The neighborhood in Portland, OR, where I grew up was once a little town called Albina and even now it functions that way. The elementary school is called Vernon and sometimes the churches call themselves Vernon, but I’ve never had a good grasp on who Vernon was. One of the forces that made us a small town was our “town doctor,” Doctor David Duncan. His house, which was also his clinic and surgery, was on Alberta, a few blocks east of our house.
He came in 1946, which was after my brothers and I had been born, but he removed all our tonsils, which was the cure-all of the times. Tonsils were considered vestigial and malfunctioning, llke an appendix.
It was my first encounter with ether and I did not like it one bit. I was about eight or nine, “puny” as they said in those days which meant I missed a lot of school, and they wrapped me in a sheet blanket before laying me on a table, as though I were a baby being swaddled. Of course, the point was to keep my arms controlled. “They” included my mother. When they put the ether mask over my face, they said to blow if I felt suffocated. I blew as hard as I could and the last thing I heard was, “well, don’t blow your head off!” just before I was sucked into the whirlpool.
My brothers, Mark and Paul, had their tonsils out on the same day as each other and Paul went home that night, but my brother Mark wouldn’t stop bleeding so he had to stay overnight in Dr. Duncan’s mother-in-law’s bed. The boys had been promised ten comics each if they would be brave. I spent the day picking them out and pre-reading them in the little drug store across the street.
About that time I developed pneumonia and had to have a shot in my fanny, which I thought was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to me. Dr. Duncan came to the house to give me the shot. When I was about twelve, I developed some kind of mysterious fungus on my body and was compelled to go into a small room and lie under an ultraviolent light (as I called it) completely naked. That was even MORE humiliating, esp. since the door opened directly into the hallway and a BOY walked by. We all had ringworm, including my cat, but we doctored that with iodine ourselves. My cat was black and white and purple most of the time. And we had measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever but never whooping cough. Sequentially, of course. I mean one disease at a time and usually one kid at a time. We shared one bedroom until I was pubescent. My dad traveled which made it more possible, but sometimes for the sake of quarantine someone had to sleep on the sofa.
Dr. Duncan was an active parent and turned up at school functions all the time. His sons were scouts and participated in that hale and hearty enthusiasm for the outdoors that’s pretty typical of Scots in the Pacific Northwest. Once he had to lance a boil between my toes and could NOT convince me to stop screaming though he’d shot my foot full of novocain and told me I could not POSSIBLY feel anything. He found me lacking in courage. As an adult in the Seventies I was bitten by a cat (my dogcatcher days) and since cat bites are like snake bites, my thumb infected, swelled up, and throbbed with red streaks starting for my heart. Dr. Duncan cut it open, squeezed out pus (saying, “Oh, yuck!”) and shot in some penicillin. I performed better that time.
He was a good “utility doc,” a GP in the old-fashioned benevolent way, but he wasn’t particularly good at subtle maladies and conditions. One friend has suffered all her life because he missed a thyroid condition in her youth. It had to be treated drastically and damaged her overall health. As an adult, a little overbold, I accused Dr. Duncan of taking out too much tissue when he cut out my tonsils (adenoids, you know) and he did not accept the criticism gracefully.
Emanuel Hospital, Albina, Vernon were deeply affected by the Vanport Flood which displaced all the Kaiser shipyard workers from their dubious housing up into the aging Victorian houses of the neighborhood. Then urban renewal meant that a lot of that housing was destroyed and the people, mostly rural black Southerners were displaced farther until our house was in a ghetto and so was Dr. Duncan’s. Mrs. Dr. Duncan was mugged at her own back door. The patients were quite different from the first generation European craftsmen and tradesmen that had lived there from the village days. Dr. Duncan did not change his attitude or his policies. If a stab wound came in the door, he took care of it. If a woman turned up in the midst of a miscarriage, he took care of it.
I suspect he despaired over addictions but never said anything. He had high, strict standards for himself but never criticized others. I feel confident that if he ever molested a child, Mrs. Doctor Duncan, assisted by her mother, would have torn him to bits and if he ever found out about a child molestation, that information went to the authorities.
When I got married, the state required premarital exams and Dr. Duncan did both mine and Bob’s. He was VERY curious about Bob, who was only five years younger than my mother, but he didn’t pry. He didn’t really have to since his nurse, Harriet McCracken, was a close friend of my mother’s. I’m sure he got a rather glamorous version of Bob’s career as a cowboy sculptor and that would have reassured him. Harriet was governed by the same strict standards and never leaked information about patients or about the doctor and his family.
Their corner lot was beautifully maintained with a kind of rock garden, since the yard was a long slope. When someone was out working on the yard, people stopped to visit just as though they lived in a small village. The story in the paper says that in his later years Dr. Duncan patronized the local tavern, which was favored by the intellectual students from Reed who believed they should hang out with working class people. I think Dr. Duncan agreed with that point of view and lived up to it.