July 26, 2016: Bearing Arms in Christian America, Part Two

If ever a family man needed a dependable firearm, it was in backwoods, upcountry mid-1700s North Carolina. The colony’s Royal Governor had just opened the area to settlement for an influx of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants, and besides forests full of bear and panther, the Cherokee were only a few miles further west and colonial relations with them were volatile. But dangerous though things were, wild beasts and warriors weren’t the backwoods families’ only worries. They earned very little hard money, raising most of what they lived on and acquiring much of the rest by barter with neighbors, but they still had to pay taxes in coin to their county sheriffs—and it’s doubtful one could find a crookeder set of “good ol’ boys” anywhere. Even Governor William Tryon admitted that his upcountry sheriffs were among the worst embezzlers he had ever seen, and if they could successfully cheat the Governor himself we can only imagine their treatment of small farmers when they wanted to seize land for themselves. Upcountry North Carolina small landowners were truly between a rock and a hard place.

On, then, to the first American instance of gun control. About 1768 several upcountry farmers organized a “Regulation” to oppose the land-stealing of the sheriffs. At first these “Regulators”didn’t rebel against Governor Tryon, much less King George; they only demanded fair treatment and equable taxation from their county officials, and referred to themselves as “Tories.” But then the agitator Herman Husbands got involved with the movement. You’ll remember Husbands and the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion from last week’s column: he had himself convinced that the Second Coming would occur in colonial America, complete with the Holy City descending, and in order to realize this dream he was entirely willing to incite his listeners to his own hysteria—and their own violence. After Husbands joined the Regulation, his Doomsday predictions increasingly turned the group anarchic and savage.

Luckily, Husbands wasn’t the only upcountry religious voice. Baptists there were in plenty, and their leader, old Elder Shubal Stearns, whose musical pulpit style is still copied throughout Southern Appalachia today, was a pacifist strictly opposed to any anti-government violence. Among his younger preachers was Elijah Craig, also mentioned last week, and Elnathan Davis, whom Stearns likewise closely shepherded in the ministry, was moderator of a large church on Haw River. In 1769 Davis’ congregation passed a resolution that any member taking up arms against the standing government should be excluded from fellowship. Regulation response was swift: Regulators promptly invaded the homes of every Haw River Church member, including Davis, and confiscated their rifles and muskets. One assumes they rationalized disarming their opponents, but the fact remains that the Regulators enacted the very first, and for years the only, recorded instance of gun control in American history. Ironically, once the American Revolution began, Regulator tales mixed with those of the Revolution and nowadays these gun thieves are often lionized as pre-Revolutionary patriots.

The Regulator anarchy couldn’t last. After Husbands’ listeners destroyed the town of Hillsboro and burned Superior Court Justice Richard Henderson’s barn and stables (the same man for whom Daniel Boone was then exploring Kentucky), Governor Tryon led an army west and defeated them at the Battle of Alamance Creek in May 1771. Afterward there was heartbreak to spare. Five Regulator leaders were hanged, the majority of Shubal Stearns’ Baptists simply gave up trying to live in North Carolina and went further west to Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and ultimately Kentucky, and that fall Stearns himself died—possibly of grief. Herman Husbands ran like a turkey to Pennsylvania just before the Battle of Alamance, saving his own skin while his hearers fell on the battlefield and died on the gallows. One wonders how much Husbands’ fate in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion involved karma, but old Preacher Stearns probably would have quoted Galatians 6:7 : “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Even more sadly, the questions raised by the Regulators’ actions are still disputed. Would any God-and-Liberty-mouthing paramilitary “patriot” group in America today act differently than the Regulators if they managed to seize power—up to and including confiscating firearms from citizens who opposed them? And after all this time, haven’t we had our fill of Doomsday predictions by lunatics claiming a direct line between God’s voice and their ears? Apparently, not enough people think so. And I fear that before it’s all over we’ll relearn a hard lesson our Carolina ancestors took to heart more than two centuries ago.

Next week, I’ll try to wind up this issue with something closer home and, hopefully, a little more cheerful.




July 19, 2016: Bearing Arms in Christian America, Part One

Not too long ago I read a “quote,” supposedly uttered by George Washington, that “free people need sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from their own government.” Out of habit I looked up this “quote” in my favorite online fact-checking resource, Snopes.com, and was unsurprised to find it was just malarkey cooked up by open-carry zealots, made all the more odious by our most recent local gun tragedy. What was that my old man told me about the saddest words ever said… but if I’d thought another moment, I wouldn’t have needed to check Snopes. I knew already that George Washington, as President, had not only sent Federal troops into western Pennsylvania in 1794 to enforce an unpopular government excise tax on whiskey, but he’d actually ridden at their head—a rare instance of a sitting Commander-in-Chief personally leading an army into the field. One “Whiskey Rebellion” leader, David Bradford, fled down the Ohio to territory still belonging to the French; another, a certifiable religious nut named Herman Husbands, the so-called “Pennsylvania Madman” who believed Heaven would soon descend on the far side of the Allegheny Mountains and who therefore thought his actions were all part of God’s plan for the End Times, was sentenced as a traitor but then pardoned, possibly in consideration of his mental status; and despite all the high-blown rhetoric about God and Liberty mouthed by these men and others, resistance to Washington’s army wilted. Thus the President managed to accomplish two things: he demonstrated that the National government was both willing and able to suppress resistance to its laws, an historical precedent the Confederates should have heeded in 1861 (Washington’s army’s second-in-command was General Henry Lee, father of General Robert E.); and the avoidable collapse of western Pennsylvania’s whiskey industry gave that famous Kentucky Baptist preacher Elijah Craig’s brand-new creation, Bourbon, the chance to gain a place in the hearts of drinkers nationwide.

So, would our first President actually have approved of anyone arming against the established Government of the United States? Like Granddad Sparks would say, that notion and five cents will buy you a nickel cigar. Yet in another of history’s ironies, no so-called open-carry patriot would dare blame Washington for enforcing Federal law. The Whiskey Rebellion and its defeat had to have been the fault of that old meanie, the United States’ first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, instead. Life is funny, that is, except when it’s sad.

Still, this historical exercise led me to ponder individual freedom, Federal authority, and the history of arms control in the United States just a little further. I doubt that our ancestors would even be able to believe, much less understand, our current Second Amendment fights any more than they’d be able to comprehend that they were actually in a church house if they witnessed a modern worship service in a modern building, and I suspect that we would be just as confused if we could peer into the future at our own descendants. But gun control does in fact have a long history in the United States, and not just with the Western territorial marshals who forced travelers to the tough cow towns they guarded to surrender all firearms to their offices and deputies while within city limits. Clint Eastwood demonized this practice in the movie “Unforgiven,” but in fact Wyatt and Virgil Earp and a host of other Western lawmen were guilty of it on a regular basis, and it probably prevented a lot more gun deaths than it ever violated anyone’s rights. Let Eastwood talk about that awhile to an empty chair. But in fact, the first recorded American instance of firearms confiscation occurred before there ever was a United States, and it wasn’t enforced by either the British Crown, the government of any American colony, or in fact any regularly constituted government at all. It happened in the fall of 1770 in that seedbed of Appalachian and Kentucky civilization, the backwoods of upland western North Carolina, and it was overseen by none other than that very same religious maniac who wreaked havoc in the Pennsylvania mountains a quarter century later with the Whiskey Rebellion, Herman Husbands. Even the Bourbon creator, Elijah Craig, was involved slightly too, though indirectly. Did I mention that life is funny? That is, except when it’s sad?

More on this next week. But in addition to my favorite Santayana quote, you might consider another, this one verifiable from a later President, Harry Truman: the only thing new to you in the world is the history you don’t know.

July 12, 2016: The Renaissance Men

I looked through my books the other day and found an old pamphlet that once belonged to my grandfather: a transcription of a lecture Dr. Paul B. Hall delivered at Louisville in 1964 entitled “My Forty Years’ Practice of Medicine in the Hills of Eastern Kentucky.” Skimming over it once again made me marvel how much the healthcare industry has changed, not only here, but all over the country, even since Dr. Hall delivered the lecture, let alone when he began his practice as a junior medical student back in the terrible, death-filled days of the 1919 Spanish influenza epidemic. Nowadays we have millions of drugs, tons of tests, and X-ray procedures enough to diagnose conceivably almost anything. Back in the days of his youth, Dr. Hall noted in the lecture, the drugs physicians could count on could be numbered on the fingers with digits left over, none antibiotics because those hadn’t yet been developed, and he and his colleagues had to make virtually all their diagnoses using only their eyes, hands, and ears besides maybe a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. So if it’s true that a “Renaissance Man” is one who can boast of being accomplished in many disciplines, like Leonardo da Vinci with painting, sculpture and engineering all, our old-time country doctors were true Renaissance Men—at least from the standpoint of the dozens of subspecialties of medicine.

Besides the several stories about riding horseback through creek beds to reach patients and then later having his wife break the ice off the stirrups frozen to his feet, Dr. Hall recounted tales of surgical experimentation and innovation prompted by on-the-spot emergency decisions that would turn a typical young modern physician into a quivering lump of paralyzed fear. He often acted boldly because he just as often had no other choice. Nor was he the only mountain doctor forced to show audacity on a regular basis: though it’s been a long time since the days of the coal company doctors, one still hears stories of mine accidents patched up almost MASH-style by these men, often fresh out of medical school and a one-year rotating internship and on their first jobs. I’ve already shared one anecdote of Dr. F. M. Picklesimer’s days as Royal Collieries’ physician at Offutt. Later on his partner in Paintsville for a while, Dr. A. D. Slone, diagnosed the first case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever ever reported locally, working from a set of symptoms that had stumped doctors much older than him. And though all had to be competent with a scalpel, arguably the neatest surgeon locally was Dr. E.G. Skaggs: he had a reputation for making the smallest, most precise incisions possible in any operation he performed, and once actually removed the appendix of one of my particularly skinny cousins using local anesthetic. Dr. Skaggs simply slapped a band-aid on top of the few stitches he left, and my cousin hopped off the operating table and walked, with a little assistance, back to his room. And the heroic, often wryly comedic, tales of the tough old doctors go on.

The Renaissance Men’s one great collective failing with their patients is almost understandable, though we’re still paying for it today. Psychiatric disorders carried a terrible social stigma and hardly anyone would even admit to the possibility that they might suffer from such maladies. Even then, almost the only thing yesteryear’s physicians could prescribe for cases of “nerves” was, simply, narcotic “nerve tonic.” Later on pills took the place of the tonic, and over the years overworked doctors increasingly threw them at patients as quick fixes; one thing led to another until we have our present prescription-drug addiction crisis. And for all that, the country doctors of yore left a good, strong legacy of healing, one to which our own lawsuit-ridden modern healthcare profession might aspire. To those of us who work inside the industry, though, indoctrinated daily as we are with a medical philosophy that increasingly and evermore makes its very basis the initials C.Y.O.A.F.—like the Good Book says, he that hath an ear, let him hear; the first three letters stand for “Cover Your Own,” and again to quote the Bible, the last shall be “First”—perhaps we are prone to view the deeds of the Renaissance Men somewhat through rose-colored glasses. The doctors of yesteryear would have given their eyeteeth for a full night’s sleep, let alone the medical conveniences we now take for granted. I just can’t help suspecting, though, if the Renaissance Men might have used them more fearlessly—and probably could have slept better, too.

July 6, 2016: Hospital Drama

In thirty-four years of working in and around hospitals and clinics, I’ve collected a wealth of tales from what I’ve seen and heard, certainly enough to keep me writing for a long time yet—but I have to be careful how I present them. Short stories aren’t much of a problem. All you have to do is fictionalize your names, settings, and dates to make sure nobody recognizes anything that actually occurred at a specific time and place. But nonfiction, even what’s termed creative nonfiction, is another matter entirely, even here in eastern Kentucky where we live hip-deep in a conservative culture that actively requires gossip to maintain its customs and social mores. Not only is the betrayal of a person’s confidential information illegal under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, it’s simply not right, cuss and durn it. So over the years in recounting medical stories either comedic or tragic, I’ve developed similar guidelines. First, I use no real names, and if a given name becomes necessary I make note of the fact that it’s a pseudonym—such as, say, Brother Drye in my bootlegger story. I suppose that for need I could call the other minister I’ve mentioned in that same column and a couple of others, the Rev. Elisha Beare; he agreed that I was at least a half wit, after all. Secondly, I let my stories marinate a few years before telling them, just enough to enlist the help of Father Time to make specifics a little fuzzier. Thirdly, I’m deliberately vague about location. In other words, what I want to do is convey the comedy or tragedy of the story’s action itself, not make fun of anyone for simply being human. Between us all we have enough faults and failings to go around and fill up a dozen spare baskets besides, just like the good Lord with the loaves and fishes except we’re multiplying mistakes rather than food.

So where to start, as a reference point? The best place I can see is the context that the great majority of my readers are probably most familiar with, not a real hospital itself, but the medical programs that are always available to watch on television or binge-watch on DVD. That may sound like a lost cause. After all, as law officers will tell you about 99.9% of police procedural shows, most of these are wildly inaccurate, and the “reality TV” emergency room programs are as bad as or worse than the dramas and soap operas. Sweet Tater can hardly stand to watch such a show with me because I usually criticize it indignantly from start to finish. And when the Tater Tots were at home they loved “Gray’s Anatomy” every bit as much as I despised it. That made for some interesting conversations too.

But there are partial exceptions. Several years ago in a survey of law officers asking for an opinion of which police TV show depicted their own experiences most closely, of all the choices that were available the old 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller” won hands down. And in that spirit, I can honestly say that same thing about the hospital comedy “Scrubs”—not the zany plot twists or contrived lunacy in every script, though that’s part of the show’s appeal to me, but simply the general atmosphere of absurdity you know you’re going to be dealing with every time you watch it. That’s pretty much the same ambiance you can expect in a hospital on any given day, and the key to success is managing to pull something at least resembling sense out of the senseless. Maybe you have to have been there to understand what I’m trying to say, but at least to these middle-aged eyes “Scrubs” has the common everyday temperament of a hospital down pat. A lot of techs and nurses agree with me, too.

And so the old Common Tater just might start to bring up the occasional medical drama from recollection’s vaults, always, rest assured, carefully self-edited. From the long-ago Independence Day a guy got so drunk he thought a firecracker was a cigarette and put it in his mouth and lit it and came to the ER with a couple of his teeth blown out, to the more recent holiday escapade wherein another drunk got the trigger of a pistol stuck in his belt buckle somehow and shot off something much more precious to him than teeth, I’ve often found my profession and my places of employment frustrating—but never boring. And by the way, happy Fourth of July, one day late.