Breakfast on Tyler Street, Amarillo, 1942
The old man shaves in the mirror.
He wears BVDs—long johns with short sleeves—and his trousers.
The suspenders hang from his waist.
The old man pauses to stroke the razor on a leather strop.
Half his face is shaved.
The other half is white with soap foam.
The old man sings while he shaves.
Good-by, old Paint, I’m leaving Cheyenne.
He has an untrained voice, natural, no pretense, always on key.
The old man in the mirror taught me to sing.
My daddy was a newspaper man with a night job and a drinking problem.
So my mama sent me to this kitchen in the house on Tyler Street so I could grow up with a real man as a model.
The old man in the mirror is my grandfather, Dr. R.A. Duncan.
While he shaves, biscuits rise in the oven.
The skillet is ready for eggs.
The sausage cooks on a slow burner.
The song in the kitchen on Tyler Street shifts to Mexicali Rose.
Dr. R.A. has a die-hard romantic streak.
He passed the streak to me through my mama.
A romantic streak means you conceal something soft inside.
The shaving is over.
Dr. R.A. wipes off the excess bits of soap foam.
He calls to his wife.
Does she need any help?
An old woman enters the kitchen in a wheelchair.
She is Dr. R.A.’s wife, and my Grandmother Duncan.
Her name is Edna. He calls her Brownie, a memory of the girl he married, with her rich reddish-brown hair. The kids call her Grandmother.
The time of this kitchen scene is the early 1940’s.
There are wars going on. Europe. North Africa. Russia. China. Corregidor. Tarawa. Bataan.
Dr. R.A. Duncan, born in 1884, has reached his mid-fifties.
I am a small near-sighted boy watching my grand-daddy cook breakfast.
My grandmother smiles. She rolls to her place. I help with the chair.
Dr. R.A. serves breakfast.
I check the time. Can’t be late to school. He tells me not to worry. Dr. R.A. is never late. He drops me off at Wolflin School. A cold morning, frosty air-breath. I stand on the stone steps watching him drive off to work.
Dr. R. A. works downtown. He has an office in the Amarillo Building, Third and Polk, the third floor, Duncan and Duncan, E.N.T.—short for Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat. The other Duncan on the door is my uncle, Dr. Frank Duncan, who is not here today because the war took him away. Took him into the Army Medical Corps.
Pioneer Doctor and Family
Uncle Frank was the first child born to the Duncans. His sister Lillian was my mother. His sister Katherine was my aunt. The Duncan genes had a strong creative streak. My aunt was a poet. My mother painted portraits and landscapes. My Grandmother built a Christmas village and peopled it with characters carved from Ivory soap, with costumes right out of a novel by Charles Dickens. Everyone sang.
The Duncan family arrived in Amarillo in 1925, based on a yen, a longing for the West. “I had always liked Western people,” Dr. R.A. said. “And was always interested in the West and Amarillo appealed to me.” He opened his practice in the old Johnson Building while he waited for the Amarillo Building to get built.
Before Amarillo, the family had lived in Graham, Texas , halfway between Lubbock and Dallas. Before the time in Graham, Dr. R.A. had paid his doctoral dues by making house calls on horseback in Big Foot, Frio County, south of San Antonio, east of Pearsall. He rode 30-40 miles a day. He carried medical supplies in two old U.S. Cavalry bags. He mixed his own prescriptions. His first car was a Model T. Ford, purchased in 1911. Before Big Foot, Dr. R.A. had a Huck Finn boyhood in Wylie, Texas. Before Wylie, he lived with six siblings in Mulberry Creek, Arkansas. During the move from Arkansas to Texas, the Duncan family ran into some Indians and the chief, according to the legend, held Baby Dr. R.A in his hands.
When he arrived in Amarillo, Dr. R.A. had his credentials—an M.D. from the medical school at Tulane; and also a specialty in ENT—Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat—very rare in the days when the majority of doctors were in general practice. For three decades, he practiced medicine in Amarillo. Every week, he made the drive to Hereford and Clayton. Have medicine, will travel.
The big business back then was tonsillectomies. “One day,” Dr. R.A. said, “I did 32 tonsillectomies…I used chloroform for the anesthetic. It was more dangerous than ether but it didn’t make the patients sick.”
Dr. R.A., the Rancher
In 1940, Dr. R.A. and his son Frank bought the ranch. To get there, you drive east out of Amarillo past White Deer, and then north through Skellytown. You cross three rattling cattle-guards, you turn right at the Old Windmill. You leave behind a flat shelf of prairie and mini-mesa and you enter this lush undulating country of short hills and tall yellow grass, with a creek meandering through, trees along the creek, cows grazing.
The cattle brand was D&D. I remember the smell of burnt cowhide on branding day. At the ranch, I watched my grand-daddy butcher a hog. I watched the foreman kill a rattlesnake with a rope. Dr. R.A. fell in love with his ranch. And so did I.
He taught me to curse like a cowboy—one of my greatest gifts. I remember using the tutorial curse-words in third grade at Wolflin School when I needed the bathroom real bad and the teacher told me to wait until the bell and I said, Godalmighty Damn I have to pee. I owe Dr. R.A. for that hurried bathroom trip, and future trips, as my reputation preceded me through the grades. He taught me to shoot. He taught me to ride. He tried to teach me to hunt, but I had a sissy-boy’s case of buck fever—when you spot the target animal, your hand shakes, your heart freezes.
My grand-daddy taught me to open a barbed-wire gate. You put your left shoulder against the gate-post. Careful not to snag your jacket. You grip the fence-post with your left hand. You squeeze the gate-post close to the fence post. The lock-wire loosens. You release the gate-post. You lift the bottom of the gate-post out of its wire-circle. You are eight years old, a weak, near-sighted sissy boy. Panting, nervous about getting stuck by a barb, you lug the gate to the side, out of the dirt road. You wait for your grand-daddy to drive through. Don’t leave me, don’t leave me here. When the pickup is through, you re-fasten the gate. You love this old ranch.
There was a house on the ranch where the foreman lived with his wife. To take care of guests and families, Dr. R.A. and son Frank built a duplex. Two owners, two sides, four bedrooms, two kitchens, two separate baths. I slept in that bunkhouse. I rode horses. I killed a water moccasin in the creek. Without my grand-daddy, I would not have those memories.
(You can see Dr. R.A., the rancher, in the photo with Streak, his horse.)
Hunter and Fisherman
In Texas, back in the day, a boy grew to manhood by playing sports. The major sport was football. If not football, you’d better play basketball or baseball—a team sport, the start of male-bonding. But for Dr. R.A., a man from a different time, you displayed your manhood with a dead deer roped to the front fender. Or maybe with a mess of frozen fish caught in the Gunnison River of Colorado.
Every October, he drove to Colorado to shoot a deer, sometimes an elk. Every summer, he drove to Colorado to fish for trout. Each trip was proof of his fitness, his ability to maintain the manhood ritual. He was a man of strict routine. When the routine faltered, he felt life slipping away.
Dr. R.A. wanted me to hunt. He wanted me to fish. He bought me two rifles. I liked shooting. I liked the precision of metal and wood. I liked learning the shooting positions—prone, sitting, kneeling, standing—but when I said the words “shooting with a tripod” my grand-daddy looked away.
He took me on fishing trips. But cleaning fish was to me a chore and not a joy. He wanted me to be a doctor, follow in his footsteps. I was the oldest grand-child. The family business was medicine. But even back then, I was a word-guy like my daddy. I felt faint at the sight of blood. A tonsillectomy was a long word that was easy to spell if you paced out the syllables.
You know how it is when you hit milepost fifty. You look back, across the years, you see that more than half your life is over. Less than half of your life lies ahead. My grand-daddy’s life was over when he stopped driving to Colorado for hunting and fishing. My grandmother died, leaving him alone in the house. Disease turned him from doctor into patient.
I went to see him before he died.
He sat in his favorite chair, the living room, next to the gas fireplace.
He still wanted me to be a doctor.
I reminded him how crappy I was with science.
Things I should have said:
I should have said thank you, grand-daddy.
Thank you for raising me.
Thank you for helping me to grow up.
Thank you for teaching me to cook an egg.
Thank you for being there when my real daddy was not.
Thank you for trying to teach me how to fish.
Thank you for everything.
Then I should have hugged him.
(Author’s note: Quotes from the doctor came from Profiles on Medicine, online.)