My Kindle was lost somehow. Not thinking it stolen, but simply misplaced, I searched for a week. But found only that I was lost myself without it, and bought a Kindle Fire 7. It is a much superior edition than the old one, and with a wireless connection offers email, browsers, movies, on line series and much more. It has a decent battery and offers Amazon Prime movies and series. It uploaded all my old books, and I added a complete set of Harvard Classics as well as a complete set of Britannica Great Books…for $2.99 for each set. While I have both these 50 volume series in hard back, the kindle versions are portable and searchable. Instead of marking up the margins , flagging or dog-earing pages, I can highlight or save quotes.
The Harvard sets begin with John Woolman’s Journal. He was a Quaker who, after visiting Barbados (1671) became most known for his active opposition to slavery among his fellow Quakers. Woolman begins his journal with a short account of his youth, including an episode that is my own.
“I saw… a robin sitting on her nest, and as I came near she went off; but having young ones, she flew about…. I stood and threw stones at her, and one striking , her she fell down dead. …I ( became) seized with horror, at having in a sportive way, killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her young….. I climbed up the tree, took all the young birds, and killed them, supposing that better than to leave them to pine away an die so miserably.”
Why my own? In the way that itinerant children must adapt and integrate to survive, I always did so, as my father moved us each year to different mining towns. I had to focus on those little worlds, completely unaware of the rest. In Santo Domingo, Chihuahua, Mexico, when I was about ten, my friends and I used slingshots meticulously fashioned from a proper stick, an inner tube strip of rubber and a leather pouch. We shot at lizards with rare success, but always killed imagined enemy planes. It was during WWII, but so fresh was the painful loss of the northern third of Mexico to the USA, that; they were always Gringo planes. We shot at most anything alive, and at lifeless windows in an abandoned buildings. We rolled rocks into canyons, heedless of whatever was below. We shot at bats in limestone caves by the light of carbide miner’s lamps.
One morning walking to school I shot at a sparrow perched on a wire. It fell. A strawberry sized hemorrhage developed immediately aside it’s head . I can still see it quivering on the dry ground.
Yet I have never had a second thought about rational killing. When my grandmother asked me to ‘wring a hen” or take the .22 and shoot a dying old Tom cat I did so without qualm. The headless hen flapped around for a little, and soon became dinner. Old Tommie stopped suffering. Like the faithful border collies, cats were only farm instruments to help control varmints. They had names, but never were ‘family’, never in the farmhouse, ever. There was no wealthy Small Animal Vet, waiting in the wings, no Veterinary Small Animal Medical Drug and Devise cabal.
A couple of days ago I went to a friend’s cattle ranch, to watch their annual roundup of calves for branding, tagging, immunizing, worming, and dosing with antibiotics. The veterinary medical aspects of the roundup process are fascinating and most procedures familiar to physicians, including the thoughtless and dangerous industry driven excess use of drugs and antibiotics.
The procedures themselves are brutal to the innocent eye and ear: Frantic crying and bawling of frightened calves, roped, tied down. Burning hair and skin of the brand. Blood from ear markings and castration, the injection of vaccines. Adjacent, one hears the baleful angry calling of the calves’ mothers observing from a pen nearby. Frankly the castration reminds me of the way we once circumcised infant boys: restrain and proceed. But the mothers were not there.
Even so, a Round up is pageantry, and there is beautiful co dependent relationship between people, horses, and dogs. It seems surprising that small scale cattle ranching is so nearby, so extensive, so common, and so invisible. Many local horse /human skilled pairs at my friends small ranch roundup compete nationally; one is a current national champion, several are ranked or former champions in various aspects of their work and art. The cowboys, and girls, dressed up in their fine and fancy gear, working seamlessly with highly skilled horses, makes the word ‘awesome’ appropriate.
During the Fall or Spring, local ranchers go from one small ranch to another, in a spirit of camaraderie and community. Yet there is a subtle, subdued sense that they belong to a culture with no future; at least here where people seem to love to eat meat, but hate to see how it is made. California cattle ranchers seem to suspect that their way of life will be exported to some less chicken-hearted area; or be off shored. They fear of global warming may make us all heartless vegetarians, in a recent version, dating from at least as far back as 1962 when Rachael Carson , published her seminal work, Silent Spring. They expect there will be a CA ballot initiative soon called the Cattle Cruelty Act.
Even so, I regret the coming loss of cattle culture, despite the feeling it is rational and in many respects politically inevitable. Surely dressage, horse racing, polo and such will survive; but these are reserved for the wealthy and privileged, unlike the rough and raw culture of cattle ranching. How easily we are blinded by belief, by dogma. I’m reminded of of time I worked as physician on an expensive scientific expedition to Antarctica. It was on a refurbished icebreaker abandoned when the USSR collapsed. One day all 12 scientists and 20 pampered passengers watched Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. We seemed to believe it all, while simulataeously burning more fossil fuel on that one trip, producing more global warming gas in that week than 400,000 methane producing cattle could in a year. There is a story about Alaska: A pilot crashed and survived by eating a Bald Eagle. When rescued by the Forrest Service, he was arrested for killing a protected bird. In court he plead no lo contendere, guilty, then was let off, considering the circumstances. But the judge was curious and asked what Bald Eagle tasted like. The accused thought a moment, scratched his chin and said
“Well, judge, somewhere between a California condor and a spotted owl.”
As to Woolman’s lifetime long efforts and essays. or addresses to Friends on slavery, and abolition, they are well worth reading, and re reading. I have a much better understanding and admiration of Quaker thinking, and their situation among Northern colonies. Of course I never will shoot at a sparrow again. The experience was painful, and the bird was dry, tough, and tasteless, without enough meat to keep a bird alive; I doubt Woolman’s robin was any better.
The charge nurse asked me to respond to a code yellow: an extremely urgent, situation saying only that it was a man in hemorrhagic shock, with almost no blood pressure, who had arrived by car, pale, confused, sweating profusely, and mumbling about castration. Addressing the critical problem first, we immediately began pumping saline through three large bore IVs, sent blood for lab work, hooked up oxygen and the usual monitoring equipment. His blood pressure and pulse began began to move in the right direction, and he became more alert. Nurses don’t usually make stuff up about castration, so without comment I exposed his genitalia.
The entire perineum was grotesquely engorged with purple subcutaneous blood despite four soft drains of the sort usually placed surgically to allow escape of serum or blood. A purplish black hugely blood swollen penis was all that was left of the genitals. A ragged row of poorly placed stitches ran from its base to the anus, along an irregular midline incision that slowly oozed dark blood. By providing IV fluids and perhaps blood, the emergency was essentially over; next, call a surgeon to repair the damage; even that would be simple. But where the history and its legal consequences would lead was more complex; and to my mind, far more interesting. Despite being around emergency rooms all my professional life, beginning in 1954 as an $8 per night moonlighting medical student, I had never seen, heard of, or even imagined, this case. After so many days and nights in ERs I innocently, and wrongly, believed myself aware of the entire sexual range of behavior in our society.
A brief health history was not particularly revealing. My patient was a computer programmer, lived with his male partner, was in good health, took no medicines, and even had a current tetanus shot. His moderate obesity was of no medical concern at the moment.
“ You live in New York? But of course this isSacramento”
“Well,” I said, “You have definitely been castrated. Was it an assault?”
“No. I paid for it.”
“Couldn’t you have had that done professionally?”
“Too expensive. Too many hassles. My partner told me not to do this, but it’s always been a fantasy of mine.”
He explained that several years ago he became internet connected with some people who shared fantasies of castration. That led to sharing erotic castration phone sex.
“Three years ago I purchased an actual fantasy experience in Chicago. Expensive, but I work hard and make good money. It was splendid, incomparable to anything else I’ve ever done. This year the same people offered it in San Francisco.”
“But” I ventured, “this seems to be the real thing. Did you plan on that?
“Do you want to press charges?”
“You know? I think I’ll be very happy with the result. I couldn’t get this done anywhere for $5000 and it would take years to convince people.”
“Do you mind telling me how it went?”
“It was in San Francisco. They said fly to Sacramento for security.”
He was blindfolded during a long ride; he remembers a toll bridge. When the blindfold was removed he found himself in a room with lots of light, a gurney with and IV hanging on the side pole, and people in surgical gowns.
“It was absolutely overwhelming, unforgettable; but over too soon, right after an IV was started I don’t remember anything; the very next thing is my Sacramento contact waking me in my motel room. The sheets were soaked with blood. I was terribly weak and had vomited. He drove me here.”
After my patient’s admission to the surgery service, my duties were complete, right? Wrong. Years ago a physician’s only obligation was to a patient. If a person with a knife wound in the back said he fell on his knife, that was it. The State ended that primitive contract, claiming a right to try to protect everyone from everyone and everything, through legislation and regulation. So, dutifully (and to avoid fine, imprisonment, loss of license, litigation, and who knows what else; no one car read all the fine print!) I called the police both locally and in San Francisco. But since my patient said he didn’t want to press charges or even provide significant details, they didn’t want to hear more or even to interview him. The San Francisco cop I spoke with found the episode neither alarming nor particularly rare. “It’s freedom, like Joplin said. He ain’t got nothin’ left to lose. Down there anyways. Like, no more worries.” I recorded the badge numbers in the record, looked ruefully at the wall clock, and picked up the next patient’s chart.