Writing: Patrick Irelan
On a fall afternoon when I was three years old, October 15, 1946, my mother and I drove seventeen miles north from our little farm to Ottumwa, where we visited Grandma and Grandpa Hunter and Aunt Thelma Hunter at their white frame house on the south side of town. I remember that the day was warm and I was lightly clothed. I remember one other thing from that day, but I know the rest only because my parents and sister later told me, and because I have three perfectly preserved documents: two statements from H. H. Moore, M.D., who occupied office 506 in the Hofmann Building in Ottumwa, and a copy of a district court settlement of claim.
Mother and I stayed in Ottumwa until after dark. Before we left to return home, another visitor, one of my mother’s relatives, gave me a dime for an ice-cream cone. The name of that man has gone with my mother to her grave, for neither my sister nor anyone else can remember it. I do remember that my mother said he carried a burden of guilt from that day on, although he was guilty of nothing more than giving a dime to a little boy.
As we started home, my mother and I drove down East Williams Street, our usual route to Highway 63, which would take us back to the farm. But because of the dime I held in my hand, we stopped just beyond the intersection of Williams Street and South Sheridan Avenue. Mother pulled into a parking space directly in front of the ice-cream store, which stood across the street from a corner grocery. Before my mother could grab me, I jumped from our black Pontiac coupe, ignored the ice-cream store right beside our car, and turned toward my second and last memory of that day--the grocery store across the street. I remember starting toward that brightly lit store, then nothing.
The man driving the gravel truck stopped instantly, set the hand brake, and leapt from the cab. Using his flashlight, he saw that the left front wheel had stopped on my left leg and that if the truck had gone any farther, it would have crushed my stomach. The driver retained his composure and reacted perfectly. He climbed back into the truck, shifted the transmission into reverse, released the hand brake, and backed slowly off my leg. I’ve told this story a number of times to friends or acquaintances. Some of them have asked if the truck contained a load of gravel. Please don’t let that question worry you. I don’t know the answer, and it doesn’t matter.
My mother became hysterical, picked me up, and put me into the back seat of the car. That intersection was a busy place in 1946, before supermarkets and shopping malls destroyed corner groceries and ice-cream stores. The buildings are still there, although they now serve as private residences. But on that October night in 1946, people were strolling down the sidewalks, going to the stores, and talking to their neighbors. I don’t know why no one called an ambulance or tried to restrain my mother, although I do know that no one could easily restrain her under any circumstances.
She drove back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, where Laris Hunter, my white-haired 65-year-old grandfather, did not become hysterical. He saw that I was lying in relative safety in the back seat of the Pontiac. In his judgment, he found no reason to risk further injury by moving me from the car into an ambulance. Ambulance attendants in 1946 were not trained paramedics as they are today. So Grandpa calmed my mother as best he could. Then he drove across the broad flood plain on the south side of Ottumwa, took the Viaduct over the Des Moines River and the Burlington Railroad tracks, and continued up the bluff and northward to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Although I remained fully conscious during all this time, including the accident itself, my mother later told me that I didn’t cry, but repeatedly said, “Mommy, it hurts.”
Dr. Moore’s statement for that and subsequent days reads
Oct. 15--1946--Fracture (Left leg) reduced.
Dec. 9--1946--Left Hosp.
Dec. 27--1946--Cast removed.
Two operations--55 days care.
The date on the statement says January 8, 1947. The amount due is listed as $450.00. I’ve found no records for the hospital expenses.
A subsequent statement from Dr. Moore’s office, dated April 26, 1947, says
April 11--1947--Removed bone plate and after care.
The charge is listed as $125.00. Removal of the bone plate also required an operation, although the statement doesn’t call it that.
According to my mother, when we arrived at the emergency room the night of the accident and I was lying on a stretcher, a nurse discovered that I still held the dime in my hand.
Although the accident did not knock me unconscious, I remember nothing about it or any of the subsequent events in the hospital, all of which occurred over a period of about six months. What I remember from all those months is this: starting across the street, then lying in my grandparent’s front room many weeks later, saying, “Nighty night, sleep tight; don’t let the bedbugs bite,” to the renters who lived upstairs. Their little girl said, “Bite,” in reply. I remember lying in my grandparent’s bedroom, playing with a pan full of snow a nice lady brought to me while my sister and cousins played outside. Finally, I remember going home to the farmhouse and a brand-new chair just my size standing in the center of our front room. At the present moment, that chair stands about twelve feet behind me in my apartment. It’s too small for me now, although my two daughters made good use of it. I also remember having to relearn how to walk.
I do recall one thing from the hospital--the smell of ether. Even now, six decades later, the smell of ether still rises from somewhere in my brain and seems to pass through my nostrils and into my lungs, even though there’s no ether anywhere near me. Years ago, these sensations occurred frequently, at least once a week. Now they rarely occur, but when they do, everything else around me disappears. The smell lasts only an instant, then goes back where it came from. The world around me then returns.
I once mentioned to my daughter Claire my inability to recall anything about the accident and anything but the smell of ether from all that time spent in St. Joseph’s Hospital. “Don’t you think that’s strange?” I said. Although I didn’t know it, Claire had been studying the human brain in junior high school.
“Dad,” she said patiently, “the brain stores all that where little children won’t remember it. Otherwise, it would make them scared and unhappy.”
I stared in amazement at the dark-haired genius beside me. No one ever taught me about these matters when I was her age. My daughter knew more than all my former schoolteachers. What a brilliant child.
A number of events occurred as a result of this unpleasantness with the gravel truck. For one thing, my parents continued to hold my hand when we walked across a street until long after most parents had given up that practice with children my age. I don’t remember exactly how old I was before my parents let me cross a street without the aid of their restraining hands, but I think I was about twenty-five.
Because of the accident, I’ve gathered a fair amount of knowledge about the human leg. I will now favor you with a portion of that knowledge. With some unfortunate exceptions, the human being has two legs, but those two legs are usually not the same length. Please don’t become alarmed about the fact that your legs may not be the same length. In those cases that require significant treatment, doctors diagnose the problem in young children. Simpler treatment is available for minor problems. Barring an accident or disease, your two legs will serve you nicely for the rest of your life. I must tell you, however, that my legs are exactly the same length. After my left leg had healed, Dr. Moore measured both my legs as precisely as possible and discovered this remarkable symmetry, a sameness that had resulted from the accident and the operations that followed.
For a few years after the accident, my left leg continued to cause me a modest amount of pain. Both Dr. Moore and Dr. Fenton, our family doctor in Bloomfield, assured my parents that this was only natural and that the pain would disappear as I continued to grow. Both doctors were correct. I participated in the usual childhood games with the other children who attended the one-room country school where I received an excellent education about everything but the human brain. I found that I could run faster than most, but not all, of the boys my own age. By the time I was six or seven, the pain in my left leg had ceased to exist, and has never returned.
As a result of the accident, my parents received a settlement of $2,300 from the owner of the truck, which probably means from the owner’s insurance company. I know about the $2,300 because, as stated earlier, I have a copy of the final settlement of claim, which Dewey Carbaugh, Clerk of the District Court for Davis County, filed at 4:13 PM on August 9, 1947. My parents used part of the money to pay the doctor, hospital, and related expenses. They invested the rest of it for me, with the stipulation that the principal and interest would become mine when I reached the age of twenty-one. The settlement also reveals what you’ve been dying to learn: The vehicle that struck me was a 1939 Mack truck.
In addition, the statement reveals something my parents never told me. Section 4 states
That the injuries sustained by the ward, Patrick Warren Irelan, as a result of said accident consisted of a broken left leg, superficial injuries over his body, shock and head injuries. That three operations have been performed to correct the said broken leg, and that the head injuries now appear healed.
Head injuries! Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about head injuries? I suspect a conspiracy of silence. What were the long-term consequences of these head injuries? Did they cause my numerous phobias: fear of heights, fear of depths, fear of reptiles, fear of Mack trucks?
Do these head injuries explain why my sister is smarter than I, why I can’t memorize the Gettysburg Address, why I could never learn to play a musical instrument, why I can’t understand a single thing by or about Claude Levi-Strauss, why I lack manual dexterity, why I could never hit, throw, or catch a baseball? I fear that these secret head injuries have caused me a world of trouble. I should request special treatment from some governmental program or agency. Permanent disability payments would provide a good start. A life-long rest cure sounds like the only solution. Work merely exacerbates my many problems.
I plan to investigate all these possibilities in due course, but let’s return to the settlement that resulted from the accident. One day during my junior year in college, I heard someone trudging up the stairs to my third-floor attic room near the University of Iowa, where I was struggling with the great minds of the past. The man who climbed those stairs that day arrived at my door red in the face and much too overweight for his continued good health. I quickly provided him with a chair, and he sat there breathing heavily.
I feared that a medical event might occur, but the man finally recovered and began to talk. He expressed no interest in the great minds of the past, and announced instead that the money my parents had invested for me had grown to $1,200. He advised me that I should leave the money in the same account and that someday it would be worth a great deal more. I had to tell the tired man that I would need the money when I turned twenty-one, for my parents and I had previously agreed that the $1,200 would pay for my last year and a half of college expenses. The man urged me to change my mind, but I politely refused. “I’ve used up almost all my savings,” I said. “That gravel truck is going to get me through the rest of college.” I felt sorry for the man, but only because he had climbed all those stairs. He stopped trying to convince me, and we parted on good terms. I’m sure he found the stairs more inviting when going down.
I finished college and became a schoolteacher, like my mother, my sister, and so many of my other relatives. My leg felt fine. I stopped teaching school after several years and went from job to job until I finally reached the one I have now. Along the way, I got married and became the father of two daughters. When they were young, I always held their hands when we walked across a street. I bought a house, later sold it, and bought another. My life has probably been a lot like yours. Only one mystery remains from that night so long ago when I jumped out of the car and started across East Williams Street.
Where’s the dime?