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It's the Pitts: History lessons
It’s the Pitts
By Lee Pitts

He was just another old man who had managed to live too long, spending what he knew were his last days in a hospital. She was a teenage volunteer, a candy striper I believe they called them, who wanted to become a nurse one day.

“My that’s some scar you have there on your arm,” said the aspiring health care professional as she daintily gave the old man a sponge bath. “Does it hurt?”

“My dear at my age everything hurts. And if it doesn’t hurt it’s just because it doesn’t work any more. That scar on my arm? I got that when I was five years old and pulled a bucket of scalding water with lye in it off the woodstove. We didn’t have hot water heaters or washing machines back then, you know?”

“That must have been a real pain,” said the young girl as she gently scrubbed his arms and hands. “And what’s this? You don’t have a nail on this finger here?”

“No, that’s cause we didn’t have refrigerators when I was a kid. Our icebox was just that, a box filled with ice that we’d fetch from the icehouse in town. I was loading blocks of ice into the wagon when two chunks collided with my finger in between. I was lucky to only lose a nail. Looking back now, I was lucky to have survived my childhood.”

“You had to haul ice in a station wagon?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “No, no,” chuckled the old man. “We didn’t get a car until 1929 when we sold most of everything we owned and bought a Model A to make our trip out to California. That’s where this scar here came from,” said the old man pointing to a raised patch of skin on his hand that was now covered with liver spots. “My family drouthed out in the Dust Bowl, lost the farm and was headed west when that old Ford broke down around Needles. I guess it was just too much for that old car with two mattresses, four kids and a chicken coop on board. I burned my hand tinkering on that old car’s hot engine. But it wasn’t nearly as hot as my father was when he discovered that the crook who sold him our car had packed the rod bearings with bacon rinds! I swear my dad let out a string of cuss words that would have made a muleskinner blush. That’s also when I got that nasty cut there on the bottom of my foot.

“I remember it was terrible hot that day and, being summer, none of us kids were wearing shoes. We only got shoes in the wintertime. Anyway, after I burned my hand on the engine I ran to an irrigation ditch to soak it in water. That’s when I cut my foot on a piece of a broken pop bottle in the ditch. Got infected pretty bad but we didn’t have any money for a doctor. The pain in my foot sure made my first job out west a lot harder. We picked up rocks six days a week, 10 hours a day for $21. That’s how I got the poison sumac scars on my legs.”

“You got paid $21 A DAY for all that work!” exclaimed the girl.

“No, no, my dear. It was $21 a week! And we were darn sure glad to get it too,” he said.

The young caretaker looked at the patient with a newfound sense of wonder. “What happened here?” the caregiver asked as she ran her fingers over a six-inch blemish on the man’s forehead, partially covered by fading puffs of white, wispy hair.

“Oh, that? Surprised you noticed it amidst all the wrinkles. Took some shrapnel in the head fighting the Germans. Every time I rub that scar I think of all the boys who didn’t get to come home,” he said as a salty tear or two coalesced with the cleansing bath waters. This old soldier didn’t need that wartime tattoo on his arm, medals on his chest or metal in his head to prove his manhood to his new friend.

While she had given him a sponge bath he had given her a history lesson. (Perhaps I failed to mention that this was, after all, a teaching hospital.)

Though she bore no visible scars, the old man had left his own indelible mark on the young nurse... and on the world he departed. Maybe he hadn’t been all that pretty to look at but, oh, what a body of work he left behind!

Published in the January 25, 2006 issue of Farm World.