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Healthcare in my Dad's Time

Of Dahlias and Ducks

Doctor Joe loved the big colorful dahlias growing at some of this patient’s home.  Now dahlias are a favorite food of garden snails. Despite an ongoing attack on the snails, they kept getting to feed on Doctor Joe’s dahlias.  My grandfather decided to surprise Doctor Joe with his idea of a practical solution.

Just as Doctor Joe’s patients helped his stamp collection grow, they also obliged in keeping the Doctor’s green thumb challenged.  That just doesn’t happen today.  For one thing the patient is only given 10 to 20 minutes with the doctor.  There’s no time to share family photos, recipes, the occasional stamp or cuttings and bulbs from their garden.  The soil in our back yard at first was pure sand because the beach was only a few miles west.  The sandy soil allowed water to run quickly through the ground depriving plants of moisture and water-borne nutrients.  In Doctor Joe’s garden that didn’t happen because each year he dug garden debris (compost) from the prior year into the sand.  He also bought cow and chicken manure down from his mother’s ranch outside Murphy’s, California and added that, along with composted garden cuttings to the soil.

In the garden when there was a lot of digging to be done Doctor Joe wore tan work pants, a wool or flannel shirt, work boots, and a hat.  He had an old towel tucked into his belt because the work made him sweat a lot.  My mother kept a pitcher of ice water on the step by the back door whenever Doctor Joe was gardening.  However, if he went into the garden during his lunch break he kept his business suit on –coat, tie and all.  Doctor Joe would never be called a sharp dresser because no matter how he tried there was usually a smudge of dirt somewhere on his person when he returned to his office for his afternoon patients.  But, long story short, within a few years the soil in our back yard was as rich as in any nursery.

At our San Francisco home Doctor Joe loved growing big, showy dahlias. And knowing Doctor Joe’s fondness for dahlias, patients would show up to the office with dahlia tubers they had separated from their own dahlia beds.  Soon there were hundreds of dahlias growing in our back, side and front yard and all grew vigorously. Each dahlia plant had to be staked up and tied so the winds blowing in off the ocean wouldn’t knock the plants down.  Every year we had dahlia bouquets in every color except blue.  I remember one South American variety grew 9 or 10 feet high, but the flowers weren’t anything to brag about.  Most of Doctor Joe’s dahlias grew between 4 to 6 feet.  He didn’t plant any miniatures.

There is one problem with dahlias.  Snails and slugs love them.  Doctor Joe was never too busy that he wouldn’t take the time to do in any snail or slug lurking among his dahlias.  But, no matter how many he flattened with a trowel, a foot, snail bait or stale beer the snail and slug population never seemed to decrease because our back yard abutted a 10 acre open space with water running through it.  It caused Doctor Joe to reminisce how chickens on the ranch where he grew up would make short work of slugs and snails.

Apparently, Grampa John heard Doctor Joe make that statement more than once, as one day we came home just as Gramps was delivering two very squirmy burlap bags from which emanated loud quacking sounds.  My mother was beside herself.  She wanted nothing to do with the angry squirming ducks in those bags, but her father was insistent.  “This will be just what Doc needs to get rid of the snails and slugs.  I know you’ve heard him say how much he’d like to get rid of those pests, right?”  And my mother had to agree that her father was correct.  So Grampa John put the ducks in the garage.  The ducks wings had been clipped, but he never considered what needed to be done to keep the ducks penned in the back yard.  Nor, had he thought about the ordinance prohibiting the keeping of fowl like chickens and ducks within the city limits.  He only reasoned that they had ducks and chickens running loose at the San Francisco Zoo where he worked and had “borrowed” the ducks.  He’d intended to return the ducks to the zoo once they had cleared our backyard of those pesky snails and slugs.

My brothers and I thought it was an absolute hoot.  Each time the ducks quieted down we went to check on them and immediately they set up a clamor, quacking and struggling to free themselves from the burlap sacks.  Hearing each squabble, my mother would shout for us to get away from the ducks.  About the fourth peek into the garage we found the ducks had both gotten loose from the sacks, a fact we gleefully reported to our mother.  Mom was paranoid that those ducks might somehow get into the house and promised the most dire consequences if we again opened the door to the garage.

So, that was the situation when Doctor Joe got home that evening.  It was also fortunate that he had to make some evening house calls after dinner and hadn’t opened the garage door or the ducks would have had the run of the neighborhood.  As he came through the front door he could hear noises coming from the garage.  “What’s that,” he asked.  “Gramps brought you some ducks to eat the snails and slugs,” we excitedly responded.  “Are you gonna put them in the yard now, Daddy?” our youngest brother, Allen asked.  Doctor Joe looked into the garage and saw ducks, feathers and other messes on his prized Cadillac and elsewhere and grumbled, “Unh-unh, that’s no good; what could your father have been thinking?”  Of course, the ducks didn’t know what Doctor Joe was bellowing about.  They only got noisier and scurried around the garage in great fright, making more messes as they went.  It was funny to watch Doctor Joe, who at 5 foot 9 inches and carried 260 pounds or more at that time, huff and puff trying to corner the ducks so he could get them into some boxes.  He’d get them cornered, but each time he went to get a box over them they would fly over to another corner or scoot under the car.  Finally, red-faced, out of breath and completely frustrated by the situation, he wagged a finger at my mother and said, “Call your father and get him over here NOW!”  I want those ducks gone by the time I get back.”

So, Gramps came over with Nonna.  He went into the garage.  The ducks quacked loudly at first, but soon stopped.  We looked in and saw that Gramps had put down a trail of corn kernels and the ducks were gobbling themselves right towards Gramps, who was holding a box.  The first duck went in the box and Gramps transferred it into the burlap gunny sack.  The second was caught just as easily.  He’d caught those ducks at the zoo the same way.  “I don’t suppose you want one of these ducks for dinner” Gramps asked my mother with a wink towards us.  “No” she said humorlessly.  “Will we see the duckies again, Grampa?” our youngest brother asked.  “Sure, you can see them whenever you come to the zoo.”  For a long time afterward whenever brother Allen visited the zoo with Nonna and Grampa, if he saw ducks he’s ask, “Are those the ducks that were in our garage?”  Gramps always said yes, as many times as he saw ducks at the zoo.  Brother Allen still has a fondness for ducks to this very day.

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