I doubt Carl remembers my being present in the stone house that noon. I think the year was 1985 or 1986. The poem was first published in the winter, 1987, issue of TriQuarterly, and I know I wrote it a year or more before it was published. The poem was triggered by that noontime occasion when I first met Dr. Carl Trusler.
I’m pretty certain everyone in Abilene, Texas, knows Carl and his wife Dr. Jaynne Middleton, Hardin-Simmons University Professor of Voice and the Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts. The paper required to print Dr. Trusler’s resume would fell several Yosemite Redwoods. Carl is an Abilene Treasure, having ministered to so many Abilene families as their physician. He graduated from Hardin-Simmons in 1968 and from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 1972. From 1974 to 1979, he was a Navy fighter pilot flight surgeon, flying F-14s, with tours in the Western Pacific and the Mediterranean on board the aircraft carriers USS KITTY HAWK, USS ENTERPRISE, and USS AMERICA. In 2005, Hardin-Simmons honored him as a Distinguished Alumnus. Just talking to Carl, hearing his unbridled laugh, knowing his healing touch, is all I require in order to rise, take up my pallet, and walk.
Jaynne shared the weekly Light Standard with Carl, and he often told me how much he enjoyed laughing with Wrangler, my 100-pound (down from 120 at one point), at least half Australian shepherd dog, most of the rest being wolf, who progressively took over the pages of the weekly Hardin-Simmons pdf-file magazine I compiled, edited, and emailed to HSU family and friends for five years. Wrangler had more to say than was good for him or for me, but he provided some needed laughs. I lost Wrangler March 13, 2013. I don’t expect to ever get over it. The following August, Carl sent me this email:
“I visited with Trina in the hallway at West Texas Rehab a few weeks ago as I was leaving a hospice training session. She told me you had gotten a new pup. The photos Jaynne forwarded to me are wonderful. I’m very happy for you. I still get tearful thinking about Wrangler (I often thought of him as MY dog also). And although Lucy will not ‘replace’ Wrangler, she will, I am sure, be a wonderful and loving dog for you because you and Trina are DOG-LOVERS who will train her to be the kind of dog Wrangler was.
“My best friend in the world, CAPT Dan Cain, USN (ret), has a most wonderful Australian shepherd named Beau. Dan (aka ‘Darth Vader’) and I flew together in the Navy 38 years ago and are extraordinarily close; we call each other “brothers from different mothers,” and every now and then I must reassure Jaynne that I love her more than Dan. Anyway, Beau is the most wonderful, well-trained, happy, and gentle dog I’ve ever seen. Beau is old now, and we’ll probably have to put Dan down whenever Beau goes because they are inseparable. I think you made a good choice with Lucy, and I wish you every blessing as she matures.”
This was my reply:
“Thanks Carl. It took me a month to stop calling Lucy ‘Wrangler.’ We often call Lucy ‘Lucy Lightning Bug’ or in the evenings when she has not had enough exercise (there’s never enough)—’Lucy the Wild Child Canine,’ but she is especially loving and funny.
“She is almost 5½ months old. Yesterday and this morning, Trina has been taking care of our grandsons Andrew and Dylan. When I left for school this morning, Lucy had just run to Dylan and jumped into his lap and was licking all over his face. We are trying to teach her appropriate behavior. Like that’s going to happen!”
I can hear Carl laughing as he types out his email explaining that he initially entered the Navy because he had a broken love affair during his residency training in Houston:
“There was no equivalent to the French Foreign Legion, and I thought the Navy uniforms in the movies looked pretty cool. The recruiter asked where I would prefer to be stationed, and I requested ‘somewhere as far away as you can get me.’ He suggested Antarctica, and I had read about that in ‘My Weekly Reader’ in grade school and figured that it was pretty far away. The bargain from the recruiter was that if I agreed to go to Antarctica for 15 months, I would be guaranteed my first choice of my next duty station. I had always wanted to fly jets, so I got to go to Pensacola for flight training in T2-C Buckeyes, small, twin-engine jet trainers.
“During our six months of training at Pensacola, the 26 future Flight Surgeons in my class were told that billets following our training would be assigned on the basis of our academic standing in the class. Number One would get first choice, Number Two would choose from the remainder, and so forth. As the end of our training approached, the CO of the Naval Aerospace Medical Center kept urging me to pick Guam or something like that because ‘there were lots of single school teachers to date.’ I knew I was doing well in flight school and held out for a fleet assignment. Well, I finished Numero Uno, picked THE ONLY FLEET BILLET available (Carrier Air Wing Eleven) and was rewarded with getting to do one of the things the Navy taught me to do—take off and land on an aircraft carrier! Of course, I also took care of the medical needs of the pilots and other air crew, which basically involved treating their injuries that were incurred while drinking too much on liberty, as well as taking care of their various venereal diseases. But the flying was worth it. The poem “High Flight” begins with a great line: ‘O I have loosed the surly bonds of earth. . . .’ That’s what flying F14’s was like for me.
“My best friend, Dan Cain, has a registered Black Angus farm (‘Dogwood Angus Farm’) in the little town of Molino, just a few miles due north of Pensacola (almost in Alabama). Dan is a veritable hero—gravely wounded as a grunt Marine at Con Thien in Vietnam in 1967, thought to have been killed, recovered miraculously (carries ugly abdominal and back scars, as well as long-term disabilities), but went on to a stellar career as a Naval Aviator, retiring in 2002 or so after commanding several fighter squadrons, an air wing, doing some Pentagon work, and commanding a special forces unit in the first Iraq war (Seal Team Six, close air support from the Navy, and Marine grunts on the ground). He is highly decorated, and there is an exhibit about him and his Iraq duty in the ‘new’ part of the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. Jon needs to take you to see his stuff the next time you are in Pensacola.
“Dan and I flew together with Air Wing Eleven when I was the fighter flight surgeon; we had tours in the Western Pacific and the Mediterranean on board the USS KITTY HAWK, USS ENTERPRISE, and USS AMERICA. Those were some of the best years of my life, and I cherish them. And I got a best friend out of the deal. Dan is a survivor of lung cancer diagnosed in 2007 (never smoked but inhaled lots of fumes on the flight decks of aircraft carriers). He is now 12 months out of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and radiation therapy for stage II-b prostate cancer. I pray for him and his wife Kathy daily and happily report that they are doing very well. We visit face-to-face every six months. The wives insist that the visit be somewhere ‘nice’ (most recently 18 days in France and Spain), but Dan and I would be happy at the Tye Truck Stop.
“Probably more than you wanted to know about my 5 years as a Naval Flight Surgeon.”
I replied to Carl telling him he needed to write his autobiography. His naval experiences could be a movie: Officer And A Gentleman II: Jet Pilot and Flight Surgeon. I said I would look up the exhibit about Dan Cain in the new section of the Museum. I also asked Carl if he would mind my sharing his emails with the HSU family. Carl said sure, go ahead.
The stone house is gone. Yesterday, near sundown, as I was heading home, I decided to drive to the house and take a photo. At first I thought I must have forgotten its location, so I drove up and down the road. No house. How do you move a stone house? I parked the Mini, got out and walked through the calf-high weeds and grass. I found the gas meter (still working; I could smell the gas) and one of the stones that had made up the façade of the house. I took some photos, then drove home. I looked up the poem, “West Texas Interlude,” I had written about that noontime occasion when I first met Dr. Carl Trusler. The poem was first published in the winter, 1987, issue of TriQuarterly. Now the poem seems melodramatic, what I warn my creative writing students against. Well . . . not overly melodramatic, but still I’m tempted to rewrite the poem even though it has been published in a magazine and a book. The poem does not mention Dr. Carl Trusler. It also does not mention the lady’s son. When I began working on the first draft, I was certain the poem would feature both men.
West Texas Interlude
Nine years I’ve jogged this stretch of unpaved road
at least four days a week and never looked
straight at the house somebody took the time
to piece together out of rock hauled in
from God knows where. Nothing here
but tumbleweeds and scrub mesquite.
A farmer has to be religious or a fool.
The man who built this house had no choice
about the sand, the only foundation,
but he must have figured rock would settle into place;
all he had to do was look around to know it’d never wash away.
I’ve heard old timers swear they came here for the view.
Nothing stops the eye. “Ain’t nothing gonna sneak up on you”
except this stone house the color of sand, an old woman
hugging the railing, her voice almost lost in the wind:
“He’s dead! Help me, Daddy’s dead!”
I didn’t want to stop. At my age, it’s hard to break the pace,
momentum my only motivation. But out here
you can’t ignore a cry for help.
No way to rationalize it was meant for someone else.
She was fat and she stank.
What was she doing on this porch crying for her Daddy?
“Ma’am, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, God, he’s dead! Help me. I’ll pay you money.”
She pointed past the screen door to the clutter I expected:
dime store figurines, photographs of soldiers, doilies
yellowed with sweat. A Naugahyde couch. A corpse,
open eyes and mouth. “Is he dead?
Daddy, get up! I’ll pay you money.”
It was not the first time I had looked into this face,
laid my ear against the chest, heard nothing but my heart.
Asian jungles convince you everyone will wear this grin,
and funeral parlors lie; so who was I
to tell somebody’s great grandma
after she’d dragged her body
along a trail of furniture to the porch
to flag me down when any other day I’d have passed this house
an hour earlier; who was I to be the one to say
Your Husband’s Dead!
So we hugged each other to the kitchen table,
stumbling through a slippery dance to the cold meat
peeking from the Styrofoam containers Meals On Wheels had left
a hundred years ago when
I was loosening up, and she was lighter,
and her husband had just come in from the garden for a nap.
The image that triggered the first draft did not make it into the poem. Several years later, I worked the scene into a literary nonfiction essay, “Called to Poetry, Abilene”:
“She [the old woman of the poem] cannot help you locate the name and phone number of her son scribbled among the other numbers on the sheet of notebook paper tacked to the kitchen wall. When the middle-aged youngest child drives up and steps softly into the room, he nods to you, then sits on the edge of the couch and pats his dad’s cheek, smoothes his hair in place, and as if he were a priest granting absolution, closes his father’s eyes.”
I don’t recall how many phone numbers I dialed from the piece of notebook paper tacked on the kitchen wall, but I know Carl arrived just after the son. I stood as far out of the way as possible, and I really wanted to leave. These were my years of obsession with training for marathons. An addiction. If I missed a noontime run, I would have to make it up in the evening. If I didn’t, then I would have to run sixteen miles the next day to maintain my usual eight-mile run during the noon hour. Thinking back to my easily running eight miles under an hour, five days a week, I realize that Bob Fink is someone I wouldn’t even recognize now.
I say this to explain that I’m ashamed of how hard it was for me to stop and acknowledge that the woman needed my help. I was shirtless and wearing those skimpy, nylon racing shorts “serious” runners wore back then. And, oh yes, I was dripping sweat. I had no choice but to stay in the house with the woman until her son and Carl arrived. It was obvious she had serious dementia, and I felt inadequate to try and offer comfort, so I mostly just stood beside her and listened to what seemed her sort-of mantra. “He’s dead. Daddy’s dead.”
I wanted to apologize for my appearance when her son and then Carl arrived, but I chose to slip into the shadows and watch and wait for my chance to leave. Carl knew exactly what to do. There was nothing to be done for the woman’s husband, so Carl went straight to the lady. He sat beside her, put one arm around her shoulders, pulled her to him and let her weep. No priest, no pastor, could have done better.
“West Texas Interlude” was first published in TriQuarterly magazine, Northwestern University, 68 (Winter 1987): 88-89. The poem was also included in my The Ghostly Hitchhiker (Poetry): San Antonio: Corona, 1989. 41-42.
The literary nonfiction essay “Called to Poetry, Abilene” was published in my book Twilight Innings: A West Texan on Grace and Survival. Lubbock: Texas Tech UP, 2006. 13-17.