I tried to find him, asked everyone I came across: Do you know the name of the doctor?
The doctor who had operated on my dad in the battlefield.
No one knew.
The doctor had been a young man, the father of small boys, when he was drafted, and shipped off to Vietnam. They handed him an M-16 and assigned him to a medical unit. Before Vietnam he was preparing to be an OB/GYN, after Vietnam, he couldn’t do that anymore. Too much blood. So he became a dermatologist. He was with a medical unit. Dad was with the infantry.
But I didn’t know all that then. I didn’t even have a name.
Years ago, when I made my first trip to Jefferson, Texas, as a guest author for Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, I didn’t know Dr. Jack Baldwin by name. I didn’t know the doctor who was with my father when he drew his last breath.
I only knew that there had been a surgeon in the field that day. Someone who had done his best to save my father’s life.
It was his son, Brent, of Tennessee, who figured it all out. Researching his father’s military history — something Dr. Jack Baldwin rarely spoke about — Brent came across the memoir and after reading the story of my father’s death Brent sent me an email: I think my father is the surgeon who treated your father, he said. The story his father told him of losing a man in Vietnam was the same one I had written in the memoir.
I didn’t know what to think. We writers encounter strangeness around every comma. I wrote back. Told him to give his father the book, if it was him, he’d recognize my father.
Brent waited long months, working up the gumption to reopen a painful period of time for his father.
But as it turned out, Dr. Jack Baldwin was that man. The healer man who has always felt he failed. Perhaps it’s because he was a father himself — so few of those killed in Vietnam were old enough yet to have established a family — that my father’s death hit him so hard.
Regardless, it was him.
And Dr. Baldwin lived only 20 miles up the road from the little historic community of Jefferson, which had been one of my many stops across the nation as I toured with AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED.
I didn’t know that then. Didn’t know him then.
But this time, when I came across a sign that said Marshall, Texas, 60 miles, I called Brent and told him I was going to be in the area for a few days. Should I call your daddy?
Brent said he would call, let his folks know that I was nearby.
The next morning when the phone rang, and a woman said, “This is Annette Baldwin” I actually thought it was the innkeeper at the B&B I was staying in. Discombobulated by a restless night’s sleep due to an overactive heater system that kept my room at a soaring 70 degrees coupled with the joys of hot flashes, I was nearly delirious, like someone with malaria. I was ready to take a hammer and break out a window.
An hour later Jack Baldwin called back. I’d had my coffee so was a bit more coherent. Jack told me they were having a Bible Study gathering for dinner that night, wouldn’t I please join them? The group regularly met once a month, usually on Mondays, but it just so happened that this month’s had been postponed to Thursday.
Of course, I’ll come, I said.
I hated bailing on the dinner the first night of Girlfriend Weekend. Authors were supposed to serve the readers but I knew Kathy Patrick, Queen of the Pulpwood, would be understanding and even encouraging. She was.
Doc Baldwin wouldn’t even let me make the drive myself. He wanted to come pick me up himself.
He embodies all things one imagines of a southern gentleman. Soft-spoken. Witty. Laughs heartily. Wears the lens of Scripture to filter all things in life. Tender-hearted.
The buffet-style table was set with red dishes, plaid napkins. Annette greeted me with a hug, introduced me around the room. There was the 60-year old mother who took in foster children, adopted several of them, even though her own four children are older than my own. She held a 13-day old infant. When the infant began to squall, Dr. Baldwin called out: “You breastfeeding?”
We all laughed.
There was the English teacher from the high school. The man with the same name as Dad — Dave. The little brother of the foster mom. A man who attributed his own spiritual growth to the influence of Dr. Baldwin.
Everyone at the table had experienced some heartbreak, Dr. Baldwin noted. No one at the table, other than Annette, knew what my relationship to Dr. Baldwin was. After the tasty meal of a spaghetti casserole that Dr. Baldwin said he’d spent hours on the computer searching for — a casserole dish his mama used to make — bread, green beans made the southern way which is the only real way to make green beans, and glasses of sweet tea, Dr. Baldwin asked me to share the Karly story behind A Silence of Mockingbirds. He had printed off information on all my books and passed those out as I spoke.
Then, Dr. Baldwin led us in a scripture reading and a prayer.
“How do you know Jack?” a woman asked.
He is one of God’s great gifts to me, I replied. Then I told her the story of how Dr. Baldwin tried to save my father.
Seated at the foot of the table, Dr. Baldwin stood up, his voice thick with sorrow, he said: It was the worst day in my life.
Then he walked into the kitchen.
Annette drove me back to the B&B in Jefferson as Dr. Baldwin sat in the backseat of the big white Texas truck, and laughed at the escapades I’ve had at various B&Bs around the country.
Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. When it happens in Texas, it is all the more sweeter.
So in what ways has the Poet Incarnate intertwined your story with that of another?