©Poems of R.F.Mueller- Other Times, Other Thoughts
A TRUE DOCTOR
Each summer before I was ten you came
to the village near our farm, "Doc Johnson"
to us all in that providential patchwork
of fields and woods, that emolument
of bouldery hills cut by far-winding
marshland where muskrat still built their domes
in the sawsedge against the certainty of cold,
where spring came in a reckless rush of time,
of tumbling hawks and winnowing snipe
above the mystic spunk of slime
that pushed up the green swords from deep below.
Each year you came to quicken summer's flow,
to sharpen our dull lives and to gather
the swamp-bred plants that gave a timeless
sanction to your show. Yet you'd never have allowed
yourself a folk art role or kinship with
the shamans that once rattled shells among those very
hills and summoned the same wild spirits to their aid.
Each summer we were sure to see you park
your small caravan of blocky trucks,
siding jerked down for folding stage,
shelved elixirs row on row against the shady
tavern wall, waiting for the expectant crowd.
And there on balmy evenings beneath the stars
and blazing bulbs you cajoled our upturned
rube faces with the merits of your wares,
that would cure one and all of dire regional
maladies, female complaints and the
authentic goiters and great shiny tumors
borne as badges of self reliance as well
as scorn for professional medicos.
It was a wonder how you'd appear in fantasies
of cravat, checkered suit and derby
to bully your straightman to pratfalls
with your bazoo voice. And for the older lads
there was a brash young thing in pink tights
so different from the thick-ankled German peasant
types they knew - who would cavort with tambourines
and do splits to the last angle and later smile
her way down the aisle hawking cheap candy
and free closeups of what they'd only guessed at.
Then you'd hit us with your sell again
and the awesome brown bottles with white labels
would be waved aloft to more tales of epic cures
and find their way at last to needful outstretched hands.
O what perfect results and testimonials
for those top placebos with just enough
bitters to justify the alcoholic reward!
And how congruent to your own taste
in those stark nights among strangers
when the brandy ran out! Yet you brought
a world of eased symptoms in many a farm house
where other help would never come.
One year I remember you outdid yourself
and sent a fear out into the land
that every mother's child might be so
worm-infested as to urgently need
your bottled cure and pushed this theory
with house calls, and how these were followed
by the awful dose and days of searching
in my case alas in vain!
But I remember too of that worm visit
your going into our marsh for boneset ,
by you pronounced the queen of curative herbs
and chief component of your medicine,
a plant that I know now worked its effect
less by some potent natural drug
than by the swamp spirit itself with help from you.
And I remember well that day ,
your Hippocratic zeal thrusting through
the alcoholic floridity and gravel voice,
striding with polished shoes into the wet
hummocks of aromatic white blooms,
your pride of life, to us a true doctor,
forever more than just a showman.
As a boy the saloon / tavern site of these "medicine shows" was a place to hang out. It was where we sold the turtles we caught for "bouya" or a meat soup that was frequently served free to encourage the sale of drinks, principally beer. This was part of the unity of our lives, one with the march of the seasons in the wildlands. And I still clearly remember standing in my back yard incredulously watching the "tumbling hawks" perform. These were Northern Harriers ( Circus cyaneus ), that we called Marsh Hawks, and they did actual somersaults, screaming all the while. The "winnowing snipe" attracted me in the clear, cold early spring evenings just after sundown, by the high pitched sound of their tail feathers as they dove in their mating flight. We had to look closely to see the diving bird. These were Wilson's Snipe ( Gallinago delicata ). The medicinal plant Boneset ( Eupatorium perfoliatum ) referred to is very common in a variety of open wetlands, but particularly in the rich calcareous variety, such as characterized both my Wisconsin and Virginia homes.