Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Numb from the Neck Up

As a junior in high school I needed quite a bit of dental work, including a root canal and a crown. To make my mouth affordable my parents sent me to the UMKC School of Dentistry. On twenty-two Monday afternoons in a row, I drove my Dad's 1974 Pinto Wagon from suburban Grandview down to 27th and Cherry, just off Paseo Boulevard in Kansas City. My appointments were usually over around 4:00 pm, so I got a crash course (pardon the pun) in rush hour driving.

One Monday was particularly memorable to me. It was the root canal. If you have had one, you know why they are not recommended for entertainment purposes. My student dentist, a nice third-year guy named Ron, was very thoughtful and sensitive to my pain. Each time I winced or jerked or twitched, he gave me yet another shot of Novacaine. By the time he was finished I was feeling no pain, completely numb from my eyes to my neck.

I headed home just as a heavy thunderstorm was blowing through the city. I tentatively steered my little Pinto onto Paseo, only to find that the storm had knocked out all of the stoplights in south KC. So, being a smart guy, I thought I had better get off the road until the storm passed and the lights started working again. Pulling into a rundown 7/11 with iron bars over all the windows, I determined to wait it out. Soon it occurred to me that Mom would be worried if I was late getting home and since it was years before cell phones, I dashed inside with my jacket over my head. There was a pay phone available and I dialed home.

When Mom picked up, I immediately realized my problem. I couldn't talk, at least not intelligibly. I guess I sounded kind of like the kid with the big lips on the Fat Albert cartoons. Mom thought it was an obscene phone call and hung up on me. I couldn't believe it. After a few minutes of practicing moving my mouth, I called again and did my best to make her understand. "Mum, mits me, Brew." Finally, she believed me and somehow made sense of my thick lipped dribble.

After I hung up, I felt some relief, being out of the traffic, safe from the storm, and square with my parents. I noticed that several people were standing around, also waiting on the weather to clear. Wanting to pass the time and actually not being such a smart guy after all, I decided to buy myself a Coke. It might have worked if I had used a cup and a straw, but the cans were cheaper and every nickel counted in those days.

I popped the top and began taking a big drink, not realizing that Coke was rolling down my chin, through my sweater, through my shirt and my t-shirt, finally soaking down to some part of my body that was not still numbed up. The large black man working the cash register stared at me and shook his head. A nice lady handed me some napkins from the hot dog counter. Others were wondering how I got away from the people who were supposed to be watching me. Not my proudest moment.

I do take some comfort in knowing that I'm not the only "numbskull" with embarrassing stories to tell. What about you?

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Forgotten Man Remembered

I just finished a great read for any of you history buffs, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, by Robert M. Poole. Lots of wonderful stories of the honored soldiers and statesmen who rest on those quiet Virginia hills.

I was touched to read about one famous old soldier, General John J. Pershing, who had led American forces to victory in World War I. Poole tells the sad and moving story of how this forgotten man was well-remembered:

He watched from the sidelines as the next great conflict ran its course, suffering from ill health when the Japanese surrender brought peace back to Washington. Seemingly forgotten by the public, lonely in his rooms at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the old hero had been relegated to the shadows, a relic of old wars and old ways. In better times, when the memory of his exploits was green in the public mind, he had been bombarded with hundreds of telegrams each Armistice Day. On his last one, in 1947, only ten arrived.
Pershing began to contemplate his own funeral at Arlington, where he had seen so many comrades buried. It was a place as familiar to him as any home he ever knew. Always a stickler for details, Pershing took care of the particulars. Instead of erecting a lavish monument to himself, as so many officers had done since Civil War days, Pershing asked for the simple white government issue tombstone available to any private. And, unlike officers who routinely commanded better real estate than those who fought under them, Pershing chose a burial site among the enlisted men from the Great War. "Here let me rest among the World War veterans," Pershing is supposed to have told an officer who helped him select his gravesite. "When the last bugle call is sounded, I want to stand up with my soldiers."

Age eighty-seven when he died in his sleep on July 15, 1948. Forgotten in life, he was remembered in death as few others are. Thousands of mourners, including President Truman and General Marshall, filed by his casket in the Capitol Rotunda, where the old general lay in state for twenty-four hours. Both Truman and Marshall had served under him; both had revered him; both solemnly marked his passing, as did some 300,000 ordinary citizens who crowded the sidewalks to watch Black Jack's caisson make its slow, stately progress to Arlington on July 19. The skies opened and the rains came down; the wet streets fell utterly, eerily silent, a sign of respect for the man crossing the brown Potomac on his last journey.

Dutifully sloshing behind Pershing's cassion, two soldiers who had served under him debated whether to seek cover or get soaked that day.

"Brad, what do you think?" Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Gen. Omar Bradley, as they marched along.

"For Black Jack Pershing I think it would be proper if we walked in the rain," said Bradley.

They marched on. Drenched by the time they arrived at Arlington, they joined a sodden khaki tide, which flowed unbroken down the crest of a hill on Grant Avenue, accompanied by the dull thunder of artillery, the thump of muffled drums, and the memories of comrades sleeping in long rows all around.

"The march of another soldier is ended," said Maj. Gen. Luther D. Miller, chief of Army chaplains: A few more words, a barking of rifles, the solace of Taps, and they lowered General Pershing into the ground, where he was surrounded by the simple tombstones of regular soldiers who still keep him company on the prominence now known as Pershing's Hill.