Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pains and Trains Beneath the Breath of Death

I started Third Grade at West Whiteland in the fall of 1949. I still remember nada about the school beyond that I went. I do recall a morning at home not long after the new Semester began. I woke to a bright day. Sun was streaming in through the side window. It was a Saturday and I was not at my grandmothers. Dad had arrived late Friday night, too late to take me to
I felt fine until I swung my legs over the side of the bed. A sharp pain hit me. It sliced me in half right across my middle. I screamed at the same time I fell off the bed to the floor. I curled in a ball, yelling in agony.
My mother and father rushed into my room. They must have risen early for both were dressed. My mom was saying over and over, “What’s wrong?”
The pain was too intense; I couldn’t speak. I think I managed to screech, “Pain”. It stabbed me worst when I tried to straighten out.
Dad snatched me up in his arms and took me out and lay me in the back of the car. My mother followed and dad drove us at high speed to the hospital in West Chester. I can still see the blur of trees and brush whizzing past the car windows.
He carried me into the emergency ward. Dr. Parke was paged and happened to be in the hospital visiting patients that morning. I was shortly hauled into surgery and told to count backward from 99 as they dripped ether over my face.
I had acute appendicitis and came within a hairbreadth of it bursting. If this had occurred on a day when my father wasn’t home, which were most days, I wouldn’t be writing about it now. I’d been long dead and buried beneath a child’s tombstone reading “Died: Age 8”.
This was 1949 you realize and the odds were against survival. I escaped death by the slimmest of margins and circumstance. If the attack had come a day earlier, what would my mother have done? It would have been only her and me at the house. She didn’t know how to drive. How would I have gotten to the hospital in time?
In 1949 there was no 911 emergency call service. The first such system was initiated in 1968, almost twenty years too late for me.
She would have had to look up a number in the phone book, but what number? The police? The fire company? There was no ambulance service available to her. Some volunteer ambulance services began in a few locations around 1940, but such ambulance services were manned by untrained community volunteers, there were no trained EMTs yet. The country didn’t have a network of ambulance service manned by medically staffed personal until after the passage of the Emergency Highway Safety Act of 1966.
My mother would most likely have called her father in Downingtown and hope to catch him home. My grandmother didn’t drive either. Her father would have to drive out to our place and then up to West Chester. That time to come from Downingtown would probably have seen me with peritonitis and if shock didn’t kill me, it would.
Peritonitis is serious stuff today, but many times more so in the 1940s. The mortality rate
was near total. Treating it successfully was nearly impossible. They hadn’t coined the term antibiotic until 1940. There were precious few in existence. Penicillin was developed in 1942, but not available to the general public until after World War II ended in 1945. These medicines were not yet readily available.
The Good Lord must have decided I had some future use and kept me around.
I was kept in the Children’s Ward at Chester County Hospital for a week. I didn’t like it much. It was a long rectangle room with beds lining walls on both sides of a center aisle. Everything was open, no privacy, and little quiet. There was a lot of crying in the night making it hard to sleep. There wasn’t much diversion. There were no TVs mounted over beds. Television was not yet in common use anywhere, let alone in hospitals to entertain children.
My discharge could not come until the incision completely closed with no signs of infection. On the final day Doctor Parke came to remove the sutures. This was when I felt that anger against the doctor I spoke of earlier.
I say sutures, but that is not totally correct. The doctor had not stitched me up after surgery;
he stapled me back together. Large metal staples held me together. The doctor had to remove them one by one. I don’t know exactly how Doctor Parke did this. Did he have a big pincher thing like you use to remove a staple from papers? All I know is it hurt something fierce when he did it.
Even after I came home I remained out of school for two or three weeks. It was difficult for me to walk without pain during that time, especially going up and down stairs. Eventfully all the pain and stiffness dissipated and I returned to normal life.
I now had a long three-inch worm of a scar running from my hipbone to near my privates to go along with the jagged one on my palm and the sword scar on my cheek. This too did not disappear until well into middle age, although each year it crept further up my body, as you can see in this 1974 photograph where it runs along the top of my right hip. This was not to be my last scar, neither physically nor internally either.
I wish to make a note here in case the idea of staples should frighten anyone about having surgery. My situation occurred in 1949 when I was a child of 8. Medical procedures have progresses a far distance from what they were in the past. My wife
recently had knee surgery and the wound was closed with 25 staples. A Physical Therapist removed these right in our home and my wife felt no pain whatsoever as each was plucked out.

I had fully recuperated from my appendix surgery as fall began its descent toward winter. We had made our pilgrimage to the grandparents for Thanksgiving and my mind was thinking about what to ask Santa for Christmas. Iva and I discovering the truth was still in the future. Some of the puppies dad had given to friends ended up in the pound for chasing chickens. Topper was growing into a gentle dog and Peppy still romped about when I played and slept by my side.
I had conquered my bike, although there was a very limited area for me to ride it where we lived. I was limited to riding up and down our lane, which got boring soon enough. I was hoping for early snow to cover the hill so I could sled again, but the field remained brown and un-sledable. The sky was a constant late-November-early-December slate gray color.
I hiked up our hill and couldn’t pull my eyes from the ridge at the top. My mother told me over and over for two years, “Stay away from the crest”. I wondered what lurked there, monsters, Martians or did the earth simply fall off to nothing on the other side.
I was nearer the top than I had ever bothered to come and saw how the land fell off sharply above the peak. I could see distant trees lining the horizon. They sat back a distance from the crest and were lower that the hilltop. I decided to go all the way.
At the top I stopped and looked at what lay beyond. There was a pair of railroad tracks. This was the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
I clambered down the other side, a steep cutout made ages ago by the men who lay the track. I stood by the first set of rails. I looked both ways and saw the rails narrow into the distance. Cinder and coal chips covered the ground with a bit of litter here and there.
This was not threatening. It was quiet and empty. There was nothing much to see beyond the tracks but woods. I hadn’t much experience with trains yet, but I did have my little phobia about crossing tracks.
Yes, in my boyhood I developed a mild anxiety about crossing railroad tracks. The reason was a movie I saw.
My dad sometimes took me to the movies. There was a theater in Coatesville called The Silver. It showed a lot of second-run films and B-movies, mostly action films and Westerns. Dad loved these kind of films, especially Westerns.
(I recently read a Blog claiming The Silver was an all-Black theater back in the old Coatesville. If so, then a couple of honkies slipped in because I know that is where my dad took me to see a number of movies in my childhood.)
I remember some films I saw at that theater with my dad, such as The Sea-Wolf (1941 release), with Edgar G. Robinson . That film stands out in my mind for some reason, perhaps the brutality of “Wolf Larson”. Maybe I expected another animal story, like White Fang or Call of the Wild. The film was based on a Jack London novel and had Wolf in the title.

The Silver showed double features all the time. It played short comedies in between. I remember seeing several of a series about some bumbler that we called “Behind the Eight Ball”. This series was actually “Joe McDoakes” (1942-1956), but the title card always showed him standing behind a giant 8 ball.
This theater often ran Three Stooges shorts. I would get nightmares from them. It wasn’t the characters or their beating up each other that bothered me. It was the opening title credits that spooked me. I found the weird mask in the background accompanied by the “Three Little Mice” theme music somehow upsetting.

(For some reason getting an example of the Three Stooges Title Card was next to impossible. It took a lot of Goggling to find just this one. This is mystifying since every Stooge short from 1945 through 1959 used that background. I wasn’t the only child of my generation frightened by the image perhaps.)
One movie I viewed at the Silver was Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946). I remember little of this movie except the climax. (SPOILER ALERT!) Tracy pursues the villain, Cueball, across a railyard. Cueball gets his foot caught between rails on a switch. A train comes zooming down the tracks and kills him. I became very hesitant every time I came to a train crossing after that film, which I would do every day walking to junior high school in Downingtown. I stepped very carefully. I still do

Noticed I wasn’t afraid to cross tracks, just cautious. I was cautious the day I discovered what was beyond the hill. I stepped across the first set of rails, watching intently where I placed each foot. I successfully crossed and now stood in the space between the parallel tracks. I was so intend on not getting my foot stuck I hadn’t noticed a distant sound. I heard it now. It came from the west and looking in that direction I saw the train coming.
I no sooner saw this train that I heard another in the east. Turning around I saw it as well. I stood frozen in the space between the sets of rails. Trains were coming in my direction from opposite directions. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. This may have been the wisest choice, I don’t know. Would I have made it if I had tried to cross either rail set at that point?
Both trains reached me at about the same moment. There was a swirling wind buffeting me
with leaves and debris spinning through the air. The force from each train must have countered out the other. Centrifugal force didn’t knock me over or suck me under. I closed my eyes and stood stiff as a board until the great roar in my ears subsided. Any object protruding from a freight car could have decapitated me. I was shook up, but whole and alive. I would live to see Christmas. For once I did not hesitate crossing a train track. I ran across the rails and scrambled up the cutout to the safety of my own hill.
My final curiosity at the Swamp was satisfied.
In those two years I became an overly imaginative, nightmare-plagued, highly curious, socially inhibited, physically awkward, self-reliant, risk-taking loner. And Dad was soon to thrust me back into civilization.


Ron said...

Wow! Good stories Larry. I did not know that you had panda situs and had almost washed your life. I still have my Pendix I hope I don't have that to look forward to. I do vaguely remember something about you and the train tracks I never did that either. You're more Indiana dunes and I am. Great stories keep them coming!

Jon said...

Wow! What harrowing experiences! If guardian angels do exist, there certainly was one watching out for you. As you said - things were so different long ago when it came to medical emergencies. No 911, no cell phones, and - as it was with your mother - many of our relatives didn't drive.

The experience with the two trains is really hair-raising. I've been enjoying these blog posts, Larry.