Doctor John was one of those Lenehans, originally from “Derby Hill”. Our people settled on the opposite side of the river, “windy hill”, so as to distinguish ourselves from the late-arriving “potato” Irish like his people, or so I had been told. Be that as it may, we all needed medical attention now and again, so upon my 7th birthday, as a second-grader at the Ascension School (we being Catholics), I had my first conscious encounter with Dr. John Lenehan, purveyor of the new Salk vaccine against the Polio.
The Lenehans, Catholics as well, now lived on the “Cliff”, a mere Sabbath Day’s walk, as they say, from the Church and school, having benefited from the profits of his practice, or as grandma Cloughessey would say, “his father’s early aversion to the kind of work it takes to actually build the fecking church”. Be that as it may, the community were in agreement that John Lenehan was indeed, the kind of medical provider to put his own people first in the deployment of his services. So it was that the Ascension School received the first inoculations of vaccine against polio in the entire Valley and they blessed him for it.
My remembrance of the vaccine however, is somewhat conditioned by my early age, the anxiety of parental concern for the effects of the disease and the fact that Jesus himself had apparently told the priest at morning meeting that we would all receive an “ injection” that day and that unlike the communion, which did not hurt (but somehow allows us to eat Jesus) this would prick us on the skin and maybe swell up for a few hours, or weeks or months, or, as he had no prescience for the future, a fucking lifetime . But we would be safe from the evil disease that Arthur and Frederick had, “as you know, now living their desperate lives in that evil sanatorium in Southbury. God protect and save their souls”.
With this ringing endorsement for physical torment, and with the scent of that Macintosh apple in my pocket, warmed by my body heat, the anticipation of my peanut butter sandwich, stashed on a small table with so many more interesting ethnic lunches in Sister Emerencia’s second grade room and the lovely expectation of that Borden’s chocolate milk so generously provided by the Church itself, I stood in line with my entire class and my mother Gert as we awaited Lenehan’s attention. It being a regular school day, and with homework prepared, the wait didn’t seem that long. But, with fussy parents, taking unscheduled time from work or chores, it may have seemed interminable judging from the carping and comments around us. Loud and boisterous early in the waiting queues. As we began to see the several doctors lined up to administer the new drug, aligned against the far wall of the auditorium, the tempo changed. Mostly mothers, the parents began cooing the praises of this new miracle, and the volunteer doctors. Occasionally, “praise God” or “thank you Jesus” would be heard. These were the Catholic brides of hard working factory men and some artisans, uneducated themselves but for the truth found in church and mandated by faith alone to expect that this event would keep their precious child, or children from a certain fate worse than death for those times.
Who knew? I just wanted to get my good tooth around that Mac in my pocket and get on with the day but Gert had my hand on my apple-side so tight I thought I would piss my pants first. At the point of no-return when it comes to bladder control it was almost time for the injection. Except that one of those Marinetti boys from the “lower end”, down by the river itself, was just in front of me. Jimmy was a plump little guy with a big voice, but in the presence of his Momma, who was a presence herself, it was like someone pressed his mute button. Momma Marinetti was short but wide: “Easier to jump over Franny than walk around her” they used to say down at Grandpa’s firehouse. By the time Jimmy got to the inoculation station, he must have stopped breathing. When the nurse prepared him for Dr. Lenehan and the injection began, he simply passed out. I don’t know how long it took to clear the wreckage but my Mom was in quite a fix and I believe I lost sensation in the fingers of my left hand.
Calming me with one of her own Chicklets, an adult pleasure in itself, the wait, again seemed normal for a school day. And then, finally it was my turn to approach the doctor’s station. Lenehan had come back from the rest room after Marinetti’s default, refreshed and smiling. It was rare in those days in that place to see a man with a mustache, but John Lenehan carried it off eloquently. His personal nurse/assistant Catherine, was a porker, even for those times. She had the mild and comforting message of all those classical spirits of evil authority—assuring, calming, inviting; but when she laid that alcohol swab upon your upper arm, the cool depth of its penetration wrought fear and clattering into my humerus and the hand below now numb from my mother’s squeezing.
Gert was a nurse, a colleague of Catherine’s and a longtime acquaintance of Dr. Lenehan, he having delivered me and my two sibs. It was my turn but conversation erupted around me as I wrestled with the uncertainty of fat people and the topical use of pungent alcohol. However, Lenehan was magnificent. Grandma Cloughessey was right. This guy could never help build a church in fact but he was confident and suave and charming as any mid-century post-war adult could be. Brown hair slicked back to a ducks’ ass, a slender, feint almost European mustache, green or hazel eyes, always focused on his patient/victim and a Camel cigarette protruding from his lips that would move up and down with each spoken word.
After the pleasantries with Gert, his first words to me were “Stand Up straight” and put out your tongue. He then sent a wide stick down my throat and said “say “AAAAAHHHH”. When he did this, the Camel stayed perfectly attached to his lower left lip and his exhale filled my throat and lungs with this perfectly delicious sensation. Having distracted me enough from the matter at hand, he had me move to my left and began a scratching/injecting procedure on my right upper arm. Seconds later, Gert was pushing me out of the line and on the way to class. I watched over my shoulder as Katherine gently tapped the end of Lenehan’s Camel to douse the now elongated ash into a make-shift ashtray as deftly as if she had trained years to perfect exactly that procedure to support his medical efforts.
He would be my physician for decades until his retirement at age 78. At his funeral we learned that what he really wanted to do in life was be an oceanographer or marine biologist.