This article appeared first as a featured column in The Finger Lake Times: http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-through-the-tall-grass-of-memory/article_c375b3de-227f-11e6-90ef-8724c5492061.html
Pay no heed to the details, it is a story hidden in the tall grass of memory.
My siblings and I have slightly different versions of the same story told by my deceased father, about a story told to him by his parents, about a time when he was an infant. The names have been changed to protect the innocent because it is a narrow and porous sluice carrying the facts.
In a town that puckered the farmlands and gas fields of North Central Indiana there were two doctors. The more prominent doctor attended my grandmother’s first labor and delivery when her child died, a so-called “blue baby.” This was sometime after the first decade of the 20th century and before 1916 when my father was born. Soon after Dad’s birth, smack dab in the middle of the first terrible world war, he contracted pneumonia. The same doctor was called. After inspecting the child he concluded there was nothing to be done and left.
In my imagination, desperation ran in rivers down my grandfather’s face as he sped to the second physician. Dr. Spellman, we’ll call him, went immediately with my grandfather to the distraught mother and failing infant. He didn’t leave my grandparents’ house for days, not until my infant father was restored. Night and day Dr. Spellman nursed the baby and likely soothed the fearful parents as well. In 1916 there was little a physician could do but be there, and perhaps my father would have pulled through anyway, but that is not how my grandfather saw it.
Dr. Spellman went on to an infamous career of treating gangsters and outlaws that used my hometown as a hideout when Chicago went through periodic clampdowns on crime for public show. Eventually Dr. Spellman went to prison for selling contraband drugs, whatever those would have been in the 1920s and ’30s. Dr. Spellman asked my young, pre-pubescent father to take care of his dog while he was “away.”
Needless to say, Spellman’s public standing nose-dived, and he was much maligned in local society except by my grandfather. My grandfather was a dentist and treated whomever Dr. Spellman sent him, gangster or not. Grandfather, as my father would later tell us, was never shy about being seen with Dr. Spellman and he was forever kind to the man who saved his only child. Dr. Miller, my grandfather, an otherwise respected member of the community, was criticized and maligned by gossip because he retained a friendship with Dr. Spellman.
That is the story; the core elements of it are true if indeed the facts are brittle and flakey with age. I owe my life to a criminal, drug-dealing, ex-con physician who harbored and treated the likes of Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. My grandfather, an honorable man, befriended and remained loyal to a public disgrace, and so left a family legacy about loyalty, integrity and compassion. As Sister Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking” and hard-nosed pastor to Death Row, has said, no one should be defined by the worst act of his or her life.
We have much work to do in restoring maturity to public consciousness so that people and groups are no longer divided into good and bad, right and wrong, them and us. We are, all of us, a mixed bag of motives, actions, and failures and in the people we fear most or judge the harshest we can see ourselves clearly. My grandfather, who I never knew, in this one story handed down like warm bread from the oven, bestowed a gift of wisdom and an image of compassion. Thank you granddad.