October 19, 2012 by palamow


Hello from Luquillo,

This week I have yet another story from my mostly misspent early years for you to consider, – it involves a couple of youthful bouts with illness, a loving and inventive parent, and a chance to befriend a remarkable character…

If any of the above sounds remotely enticing – I urge you to carry on and read what appears below – there are even some surprises in store for those who persist…


As a growing boy I experienced what I’ve always thought of as more than my fair share of misadventures, mishaps and maladies, or so it seemed at the time. Providentially, my father was always there to counsel, console and pick-up the pieces of my bruised ego, shattered bones and non-accommodating bodily organs. At age ten, while in the fourth grade at Beverly Hills Catholic School, I stumbled and took a bad fall as I rounding the bases after getting a lucky hit while playing ‘work-up’ softball on the school’s dusty playground. In the process, I broke and badly splintered my left arm at the elbow – it was a ‘greenstick’ fracture, made more severe because one of the shattered bones had punctured my skin. I hid my pain (and the blood) from the nuns and my schoolmates by quickly donning my jacket and then semi-stoically riding the school bus home. I tried to ‘smuggle’ the arm past my parents by bandaging it tightly with a handkerchief under my shirtsleeve before making my appearance at the dinner table – seeing me grimace each time I moved, dad quickly sensed my distress enquiring “What’s wrong with your arm, old boy?”

Doctor Immerman, our family physician, arrived soon after my father’s phone call, swiftly cleaning, stitching, re-bandaging and splinting my shattered elbow – I spent a few days at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood, where my arm was ‘set’ and entombed in a massive plaster cast – an interesting contraption, it had a hinged ‘trap-door’ in the side so that the wound caused by the bone shards that had penetrated the skin could be tended to – unfortunately, the doctors used sulfanilamide drugs to kill any possible infection (more about that presently) – a few short weeks later, after I had returned home from the hospital, my left arm having been ‘re-set’ by Dr. Immerman (a painful experience) and encased in a new, abbreviated, less awkward plaster cast, I suddenly experienced unbearably painful spasms in my right side.

Dr. Immerman was promptly summoned once again — I was diagnosed as ‘most probably having a ruptured appendix’, and rushed by ambulance, this time to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.  Dad accompanied me in the ambulance holding firmly to my right arm for encouragement (my left was still in its cast). At the hospital, he somehow cajoled the management into disregarding their usual strict hospital rules, permitting him to stay by my side during the operation…

I was swiftly ‘prepped’ for surgery – a mask was slipped over my nose and mouth to administer the ‘Ether’ substance that was the preferred anesthetic in the 1940’s. The last thing that I remember was my dad firmly gripping my hand as the drug caused whirling patterns to appear before my eyes as I faded away…

After cutting into my belly, the surgeons soon realized that Dr. Immerman’s original diagnosis was incorrect – although the symptoms were similar, there was nothing wrong with my appendix – instead, my right kidney had become infected and had burst open.  Having already cut-open my abdomen, the surgeons were now faced with a perplexing dilemma – how to reach the diseased kidney from the already open incision on my belly, rather than from the back, as was normal procedure for accessing a diseased kidney…

Fortunately, dad was on the spot to give his instant permission to perform this risky, but necessary procedure – and soon the surgeons were gently prying apart the organs and tissue that were blocking the way in order to get to the offending kidney, surgically remove it and then, tie-off the now unused connections to it – I’m told that I was on the operating table for just under three hours before the surgeons and nurses finished the exhausting procedure and sewed me up again – many years later I was told by my mother that it was ‘nip and tuck’ for the next few hours as I hovered near death – when I finally regained consciousness the next morning in the recovery room, my father, still clad in hospital ‘scrubs’ and face mask, had drawn-up a chair next to my bed – firmly gripping my hand, as he had throughout the operation and on through the night while he waited for me to rejoin the world…

My parents were subsequently told by Dr. Immerman that the sulfanilamide drugs administered to defeat any infection in my broken elbow had ‘possibly’ caused a condition that contributed adversely to the state of my already diseased kidney…

I spent the next six weeks in the hospital, my arm still in its plaster cast, recovering from the operation under the watchful care of a team of expert kidney specialists, waiting for my belly to heal so that the dozen or so stitches and clamps could be safely removed. During the final weeks of my hospital tenancy I was allowed to move around on my own in a wheelchair – I began roaming the limits of the third floor, stopping to talk with other patients during my travels.

My favorite stop by far was at the room of a Roman Catholic priest – a Jesuit missionary who had spent many decades in China teaching and preaching to farmers and other laborers in the remote fastness of a Yangtze River valley – In her award winning 1933 children’s book ‘Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze’, author Elizabeth Foreman Lewis based her Christian missionary character, who befriends Young Fu, on real-life scenes from the priest’s years in China.

His Chinese flock had named him Father ‘Plum Blossom’ – apparently because his Anglo-Saxon name sounded to their ears like the Chinese word for that beautiful flower.  Father Plum Blossom and I became great friends – he taught me how to write my name in Chinese ideographs when he signed my plaster cast. He was a ruddy-faced, white bearded patriarchal giant of a man – oddly, he was always cheerful, despite the twin specters of unrelenting pain and the inevitable death-sentence of incurable cancer that hung over his head.  I did my best to distract him with boyish nonsense about my schoolwork and tales of my clumsy sports abilities in an effort to deflect his thoughts from the affliction that would only permit him a few more months of life.

When I told my dad about my new friend and brought him down the hall to meet with Father Plum Blossom, he quickly telephoned actor neighbors Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, and Spencer Tracy (who had all played priestly roles in various movies) as well as Loretta Young and Celeste Holm (who had played movie nuns) and arranged for them to attend an impromptu luncheon given in Father Plum Blossom’s honor by the nursing staff at the hospital’s cafeteria.. I believe that the actors were more in awe of Father Plum Blossom than he was by meeting his favorite movie stars! His doctors later told dad that the party had most probably “added some weeks to his life.”

Meanwhile, dad had procured two silver dollar coins at the bank, which he took to a local jeweler, instructing the engraver to buff the etching off of the backs of each coin (defacing US currency-highly illegal) and inscribe each coin with the dates and details of my hospital adventures, which he described as ‘The Battle of Beverly Hills’. He then had them both hung on tiny silver chains from sterling silver bars that bore the legend ‘FOR BRAVERY’. They were presented to me at a going away party given by the doctors and nurses on my floor, on the happy day that I was finally released from the hospital (either they were relieved to get rid of me or they had actually appreciated my improvised ‘wheelchair ministry’ – I never knew which) – I kept my cherished ‘bravery medals’ as prized possessions for the next forty years – only to lose them (along with a few other precious treasures) when hurricane Hugo devastated St. Thomas in 1989…

Today, whenever I recall how my father never left my side during my surgery and recovery, and then how he rewarded me for what he perceived as my ‘bravery’ so many years ago – I realize once again that the bravery was never mine — it was always his – standing by helplessly as the doctors cut into his little boy’s stomach must have been incredibly difficult for him to endure so un-shirkingly…

© 2012 – Alan Mowbray Jr.


One thought on “BITS and PIECES # 6

  1. mkhulu says:

    I “like to died” over the sediments expressed in the Battle of Beverly Hills. What a supository of grace you father must have had. Had the postman been? In real English, what a lovely story!

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