, malignancy come forth as I just smile and dab the gravy from the corner of my mouth. Having satisfied my lust with this caloric megawhore I now begin to think perhaps theyâ€™re right, My celery eating friends, Perhaps I should, like anorexic girls, consume mere goat food, and in doing so continue for a while to live, in order to eat more.
Le Sofitel A few years ago, I showed up to check into a nice hotel in Minneapolis, Le Sofitel. French in every way. When I was in training in Rochester, seventy miles away, Judy and I occasionally treated ourselves to the Saturday night special rate there, and lived well beyond our means, even then. It was the closest we would get to France for many years to come. As I had returned as much for nostalgia as anything else, the clerk stunned me by announcing that she did not have my reservation. Furthermore, the hotel was totally booked--but she would be glad to find a place for me down the street. ‘Surely to God you have one room left!’ No, not a thing. Substantially disappointed, I stayed down the street where my mind conjured up all matter of things wrong with the place. I am not one to “go quietly into that good night.” On returning to San Antonio, I crafted a little verbal missile, and sent it directly to the General Manager of Le Sofitel. A few days passed. Then in my mail arrived an envelope on Le Sofitel stationery. Enclosed was a letter of apology from the Manager, a promise to do better next time, and an offer, when I returned to Minneapolis, to stay as his guest at the hotel. My gracious this man is good, I thought. Another year or two passed. I returned to Minneapolis. In advance, I wrote the gentleman, tactfully reminding him of his offer and made a reservation. This time the red carpet rolled out. I enjoyed a lovely room overlooking the atrium and was not even asked for the imprint of my credit card. If staying in a beautiful hotel room at some expensive price is wonderful, free is far better. That evening I stopped by the bar and enjoyed a martini. It was early and I believe only one other table in the bar was taken. As the martini did its work, I began feeling mellow, certainly as much because I was getting something for nothing, as for any other reason. Le Collette, the restaurant, is a spiritual French Bistro with dark wood and brass-anchored etched glass panes above the partitions which separate the dining areas. I would be dining alone, “the best company you will ever have,” as someone put it. After leisurely perusing the menu and then ordering, I noticed that a group of kids in their prom night finery were being led to a table close by. There were three couples: the boys in tuxedos on which the sleeves were not quite right, the girls in amazing vampish evening gowns of different colors. The girls wore corsages. As they took their seats, 44
they contemplated the table settings as if they were in outer space. There seemed to be one or two too many forks at each place. And what, for Heaven’s sake, is that little plate to the left there. But they were happy. And adorable. The waitress, as her first order of business, removed the wine glasses from the table. The kids then picked up the menus and, trying to look nonchalant, clearly viewed the print as if it were in a foreign language— which of course it was! By that time I had enjoyed my dinner. I called the waitress over. “I would like to pay for the kids’ dinners.” She looked at me, puzzled. “Those kids?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. A smile crossed her face. I told her to put the bill on my card and to add her tip. I told her not to tell them who paid, but to tell them to do the same one day for someone else who is where they are now. The waitress betrayed me. After I had been asleep about thirty minutes, my telephone rang. An adolescent voice on the other end of the line said simply, “Dr. Duke, I would like to thank you for buying our dinner.” That was followed by five other young voices saying the same thing. I went back to sleep. The night was filled with sweet dreams.
The Day After Christmas Christmas has come and gone. Still, for a few more days I will suddenly encounter a friend somewhere and, looking the fool that I sometimes am, wish him a Merry Christmas. All that remains are empty boxes stacked for the trash, shreds of bright colored Christmas wrapping paper, discarded gift tags. And, of course, the remorse that accompanies unchecked gluttony. Traditions bind us as human beings and as family. This year was my turn to prepare the meal. I learned from my aunt, who was a fabulous cook–the best in the family. Cooking involves not so much the skill of cooking but of tasting. That and knowing how to fix--I mean repair--it. I decided to serve a Southern traditional meal, comfort food I think you call it. Christmas Day, after all, is far more about comfort than the food itself. With Bloody Marys we snacked on butter-drenched toasted pecans. This year, I decided to serve quail. Long ago, dining on quail meant spending a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with the steel shot you invariably bit down upon. I told my sister, when she asked if I had killed the quail, that I would not dare to risk Christmas dinner on my shooting capability. I bought the quail in little packages, never frozen mind you, dripping watery blood. My sister reminded me that once, when my mother ran over a quail with the car, she stopped, picked it up off the pavement and made a modest dinner of it for herself. This Christmas, Mom brought her candied sweet potatoes as usual. Unfortunately (she thought) she forgot the marshmallows for the top. The stores were closed. So this year, we had the dish without marshmallows. I think I actually like it better this way. I got up early to put green beans and potatoes in a huge pot with smoked pig neck bones. I wanted to allow at least three hours for over-cooking. And, my gracious, they were good. Just like old times. I performed a short chef’s demonstration for my nephews who, as young men now, have discovered that eating out of a pan you have placed on the stove expecting some magic does require that attention be paid. Those two stood in rapt fascination, and asked pertinent questions. God help them. But I browned the little quail, and braised them after in sherry, finally enriching the sauce with butter. The boys were impressed. At the table you ask the one person least likely to be terrified to say grace. That would be Joe, my mother’s husband. At his age, he keeps a close working relationship with God. 46
Oh, yes, the rolls. Without yeast rolls, no holiday would be complete. Most years I start the dough early, allowing for the proper rising, and then, dipped in butter – the little nuggets puff up to become soft, tender, yeasty food for the Gods. Shortly after grace we slipped into a quiet period. “Lip-smacking delectability,” I once read somewhere. The silence was occasionally interrupted by compliments for the cook, and of course the clink of the silverware and tinkle of the glasses. How lovely. The quail, semi-boneless, are best enjoyed with your fingers: You pick up the tiny leg bone, strip the meat with your teeth, and then proceed to devour the breast. Soon enough we started the beginning of the end: Bread pudding, a la the Brennan family of New Orleans, with a whiskey sauce so sweet, so steeped with vanilla, so redolent of bourbon whiskey, that any need for more food in the next two days evaporated with every bite. As did the hours of that day. The concept speaks to me that we teach our children most while we do not know we are teaching. On this Christmas, the children have already become young adults. But I hope that one day, in the presence of cheerful young laughter, a mother or a dad will say: “Now this is just what we used to have when we went to our grandparents’ house for Christmas.”
A Life As a boy, I adored a young goddess who crushed me, smiling at others. I studied heavy books. I became a kind doctor. I made beautiful photographs. I played music, softly. I wrote compact poems. How much is enough. How much is enough?
Editors’ Notes We wish to thank Dr. Marvin Forland for his substantial efforts in conceiving this volume of Danny Duke’s writings, assembling the pieces from a variety of sources, and giving us the honor—and joy—of editing this book. One of us (JW) has known Danny since our internship year at the UTHSCSA in 1973-4. We all four (JW, LR, DD, MF) enjoyed our time together during our years in Abraham Verghese’s Physicians Writing Group. In reviewing Danny’s oeuvre in order to choose the selections for this book, we were struck not only by his many talents and his incredible output—most of these pieces were written within the final two years of his life—but also by this man’s character. Many of you reading this book know Danny Duke. For those of you who do not know him well, you will be awed, we believe, by the sheer humanity of this man: his sensitivity and compassion, his honesty and integrity, his generosity, his sense of humor, his humility, his courage. In the face of great personal sadness, Danny carried on, enjoying—no, loving—his family, his friends, his patients and his colleagues. We hope that in these pages you will find something of Danny Duke that will delight and surprise you. You will find yourselves, as did we, wishing he were still here with us to raise a glass. Jerald Winakur and Lee Robinson
Acknowledgements We wish to acknowledge and thank our collaborators whose efforts in the collection and editing of Danny’s work, and the production of this chapbook have made possible what we hope has been an enriching experience for its readers. Morton W. Baird II Ruth Berggren, M.D. Judy Duke Scott Duncan, M.D. Donald Finley
Aaron H. Forland Emily H. Forland (Illustrations) Amanda E. Lipsitt, MS IV Lester Rosenbrock
J.W., L.R., M.F.
The following pieces appeared in slightly different form in other publications: “Dancing with Beauty, Flirting with Truth,” San Antonio Express-News, February, 2003. “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,” San Antonio Medicine, August, 2003. “What The Eyes Now Miss The Heart Will Remember,” San Antonio Express- News, December 2003. “Ouida Guest: A Tribute,” “A small East Texas town publication…” January 2004. “Pappy,” San Antonio Express-News, June 2004.
back cover photograph: Oregon Coast by Danny Duke, M.D.