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BRYSON CITY TALES by Walt Larimore, M.D.
Copyright © 2002 by Walt Larimore, published by Zondervan

Chapter One
They didn't tell me about this in medical school. And they sure didn't prepare me for this in my family medicine residency. Of course, like all well-trained family physicians, I knew how to provide for the majority of the medical needs of my patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Naturally I had been taught the basics of how to practice medicine in the office setting. But I was quickly discovering that physicians who headed into the rural counties of the Smoky Mountains in the third quarter of the twentieth century needed to know much more than these basics.

I don't remember any school or residency lessons on the peculiar calls I would receive from national park rangers telling of a medical emergency in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "Wilderness medicine," at least when I first started practice, was not in my black bag.

I don't remember any preparation for the unique medical emergencies faced by the Swain County Rescue Squad. Search-and-rescue medicine wasn't in my repertoire either, nor were the river rescues I would be involved with on the county's four rivers—the Tuckaseigee, the Nantahala, the Oconaluftee, and the Little Tennessee. And I know for certain that I had no training in caring for animals or livestock—but, sure enough, those calls were also to come to a family physician in the Smoky Mountains.

Although my formal education had not prepared me for these types of medicine, when the need arose to learn and practice them, I felt up to the challenge. Although I was often perplexed by some of the unique aspects of practicing medicine in a rural—and, I first thought, somewhat backward—community, I didn't find the demands particularly distressing. My first murder case, however, was a different story.

I had just moved a month before, with my wife, Barb, and our nearly-three-year-old daughter, Kate, from my residency in family medicine at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, to Swain County, in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. The county had only 8,000 residents, but occupied over 550 square miles. However, the federal government owned 86 percent of the land—and much of it was wilderness. Over 40 percent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is contained within the borders of Swain County, which is also home to the eastern band of the Cherokee Indians, to one of the more southern sections of the Appalachian Trail, and to the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The doctors in the county seat—the small town of Bryson City, North Carolina—rotated the on-call assignment. When we were on call, we were responsible for a twenty-four-hour period of time, from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 A.M. We were on call for all of the patients in Swain County General Hospital's forty beds, the Mountain View Manor Nursing Home, the Bryson City and Swain County jails, and the hospital emergency room. We also provided surgical backup for the physicians in nearby Robbinsville, which had no hospital, and for the physicians at the Cherokee Indian Hospital, located about ten miles away in Cherokee, which had a hospital but no surgeons. While on call, we were also required to serve as the county coroner.

Since pathology-trained coroners lived only in the larger towns, the nonpathologist physicians in the rural villages often became certified as coroners. We were not expected to do autopsies—only pathologists were trained to perform these—but we were expected to provide all of the nonautopsy responsibilities required of a medical examiner.

Having obtained my training and certification as a coroner while still in my family medicine residency, I knew the basics of determining the time and cause of death, gathering medical evidence, and filling out the copious triplicate forms from the state. Not sure that I was adequately prepared, but proud to be the holder of a fancy state-provided certificate of competence anyway, I thought I was ready to begin practice in Bryson City—ready to join my colleagues as an inexperienced family physician as well as a neophyte medical examiner. It was not long after our arrival that I was required to put my new forensic skills to work.

I had finished a fairly busy evening in the emergency room—my first night on call in my first week of private practice in this tiny Smoky Mountain town—and, after seeing what I thought would be the evening's last patient, I crossed the street to our home, hoping for a quiet night and some much-needed sleep. Sometime between sleep and sunrise, the shrill ring of the phone snatched me from my slumber.

"Dr. Larimore," barked an official voice. "This is Deputy Rogers of the Swain County Sheriff's Department. We're at the site of an apparent homicide and need the coroner up here. I've been notified that you are the coroner on call. Is that correct, sir?"

"Ten-four," I replied, in my most official coroner-type voice.

"Then, sir, we need you up at the Watkins place. Stat, sir."

"Ten-four." Boy, did I ever feel official and important as I placed the phone in its cradle.

I rolled over to inform Barb of the advent of my first coroner's case. She didn't even wake up. Nevertheless, I sat upright on the edge of the bed, beginning to feel the adrenaline rush of my first big professional adventure, when I suddenly moaned to myself and fell back into the bed. "Where in the world is the Watkins place?" I thought to myself. I hadn't a clue. But I knew who would—Millie the dispatcher.

I hadn't yet met Millie face-to-face, but already I felt I knew her after only a short time in town. Every doctor knew Millie, and she knew everything about every doctor—where they would be and what they would be doing at almost any time of any day. Equally important to me was that Millie knew where everyone's "place" was.

So I phoned dispatch. She answered quickly and barked, almost with a snarl, "Swain County Dispatch. What you want?"

"Millie, this is Dr. Larimore."

There was a long pause, then a condescending, "Yes, I know."

I'd heard the older doctors refer to Millie's "always courteous" and "helpful" demeanor. "What was up with the dispatcher tonight?" I wondered.

"Millie, where is the Watkins place?"

A big sigh was followed by a clipped statement of the obvious: "Son, it's the scene of a crime tonight."

Now I was feeling myself getting a bit impatient. "Right .. . Millie, I need to get up there."

There was another long pause, then another condescending, "Yes, I know."

I was quiet for a moment, then, almost pleading—in fact, begging—I said, "Millie, I need to know how to "get" there!"

Millie sighed again and—almost reluctantly, it seemed—gave me directions to the Watkins place.

A fifteen-minute drive from our home—smack-dab on the top of Hospital Hill—down winding mountain roads brought the on-call coroner to the scene of the crime. It wasn't hard to find, with police and sheriff cars—their red lights blazing in the cool mountain air—gathered around a small frame house, bathing it in the whitewash of headlights. The border of the lawn—a small picket fence—was already surrounded with yellow crime-scene tape.

I parked outside the ring of official vehicles and quickly walked up to the house. It looked so small, so innocent, and so all-American. Deputy Rogers met me at the tape to lift it up and issue a warning: "Doc, it's pretty gruesome in there."

"Obviously," I thought, "you don't understand that I am a trained professional." As would soon become painfully clear, I didn't have a clue what I was about to walk into.

The sheriff met me at the door and shook my hand. This was our first meeting. A tall, bulky man, he looked more like an NFL linebacker than my preconceived idea of a small-county sheriff.

"Pleased to meet you, son. This your first case?"

"Yes, sir. It sure is."

He motioned to the yard, and we walked out several feet to speak in confidence. He reached into his shirt pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. Partially shaking out a couple, he offered me one.

"No thanks, Sheriff."

He put one to his lips, lit it, and took a long drag.

"Son, it isn't pretty in there. There was a woman and her daughter a visitin' the man who owns the home. I'm not sure why. They was in the bedroom sittin' on the bed. Apparently there was another man that come up to visit. He wasn't expected or welcome. Apparently the entire crew had been drinkin' a bit."

I was to come to learn that "drinkin' a bit" meant they were soused.

He went on. "Anyways, an argument commenced and apparently the fella that lived here grabbed a loaded shotgun out of his closet. The two fellas began to tussle a bit. The gun went off. So did the head of one of the fellas."

He paused for a moment, for effect and for another long drag. For the first time he looked at me, eyeball-to-eyeball.

"Son, all I need you to certify is that this fella is dead and the cause of death. Then we'll ship the body over to the morgue in Sylva. The pathologist will do the autopsy tomorrow."

"No problem, Sheriff."

He crushed out the half-smoked cigarette and then turned to return to the house. I followed.

We entered a living room that couldn't have been more than ten by fourteen feet. There was barely room for a small TV, a small sofa and chair, and a small table. To the left, a doorway led to a small kitchen. To the right was a doorway to a small bedroom—maybe eight by ten feet in size. Most of the space was occupied by a twin bed. Just to the side of the bed was a body. The boot-clad feet were lying together, the toes pointing up. The blue jeans and the plaid shirt looked quietly peaceful. However, there was nothing above the shirt. In fact, the shirt ended at the wall—almost as though the head were stuck in a hole in the wall.

"The wall." It was then that I noticed that the walls were an unusual color and texture. The nausea and near-wretch overwhelmed me as the shock of what I was seeing registered in my mind. Plastered on the walls and the ceiling and the bed and the floor were thousands of globs of brain and skull and scalp and hair. Only a small section of the bed was clean.

The sheriff, as though reading my thoughts, commented, "The girls were sittin' on the bed. They was covered with brains and blood when we got here. The clean spot on the bed was where they was sittin'. One of my lady detectives has taken them over to the safe house in Sylva. They'll be seein' the victim's advocate right away."

A combination of shakes, cold sweats, and the sure feeling of an approaching faint now replaced the rush of nausea. I backed out of the bedroom and sat on the sofa in the living room.

The sheriff followed me into the living room. "Don't feel bad, son," he said, trying to comfort me. "I felt the same way the first time I seen a murder like this."

"Oh, I feel just fine," I moaned. "I'm just sitting here to reconstruct the events of the crime." The sheriff was experienced and kind enough to allow my delusion to remain intact. He patted me on the back as he turned to walk out of the house. "Deputy Rogers is here to help you with anything you need," he said.

After a few minutes the nausea and weakness passed. "Deputy, let's go to work."

Alongside the investigating detective I supervised the examination of the room, the collection of evidence, and the police photographer. We then moved the body away from the wall. It was still warm and soft—no evidence of stiffness, no coldness. This killing was fresh.

The neck seemed normal but was only connected to a small piece of the back and base of the skull. The inside of the skull—what little was left—was strangely beautiful, glistening white, still moist and warm. There was nothing left of the head. The shock and nausea had receded, and now my training and limited experience took over as I, almost mechanically, finished the evidence collection.

As soon as I had all the information I needed, I jumped into my car and headed away from the scene. I fought to focus my mind on the medical data and to shut out my emotional reactions to the horror. So often in residency we had to stuff our emotions deep into our subconscious—there to lie hidden, not talked about, not explored, not released.

I thought, "This isn't the medical center—this is a little town—now my home. These folks—the victim and the survivors—I don't know them, but in a sense they are my new neighbors." I thought of the woman and her daughter. "Who are they? Will they be OK? Will they—can they—ever recover from witnessing such a horrible tragedy? Will I ever recover?"

My mind was a swirling cacophony of emotions. Suddenly I felt a strange sensation on my cheeks—my own tears. I pulled off the road, turned off the engine, and lay my forehead on the steering wheel. Three years of residency—of learning to be a doctor—with all of its anxiety and failure and repressed emotion erupted out of its repose like the deep waters of a dam that had just burst. I sobbed and sobbed. After a bit, I collected myself and blew my nose. I found myself wondering, "Who am I crying for? Myself, or for this senseless tragedy? Maybe both," I thought.

I heard a noise and turned to see the hearse, followed by Deputy Rogers in his squad car, drive by me and down the hill—probably heading toward Moody Funeral Home. After the cars drove by, my eyes were drawn to what appeared to be, in the half-moon's light, a football field—and beyond it, a cemetery. "What an unusual combination," I thought. In a sense, one represented my past. Then I felt goose bumps on my arms as I realized that the other represented my future. I was between the two. "What would be said," I wondered, "when life ended for me? What would my tombstone say?"

I had no idea what my future in this small town might hold. I again bowed my head onto the steering wheel. "Father in heaven," I prayed silently, haltingly, and confusedly. I continued, "Thank you for the skills and training you have given me. Guide my use of them, and grant me your wisdom. I don't want my life to end like this man's did tonight. I want my life to mean some-thing. I ask you to use me. I ask for your peace."

I felt suddenly refreshed—strangely peaceful. I smiled at the cemetery. "Not just yet," I said silently to the rolling knoll of tombstones. "Not just yet!"

I started the car and headed back toward Hospital Hill. When I arrived at the house, I walked around back and sat down on the wrought-iron bench just outside our back door. The view was stunning—looking up the Deep Creek Valley and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I filled my lungs with the crisp fall mountain air.

I thought about my decision to move to the Smoky Mountains to practice medicine. "What were you thinking when you accepted a position in this little town? Was it these mountains?" The second thoughts and self-doubt that plague every young physician flooded my mind. "Am I just a do-gooder? Am I trying to be some sort of Brother Teresa? Was I wrong to bring my pregnant wife and young child to these rural mountains? Some of the local doctors don't really want me here anyway. Should I just leave? Have I made the worst mistake of my life?"

There were no answers that night. But as I sat there looking out over the mountains—which had been viewed by several generations of Smoky Mountain physicians before me—a fragile sense of peace came over me. No, I thought. "This is where I'm supposed to be. At least for now."

The wind was picking up, and I began to feel chilled. I got up off the bench to go inside. I scrubbed my hands and face and then crawled into bed. As I wrapped my trembling arms around my sleeping wife, Barb didn't stir. After four years of medical school and three years of residency, she was used to me leaving at night, sometimes several times a night, to respond to emergencies at the hospital. She slept well that night. I did not.

Here I was in a warm and safe home, with a precious daughter and incredible wife. I was in an amazing profession in a stunningly beautiful location. But the self-doubts had come crawling into the house with me. "Was this all a mistake?" I thought again. "One big mistake?"

Chapter Two
It was October, nearly one year before the murder. I was in the last year of my residency training at Duke University. During my residency, Barb and I had fallen in love with North Carolina and her people. I would finish my training the next summer, and I needed to find a place to ply my trade. We were also looking for a place to raise our family—a special place where we might even spend the rest of our lives.

During residency, we would use our vacation time and the rare long weekend to look around the state for places in which to both live and practice. First, we looked at the Outer Banks and along the beaches of the southeastern part of the state. None of these sites really clicked with us. Then we looked at small towns in the midlands. But after one trip to the Smoky Mountains, we knew that was where our hearts were calling us.

And then, there we were, driving toward the heart of the Smokies for my interview with the board at Swain County Hospital. Barb and I had spent hours and hours reviewing information from each potential practice site—information sent by the local hospital or the town's Chamber of Commerce. The packets would often include appeals from local political officials that extolled the benefits of their locale and why a physician could experience permanent bliss only by choosing to practice in their town or area. Conspicuously absent was any explanation as to why, if their town was so perfect, they were not already overrun with doctors.

Quite frankly, our motive for agreeing to an interview in Bryson City was because we had friends who had camped and hiked there and who had lauded its natural beauty and its relative isolation. So we wanted to see the area, but we were pretty sure we would ultimately end up in one of the many other towns whose public-relation materials were so much more attractive. One by one, however, the towns had been checked off our list. Now only Bryson City remained. Would this town open her arms to us? And if so, would we feel called to accept her embrace?

As we drove along, I glanced over at my wife of nearly seven years. Barb, my best friend, reclined in the passenger seat, fast asleep on a fluffy pillow. The so-called air-conditioning of our aging Toyota Corolla was laboring to keep the car cool and gently blowing Barb's blond bangs off her forehead. I smiled. I felt fortunate to be married to such a remarkable woman. We had known each other since we were five years old, growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Voted by her high school class as the most likely to succeed, Barb had earned her bachelor of science degree in English education at Louisiana State University, where she had been both the sweetheart of my fraternity—and of me. We were married during our last year of college, and then Barb had been a teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in Durham, North , Carolina—first putting me through medical school and then through family medicine residency. At LSU, she had been awarded a Ph.T. degree—Putting Hubby Through!

Our first child had been born during my internship. I was on an emergency-room rotation—forty hours on and eight hours off, followed by forty more on and eight more off. Barb's water broke five weeks before Katherine Lee was due, and our premature daughter was born on the night before Halloween during one of my eight-hours-off periods. Although I had been a physician for less than a year, in medical school I had delivered several hundred babies in the charity hospital system in Louisiana. I had taken care of many more in the nursery. I had seen babies of all sizes, shapes, colors, and looks. And, speaking quite objectively, I had never seen a more beautiful baby than Kate!

But when Kate was about four months old, Barb became very concerned that our daughter wasn't progressing normally. Our family doctor tried to reassure us, but over the next two months Barb became more and more concerned. Finally we were referred to an elderly, but gentle and wise, pediatric neurologist. After his exam of Kate, he told us that he too was concerned. It was the first assurance Barb had received that her maternal instincts were accurate. The neurologist then ordered a special brain X ray called a CT scan.

I vividly remember when Dr. Renuart broke the terrible news. "Barb and Walt, Kate has cerebral palsy."

He let the words sink in and then continued. "Two-thirds to three-quarters of her brain has died and has dissolved away. This must have happened at some time during the pregnancy, and I suspect we'll never know what caused it. Maybe it was a knot in the umbilical cord; maybe it was just a kink. But somehow her brain lost oxygen and nutrients and died. On the right side, she has no brain at all—just water. On the other side, she has about one-half of the normal brain mass."

We were in shock. He continued. "Barb and Walt, Kate will grow physically. She'll probably grow to a normal adult size. She'll be bigger, but she'll never be better. She'll probably never walk, she'll never talk, she'll never think abstractly. You'll just have to take her home and love her the way she is."

He was quiet. The waiting room was quiet. It was as though the sun had set permanently and the lights had gone out. The room seemed colder, the world crueler.

Our marriage suffered. We suffered. I now understand why over 70 percent of couples with a child who has a disability end up divorced. But with the help of several terrific neighbors and a caring faith community and church, Barb and I got through our first two difficult years with Kate. Our marriage became stronger as Kate became stronger. In her development she was already is defying the experts' prognoses. And right now she was snoozing contentedly in her car seat in the back of the yellow Toyota.

When we crossed the Swain County line, a remarkable transformation took place in the geography. The mountains seemed to be higher—and they seemed greener and lusher. There seemed to be more open space and less clutter and development. I breathed in deeply as I took in the vistas looking north, into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mountain ridge after mountain ridge as far as the eye could see.

I left the four-lane highway at the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit and found myself on a small two-lane country road that followed a wide, slow-moving river. Suddenly the air cooled and Barb stirred. "Are we there, honey?" she asked through a yawn and a prolonged stretch.

"I think this is it."

She returned her seat to its full, upright, and locked position and started to look around.

"It's beautiful, Walt," she whispered.

We were both awestruck at the scenery. It may have been the first moment we knew that this is where we might be for a while. Barb pulled out the directions to the inn where we were to spend the night. It was a Sunday afternoon, and our interview at the hospital was scheduled for the next morning.

Winding up the side of the Tuckaseigee River valley, we drove slowly to admire the fall wildflowers adorning the sides of the road. The leaves were beginning to turn a hundred shades of yellow and orange and red. We came upon a quaint house with a beautiful flower-and-vegetable garden to the side. A small sign by the driveway announced "The Douthits." I hit the brakes, coming to a sudden stop.

"What is it, honey?" asked my startled wife.

"The Douthits. Isn't that the name of the administrator of the Swain County Hospital?"

"I think so. Why?"

"Do you think this might be their house? Shouldn't we stop in and say hi?"

"Might not hurt."

I put the car in reverse and pulled into the driveway. I went to the door while Barb gently aroused Kate from her slumber. The small ranch-style house was well kept. The yard was nicely manicured with a variety of fruit trees. The garden at the side of the house was a profusion of color—with flowers and vegetables. Someone in this home both loved the land and knew how to tend it.

After knocking a time or two, I could see what appeared to be the woman of the house approaching the front door. There was a small window in the door through which she peered at me, obviously not recognizing me. However, instead of opening the door, she began to walk away. I was perplexed.

Then I heard her call out, "Judy, one of your little friends is here to see you."

I felt the color rising in my cheeks. Through medical school and residency, professors and teachers always accused me of looking too young to be a doctor. This was almost always the first comment of any new patient I saw—a source of considerable irritation for me. I wanted to look older, more distinguished. But my youthful appearance wouldn't cooperate with my ambition.

Soon a striking young woman, who appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties, bounded to the door. Clearly she was gleeful about whomever she thought might be at the door. Without looking through the window, she flung the door open. She was in full smile, her shoulder-length dark hair glistening in the sunlight as she playfully tossed it back. Then her eyes met mine and took on the look of confusion. She quickly realized that I was not the eagerly anticipated visitor and that she, in fact, had no idea who I was. The smile melted into a frown, and she slammed the door shut.

I thought, "This is awfully strange behavior!" As she disappeared down the hall, she called out, "Dad, I don't have a clue who that is at the door." All was quiet for a moment or two. I didn't know whether to knock again or to leave. As I was pondering the options, a man rounded the corner and headed toward the door. Like his wife, he gazed through the window at me and, like her, looked equally perplexed. At least he opened the door.

He was a handsome middle-aged man, executive appearing in looks but dressed in casual slacks and a crisp short-sleeved Oxford shirt. "How may I help you, young man?" he inquired. By now, Barb was walking toward the door, with Kate in her arms. He glanced at her, and then his countenance softened and he began to smile. Before I could answer, he asked, "Are you Dr. Larimore?"

I was relieved to see that we had very likely chosen the right home. "I am! I am indeed." Barb was now at my side. "This is Barb and our daughter, Kate."

"Come in. Please come in."

As we entered, he called out, "Margie, it's the Larimores!"

He showed us into a small but comfortable living room with a picture window revealing a spectacular view of the Alarka Mountains, which lay south of town. There wasn't a building or structure in sight. I was mesmerized by the striking panorama.

"Please. Please make yourselves comfortable," Mr. Douthit said. "I knew you were coming in tonight. The Shells are expecting you at the inn."

As we took a seat on a plush couch, a friendly and pleasant-looking woman appeared from the kitchen carrying a tray of iced tea and drinking glasses.

"Dr. and Mrs. Larimore," our host said, "this is my wife, Margie."

As she placed the tray on the coffee table, her smile was radiant, and we could see where Judy's smile had come from. "It is so good to meet you," she declared as she shook our hands. "Please make yourself at home. I've brought some sweet tea, and I'll bring some cookies in a moment." She glanced over at Kate, resting in Barb's arms. "And who is this?" inquired Mrs. Douthit.

"This is Kate," Barb answered. "She's almost two years old."

"Earl and I can't 'wait' to be grandparents, but I'm afraid that's a few years away. James and Judy are both in college and haven't found their spouses just yet." Margie's friendly chatter put us at ease, and we leaned back in the couch and began to enjoy an unhurried visit with the Douthits.

Earl had been the administrator of the hospital since its inception, he told us. It was chartered as a not-for-profit community hospital in 1948 with one idea in mind: offering top-quality medical care to the people of Swain County and the surrounding areas from conception until death. Swain County Hospital opened its doors two years later, in 1950, with twenty beds, and had expanded several times to its current capacity of forty beds. Earl smiled as he related the rather difficult childhood the hospital had endured. Now, as a growing young adult, the hospital was administered by an all-voluntary community-based board of trustees. I smiled at his analogy.

Earl suddenly looked very serious. He gazed out the window for a moment and then back at me. "Dr. Larimore, I want to be honest with you. We've had a lot of doctors come and go, so we want you to see our town up close—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you like it, if you feel called here, then we can definitely use another physician. But if it's not your style, I don't want you or Mrs. Larimore to be embarrassed to tell us so. We're not just looking for 'a' doctor; we're looking for the 'right' doctor. Someone we like, and someone who likes us."

This was definitely a unique approach. Most of the other hospital recruiters we'd met were intent on "selling" their community to us. They wanted us there—period, no matter what. This man seemed different, and I appreciated his candor and found it refreshing. For the next hour, he told us about the town. He explained the background and personality of each of the town's current four general practitioners and two general surgeons. He laid out the hospital's plans for expansion to a more modern facility and the board's desire to have new physicians who were well trained in family medicine—who could care for patients in the intensive care unit or the emergency room, who could care for children and families, who could deliver babies and provide surgical services. He explained that they were looking for well-trained generalists—not specialists.

This was music to my ears. Physicians who practice general medicine typically are entirely different creatures than those who specialize. They are trained differently, they think differently, and they practice differently. The specialist has to know everything about a narrow field of medicine—especially the rare and uncommon disorders within their area of focus. The generalist must know the common—the breadth, if you would, of medicine.

The specialist cares for a single organ system, age-group, or gender—the generalist the entire family within his or her cornmunity. I recalled the observation of the famous internist Sir William Osier, who was reported to have said, "A well-trained, sensible family doctor is one of the most valuable assets in a cornmunity." The more Earl talked about what the local hospital was looking for, the more I knew that this town could be exactly what we were looking for.

Suddenly he stood, subtly indicating that our visit was over. "Well, I've kept you two far too long. We'll have plenty of time to visit tomorrow. You ought to get up to the inn. John and Ella Jo can't wait to meet you."

He then approached me and almost whispered, "John and Ella Jo have really been behind the move to bring some new, young doctors into the area. Not everyone agrees with them, especially some of our older doctors. But they can tell you more about this."

As we said good-bye and got in the car, Barb expressed my thoughts. "Walt, what are we getting into?"

"I don't know, honey. I don't know."

Chapter Three
As we left the Douthit's driveway, we turned up Galbreath Creek Road. Less than a mile up was the entrance to the Hemlock Inn—almost hidden in a large grove of massive hemlock and Georgia pine trees. The driveway turned steeply up and around what was to us flatlanders a small mountain—but was to the locals "just a hill." At the top, the driveway opened into a clearing with several small sprawling buildings cast over the knob and looking out over the mountains.

We parked and followed the signs to the registration area. Opening a screen door, we entered a rustic lobby. Overstuffed sofas and wooden rockers were scattered comfortably around the room. A small crackling fire was burning in the stone fireplace, giving the room both a nice ambience and a pleasant aroma. Shelves of books ringed the room. Tables with puzzles partially -constructed and newspapers partially read were scattered across the room.

We walked out onto a side porch, with woven-seat rocking chairs strewn across it, to look out at the hills that were literally

ablaze with color—reds and yellows were painted across the promontories, and amber and orange hues speckled the bluffs. The spectacular view all the way to the peak of the distant Frye Mountain reminded us of why so many chose to visit this wilderness area during the fall color season. I found myself placing my arm over Barb's shoulders, and she leaned into me, taking in and then releasing a deep breath. I had come to learn that this was a sign of satisfaction—that she was feeling comfortable and safe. I looked down at her and she up at me. She gave me a squeeze. "I think this just might be 'the' place."

I smiled. "Maybe so."

We looked back across the sensational expanse spread before us. We were indeed beginning to fall in love with this place.

"Well, well, well. Howdy, howdy, howdy," boomed a baritone voice, just before the sound of a slammed screen doo greeted our ears. A tall, handsome man, in his fifties, I would guess, was rapidly strolling toward us. His smile was pleasant and welcoming, and his right hand reached out, seeking a mate.

"You must be the Larimores. Welcome, welcome, welcome."

He seemed to enjoy treble phrases.

"I'm John Shell, the proprietor of the Hemlock Inn. We are so glad you're here."

After introductions were made and vigorous handshakes dispensed to us all, including Kate, we were ushered to the rocking chairs where we had a bit of pleasant discussion. Between subjects, I asked, "Mr. Shell, tell me a little bit about this area."

"John! Please call me John. Now, are you sure you want to talk about that?"

"You bet!" I exclaimed. "History is an interest of mine, Mr Shell—uh, John."

"Well, first folks in this area were the Cherokee Indians," John began. "Their land holdings have long since been stole from them, and many were forced to walk by foot to Oklahoma in what they called 'the Trail of Tears.' But many have returned, and the tribe has a strong pride that keeps the past alive through history and legends. The first white man known to walk these hills was William Bartram—who is described as having been an adventurous and courageous botanist. He came into this valley from the Nantahala Range in 1775. By that time there was an Indian village called Younaahqua, or Big Bear Springs. It was located on the present site of Bryson City. Later the village was called Tuckaleechy and later yet, Charleston."

"How do you remember all those dates and facts?" Barb asked.

"Oh, Barb, I just tell these stories so many times it's almost second nature," John chuckled. "But that's enough history for now. Let's go get you folks registered. You won't want to miss supper. Ella Jo is stirring up a right hearty dinner for you all."

In a second he was up and off. We followed him through the living room and the dining room, set with round tables, each with a lazy Susan at its center, and into the small office. Then, keys in hand, we were off to our room.

The inn's rooms, over thirty years old, showed their age—but the simple rustic character was appealing and relaxing. No TV or radio or phone—just the basics: an antique bed and chest of drawers, comfortable wing chairs, and a nice bathroom. The Hemlock Inn was not designed for guests to just stay put in their rooms. The days were for the hills.

I was unpacking our belongings and Barb was changing Kate's diaper when we heard the ringing of a bell. "Must be the dinner bell," Barb commented, almost to herself. She was humming and Kate was smiling. I sat down to wait for them to finish as the rays of the setting sun streamed in through the screen door, mixing with the evening breeze to rustle my wife's hair. My soul smiled.

The dining hall was packed. Each of the seven tables had eight chairs around it. John was at the door, greeting each arrival and directing them to their assigned table. Seating and eating was strictly family style—with John arranging and rearranging the inn's guests at each meal—guaranteeing a variety of conversation with people from all over the country. At our table alone were folks from New York, Atlanta, and Oregon—all escaping to the hills for rest and relaxation—some to read, some to think and meditate, some to hike. There was also a couple from Bryson City named R.P. and Sally Jenkins.

"Ella Jo's cooking is known far and wide," chimed R.P. "We like to come up here every chance we can—at least when John and Ella Jo have an opening at their table." He laughed, and John Shell beamed.

As we were gathering at our tables and meeting our meal mates, the young servers were bringing out a smorgasbord of delicacies on large platters and in large bowls. I was curious as to why no one was sitting—everybody was standing and greeting each other—it was almost like being at a family reunion. But I wasn't left to wonder for very long. At the ping of a small bell, everyone turned to Mr. Shell. At his side was a woman, about the same age but much shorter and rounder—and her smile was radiant as an angel's.

When the crowd had quieted down a bit, John began, "Ella Jo and I want to welcome you newcomers to Hemlock In which is known for having the most beautiful innkeeper's wife east of the Mississippi!"

He looked down at her and smiled, and her blush could have warmed the room. She grinned and whispered out loud "Actually, east of California," and laughed easily and gracefully.

"I agree," he stated emphatically. "May we say grace?"

We all bowed our heads. Now I must tell you that this only made it easier to inhale the delicious aromas wafting up from the table. I was secretly hoping for a very short prayer—although surprised that there would be one at all. Not that I minded prayer—it was a regular part of my life, at least before meals. As a family we always said grace before a meal. It's just that doing so at a public dinner was a new and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me. However, after only a line or two, something happened.

"Our heavenly Father, we thank Thee for this beautiful day and this lovely location," John prayed earnestly. "We thank Thee for our health and for the activities of this day. And now we bow to thank Thee for this bountiful provision that Thou hast laid before us this evening. Bless the hands that prepared it for us. Bless it to our nourishment. And bless us to Thy service. May our sleep tonight be both sweet and restful. We ask these things in the wonderful name of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord."

During the prayer I had been instantly taken back to my paternal grandparents' home in Memphis, Tennessee. We held hands as we sat at the table, and my grandfather, a Pullman conductor for the Illinois Central railway's "La Louisiane," would pray, "Father in heaven, we thank Thee ..." In John's voice and words I could hear my grandfather—and the feelings of warmth and nostalgia were overwhelming. As he prayed, so did I—thanking God for the blessing of a family, chock-full of memories and traditions.

I was brought back to reality when the entire room chanted in unison: "Amen."

Before the amen's echo bounced back from the walls of the dining room, chairs were scraping on the wooden floor as the guests seemingly dove into their places and began to dig into the hearty and delicious Southern meal: fried chicken (of course!), perfectly seasoned with a thick, crunchy breading; green beans with ham hocks and just the right saltiness; ham that fell off the bone and could easily be cut with a fork; silky-smooth, creamy potatoes with brown and sawmill gravies; three types of salad with a variety of made-from-scratch salad dressings; candied carrots; at least three types of freshly baked bread, and a basketful of steaming-hot yeast rolls with local clover and wildflower honey butter and a wealth of other delectable homemade toppings and jams. Barb teased me that my eyes were as big as the countless platters.

During dinner we found out that R.P. and Sally were active in the leadership of Arlington Heights Baptist Church and that R.P was a past chairman of the hospital board of trustees. It finally dawned on me that this was not such a coincidence that the Jenkinses just happened to be here for dinner and seated at our table.

As Kate happily munched on a drumstick and mashed potatoes, we visited with a tableful of new friends. Most had been at the inn for one- or two-week visits, year after year, for many years. We learned that true newcomers, such as us, were uncommon—a rarity, in fact.

The dinner discussion was the typical talk of the day—where people went, what they did, what they discovered. Questions to the newcomers centered on who you were, where you were from, and why you had been so foolish as to never have visited the Hemlock Inn before. Upon discovering that we were considering this little hamlet as our home, a cacophony of oohs and aahs circled the table, peppered with comments like, "I'd sure move here if I could," and, "You sure are lucky to pick a place like this," or, "Honey, see what I told you? Young professionals 'are' moving out here." These comments were an encouragement to us and increased our rapidly growing feelings of fondness for the area.

After we had finished dinner and Barb put Kate in bed, we joined the Shells and Jenkinses on the porch, pulling a group of rocking chairs into a semicircle. Dusk was beginning to fall over the valley, and as it did, the autumn colors of the trees underwent transformation through a cornucopia of colors. The hills almost seemed aflame. The wind was blowing gently.

Barb broke the companionable silence. "John and Ella Jo, what led you all to move to the area, or are you from here originally?"

"Oh no, we're not from here," John answered. "But we love this area. Moved up here from Atlanta to own and operate this lovely little inn in this beautiful locale." He paused to consider how best to articulate his thoughts. "There is so 'very much' here that we like. The history of the area is a rich one. The people are wonderful. The weather's great, and there's plenty of fresh air and water. It's a safe community—a great place to raise your kids. The schools are good, and the teachers are top-notch. It's a religious community. The hunting and fishing and hiking are superb. And thanks to Mr. Douthit, our little hospital is just fabulous—given its size."

He paused again, looking troubled, almost confused about where to go next. R.P. Jenkins intervened, "Walt, our surgical services at the hospital are excellent. Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Cunningham bring in a lot of business and a lot of patients. They do a lot of surgery and do a good job. Our operating rooms are large and modern—they have all the best equipment. And our two nurse anesthetists are fabulous. People will travel here from quite a ways away."

John interjected, "And 'some' of our medical services are good. We've got a new lab and a new emergency room. Our new X-ray equipment is state-of-the-art. Dr. Sale does an excellent job, but ..."

There was a moment of silence. John and R.P. looked at each other. "What is going on?" I wondered.

"What the men are hesitant to say," interrupted Sally, "is that we have a number of physicians that are ..." She paused. "How should I say this? They are, uh, getting older. Sometimes they can be moody or cantankerous. People around here get a little tired of that. So they leave and take their medical business elsewhere. That's not good for the hospital or the community."

"The older folks, the ones who have trouble traveling, don't seem to be leaving to see doctors in other towns," explained R.P. "But the younger families sure are."

"And," added John, "it doesn't help that none of the doctors deliver babies anymore. That's one of the reasons we're so excited about the possibility of you coming here. Your experience and training would be perfect for our little town."

"I wouldn't expect things to change overnight," warned R.P. "But as folks get to know you, they'll certainly stay and have their babies here."

"Just like they used to," Sally mused.

Quietness reigned for a few moments as we relished the cool air and the enveloping dusk.

"Well, folks," I said, "Barb and I are excited about finding a home for our family. We're eager to settle down and to build a practice somewhere. So tomorrow's going to be a special day for us. We're looking forward to seeing the hospital and the town and meeting the board members and the other doctors."

Both couples looked at each other. Then Ella Jo spoke her first words to me, "Dr. Larimore, I have to be honest with you. I'm not sure some of the doctors want to meet you."

This unsettled me. I was quiet.

"They've become so comfortable with the status quo. They've got plenty of patients and they make enough money. I'm worried that you might be a threat to them. There's not been a new doctor around here in quite a while. And those who come usually get shooed right away. It's downright shameful." She seemed almost angry.

"Ella Jo," her husband cautioned, "don't you think that type of talk's a bit severe for our new friend?"

"No, I do not!" she exclaimed—sitting up in her chair. "You board members"—she was pointing a finger at her husband and then at R.P.—"need to take back a little control from those medical deities. They've been running things just a little bit too long. It's hurting our hospital, and it's hurting our town. What we need around here is a well-timed funeral or two!" She sat back, obviously fuming, but done with her soliloquy.

"Well," Sally added, "I don't think that's true of Mitch and Ray. Mitch made Ray feel welcome and has brought him right into this community. And the other doctors have come to accept him. Goodness, I even think they like him."

"That's only because he's with Mitch," opined Ella Jo.

There was another moment of silence. "What we need to do," suggested John, "is see if Mitch and Ray would consider taking Walt under their wing. Their office is empty in the morning while they're in the operating room. One of them is off one afternoon a week. So there's room in their office at least seven half-days a week."

"That's a great idea, John!" exclaimed R.P. as he sat up in his rocking chair. "That could take care of everything."

I wasn't so sure. Barb gave me that "we need to go" look. "Ladies and gentlemen," I announced, "it's been a lovely evening. Ella Jo, the meal was above and beyond." Her smile ran ear to ear. "We've had a long day and have a longer one tomorow. If it's OK, I think we'll turn in."

"Oh, you bet. You betcha," said John. He, Ella Jo, and the Jenkinses stood to say farewell.

"Tomorrow's the start of another day. A great day!" exclaimed R.P. as we turned to leave.

As we walked to our room, I thought, Beautiful land. Warm and gracious people. Rich history. But the medical staff and the hospital—would I want to be a part of them? Or would they even want me to be a part of them? My doubts were growing.


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