A few months ago we sat at table with two silver-haired couples from our church. The older coulples were talking about their children, comparing notes as it were. Their children were my age. I guess parents never stop discussing their children. One of them said something about why their children were born at one local hospital instead of the other.
“It was after the salt babies,” she said. “I didn’t want to go Binghamton General.”
“That was a terrible thing,” the other woman said, shaking her head sadly.
“I’m not familiar with that,” I interjected. “What were the salt babies?”
“Several babies died in 1962 after salt was mistakenly put in the baby formula at the hospital,” one woman said. They continued discussing it and then moved on to more cheerful topics. I grieved in my heart, though, for those new mothers who went home with empty arms after losing their little babies to such an awful mistake.
When I tried researching it later, I learned that the practical nurse who had made the error was a mother of three and pregnant herself with her fourth. One blogger postulated that a mentally ill woman who now screams at cars in downtown Binghamton was that nurse. The guilt from her mistake had driven her insane.
Let me say right up front that I don’t know if that story is true. In fact, other things I have read lead me to doubt it. Nevertheless, it gave me pause.
A few years ago I picked up a book by another local man, Ron Capalaces, who wrote about growing up in Binghamton in the years following World War II. He begins the book with this story.
Uncle John was one of the first GIs to fight his way across the Remagen Bridge in Germany, the last bridge standing over the Rhine River. The prize waiting on the other side was the road leading straight to Berlin and Hitler’s headquarters. Taking the bridge at Remagen came at a high cost in U S forces killed and wounded.
Uncle John made it across unhurt.
Now that the war was over, it was my job to bring Uncle John safely home from the beer joints on the main drag, Clinton Street in the First Ward of Binghamton. The fighting overseas had given him a thirst that nights of drinking couldn’t quench. My assignment seemed almost as tough to me as crossing the Remagen Bridge.
Ron describes being awakened by his mother after midnight and sent down to the bars to find his uncle. When he finds him, he must coax him away and help him get home.
Crawling into bed, there was too much stuff going on in my head to fall asleep. I lay awake thinking about the war being over, how I looked up to Uncle John, all that he had been through, what he had done. As a soldier, Uncle John looked great. Now that he was home, he looked like all the other drunks up on Clinton Street. I didn’t like it. But there was little I could do about it.
He was thin, unkempt, hunched forward so that his head hung down between his knees. What then? Drunk? On the pavement between his shoes lay something vividly red. He was staring at it. I felt enraged by this utter indifference to danger, which forced me in the middle of my busy day to make decisions on his behalf. Oh, the indigent are so arrogant! …
Wangerin was annoyed that he had to slow down for this man as he was driving to his church. It wasn’t until he was right upon him that he saw that the man was vomiting blood. It gave him pause when he reached the church parking lot. In fact, he couldn’t stop trembling.
How many of these people, the flotsam and jetsam of society, do we encounter every day and give little thought to their need? How often are we in such a hurry to get to CHURCH that we feel annoyed at the inconvenience they cause us?
David Foster Wallace said this in his speech, This is Water:
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. … that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry that I am: it is actually I who am in his way.
Because, let’s face it, we get annoyed by people. People who are inconvenient. People who get in our way. People who demand something of us, just by entering our sphere. We turn a blind eye to them and drive to church or Bible study or some other important holy function.
When Walter Wangerin began his book with this uncomfortable side story, I knew I was in for it. In a good way.
Jesus stopped to touch the leper, to talk to the woman at the well, to put mud on a blind man’s eyes, to heal the sick.
I can slow my life down just a little for these as well.