Sunday, April 25, 2010

Play Ball!

I was in the park yesterday playing ball with my kids. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining on my face and a cool, crisp breeze was giving my mind a much-needed sense of clarity. I stared down at the baseball in my hand. My first two fingers covered both rows of red laces and I wondered if I could still throw a curveball. I tossed the ball towards my son, but he barely got the wooden bat off his shoulders before the ball bounced off the tree behind him. As he swung the bat, his whole body followed along and he made a complete revolution. “Good swing, William. Just keep your eyes on the ball.” He slung the bat back up on his shoulders and almost tipped backwards. “This bat is kind of heavy, Daddy. Is this the one you used when you played?” I pondered the question for a few moments and, like many times before, was instantly transported back to 1976.

1976 was a life-changing year for me. Not only did I get puked on during my school play (see “Places!”) but I also began playing Little League Baseball. I’m not sure whose idea it originally was, but my Dad was clearly more excited about it than I was. I enjoyed watching the Yankees play on television with him, but putting myself out on the field just didn’t seem like a natural progression. “What do you have to be nervous about?” my Dad would ask. A few of the words that popped into my mind included, PAIN, FAILURE, HUMILIATION, REJECTION, but my mouth would always sum them up by saying, “I don’t know.”

Before opening day, my Dad and I went out shopping for supplies. There were only a couple of left-handed gloves to pick from, so that was pretty easy, but getting my hand into it took a little twisting and shoving. “I know how we can break this in”, my Dad reassured me. When we got home, he took me to the garage and found a can of 3-in-1 oil next to the lighter fluid. With a rag, he lubed up the glove pretty good, placed a baseball inside and bundled the gooey pile of leather with twine. I was perplexed by this whole turn of events, but was also energized by my Dad’s excitement. He then took the glove and placed in down in the middle of the street. “Now stand back, Billy.” Just when I thought I could anticipate all of my Dad’s next moves, he surprised me by revving up the engine of our sky-blue, 1966 Dodge Dart and running it back and forth over the glove as it bounced back and forth on the pavement trying to escape.

The first game took place on a cold weeknight in March. I looked sharp in my new uniform and blue hat. My Dad and I hurried over to the field in the Dodge, which was missing the door handles on the passenger side as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a garbage truck. It was also completely deficient in seat belts, so I slid freely from left to right on the vinyl front seat bench as the car rounded each corner. When we got to the field, my Dad gave me a box of orange tic-tacs to hold in case I needed a snack during the game. For that entire season, I was known as the player who made a strange clicking sound when he ran, as if I was packing a secret set of maracas under my uniform.

My coach put me out in right field for that first game, and it didn’t take me long to realize that nobody had the skills yet to hit the ball out that far. Boredom began to set in, but as the game proceeded, I learned various ways of amusing myself. I looked around and noticed that my glove was the only one with tire treads on the back. I took it off and placed it on my head. It was still pretty greasy, and smelled like the inside of a gas station, but it certainly was velvety soft. It fit on my head quite nicely and my right hand welcomed the ventilation. I reached down to pick a bouquet of dandelions and danced around right field like a principal dancer at The Met. Suddenly, my fantasy was put on hold when I heard the nauseating crack of the bat. One of the opposing players, whose parents had obviously slipped some steroids into his applesauce, had swung for the stars and the ball was headed right towards me. Actually, it was headed right over me. I dropped my bouquet and peddled backwards, my eyes as wide as saucers. I looked all around for my glove before realizing that it was still on my head. I grabbed it and tossed it in the air like I had just graduated from the College of Baseball Incompetence. Through some miracle, it made contact with the ball and deflected it onto a completely different trajectory. Long after the player made it around the bases, I was still rummaging through the dandelions looking for that stupid ball.

The next inning, it was my turn at the plate. We were hitting balls off a stationary tee instead of having it pitched to us. I stepped up to the plate and spit into my palms because I had seen players on television doing that. It didn’t work out so well for me, but I quickly cleaned myself off and took a couple of practice swings. I swung as hard as I could, but instead of hitting the ball, I hit the tee, launching it like Sputnik over the infield. I looked down and saw the ball lying at my feet. The shortstop, confused about what to do next, ran towards me and tagged me with the large, rubber tee as I stared at him and remained perfectly still. Back in right field, I was re-evaluating my career path. Suddenly, my nerves and the cold air got the best of me and my bladder muscles began to twitch. This quickly turned into intense pressure, and I crossed my legs for as long as I could before taking definitive action.

I ran off the field to where my Dad was sitting in the stands and explained my dilemma. We rushed across the parking lot to the back of a Chinese Restaurant, and I was running so fast that my tic-tacs were no longer in rhythm with my footsteps. The heat of the kitchen and the smell of wonton soup were welcomed by all of my senses as I relieved myself in the small, bathroom off the kitchen. As I emerged, my hands were still painful and throbbing as the re-warming process continued. “Ready to go back?” my Dad inquired, but the look on my face was all that he needed to see. We walked back to the Dodge and drove home in silence.

I was determined to make it to the next game, and the next and the next. And for that matter, my Dad made it to all of them as well. I had many good times over the years, but I got nervous before and during each game, and my Dad was well aware of that. Sometimes I wondered whether I kept playing to prove something to myself or to him, but in the end it did not matter. I played until I reached High School and in the last inning of the last game I ever played, I was in left field. I chased down a high fly ball and caught it perfectly as it made a dull snap in my glove. It’s similar to the sound a book makes when you close it fast, which made sense because I knew that I had finished that chapter in my life and a weight had finally been lifted.

“Come on, Daddy, pitch the ball!” I realized that I had taken too much time thinking about the past. I threw the ball and William had timed it perfectly. “I think it’s a double, William!” “Maybe a triple”, he added. After I had retrieved the ball, I paused before pitching it again. “So William, do you want to join Little League?” He thought for a moment as the bat wobbled back and forth. “Nah”, he concluded. I looked at him and smiled. “OK, here it comes ...”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pi in the Sky

I’d like to wish you all a happy belated Pi Day. You know what I’m talking about, right? Every March 14th (3.14), families across the land gather close to honor the most special irrational number in the world. Everybody has their own way of celebrating. I change all the batteries in my calculator and bake, well ... pie. Sure, it doesn’t get all the publicity that Christmas or Thanksgiving gets, but it’s still one of my favorite holidays. I was in the card store just the other day looking for Pi Day cards, but I couldn’t find any. I guess they must have sold out. Wow, and I thought Valentine’s Day was big!

I tried to spread a little Pi Day cheer while I was walking down First Avenue the other day. Most people just looked at me like I had something large and green in my teeth, but one man actually put a quarter in my coffee cup. Too bad it still had coffee in it. One man with multiple tattoos of fire and skulls looked at me and said, “%@#$ off!” I felt bad. The holidays are such a stressful time for some people.

As you may know, π is the Greek letter for pi. If you multiply pi times the diameter of a circle, you’ll get the exact circumference. How cool is that! But it’s all one big lie, just like the Easter Bunny or a conservative Democrat, because pi is actually an irrational number. That means you can’t determine its exact value. I think that is why pi has always had a special place in my heart. I can also be irrational at times and there have been many times I have questioned my exact value.

As a child, I became obsessed with finding the exact value of pi. The computers at the time had calculated it out to thousands of digits, but I knew I could do better than that. I though that my 8th grade math teacher might hold the key to this mystery, so I approached his desk one afternoon like Apollo reaching the oracle of Delphi to ask him my burning question. He didn’t look up, but his bushy mustache twitched as he paused between marking red Xs on the paper he was grading. “Just divide 22 by 7.” My mouth was wide open as I slid out of the classroom in silence, stunned by the profound simplicity of his answer.

I rushed home that day, found the largest piece of paper I could find and began dividing 22 by 7. I was dividing like crazy for about an hour when I realized that the answer kept repeating in a pattern every 6 digits, 3.142857142857142857 and so on. I was broken, but not defeated. I figured that I could get the answer by working backwards. I found my Mother’s finest china plate, which I figured was the most perfect circle, and measured the circumference with a string and ruler. Then I measured the diameter and was planning to divide this into the circumference when my Dad walked into my bedroom.

He was perplexed, staring down at his son sitting in a pile of cardboard, string, tape, markers and fine china. “What are you doing, Billy?” I quickly thought up a few feasible stories, but settled on the truth. My Dad contemplated the situation. He was not a man who would dance around a topic. He was always able to cut through the murky waters of confusion with surgical precision and provide clarity where there was none, leaving everyone around him wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” He was an amazing problem-solver, so I anxiously awaited his assessment at that moment. “Billy, this is a futile exercise”, he calmly stated and walked out to of the room. I followed after him, shutting the door and throwing myself down on my bed. I rolled over, grabbed my dictionary from the dresser, and quickly looked up the definition of “futile”. Angrily, I opened the door and yelled, though not loud enough for anyone else to hear, “It is NOT futile!”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The First Time

How did I get up here?

I contemplated this question as I stood at the top of that snow-covered mountain. I was wearing more layers of clothing than ever before, but the wind seemed to find a way through each layer. To make matters worse, my outfit could not even pretend to be color-coordinated. It looked like I had closed my eyes and grabbed garments at random during a frantic trip to the flea market, but the truth was that I borrowed most of what I had on. This was my first skiing trip in Junior High School. My friends had finally convinced me to come along and they each lent me an item that they no longer used. Jeff had donated his bright green ski pants, while Kenny provided the orange jacket. I’m not sure where the red gloves came from, but that was OK because nobody was asking for anything back. I convinced myself that at least I would be easy to spot in the snow.

My parents dropped me off at the bus waiting in the school parking lot early that morning. They had never skied, and were not completely in approval of my new sport, but went along with it just fine. My mother was already discussing ways to accessorize my motley wardrobe, and my dad came right to the point with, “Don’t kill yourself, Bill”.

I started feeling butterflies as the bus wound its way up the snowy mountain road. At the mountain, I picked up my boots and skis. Most of my friends owned their own equipment, and I immediately realized that my rentals were not exactly the top of the line. With every step I took in my boots, it felt like a wild animal was chewing at my ankles. My skis were thick and looked like they had been built in the early days of fiberglass. Instead of the fancy springs on the bottom of the skis that would turn them over if they got loose, mine had frayed, canvas straps that fastened around my ankles.

I ran in place for about five minutes before I learned how to walk in my skis, creating so much friction that it melted away all the snow beneath me until I was standing in the only patch of bare grass within a 10-mile radius. People readily moved out of my way, and I wondered if my outfit had anything to do with it. Once the crowds had parted, I found myself at the red line waiting for the lift to come. But as I turned to ask the assistant for instructions, the metal chair swept me up and sent me up to the top, sprawled out on the seat with my skis pointing skyward as I held on to any piece of metal that I could find.

I had equally little instruction when it came to getting off the lift. I didn’t realize I had to stand up, so I went down the ramp like a catcher in a baseball game until my skis slowly parted and I planted my face down into the snow. With every skier that came after me, I was buried deeper until I became nothing more than a Technicolor streak in the ground. My friend, Andy, dug me out and began explaining how to stop by putting the tips of my skis together. Unfortunately, I was facing with my back to the slope and a stiff wind pushed me slowly to the edge until I finally tilted backwards and began accelerating downwards. “I’m going down!” I declared. Andy looked on in horror. “Wait, Bill, I’m not done yet!”

I remembered him saying something about pointing my skis, so I crossed them, but this sent me spinning like a helicopter across the mountain. Snow was flying everywhere, but I tried to make the best of the situation. I rationalized that some people have to ski for many years before mastering a trick like this. The mountain suddenly dropped out from under me, and in the next moment I found myself surrounded by rubber tubing. I looked up from the hole that I was sharing with the snow machine and saw bright, blue daylight. My skis should have come off under these circumstances, but the antique, and likely rusted, bindings held strong. I took my skis off and tossed them up, one at a time, past the rim of the hole. I scurried up to the surface and made it out just in time to see them sliding all by themselves down the mountain in different directions, the canvas straps whipping behind them. One landed softly in a pile of snow on the other side of the slope, while the other launched about 20 feet in the air and struck a tree, sending it twisting back to the ground with a cracking sound.

I collected my skis, and half an hour later I was getting close to the bottom of the mountain. Some of the time I skied, some of the time I walked, and some of the time I slid. But most of the time I just fell. It was a painful and demoralizing experience. The tears were frozen to my face, and I repeated over and over again that if I ever reached the bottom, I would never go back up again. I took a break from feeling sorry for myself just in time to look up and see a class of small children gathered at the base of the mountain. They didn’t realize that they were in a direct collision course with a multicolored asteroid. I tried to slow myself down the best that I could but, of course, my skis popped off, sending me tumbling over and over down the mountain. My skis were still tethered to me by the strap and they flipped all around me like a helicopter blade as I gathered snow. I skidded to a stop in the middle of the class as the children now realized that I was a skier and not just a large, badly dressed snowball.

I looked up and blew the snow off of my face. All around me were stunned kids with rosy cheeks and mucus dripping from their noses. One little boy stepped forward, wiped his nose with his mitten and said, “Hey mister, you gotta make a pizza wedge!” I thought to myself, “It doesn’t matter, kid. I’m not gonna need the advise anymore.” But on my way back to the rental shop, I hesitated a moment, turned around and ran back to the lift.

_____________________

Last month, I took my wife, my daughter and sons up to Massachusetts to ski. This was only their second year on skis, but they did better that I could have ever hoped and we all had lots of fun. And every time I see them laughing their way down the bunny slope, or ride with them up the lift, I can’t help but smile as I think back to that first time.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Places, Everyone!

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a play at my kids’ school. They were sitting next to me because, well, they refused to play a part in the production. I turned to the right and spoke in hushed tones to my middle child, “You know, Matthew, you should be up there.” He popped a couple of Skittles in his mouth and silently shook his head back and forth. I turned left to speak to my oldest daughter (let’s just call her the Queen of Tween) and found myself staring at an empty seat. She found a friend on the other side of the auditorium and escaped without a sound while I was looking the other way. I was annoyed and became determined to find someone who could pay the emotional bill I was quickly running up that evening, so I turned back to Matthew and continued my one-sided conversation with him. “Why don’t you want to join the Drama Club?” My question perturbed him enough that the Skittle he just tossed hit him square in the cheek and rattled through the chair into the abyss of the auditorium floor. He shrugged his shoulders, closed his mouth and pretended to chew on an imaginary candy. Going along with his charade, I continued, “You know, I was in plays when I was your age and I had a great time. In fact, I remember the first time I acted on stage ...”

The year was 1976, the Bicentennial year of our great nation. Disco didn’t suck yet and my entire wardrobe was red, white, blue, and loud plaid. I had leisure suits, but didn’t even know what the word “leisure” meant. I was in the second grade and my teacher informed us that we would be performing the Revolutionary War play, “Sam the Minuteman”, for the entire school. She read us the book, and then handed out the parts. I closed my eyes and prayed, “Please don’t call me. Please don’t call me.” But then Mrs. Scheim was up to the lead role. “... and Sam will be played by Billy Reisacher!” The blood drained from my head, making me look even paler than usual. I was still in shock as I strode to the front of the class to accept the script, which was damp with pungent, blue ink. She must have sensed my apprehension as I took the pages because she leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry sweetheart, you’ll do fine.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, I grabbed my pillow and went to lie down on the couch, my only place of refuge when the world was caving in on me. My mother immediately knew something was wrong, but I think I gave it away by watching a TV set that was not turned on. “Billy, what’s wrong?” she said in a soft, soothing voice as she stroked my light blonde hair. I explained the entire predicament to her and, as usual, she had the solution in her back pocket and instantly put my mind at ease. “But Mom, what if I forget my lines?” She picked up the script that I tossed on the carpet next to the couch. “Don’t worry, Billy, we’ll practice every day.”

The night of the play finally arrived and I was as prepared as I possibly could be. I knew my lines backwards and forwards. I was dressed in classic Revolutionary-style clothing, but was most proud of my hat, which was my Dad’s when he was a child. I saw my friend, Marcia, backstage and asked her how she was doing. “I don’t feel so good. I’m really nervous and my Mom is sick at home.” She was a member of the chorus, which sang in the background on stage. I wanted to calm her down, so I tried in vain to make her laugh. “Places, everyone!” Mrs. Scheim frantically called as we assembled in the wings and watched the lights dim. The curtain rose and the spotlight followed me to the center of the stage as the narrator began, “This is Sam ...”

The play was going perfectly. Everyone in the cast was hitting their lines, and the audience was loving it all. At one point in the story, I was supposed to lie down on a cot before waking to hear Paul Revere deliver his famous warning. On my mark, I placed my hat behind the cot and pretended to go to sleep. I had only closed my eyes for a few seconds when a horrible sound emanated from the chorus. It was a guttural, retching noise accompanied by the sound of water pouring from a large pipe. I felt a small splash reach my face and I opened my eyes. To my horror, Marcia had just become violently ill, but my concern for her shifted when I realized that my hat was the sole victim of her stomach malady.

Mrs. Scheim rushed onto the stage and escorted Marcia out of the auditorium. We were now without a director, and both the audience and cast were frozen in stunned silence. I knew that this was my defining moment. I could either rise to the occasion and become bigger than anything the second grade has ever seen, or shrink away forever into the lonely shadows of mediocrity. I stood up and faced the crowd. Staring back at me with wide eyes and open mouths were my parents, sister, friends, teachers, the PTA. Slowly, I looked down at my hat, soiled and deflated on the wooden stage as I thought, “We’re going to need a lot of Ajax for this.” I realized that, just like the foolish ways of childhood, my father’s hat was of no use to me anymore. So I picked it up, carefully balanced it like a bowl of punch as the crowd gasped, and I carried it offstage. Returning to the stage, I took a deep breath and delivered my next line.

The applause were still ringing in my head as I snapped back to the present and realized that the play at my kids’ school was over and the audience was on it’s feet, clapping, screaming and snapping pictures. I jumped up and Matthew reflexively followed, spilling the remainder of his Skittles. He stood up on his seat and spoke to me, but all I could do was read his lips. “Daddy, my stomach hurts.” We stopped off at the bathroom before heading home and conversed through the stall door. “Daddy, maybe I’ll join the Drama Club next year.” I thought about it for a moment and replied, “No need to rush into anything. How about trying the trumpet?”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's History

I walked up the front steps of City Hospital and navigated my way through the revolving door. I was wearing my short, white jacket and the overstuffed backpack on my right shoulder almost got stuck as I emerged into the crowded lobby. I stopped at the security desk and explained, “I’m a medical student from Mount Sinai. I’m supposed to meet Dr. Goldstein in room 324.” The security guard motioned me towards an elevator bank, “Make a left on the third floor. It’s on your right.”

Across his large, wooden desk, Ronald Goldstein, an internist, was explaining what I was supposed to do for the day. “Learning to take a good history on your patient and perform a complete physical exam are the most important skills that you will learn in medical school. And this is the first time you’ll get to do this on a real patient ...” He was in his 50’s and the chaotic piles of papers and journals on his desk matched perfectly with his wrinkled clothing, disheveled hair and two day old beard. His monotone voice sent me into a daydream, but I returned just in time to catch the critical details. “Mr. Pal will be your patient for the morning. He’s in room 561. Drop off your history and physical in my office when you’re done.”

I took the elevator to 5 South and followed the rooms, 558 ... 560 ... 562. Across the hall, I located Mr. Pal’s room, straightened my white jacket, took a deep breath and knocked. Hearing nothing from inside, I started knocking harder, but once my knuckles began to throb I decided to push the door open. The room had a stale odor and the sheets on the bed had been hastily pushed to the side, but, so far, no sign of my patient. I knocked tentatively on the bathroom door, but instead of a human voice, the response of a five gallon flush thundered through the door, almost throwing me backwards. Mr. Pal burst triumphantly from the bathroom. He seemed startled to see me right in front of him as he quickly closed his robe and smiled politely, “Hello.”

Mr. Pal was a 40 year old Indian male who was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. I explained my mission and he was delighted. “Go ahead; ask me anything you’d like.” He leaned in a little closer to me and whispered, “You have no idea how boring it can get in here!” Without hesitation, I began to take a history. With each question, I probed deeper into every aspect of his life from his family history to all the medications he ever took. No stone was left unturned and within a short period of time, I felt like I knew him better than I knew myself. He started answering the questions with long-winded answers, but before long, he was able to trim his responses down to one or two words. He had a hard time with a few of the questions. “Well, I’m not exactly sure how much roughage I get in my diet, but I guess I could ... uh, why exactly is that important?”

I was taking my detailed history of Mr. Pal for approximately one hour, and the reason I knew that was because he pointed it out to me. He kept glancing at his watch, so I added that observation to the twelve pages of notes I had already accumulated, “Patient seems to have a nervous demeanor. Consider ... Neurology consultation.” I assured him that I was about to begin the physical examination, but his eyes began to shift from side to side. “I think I have to go for an X-Ray ... or something.” “Don’t worry, Mr. Pal, we should be able to wrap this up within the next hour.”

I opened up my backpack and began choosing the instruments I would need to perform a complete physical exam. With this vast arsenal of tools, which I had accumulated over the first two years of medical school, I could not only uncover any subtle physical finding, but also fix a variety of appliances. “What are you going to do with that”, Mr. Pal inquired as a pulled out a sewing needle. “I’m going to test the sensation on your legs.” Mr. Pal replied, “I don’t think you need to ... OUCH!” We stared at each other in silence for a few seconds before I looked down and scribbled quickly in my notepad, “Nervous system intact.” For the next hour, I probed and explored every space and surface on Mr. Pal’s body that I could reach and took detailed notes on all my findings. He was watching TV and for some reason, settled on the channel that had a clock ticking. Suddenly a nurse entered and informed Mr. Pal that doctors would be coming soon to perform a spinal tap. Fortunately, the only things left for me to do were palpate his liver and spleen. He perked up and said, “Oh, good ... I mean, OK, if you must.”

I sat at the nurses’ station for the next hour, compiling all of the data I had collected during the morning. When it was finished, I was so proud of what I had accomplished. I tried to staple all the pages together, but the staple wouldn’t go all the way through, so I settled for a paper clip. I went back to Dr. Goldstein’s office and placed Mr. Pal’s history and physical on his desk, but as I turned to leave the office, it slid down one of the piles on his desk and landed on the floor.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Exposure

1995

I was just starting to doze off on the large, leather couch in the resident lounge when my pager went off. I put down my copy of “The Secrets of General Surgery”, read the number that flashed on the device that was starting to dig into my hip and picked up the phone. “Hey Marie, is the patient in the holding area? OK, I’ll be right there.” I grabbed my white jacket and hustled down the corridor towards the operating room.

I arrived at the preoperative holding area and found Mr. Kingsford lying on a gurney either counting the holes in the ceiling tiles or making his final plea to a higher power. He was a previously healthy man in his 50’s who recently found out that he had a cancerous polyp in his large bowel and was undergoing a lengthy surgery to remove it. “Don’t worry. We’re going to take great care of you. I’ll go out and talk to your wife when you’re in the recovery room.” He forced a smile and I gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Hey, Bill, are you ready to cure cancer?” My Chief Resident smiled at me outside the operating room and I quickly returned the smile and said, “Let’s do it.” When Mr. Kingsford was finally under anesthesia, I went out to the sink to scrub my hands and arms. Returning to the operating room, I prepped his abdomen with an iodine solution and placed sterile drapes over him, leaving an open space for the large vertical incision about to be made down the middle of his belly. The anesthesia machine was beeping along with the patient’s heartbeat and the intense overhead lights made the steel scalpel gleam as it was passed to my Chief Resident.

“Bill, can you pull on that a little harder?” The sweat was pouring down the side of my face and the muscles in my shoulder screamed in pain as I pulled on the retractor in my left hand and moved the small intestine out of the way. We were two hours into the case, and the Attending Surgeon and Chief Resident were close to removing the tumor. As the Junior Resident, my primary job was to provide exposure. That meant holding retractors, suctioning blood and generally making sure that the others could see everything they needed to see. Sometimes it was an impossible task, requiring many more appendages than God gave me, but sometimes retracting was just plain boring. It was not uncommon for a resident to lean back with all of his weight to keep the retractors in position and grab a few winks in a move referred to as “waterskiing”. During a slow point in the case, I found my mind wandering. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that I had been in this situation before...

1978

“Hey, Bill, are you ready to barbeque?” My Dad was standing in the kitchen wearing his New York Giants apron that he got for Christmas the year before as I replied, “Let’s do it.” While my Dad watched the start of the football game, I rolled our circular barbecue to the middle of the patio and wiped off all the cobwebs and leaves. I then dragged a 20 pound bag of charcoal around the side of the house from the garage to the patio. I dumped the briquettes into the grill, which made a sound like hail striking a tin roof, and a cloud of thick, black smoke enveloped me. Once the dust settled, I doused the black squares with lighter fluid and struck a match. Whooosh!! The cicadas made a rattling noise as the flames from the grill punched a tire-sized hole in the ozone layer and the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere rose by a couple of degrees. This maneuver almost cost me my eyebrows on several occasions. My Dad nodded in approval as he arrived with a thick porterhouse steak on a plate and surveyed the glowing coals. His barbeque tools shined in the midday sun as we began to cook.

“Bill, could you push down on the grill a little more?” For my Dad, grilling was both a science and an art. The circular grill was mounted on a central axle, which made it extremely unstable unless there was a perfect balance of food on all parts. I can only assume that the manufacturers of this product never actually tried to grill on it. To make matters worse, my Dad only used one half of the grill, which meant that I had to constantly counterbalance the other side with a long fork to prevent all the food from sliding off. Besides the fact that the fork was never long enough to completely protect me from the searing temperatures, this was no easy task for a couple of other reasons.

First of all, my Dad was constantly adjusting the distance from the coals to the steak using an equation known only to him and Albert Einstein. The muscles in my hands had not yet developed such precise control at that age, but I tried to oblige as he alternated between, “a little higher” and “a little lower”. Secondly, my Dad felt that it was necessary to repeatedly stab the meat until all the juice ran out onto the coals. This meant that I had to constantly anticipate his downward stabs to keep the system in harmony. If I was off by a millisecond, I could potentially launch the meat off the grill and send it to its final resting place in the azalea bushes. When the grilling was finally done, my Dad would point out once again all the physical attributes of a perfectly grilled steak. Inside the house, I iced my medium-well done fingers, wiped the black dust off my face and placed some Ben Gay on my aching shoulder before sitting down at the table to eat.

1995

After five hours, we were finished with the case. Mr. Kingsford was in the recovery room and his wife was relieved that the surgery went well. It was 10 o’clock at night and my Chief Resident and I both collapsed with exhaustion in the locker room. “So Bill, are you hungry?” “Yeah, I’m starving - Where do you want to go?” My Chief thought for a moment. “Hey, there’s a barbeque place right down the street!” My eyes widened and my jaw dropped open. After a few seconds, he said, “Maybe we should just go Chinese.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's That Smell?

I sat in the terminal at Miami International Airport with a cooler tucked under my arm. These were the days before taking off shoes and offensive magnetic wand searches, and I was able to carry the suspicious box through security without the slightest hesitation. The safety officer must have been sound asleep, because the contents of the box would be easy to recognize on X-ray. I looked around nervously as the announcement sounded overhead, “Now boarding all rows to New York.” I grabbed the cooler, making sure that the lid was secure, and headed up the jetway.

The stewardess greeted me with an inviting smile, and I decided to engage her in some small talk. She was tall and pretty with long, blonde hair that was pulled back tightly into a bun. Her well-pressed, navy blue uniform couldn’t hide her shapely figure and her gold nametag said, “Tricia”. “So, Tricia, are we getting any food on this flight?” “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you”, she replied and I smiled back. The weight of the cooler was making my shoulder ache, and I worried for a moment that she might want to know what was inside, so I politely excused myself and found my seat.

I immediately felt better once I stowed the cooler in the overhead compartment. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sat down next to a middle-aged woman who was reading the newspaper. I was a senior in college, but this was only the second airplane flight I had ever taken. My father was not a big fan of flying, so whenever my family took a trip, we would travel by train, boat or car. But I decided to spend my spring break in Key West, so I flew down to Miami and drove down US 1 to the Keys. It was an unbelievably fun trip, but now I was ready to go back to school. And I was traveling with special cargo.

The plane took off and made a gentle bank turn up the coast. The water was a beautiful shade of aqua, and the view of Miami was equally as amazing. Suddenly, the plane jolted and dark smoke began billowing forward from the rear of the aircraft. I turned to the woman next to me and asked, “What’s that smell?” “I believe that one of the engines is burning”, she calmly stated without looking up from her newspaper. I felt the sweat building up on my palms, and when I looked out the window, I saw fuel spraying out from every engine. “They do that to make the plane lighter for emergency landings”, the woman continued. She put her newspaper down and smiled reassuringly, “I’m a pilot’s wife. Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal.”

The plane suddenly made an awkward bank turn back towards the airport. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it back to the airport or have to land on the water, but I was relieved when I saw the ground below me. I closed my eyes and recited every prayer I ever knew. The plane shifted from side to side and bounced down on the runway with enough force to make me rise out of my seat as the lap belt dug into my thighs. Several passengers screamed as black smoke continued to fill the cabin. When the plane came to a stop, we all made our way towards the side doors and slid down the evacuation ramp onto the tarmac.

What followed was a 4 hour layover in Miami. I learned that one of the engines had caught fire, but even more amazing was the fact that we would be getting back on the same plane! I calmed my nerves with a couple of Margaritas in the lounge. When I finally boarded the plane again, the plane was overheated from sitting on the runway for so long. I heard a couple of people behind me complaining that there was still a bad smell in the cabin. Suddenly, I realized that the bad smell was not coming from the vents. It was coming from MY COOLER!

During the flight, more and more people began complaining about the putrid smell in the airplane. I asked Tricia for a blanket, but she gave me a quizzical look because the temperature in the cabin was probably close to 80 degrees. She brought the blanket, but the smell in the area was obviously putting a severe strain on her beautiful smile. I quickly opened the overhead bin and stuffed the blanket around the cooler to mask the odor, but it didn’t help much. All around the plane, passengers were fanning themselves and looking at the people next to them, saying, “I didn’t do it!” When I arrived at JFK, I found a deserted section of the terminal and dumped the contents of the cooler out into the garbage. What a crime.

I drove back to my parents’ house on Long Island. They were naturally concerned about my horrifying experience on the plane. “You see, that’s why I don’t fly”, my father announced triumphantly. I told them about all the good times I had in Key West with my friends. We rented mopeds, hung out on the beach and even went deep sea fishing right off the coast of Cuba. We caught a lot of Mahi Mahi and brought it back to the hotel where we mixed up a beer batter and had a huge fish fry. In fact, we couldn’t even finish all the fish we caught. “So where is all the fish you were going to bring back for us?” my parents inquired. I hesitated and looked down. “Well ... that’s a whole other story.”