My grandfather and his brother, and their father before them, were doctors who practiced general medicine in Frederick, Maryland, throughout the 20th century. As country physicians, house calls and home births were the rule during most of their careers. Medicine changed radically during the period, the advent of antibiotics offering cures for countless illnesses that had been lethal throughout history, and the establishment of medicare and insurance ushering out an era when payment for a check-up might have been a dozen eggs. Grandaddy was a natural storyteller whose profession provided him with endless material (much to my grandmommy’s chagrin, at times). One story he liked to tell inspired me so much that I included it in a short story of my own. While my story wasn’t all bad, it was written during a dark period in my early twenties, and so I tossed it away with a great deal of other material I wrote at the time. It’s just as well. The story is Grandaddy’s, and he tells it best anyway. He’s been gone over 10 years now, but his voice was distinctive. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story as he did, but I promise you it won’t be as good as the version he told in his dark living room, sitting back in his armchair and puffing sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe:
Sometimes I had to deliver lots of babies in the same day, and I had to drive all over the place to get to everyone in time. One day like this, I got a call from farmer Winters [names have been changed] while I was at another house, and he told me that his wife was in labor and I needed to get there quick. I told him, of course, I’d be there as soon as possible, but I was still attending to another mother and couldn’t get there immediately. On the phone he seemed fine: Mrs. Winters had had children before, and there was no reason to be alarmed. So, as soon as I could, and it was quicker than I’d even led him to believe, I drove to the Winters Farm and knocked at the door. Mr. Winters answered, quite upset with me. He said, “Doc, what’s taken you so damned long? I told you to get here quick!” By his tone – he was red-faced and irate and almost in tears – I thought that something must have gone terribly wrong with Mrs. Winters, but when I got upstairs, I found her doing just fine, and I delivered the baby a little later with no trouble at all. After it was over, Mr. Winters led me to the door and apologized profusely for how rude he’d been to me earlier. “You see, doc,” he said, “my cow gave birth to a two-headed calf this morning, and I was just a little upset!”
I always laughed at the end of the story, but the humor behind the punchline is a little muddled, and the humor I see in it has evolved as I’ve aged. Is it funny because a two-headed calf is just weird? Or are we laughing because the farmer was more concerned about his cow than his wife? Or is the joke that the farmer was worried that his wife would have a two-headed baby as well? As I look at it now, I see that Grandaddy was maybe making fun of himself as well, the doctor looking through his own narrow lens and being blindsided by a completely unexpected explanation.
You’re right, Grandaddy: the unexpected is hilarious. Socks on the sidewalk. Cardinal whistles on the beach. Hats in trees. And I miss you.