December 27, 2016: New Year’s Cabbage

Within the past three months we’ve been through three sets of quasi-religious holidays with more or less pagan origins. Corn Night and Halloween were both established Celtic traditions long before the Church declared November 1 to be All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving coincides with England’s ancient harvest celebrations, and of course Christmas was the Winter Solstice festival in many ancient cultures thousands of years earlier than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ever became associated with the date. And so now, as a sort of goodbye to 2016 and a welcome to 2017, many eastern Kentucky families will be ringing in the New Year with one more time-honored custom with origins in ancient superstition: the cooking and eating of cabbage on January 1, which is supposed to assure good luck and prosperity for an observant household in the coming year. You can use plain boiled cabbage of the type you serve up with corned beef and pinto beans, sauerkraut if you prefer it to the fresh article, cabbage rolls if you want to make it a little bit fancier, even egg rolls or kimchi if you’re into Asian cuisine; as long as some form of cabbage is in your New Year’s Day meal, good luck is supposed to be there as well.

My folks weren’t superstitious about most things, so I’m not sure why they insisted on following the cabbage tradition. Maybe the fact that their parents also observed it was enough to continue it from year to year. At least that’s Sweet Tater’s rationale for maintaining it, and I suppose it’s as good as any. For whatever reason, back when I was young it was always boiled cabbage on January 1 at my folks’, and my mother used to put a dime in the pot when she cooked it, I assume to bring extra luck to whomever found the coin on his or her plate when dinner was dished up. Dad always preferred, or at least claimed to prefer, the inclusion of a rusty horseshoe instead of a dime, but Mom never was willing to serve up a meal fortified with quite that much iron. An old horseshoe was good enough to nail up over the top door post (always with the argument, too, about whether the ends should be pointing upward to catch good luck or downward to distribute it, and whether or not the ends pointing down brought bad luck instead of good) but not for the cabbage pot.

All this leaves me wondering why we even bother with our old good-luck rituals. Are they, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet phrased it, honored more in the breach than in the observance? As long as they’re not taken too literally, they don’t do any real harm, but then again they don’t often do much good either. Maybe the traditions are worth observing simply to remember something of how our ancestors thought and acted. And there are actually a few old wives’ tales, associated with the treatment of sickness at least, that make genuine medical sense. One of these is the maxim that “scorched things heal,” and in a very real way, they do. Midwives used to scorch cloths over the fire to tie off umbilical cords and to swaddle newborn babies, without ever knowing that the real healing property of scorching was that heat sterilized the articles. Another, harking back to the idea that horseshoes bring good luck, was a remedy for iron deficiency that called for dissolving the metallic scraps or “clinkers” from a blacksmith’s forge in vinegar, and then drinking the mixture as a tonic. My grandfather Sparks, who knew his way around both a blacksmith’s shop and the motor barn of a coal mine in equal measure, used to swear by that one, and in fact it did provide a simple, homemade means for the relief of anemia long before over-the-counter vitamins had ever been dreamed up. I doubt that I’ll ever get enough courage to taste that kind of concoction myself, though. To borrow another of Granddad Sparks’ sayings, I just imagine it was sour enough to make a pig squeal.

In the end, I suppose that New Year’s luck and traditions are questions I’ll just have to take up with Chuck Q. Farley the next time I talk to him. He and Polly Esther have invited me and Sweet Tater down to eat cabbage with them on New Year’s Day, and I anticipate that we’ll have a lot to discuss and even a few things simply to cuss, or at least cuss at. So Happy New Year from our houses to yours—and enjoy your cabbage.

December 20,2016: The Days Were Accomplished

Much of my life as a hospital worker, and once upon a time as a nonsalaried country preacher trying to earn a living as a hospital worker, has involved my attempts to process and understand the things I’ve experienced—to make sense out of them as they related to my own life and to life in general. Thus, writing has become a vocation for me, and I admit that between fiction and nonfiction I’ve often had to pen some pretty dark, sordid stuff: sicknesses and deaths of children and adults both, loss of faith and hope, the disastrous, childish concept of a god who looks like a thinner, taller version of Santa Claus and behaves as if he were a superhero wearing a toga rather than tights and a cape. Write what you know, they say, and a good deal of my impetus seems always to have come from faith, doubt, rural churches, and rural hospitals in equal measure. And so for Christmas, let me share an experience much in my thoughts at this season. 

We all wondered why the girl had come to our Emergency Room so early that cold morning. Her obstetrician worked at a larger hospital several miles upriver and ours was just a little place, twenty-odd patient beds and an obstetrics department that had been closed for years. As St. Luke once phrased it, there simply wasn’t any room in the inn. 

But for whatever reason, here she was in the ER, a frightened teenaged girl along with her frightened teenaged husband. And again as St. Luke phrased it, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she was going to have that baby whether or not any of us wished that she would get an ambulance to take her somewhere else—or even wait till daylight to give birth. 

If everything hadn’t been so tense it would have been the stuff of comedy. A semi-retired gynecologist lived just up the hill from the hospital. She was roused from sleep and, luckily for the reluctant, equally rudely-awakened ER physician, proved willing to bestir herself and exercise her obstetrical skills one more time. Tools and materials packed up and gone into disuse ever since our own OB department had closed were frantically sought and finally found, amid laughter, tears, collisions, curses, and prayers of both supplication and thanksgiving. The House Supervisor barked orders in a tone that would have seemed absolutely furious if we all hadn’t known it was the result of her genuine worry for the welfare of the girl. 

And so in the wee hours of that icy morning, the baby was safely “caught.” We were all prepared for the worst: stillbirth, breach birth, apnea, placenta praevia, placental abruption, umbilical cord around the throat, spina bifida, all the horrible things we knew that could occur; but the child was as healthy as a little colt, and was kicking almost as hard. The ER looked literally as if a tornado had passed directly through it, and the young father, dazed and seemingly wobblier on his legs even than the newborn, had to beg half a dozen smiling, cooing nurses for a brief turn at holding his own baby girl. 

No one on duty that morning would have considered such a case, in the abstract, as being anything less than a nightmare come true. But in reality, that emergency delivery put every one of us in a good, even joyous, mood. 

There are a couple of stories in the Bible about shepherds and wise men journeying to a stable outside an inn to visit a newborn. I admit, I’ve seen much in my occupation that would challenge the claim that either of those tales is relevant to life as it is today. And even on the assumption, or the faith, or the trust, or the hope, or the whatever, that the stories ARE relevant, Scripture doesn’t mention a single thing about any stable hands running around to help Mary and Joseph with the baby or anything else. But a happy birth still lets me catch a tiny glimpse of the Divine and makes me want to meditate on the old stories. And I’d like to think that a few stable hands WERE there in Bethlehem to wipe the brow of another, long-ago teenaged mother sweating and crying in the cold, each angling for a chance to hold and rock the baby and smiling with joy that a new life was born into the world. The divinity of birth is one of the things that keeps us hospital folk going, after all. 

Merry Christmas.

December 13, 2016: A Modest Proposal

I’ve been hearing a lot locally since the Presidential election about flag burning. It’s certainly a hot-button issue with emotions running high on at least one side, but I can’t help being somewhat perplexed. Eastern Kentucky seems to me to be one of the least likely places in the world where one might witness the burning of an American flag. The only regional tale I’ve ever heard of such, and it’s apocryphal at best, comes from nearly one hundred years ago when a small group of Communists were supposed to have attempted a rally not long after the end of World War I at some mountain county seat or other. After the local citizens’ response to their flag fire the Communists were apparently very glad to get out of the hills with their skins. In short, even though we are now told that a certain former KGB officer is actually the United States’ bestest buddy ever, and for the time being people are apparently swallowing the notion hook, line, and sinker, flag burning is still something that just ain’t done in eastern Kentucky. For which I’m very glad. It’s not only in poor taste, it’s stupid.

But admittedly,whether it’s right or wrong,the main reason that the act is so easy to condemn around here may be that flag burners are completely safe to hate, since almost none of us have brothers or sisters or cousins or any other kinfolk guilty of the practice. I guess the religious equivalent in terms of community consensus would be something like the issues of gayness versus divorce and remarriage. Gays are decidedly in the minority and therefore currently very easy to condemn, whereas divorce has become accepted a lot like the television set once was—when enough people got one, at least within the families of ministers, the churches pretty much quit quoting Scripture about it and preaching against it. And so the flag-burning issue remains alive and agitated locally, not least because our President-elect has recently “tweeted” the proposition that flag burners ought either to lose their citizenship or be jailed—while our state’s own Senior Senator, Mitch McConnell, vocally upholds the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that flag burning is an issue of Freedom of Speech and therefore a legitimate form of political protest. I won’t attempt to step in between the two on the issue. For the President-elect’s idea to be enacted, current Federal law would have to be changed, and if you don’t like McConnell’s opinion on the matter I suggest that you vote against him next time he runs, or for that matter, vote FOR him if you agree with him. What I’d like to leave with you is the idea that there’s a much better and more legitimate form of political protest available than the incineration of the Stars and Stripes. That is, at least as long as you don’t live in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi or Louisiana.

Simply put, why burn the American flag when you can light up a Confederate battle flag instead? Though “the Stars and Bars” is widely touted as some sort of beloved historical symbol, and in fact a great many of my own ancestors no doubt felt affection for it back when they fought under it, the Confederate flag isn’t the official emblem of any legitimate nation. However much the Civil War is romanticized now, all the Secessionist banner ever really stood for was organized rebellion, spearheaded by a rich planter class leading a great many simple, well-meaning small farmers gulled by the planters’ empty promises (like my forefathers were), against the lawful government of the United States. And I suspect that, even now, the Confederate flag remains a more potent symbol of everything worthy of protest against the wrongs and injustices of the American nation than the Stars and Stripes ever could be. In the five states listed above,the burning of a Confederate flag is illegal, but even in those the anti-burn law would be even more difficult to enforce than any similar prohibition against the destruction of the Stars and Stripes. That’s not to say, though, that a Confederate flag-burner wouldn’t run the same risk in, say, a rural Georgia or Florida panhandle county seat that the Communists once did with our own hill people over our true flag.

But we’re not in those states. We’re in Kentucky, and there’s no Confederacy any more. Only the United States. May we always remember that, especially since, only four short years ago, people from many Southern states, including several thousand in this one, were actually petitioning once again to secede.

December 6, 2016: Early Times & Toenails

Last week I promised I’d tell you how I met my journalistic guide and counselor, Chuck Q. Farley. I didn’t call him by that name at first, though. We were both a lot younger then, and that night I could identify him only by his Intensive Care Unit armband, “FARLEY, CHARLES QUINLAN, ICU 812.” He was a direct admit from the Emergency Room, having been discovered passed out drunk face-down in mud somewhere and almost frozen to death, and he had more dirt in his eyes than I thought was even possible. (A note here: I got Chuck Q.’s permission to tell this, as well as that of Dr. Skinnerbach, the physician on call that night. Both agreed, Chuck Q. because his wife thought his example might do some good if made public, and Dr. Skinnerbach because he’d completely forgotten the case and was interested.) And of course I was summoned to draw blood. I introduced myself; then and for years after, I addressed Chuck Q. only as Mr. Farley, and he called me—well, never mind what he called all of us, especially the nurse trying to clean him up after Dr. Skinnerbach rinsed the dirt out of his eyes with a squirt bottle of warmed sterile saline.

“Be careful, Mr. Farley,” I whispered as the nurse momentarily left the ICU cubicle. “One time a guy in here kicked her, and she took revenge by cleaning under his toenails with the sharp point of a great big pair of scissors. Went to the quick and brought out stuff that hadn’t seen daylight in years. I watched it happen.”

He paled and curled up his toes tightly. “Thanks, buddy,” he whispered, and abruptly became all honey, pie, and charm to the returning nurse. Then he addressed me again. “You a vampire?” he chuckled.

That joke was funny the first time I heard it. Not so much the million since. “No, sir,” I replied, straight-faced, “I’m a tick, and my wife and kids are mosquitoes.” He laughed, but refused to let me draw any blood.

“Buddy, I got blood tests done just yesterday at the doctor’s, and I don’t think I need no more this soon,” he explained. That was enough for me, so I turned to leave. It was his right to refuse a venipuncture. But then the nurse tried to coax him into it.

“Hold on a minute, John,” she ordered. “Mr. Farley,” she begged, “we need to know how much alcohol you have in your blood.”

“Honey—err, Nurse, Ma’am, I don’t mean you no disrespect, but I can tell you that. They’s a fifth of Early Times in there. Or maybe Seagram’s Seven. I forget. Just leave my toenails alone, okay?” He looked at her worriedly.

“Toenails?” she asked, her eyes darting suspiciously towards me. “What about toenails?” I gave her a scatophagic grin. She glared back at me.

Dr. Skinnerbach entered the cubicle, evidently having overheard our conversation. “Mr. Farley,” he said politely, with the bare hint of German accent that still clings to his excellent English, “Besides caring for your eyes, I must know your blood alcohol level.”

“I done told her, Doc, they’s a FIFTH in there!”

“But…but…,” the good doctor sought for an explanation, “I still need to ascertain the concentration. Otherwise, if we give you anything for pain or anxiety tonight, it might knock you completely out!”

Chuck Q. looked aggrieved. “But that’s what I WANT!” he wailed plaintively. I bit my lip to suppress a smile. You have to admire honesty wherever you find it.

The nurse started to offer a comment. “Dr. Skinnerbach—” she began.

Chuck Q. did a violent double-take and stared at her in abject terror. “No, no, not that!” he howled as he sowbugged himself into a fetal position. “Go ahead, Count Drackler, draw the blood,” he sobbed,holding out one arm, “but PLEASE don’t nobody do that! Nor jam nothin’ up nowhere afterwards! And for God’s sake leave my toenails alone too!”

The nurse scowled at me again, and Dr. Skinnerbach just looked puzzled. I did manage, however, to collect a sample of Chuck Q.’s blood, and he even complimented me on my technique. After he recovered he asked the nurse out on a date, she agreed, and they wound up getting married and moving downriver a few miles. Her name’s Polly Esther, by the way, and although she never could make Chuck Q. work, she did persuade him to quit drinking and to keep his toenails nice and clean for her. Both worthy ideas, if he knows what’s good for him.