The Village Physician

In 1875, Josiah Bartlett, the doctor for the town of Concord, Massachusetts, passed away.

As village physician, Josiah Bartlett attended the sick through most of the 19th century. Bartlett would have been on hand to treat the Emersons, the Alcotts, the Ripleys, the Channings, the Thoreaus, as well as all of the other inhabitants and strangers passing through the settlement.

Dr. Bartlett drove an open carriage pulled by a high-spirited horse. He lived on Lowell Street, just two doors down from the Masonic Lodge. He was available to his charges at all hours, day and night.

Back then, life was hard, the average lifespan was half of what it is today, and medical practice was long on compassion and short on cure.

During the Civil War, Dr. Bartlett was so taken by reports of those soldiers from Concord who had been wounded in battle that he traveled to the military hospital in Washington, D.C., to do what he could to ease their suffering.

Although he billed for his services, at the end of every year he forgave all accounts that had not been paid. I suppose he figured that if his well-meaning neighbors had the wherewithal to pay up, they would have done so by then. The fact that they didn’t meant that they hadn’t the means to do so.

I can’t imagine that set of principles endorsed by the business of contemporary medical practice, despite a recent New York Times article that advocates revisiting the way American doctors are paid for their services in the interest of curbing the spiraling cost of health care.

Today Dr. Josiah Bartlett rests in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, just down the hill from many of his former patients and their families—remains of that small community gathered together in death as they were in life.

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A Man for All Seasons

One Saturday this past May I hopped into my car and headed out to Pleasant Valley. It was a fine spring afternoon—warm, sunny; blue sky peppered with puffy cumulus clouds.

I headed north toward Hartland, turned off onto Route 219 and followed it up by Enders State Forest. Eventually I cruised over the crest of the Saville Dam and coasted down the hill to Pleasant Valley. It was a short leg up East River Road to the Stone Museum.

I found Walt Landgraf, the museum curator, out back, shovel in hand, repairing the stone walkway. He smiled as I ambled up and pushed my hat back on my head.

“I wanted to give you a copy of my new book,” I said, offering him the parcel in my hand. “You’re in it—I hope you don’t mind.”

“Well, well,” he said with a grin. “I hope it’s duly inscribed.”

I nodded. He opened the book, read the inscription and smiled.

“The piece about you is in the back. There’s also one about Chief Joseph Fire Crow.” I directed him to the pages. “Let me know if there’s any mistakes I need to correct.”

“Well, now,” he started, then stopped. “I suppose you’ll be coming round for the Saturday evening lectures again this summer?”

Since his retirement from teaching, Walt had put together a series of talks on topics of local historical interest—the colonial charcoal and iron industry, shipbuilding, ice age geology, Native American soapstone artifacts, indigenous flora and fauna.

“Oh, I’ll be there. They start in July, right?”

“We changed things a bit this year. I’ll be away in Nova Scotia come July. We’re starting the talks in August.”

“August it is, then. I’m sorry I missed your wildflower walk this past weekend.”

“Oh, there’ll be plenty of others. I’ve always got something going on.”

“You certainly do,” I grinned. “Have a good vacation. I’ll see you come August.”

We shook on it, and he resumed his work while I climbed into my car and headed down the driveway.

My daughter called me at work this morning to tell me that she had seen the obituary in the Courant. “I read the name, and I thought, gosh, I know that guy. Then I realized who he was.”

I finished out the day seeing patients. It wasn’t until I got home and read the obituary myself that I fell apart inside.

“How old was he?” my wife asked at dinner.

“Sixty-six,” I said.

I telephoned my friend Jeff to commiserate. Jeff is the fellow who first told me about Walt years ago. If it hadn’t been for Jeff, I probably would never have made Walt’s acquaintance.

“I heard day before yesterday,” Jeff told me. “Someone sent a mass e-mailing. He died suddenly of a heart attack while he and his wife were on vacation in Nova Scotia.”

“Are you playing tonight?” I asked, referring to Jeff’s band.

“At seven-thirty,” he said. “Why don’t you come and sing with us?”

“O.K.,” I said.

I inscribed a copy of the book and took it with me. After a few beers I got up and sang with the band. We did a rendition of “The Sloop John B,” “Margaritaville” and “Shady Grove.” When the place cleared out, I gave Jeff the book.

Several members of the band knew Walt. One fellow was composing a song in memory of him. They all wanted to see the part about Walt in the book.

Afterwards I left and drove back home through the darkness with the windows down, listening to the nighttime cacophony of insect songs in the woods. As I headed across Saville Dam I saw the moon high in the sky, nearly full, its soft light bathing the valley that Walt loved and walked and knew so well.

Further along down the road the moon slipped behind a few black clouds and faded from view.

I still can’t believe he’s gone—another voice from the village, now silenced forever.

Cat’s Pond

Sunday morning: my final day in Concord, Massachusetts. I stood near the edge of Cat’s Pond, the only man-made feature in the landscape of Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

When this “new burial ground” had been commissioned by the town, Henry David Thoreau was asked to lay out the survey for this body of water. He did so, and lived to see it completed in 1859. By 1860 Thoreau noted in his journal that the surface of the pond was already covered in lily pads—several bright yellow flowers had opened. Nature was already taking over this artificial element in the landscape.

I found the pond by walking to the bottom of Authors’ Ridge and following the path down the steep embankment. The morning sun ratcheted up the sky; it was hot. Through a small break in the trees I could see a line of turtles basking motionless on a half-submerged log, their backs peppered with green algae. Dragonflies darted back and forth across the surface of the water, occasionally hovering in mid air or lighting on a delicate reed.

Step by step I inched my feet along the path down the leaf-covered bank, sometimes stopping and remaining motionless for several minutes before resuming my descent. The turtles remained on the alert, studying my every move. Silently I counted them, twenty-three in all.

Across the pond a stand of white pines towered overhead. Nearer to me, a red maple spread its branches, intertwined with an adjacent locust tree. Behind me the air stirred, rustling the leaves on the branches. I lifted my arms slightly, letting the breeze cool my body.

From the depths of the wetland came the croak of a bullfrog. I looked up to see the first yellow flowers opening among the lily pads. Henry would have reveled in the scene, of that I was certain.

Meantime, above where I stood, up on the ridge, Henry rested, oblivious to the results of his labors.

No one has ever seen the wind, only the evidence of its passing. The same may be said for the spirit of a man.

I got within ten feet of the turtles before they suddenly mobilized their ranks and slipped into the murky water. Across the pond the bullfrog sounded again, taking note of their untimely retreat.

Thomas Wolfe and Henry Thoreau in Concord

While I was away at this year’s annual gathering of the Thoreau Society in Concord, Massachusetts, a good friend, who had no idea where I was at the time, e-mailed me a selection from the beginning of Thomas Wolfe’s epic novel, Of Time and the River.

The Concord gathering, held every year at the anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, consists of four days of scholarly lectures, panel discussions, outdoor activities, a memorial walk around Walden Pond, and a keynote address on the current year’s theme.

In Of Time and the River, Wolfe begins: America has a thousand lights and weathers and we walk the streets, we walk the streets for ever, we walk the streets of life alone.

During his lifetime, Henry Thoreau spent many of his afternoons sauntering through the fields and forests of Concord. Although I attend many of the gathering’s scheduled activities, at times I feel a need to break away from the crowd and strike out on my own to explore the town and wander through the woods as well.

The selection from Wolfe continues: It is the place of the fast approach, the hot blind smoky passage, the tragic lonely beauty of New England, and the web of Boston; the place of the mighty station there, and engines passive as great cats, the straight dense plumes of engine smoke, the acrid and exciting smell of trains and stations.… the strong joy of our youth, the magic city, when we knew the most fortunate life on earth would certainly be ours, that we were twenty and could never die.

This year my daughter took the train from Boston to Concord to spend an afternoon with me. We had lunch together and canoed the Sudbury and Concord Rivers from the Southbridge Boathouse to the Old Manse at Old North Bridge and back. Afterwards we sauntered around Walden Pond, and dropped in to see an old friend nearby. Back at the depot we enjoyed an ice cream together while waiting for her return train. My daughter gave me a big hug before boarding and sat by the window to wave as the train pulled away from the station, leaving “the tragic lonely beauty of New England” and me behind.

Again, Wolfe’s words: It is the place where great boats are baying at the harbour’s mouth, where great ships are putting out to sea; it is the place where great boats are blowing in the gulf of night, and where the river, the dark and secret river, full of strange time, is for ever flowing by us to the sea.

The following morning I arose early and packed my gear. I stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room at the edge of town and looked up into the morning sky peppered with wisps of cottony clouds. Suddenly, there in the midst of them I caught sight of four large birds soaring together, circling round and round, wing tip to wing tip. At first I thought they were turkey vultures, but then I realized that their wings had no defined dihedral. Moreover, the span of those wings must have approached six feet. Then I saw the white heads and white tails—four mature bald eagles dancing together in the morning sky.

Wolfe: It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the one place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.

I carried my bags to the car, checked out of the hotel and made a final stop at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. There, up on Authors’ Ridge, Thoreau’s remains rested beneath the simple white stone marker covered with a miniature cairn of pine cones, stones and leaves that bears his first name only: Henry.

Wolfe’s introduction concludes: And always America is the place of the deathless and enraptured moments, the eye that looked, the mouth that smiled and vanished, and the word; the stone, the leaf, the door we never found and never have forgotten.

Independence Day

I awake to a cool clear morning. A faint breeze stirs the leaves of the maples in the back yard. The sun peeks over the eastern mountains, bathing the trees in intense orange light.

Half asleep, I rise from my bed and patter to the bathroom. Midway through my morning shave, I realize that, although it’s mid week, today I don’t have to go to work. Today is July 4th—Independence Day.

I’ll be fifty-four years old this summer—fifty-four; only eight more years to go until I can retire. I never thought I’d be in a place where most of my career would be behind me. Eight more years. It seems like a long time; yet I suspect that it will fly by.

I returned home from work tired last night, dragging the briefcase that bounced against my leg with each labored step up the driveway, to find my wife and my oldest daughter sitting at the kitchen table. “First, the bad news,” my wife said. “Dave had a stroke.”

I wrinkled my forehead in a frown. “Dave, which Dave?” I asked, somehow knowing already and suspecting the worst.

“Dave, down at the garage; Tom’s partner Dave,” she said, just as I had thought.

I dropped my briefcase by the corner hutch and idly sorted through the stack of mail on the dining room table.

“When?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Tom called this afternoon. He wanted you to know.”

I picked up the phone and dialed the number that I have dialed countless times over the past twenty years: phone calls to make appointments to have the cars serviced; calls to ask for advice on what to do when a vehicle wouldn’t start; calls to check on the problem and how much it would cost to fix it.

Tom and Dave run the local garage, where they service and sell used vehicles. Tom is the early bird, usually in by six-thirty. Dave comes in at noon and works into the evening. Tom is the go-getter; Dave takes his time. Together they’ve run a successful business for three decades.

Many times I’ve stopped off at the garage in the evening on my way home from work to ask Dave to listen to an odd sound that the car had just developed. What did he think? Anything serious? Could it wait, or should I have it looked at right away?

Dave would always pause to consider the situation, nod his head, then take his cigar out of his mouth and pronounce the verdict. He was usually right in his assessment. It was a comfort knowing that things would eventually work out.

The bill always came, but I didn’t mind paying it. You just don’t get service like that nowadays.

I had just spoken to Dave at the end of last week when I stopped in to pay for a service on my wife’s Honda. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I handed him the check, and he scribbled the payment on the bill.

“So, this is the year you’re stepping down, huh?” I said. “You’ll be sixty-two in November.”

“That’s right, sixty-two,” he said, taking the cigar out of his mouth. “But I’ll probably be leaving before that.”

“When?”

“July.”

“July—that’s next week! I thought you couldn’t draw social security until your birthday.”

“True enough, but it seems like a good time for me to get out.” He looked up at me in silence. I nodded my head.

If I had had a cigar, I would’ve taken it out of my mouth and thought of something philosophical to say. But I didn’t, so I just said: “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you before you leave. My Subaru will be due for service soon—maybe next week.”

He smiled. “We’re always here,” he said.

I shook his gnarled grease-stained hand.

Dave had his stroke the next day, Tom told me on the phone. The stroke left Dave paralyzed on the left side.

“His wife told me they’re doing a CT scan on him today. He actually wanted to try to come in to work—can you believe that?”

Yeah, I think, I can believe it.

“He won’t be back again,” Tom said. “That’ll be it. He said he was going to retire in July. Looks like he was right after all.”

“Right as usual,” I said. “Dave always knew what he was talking about.”

“Anyway, I wanted you to know. You guys are like family, you know.”

I hung up the phone and reached for my handkerchief to wipe the fog off my glasses.

That was yesterday. Today is July 4th—Independence Day. I’ve got the day off. Tom and Dave do too. Except Dave won’t be going back to work this week—or this month or this year, either.

For Dave, what should have been a celebration of independence is now the beginning of a semi-dependent existence—a last-minute transition that no one expected.

I had planned to buy him a box of his favorite cigars—Alcazars—for his retirement present. He may have to settle for a bottle of scotch and a good book instead.