The Life of a Public Servant

As a grizzled government employee, I’ve learned to find the small blessings in public servanthood (it was either that or all the paperwork would have crushed my will to roll out of bed). Yes, every morning, after the third snooze alarm sounds, I arise, dive into various and sundry garbs, land in my boots, and depart to do the government’s work. 

As a soil conservationist, I get paid just a grade above diddly squat, so I have to focus on other job perks to stay motivated, namely my relationship with my dear and loving county truck. Admittedly, the county truck isn’t without faults, which is why it’s kept incarcerated in a fenced-in parking lot, though the fence has failed to protect everyone and could probably use a second strand of barb wire across the top. A few years ago, some poor thief stole the truck, only to be quickly apprehended by a sheriff’s deputy. Rumor has it that the thief called 911 and requested help for fear the truck was about to explode. 

I’ve only had a few life threatening incidents in the fifty thousand miles I’ve put on the truck in eight years. That’s a pretty good track record considering that entering a driveway plastered in no trespassing signs in a government vehicle can be hazardous to your health. Once they realize it’s just me, most farmers put the shotgun away or at least put the safety back on. Sometimes they climb in the truck with me, and we traverse their farms so I can prescribe government-sanctioned farming advice for their eroded areas. “When’s the county going to buy you a new truck? These shocks are beat,” they say, usually after the third or fourth time their head smacks the roof. 

But the truth is I like my county truck. Visiting farms is the best part of my job, and most of the time the truck gets me there. More importantly, it has a first-rate antenna that can pick up the Charlotte sports radio station even in the deep hollers. There’s hardly a county road I haven’t traveled in that truck listening to sports radio. Last week, when I actually stumbled upon a road I hadn’t traveled, I got excited. And this brings me to the point of all this rambling: You know you’re getting old when discovering a country road untraveled makes your day (or possibly your week depending on the height of the paperwork stacked on your desk). 

My dear and loving county truck.

The Toddler Rides Again

Well, on Tuesday night, Natalie and I journeyed deeper into the wilds of parenthood, wandering into that uncharted territory where your child nearly scares you to death. We had our first midnight trip to the emergency room with Thomas. It wasn’t a long trip in terms of arrival to destination because Natalie was speeding through downtown Shelby at speeds my Camry rarely reaches. I learned right then that neither speed limit, nor red light, nor traffic pattern will separate my son from the love of his mom. Also, I learned if my wife ever wants to quit her job as a librarian, she has a second career waiting as an ambulance driver. 

The problem is Thomas woke up at 1:00 in the morning crying, which isn’t all that unusual (we’re still working on sleep training), but this time he was not only crying but gasping for breath and clutching at his throat. His forehead was hot. He had a temperature of 103 and a wheeze loud enough to rival a lifelong smoker forced to run. 

Now back up five hours. Before bed, Thomas had a slightly runny nose, but otherwise he was acting perfectly normal, toddling around the house as if he owned the place. For a kid in daycare, a slightly runny nose is part of baseline health. I mean, in the past three months Thomas has had RSV, the stomach bug, and foot and mouth disease. Merely a runny nose seemed like a step in the right direction, keyword being seemed. Little did we know it foreboded a long night in the emergency room. 

The ER is a surreal place. We had to walk through metal detectors and get checked in by a security guard to enter the ER, which I thought was kind of strange. Turns out, I quickly realized why this procedure was in place. No sooner than we arrived and sat down in the waiting room than another man walked up to check in. I overheard him talking to the security guard and the desk receptionist. The man said he was homeless and needing help. He said he was having strange thoughts. The receptionist asked if he was having any thoughts of self harm. “No,” the man said, “more like thoughts of hurting a stranger.”

I suspect the receptionist tripped a silent alarm of some sort because in less than a minute another security guard as well as a police officer emerged from the corridors of the hospital. The man was polite enough. Eventually, he admitted that he just wanted a shower, and the police officer escorted him down a hallway to somewhere else in the hospital. The receptionist and two security guards continued to talk, however, and we listened to them swap war stories about their craziest patients while we sat nearby, Thomas still wheezing in Natalie’s arms. All I can say, after overhearing some of their stories, is God bless everyone who works in an emergency room–may their numbers increase and bloodlines prosper. 

Eventually we got to move to an exam room and see a doctor. After suctioning out his mucus and running a few tests, the doctor diagnosed Thomas with croup. Being first time parents, neither of us knew anything about this childhood ailment, but the doctor said croup is pretty common in kids. They gave Thomas a treatment with a nebulizer and an oral steroid which quickly improved his breathing. I say quickly, but really we didn’t get home till 5 AM, at which point, after entering the house, Thomas proceeded to mount his Red Flyer toddler car and putter about the kitchen going “vrooom, vrooom” as if nothing slightly traumatic happened five hours earlier.

On-Farm Tests of Bravery

One of the great things about farm life is there is no shortage of measuring sticks for bravery. Of course, my wife is aware I have a long and proven track record of surviving idiotic feats of recklessness, so I rarely feel the need to prove my valor at this point in my life. But sometimes I do remember those foolhardy days of youth. Yesterday, for instance, I felt an acute bout of nostalgia (and slight puckering of my cheeks) when I walked past the persimmon tree behind our barn. Currently, it’s loaded with unripe persimmons, the perfect test of gallantry for children engaged in the ancient game of one-upmanship known as double-dog dare.

Dare, double-dare, double-dog dare, triple-dog dare. Those were the levels of daremanship. Eating, or at least nibbling, an unripe persimmon was worthy of a double-dog dare, which was about on par with touching an electric fence with a long piece of wheat straw. As far as I know nobody ever earnestly attempted a triple-dog dare, like grabbing an electric fence barehanded. Attempts at triple-dog dares were mostly bluster. Sure, we may have turned over a few rocks here and there to show our willingness to catch a black widow spider, but had we found one I doubt we would have been in its proximity long enough to encapsulate it in a jar. Plus, it’s not like we were lacking in wisdom. Even as children, we realized there was little point in bravery if we couldn’t brag about it—and triple-dog dares were too dangerous to brag about because of our parents. For some strange reason, parents considered that much bravery worthy of a pat on the backside—usually with a switch, wooden spoon, or belt. 

Climbing trees was a test of bravery that I usually excelled at, at least until my neighbor Andy and I nearly got stuck in the top limbs of a magnolia tree and my mom threatened to call the fire department. That got us down fast. Nothing negates the bravery earned in climbing to a treetop more than having one’s mom request an embarrassing emergency rescue. Even Andy (who wasn’t the bravest of tree climbers, hence his position on a limb underneath me) realized we’d be better off taking our chances with gravity than living with a rescue on our permanent record. After my mom motivated us “to get down now,” it was no time before Andy was blissfully biking home with orders to say hello to his mom. Erstwhile, once my feet touched terra firma, I was ordered straight to my room. That just goes to show you that you’re usually better off performing courageous acts at a friend’s house and being extradited than performing them in your own parent’s jurisdiction.  

Bikes, of course, were associated with many feats of valor, like who could go the fastest down Clay Hill or pop the biggest wheelie or jump the highest over a makeshift plywood ramp. In those days, all these tests were performed without adult supervision because kids rode bikes in the safety of big packs. As long as you stayed together with your friends and rode straight home before supper, then you were allowed the freedom to ride. If an accident did happen, there was at least one kid in the horde who had watched Doogie Howser and could provide basic medical care. 

Personally, I don’t remember any friends ever getting seriously injured while riding bikes or performing any other test of bravery. That said, the lapse in memory might be due to all the childhood concussions. We didn’t wear helmets in those days either. 

The Swift Pinch of Justice

Sometimes I feel like I’m a member of the last well-mannered generation—that is, the last generation to know swift discipline. No one was swifter than my mom. I can remember when she used to snatch me up in front of the whole congregation for no good reason other than to inspect the shrubbery outside the church. Back then, I always thought it was unfair to have a momma with a green thumb, and by green thumb I mean she could snap a privet switch with a mere pinch. A few pews ahead of me, Johnny could do jumping jacks and taunt me with funny faces and his mom did nothing. However, I could barely contort my face in self-defense before I was yanked up and escorted to the hedgerow. 

My mom does not suffer fools. Never has, never will. Maybe this explains my fondness for writing foolishness, as it’s perhaps the one way I can smuggle foolishness past her. She was a high school English teacher, and she always seemed more concerned about the grammatical correctness of my sentences than their content. As long I put my commas and periods in the right place, then the subject of my sentence could slip on the object of the preposition, say a banana peel, and do five flips for all she cared. 

My mom also taught me the grammar of southern living, meaning manners. These rules were so indoctrinated in me that even now I convulse when breaking them. Back then, breaking the Ten Commandments might get you a stern talking to, but breaking the rules of southern etiquette got you a temporary tattoo on the posterior. The rules, as I remember them, were,

  1. You do not brag. Ever. 
  2. You say, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, mam. No, mam.” 
  3. You say “Please” and “Thank You.”
  4. You do not talk back to your parents or teachers. This was called sassing–if you got caught doing it, it was more or less the death sentence. 
  5. You never wear a hat at the table.
  6. You sit as still as a statue in church. 

Back then, these were the communal standards for children. Of course, maybe Johnny’s mom didn’t get the memo, but it seemed like most other kids in school had a similar set of dictates set down by adults in their life. And it’s not like I went to some fancy private school. I just went to your typical rural public school with trailers as overflow classrooms and paddles hanging on the wall of the principal’s office. 

By that point, the paddles were mostly a decorative scare tactic, a vestige of a barbaric age when principals were feared and respected. Corporal punishment was well on its way to becoming taboo, at least in schools. In private homes, not so much. Although I felt my mom was stricter than most, she was at least lenient in her preference for switch wielding. My neighbor’s mom used a blunt force wooden spoon, and I knew several kids whose dad’s used a leather belt. 

Eventually, all forms of corporal punishment were lumped together in a catch-all term called spanking. Then spanking was linked to some sort of Freudian sexual repression and shunned by society. However, I just linked it to pain, not a lot, but enough. Enough for me to realize if I didn’t want to get my legs switched, I’d better behave. 

This isn’t to say that we should bring back spanking—I wouldn’t touch that topic with a ten-foot wooden spoon. It’s just to say that Southerners of my parents’ era may have been sexually repressed, but their children had good manners. 

Beware of the Butter Bean

Well, in other news, my throat is still trying to kill me. It came close a few years ago when the Grim Reaper apparently tired of his boring ole scythe and got creative in his methods. Had my wife not been there to administer the Heimlich, my death certificate would read, “Death by butter bean.”  All my life I’ve struggled to eat healthy, thinking that Bojangles would probably do me in. Then I nearly die from a vegetable—talk about irony. 

So three endoscopies and many thousands of dollars later, my esophagus was sufficiently expanded to once again allow safe passage of food—this was two years ago. The problem is white blood cells still like to hang out in my esophagus and practice strangulation in their free time. The doctors tell me that this is not normal, that only 1 in 1000 people have the condition, that there’s no good way to treat it other than to restretch my throat every few years, ideally before my white blood cells commit murder. 

I’m hoping I can make it three years between endoscopies because I don’t relish the idea of having my throat roto-rootered again. Done in an outpatient facility, it’s a routine procedure, except when it isn’t. Before my third endoscopy, while I was waiting in the prep room with an IV in my arm, I got to hear one of those “when it isn’t” cases. The prep room is right beside the operating room. Normally, you can’t hear the doctors and nurses talking as they work on whoever is scheduled before you, unless something bad is happening, in which case everyone is shouting and running and alarms are blaring. I just remember one nurse shouting “heart rate 180” and the doctor using the expression “stat” as in “get an ambulance here stat.” The nice old lady having the procedure done before me, who smiled at me while we were both in the waiting room, was having a heart attack on the table. 

I often wonder what happened to that lady, a complete stranger, after she was transported to the hospital. As they wheeled me into the operating room, because, well, the show must go one, I’m not sure who was more shell-shocked, the doctor, nurses, or me. Sensing I was perhaps disconcerted by the preceding event, one nurse tried to calm my trembling skeletal structure with some reassuring words, which, to be honest, paled in reassurance to the valium she shot in my IV.

The next thing I know, I’m waking up at home with a sore throat and a bad case of hiccups. But that beats waking up in a hospital or not waking up at all. So, all in all, I have a lot to be thankful for, even if my throat is still trying to kill me.