Back in the Day

Category:  Community
Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 at 8:24 AM
Back in the Day by Barry Casselman

My father was a general practitioner for 65 years. He had two sons, neither of whom became physicians.

My older brother, now deceased, became a very successful solid state physicist. I think he did later have second thoughts about medicine. In any event, he was the smartest one in the family so I won’t try to second-guess him.

I have been a writer most of my adult life.

My father emigrated to Canada from Russia in 1910 when he was 10 years old and spoke not a word of English. Eight years later, he graduated from public school in Montreal at the top of his class and won a scholarship to the city’s famed McGill University medical school where he had worked doing janitorial labor as a teenager to help pay the bills of his impoverished family.

He had an extraordinary mind, but he did not read many books after he left college. He did love politics and baseball, and read magazines and newspapers all the time, and kept up with the dramatic changes going on in medicine, but he did not read novels or poetry.

In the final years of his life, I would return at least twice a year to my hometown of Erie, where he practiced medicine from 1927 to 1992, and we would go out for breakfast and talk. I was amazed, as he talked about medicine, how much his insights were like those of William Carlos Williams, one of America’s greatest poets and also a full-time practicing pediatrician in New Jersey.

“Only about 10 percent of my practice is clinical,” my father said, “90 percent is listening to my patients talk about what they are worried about.” Williams had said much the same thing in his well-known autobiography.

But this connection I made between literature and my father was theoretical on my part. Only when he was in his eighties, did he finally tell me the story of how he met one of America’s most legendary writers long before I was born.

Graduating from McGill in the spring of 1927, my father chose to intern in a relatively small Pennsylvania city. He had received invitations from hospitals in cities across Canada and the United States, so his older brother told him to put all of the names in hat and pick one. That turned out to be Hamot Hospital in Erie. Arriving at this Great Lakes port and industrial city in the autumn of 1927, my father was the last intern joining the staff that year. Of course, he got all the worst jobs.

Some time later (and I don’t know exactly when), the glamorous and luxurious 20th Century Limited train was making its daily nonstop run from Buffalo to Cleveland, en route from New York to Chicago. It did not normally stop in Erie, but one of its passengers had become quite ill as the train approached the Pennsylvania border, and Erie was the closest place with a hospital. So the 20th Century Limited made an unexpected and and perhaps unprecedented stop in Erie.

As my father told me the story, a Hamot ambulance met the train. The passenger who was ill was no ordinary traveler. In fact, he was Ralph Budd, (my father always called him “Mr. Budd") the president of the Great Northern Railroad, and he was traveling in his own private car that was attached to the Limited. His car was detached at Erie’s Union Station, and the train continued on to Chicago. The ambulance took him to Hamot Hospital where he was treated for a few days for what turned out to be a brief and minor intestinal flu. Soon afterwards, he arranged for this train to stop again and connect his private car so he could continue his journey home to Minnesota.

Before he left, Mr. Budd reportedly told the hospital administrator that he wanted a physician to accompany him on the trip. Money was no object, he said. As luck would have it, the job fell to a lowly intern who, of course, was my father. A bachelor at the time, he could leave on a few minutes notice, which is exactly what happened.

The private car of a railroad tycoon in the 1920s was something to see. It had a lavish parlor, dining room, several bedroom/staterooms, and bathrooms, all with finest furnishings, and a large galley. It came with its own cook and a valet.

My father, an immigrant, had lived his entire life in or near poverty. Now he was traveling on the greatest American train of the age in the most lavish manner possible. After dinner with his patient, my father excused himself to go to his room. He was disconcerted to find Mr. Budd’s valet waiting for him, and when this gentleman attempted to help him remove his pants, something any respectable valet of that era always did, my father, red-faced, asked him to leave the compartment immediately so that he could undress himself.

The next morning they arrived in St. Paul where Mr. Budd lived in a suite at the Commodore Hotel, a legendary art deco building that still stands, and was where F. Scott Fitzgerald had also lived a few years before going to the East Coast. (It was Fitzgerald’s iconic novel "The Great Gatsby" which indelibly captured the quick wealth, decadence, crime, and disillusionment of that time.) Mr. Budd insisted that they drive in his chauffeured car to St. Cloud (30 miles away) so that my father could meet Mr. Budd’s own personal physician.

On arriving there at a large house, they were ushered into a parlor where a conversation took place between Mr. Budd, his physician and my father. At some point, the physician asked my father if he would like to meet his brother who was a writer and happened to be visiting him at that time, and was currently in the library of the house. Taking my father along, Dr. Claude Lewis walked into a nearby room where a young red-haired man stood rummaging through a book.

“Dr. Casselman, this is my brother Sinclair,” he said, “and he has written a book about physicians like us.” (Actually “Arroswsmith” was about Claude’s and Sinclair’s father, a physician who lived in neighboring Sauk Center).

My father had no idea who this man was (Lewis received the Nobel Prize for literature a few years later), but he was startled to be shaking hands with a someone who had, as he described it to me, “the worst case of adult acne” he had ever seen. (Most publicity photos of Sinclair Lewis of that era were “doctored” to erase or blur his pock-ravaged complexion.) My father did not remember their conversation. He then left with Mr. Budd to return to St. Paul by car.

Later, in the day Mr. Budd said good-bye to my father at the rail station. The now-fully recovered executive thanked my father for his trouble and handed him an envelope.

“There’s a first class ticket back to Erie for you," he said, and shook his hand. Shortly after that, opening the envelope in the station, my father removed the ticket….. and five $100 bills. (You have to remember that this was the 1920s; multiply this by about ten to estimate how much it really was worth then.)

He was in a bit of a daze, he told me, the rest of the trip, and when he got to Union Station in Erie the next afternoon, he was met by the other interns, eager to hear all about his adventure. His mistake was telling them about the $500. These were the days of Prohibition and illegal booze. Even Erie had speakeasies. By the time he got back to his boarding room the next morning, the money had all been spent. I don’t think I want to know on what or on whom. By Erie standards, even in those days, it must have been quite a party.

As far as I know, my father never read any of the novels Sinclair Lewis wrote, nor did his poverty enable him to live the “high” life of The Jazz Age portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But his brief escapade in Minnesota brought him in momentary contact with both, including that culture illustrated by Fitzgerald in which so many persons went through a lot of money very fast.

Barry Casselman, an Erie native, now lives in Minneapolis. He has been a national political commentator for many years, as well as a widely published author of poetry and short fiction. 

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