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(Note: Though corrected in the text version below, the podcast contains a factual error. My father performed the first kidney transplant in Illinois, not the first liver transplant. MmmK?)
My father was a vascular surgeon. And not one of those vascular surgeons you see working out of the back of a conversion van in a Walmart parking lot. He was fully legit. Whenever I visited Michael Reese Hospital, where he worked, all manner of people would stop me to say what a fine surgeon he was.1 He even performed the first kidney transplant in the state of Illinois, which I imagine was an especially huge deal for the guy that he operated on. That’s why I was surprised to learn from him only recently that he actually might have preferred to be a mathematician, but his father, who had toiled as a pharmacist at the whim of the Walgreen’s company through the dark days of the Depression, had determined his son would pursue a career in medicine. So that’s what he did. As a direct result, my dad was never one to strong-arm his kids to follow his footsteps. He did, however, think it was important to give us an idea of how he spent his days. This being decades before Bring Your Kids To Work Day, he devised his own unique way of cluing us is in.
This was also back in the days before the advent of VCRs, when the closest one could come to movies on-demand was to buy actual film reels through mail-order and screen them yourself. That’s just what my dad did, buying titles by Chaplin, Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy from an outfit called Blackhawk Films. Once they arrived in their white cardboard boxes with the title stamped on the spine, my father would take advantage of the open floor plan in our 1969 town house to set up a film projector on the dining room table, hoist a screen in the adjacent living room, and create his very own home nickelodeon.
Watching those films was peering directly into what seemed like an impossibly distant past through a large window in my house. I wondered why people looked so differently – so utterly black and white: their deathly pale faces, odd clothes, and, in the case of character actors like Eric Campbell and Ben Turpin, often frightening appearance. Was it evolution? Every detail made a huge impression, particularly because I was trying to make sense of my own reality in relation to these movies: wondering about my father’s time working in his father’s drug store as we watched W.C. Field’s The Pharmacist, and thinking of my maternal grandmother’s journey with her family from Poland as a young girl as we laughed at Chaplin’s The Immigrant. All the while the projector chugged away, wheezing its breath of hot machinery as dust motes danced before its flickering beam.2
I don’t remember my father offering any preamble when he screened the first surgery film for us on one of our movie nights. He may have said something along the lines of “I thought you might be interested in this,” but all I recall distinctly is, after the film leader played out, instead of some sepia-toned title card sequence from Essenay or Hal Roach Studios, the screen was filled with a fairly tight shot of sterile linens and an exposed expanse of skin. Rubber-gloved hands appeared, drawing on the skin with a magic marker and then swabbing it with some dark liquid, as the zoom adjusted and the frame jostled a bit. And then the gloved hand returned with a scalpel. I slid from my chair and retreated under the dining room table as the incision was made.
From my father’s matter-of-fact demeanor, sitting there beside the whirring 16-mm machine, it seemed like this should be no big deal. But I was not just grossed out, I was horrified in the purest sense. It wasn’t just the surgery itself; there was something about the aesthetic of the film, a mixture of clinical seriousness and low-budget porno sleaze, that made it inescapably real. Which it was. And it seemed to last forever, though it couldn’t have been more than one reel. Once it was done, my father loaded on some vintage comedy, and I emerged from beneath the table to reclaim my seat, still a little woozy from the whole ordeal.
He shared a number of these films, and looking back I am struck by particular aspects of my reaction to them. I never wondered who the patients were, what happened to them after their surgeries, what were their hopes and dreams. Had they lived? I presumed so. But what did it matter? Like extras in other films, their stories faded into the background of the central action. Their personhood was subsumed to their being a surgery, and that may have been my father’s intention: to share a safe, dissociated perspective that made the gore less…gory. But I was simply overwhelmed by the visual assault. And while it was bad enough to see a tumor removed or an artery grafted, the real Citizen Kane of these films for me was the treatment of a blood clot that had distended someone’s abdomen so badly that it literally looked as if they had swallowed a basketball. I think that’s even how my father referred to it: a “basketball clot.” The sanguinary bonanza that lashed across the screen would have made even Quentin Tarrantino say, “Yeah, that’s a bit much.”
At some point my dad stopped these screenings. While my brother, who is nearly five years older than I, insists he found them fascinating, I don’t remember anyone offering any follow-up questions about patient health history or suturing technique after the shows. And none of us pursued medicine as a career. To my father’s credit he always supported whatever struck our fancy in the way of a vocation, perhaps honoring his own bypassed wish to play with numbers instead of viscera. Indeed, on reflection, I think he shared something special when he screened all those films, both the slapstick and the surgeries. And I think it worth noting that once I had kids of my own, I got my own copies of those great comedies (in my case on DVD) and sat everyone down in the living room to share the delights of Chaplin and Fields and Keaton. Right away they loudly complained that the films were in creepy black and white. I wanted to shout back at them, “You want creepy? How would you like to see a bowel resected?” Kids these days, amirite?
1For a time my siblings and I spent some time every Saturday morning at the hospital while my father did his rounds, since he had custody on the weekends after my parent’s divorce. He would drop us off in the surgeon’s lounge with some toys and coloring books. I remember staring at the oil paintings of unknown surgeons on the walls. On a table by the door below a suggestion box were two electric urns, one of coffee and one of hot chocolate. Since we regularly drained the hot chocolate, the hospital removed that urn. We then stuffed the suggestion box with requests in crayon to bring back the hot chocolate. The next week the suggestion box was gone. When we got bored in the lounge we would play in the surgeon’s locker room, until one day I was locked in one of the lockers. It’s a testament to what a big shot my father was that they didn’t kick us out, but when my mother got wind of the fact we were regularly left unsupervised, she put an end to the practice.
2Even though we exclusively watched comedies during these movie nights, I will never be as scared of a movie as I was of The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case. In it, the duo set out to prove Laurel is the heir to a great fortune, but find themselves in the spooky scene of a murder at an old rambling mansion one stormy night. There are some truly frightening visuals, but none as bizarre and just plain fucked up as when they are bid goodnight by the butler.