House Calls (fragment from the 1950s)
Jack Benny is on the radio. The hilarious laughter of the comedian’s audience wraps my family in uncommon intimacy. We are parked in someone’s dirt driveway off a remote country road. On Sunday afternoons all through my childhood we made house calls out to my father’s patients—those who were too old, too sick, or without transportation to come into town.
Once on our way, out past city streets, my mother and father would sing to each other:
Put another nickel in,
In the nickelodeon
All I want is [de da, da]
And music, music, music
The prettiest girl
I ever saw
Was sippin’ cider through a straw, ha ha
Or the song about the little boy who falls in love with a little girl and asks her for a kiss. Shocked at his forwardness, she snidely agrees to give him a kiss “when the apples grow on a lilac tree.” The song goes on to paint a picture of the little boy waking up the next morning and looking out his window to see the remorseful little girl, “tyyyying apples on a lilac tree.”
They were all love songs, and it was the only time I ever heard my father sing: there in the close space of the old Buick, with his young family around him.
They also sang slightly off-color songs that they had learned when they were stationed in Louisville and in some little town out in Texas during the years he was training in the Army Air Force in 1942 and early ‘43. Something about a Sergeant Major making love to an Army nurse “around the corner, and under a tree.” My mother was not worried, and she had nothing to worry about when my father went overseas. He wrote to her at least once every day, and she to him the same. I am now the archivist of his letters to her—she saved them all. Her letters to him are lost, somewhere in New Guinea, perhaps beneath the ruins of the field hospital where he and his company of nurses and physicians, clerks, and engineers processed wounded soldiers from around the South Pacific.
Once my father returned home after the war, and with me added to the family, we moved from Detroit out to Central California. Like so many young nuclear families after the war, my parents were anxious to abandon the big city, to leave behind what they experienced as the confines of extended families. My father responded to the advertisement of an elderly internist who was getting ready to retire from his general practice in Fresno. We were starting out new, with a life set up for us.
On those rides in the country, my father drove. My mother sat next to him in the front seat. My big brother—born ten days after our father left for the war—and I sat in the backseat, leaning forward. Our heavy automobile would lurch over trestles spanning irrigation ditches, past where the paved road ended, and pull up in front of a shabby frame house, the dirt flying up in a cloud, chickens scattering and squawking and dogs barking wildly at first but eventually moving stiff-legged toward the car, tails wagging tentatively. These homes, some of them little more than cabins, paint peeling off their walls, stood in bare patches among the fig orchards and cotton fields on either side of the country road. The dust that swirled around us on our way to a patient’s house was the lightest layer of the valley’s rich soil.
Once stopped, my father would get out of the car and walk around in back of it to open the trunk with the car keys. He’d pull out his great black bag—I was always surprised at its weight—and bring the key back to the steering shaft, and the three of us left in the car would settle in with Jack Benny.
My father would walk up the path toward the house, which looked as if it were growing out of the flattened dirt. The home was shaded by a few towering cottonwood trees in the midst of the field or orchard. He would knock on the front door or ring a doorbell if there was one, and shortly the screen door would squeal open and he would disappear into the interior, welcomed by his patient’s husband, wife, mother, or grown daughter, or sometimes a small barefoot child.
By the time he got back to the car, 20, 30, or sometimes 40 minutes later, Jack Benny would be done, and it was time for the ballgame. That radio roar of a constantly cheering crowd, punctuated by the crack of a wooden bat on a hardball and the announcer’s voice, astonished and excited at every play, still soothes me. It is the sound for me of complete security in the heart of a family that was never so close as in the cozy nest of that Sunday Buick.
My Dad’s car had a caduceus attached to its back license plate, to let the police know he was allowed to speed to the hospital in an emergency without being stopped. It also let thieves who were wise to the insignia know that there was a likelihood of a few vials of narcotics in that black bag. The Buick was broken into a few times; once, I remember, it meant that the patient he visited that Sunday was deprived of her weekly few hours of pain relief.
My father rarely spoke to us about his patients. During the 1950s, a father was not expected or required to talk to his children. We did understand that this silence was an ethical issue for him. Fresno was a small town in those days. But once in a while, when he got back into the car after a house call, he would forget to turn the dial to the game. The radio would go quiet, and so would we, taking a longer way home than usual. This told me something about my father and how he felt when his patients had fallen low.