Why we didn't call him 'Daddy'

James H. Donahoe

June 14, 1991|By James H. Donahoe

EVERYONE called him "Doc," because he was the neighborhood pharmacist who owned his own small, independent drug store. And he was Doc to everyone who needed him.

Even his wife and children called him Doc. His mother, my grandmother, tried unsuccessfully all her life to have his children call him "Daddy" when we were young, "Dad" when older. No luck. It just didn't fit.

"Why call him Daddy?" we would ask. "His name is Doc."

Child's logic it was, yet buttressed by powerful authority: After all, our own mother called him Doc.

Doc was stricken with polio when he was 18 months old. All his life he had been crippled -- the horrible but straightforward term used for years before people realized that "cripples" had feelings, too. All his life he walked with braces and crutches, except for a time in grade school when he was pulled in a little red wagon, and later when he used canes or a wheelchair.

He courted his wife from the wheelchair, traversing great distances from northwest to southwest in Washington, D.C. When it snowed, he rolled along in the middle of the trolley tracks, because the snow had been cleared away there. Always courteous, he politely moved aside when he heard the clanging trolley bell behind him.

Once he was not so courteous. In front of Kann's department store on a hot summer day, his old Dodge touring car stalled. A streetcar, making its end-of-the-line turnaround, rolled up behind us and the hot, sweaty motorman began to ring his bell impatiently.

After several unsuccessful attempts to start the car, Doc very deliberately extricated himself from the driver's seat, dragged out his crutches and laboriously crutched his way back to the streetcar. By now the embarrassed motorman was gesturing apologetically, but Doc shouted up at him: "If you'll come down and start my car, I'll come up and ring your damn bell!"

Doc had guts along with superior intelligence and that was enough to make him a success. He had graduated from grade school but never went to high school. Instead, in his teens he was taught at home by the proverbial maiden aunt who was a retired school teacher. Then he applied to college, seeking a degree in pharmacy.

Doc talked the college authorities into giving him a private test to determine his eligibility for admission. He passed and went on to graduate first in his college class. A year later his diploma hung on the wall in his own drug store. Years later still he kidded about his "Ph.D."

He was the only member of his family to graduate from college and the only one to own a business. He was also the first of 12 brothers and sisters to marry and the first to become a parent. He drove his own stick-shift car in the days when the only automobile modifications for the handicapped were Rube Goldberg devices he invented himself. It was one of his life-long boasts that he never rode the clutch.

In middle age, Doc's doctor recommended that he get out more. So he became head chauffeur for our baseball team, our trusted trainer and the best third base coach in the league. Who else ever signaled plays by waving a crutch in a certain way?

He even pitched batting practice. Seated on the ground at the pitcher's mound with his crutches stowed behind him he threw hard -- all those years using crutches had given him the torso of a weight lifter and the arms of an oarsman.

Doc never quit. Even when I was deputized to tell him that his final, fatal affliction, Lou Gehrig's disease, was -- unlike polio -- unconquerable, he accepted it unflinchingly, saying simply, "Well, I guess I better get ready."

Then his eyes twinkled in his lined face, he grinned his crooked little grin and said: "At least I've got a Yankees disease."

James H. Donahoe, S.J., teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.

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