phynedyning

Unexpected encounters

In Lifestyle on May 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm

NOTE:  Phyne Dyning is on brief hiatus as I care for my old friend “Jack”.  I am pleased to report that Jack is no worse, but he is certainly not better.  In view of his current condition, I hope to resume a limited return to normal topics and recipes shortly.

 

Following, are my remarks from the bimah on our commemoration of Yom HaShoah at Temple Beth El in Odesssa, Texas in 2001.

 

 

At the far end of the hallway leading to the consultation rooms in my office, a tattered eye chart is both out of place and appropriate to its setting.

When I was growing up, every doctor had a similar eye chart, or “Snellen chart”, hanging at the distant end of a hallway.  They began to vanish as medicine became more specialized and technology dependent.  The doctor’s old paper eye chart became an anachronism and quietly faded away.

Mine was a light-hearted gift from a fellow Jewish student when I left for my internship in Texas.  I expected to stay in Texas to complete my residency.  Afterward, I would hang my shingle in the hot West Texas sun.

In West Texas, the eye chart written in Hebrew alef-bet, is a curiosity among the rodeo posters and western artworks that I found unique, but hang in virtually every place of business in the Lone Star State.

The chart gets amused looks from the old ranchers and puzzled looks from young, Hispanic children who cling nervously to the hand of a parent as they make their way down the office hallway.

To break the natural apprehension of doctors some patients harbor (often for good reason), I used to ask them to read the chart to the smallest line they could make out.

I stopped the practice when a young man in his early twenties looked at the floor in embarrassment and admitted that he could not read in any language.  The incident nearly provoked me to remove the chart.

It was fortunate that I left the chart where it hangs today.

The rail-thin man sat quietly in the corner of the room while I examined his loved one.  His face had a craggy inscrutability common to old ranchers of the area.  He wore the uniform of old, white ranchers…crisply starched blue jeans and a crisp shirt with snaps over the pockets in faux mother-of-pearl.

Above his squinting eyes, a dusty US Cavalry slouch hat rested on white hair.  Crossed sabers adorned the front of the hat, above the small gold-plated stripes and “rockers” of an army first sergeant.

The man was friendly, but quiet.  He made some admiring comments about the office décor and we chatted after every visit about cowboy and western art.  He modestly said he “fooled a bit” with drawing and sculpturing.

One day, as our visit ended, he looked at me with what I thought looked very much like “gunfighter eyes” and asked, “Are you a Jew?”

He mildly apologized for the question and said he had seen the eye chart at the end of the hallway on his way in.

His question at first concerned me.  I had several occasions where older, white patients had refused to share my small waiting room with the Hispanics or the scattering of African-Americans who also sought my care.  But Bill’s question was asked in a tone no different than the polite one he used to inquire about the needs of his loved one.

I replied, “Yes, I am Jewish.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” came his next question.

I recalled the uncomfortable look on a local Baptist minister when he stopped by my home to deliver a plate of welcoming cookies and to ask us if we had found a local “church home”…and then saw the mezuzah fixed on the upright of my entry door.

I wondered if I would be encouraged to “find Jesus”?  I truly enjoyed this man’s company and his stories about ranching “the old way” and did not want our relationship to suffer as the result of a theological discussion that often had a predictable end.

For the next hour “Bill” sat in the chair and told me about his experiences during World War Two.  His tone was low, almost identical to the tone used by the young man who could not read.

He pointed at his slouch hat and told me that, during the war, he had been a “tank driver” and a scout in the Tenth Armored Division.  During one of his scouting missions, he and his partner turned their jeep down an oddly well-traveled road that ended at a barbed-wire gate.

Bill shook his head slowly as his eyes took on a distant look.  The creases around his eyes deepened, and then softened.

“It was terrible”, he said softly.  “I had seen a lot of dead people during the war and these were no different, except they were not dead.  They moved slowly, like they were sleep walking.”

He told me how, as they stood at the gate, some of the people inside slowly and fearfully approached them.  The ragged forms mimed putting food in their mouths and drinking.  Bill and his partner went to their jeep and retrieved the two cases of rations from it.  As they threw the cans over the barbed wire, a crowd began to gather inside.  The tossed their canteens over the fence, fled back to the jeep, and drove it back to report what they had found.

Bill’s family member stirred nervously in another chair and said softly, “He never talks much about this.”

Bill muttered an apology for taking so much of my time and began to rise from his chair.  I protested, but he politely took off his hat and brushed at the dust on it.  He returned the hat to its place on the thick, white hair above the now-sad eyes.  Then, he seemed to brighten a bit.

“If you like, I have some drawings from that day.  Would you like to see them?”

A few days later, as we were breaking for lunch, Bill returned with a box.  I asked Bill if he would join me in my study where we could look at what he had brought.

Inside the box was a worn photo album.  Stamped on its cover in gold was the insignia of the Tenth Armored Division.

“Here” he said, “Take this home and look at it.”  The book was not a photo album.  It was a printed history of the 10th Armored.  A few bits of paper marked places Bill thought I would find interesting.

Two, long tubes jutted from the box.  Bill took one and shook several carefully rolled pieces of paper from inside.  We laid the rolls on my desk and gently unrolled and smoothed them.

The images were in pencil and were exactly like many other images I had seen at Yad Vashem and in books about the Shoah

Ghostly, skeletal forms stood on the paper.  Sunken eyes peered at us.  Piles of the dead stood next to half-buried structures that Bill pointed out were “barracks”.

Dachau sub-camp near Landsberg, Germany 1945 (US Govt. photo)

I asked Bill if he had ever shown these to anyone from the United States Holocaust Museum.

“I don’t show these to many folks.  I don’t like to take them out much at all.” Bill said.

He rolled up the papers and reverently slid them back into the tubes.

It was not my place to offer Bill a lecture on the importance of his drawings.  A pang of fear spread from my stomach that the drawings would vanish into some back closet where they would remain; until someone, thinking the tubes something unimportant, would consign them to a landfill.

“Bill, would you talk to someone at the Holocaust Museum about your drawings?  I know they would be very respectful of them and of your memories.”

When I told Bill there were some who, today, were telling an alternative history about his war.  Some people were saying that the stories about the Holocaust were false or exaggerated.

Bill nodded and said he knew.  I asked if he would like the contact information for the museum, or if he would like me to ask a curator to call him.  Bill said he would prefer me to make the call.

Later that day, I called the Holocaust Museum and spoke with a curator.  She took down Bill’s information.  I asked her to be very understanding about Bill’s reluctance to share the drawings, and immediately felt foolish for saying something so unnecessary.

“That’s how we know these are genuine.  People with genuine artifacts seldom seek attention with them.”

A few days later, Bill stopped by to tell me that the museum had contacted him and that he had agreed to send his drawings to them for evaluation and to possibly be added to the museum’s collection.

He handed me another box.  “These are for you.  Hope you enjoy them.”

Inside, were several signed copies of books he had written and had illustrated.

They were children’s books and books for young adults.

Some time later, an elderly, Hispanic man shuffled slowly past me on his way to an examination room.

“Parkinson’s”, I thought to myself as I laid the previous patient’s chart on my assistant’s desk.

I politely knocked on the exam room door and entered.  The elderly man sat in the chair wearing the pseudo-stoic face of one with Parkinson’s.

“Hi, I’m Jose”, the man said to me as he slowly extended his hand.  The expressionless face broke into a happy grin.  I shook the offered hand and hoped for a quick visit.

I was running behind, as usual, and the last thing I needed was a chatty patient.  A hospital staff meeting was a “must attend” in less than two hours.  I inwardly groused that every fifteen minutes of time with a patient translates to an hour of paperwork.

No lunch, again, today.

Jose slowly and deliberately gave me his medical history.  Like many elderly, he punctuated his history with personal histories and anecdotes.  His disease slowed the process even more as he struggled with speech.

When I asked him about his occupation he said, “I run marathons” and broke into gales of wheezing laughter.

I politely turned away and raised my eyes to Heaven.  “Why me?”

All of the locals have a burning obligation to educate me about local history.  Jose began by telling my how much things had changed for local “Messicans” over the years.

“Oh is was muy male years ago for us.  We weren’t allowed in restaurants.  If I wanted to eat out, I knocked on the back door of a place and they would bring my food to me so I could sit on the curb and eat it; even when I was wearing my army uniform.”

Jose said this without the bitterness I am sure he felt.

I knew a bit about local history.  A friend had just purchased the abandoned movie theater in town and had begun restoring it.  A few weeks prior, he had taken me on a tour of his theater.

Inside a side door leading to the balcony was a weathered sign, “Mexican and Colored”.

The history taken, I began my examination.

“Hey doc”, Jose interrupted my thoughts.  “Is that sign at the end of your hall in Jewish writing?”

I nodded, not wanting to be dragged into further discussion that would make me even later than I already was.

“I knew some Jews when I was in the army during the war.  Nice guys.”

I smiled.

“I was a POW.  Them German soldiers were mean people.”

I glanced up.  His grin had vanished.  Jose’s eyes were closed.

Death march of Jewish inmates (location unknown)

“Near the end of the war, they took us out of our prison camp and marched us to another one.  Every few days, they’d gather us up and we’d march again.  All we had to eat was a nasty black bread and some very bad tasting jam.”

My stomach rumbled.

“One day, a bunch of people were put behind us in line.  We were told not to talk to them or give them anything.  We were skinny, but these people looked like walking skeletons. The Germans treated them even worse that us.  Some of the guys talked to them anyway and said they were Jewish people.”

Jose told me how the Germans warned the POWs against sharing food with the Jewish inmates who followed slowly at the rear of the column.

“The guards told us they would shoot us if we gave them any of our food.  But we did it anyway and the Germans shot a few for it.  We rolled up some of the black bread, dropped it on the ground, and stepped on it to make it harder for the Germans to see what we were doing.  The guys toward the back would motion to the Jews whenever we were dropping bread.  The Germans saw some of them picking it up and they shot them on the spot.  After about a week, we got to a crossroad and they took the Jews down another road.  We never saw them again.”

Jose’s eyes were open now.  The grin returned.

When I pointed out the irony of how, on his return to America, he had to eat his restaurant food at the curb, Jose shrugged.

“It’s better now.”

POSTSCRIPT (April 2011)

 

When I found the above on my hard drive, I was moved to see what had become of “Bill”.

 

Exhausted from fighting with insurance bureaucrats, I retired from active practice at the end of 2004.  I still have the eye chart.

 

William "Bill" Leftwich (date uncertain)

“Bill” (Bill Leftwich, of Fort Davis, Texas) was a local historian, illustrator, and writer.  His original sculptures can be found in many places, including on the campus of Texas A&M University, where his sculpture of “Reveille”, the Texas A&M mascot, resides.

 

Mr. Leftwich was a 10th Armored Division scout when he became one of the first Americans to become a witness to the Nazi “Final Solution”.  The camp was one of the many Dachau sub-camps in the Landsberg region of Bavaria.  According to historical records from the 10th, the camp was liberated on 27 April 1945.

 

Bill Leftwich died…

 

…April 27, 2009.

 

 

“Jose” visited me often in my practice.  His Parkinson’s had worsened, but he remained cheerful and full of a delightful sense of mischief.  His playful grin eventually faded into the flat expression of those afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, but his sparkling eyes told me that his sense of humor remained intact.

 

Jose M. Tercero, like Bill Leftwich, also shared his story with curators at the United States Holocaust Museum.

 

In January 2005, I received a letter from Jose’s daughter that told me he had died on August 8, 2004 while I was in Israel contemplating what were to be my next steps after leaving medicine.

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