Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Uncle Howard, country doctor: Part I

My Uncle Howard was a country doctor. After service in the Navy Medical Corps and graduation from the University of Tennessee Medical School, Uncle Howard, my mother’s younger brother, practiced briefly in Iuka and Eupora, before moving to Louise, in southern Humphreys County.

This was plantation country along the banks of the famous Yazoo River. The land was low-lying and fertile — blazing hot in summer and dark with mystery at night. There were meandering creeks and snake-filled swamps. It was a hunter’s paradise. The Delta National Forest lay to the southwest.

For my part, I believed that panthers and bears stalked the territory, as opposed to the rather urbane setting that was mine 70 miles up the road in the “large town” of Cleveland.

Uncle Howard was the only physician in the area. In an era of increasing medical specialization, his style of practice would seem an anomaly now, for not only was he the physician for the whole region — there being no drug stores about — he was also the pharmacist! There was a little prescription dispensary in the office building the town leaders built for their doctor.

Uncle Howard had not quite the appearance of the elderly country doctor one sees in the Norman Rockwell painting that hung on his office wall, but the role he played came close enough.

The clinic building was, in fact, the key to Uncle Howard’s coming to Louise. The local townspeople and surrounding farmers had built and equipped a nice, modern brick office that was offered rent-free to any physician who would come and locate in their midst. It was a good incentive, and about 1950 Uncle Howard took them up on their offer.

There was another aspect to the arrangement. Many, if not most, of the patients would be employees of these important men who built the clinic — farmhands, tractor drivers, women who chopped cotton in the spring and filled great bagsful of the snowy fiber in the fall. Cotton was king in this region, and the planters wanted to keep their laborers healthy. The long, narrow “shotgun” houses of the sharecroppers dotted the landscape, standing in groups every half mile or so up and down the graveled country roads. My uncle would come to know each one as he traveled to help them by day or night.

If there was some security in knowing that most of his fees would be duly paid by these men who had gone to so much trouble to bring him to the community, there was also a “down” side to the job.

In other columns I have written about what idyllic times my cousin and I had playing in and around this small town when we were children, but for my uncle, the doctor, things were not so idyllic. But I never heard him refuse a request for help.

How well I remember that every Saturday the phone would ring late into the night, and without a word my uncle would go out into the darkness. There had been a fight among some of the sharecroppers — domestic quarrels, card games and dice, the plentiful consumption of liquor in the heart of a state that was the last to maintain prohibition (even though it had an office in the state capital charged with taxing the illegal sales!).

Knives were the weapons of choice in the altercations of those days — guns not having become so plentiful or so deadly as in the present era.

There was a little jail across Highway 49-W from the row of stores that formed the commercial district of Louise. The jail was a windowless one-room brick blockhouse, whose only light was through bars on the iron door that gave admittance.

My cousin and I used to ride up to that door on our bicycles during the week and shudder at the stories we had heard about the drunken miscreants who were locked up there on the weekends. The town had a lone marshal who worked only at night. During the day there was no crime.

Of course, growing up in a larger town, there was greater separation between my household and the doings of law and order. It was all very exciting to be so near the scene of the murder and mayhem that stalked the lives of the poorer segment of the population down in the Mississippi delta.

Racial segregation and all the evils that attended it were simply the order of the day in the 1950s and ’60s, when I was a frequent visitor to Louise. White people accepted it, and if the social order was criticized, I was too little to remember the discussions. Black people, too, submitted to things as they were — probably most never imagining that life could be different.

When James Meredith’s freedom march came through town one summer, all the white people went inside their houses and pulled down the shades — even though they were two blocks from the highway on which the marchers would pass.

My grandmother was a sabbatarian of the strictest order, and it gave her great pain that my uncle opened his clinic on Sunday mornings. I have an idea it was his busiest day. Certainly after those Saturday nights, he must have been tired — but after a busy morning he would come home for Sunday lunch with my visiting family — my cousin and I having attended Sunday school at the little Methodist Church in the center of town. (Children in those days walked or rode their bicycles everywhere.)

It was not until I was grown and living in Holly Springs that I realized it was not “sin” that caused my uncle to open his office on Sundays. Rather it was that those farm laborers would have been docked for their time off, had they come in for medical attention during the regular work week. Because the planters kept the Sabbath, they had an opportunity to seek help — and so what my uncle did was a mission of mercy. If the rich and powerful had provided better working conditions for their employees, my uncle could have kept the Sabbath also.

Of course there were quaint aspects as well. Uncle Howard was sometimes paid in turnip greens and with strings of fresh-caught bass, bream and crappie. As I recall, he rather liked this kind of remuneration!

The clinic itself was both a forbidding and fascinating place. It had that distinctive “doctor’s office” aroma — reminiscent of rubbing alcohol — always applied with a piece of cotton before those shots that children feared. (I was given these as the last act of our family visits, and so always said a prayer as we got ready to leave that the adults would forget about any “boosters” that might be called for. The one compensation was that when the school nurse would come to our classroom, I would always be “exempt” owing to the thoughtfulness of my uncle in providing my shots down in Louise.)

Polio was real and dreaded in those days. Uncle Howard was not convinced that the vaccine that one took with a sugar cube was effective. He insisted on the shots. Along with his adherence to the more painful astringents for cuts and other minor abrasions, I was imbued rather young with a belief — still present now — that medical treatments are not effective unless painful.

The clinic had two waiting rooms — one entered through the front door for whites, and another, entered by way of a gravel alley, for blacks. There was a set of swinging “saloon” style doors in the hallway that ran through the center of the building to make sure members of the two races did not encounter one another.

Louise had a third race, the Chinese, who ran several stores on the main street. After some indecision, the white rulers of the Delta decided the Chinese would be treated as white, and I suppose they sat in the front waiting room.

This waiting room had big red leather covered chairs in chromium-tubular style along with — amazingly now — big platform type ash trays that stood on pillars going down to the floor.

Everybody smoked. My uncle was one of the first to ban tobacco. The sign he posted on the front door announcing this must have caused quite a stir.

After my uncle’s nurse, Ora Dee, left for California, my aunt Eleanor went to work as his assistant. The two of them ran the office for years. My uncle delivered babies by the light of coal oil lamps, sat by the bedside of patients too ill with pneumonia to be moved to the hospitals that were many miles away, and if there were ambulances (I remember none), their equipment was but a pallet in the back of the funeral director’s hearse.

All of this changed when Medicaid was enacted in the 1960s. My uncle chose to move on and spent the rest of his career as a college physician, with colleagues, well-equipped infirmaries, and regular hours, and best of all a regular salary and benefits. He deserved the respite.

For years the old clinic in Louise stood empty and fell into disrepair. But on a recent pass through town, I was delighted to see that once again it houses a medical clinic. Let us not forget the sacrifices that those early physicians made to bring health care to the small towns and rural places of Mississippi.

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