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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesHelp with the driving - a John Dunn story

Help with the driving – a John Dunn story

John Dunn 2005submitted by Michael Dunn. Written by his father, John Dunn

Whenever I looked out the window beside the roll-top desk in my father’s office I gazed wonderingly at the hitching post at the street. It had a black iron horse’s head on top, but instead of a bridle and a bit in its teeth, only an iron ring dangled from its mouth. That horse held magic for me, but of what kind I knew not. Of course, I was only seven at the time.

Inside the office a collection of placards leaned against the window well. They spelled out the contagious diseases common in town, and came  in different colours, red for scarlet fever, purple for diphtheria, yellow for typhoid fever, and a bilious green for smallpox. Whenever a person caught one of the contagious diseases my father had a placard placed on the front door of the patient’s house to warn others to keep
away from it.

I came to know too that there were no placards for certain other  diseases that showed up from time to time. Diabetes was one, tuberculosis another, and then that rare, but so powerfully strange one called mental illness. Whenever one of these struck it lingered much longer than the contagious diseases, and seemed to remain aloof from all the volumes of medical knowledge in my father’s bookcase. I wondered if  that was because they were incurable diseases, and, if they were, if  medical discoveries might conquer them in time too.

Time, through years that followed, had a profound effect on the horse’s head hitching post: it caused it to disappear entirely from the street. The horse too went off to permanent pasture, displaced by a rubber-tired
automobile, a Huppmobile. My father’s buffalo fur coat, the buffalo robe for the cutter, even the cutter itself, the driving mitts and whip, all went into retirement, hung up on hooks beside the harness in the drive shed.

Change affected the doctor’s family as well. We increased in numbers, and in wisdom and age and knowledge of mankind’s illnesses. Jim, the eldest, went off to college: it was expected I would be next to go.

Final examinations for the year 1934 came in mid-June. On Friday morning just as we ten children finished morning prayers and had sat down to breakfast, the telephone rang. “Oh dear,” Mother said, turning to me with the porridge pot in her hands, “Your father was at the hospital till after midnight. Would you mind going to take the telephone until he gets there?”

I got up to go, but then sat back. “I hear him coming down the front stairs now,” I said to Mother.

Shortly after he came out from his office and sat down to breakfast in the kitchen. He was frowning, and was clearly upset. Mother caught the  tremors instantly: something must have gone terribly wrong in the night.

“Was that about Richard and Annie?” she asked in a whisper.


“How are they?”

“Worse. Much worse. They’ll have to go.”

Stillness blanketed the breakfast. Names of sick people, their illnesses and chances of recovery, all remained unspoken outside the office. Mother’s query about two people named Richard and Annie, perhaps friends of hers, though most extraordinary, still left them blessedly anonymous to listeners round the table.

Then, more extraordinarily still, my father, as if wrestling with himself over a difficult case, began to explain his worry and his reason for saying “They’ll have to go.” “The signs have been growing for
months,” he said. “Ever since Christmas. I had hoped that by spring we’d see the anxiety lift from them. Even at the beginning of this week I still hoped. Yesterday, however, I had so much concern that I had to ask one of the neighbours to keep an eye on them for me. Today, well, they’re much worse. They can’t remain any longer. They’ve become a danger to themselves as well as to others. However, they’ll get good
care in Brockville.” Another pause. Then, turning to me, he asked the most surprising question ever heard at the breakfast table: “Have you anything special on at school today?”

“Special?” I echoed. “No, we have final examinations this week. I have English Literature this morning, but there’s nothing on for the afternoon.”

“In that case perhaps you could come along with me to Brockville. I’ll need someone to help with the driving.”

Mother sprang into action. “You’re not serious about taking him, are you?” she asked.

“Yes, he’ll be very helpful with the driving.”

“Dad,” Mother cried out. “He’s only a boy! He’s only fifteen. Surely if you need someone to drive you could find a man who’s free around the blacksmith shop.”

“He can drive as well as I can. Perhaps even better. We’ll get along all right.”

Mother’s latent fears charged into the open. “I know you were out late last night,” she began, “But have you thought about the consequences of what you’re saying? Those people could get upset, couldn’t they? And
become violent?”

“It’s possible,” came his reply. “But they’re not apt to.”

“Surely then there must be someone in the family who could drive for you?”

“Richard and Annie are brother and sister. They’re in their late seventies now, the last of the family. There’s no one else.”

Mother’s spirits sank. One final despairing thought she flung out. “But driving them to Brockville, that’s not really your responsibility as a physician, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” came the response, “But one fact is clear: they must go today. So we’ll want to get on the road right after noon hour.”

Dangers? Hidden dangers, sudden attack? Of course, those were possible. Nevertheless I’d be ready. In fact I found myself looking forward to driving.

“Daddy,” Martha, one of the younger girls, asked “How long have those people been sick?”

“The sickness has been simmering away all during the winter months,” my father’s report began. “When spring came it brought a lot of sleety rain, and that brought high water to the Long Swamp. That seemed to make things worse. Their condition fared neither worse nor better through April and May and even into June, but this week the anxiety level in them has shot right up. The crisis is now at hand. Time is always a
great ally in healing, but in mental illness, often the best that medical science can do is stand at the gate and knock. Eventually even time runs out and then we can’t wait. That’s why the two of us must get
away right after noon.”

Mother’s fears for our safety could not subdue the real thrill that welled up in me: I’d get to drive all the way to Brockville, right down to the St. Lawrence River, where we could look across the international
boundary, right into the living room of the United States.

I’d first driven the horse and buggy across the Burnt Lands at age six, and at ten my father had stopped the earlier Huppmobile at the forced  road there to say “You can slide over now and take the wheel.” I looked
forward to driving Richard and Annie in the newer Huppmobile with its massive headlights and coach lamps and trunk over the rear bumper. Still, I knew prudence demanded I should keep a good watch in the rear vision mirror for any signs of violence that might erupt in the back.

Mill bells in town had scarcely finished their one o’clock summons when my father came out the office door, put the fedora on his head, and set  his crumpled black satchel on the seat of the car.

“We can go now,” he said, and the Huppmobile slid away with me at the wheel. In a few minutes we were out in the country at the forced road across the Burnt Lands. “Go straight on,” my father said, and, as the
tires spewed gravel aside, he again marveled at the new forest growth in that wilderness after the disastrous forest fire of 1870 which had burned right down through the topsoil, right down to the bare rock.”Nature has a marvellous ability to recover, even from terrible wounds,” he remarked.

“Except for Richard and Annie, I suppose?” I enquired.

“Yes, that’s the true exception,” he replied.

“Is there any reason for the breakdown in them?” I asked, curiosity  growing in me.

“Every system in the body depends on the others,” my father began. “When they work in harmony, the respiratory system, the circulatory, the nervous and the others, a person is fine. Those systems, however, are physical. Even from ancient times medicine has recognized a close relationship between the physical and the mental. One of Juvenal’s Odes speaks of “A sound mind in a sound body”, but the connection between the two, the cause and effect, all that is terribly unclear still.”

“Does that mean there’s no medicine for them?”

“None really. Many times the cause is right under our noses and we don’t see it. There’s little doubt in my mind that this terrible Depression we’re in now could be a contributing factor. A farmer can become
fearfully discouraged after spending five years bringing a steer to market weight only to find he’s offered three or four dollars for it.  After five years’ work!”

“I remember one of the men at the blacksmith shop the other day said something strange. He said “the victim begins to turn inward”. Would that make sense?”

“Exactly. Brooding hastens the collapse. We try to get rid of notions in the head and keep the patient from turning inward. That’s part of the recovery process. But so often we fail. All right. We turn in here.”

I swung the Huppmobile slowly into the short driveway and stopped with the car facing the house. My father got out, leaving the black satchel behind on the seat. He walked over to the front door of a log house,
lifted the latch without knocking, and walked in.

The whole place, I thought, was strangely quiet. No chickens had  rocketed away from the car. No dog now raged at the invaders, and, most  strange of all, no person appeared from inside the house to lean against
the front door ready to greet the doctor and take him to the patient.

A small log barn stood back of the house. Its crooked door hung open, leaving the barn to stare vacantly down the slope to the swamp. A one-horse kick rake stood with shafts upraised leaning against the barn.
In the emptiness, nothing moved.

Prudence directed me to turn the car around and have it ready, facing out to the road. In waiting I wondered again how could mental illness begin. What symptoms would a doctor look for in those dark and cavernous abysses of the mind? Does it begin with a rumbling, a warning, like a volcano perhaps, with confused phantasms, anxieties and strains? And then does it reach a critical point and begin to spew out tatters and remnants?

My eyes wandered round the long grass and weedy growth of the lonesome homestead. I imagined grotesque patches from Annie’s and Richard’s disturbed winter days lying across the fence rails, tatters snagged on barbed wire, in fact, all the rags of their unreason trapped and blowing empty in the winds.

The door of the house opened again and my father stepped out, putting the fedora back on his head. A lady followed, and a man followed her. I was seeing Richard and Annie for the first time, and indeed, so helpless was I that it was perhaps for the last time too.

She wore a cotton house dress, a man’s heavy woollen sweater coat, and a pair of men’s work boots, laces undone. Her hands clutched a fabric bag, a commodious container indeed, but quite, quite empty.

Richard wore his blue serge suit coat over Carhartt’s denim overalls. He had the legs tucked into the tops of rubber boots. The procession stopped at the car, and bunched up, the way sheep do, waiting for a nudge to go in the right direction.

My father opened the rear door. “Oh, doctor,” said Annie, a note of  delight in her voice “Are we going for a drive?”

“Yes, Annie,” said he, “We’ll go for a drive. You can get in here.”

“Oh,” she exclaimed, and stepped in. Richard bunched up to follow her, stumbled and backed up. I opened the door on the other side, and he came round hurriedly, as if afraid he might be left behind, got in, wordlessly, and sat beside Annie.

I looked across the windshield of the Huppmobile to my father. “What about luggage?” I enquired softly.

“There’s no luggage,” he said. “They won’t be needing anything. We can go now.”

“What route?” I enquired, shifting gears out on the road.

“We’ll go across the next line up to the Long Swamp Road. That’ll give us a short cut to Carleton Place, and from there it’s straight ahead through Franktown, Smiths Falls and on to Brockville.”

The Long Swamp Road! If at any place on this journey Mother’s fears for our safety might become real, I knew the dark and gloomy Long Swamp Road would be that place. I ventured a glance in the rear vision mirror as our road sloped  downward to enter the three-quarter mile stretch where cedar logs had been laid side by side and overlaid with gravel. Wet black muck oozed along both sides. Out of this blackness long sticks of cedar rose up, their top branches clinging to each other to exclude the sun from the road below. A miasma of ugly vapours creeping out from the verges sidled up to the Huppmobile and closed us round.

The washboard road jabbed mercilessly at the Huppmobile and the jolting brought a gabble of inconsequential mutterings and broken words from Annie. Midway across this causeway to the underworld we came to a massive culvert. There a pool of glossy water lay, dark, deep and malevolent-looking, and there the frogs’ chorus greeted us. At the pool’s fringe a great blue heron stood on one leg, motionless as the cedars, its other leg poised, as if to conduct the chorus.

Again I glanced in the mirror, wondering this time if either of the two passengers might show any signs of recognition of this culvert and pool. Might they, even through broken minds, remember that just beyond the
fringe of dark water, cedar and black muck, the most exquisite wild orchids bloomed in July, flowers of such rare, delicate and unimaginably  fragile beauty that the discoverer stands open-mouthed, disbelieving
such beauty could flourish in a fen of brackish water and impenetrable solitude. In the rear vision mirror I saw Richard and Annie staring out, and I knew they saw not.

The Huppmobile rose up out of the swamp, the jolting ceased, and  brilliant sunshine and warmth of mid-June flooded the car. These delights of Nature in June induced drowsiness in the back seat. Annie’s
mutterings faded. Richard’s face held the peace of a baby’s. The Huppmobile sang away through to Franktown and Smiths Falls, and my concern about an eruption evaporated.

As the shroud of drowsiness drew more tightly round the two passengers I asked my father a question that had bothered me since leaving the Long Swamp. “Is there any hope they might sometime get well enough to be able to come back home?”

“No, none,” he replied. “They’ll spend the rest of their days among total strangers like themselves, knowing nothing, unable to comprehend even the sayings of a child. Eventually death will come and claim them
as its tribute and they’ll be released to eternity. Today is their last day in this part of the world.”

At King Street in Brockville a sign announced “King’s Highway No. 2”. “We turn here,” my father said, and with the feeling of an aide-de-camp, I swung east, importantly, on the ancient royal road until a traffic
light near the war memorial stopped us. On the crest of the hill behind it massive stone pillars supported the portico of Brockville’s court house and gaol, an impressive stone structure in the style of an ancient
Greek temple. A statue crowned its peak.

“Who is that in the statue up on the hill?” I asked my father.

“That’s Sally Grant,” he replied.

The name meant nothing to me. I thought she might be someone famous in local history. “Who was she?” I asked again.

“Sally Grant is nobody,” my father replied. “It’s just a name. She looks small from down here, but the statue’s really a very large wooden figure of a lady, blindfolded, holding in one hand the scales of justice, and in the other, the sword of retribution. The ancient figure of Justice.”

As we cleared court house square, an extraordinary epilogue tumbled out concerning Sally Grant. “Years ago,” my father said, “The woodpeckers began hammering away at the head of the statue. Cynics of the time in Brockville approved of that, for, they said, judges and lawyers were mostly blockheads anyway.”

I snickered changing gears on King Street, relishing my father’s unusual touch of irreverence for courts and their engines of retribution. We drove on past the mansions of the mighty that looked out over the mighty
St. Lawrence.

On the very edge of the city a well-tended property had exceptionally wide expanses of lawn that sloped down to a low brick wall alongside the King’s Highway. Two brick pillars framed an entry for the pathway that led up to the main building.

“We turn in here,” my father said.

I brought the tiller of the Hupp hard over and we passed between the pillars of Hercules. A sign just inside the grounds stiffened me with a message that spoke with terrifying simplicity: “Asylum for the Insane”
it said.

At the side door of the main building I brought the car to a stop, got out, and opened the rear door for Richard. On the other side my father did the same for Annie.

“We’ll go in here,” he said to the two passengers, and the procession of physician, Annie and Richard walked in order to the door. Only then did I notice that the door was fitted with heavy wire mesh across its glass. The door opened from inside, the procession entered, and the door closed. Mid-afternoon in Brockville, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, sunny and quite warm, mid-June.

I turned the car around. That way I could look down to the majestic river, and even imagine if it were dark I could turn on the headlights on the Huppmobile and look straight out to the front door of the United

But even though the door had closed behind them, I couldn’t easily forget Richard and Annie. I’d first seen their faces at one-thirty, and their backs at three as they disappeared inside the wire-mesh doorway.
Some of my father’s words echoed again in my mind: “This is the saddest illness of all. Physically these two people are in sound condition. However, in both of them there’s that terrible mystery, mental illness.
When we confront that, we’re practically helpless. Sadly, there’s nothing now for Richard and Annie but refuge in the asylum.”

What a monstrous condemnation is mental illness, I thought. A sentence for life, knowing nothing about the world, never again knowing the feeling of sun on the face, a breeze on the back of the neck and,
certainly, never standing and shivering with wonder after discovering in the Long Swamp’s fringe that most exquisite mystery of natural beauty, rare as heaven’s own breath, the wild orchid.

“To live out their days” my father had called it. But what, finally? I wondered, and wonder turned to hope. Surely, I hoped, for their sake  alone, after they’d been tossed into eternity, the wracking mystery of
their illness would be there unlatched. Perhaps Richard and Annie, I mused, in another kingdom entirely, might find themselves seated on a low brick wall facing out on the king’s highway. Perhaps even as they
gazed out their eyes might perceive an entirely different beauty passing by on the road, one more compelling even than the wild orchid’s, the surprised look on the face of God! I fondly hoped.

The side door opened. My father stepped out, alone, put the fedora on his head and walked over to the Huppmobile.

“We can go now,” he said.




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