Of course, it was hard to find any other kind in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and ’30s. With there being hospitals only in the larger towns like Vicksburg and Greenville, the country doctor was always the first, and in most cases the last, medical person anyone would see when illness or injury struck. It would be hard to overrate their importance.
Doc Smith was one of these and, from the many stories I’ve heard, one of the best. Most of his patients were black farm workers–tenants on the large cotton plantations. Because of his success in treating their many ills, his fame spread by word of mouth throughout this strata of the population. It was among them that he was known as “The Jesus Doctor.”
He also enjoyed an excellent reputation in the medical community. When his patients needed an operation, Doc would send them to one of the hospitals in Greenville or Vicksburg. Along with the patient went instructions as to what the surgeon needed to cut on or take out. Early in his practice, the hospitals would run their own tests to confirm Doc Smith’s diagnosis. After a time they realized he was never wrong. So they quit wasting time on tests and just followed his instructions. Among these specialists he was said to be The finest diagnostic physician they’d ever known.
Doc Smith was my uncle. He had married Olivia, one of Daddy’s sisters. All the kids called him “Uncle Doc,” and he was just “Doc” to the grownups. I can’t recall ever hearing his first name.
His office was located in Panther Burn. I am told that it got its name from the panthers that lived in the big forests in its early years and from a family named Burn who lived in the area. I’m not sure there were ever any real panthers, but there was probably some type of wildcat around that the early settlers called panthers.
Panther Burn was not a town; it was a plantation village. It was situated on the west side of Highway 61, the old Delta highway, between the highway and the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad. A wide gravel road bordered by large pecan and oak trees ran from the highway to the tracks. There were two or three houses for plantation supervisors and a large plantation store. Doc’s office was situated across from the store near the railroad tracks. It was not his. He had some arrangement with Panther Burn Plantation for its use.
The brown, wood-framed office was not very elaborate. It had two small waiting rooms–one for white, the other for colored–two examining rooms, a small reception area, and a small room filled with medicines. Since there were no drug stores close by, Doc was pharmacist as well as physician. On busy days the large shade trees served as extensions of the waiting rooms.
The majority of Doc’s patients came by Greyhound bus or train. Panther Burn was a whistle stop on the railroad and, of course, the bus would stop anyplace along the highway. Patients would generally arrive in the morning, get treated, and catch the bus or train back home in the afternoon or evening. Others might come on foot, by mules, or wagon. It was rare to find a black farm-worker who owned or had access to a car.
Since it was so hard for the blacks to get to him during the week, Doc’s office was open all day Saturday and Sunday afternoon. His day off was sometime during the week.
Doc and Olivia lived a couple of miles north of Panther Burn on the east side of Highway 61. They had a nice brick house on five or six acres. They had a large garden, raised chickens, and kept a milk cow as most people did. The house had an indoor bathroom, the first I ever saw.
Olivia was a social climber. Her overriding ambition was to “break into Delta society,” and to her, “appearances” were very important. For instance, Doc usually hired someone to milk and tend to the cow. On occasions when the person quit or didn’t show up, Olivia had to milk. She would put on a large, floppy hat and baggy work pants and shirt in hopes that anyone seeing her wouldn’t recognize her, and then go to the barn before daylight and after dark as added insurance. One morning she did not get an early enough start and one of her friends came by before she finished milking. She hid out in the barn until they left.
Doc was just the opposite. He was just as unpretentious as Olivia was pretentious. His manner was sometimes gruff and abrupt, but he had a soft heart. He liked hunting, fishing, and drinking, and liked being right where he was. He had no desire to “build a big house in town.”
“Town” was Hollandale, which was situated about ten miles north on 61. It had two traffic lights and, by the standards of the day, was quite a thriving Delta metropolis. Hollandale was Olivia’s residential goal, but Doc resisted for many years.
Olivia attended church in Hollandale where she was a very active member of the Missionary Society. Of course, this was the largest church in town and the one most of the socially prominent families attended. Most of the womenfolk of these families were Missionary Society members as well. Thus, the stage was set for Olivia’s Missionary Society garden party. She intended to host an event that Hollandale’s social leaders would never forget. She ended up doing just that but not exactly the way she intended.
She recruited Doc and my father to be waiters. They were charged with supervising the food and punch and the several cooks, busboys, and dishwashers Olivia assembled for the event.
The setting was like a picture out of a society magazine; a large, shady side yard surrounded by newly trimmed privet hedges, with perfect weather, white-clothed tables scattered among the trees, and flowers everywhere.
While the women were meeting in the house, Doc, Daddy, and their crew were putting the finishing touches on the food and drink. As they mixed the punch in the large silver punch bowl, Doc would take a sip from time to time. After one of these sips, he remarked, “You know, Luke, this would be pretty good punch if it had about a fifth of bourbon mixed in.” As they finished the punch and busied themselves with other preparations, Daddy got to thinking about Doc’s comment; and knowing where Doc stashed his liquor, got a bottle of it and managed to get it into the bowl without attracting any attention.
The party itself turned out to be a smashing success. The food was excellent, the service superb, but the punch seemed to be the crowning achievement. Everyone had to have seconds and thirds and some several cups beyond. They all raved about it and told Olivia it was the best punch they’d ever had. She had not had any herself since she was so busy being hostess, so she had no inkling as to why the punch was so popular.
As the guests were in the process of draining the punch bowl, Doc sidled up to Daddy and whispered, “Didn’t I tell you, Luke? That fifth I put in really capped it off.” The look on Daddy’s face told him the answer to his next question even before he asked it. “Good gosh, Luke, don’t tell me you put one in, too?”
Doc knew that two fifths of bourbon had made much too strong a mixture for just about anybody and especially for the ones who didn’t drink. But it was too late to do anything about it. He knew they were going to have some drunk women on their hands, and he was right.
Things stayed under control pretty well until the party broke up and the women had to drive home. The first three or four made it down the long driveway and between the gateposts, although one turned left and headed toward Vicksburg and one turned right too quickly and ran off into the bar-ditch beside the highway. A later traveler took down one of the gateposts and a couple of sections of the front fence. Others had a great deal of trouble getting their cars turned about and headed out the drive. They got out into various non-driving areas and several of Olivia’s flower beds, shrubs, and small trees became casualties.
Since they had never been drunk before, these women couldn’t understand why their legs, arms, and cars seemed to disobey all rational commands. But it didn’t take Olivia long to put together what the cause was. Needless to say, Doc and Daddy were in Olivia’s doghouse for a mighty long time.
(For more by Luke Boyd’s “Coon Dogs and Outhouses” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)