To get the flavor of a doctor whose practice was made up of many “blue-collar” workers, I want to introduce you to George, a feisty, hard-drinking patient of Doctor Joe’s. In his younger years George was a Longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. Later he became a truck driver. Over the years George became more of a crony of Doctor Joe than a patient. Doctor Joe frequently gave George tasks that were well beyond a doctor-patient relationship. He was one of Doctor Joe’s hunting and fishing buddies, but George would be the first to admit he didn’t hunt or fish very well. On a number of occasions Doctor Joe put George in charge of brother Joe and me, most often to see that we didn’t fall into harm’s way. This arrangement allowed Doctor Joe to fill his creel with 10 trout for himself,, we ids and George. We seldom passed anyone else fishing Calaveras Creek. They often warned us that there were no fish in those waters and Doctor Joe would smile and thank them. Back at the ranch house Dr. Joe cleaned all 40 trout and Nonna “K” dredged them in flour and fried them up using butter and her trusty cast iron frying pan on her hot wood-burning stove.
George wasn’t more than five feet five inches tall. He had watery blue eyes, a bulbous nose and a set of false teeth that he frequently moved around in his mouth. He didn’t have more than a little frizzled hair, which he kept covered under a black dress hat when he wasn’t working or a cap when he was. Coming from the docks, George would be wearing his black, steel-toed, high top work boots. And, he always wore black work-pants held up with olive-green suspenders over a wool shirt. Over everything he wore a Navy Pea Jacket. San Francisco docks were open to the weather –rain, wind and fog until fall. The summer for us San Francisco natives only ran from September to mid-October. George’s work gear was kind of a uniform for most dock workers back then, but George created a certain look to go with that uniform. I remember him in his work clothes with an unfiltered Phillip Morris cigarette dangling from his mouth. He looked as though he could take on Humphry Bogart and John Wayne together. (Don’t know such old-time movie stars as Bogart and Wayne? Then think of Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone.).
In fact George was very good with his fists having fought professionally as a bantam-weight. And, George definitely had upper body and leg strength, which allowed him to work the docks as well or better than men twice his size. One day Doctor Joe came home with George in tow. George was still in his work clothes, hat on head, cigarette dangling from his mouth. My brother Joe and I were told that George was going to take us in hand and teach us how to box. The boxing lessons allowed George to pay down medical bills he had outstanding with Doctor Joe. This use of payment by means other than hard green cash is called bartering, and Doctor Joe had become a master at negotiating such agreements with many of his patients.
As part of the process of learning the “manly arts” we were each given a new pair of Spaulding boxing gloves and went down to the large basement play room our family called “the rumpus room.” Although the boxing gloves fit, with all the padding they felt huge and cumbersome. Doctor Joe and George moved furniture around so that we had enough room to spar. Then George began to drill the basics into us. Basics included stinging cuffs to head or body that showed where our defenses were vulnerable. Oh, were our defenses vulnerable in that first lesson! We didn’t box; we flailed at one another so much that only one or two punches landed. Only a couple of blows landed on target during the hour we boxed. And our boxing form had Doctor Joe laughing so hard tears rolled down his cheeks. I remember that any blows that landed stung briefly, but didn’t hurt and told us where we screwed up. George definitely had his work cut out. His gravelly voice would admonish us until many lessons later we were able to defend ourselves and encouraged to work harder.
George was a story-teller and his style impressed brother Joe and me very much. And, George gave unbidden advice liberally about things far removed from his work or teaching self-defense. For example, once when he waited with us in Doctor Joe’s big Buick for the good doctor to close up his office, George observed a driver do something foolish. “Look at that,” he started saying. But we continued our play until George growled at us -“Pay attention. Look at that driver in the car over there.” We looked to where George was pointing before George spoke. “When you boys start to drive, you need to always look out for cars where the driver has his hat brim-level with his eyes, like that guy.” “Why is that?” we asked. George said, “You just watch ’em; they’ll sit looking straight ahead, both hands planted over the steering wheel . You’ll barely see their eyes over the steering wheel with their hat pulled down so low, but it was like the guy was aiming for your car. Ya want to get the @#%#**!@# H out-of-the-way and fast. They ain’t relaxed, see? That guy’s got his steering wheel in a death-grip. By the time he decides what to do –BANG and it’s too late!”
Yep, George was a story-teller. In his gravelly voice he would move towards a punch-line and as laughter erupted George’s own laugh would dissolve into a wheezy cough because of his chronic bronchitis. That meant, whether in his truck or a car, the window would always be down so George could spit a ball of phlegm into the wind. In my mind I still see the long trips we took with George to Murphy’s California, where Doctor Joe grew up. My father always drove. George would regale us all with many funny stories taken from his life experiences. With his bronchitis these stories were often interrupted with the car window next to George being lowered so George could clear his lungs and spit.
Onto another of Doctor Joe’s unusual patient/friends -BIBBITT, who managed the family ranch Doctor Joe’s mother lived on. To this day I don’t know how Doctor Joe’s mother, Katerina, my other grandmother knew exactly when we would arrive. My guess is she had a strong ability for telepathic communication between her and Doctor Joe. She had no phone and doctor Joe never had time to write. Yet, she always knew when we’d arrive at her ranch-house. Days before our arrival she’d take a bus into town and buy enough food, meat, etc. to feed us all no matter how long we stayed. She didn’t always predict the exact day of our arrival, but was close enough that no food in her ice box ever spoiled. Shortly after our arrival our father ran a “clinic” where Nonna “K,” her handyman, Bibbitt and George all got physical examinations. Any prescriptions required were bought by our father, Doctor Joe. Those bought for Nonna “K” or Bibbitt were mailed to the ranch in Murphy’s.
George was such a character that us kids, as his star pupils, started to mimic his mannerisms and habits. That led to our first experimentation with smoking. But, to tell you that story you need to know more about the ranch manager and handyman, Bibbitth, who worked and lived on Nonna “K’s” ranch in a back room with its own entrance.. Bibbitt took a perverse pleasure in lending a hand to schemes we boys came up with and delighted when the end result left us in trouble. As long as our schemes didn’t lead to bodily harm, Bibbitt would help us turn thought into reality. Bibbitt followed the code of “learning by doing.” Maybe that was one result of his culture and heritage. You see, Bibbitt was a full-blooded Native American Indian.
Bibbitt was a solitary and extremely quiet person. He had long ago learned exactly what was expected of him and knew precisely the time it would take to complete each task. therefore, minimal conversation took place between Nonna “K” and Bibbitt. I don’t think I ever heard Bibbitt initiate a conversation, although when asked a question he was perfectly capable of providing a succinct response. We didn’t think of Bibbitt as an Indian. He was respected for his abilities, his strong work ethic and his willingness to tackle everything he was asked to do.
With one exception Bibbitt’s everyday clothes included worn Levis, flannel shirt, cowboy boots and around his neck a none too clean red and white paisley bandanna. He moved like a cowboy and I can remember Old Bibbitt seated on a cow-pony and slinging a lariat towards one of the heifers that the local butcher was fattening up at Nonna “K’s” ranch. But Bibbitt wasn’t proficient at riding a large horse or throwing a rope to lasso a cow. Nor, did he ever assist the town butcher with pressing a red-hot branding iron against the flank of a yearling steer. Bibbitt was content being the ranch’s handyman. He’d move from chore to chore with an amazing economy of energy and effort. One might mistake Bibbitt’s easy movements for those of a lazy man. But, Bibbitt was anything but lazy. All his life he simply paced himself. I don’t think he ever slowed down until he died.
On the one exception, it was dusk and Bibbitt, wearing clean Levi’s, a long-sleeved blue-gray work shirt -also clean and pressed, was sitting on a bench in the shade of the overhang to Nonna “K’s” front veranda. On his head Bibbitt sported a spotless cowboy hat and tied around his neck was a classic red kerchief. His footwear, also well cared for, was a pair of well polished cowboy walking boots. He’d downed a few drinks which gave him the courage to treat us to a variety of songs played one-man-band style. By that I mean there was a harmonica near his mouth, which included a metal harness so it could be played hands-free. Strapped to his shoulders was an old banjo. Fastened to the inside of each knee by black cloth straps were cymbals that resonated whenever he bought his knees together. By his feet was an old washboard -the kind women used to hand-wash clothes. and, leaning next to the bench he sat on was a long rusty timber saw. I think Bibbitt just wanted to show us that in his past he had been far more than a general handyman working on a small ranch.
For the next hour Bibbitt played banjo, harmonica, washboard and saw, offering up melodies from memory, many of which I had never heard before. He provided his own musical backup with the cymbals and rotated one instrument to another as the mood struck him. He didn’t sing or introduce the names of the music he played. He spoke not a word. About an hour later Bibbitt stopped, stood up and without a word unstrapped the cymbals and placed them under his arms along with the washboard and saw. As he left us he played an exit tune on the harmonica and disappeared into the house and his room.
I don’t recall when brother Joe and I decided that smoking a cigarette, like George, would be “cool,” especially if we could master having the cigarette dangle from our mouths while talking and not have it drop to the ground. But George wasn’t going to teach us how to smoke, so we turned to Bibbitt. Bibbitt started our education teaching us how to “roll your own,” because that’s the only way Bibbitt took his tobacco. While Bibbitt was willing to show us how to build a hand-rolled cigarette, it wasn’t going to be with his supply of cut tobacco. He pointed to feed grain in the barn and we each came back with fistfuls of barley and oats. He then gave us each a few cigarette papers so we could form our ersatz cigarettes. And, after a few tries we managed to form a smokeable cigarette that held some of the grain kernels we’d gotten from the barn.
Bibbitt gave us some matches and we went behind the barn out of sight of our parents. In my case it took several matches to get the cigarette lit. When lit I found the smoke terrible; the damp grain made the first puff even worse, and I started coughing loudly. In Joe’s case the way he twisted the ends failed to hold the grain kernels in. So, when his cigarette caught fire there was no “tobacco” inside and the paper lit up in a flash, burning his nose in the process. Bibbitt thought it was all uproariously funny. Tears came out of his eyes; he hooted and slapped his leg laughing all the while. I don’t think I ever saw Bibbitt expend so much energy laughing over our failed smoking effort. But Joe and I weren’t laughing and had Bibbitt watched our little faces he might have discerned we were about to declare guerrilla war.
Over the next few days as Bibbitt worked to irrigate the fields, crops and Nonna “K’s” vegetable patch, brother Joe and I would sneak to where the dirt had been removed so water went to where Bibbitt intended and we simply replaced the soil and diverted the water back. It didn’t take long for Bibbitt to figure out who was sabotaging his work and he went to Nonna “K” to complain. Now, our grandmother had heard from Bibbitt about our efforts to roll and smoke a cigarette and both had a good laugh at our expense. Nonna “K’s” instruction to Bibbitt was that he had better figure out a deal that would get us to stop.
That’s when Bibbitt went into the wood shed and picked up some scraps of lumber he hadn’t chopped into kindling and fashioned those scraps into two crude paddle-wheeler boats. He made quick cuts to fashion a pointed bow and cut a large square notch from the back-end, which he fastened to the middle of the boat to serve as the deck house. From a few more scraps of wood he made paddle wheels for each boat. He placed the paddle wheels into that big square-cut into the stern and checked the clearance. Then, with a pencil he marked where to cut small notches that would hold a big rubber band in place. We wound up the rubber band holding the paddle in place on our boats. When we set them in the water they would fly down the irrigation ditch where we would catch them up and repeat the process all over again. Bibbitt’s only condition before handing us the boats was that we promise not to change the course of water flowing though the irrigation ditches any more. And, we kept that promise.
Though Bibbitt had found a solution to our mischievousness, that solution did not set well with our mother, for at meal time we returned to the ranch house covered with splatters of brick-red mud. In playing with our toy boats at the irrigation ditches we often had to jump from one side to the other. Sometimes we didn’t make it to the other side and fell against the side of the ditch and got splattered with the red mud. There wasn’t any washing machine at Nonna “K’s” ranch. Our mother would have to take a wash board and using Nonna “K’s” homemade soap wash our muddy clothes to the creek that was up a small rise about 100 yards from the ranch house. That water was clear and pure, but terribly cold all year-long. So, after we ate brother Joe and I were led to the creek’s edge and made to get in and wash up thoroughly. We walked back down to the ranchhouse and sometimes when our shoes were caked with mud, we had to wash our bare feet again.