by Robert Shepherd Lumsden, Sr.
As I climbed out of my car, the late afternoon sun hit me on the
back of my neck and bounced back from the white grave markers.
I remember being in this place during so many segments of my life.
I attended funerals for family members in this cemetery since I was a child.
The echo of family names had me walking slowly one way and then another
as I tried to piece together the tapestry of kinships. Some of the family had
been buried for more than fifty years before I was born. I stopped for a short
while and looked at the graves of my grandparents and was taken back
more than forty years . . .
On May 27th, 1961, at 3:00 P.M., I was sitting in a metal folding chair in a small parking lot in Mount Olive, Mississippi. I was looking up at a grandstand and a podium. The podium had a piece of styrofoam carved into the number 50. I was 16 years old. My 13 year old sister sat next to me. We were both wearing our best Sunday clothes and were surrounded by parents, aunts and uncles, and people from the community. It is “Dr. Calhoun Day.” It is a day that I remember vividly after these many years. This community had decided to honor one of its members for his untiring devotion. My grandfather had been a doctor in this small community for fifty years. He had traveled the highways and back roads of at least three counties to bring health and comfort to those in need. I remember a procession of speakers including the Mayor, the Methodist minister, someone from the State Board of Health, Dr. Calhoun’s long time nurse, Mrs. Sharbrough, and finally a few brief remarks from the doctor.
This fifty year journey in medicine started on the back steps of my great uncle’s drug store in Mount Olive. My granddad was turning the crank on an ice cream churn when he turned to his uncle and asked what he thought about his going to medical school to become a doctor. His uncle encouraged him and assured him he would make a fine doctor. His dad concurred and four years later he graduated from the Tulane Medical College at Tulane University. Not too long after graduation, he married my grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi. They boarded the train for Mount Olive and over the next 50 years never strayed very far from home.
My granddad had a sense of duty that was legend. For a country doctor, it was a requirement. In those days, doctors did make house calls. In fact, that is about all they did. After all, a sick person could not be expected to travel, so the doctor traveled. He traveled day and night, holidays and weekends. He traveled on hot days and cold days. He traveled on clear days and rainy days. His early travel was done with a horse and buggy. He later got a Ford Model T that had to be hand cranked, but this was an improvement over hitching up a horse. I remember his car being a black Ford. It had no back seat, only a flat area. He occasionally had to transport patients in this space. My grandmother would only allow black wall tires. White walls looked too much like your petticoat was showing.
The doctor was usually contacted via the telephone on a party line. When a visit was in order, he headed out over the gravel roads to administer whatever assistance was needed. His black bag contained, for the most part, all current medications that would be needed. These were quite often rolled into a small slip of paper with appropriate instructions. My mother and her sisters frequently provided companionship on house calls, especially when he had missed a lot of sleep and after they were able to drive. He would arrive at the home and go inside to assist while his children played in the yard with the other children. They were never allowed to go inside. Occasionally, the doctor was required to stay over. These were situations where the patient was in serious condition and needed constant care. In cases of fever, they would be expected to pass the “crisis.” This meant the fever had broken. Only after this point did he feel it appropriate to leave. On occasion, the delivery of babies required an extended stay. My aunt recalled the time when he felt he had to raise the price of the delivery from $15.00 to $25.00.
On hot and humid summer nights everyone slept with their windows open. One of the Calhoun neighbors recalled the many times he heard the sound of the phone ringing at the Calhoun residence in the middle of the night. They would then hear Doctor Calhoun’s feet hitting the hardwood floor. A short time later the Model T would crank, then crunch the driveway gravel as it headed out into the dark night.
A portion of the county was called “Sullivan’s Hollow.” It was legend as a place that was inhabited by a rough crowd who enjoyed a good Saturday night. As things got lively in Sullivan Hollow, fights broke out, and invariably someone would get cut, shot, or banged up. The doctor use to say that whenever he got a call to go to Sullivan’s Hollow, he felt as if he should just take a sewing machine.
The party line telephone meant that everyone in that section of the country was listening when a call was made. So during the time the doctor traveled to see the patient, everyone listening had time to consider every possible ache and pain and would be waiting on the side of the road on the way back into town. For this reason, the doctor occasionally took other routes home.
An office visit cost $2.00, a house call was $4.00. Payment for services was always an interesting problem. Many patients could not afford to pay with money, so, the doctor was paid in whatever they could provide. This included, potatoes, watermelons, live chickens, hams, berries that were in season, molasses, and quite often firewood. His house was one of the last in the community to get natural gas because he always had a ready supply of available wood from payments. So far as anyone knows, no medical care was ever excluded because of an inability to pay.
Life in a family with a physician can be trying for everyone. With the man of the house being away so much and at such odd times, the duties of running a house fell largely on the shoulders of my grandmother. She not only took care of a home and children, but accommodated the doctor’s schedule. My grandmother used a small metal pan that served to keep his supper warm while he was out on calls. She would pull a few small embers from the fireplace to one side and put the metal pan containing his supper on them. As he arrived, the family sometimes gathered around in nightgowns as he ate his late supper.
The only time during the year that my family along with my mother’s sisters and all the cousins assembled was on Christmas Day. I remember the disappointed glances from my mother and her sisters when the phone would ring. Each knew chances were good he would leave and not return during the one meal on the one day that we would spend with him. He would push his chair back from the table without taking another bite. The looks of disappointment were never seen on his face or my grandmother’s face. To them, this was a way of life and a commitment that had been made a long long time ago. This was a commitment they would always keep.
In 1937 an event occurred that involved my grandfather in the most trying event of his medical career. During that time, drug testing did not include the stages of approval we have today. Sulfanilamide was a new and potent drug used largely against streptococci infections. It was prescribed in capsules. A Tennessee drug firm started the process of formulating and distributing the sulfanilamide in a liquid form. My granddad, like many other physicians, prescribed the liquid form of the medication to patients under his care. Like many other physicians, he was horrified when some mysterious quality in the compound caused some of his patients to turn blue, writhe in agony, and die. As this was recognized, he made frantic phone calls and rode through the night to warn each of them of the potential poisonous nature of the medication. Six of his patients died, their kidneys and livers destroyed. Seven suffered varying degrees of mental and physical torture, but eventually recovered. This event and its aftermath were captured in the November 8th , 1937, issue of LIFE Magazine. While praise was passed his way for being the first doctor to recognize and respond to the problem, he always felt the loss of having had people under his care to suffer.
As a young man I did not understand the full importance of Doctor Calhoun Day. To me, Doctor Calhoun was my granddad. He was the man who sat in a rocking chair on the east side of the front porch with his right foot on the post. He always wore white starched shirts with a tie. He occasionally unbuttoned the top button, but very seldom. A cousin recalled taking him fishing once and, yes, he wore a white shirt, but no tie. Christmas presents for him were always a problem. What do you buy someone who does not need anything and has everything? He always thanked everyone and placed the gifts in a drawer on top of last years gifts. My aunt discovered he really enjoyed, of all things, windup toys. I specifically remember a plastic baby that crawled on the floor.
My granddad lived six years past "Doctor Calhoun Day." During that time he practiced medicine every day. But finally, the heart that had been so large in its capacity to care and heal, succumbed to the stresses of age. As someone said at the funeral, “He simply wore out.”
In my youth, I remember being somewhat sensitive about my middle name. I took my share of kidding about the name Shepherd. It was my granddad’s middle name, and I use to say that of the two names my granddad had, Archie and Shepherd, my mother did pick the best of the worst. I don’t feel that way anymore. I kinda like it.
Dr. Robert Lumsden is a Program Director for the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a graduate of Mississippi State University and Brookhaven High School in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
Write Bob at Bob.Lumsden@FLDOE.org.
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