Oral History


Old Doc Burns? I’m here to tell you,
that man was a
saint. All those old farmers
swore by him. Why, they wouldn’t even
think of seeing another doctor, if Doc Burns
was available. And Old Doc beat anything
anybody ever saw when it came to
delivering babies. He was a
And more than that: he was a good man.

Young as I was, I owed him a great deal.
Doc Burns kept me in 190-proof grain
alcohol right through the bitterest years
of Prohibition. I used to drive for him.
It was right after I got out of high school.
I was just a young man, just starting out.
He had an office on the corner of 16th
and Main, up over the newspaper office.
We kept the buggy in the livery stable,
next to the hardware.
                                   We had a system,
Doc and I did. We’d cut the alcohol
with sterile solution, and I would grind up
hard peppermint, in a mortar and pestle,
to give it flavor. We might drink three
or four of ‘em on a slow night. We’d both
sit there, play a little chess, doze off,
wait for somebody to come hollering up
the back stairs.
                           The other doctors in town
had families, they didn’t like going out
into the townships late at night, when
some farmer’s wife was about to deliver.
Doc had a wife, but she kept to home.
And everybody knew Old Doc Burns
was always ready to make those calls.
He’d be rarin’ to go. I’d run down
and hitch up the horse, meet him in front,
and we’d head on out there, wherever
the hell it was.
                        No traffic on those roads
that time of night. Had it all to ourselves.
Doc always had a fast-stepping horse.
It might take us an hour, usually not
much longer. We’d draw near, and see
a bunch of neighbors in the back yard,
They’d have a big fire going, boiling
the sheets – and there’d be older women
inside, in the front bedroom, and girls
in the kitchen, making coffee.

                                                I doubt
if someone your age would understand
why they boiled those sheets. That goes
‘way back, to a time before doctors was
even available. The neighbor women
would came over, and boil up the sheets
for hot compresses, to put on the mother,
to loosen up her muscles. Made it easier
to get the baby out through that opening.
And Doc, he didn’t care, he was trusting
and civil, he liked having all those people
around. He thought it was a good idea, too,
in case we got lost, or she delivered early,
before we showed up.
                                      There’s another thing
you ought to know about Doc Burns, too.
It won’t hurt to tell, since he’s been gone
so many years, and he really had no kin.
But he was a junkie. Most folks today
would have called him a
stone junkie.
Back then, a general practitioner like Doc
could sign for only so many hard drugs.
Use more than your monthly allotment,
and somebody, somewhere, would get
suspicious. But Old Doc never let that
bother him. He always had his friends,
and he always had his ways.
                                                But see,
that’s the main reason he was willing
to go out there at night and look after
all those farm people. In his black bag
he carried this big hypodermic needle
he got from some veterinarian friend.
It had a shaft at least three inches long,
and Doc made sure it was polished
to a high gloss, so it would catch the light.

He’d come in the room where the woman
was propped on the bed, having labor pains,
and he’d start waving that thing around,
and ask if she wanted a little something
to ease the pain.
                             Now, those farm women
were good people, but they didn’t get
around that much, and in fact they were
sort of backward. Not many of them
went to school past the sixth grade.
You know how most people react
to a hypodermic needle, even today.
Well, Doc, he’d flash that big shiny
horse syringe around – and oh! mercy me,
most of the time those poor women
would rise up out of that bed, and say
they believed maybe they didn’t need
no help after all, they’d just as soon do it
              And of course that was exactly
what Doc was waiting for. He’d excuse
himself for a minute, like he was going
outside to relieve himself, then he’d step
out on the side porch, and take the vial
of morphine that he would claim,
next day, he gave to her. And he’d tie off
and shoot it right in his arm. He didn’t
cook it or anything, he already knew
it was sterile. High-grade, too.
                                                  You might
wonder why all those old farmers would
swear by him. Why they wouldn’t have
any other doctor, if they could get him?
Why they claimed he beat anything
when it came to delivering babies?
Well, if you ask me, it was because
Doc Bloom was a kind of poet. He had
the soul of a poet, even if he never
wrote anything down.
                                    I can remember
a lot of times, it would be two o’clock
in the morning, out there in the country –
Doc and I would be breezing along
in the buggy, heading for some farmhouse,
and it made you feel good to be alive,
out there in the middle of nowhere,
with everything so cool and quiet. You
could look up and see the Milky Way,
and maybe a shooting star would go by,
and when we pulled in the front drive,
sparks would be rising from the fire
in the yard, and you could hear horses
standing out front, still hitched up,
the men holding them, talking to them,
getting ready to take them to the barn.
And everybody’d greet you, and call out
your name. Somebody would offer
to carry Doc’s bag, but that’s something
I always did.
                       So we’d go in the house,
and there’d be young girls in the kitchen
and old folks in the parlor, everybody trying
not to talk loud, everybody excited about
what was happening – well, it was just
that’s all. Nice to be out there. Nice
to be alive. Always made me feel good.
The air was cool, and everything seemed
peaceful, and everybody knew something
special was about to happen.
                                                It’s my opinion
that Doc Burns lived for those moments.
Anyway, I
know he lived for those times
when the women turned down the morphine.
In a minute or two, after he had shot it
into his veins, he would get so high
he would go back in that front bedroom,
and his feet would barely be touching
the floorboards. And those old midwives,
the ones who had helped him, and known him
all those years, all of them used to claim
Doc Burns was so smooth he could almost
charm that baby out of that woman’s womb.'

First published in Polyphony.

Jared Carter’s forthcoming book of poems is A Dance in the Street, available in the fall of 2012 from Wind Publications in Kentucky. Wind published his previous collection, Cross this Bridge at a Walk, in 2006. His work has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, TriQuarterly, Iowa Review, Hudson Review The Dark Horse, Prairie Schooner, and Kenyon Review. Addi­tional poems and sto­ries may be found on his web site at www.jaredcarter.com.