Feature Articles

Selection of feature articles by Rick Skwiot

 
 

 

 


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Inside the Bad Knee and Sick Mind Of the Arthroscopic Surgery Patient

By Rick Skwiot

(First published in PortFolio Weekly)

My first mistake, fueled by youthful enthusiasm, was sprinting up the stadium steps with another lineman on my back. Conditioning, we called it.

My second critical mistake, some three decades later, was going into arthroscopic knee-surgery without the benefit of sedation.

Some might see a masochistic pattern here, but it wasn’t that at all. By now I was a writer. I thought there might be a story in it. For a writer, such thoughts can justify most anything.

Who Is Arthur Skopic?

For years I’d heard sportscasters talk about Arthur Skopic surgery. I figured it was like Tommy John surgery, named for the Dodger pitcher on whom elbow-reconstruction was first performed. Skopic, I guessed, was likely a linebacker for Chicago and maybe a distant cousin of Dick Butkus.

But my knee doctor set me straight. The arthroscope, he explained, contained a camera, light source, and a pathway for fluids. He planned to make incisions in my knee and insert the device, which would send him pictures of my torn cartilage on a TV monitor. Then, guided by this live video, he would stick in other tools to shave away the damaged tissue.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re going to ram a video camera and an electric shaver into my knee, and I’ll be walking in two days.”

He shrugged like it was nothing special.

“This I’ve got to see.”

Pure Consciousness

In addition to trips up the stadium steps, I’d done deep-knee-bends with two hundred pounds on my shoulders and played years of basketball and tennis on hard courts. For some reason, the left knee kept getting worse.

Finally, this spring, after a week of tennis in Key West, I couldn’t push off on it, merely waving at balls to my backhand. I figured it was time to do something about it.

My MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, where they slide you into a metal tube for forty-five minutes—not recommend for claustrophobics) showed a torn and degenerated meniscus. That’s the cartilage atop your tibia, or shinbone, on which your thighbone, or femur, sits.

Cartilage helps cushion the bones and keeps them from rubbing against one another. That is, if you’ve got enough left after years of abuse and wear. Its absence brings on Arthur Ritis (no relation to Skopic or Butkus), with bone grinding against bone, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, and pain. Not much they can do about that.

I had my pre-op instructions: no aspirin for a week, no alcohol for 24 hours, nothing at all to eat or drink the day of surgery. I showed up at noon feeling pure and slightly hallucinatory from the sensory deprivation.

In the pre-op ward I donned a fetching, baby-blue, split-tail gown. A nurse came in with a purple magic-marker and wrote “NO” on my right kneecap. An anesthesiologist appeared.

I explained that I wanted to remain conscious and alert throughout the operation. Not only did I wish to conduct research for a magazine article, I balked at being knocked-out cold for fear of never waking up. My only experience with general anesthetic (other than tequila and such) had been an unpleasant episode with ether in childhood.

“No problem,” he said. “We’ll just do a spinal without sedation. You’ll be perfectly alert. No problem.”

After that second “No problem,” I looked him up and down. He smiled and slapped my leg like a butcher might a side of beef.

A Knife in the Back

Lying in my immodest gown, I was wheeled on a gurney into an operating room that at looked more like a computer lab: TV monitor, stacks of metal boxes with knobs and digital readouts, wires everywhere. But then the room began to fill with a green-smocked, green-masked, rubber-gloved team: anesthetist, scrub nurse, circulator (an operating-room gopher), surgical assistant, and my knee surgeon.

I scooted onto the operating table and sat hunched forward as instructed. Pods of overhead lights came on.

“This will feel cool,” said the anesthetist.

She swabbed my lower spine with a cold liquid that smelled of alcohol. “Now you’ll sense a pinch and a burning.”

I felt a sting, then heat as she injected some anesthetic just under the skin.

Next she pulled out a syringe with a three-and-half-inch needle that seemed to grow as I stared at it. She placed her hand on my spine. “Now press back against my thumb.”

I sensed the needle sliding deep inside, next to my vertebrae, and wondered if she had, at the last moment, substituted a butcher knife for the syringe. I moaned involuntarily and said:

“You forgot to tell me: ‘Now this will hurt like hell.'”

“You’re feeling pain?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Where?”

I told her where, good and deep. I felt the needle slide out.

After a moment she said, “Now press back against me again.”

I did, she stabbed me again with the butcher knife and again I moaned.

After three tries I guess I wasn’t looking so good, because the circulator brought a plastic chuck-bucket and set it beside me on the operating table: “Use this if you feel sick.”

I nodded. I did feel something like seasickness coming on, though from the point of view of a speared tuna.

Finally the surgical assistant came over to help. On perhaps the fifth try—I’d lost count in my giddiness—they found what they were probing for and let me lie down.

“You’ll feel a tingling and a numbness move down your legs as the lidocaine takes effect,” the anesthetist said.

The scrub nurse shaved my leg and disinfected it with an iodine-colored solution. The surgical assistant turned on the TV monitor and adjusted the brightness.

My legs were numbing, but we still had some time to kill as the lidocaine did its job. My doctor tossed a roll of adhesive wrap across the operating table, bouncing it off the scrub nurse’s forehead. They all laughed through their surgical masks. He joked with me: “Now that you’re numb from the waist down, I can perform that circumcision you wanted.”

I demurred and thought to ask about an enhancement.

When I could no longer move my toes, everyone got suddenly silent. Lights, camera, action. The circulator handed my doctor a scalpel, and he went to work.

The anesthetist bent close and cooed, “Can you feel anything at all now?”

“Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I can feel the doctor slicing a hole in my leg.”

It hurt but not as bad as a knife in the back.

“Hmm. Well, sometimes these spinals anesthetize unevenly.”

“Truly. That I can sense.”

I tried to raise up to take a look at the scalpel work though couldn’t get a good angle. But soon the cutting phase was over. He’d made two small, bloody holes on the outside of my knee and one on the inside. I lay back and followed my doctor’s gaze to the TV monitor. He had already inserted the quarter-inch-wide arthroscope. But I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel a thing from the waist down.

The Four-Letter Word

The surgical assistant and the circulator moved my orange-painted leg north and south, left and right, at my doctor’s instructions, guided by images on the monitor. Once they dropped it down when he wanted it up. He barked, “No!” and they corrected.

On the monitor I could see yellow tissue (chicken fat?) and white tissue—cartilage. Though for all I knew they might have stuck the arthroscope most anywhere. To me it looked surprisingly like the inside of a tuna. Nonetheless, it was eerie watching folks probe around inside me.

My doctor manipulated a hooked surgical tool, testing what parts were intact and what was floating about. I could see the hook on the screen and sense the jolt when it slipped off a rigid target. But I couldn’t feel it.

As he manipulated the arthroscope, images of white shreds—damaged cartilage—came into view. In went the Norelco, or whatever, a tiny, tubular device. A whirling blade shaved off the torn tissue and sucked it away.

The surgical assistant nodded toward the screen and said, “I can see why you had trouble.”

Within a half hour he was sewing me up and injecting marcaine and morphine into the knee.

My doctor leaned forward with the bad news: a split articular cartilage, rough femur, advanced arthritis. No more tennis, ever, unless I was keen on a follow-up knee replacement—an operation that would make this one look like a pinprick. Then he used the four-letter word: golf.

The Sure Cure for Self Pity

The anesthetist wheeled me into the post-op care unit.

“I guess that wasn’t very good news,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t. Oh, well.”

But I couldn’t feel sorry for myself too long. For I was lying in a ward of groaning old women fresh from surgery likely not elective like mine. One cried out in anguish. A nurse went to her and affixed an I.V. She leaned over her patient and said:

“When you want more painkiller, press this button that I’m placing in your hand.”

The old woman, eyes still shut, groaned again and lay motionless.

The nurse looked at her and let out a breath. “Well, even if you can’t hear me I’m telling you anyway: Just press the button when you can’t stand it anymore. Good luck, sweetie.”

Looking at my fellow post-ops, I felt lucky to be alive and conscious and able to play golf if that’s all there was. At that moment, it seemed like a lot. Still, I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. But they wouldn’t let me go until the numbness went away.

I’d discovered, when I helped lift myself from the operating table back onto the gurney, that my legs felt like dead meat. I tried now to move my toes but couldn’t. Nor could I feel the touch of the blanket on my legs. I thought, if this is what it’s like to be a paraplegic, to have half your body a useless appendage without feel or function,…I looked about for some wood to knock on.

After an hour I could wiggle my toes. When the nurse asked if the numbness had gone, I lied:

“Vanished. I’m ready to go.”

They wheeled me to the outpatient recovery room, where at least people weren’t crying out in pain.

Feeling: Good

Here, after another hour, the numbness finally left my legs. But when I reached beneath the blanket to touch myself, I still had no feeling whatsoever.

I wasn’t exactly panicky, though I wondered if this was normal. However, I was afraid to ask. So my sick mind fixed on the worst-case scenario: Maybe, when the anesthetist was jabbing my spinal column, she clipped a minute nerve, permanently severing all sexual function and feel. I contemplated that at length, in horrific detail.

The recovery-room nurse came by, smiled, and laid a reassuring hand on my blanket. “You’ll be walking out of here in no time.”

I felt it when she patted my foot. But she could have kicked me between the legs and I still would have had the same crooked smile on my face.

Was this my fate: endless rounds of golf and genital road kill? In one afternoon I’d aged forty years. Even a billion-dollar malpractice settlement would be of scant value to me: All I wanted was a Kevorkian machine.

I tried not to touch myself. But I was obsessed. It was like I was fifteen once again—but with a slightly different motivation.

From across the room, a rotund, silver-haired man just back from a colonoscopy tried to engage me in conversation. But my mind was elsewhere: between my legs.

When he eventually looked away I checked once more. Finally I thought I sensed something. Yes, most definitely, yes!

So what if I couldn’t play tennis anymore. There were other pleasures lying in wait along the road of life. This was just another aching step down that road, and, as promised, in two days I was taking it.

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A Hot Town for Adult Pleasures

By Rick Skwiot

(Published in PortFolio Weekly)

KEY WEST – One popular Key West bumper sticker, usually seen on rusty pick-ups with Monroe County, Florida, plates, reads, “If it’s the ‘season,’ why can’t we shoot them?”

“Them” being the snowbirds and tourists (known locally also as “tourons”) who flock to the island in winter, crowd into its restaurants, demand New York-style service instead of the indigenous and more casual tropical variety, and drive the wrong way on one-way streets. (The last of which has inspired another oft-seen Conch Republic bumper sticker: “Don’t honk. I live here.”)

The ‘season’ stresses the small island (a mere two miles by four miles) with overpopulation, overcharging and over-consumption of booze and drugs. Despite the annual economic boom that comes with it, the season does make some locals want to shoot snowbirds for the sheer sport of it, though of I know of few actual cases. (It’s much more likely that a tourist would get run-over on his or her bike or mo-ped by a cement truck.)

So, practicing a sort of reverse or perverse snobbery, I eschew Key West in season. I much prefer the hot, lazy, laid-back, and less expensive summer. In fact, I’ve spent the last five summers here.

Low Cost, Low Stress

But I come during the hottest time of year for good reasons. Rents, restaurants, and most everything else cost less, the seas run warmer (between 85 and 90 degrees), and the locals (having temporarily regained control of their island) act friendlier. And it isn’t that hot. Really.

Most days it hangs around 88 to 90. But this is an island, itself hanging out in the Caribbean, closer to Havana than Miami. (A geographic fact that a former mayor once underscored for legislators in Tallahassee by water-skiing from Key West to Cuba.) As a result, beneficent sea breezes waft over the island. If you lie in the shade of a palm tree on the beach, you can keep comfortable even during the hottest part of the day.

But mornings and evenings are fine for all the free and nearly free outdoor activities favored by the frugal, off-season visitor.

Despite the cement trucks, the island is great for bicycling. Most of the shady, Old Town streets carry little traffic, and a bike trail runs along Key West’s southern shore, providing splendid Atlantic vistas.

Key West is also a good town for walkers. The tropical flora (from brilliant red-orange Poinciana trees to magenta bougainvillea to a plethora of tropical ferns and palms) is beguiling, the varied and creative architecture entrancing, and the people-watching fascinating—and not just on the beaches. (Though there too one can be fascinated, if that’s the word, by the flesh, in all shapes and amounts, both male and female, swallowing dental-floss bikinis.)

Eccentric Key West

The town’s reputation for eccentricity is well deserved, and a stroll through Old Town usually yields something bizarre and noteworthy for the student of aberrant human behavior. As Key West is the only city in the continental United States having never experienced frost, it attracts many who chose to sleep wherever they may fall, without fear of frostbite. (If I had to be homeless, this is certainly where I’d do it.)

But in this chemically dependent town, the line between home dwellers and the homeless often is quite thin. Some move back and forth across it, depending on recent fortunes and treatment. Unfortunately, a number of the homeless are also demented in one way or another. Not infrequently I’ll see these lost souls talking or screaming to themselves, or to ghosts, under the eaves of the public library across the street from my home, where they sleep.

But in Key West not all the homeless are lunatics, and not all the lunatics are homeless. Likewise, if were going to be a lunatic, there is where I’d do it. For it is a town built on tolerance, so much so that my friends here find nothing particularly abnormal about me. Or so they, tolerantly, say.

But if you are an intolerant sort, one who might object to public drunkenness, public nudity, perversion, drug use, loud music, loud motorcycles, pornography, and an active sex trade, perhaps Key West is not the place for you.

Other Strange Birds

But in addition to the human animal, other species reward scrutiny in Key West. The avid birdwatcher can spot not only a large variety of sea and shorebirds, from the Great Frigatebird to the rare Wurdemann’s Heron, but also numerous passerine birds seen in few other U.S. locales.

But at Key West the best nature watching is done underwater. For a buck and a half you can bike into Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site at the southwest tip of the island. On days when winds run westerly and the water laps to shore crystal clear, you can snorkel off a sand-and-coral beach to submerged rocks just a hundred yards out. There you’ll find giant jewfish, tarpon as long as you are, five-foot barracuda and beautiful tropical species: parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and more. You can also spot lobsters, crabs, rays, and sharks.

Extraordinary snorkeling—with thousands of tropical fish and corals—can be had just six miles off shore, at the coral reef that guards Key West from Atlantic surf. But don’t put it off too many more summers. Environmentalists say the reef is dying and could be all but dead within a decade. Even in the mere five years since I first saw it, the reef has atrophied noticeably.

Key West is also home to some of the best sport-fishing in the world. But you don’t have to be a Hemingway, with a big boat and expensive gear, to catch fish. Fishing is free at Fort Zach, at the public pier on the south end of White Street, at Mallory Square, Garrison Bight, and numerous other sites around the island. Over the years I’ve caught (and ate, as opposed to released) snappers, jacks, porgies and more from these spots. I’ve also seen some sizeable permit, barracuda, kingfish, and hammerhead sharks taken from these close-in waters.

The best and most challenging saltwater sport to my mind, lobstering, requires but minimal gear (mask, snorkel, fins, gloves, hand-net, and measuring stick). No need to spend hundreds of dollars on rental boats, scuba gear, and sonar equipment. On numerous occasions I’ve culled my daily limit of six spiny lobsters in the waters surrounding Key West.

The annual two-day mini-season falls on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July (this year, the 25th and 26th). The regular season always runs from August 6 through May 31.

As for land sport, some of the best pick-up tennis anywhere can be found at Bayview Park, both mornings and evenings. You can also arrange lessons with the resident pro.

The Key West Golf Club, on adjacent Stock Island, provides a challenging and comely 18 holes with some of the most daunting rough imaginable—mangrove swamp. This, of course, is not free or even close to free, but summer rates are about half those of winter.

Indolent Pleasures

But for all there is to do on the island, perhaps what’s best about summers here is doing nothing. Lolling in body-temperature waters. Sitting in the shade of the tall pines at Fort Zach, reading, dozing, playing Scrabble. Watching the sun set red over the Marquesas. Drinking a beer at the Schooner Wharf bar as you study the moon’s reflection in the harbor and the sunburned Europeans strolling by. This is not low-stress living, this is no-stress living.

Except perhaps for hurricanes. The advent of hurricane season might put off some summer tourists. But hurricane watching—or, rather, weather watching—is the Conch Republic’s national pastime. Key West is a town not of sports bars but of weather bars, where, on rainy days, fishermen, dive-boat crewmembers, and construction workers sit elbow to elbow on barstools, eyes glued to The Weather Channel.

If you do come to Key West for the non-season, don’t worry about packing lots of clothes. On the beach, less is more. In town, cut-offs, tank tops, and flip-flops are worn into even the best restaurants.

And don’t bring the kids, unless you want to undermine the work ethic and moral values you’ve tried to instill in them. For this is a place where adults can act like children—or worse. Key West is a town built on liberty, license, and adult pleasures, on free and easy living, and on fun, particularly in summer, when the taint of Northern angst wanes.

It’s that feeling of liberty—of a real summer vacation, when you can do whatever you want and nobody much cares—that keeps me coming back.

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Assateague Island

By Rick Skwiot
(Published in PortFolio Weekly)

If you want to get an idea what this land looked like before English ships arrived, go to Assateague Island—though you won’t see Assateagues, Gingoteagues, Pocomokes, and Nanticokes, the Algonquin-speaking peoples who lived there then.  But you will glimpse one of the last significant stretches of uninhabited coast from Maine to Key West, a 37-mile long barrier island with unspoiled sand beaches, wild horses, wild birds and peace.

Assateague lies but a hundred miles north.  Take U.S. 13 from Hampton Roads.  Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  As soon as you do, you’ll find yourself in another world, one without traffic, urban sprawl, or fast-food franchises.  This is time-traveling back, say, some sixty years, before all that began.  But to time-travel in earnest, you must take a few detours.

Coming off the bridge make an immediate right into the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.  Walk south from the visitors’ center half a mile on a bramble-lined path amid fluttering sparrows to the observation overlook, built atop a World War II bunker that housed two sixteen-inch guns.  These cannon guarded Chesapeake Bay against German submarines.  Though never fired in battle, they could lob a one-ton projectile—ordnance the weight of a small car—some 25 miles, into downtown Virginia Beach, for example.

But more important, from here you can see the saltwater marsh and the sea, and the vastness of the land and water.  You can hear cardinals chipping in the green canopy and an owl screech in the distance.  Then you can descend to the small cemetery below and see, as I did, a black snake slither into the broken grave of a mother-of-three, who died in 1823 at age 25.

Next, get back on the highway.  But don’t just barrel up the Eastern Shore like you have a date waiting in Philly.  Though your destination is Assateague, this is a journey, where you can be enriched all along the way.
 
So detour to Capeville to see what 1940 really looked like.  Though perhaps it looked more prosperous then, with fewer abandoned homes.

Stop at Kiptopeke (“big water” in Accawmack) State Park to see loons and mergansers paddling Chesapeake Bay, to search for shells on the white sand beach, to hike through a pine forest and mount a hawk observatory.

Do not stop at Cape Charles unless you wish to wallow in dubious melancholy.  Despite guidebook claims of charm and interest, the town feels dead, abandoned.  Rusting railroad cars sit on rusted tracks; “downtown” shops lie comatose and empty.  And where are the people?  Perhaps up the road pulling a shift at the Tyson or Perdue chicken factory—the former pouring out a roostery aroma over Temperanceville that put me off buffalo wings for some days.

For an up-close look at the marshland, take state route 180 to Wachapreague, “little city on the sea” to the pre-colonials and “once a resort for wealthy New York sports and fishing enthusiasts who arrived by steamship,” according to the official state travel guide.  But you’d never know it now.

Cruise through Locustville for a view of bucolic farms.  Go to Accomac to study gracious colonial homes and a staunch, redbrick, barred-windowed debtor’s prison—so English, so Puritan.  Wonder about the poor sods—and perhaps sots—who rotted inside, fellow wayfarers for whom most any writer feels a special kinship.

But enough of side trips.  Enough of abandoned farmhouses, abandoned cars, and concrete-block churches.  Enough of the feel of depletion, as if the land, the people, and history were all winding down, a feeling that increases as one approaches Maryland.  But don’t go that far.  Three miles before the state line, turn right on Virginia route 175.  You are almost at Assateague.

If of a delicate nature—or a naturalist—avert your eyes as you pass the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) facility on Wallops Island.  Otherworldly rocket-launching and satellite-tracking equipment looms over the countryside like alien creatures.  You have come for nature study, and this stuff vibrates of the unnatural, of things beyond human comprehension, of dark science.

Cross the causeway and drawbridge to Chincoteague (pronounced “shin’ ko teeg”) Island.  Left on Main Street as you come off the bridge, right on Maddox Boulevard, some seven blocks down.  Then straight, straight on across the saltwater marsh, up over the channel bridge, down onto Assateague Island and into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Pay your five bucks, which allows you passage on and off the island for a week.

Get out your binoculars and mosquito repellent.  For you have come to a National Wildlife Refuge, established by Congress in 1943 to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds, and to a Mosquito Breeding Sanctuary, though this latter designation is my own, not that of Congress.

Soon, pull off to the right.  Take the short trail to one of the oldest operating lighthouses in America, built in 1833 to diminish the large number of ships foundering on Assateague’s shoals.  Then hike the Woodland Trail to find the rotting hull of a hundred-foot-long ship, now up to its gunnels in sand.  But you have to know exactly where to find it, or just stumble upon it as I did.  Here’s how:

Walk the Woodland Trail loop with the folks looking for the Assateague wild ponies.  But then, on the way back, duck off to the right, down a sandy trail marked “Tom’s Cove.”  After some 200 yards you’ll arrive at a secluded beach, where oystermen work their beds in the distance.  An old house stands on stilts a furlong from shore.  Stroll east down the beach, to your left, and within another 220 yards you’ll find the hull of a wooden ship and be able to imagine the storm or the mistakes that landed it there.

The wild horses, legend says, first swam ashore after escaping a shipwrecked Spanish galleon and have thrived ever since.  On the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of each July, members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company round up a portion of the herd, drive them across the shallows to neighboring Chincoteague Island, and sell them at auction to raise money for their work.

From a distance the ponies look like any other horses, though slightly smaller.  But if you can get up close enough you’ll find that, unlike domesticated steeds, these will bite and kick the affectionate tourist who attempts to pet them.

Other mammals inhabit the island as well, most notably sika, small Asian elk introduced to the island in the 1920s. And river otters, voles, rabbits, raccoons, white-tailed deer, and an endangered tribe of fox squirrels.  Missing mammals include the Assateagues.

A “Brief History” from the Chincoteague Island Chamber of Commerce tells us that after years of battles with settlers, the chiefs of the Assateagues and Pocomokes signed a treaty calling for a League of Peace and Friendship between them and the Englishmen.  But the peace did not last.  Maryland officials got wind of a planned uprising and “shortly afterward managed to dissolve the Indian empire.  Records do not indicate how this was accomplished.” But we can guess.

For those wishing to view wild nature, Assateague’s greatest draw—next to the migrating Homo sapiens found on summer’s dune-lined beaches—is avian, both indigenous and migrating.

The island lies in the Atlantic Flyway, where, in spring, birds return north from warmer climes and, in fall, retrace their journey.  Shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds abound.  Eagles, hawks, ducks and geese; herons, egrets, sandpipers and plovers; gulls, skimmers, terns and more soar, paddle, and wade about.  I saw brown-headed nuthatches, northern shovelers, bald eagles, ospreys, brants, glossy ibises, lesser yellow-legs and yellow-rumped warblers.  With the foaming sea, brackish wetlands, and freshwater pools, Assateague is a paradise for birds and bird-lovers alike.

Furthermore, Refuge literature boasts of its harboring three species of American ticks, the dog, lone star, and northern deer, the last of which may carry Lyme disease.  But after hiking all day, I found only three examples of the dog tick on me.

Bring your bicycle.  Assateague contains miles of flat roads and bike trails.  Do not bring your pets or your beer—neither is allowed.  But pack your fishing gear, clam rake, and crab net.  Surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, and oystering are permitted.  As is searching for seashells, though Assateague is not known for great shelling.  But the Chincoteague Bay waters are said to be ideal for kayaking and canoeing, particularly at the Maryland end.

If you wish to camp, you’ll have to patronize a commercial campground on Chincoteague Island or go to the Maryland side of Assateague, where you’ll find campgrounds run by the National Park Service and by Maryland, in its Assateague State Park.

But if you’d prefer to watch the sun setting over the bay from your own private deck, try the motels along Chincoteague’s Main Street, just a five-minute drive from Assateague.  You’ll also find Main Street restaurants where you can eat local oysters, clams, and flounder as you watch fishing boats return to port, escorted by laughing gulls and great white egrets.

Killing Mother

By Rick Skwiot

(First published in PortFolio Weekly as “The Crossing.”)

The call I’d been waiting for came in the middle of the night, waking me from a dead sleep.

“This is Nurse Something-or-Other from the Good Samaritan Home…Your mother’s passed away…Would you like to come down and see her?”

I’d been wanting her to die for some time, actually praying for it. More than that, I ordered it, told them to remove the feeding tube.

But it didn’t hit me until later, when I got the death certificate in the mail. My eyes went to the Cause of Death, where the doctor had written: “Dehydration.”

I sat staring at the word. Here was the woman who had borne me, nursed me, and spoon-fed me, who, in her delusional days after the stroke, had wanted to fix me dinner from her hospital bed, to feed and nurture me. And I had let her die of thirst, had sat by for three days as she parched, unwilling to extend to her what anyone would to a desiccated houseplant: a cup of water.

But when I told them to let her die, I’d been so beaten down by the years of her steady deterioration, by her endless operations, humiliations, and pain, by the ugliness and stench of it all, that I never asked any questions, just told them to do it, as she had stipulated.

*

But even as she is leaving you, others are taking her from you. When you visit it’s obvious that you’re the outsider, and that those who feed her, bathe her, and count out her pills have a greater claim on her. As much as she may love you, you are now but a mere diversion, a sporadic provider of rare luxuries, and these workers, along with the other old women winding down around her, this is her family.

You, however, are the chronicler of her deterioration—the sole constant witness among the passing parade of generalists, specialists, nurses, and neighbors—as she moves in and out of hospitals and hospices, and into wards providing steadily increasing care and decreasing independence.

You come to note the routines, the rules, the subterfuge of the House of Death. You mark the perverse, chirpy denial of death practiced by doctors and nurses, and come to practice it yourself. You perceive the protocols of death, as when you ride down the elevator with an aged man strapped to a gurney, his mouth open, eyes aglaze, obviously dead, but without the white sheet pulled up to conceal his face, so as to pretend old John’s merely off to the hospital for some miracle cure.

You note, too, the customary cheeriness and helpfulness of the orderlies and nurses who feed, bathe, cradle, and carry the useless, festering, and unaesthetic old bodies, who change the soiled diapers and the soiled sheets of these old women—all the ugly chores the women’s own children wish to avoid, seemingly at any cost.

You see how basic, and base, are our needs. In your darker moments you view human beings not as noble, Godlike creatures, but as devouring organisms putrefying plant and animal matter, infernal machines for producing feces. For that is the smell of any death house: feces ineptly masked by chemical disinfectant. It’s that odor you dread most, even more than the images of the defeated bodies, the wild cacklings of the demented, or the confused gazes of the old women you pass, sitting in their wheelchairs, thinking you their doctor or son. You can’t get the stench out of your head and your sinuses for hours after leaving, and miraculously it reappears days later as you once again approach the death house.

You note the etiquette for seating guests, the stares, and the stage whispers in the dining room, where you take Christmas dinner with your mother and a table of strangers. Out tall windows you see the brown river rushing by like irretrievable time, and across it black-trunked trees growing from bottomland like bruised fingers of Death.

But what you notice most are the old women eating alone, those without kin who care to visit. Why ruin a holiday with the smell of death, with awkward silences and mediocre food? You endure it but then, before sunset, rush away to bolt good liquor with cheerful friends, to kill the taste and dull the ache.

*

I understand how some people get worked up over capital punishment or abortion. But I think they’re missing the boat, the biggest boat, on which we all have a ticket. In places like the House of Death, it happens all the time, with everyone’s complicity—doctors, nurses, patients, and heirs.

It makes perfect sense in the abstract: Why keep alive folks for whom there is little hope of healing or even regaining consciousness, draining away life savings they’ve earmarked for their children?

The physical reality, though, is another story. In retrospect, I would have rather walked into my mother’s room and shot her, or something, just to know that she wasn’t wandering parched and demented in an endless desert for her last days as I stood by and watched.

Yet even now, five years since she’s gone, I think to telephone her with good news or a query about the past, then catch myself. That impulse to call tells me that she’s not fully gone and won’t be until I too cross the river.

Blood Simple

A St. Louis novelist reflects on ancestry, race, DNA testing and hyphenation

From St. Louis Magazine July 2008

When I was a child, we lived on a lake in rural Illinois outside Granite City, where my father worked at a steel mill. But on weekends he was outdoors. In winter, ice skating on the frozen lake or walking off across the shorn cornfields with his shotgun and hunting dog, searching for rabbit. In summer, working in the garden, repairing the rustic house or fishing shirtless from our boat dock or from his homemade rowboat, gliding over the still lake.

My mother, a blue-eyed, blonde granddaughter of northern German immigrants, would then caution him: “Put a shirt on, Ed. You’re getting too dark.”

Jim Crow in St. Louis

Although my father’s parents came from Poland, he was not a round-faced, fair-haired Slav, but rather dark and wolfish, with olive skin that turned deep brown in the sun. My mother feared that when they visited friends or family across the Mississippi in segregated, 1950s

St. Louis, people would think she was with a “colored man” and abuse them for the transgression — “colored” then being the common public term for African-Americans, with St. Louis Post-Dispatch classified ad headings for apartments reading, “For Rent — Colored.”

While my parents — and Jim Crow laws — have long since passed, my personal questions about race have persisted, for I inherited my father’s strong facial features, dark skin and surname, in addition to his mercurial Slavic soul. This led me always to identify with my Polish heritage over my Germanic side and consider myself a Polish-American. Now, thanks to DNA testing, I’ve had to revise that designation — and my perceptions about race, ethnicity and culture.

My curiosity about my father’s dark heritage was whetted by my parents’ refusal even to entertain the question. “You don’t need to know” was their usual response whenever I asked inappropriate questions about procreation and such, and they employed the phrase to end any debate or inquisition into our pre-American past as well. But in this case it was not out of embarrassment or delicacy, but likely out of ignorance and indifference.

Cass Avenue Poles

My father knew and cared little about his family’s European past. To him it was a stigma best ignored, hidden or denied. Born in 1914 in the North St. Louis Polish community, centered on Cass Avenue, he viewed his ethnicity as the social handicap it surely was in Anglo-centric St. Louis society, and for a while had anglicized our surname to “Scott.” Although Polish was his first language (he learned grammatically correct, slang-free English in the St. Louis Public Schools), he refused to teach me any of it: “Speak American,” he’d say.

However, I frequently heard Polish spoken, as his mother, Mary, who had come to the States in 1910, spoke virtually no English, even until the day she died, 60 years later. As a result, she also was little able to quench my curiosity about family history. Though I do recall a story she once told me — likely with my father translating — about Cossacks (she had claimed) raiding her village when she was a girl. They came on horseback as she was sitting outside with a neighbor who clutched an infant son to her breast — that is, until a horseman lifted the child from her arms on the end of his saber.

My Polish grandfather, Joseph, whom I never knew, had come to the United States in 1892 and worked in steel mills in Scranton and Chicago before finally settling in

St. Louis. From genealogical research that I once conducted in a vain attempt to unearth my “dark” past, I learned that he came from the same small Polish town, Zawady, as my grandmother. However, he left Poland two decades before she did, when she was but 2 years old. When she did finally come to St. Louis, alone, they were married within a few months. I suspect it was an arranged marriage of some sort, with him paying her passage over. Such was immigrant courtship and romance circa 1910.

So despite my genealogical research and thanks to my parents’ lack of knowledge and/or interest in such issues, I still didn’t have an answer to my question: What was I racially? Though nominally Polish-American and German-American, I knew that a large measure of other genetic material — seemingly not northern European — tinted the mix. I conjectured in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake that we were “perhaps descendants of raiders from the east. Or of Gypsies … Or perhaps of the Neuri, militant Iranian nomads who inhabited eastern Poland in the fifth century B.C. and who, according to Herodotus, turned into wolves at certain times of the year.”

What I didn’t realize until I finally submitted to DNA testing was how significant my non-European genetic makeup was, how genetically insignificant my Polish heritage was and how wrong I had been my whole life thinking myself a Polish-American.

DNA and Bloody History

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a coiled molecule composed of chromosome cells that transmit genetic information from generation to generation in all living organisms — like a set of blueprints. Segments along the length of a human DNA molecule form sets of genes that we all share, though individuals can inherit different forms of a given gene, making everyone genetically unique.

After making arrangements with a testing lab called AncestryByDNA, I was sent a test kit, which contained two plastic swabs that I used to scrape DNA samples from the inside of my cheek — this is painless — and then mailed back to the lab in Sarasota, Fla. The lab then analyzed my DNA markers and compared my genetic composition to major population groups around the globe.

The test results indicated that only some two-thirds of my DNA came from northern European sources, with the rest coming predominantly from south Asia — that is, India and the Middle East, with a couple of percentage points from southeastern Europe — Turkey, Greece or Italy.

According to historians, the most common way that such Indian DNA mixed into European populations came via the migration of the Roma (often referred to as Gypsies). Some believe they came into existence as a people a thousand years ago when Middle Eastern Muslim invaders conquered northern India and marched the Roma back to present-day Afghanistan and Iran as slaves. Other historians think they were low-caste Hindus recruited and sent west to battle encroaching Islamic armies.

In either case, the Roma remained in the Middle East until the 14th century, when they began moving into Europe. Their migration — from India to the Middle East, then through Turkey and Greece to eastern Europe — suggests a genetic road map paralleled by my DNA results.

Ever since their arrival in Europe some 700 years ago, the Roma have found little warm welcome. They have been alternately shunned, enslaved or slaughtered. In the years after my Polish grandparents landed in America, the Nazis attempted a Gypsy genocide that may have cost half a million lives, some eastern European Communist regimes tried to eradicate the Gypsies through sterilization — as did Norway, until 1977 — and in the 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of Gypsies.

Similarly, descendants of my Middle Eastern ancestors have not fared well since my grandparents came to the States. Foreign intervention, war and oppressive Islamic fundamentalism have beset Persia/Iran and Afghanistan, with somber results for many inhabitants. And we know what the 20th century meant to whatever Polish and German kin I may have had in those homelands: totalitarian oppression, saturation bombing, bloody battles, death camps, invasion and hunger.

A Fortunate Migration

There is no way for me to know or gauge the suffering of my ancestors — whether Hindu, Arab, Slav, Turk or Teuton — or to assess what impact, if any, it has on my character or essence. But I do know one highly pertinent and pivotal fact of my ancestral history: On April 5, 1892, my grandfather Joseph Skwiot disembarked the SS Bremen in Baltimore and after some two decades working in American steel mills managed to afford to have a bride sent him from his hometown in Poland. As a result, I was born an American.

Whatever genetic connection I might have with Gypsies, Germans, Slavs or Persians plays little role in who I am compared to that one central fact of family history. Anyway, scientists say that we all share 99.9 percent of our DNA, regardless of our ethnicity, and can all be traced back to a common ancestor in Africa 200,000 years ago — which suggests that race is nothing more than a social construct.

What matters profoundly is that I have had the good fortune to be born and raised in a functional society, one that has done a rather good job of sustaining me — feeding me, educating me and protecting me from foreign invaders, oppressive rule or theocracy. Conversely, my ancestors — either by force or flight — left communities that were significantly dysfunctional for them: low-caste Hindus in India, likely heretical Roma in Islamic lands and lower-class Poles and Germans in rigid European aristocracies where their rights and opportunities were severely circumscribed.

And I am glad they did. However sorry I am for their suffering, it has miniscule effect on me in relation to the safe and nurturing environment in which I find myself. The social mobility, material opportunity and safety offered in the United States compare favorably to most of the remaining world — a fact obvious to disadvantaged people everywhere. Which is why folks like my grandfather continue to flock here — legally or illegally and often at great expense and risk — from societies far less functional for them and their families.

I am also glad for the $670 worth of DNA testing I got. Not for its opening up new avenues of genealogical investigation and knowledge for me or for the possibility of finding famous or infamous kin, but for alerting me to how truly unimportant my genealogy is and how preposterous my lifelong self-perception as a Polish-American has been.

Assuming that my light-complexioned mother transmitted to me only northern European blood and accounted for roughly half my genetic makeup, then the darker portions came solely from my father. Which suggests that, genetically, he was likely more Roma and Arab than Pole. Thus my Polish-American designation was correct only in a minor cultural way — in that I descended in part from people who came here from Poland speaking Polish — and little more. Speaking no Polish and having never been to Poland, I am now forced to reconsider my ethnicity and its meaning, and find it fairly meaningless.

Whether I am descended from Europeans or not, from whores and horse thieves or popes and princesses, matters not. What does matter, I see, is that I have been granted a culture that nurtures all ranks of people rather than oppressing or enslaving them on dubious grounds of race, religion or class. I witness socially disadvantaged and/or politically oppressed people from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Western Hemisphere coming here and actuating themselves materially, intellectually and spiritually. The prostitute’s granddaughter becomes a professor or priest; the steelworker’s grandson writes books and magazine articles instead of performing mean physical labor for a bare subsistence.

So I am abandoning forever my hyphenated existence — my Polish-Americanism — and suggest for accuracy’s sake that we all should. By jettisoning the Polish-, Irish-, African- or Mexican- prefixes, we indicate that we are a new race — not genetically speaking, but culturally, which is ultimately what counts.