For medicinal use only – a John Dunn story

by John Dunn
1944 Dunns in front of Reilly's Hotel
1944 Dunns in front of Reilly’s Hotel

I pumped hard with my left foot, and my ‘Canadian Flyer’ responded.  Up the street we sped, past Jim Little’s potato patch, the grocery store, the horseshoe pits, and came to the open door of the blacksmith shop.  Two senators of the Anvil Parliament were already on the front step, keeping an eye out for any person coming to or leaving Irishtown.  I liked listening to the senators: they speculated on the motives that drive people out of the house on a July morning, before the heat of the day got too much altogether.  I sat in the Flyer on the sidewalk, waiting to see what the morning might bring.

Kitty-korner across the way from the clang of the hammer on the anvil, three men crouched in a prehistoric druids’ circle, huddled cross-legged on the ground in the shade of a maple.  A billboard behind them invited passers-by to drop everything else and come to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in August.  The three men on the ground weren’t looking up, even though they seemed excited about something.  Working themselves into a frenzy, I thought, talking about the things they’d like to do at the Toronto Ex. It turned out I wasn’t the only one looking at them: they had attracted the attention of the senators too.

“Who are those heroes over by the billboard?” enquired one.  “Something seems to have got into them and stirred them up for they’re mighty agitated.”

“One’s a returned man, leader of the gang.  Others are the Artful Dodger, and the one they call the Cat, with a face like his namesake the Convent Cat, and distinguished likewise by scars from close combat with rodents.  Just friendly locals.  Heroes all,” replied his colleague.

“Pretty heated discussion they got going,” the first senator observed.  “If you’d ask me, I’d say they’ve a plot hatchin’ there, an’ it ain’t likely to do much for the common good.”

“Oh, oh, look out,” said his colleague.  “Something’s up.  The huddle’s breakin’ apart, and the leader’s comin’ our way.  We’re about to be drawn into a plot.  Hold on to your hat.”

The returned man shuffled across the road, and stopped on the sidewalk.  An affable gent he seemed indeed, with a disarming countenance, from which there came the greeting of a snake-oil charmer.

“Morning, gents.” said he.

A barely perceptible nod from the gents on the front step acknowledged the greeting, but the nod was so pitifully given, in a gesture so trivial, it would certainly never have stopped a galloping horse.  Senatorial jaws snapped tight on the nod, and cold, flat-lidded, inconsequential stares followed, of the kind that eagles fix on a pair of sparrows worrying a manure pile for leftovers.

Surprisingly, the leader’s gaze passed over the gents and honeyed words addressed me.

“Say, sonny,” he began with the customary blessing, “Is the doctor at the house?”

“I think he’s at the hospital,” I managed.

“But he’d likely be back after the mail’s sorted, say around eleven.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

A minor detail, but it brought the Senate to full alert.

“How come you need to see the doctor?” enquired one of the two senators.  “You don’t look sick to me.”

“Naw, I ain’t that kind of sick,” replied the leader, his disarming smile changing to a lopsided smirk.
“I mean, gents,” he went on to explain, “Ever since the Armistice ten years ago, I gets a chill in the solar plexus.  Happens every month, end of the month, an’ the only medicine that’s any good for that chill is Hennessey’s.  Used to get it in France. Made there, I’m told, by a family of ‘Wild Geese’ from an ancient recipe they brought from Ireland.  French farmers discovered it worked wonders for colds and snuffles, and colic in the horse.”

“You mean they don’t make stuff that good here?”

“That’s right.  Hennessey’s, the only cure.  Medicine.  Comes in big dark bottles with a dimple in the bottom. Best medicine in the world too for chilblains, seasickness, swamp fever, mumps, a bite from the slippery elm, or neuralgia in the solar plexus.  Trouble is, we’ve got this here ‘Prohibition’ in Ontario, so, if you get the chills and you need this medicine, you gotta get a line from the doctor, a prescription.  Guv’mint allows Hennessey’s ‘for medicinal use only’.  Imagine that!”

“Fat chance you got, gettin’ a line from the doc for that,” observed senator one.

“Heavens above man, don’t say that,” said the leader rubbing a pair of thorny fingers over a bristled chin.  “Of course, I ain’t doubled over with pain yet, but I could be in an hour’s time.  Anyway, first thing, even before I even try the doorbell at the doctor’s, I gotta get the mail.”

“Expectin’ something?” asked the colleague.

“The wherewithal.  Comes at the end of the month.   A little token of appreciation from a grateful guv’mint.
Brown envelope with OHMS on it, and no stamp.  Tried the post office yesterday, but no luck.  Should be in this morning. Gotta get medicine for pain, solar plexus.”

As the leader turned to go down town, two companions erupted into the open from the druids’ huddle under the maple, and hastened to join their leader on the trek to the post office.  Reassurance followed them from the Anvil Parliament: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” one senator called out.

“Great mystical wonders of our race and time.” exclaimed the other.

I’d seen the three plotters at the post office two days before them.  They were expectin’ then too, a few days back, lounging across the sloping-fronted desk, elbows dug into the blotting paper, toying with the ink well, and government pens for people to address envelopes to go  into the mail.  The plotters seemed to worry a lot, shaking their heads. Finally, to ease their distress, they decided to smoke.

“Aw, we might as well forget it for today,” said one.  “Got the makins?”

“Here,” replied the leader, holding out a packet of Ogden’s Fine Cut.

“Where’s the papers?” the plotter continued.

“Holy cow,” exploded the leader.  “Do you need spit to lick the paper?”

“Never mind, old chum.  Just found a packet of Vogue papers in my pocket.  They’ll do fine.”

“Why don’t you make yourself useful, and go and see if the mail’s sorted yet.”

“Nobody at the wicket.  Can’t be sorted yet.”

“Ya don’t go to the wicket, ya omadaun.  Get yourself over to the side and peek past the corner of the wicket to the sortin’ table. That’s the only way to see if they’ve finished sortin’.”

It was not the urgency of the trio in the public part of the post office that set the pace of handing over mail, it was the end of sortation, and the postmaster taking up his position at the wicket to hand over general delivery missives.  Seeing the leader and his deputation he made a short comment.

“Nothing today,” said he.

Dejectedly, the trio turned, stepped outside, and with heads bowed down, retraced their steps all the way back to the edge of Irishtown and resumed their prayers in the sanctuary of the billboard.  That was last week though.

Today was different: government never missed the end of the month.  Good fortune smiled on them at the wicket, for they had come back from the post office, and assembled in the portico of Reilly’s Hall, directly across the street from the front door of the doctor’s house.

Swinging my wagon round, I pumped again, and let it roll as much as it could on the way back to the house.  Because there was an hour before lunch, I went in to the front of the house to read another of the “Chronicles of Canada”, the set of books I had started to read in May when I had come down sick with scarlet fever.   When my father came on the second day to take my temperature and check my pulse he brought two of the Chronicles for me to read.  I started with “The Railway Builders”, and next day I told him that I had discovered Almonte in it, and that it said the railway had reached Almonte in August, 1857.  That meant that Almonte was a very important place even then, and he said, “Yes, that’s right.”  As if he had already known about 1857.  There was no end to surprises at our house: I thought that if my father would even know about a railroad called the Brockville and Ottawa that reached Almonte in 1857, as well as the signs of mumps and scarlet fever, he’d probably know the location of the solar plexus too.  Well, surprises are endless whoever you are, when you’re seven, but especially if you live near an Anvil Parliament.  I returned to the Chronicles,” Winning the West. “

The doorbell rang and some commotion followed.  Someone was already in the office talking with my father, and he invited the second person to wait in the inside office.  Through the heavy velour curtain drawn across the doorway in that office, came a voice that I had heard before, the honeyed speaker from the blacksmith shop, leader of the druid circle plot, leader of the billboard heroes.

Was he doubled over with pain, I wondered.  In the solar plexus?  The place that Hennessey’s only could set to rights?  Heavens, just sitting in the inside office, he would be caught in the benign gaze of the silver-tongued orator, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose portrait beamed down in avuncular amusement from its place above the glass-lined bookcase.  And if Laurier didn’t unsettle him, there was more: lined up like burly soldiers on parade, a brigade of medical textbooks in the bookcase’s shelves defied pain, bruises, constipation, warts, and all the ills of mankind: they were ready for action.  Ready, aye ready, “The Pharmacopaeia of Modern Medicine”, Gray’s” Anatomy”, Osler’s “Principles of Modern Medicine” stood all ready, lined up on both sides of “Diseases of Women”

Yet, even setting all medical knowledge aside, there was another fact: if the patient even so much as glanced at the telephone table, he would see the very prescription pad for the “line” he needed.  For Hennessey’s. ‘Twas ever so simple.  P.C. Dowdall, Druggist, was printed at the top of the pad, and then the symbolic sign for medicine below. All it needed was the name Hennessey’s and a scrawl from a doctor to authorize a big, brown bottle with the dimple in the bottom, Hennessey’s, “for medicinal use only”.  That’s all.    In the druids’ circle, here lay El Dorado, a line for the priceless pain-killer, the key to the kist, entry to Heaven’s gate!

“Line” in hand, a hero could walk into P.C. Dowdall’s drug store, scorning the horehound and the laxatives, plunk down the sheet torn from the prescription pad with the physician’s scrawl across the bottom, and the “wherewithal” from the gracious guv-mint and behold, there would be given him the elixir of every hero, returned man or not, a big, brown bottle with the dimple in the bottom, full to the neck with Hennessey’s, Ireland’s gift to France’s farmers., Hennessey’s!  The leader’s heart, I suspected, must be thumping in the inside office with anticipation and rapturous good feeling.

Another small commotion from the outer office broke the patient’s morning meditation. There came the familiar swish of the office door closing, and then the door to the inner office opened, with the words, “Come in, now.” The leader bent low with age and infirmity and hobbled to the chair in the doctor’s main office.

”Is there something upsetting you this morning?” The questioning started.

“Well, you see, doctor,” the leader began, “Ever since the awful times in France, I get this terrible pain in the solar plexus.  Happens every month.”

“Have you eaten anything strange, or unseasoned, today?”

“Not a thing. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. And a dish of maple syrup.  Pain’s just the same as we used to get in the trenches. The wet and cold, well, it’d give us chilblains on the tongue.  Army medicine they give us was good, stuff called Hennessey’s.”

“Stick out your tongue.  Say ah……!”

A tongue depressor held the labial organ down while a thorough search was conducted into all the crevices of the cavern.  Nothing there moved.  “Nothing amiss here,” came the verdict.

Out came the thermometer, inserted under the idle tongue.  The physician’s fingers tested the pulse while the thermometer ruminated.

“Pulse’s normal.  Temperature’s fine.”

Next the instrument with the diaphragm, rubber hoses leading to the ears, and the search for heartbeat, here, there, up and down.  “No signs of distress”.  The stethoscope went back into the physician’s pocket.  “No disorders on record this morning,” said the doctor.

“There’s only one medicine ever did me any good, Hennessey’s,” said the leader.  “I was wonderin’, doctor if you could give me a line for some of that to be used for medicinal purposes only.”

“Medicine’s for the sick.  You’re not sick, and you know of course that a physician’s oath is never to administer a harmful or noxious substance,” replied the doctor. “Contrary to popular belief, Hennessey’s is not a stimulant, but a depressant.”

“But it’s just the end of the month, and the moon’s in the first quarter.  That’s the time when the pain’s worst.  What in the world am I going to do?”

“The moon doesn’t give advice.  On the other hand, have you tried hoeing the potatoes?  That will strengthen muscles and character too.”

The leader left the office, crestfallen.  No joyful shrieks enlivened the faces of the Artful Dodger and the Cat when they witnessed the sad state of the third member of the triumvirate.

“Didya get it?” the Dodger tossed a throwaway pitch, as he knew.

“So, do I look happy and contented?” replied the leader.  “Is my countenance wreathed in smiles?  Can’t you see I’m not only wounded, but sick at heart as well?”

Three faces inured by time to ill treatment, the contumely and disapprobation that authority heaped on them, shuffled away from the portico of Reilly’s Hall rebuffed by Fate and a teetotalling medicine man.  Just imagine!  The doc’s idea of hoein’ potatoes as a substitute for elixir in the dimpled bottle, to be sure it was enough to make a provost corporal weep in agony! Confound it!!

The plotters shuffled back up the street past Jim Little’s potato patch, past the store, and, ignoring the horseshoe pits, re-entered the druids’ den under the maple in the shadow of the billboard.  There they fell into a fit of rigorous contemplation of how they’d ever face the future in such an unfeeling environment.

May 3, 2000


A short note of explanation – my father refers to “Reilly ‘s Hall”. It was originally built as Reilly’s Hotel at the corner of Queen Street and Union Street South. and went through a number  of incarnations over the years, the last of which was the COOP before being torn down. The building is clearly visible in the photo taken in 1944.

Michael Dunn