LETTERS TO THE DEAD: EIGHT
Dear Hershel, (1905 – 1971)
It’s been so long I’m not sure you’ll remember me.
You are the man from Knot County with black lung
I took care of at the UK Chandler Medical Center
for several weeks while you struggled for breath.
You entertained me with mountain folk lore
to help keep us both distracted. In those days
the UKMC wouldn’t allow family to stay on the ward
for there were four beds to a room. “No! Can you
imagine the stink and fuss from all you hillbillies?”
is what the ward nurse said when you asked.
If you hear me now I’m sure you’re chuckling,
because you weren’t a hillbilly nor would ever cause
a fuss. You were from Lebanon P.A. and had been
a haberdasher (like Harry Truman, for gawds sakes)
before you moved to Pine Knot to marry a woman.
You taught school but got caught jobless in The Great
Depression and had to go to the mines. An A-ONE
story teller is what I remember and everybdy liked you.
Your wife and son and daughter and grandkids,
who had kids, camped out in that miserable lobby
at the end of the wing. So many families crammed in,
I couldn’t get to the coke machime during break time.
They all called you “Valentine”, because they said you
were the sweetest man, but one of your friends said
it was because you knew how to make moonshine
sweet by cooking it up with hickory-cane roasting ears.
After a while we got real close, but at first it was
touch and go. You couldn’t understand how a man could
have a pony tail and wear a hair net. Then a nurse told
you that I was a Conscientious Objector against the war
and they’d sent me to take care of black lung miners
rather than fight the cong. Most nights we’d watch the TV
bad news about the war and you’d say, “Hell it’s no
wonder. We’re not doing anything to win it. At least if
you died in a coal mine, you’d get something out of it.”
You always took up for me when the other miners
on the ward gave me a hard time or called me Missy.
And you told stories of being a mile down in a mine
with the lights out when everybody thought it was the end
and of roof falls and runnaway coal cars and methane
gas in the shaft. “i not afraid of dying,” you’d say.
“I surprised I’m still alive. But I tell you this, the black lung
is a hard way to go. It’s scary when your breath is scarce.”
For some reason the ward nurse thought that I
would be good at morgue care and sent me over to
the training facility for three days of instructions. When
I got back you had gotten really bad and your family
said you wondered where I was, that you thought I”d
gone off to fight the cong after all, rather than watch
him suffocate from the black lung.
You know, Herchel, you were the first patient I did
morgue care for. The ward nurse watched from the hall
and I guess I did such a tender job that she told the other
ward nurses and they made me “the on-call orderly
for morgue care.” I took care of a lot of people who had
just died. There was an art to it. Your’s was the hardest
I ever did. But I thought, if this is the price I have to pay
for not going to the war, I’ll gladly pay it.
So you see Hershel I’m still around. Older than you
were then. Trying to get in touch with all these people
from my past. I hope it’s not a fool’s errand. But just
remembering you this one day, has made it worth it.
All my regards,