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Last Bus to Coffeeville
By J. Paul Henderson
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2014 J. Paul Henderson
All rights reserved.
Gene and Nancy
Eugene Chaney, or Doc as most people called him, sat on the back terrace of his house drinking coffee and wondering if the birds were singing off-key. He decided they were and shouted at them: 'Keep your damn beaks shut!'
In truth the birds sang no differently, neither better nor worse than usual. They stared at Doc as he settled back into his chair. They were used to his moods, but today he seemed different. Today he was: it was his seventy-second birthday.
Eugene Chaney III had retired from practice seven years earlier and eased himself effortlessly into a life of what his neighbours described as misanthropy. Doc would have balked at this description. He was unsociable yes, and made no effort to meet new people, but a misanthrope? No.
On the day he retired, Doc threw away the suits and bow ties that had characterised his professional life and replaced them with plaid shirts and corduroy pants. His white hair had grown long and was combed back in the style of Grandpa Walton, a character in a television series of his younger years. He had also grown a thick moustache in the fashion of Frank Zappa, a rock musician of his youth, and started to smoke again.
Daily life for Doc was no longer exacting. He would wake on a morning, walk downstairs and turn on the television. Most days he would read. Sometimes he would walk or drive places. He did things to fill time, to kill it stone dead. In the evening he would drink two glasses of red wine, impatient for the day to end, and at night sleep fitfully, his dreams disturbed. He was tired all the time.
The anniversary of his birth, however, always took a different turn. It was the one day of the year he allowed himself to look back on his life and consider its limitations. It was a dangerous, if necessary, safety valve.
He would question how a man could reside on a planet for seventy-two years and still live only ten miles from where he was born. He would meditate on a lifetime of helping others while unable to help himself, and ponder why he now preferred his own company. Above all, he would reflect on life's fragility, its lack of rhyme or reason, and the unbearable pain of loss.
Eugene Chaney had become a doctor by default, through lack of imagination.
Doc came from a long line of doctors. His great grandfather, Robert Chaney, although having no medical qualifications per se, had made a name for himself and something of a small fortune for his family by selling what amounted to little more than snake oil. On the proceeds of Robert's sales, his grandfather, Eugene Chaney, had gone to medical school and become a legitimate general practitioner, as had his own father, Eugene Jr.
In the small town where the family lived, the name Eugene Chaney became synonymous with medicine, and it was fully expected that Eugene Chaney III would also follow the well-trodden family path. Doc didn't disappoint. If not filled with a burning desire to help people, he was at least interested in maintaining an accustomed standard of living and, if honest, coveted the social standing conferred by the title doctor.
With a natural and easy understanding of all things scientific, and with no other career in mind, Doc enrolled at Duke University's School of Medicine in the fall of 1960. He drove to North Carolina in a brand new car, a present from his parents. Life was good and life could only get better. For a time it did but then it didn't. How true to life, life can sometimes be!
As it transpired, Eugene Chaney graduated from Medical School with little or no interest in either maintaining his accustomed standard of living or achieving the social standing he'd once desired. He did, however, leave university with an almost obsessive need to wash his hands and, after the trauma of dissecting his allocated cadaver, an aversion to eating beef that lasted four years.
Of more concern for a man who would be a doctor for the next forty years of his life – and potentially more so for the communities he served – was that he graduated with absolutely no interest in medicine. Fortunately, this lack of concern was compensated by a basic competence on Doc's part, and an awareness of his own limitations: he was happy, if not relieved, to refer patients to specialists when unsure of the correct diagnosis.
Patients came to him in differing states of vulnerability. Doc saw parts of their anatomy he preferred never to see again, and on a daily basis witnessed the corrosion of once healthy bodies now racked by disease and old age. The position of power he enjoyed and the onus of responsibility he suffered time and again overwhelmed him. He was expected to change lives for the better, but more often than not found himself managing expectations, explaining to patients the chronic nature of their conditions, and on occasion having to break news of the worst possible kind.
Unlike his patients, Doc appreciated how inexact a science medicine actually was, and likened himself to no more than a small-town garage mechanic who tried to figure out electrical faults on high-ticket European imports. In fact, no one was more surprised than he was when one of his patients actually recovered. His greatest and only fulfilment was syringing ears filled with wax.
Although Doc would have never been described as unsociable at this stage in his life, neither by any stretch of the imagination would he have been considered a people person. It might be surprising to learn, therefore, that amongst his patients he enjoyed the reputation of a kindly man, and was credited with a sympathetic manner; all remarked on the calm and reassuring nature of his voice. It was his patients, in fact, who had started to refer to him as Doc, rather than Doctor, and the moniker had stuck.
Doc's first full-time position was in a small town in Maryland, located at the base of the Catoctin Mountains and surrounded by apple orchards. Ominously for future repartee, the doctors in the practice all quipped that they were MDs in MD.
The small town boasted Ten Police Officers for Every Man, Woman and Child. After his own recent experiences with the police, Doc wasn't sure whether to feel reassured or threatened by this statement, and for many years would wonder where the supposed twenty officers assigned to his wife and child had been on the day of their deaths. Certainly not protecting them.
Four years after arriving in Maryland, Doc fell in love for the second time in his life. It also proved to be the last time. Her name was Beth Gordon, a twenty-five year old florist who operated a small concessionary close to where he worked.
Doc had been invited to dine at the house of another practice doctor, and had thought it fitting to take a bouquet of flowers for his colleague's wife. He didn't look forward to the evening and could predict from experience how it would unfold. The doctors from the practice would talk matters medical and debate plans expansionist, while their wives would talk amongst themselves, swap recipes for apple desserts and suggest suitable matches for Doc. (Doc was the only unmarried doctor in the practice and therefore considered eligible.)
There were two people working in the florists when Doc walked through the door, but it was Beth who'd greeted him: 'Hi, how can I help you?' she'd asked.
'I'm looking for some flowers,' Doc had replied.
'Well, you've come to the right place, then. This shop is full of them.'
Doc had immediately liked her. He'd explained what the flowers were for and asked her to choose something appropriate. As Beth busied herself picking out flowers, matching their colours and choosing background foliage, they chatted easily – sparring with each other rather than aimlessly chit-chatting. Finally, Beth wrapped the flowers in cellophane and completed the presentation bouquet with a bow ribbon. As Doc was leaving – and halfway through the door – he turned to Beth and asked if she'd like to accompany him to the dinner party that evening.
'Sure, why not,' Beth had replied.
'Well, just try and make something of yourself, then. No jeans! I'll pick you up at seven.'
Two years later they were married.
'I don't suppose you want to get married, do you?' Doc had asked.
'Sure, why not,' Beth had replied. 'Who to?'
Doc had then slipped a ring on her finger. The next day they returned to the jewellers and exchanged it for something Beth thought more suitable.
'Okay with you?' she'd asked.
'Okay by me,' he'd replied. 'By the way, you do realise I'll be the titular head of the family, don't you?'
'Sure darling, and all the emphasis will be on the first syllable,' Beth had replied.
Beth was pregnant within the year, and nine months later Doc became father to a 7lb 3oz girl – Esther. How something so small could bring so much happiness into their lives sometimes baffled him. Often, when he looked down on his daughter's still and sleeping form, he thought his heart would literally burst. The unfulfilment of Doc's professional life paled into insignificance as he now gloried in the completeness of his family life.
Such feelings, however, would last for no more than a year. Shortly after his daughter's first birthday, Beth and Esther were killed by a giant donut.
The accident happened on an autumn day custom-built for convertibles: the temperature was warm, the air still, and the humidity non-existent. The Chaneys' blue Corvette Stingray was usually driven by Doc but, at Beth's request, he'd taken the family station wagon to the surgery that morning: she needed to run errands and wanted to make the most of the weather before it turned.
Beth rolled back the car's roof, secured Esther's chair firmly to the passenger seat and headed downtown. The warmth of the sun on her face and the breeze that rustled her newly short hair felt good. Beth had driven the route a thousand times before and could probably have driven it blindfold. At the intersection near the heart of the downtown district, she slowed to a halt, looked left, looked right, left again and then pulled out. Neither driving school nor her own driving experiences had ever suggested that she look upwards to check for falling donuts. Perhaps this was an oversight.
The giant donut had slipped from a crane in the process of attaching it to a tall advertising pylon adjacent to a donut shop. Without warning, it crashed down on the Stingray and crushed the car. Death for both Beth and Esther was instantaneous. Death for the doctor, however, would be prolonged and extend over a period of forty years. Their memory would be a constant in his life: as fresh as daisies and as dry as old leaves.
No words or damages paid can ever alleviate such loss, and at times like these God wisely removes himself to the sidelines – an anonymous spectator hoping to pass unnoticed. All that had been important to Doc had gone, and that day his soul died. The same day, he also lost his appetite for donuts.
Maryland and its memories began to suffocate him. He broke into a cold sweat every time he passed the intersection where the accident had happened, and involuntarily clenched his fists when he saw the giant donut – a new one – affixed to the pylon. Beth and Esther turned up in too many places for life to be comfortable, and when his father phoned to tell him of his decision to retire and inquire of his son if he'd be interested in taking over the practice, Doc readily agreed. The day he left Maryland was the last time he saw the town; he never set foot there again. He carried with him the remains of his erstwhile family: two small urns, one smaller than the other.
Doc's parents had aged comfortably over the years, and he again looked forward to spending time with them. The occasion he'd last seen them had been Thanksgiving holiday of the previous year, and then they had still appeared as the archetypal old couple: the kind that telephone companies might use to encourage sons and daughters to phone home, or travel companies feature as model senior citizens journeying to visit grandchildren. Arriving to take over his father's practice, however, Doc had been shocked to find them old people.
It had happened suddenly, and nothing had prepared him for the change. The phone calls and letters of the intervening year had given him no clues, signalled no warning. He wondered if signs of their decline had already been visible on that Thanksgiving visit, but that he'd been too consumed by his own grief to notice. There was no mistaking now, however, that his mother was seriously ill.
Aware of their son's own pain, neither she nor his father had mentioned her cancer to him. The cancer proved terminal, and Doc and his father could only watch as it cruelly ravaged and consumed her body. As his mother faded, so too did his father's spirit. The humour that once characterised and defined the man's being disappeared and he shuffled around the house a mere shadow of his former self. Three years after his return, Doc's mother died of a broken body and, six months later, his father of a broken heart. They now lay buried side by side in a small cemetery behind the Episcopal Church they'd attended, the church in which they'd been married and the church in which Eugene had been baptised.
In little more than an eight-year period of his young adult life, Doc suffered losses that would, for most people, have been spread over a lifetime, or never happened at all. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he withdrew from the world and into himself, protected from further loss by a shell of gruff exterior. For the next forty years, he would shed no fresh tears.
As the sun rose in the sky and the day of his seventy-second birthday grew hotter, Doc moved his chair into the shade, poured himself another coffee and lit a cigarette. Having unravelled the threads of his life, he now drew them together and refined them into a litany of advice he believed all fathers should impart to their children. Children, he maintained, should be prepared for everything that life might throw at them.
He believed they should be told that their lives would probably get worse rather than better, that they would encounter more difficulties than easy streets, and should learn to come to terms with disappointment. They should be told that they would fail more times than they would succeed, that they would be lucky to find careers that fulfilled them and would, in all probability, be bored stupid for much of their professional lives. Their hearts would be broken, and they would endure relationships that went up in flames or collapsed into rubble; sometimes they would know why, but most times they wouldn't. They would suffer bereavement and loss, and for long periods of time simply exist. For all these experiences they wouldn't be a better or worse person, only a changed person.
Once old, they should compare photographs of themselves as a child with how they were then. They should focus on the eyes: it would be their eyes that would tell the real story of their lives, not the lines on their faces or the loose skin hanging from their chins. Assuredly, their eyes would be sadder; there would no longer be a twinkle there but weariness, a hunted look.
Doc believed that if children knew such cataclysms were possibilities that could strike their lives at any time, the lucky ones would more likely appreciate the providence of their blessed lives, while the unlucky would learn to savour the fleeting moments of happiness allowed them. In particular, he would urge both groups to remember and appreciate the people who had shared in, and were often the reason for their happiness. Always remember to take photographs, he would have advised them. Don't forget the photographs!
And then, five years ago, Nancy had unexpectedly phoned and renewed a relationship that had ended close to forty-five years earlier. In all probability it would end again within the year, and once more at Nancy's choosing.
When the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1959, few could have foreseen the troubled years that lay ahead for the nation or prophesied the forces about to be unleashed. The time of Eisenhower had been one of consensus, and its spirit unquestioning and complacent. The parents of Doc and people their age had little appetite for self-criticism. They had lived through the Great Depression and fought a World War, and their lives were now comfortable. They had every reason to celebrate rather than criticise the America of their birth.
Change, however, was in the air, ruffling the growing hair on their children's heads and tapping into their consciences. By the time Doc enrolled at Duke University's Medical School, his generation was already starting to question the nation's values, especially in the area of race. Negroes, they noted, were still discriminated against in almost all walks of life, and stores, restaurants and hotels remained segregated. They intuitively recognised that racial prejudice was wrong, an unquestionable evil.
Before arriving in Durham, Doc had experienced little of the prejudice that Negroes endured on a daily basis. The town he grew up in had been essentially white, and consequently there had been no racial divide. His early life had also been sheltered, and the success of the high school football team or finding a date for the prom had always taken precedence over any national issues that might have stirred the day.
Duke University changed this. Friends he made there were of the intellectual variety, people who placed emphasis on creativity and originality. By nature, they were more disposed to question and reject traditional and dominant values, and Doc came under their sway. Two friends, in particular, were instrumental in steering him down the path of civil rights activism. Galvanised by a black student sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in nearby Greensboro, they joined the Congress of Racial Equality and, in conjunction with another student called Steve Barrentine, started to organise regular meetings and activities on campus. It was at one such meeting that Doc met Nancy.
Twenty people were gathered in Steve Barrentine's apartment that night. It was the first meeting Doc had attended, and the only two people he knew there were his friends, neither of whom had thought it important to mention that, as a new arrival, he would be expected to describe his own experiences of racial discrimination and suggest ways of combating the unconscionable status quo. Consequently, when called upon to do so, Doc was taken by surprise.
Excerpted from Last Bus to Coffeeville by J. Paul Henderson. Copyright © 2014 J. Paul Henderson. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: DISLOCATIONS,
Chapter One: Gene and Nancy,
Chapter Two: Bob,
Chapter Three: Jack,
Chapter Four: Eric,
Part Two: LOCATIONS,
Chapter Five: Two Mountains and a Plateau,
Chapter Six: Nashville,
Chapter Seven: Coffeeville,
By the Same Author,