Back in my youth our family did a lot of traveling. Most of our relatives lived in the Midwest—Kansas, Missouri, Illinois. And every summer we piled into the family sedan (no air conditioning, of course) and headed east to spend at least a month visiting cousins, aunts, uncles, and old friends of our parents.
Now, it helps to know that my folks had an eclectic mix of friends. There was the undertaker and his wife in Illinois, who dummied up a bed in one of the upstairs rooms of their Victorian mansion to appear he had brought work home from the office. It scared the bejesus out of any kids who dared to go exploring. There was the scandalous newspaperman who lived in an unmarried state with a woman who smoked cigarettes!…very Bohemian for the time. And there was the owner of Joe’s Mexico City Café, who conversed with our father in Spanish with great enthusiasm, all the while serving up authentic Mexican cuisine we loved, until we learned he cut a few corners by specializing in illegal horse meat.
One of my favorite childhood travel memories however was the visit to my father’s old Kansas University friend in Missouri. Dr. B. had prospered as a proctologist in Carrollton, and he also owned a beautiful peach and berry farm outside the town. There in the hills he also grew huge melons and other experimental crops using composting methods. .
On this particular trip our family pulled into town just before dusk, and after a long day’s ride we all slumped out of the car and entered the widely-respected doctor’s fine home.
The skies were turning dark and roiling, as one of those typical Midwest summer storms reared its head—always of great excitement for kids who lived with boring California summers and never experienced a warm weather storm or lightning flash..
After a nice dinner, Dr. and Mrs. B. suggested we take in one of the proctologist’s home movies. My sister Colleen and I exchanged wary looks. We knew what a proctologist did, and didn’t think viewing his home movies would sit well on a full stomach. Luckily, the movie he wanted to show was of his setting a fracture of his son’s arm, injured in some accident. Bloody, but surprisingly pleasant after the change in our expectations.
After the entertainment, Mrs. B. suggested that four of us—their son, his girlfriend, my little sister Laura and I—drive over to the county hospital. Not because the home movie had made us sick, but because the doctor had just purchased the entire structure lock, stock and barrel, and was storing produce from the farm in the basement refrigerators.
Carroll County had just opened a brand-new health facility at the edge of town, and the old brick hospital was to become Dr. B.’s personal clinic. Our task was to fetch the home-grown watermelons from the hospital basement cooler and bring them back for dessert. And, because the B.’s would hear nothing of our spending the night at a motel when such a nice facility was available, we were told to make up sufficient hospital beds for our family’s overnight stay.
Now, keep in mind that the doctor’s son was about 19, as was his girlfriend, I was perhaps 15, and Laura barely 9.
We arrived at the imposing, multi-story structure just as the first jagged bolts danced across the rumbling skies, and raindrops the size of dimes splattered the windshield. Far in the distance howled the whistle of a passing Santa Fe freight.
Racing up to the entrance, the son unlocked the front door and carefully relocked it behind us. He told of a break-in just days before by dangerous drug addicts seeking the pharmaceuticals still stored on-site.
Nothing about this hospital even suggested it was no longer an operating medical facility, aside from the fact that it was eerily empty of human life. All the furnishings were still in place. The Coke machine in the lobby still offered bottles for a dime. The offices still had files open on the desks and pencils laid across them. All appeared as if someone had raised an alarm and everyone had calmly filed outside, never to return. Very Stephen King. As we went about turning on lights, the effect was disconcerting, especially when the son headed straight down the hall to check the door of the pharmacy room, just to make sure nothing was amiss.
Our first step was to descend the long ramp into the basement kitchen. We quickly found the huge watermelons and put two on the counter top to grab when we were leaving. Then we took the elevator up to choose rooms where the family would spend the night. On the fourth floor we exited into a long hallway. The operating rooms were still equipped with mechanical tables and surgical tools and glass-fronted cabinets. Incubators lined other walls. The individual rooms were lacking only curtains of any kind, already removed for cleaning. The tall, paned windows displayed the lightning raking the sky as thunder rattled the glass and rain pelted down the glass in sheets. At the very end of the hall we chose for the family a long line of rooms and put on fresh bed linens from a storage closet.
Then, shutting down the floor lights as we came to the elevator, I reached to press the call button. Lightning crashed outside, sending slivers of bluish light down the now darkened hallway from the window at the end of the corridor. My finger barely touched the button when someone elsewhere in the empty hospital rang for the elevator!
My God, another break-in! Dangerous, hopped-up druggies had entered the hospital and were now coming up for us! Laura and I exchanged looks of disbelief before the four of us huddled to discuss our options.
“Yes,” it was agreed with certainty, “we definitely relocked the front door!”
“Take the stairwell?” No, we all agreed with less certainty, “–potentially too dangerous.”
The buzzer down below rang again. We heard the descending car land on the ground floor, heard the doors open and shut, and then the car rose again, coming our direction. We backed to the opposite side of the hallway. I pulled my penknife from my pocket, all two inches of fierce blade ready for action. The stairs were looking more inviting with every change on the elevator floor wall monitor showing the approach of the car. And then the car settled in place, and the doors slid open with a “ding.”
Now what? The stairwell? A quick vote decided we would still ride down to the lobby, come what might. With great trepidation we stepped in, and every floor of the descent became more nerve-wracking than the last. The longest elevator ride of my life, despite being only four floors.
As the doors parted…no one stood before us. We stuck out heads into the hallway only to find no one in sight. As one, we raced for the front entry, only to find the door still locked. Then we turned nervously to look down the hall toward the pharmacy. That door was now wide open…
(TO BE CONTINUED BEFORE YOU KNOW IT…)