From Pat McDonald, replying to: A Few Remarkable (Birmingham) People I Have Known, on June 21, 2012. The Summer Solstice.
Just found your article and loved it, especially the section devoted to Dr. Leo, one of my favorite people of all time. We moved to B’ham in late 1966, not knowing one person and unfortunately I had a slightly premature baby about a month later–at home were four other small children and a husband who traveled in his job, so I was pretty much living the isolated life. Dr. B (aka known as “the jolly green giant” by my older children) would make house calls just to check on this very small baby who unfortunately had the worst colic known to man. I reminded him that I could bring her to his office which I was sure wouldn’t be as expensive as the house calls, but he told me he made a lot more money from his investments than from the practice of medicine, so not to worry about it. I held my breath waiting for the bill, which never came.
About two months into these daily visits, I pled with him to give her “something”–this couldn’t be good for her and I thought I was losing my mind. He turned on me like a mama bear and said something to the effect that there were doctors who would give her something to knock her out, but I’d just have to “suck it up”–she’d make it and so would I (well, she did and I did too). One day stands out in my mind–it had been terrible and when he walked in, he went into her bedroom and picked up the baby bed, carrying it into the dining room on the other side of the house. He went into the bathroom and started filling up the tub with hot water while I stood by and watched him fascinated but finally said, “That’s an awful lot of water for a very tiny baby!”. He gave me that disgusted look and replied, “Mama, this water is for you, not for her. She’s going to the other part of the house, check on her every 15 minutes or so, but if she’s going to cry, let her cry. I want you to soak for at least 30 minutes. Now, where’s your bubble bath?” I didn’t have any bubble bath which he found amusing but he found some Frank Sinatra records which he put on the turn-table and told me to listen to Frank sing some sad saloon music, drink some wine and relax. I told him I didn’t have any wine, but I had a lot of Cokes. He really loved that one–told me had a lot of money invested in that company; I told him I was their best customer. About 30 minutes later the drug store made a delivery–not for her, but for me, something to calm me down and a bottle of bubble bath (the good kind) as well as a case of cokes. The note read “Mama, take one long bath every day as long as necessary and added a postscipt telling me I was running low on cokes”.
On the serious side, my oldest daughter had rheumatic fever and he was the one who told me that his son suffered from the same problem and that he would do everything possible to see that she didn’t have the extensive heart damage as his son. She was immediately started on daily penicillan (sp?) and he made reports to some drug company to report her results (at no cost whatsoever). He was so gentle with her and I can still see him holding her in his lap while convincing her she could do anything (and she did) making a full recovery. When she was a cheerleader in high school he would even come to see her cheer and hug me telling me, “Mama, we did good!” I also had a son whom he chased around the office to give him shots (like you, I guess) and laugh the entire time.
Needless to say, I adored that man and was so sorry when he could no longer practice medicine. The last time I saw him was at the Golden Rule in Irondale–he apparently ate lunch there frequently. He walked up behind me while I was waiting to pay my bill and followed me outside–he told me he had lost his hearing so he’d talk but he couldn’t hear me so not to bother answering. He remembered every one of the children (grown by now) and asked about each of them. He told me I had the most beautiful children he’d ever seen, but then so was I (not true but flattering) and it was an honor to watch them grow. When I started crying, he started cussing and walked away–when I ran to catch him, he had tears in his eyes so we just hugged each other in that parking lot. He truly was one of Birmingham’s greats and I’m so glad you included him in your tribute.
Hi, Pat. What a wonderful tribute from you! Over the years (back in another life), I heard a number of Birmingham women, mommas, as Leo called his babies’ mothers, talk to me about him. All said their children had loved Dr. Leo, as he was known. About half the mommas said he had talked horrible to them, or they were terrified of him, but their children loved him so much and he was a such great doctor for them that they sucked it up and stayed with him. About half said they couldn’t take it and took their kids to another doctor. I sometimes said something like, “Your pride was more important to you than your child’s welfare.” Just what they wanted to hear.” When Leo comes to me in a dream, it’s usually to tell me to drop the hammer on something in front of me, or to tell me there is nothing worth fishing for where I am casting my bait and lures in this world’s dramas. Haven’t seen him in a dream in a while, but maybe you herald a visit from him – to me, stop fretting.
There was so much I could have told about him, which I decided to hold onto or it didn’t come to me in the moment his part of that little book was falling out of me, frequently amidst rivers and oceans of tears. Leo had a very hard time with crying. I knew that side of him you described at The Golden Rule, where I sometimes ran into him and sat down and had one-way conversations with him after his hearing went out. One of my favorite restaurants anywhere still. But I never but once saw him get choked up a little, which I will tell now.
When I was twelve, he took me with him on the train, my first train trip, to Daytona, where we rented a car and drove down to Indian River Lagoon, also called Mosquito Lagoon, now Cape Canaveral, to fish for speckled trout, aka spotted weakfish, but we never stooped so low as to besmirch them in that way. I had fished there twice already with my father and younger brother during a spring break. My father was a clutz with fishing tackle, but he knew how much I loved fishing and saw to it I got to go sometimes. My mother did the same. But it was with Leo I most wanted to fish, The Greatest Fisherman in the World.
Well, we got down there and rented a skiff that afternoon and went out to a nearby grass flat and did fair fishing mirrolures before it got too dark to see and headed back in. The next two days, we fished with a guide reputed to be a hotshot speckled trout catcher, and didn’t do dingly squat, mainly because the guide wanted to go out at 8 a.m., and by then the trout were in siesta to late afternoon, which any real trout fisherman knew. The last day, only had half a day, we rented a skiff and headed out at grey light and murdered the trout, like what is supposed to happen when you fish when they are biting. The guide and all the other guides used live shrimp, but we were banging them with mirrolures, 3m sinkers and 7m floaters. I caught a gator trout, close to 5 pounds, yellow mouth. Leo caught one nearly as big. Maybe we had another dozen in the 1 – 2 pound range. When we got back to the dock, we were swarmed. Nobody could imagine nailing trout on mirrolures.
We did the same thing another time in a lagoon off Pensacola Bay, and got ourselves in the Pensacola Journal for that one. Everybody thought the net trawlers had caught all the trout out of the bay, but there were plenty in that lagoon, and we caught them on mirrolures. Well, I didn’t tell you yet about when I saw Leo nearly lose it.
It happened that first afternoon at Indian River. We were out there and my spinning reel was acting like it was glued inside, hard to wind, and Leo told me to clean my reel. I thought he meant strip all the line off the spool, and next time he had the boat running, I took off the mirrolure and let the water drag all the line off the spool. He wasn’t paying attention until I was showing a bare black spool, and he bellowed something like, “What in the hell are you doing!?!?@@@.” I shrunk down to as invisible as I could get and told him he had said to clean my reel. He said he meant take off the back screw and put some lubricant in it! More bellowing, he couldn’t believe a 12-year-old-boy didn’t know how to clean his own reel! I was about to burst into tears, which I did, but able to say something like, “This boy never had anybody show him how to clean his reel.” Stopped Leo in his tracks, that did.
Now I’m reminded of another story not long after Leo had had his one heart attack and then some kind of surgery for it. His doctors had make him quit smoking and drinking and eating steak and roast beef, and he was generally miserable and a lot more cranky than usual. I wasn’t doing all that great myself, and when I found he had made another trip down to the Keys, I called him at the Islander in Islamorada and asked if I could come down and fish a few days with him. He said okay. I probably was imposing, but like I said, I wasn’t doing so good myself, and I really wanted to fish with him just the two of us, for old time’s sake.
So we went out two or three days and I was casting like a toad without eyes or a brain and missing good shots at permit, which I had never caught, and never would catch. We went nights to a restaurant he liked, buffet, all you could eat, The Coral Grill, and I told him to get roast beef and have a beer or two, it woudn’t kill him as quick as the doctors regimen. He really like that, and we had fun eating and telling more stories. Maybe the last day, #4, we were out on a flat off of Indian Key and he started getting a bit bossy and I started sassing him back and he said I couldn’t talk to him like that on his boat! I said, why not? He’d been talking to me like that on his boat! He was short for words then, too.
God did I love him, brings tears to my eyes to write that. I hated it so bad for him when the Alzheimer’s came. Christmas 2005, his whole family came to the nursing home, a big party. Even our Montgomery relatives. He didn’t recognize anyone but his wife. Asked her if all these people where his relatives? I burst into tears, for him. Didn’t see him again. Not long after, I was back down here in the Keys, been here ever since, except for a few short trips to Birmingham. I think Leo passed over in the fall of 2006. I wrote an eugoy for him, maybe I can find it somewhere in my email account. By then, I was way over the mystical horizon.
I keep wondering if my starting up this goodmorningbirmingham.com website last fall means some day I will live there again, at least some of the time.
I moved back to Florida about six years ago to live near my children. We never planned to stay in Birmingham but that thing called “life” got in the way i.e., my husband’s first heart attack when he was only 37 being the primary one. The kids had always loved Florida and I told them when they were grown they could move back (which four of the five did) so I followed them.
Thinking about Dr. Bashinsky brought to mind a couple of other events regarding the relationship he had with his “babies” and once under his care, they were truly his babies. I watched him while one of these babies (a 15-year-old boy) died of cancer. I watched him with his mother, showing so much compassion and love toward the family. When the young man died, he stood behind my family at the funeral and tightly gripped the shoulders of my daughter as he fought back his own tears. The mother told me he had promised her he’d do everything in his power to keep him from unnecessary pain once the disease reached the point of no return–and he honored that promise. We, too, heard about the mothers who didn’t like him, but that mother and I adored him–who cared if he “chewed us out” for doing something–anyone worth their salt could recognize that he adored his patients and wanted nothing but the best for them.
I saw him with another dying child–his name was Phillip–and he too had cancer and this child had one wish which was to learn to read (he was only five at the time). I was teaching at the time and I promised him he would learn to read that year–I thought we had a year, but we only got about six months. Phillip reached his goal–I stayed with his mother the night he died at Children’s (his father had left) and so it was only the three of us in that room (Dr. B, his mom and me). It was a night I’ll never forget: a child’s bravery, the devastation of his mother and the devotion of an outstanding physician. Well, I feel the tears coming so I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks for responding.
Hi again, Pat. You tell marvelous stories about Dr. Leo, which I called him until I was maybe out of college; stories I doubt few people know. I heard he was not considered all that bright (good student) until he graduated from Vanderbilt and entered Duke Medical School, where he came into his own. My mother worshipped him when it came to taking care of her children. You told a story of him chasing a boy around who didn’t want to get the needle. I tried the same thing with him once, when my mother wasn’t home. Took him quite a while to subdue me, and he wasn’t all that terribly complimentary of my behavior. My children loved him. I’m thinking of creating a page just for him on this website, prompted by your stories about him. Maybe his descendents and babies and mommas would like to see it. Thanks. Sloan
Here is what I wrote about Leo in A Few Remarkable people I Have Known, which fell out of me in October 2005:
3 HE CALLED A SPADE A SPADE
I wish to tell you of my father’s older brother, who, when he and I first met, had just finished his residency at Duke Medical School. It was back when he entered his freshman year of medicine there that Leo’s family and medical school professors discovered he was a genius. He was also the greatest fisherman in the world, as far as I was concerned later in my young life. But for now, not even six years old, I was simply in awe of a six-foot-four giant, weighing about two-hundred-forty pounds, whose hands looked to be about the size of Goose Tatum’s of the Harlem Globetrotters, who could palm a basketball and a cabbage in one hand, I supposed when I saw him play in Birmingham a few years after I met Leo. I actually would see Leo palm my youngest daughter, Alice, by her bare butt and lift her high above my head squirming sort of like a baby seal when she was just home from the hospital being born, and say in his gruff laughing way, “Now that’s a fine baby!
Leo was blessed with an inheritance that allowed him to practice medicine in whatever way he wished. He had patients from over the mountain, Mountain Brook and Crestline Heights, two burgs south of Birmingham where mostly rich folks would eventually congregate, or people wanting to be rich folks. That’s where I grew up, and my friends. Leo and my father grew up on the Birmingham side of the mountain, in Forest Park, when that was where the rich folks lived, or folks wanting to be rich. By the time Leo got out of Duke and came home to be my and a lot of other babies and kids’ doctor, the migration over the mountain was getting pretty well underway.
Actually, Red Mountain wasn’t really a mountain but was merely a ridge at the tail end of the Appalachian range, where once industrialists had mined iron ore, coal and limestone to make steel in Birmingham mills. The mills closed one by one after the raw materials ran out and it became cheaper to make steel elsewhere, than to ship the raw materials from Mobile up the Warrior River to Birmingham. But long before that demise, a very large cast- iron statue of a scantily-clad Blacksmith named Vulcan was given to Birmingham by some place or folks I don’t now remember, and it was erected on top of Red Mountain, over the cut where 20th Street went over the top and down into Homewood, which lay just west of Mountain Brook.
To my little boy eyes, the first time I saw Leo and heard him bellow about scarlet fever and how it and whooping cough were primary killers of children, he looked about as big as Vulcan and made about as much noise as I thought Vulcan might make if he could really talk, and I sort of wanted to migrate somewhere . . . else. For I’d already had my taste of penicillin from another doctor, when my younger brother was nearly dead from pneumonia, while Leo was still studying to be a doctor. I was burning up with something trying to eat me alive from inside out, and they gave me the shots, too, only to later learn I had the world record case of the red measles. My brother and I didn’t cross-pollinate and kill each other, and we both lived to have Leo come around from time to time when we were sickly and eyeball us and pretty well size up the situation before he even felt our throat and neck for lumps and made us stick out our tongues and get that awful wooden flat gag stick in our throat and “ahhhhhhh” shit would have been how we really felt about it if we were old enough to know such words.
I remember one day Leo came calling when I was home sick with something he figured a needle would take care of and my mother was not there but my mammy Cha was, and I decided no way was he going to stick that needle into me and I fought him tooth and nail, really a great plan, him weighing about four times what I weighed; but it was more tussle than he or I realized I had in me, and finally he nearly had to hog-tie me and was huffing and cussing, a leg over me, an arm sort of around my waist, or maybe it was my neck, when he injected me and, yep, I thought it was going to hurt like that: it was penicillin after all, if it hurt like that. But I started getting better pretty quick, maybe because I got so hot and bothered that the sudden fever of it killed off whatever it was in me that had summoned Leo to poke that needle in me in the first place, or maybe it was just the desire for him not to come back and do it again that caused me to get better.
Leo gave up on doctoring me when I was about twenty and had contracted some sort of deadly dysentery while running a summer vacation route for my father’s potato chip company, Golden Flake, but I didn’t yet know I had contracted some sort of deadly dysentery because the runs hadn’t yet started. I was so tired that I could barely move and felt nearly dead when Leo got there, called in by my mother from a party of some kind, accompanied by another doctor I’d heard a lot about, named Keehn Berry. I’d been wanting to meet Keehn because I’d heard from Leo that he was a great fisherman, but not under such circumstances as these. I suppose Leo had ESP’d it from afar at the party, I wouldn’t put it past him; or maybe he just figured this was the last time he wanted to be called at night to come see me, one of his oldest patients. He would make house calls until the day he retired, for babies and children.
Anyway, neither Keehn nor Leo had yet figured out what was wrong with me by the time they headed back to the party. The figuring out would take my throwing up and crapping all over everywhere for the rest of the night, and then for Keehn to see the wretching remains of me in his office the next morning, which was Saturday, they still worked on Saturdays in that time, for him to announce that I had dysentery and was headed for the hospital without passing Go. Shigella was the bacteria breed they assayed in the lab, and tetracycline, as I recall, was the killer drug they used on it. I was in there nearly ten days, barely able to even move until the very end of it. Keehn was an internist and taught medicine at the nearby University of Alabama Medical School. A doctor’s doctor, Leo had called him. Leo never got to treat doctors, but if he had, he would have been called that, too, I imagine.
Well, I say Leo never got to treat doctors. Who knows what he and other doctors talked about privately? Or at the Birmingham Country Club, where Leo loved to play cards: gin rummy, hearts, bridge, as he chain-smoked. I always thought the cigarettes would get him, and maybe they somehow did, but that is not what I want to talk about in this moment. I want to tell a story I heard from perhaps the greatest plaintiff’s lawyer the Alabama Bar ever produced, at least up to this man’s departure from this world. Frances Hare told me that Leo was the greatest doctor who had ever lived, and while I already knew this might be so, I wanted to hear France’s reasoning. It was because he had said to Leo, over a card game one afternoon, I think this was in the 19th Hole, that he had been having headaches for years and had never been able to get much relief. Leo reached out a giant paw and took off Frances’ glasses and bent the stems a bit wider and put them back onto Frances’ nose and said, “How’s that?
Then was the time my oldest daughter, Nelle, was outside playing with neighborhood friends, and all of a sudden there was this great yelling and shrieking and in she came holding her right arm, dislocated at the elbow from some other kid swinging her around in the air holding onto her wrist. I called Leo at home, I believe it was a weekend day, and he was there in about ten minutes. Not exactly how Nelle had hoped would be the way her day went, as she also had a close association between Leo and the needle, and as he still was about as big as a grizzly bear, Nelle was not in the least disposed to him ever getting his mitts on her again. But Leo was not a bit concerned about how any child felt about him; as far as I could tell, he was only concerned about them getting well, if they were feeling poorly. He picked Nelle right up from behind, sat down in a straight-back chair with her in his lap, her little back to his giant torso, and did some sort of manipulation on her right arm, bringing her hand and forearm up to her chest and then twisting it a bit inward, I suppose. When he then asked if that didn’t feel better, the grateful look on Nelle’s face said she would always be glad to see Dr. Leo after that.
The only time Leo did not treat Nelle for pediatric stuff was one time he was out of town and another doctor had to cover for him and I ended up taking Nelle away from that doctor and to Children’s Hospital, and the residents agreed with me that she indeed had pneumonia and they took over until Leo got back and took over, and she got better. There was one other time, not pediatric, when at age five Nelle got run over on her bicycle and nearly lost her left foot above the Achilles, and an orthopedic surgeon saved her leg. Leo said we were darn lucky Dr. David Vesley was on call that day at the hospital. I don’t say that to flack other doctors, only to say what Leo said.
I mentioned in another of these little vignettes that I once had wanted Leo to be my father because he loved to fish as much as I did. Leo’s two sons didn’t care all that much about fishing, and many years later Leo told Rick Ruoff, a Florida Keys fishing guide friend of mine, to whom I had introduced Leo, that I should have been his son. We really did spent some close time together, bonded pretty tight, but after I went through a lot of changes, it wasn’t so tight outwardly, but inwardly I still feel much the same about that gruff old bear of a man. Maybe that’s where I got some of my gruffness; maybe that’s why not long ago I was told in a dream Leo had died. Twice in that same night I was told that. But then, maybe it was because he was no longer my doctor even in spirit ways, which he had done some of over the past couple of years in my dreams, to help me see things a bit differently when I was in tight places. That man sure could see, and I wonder if it will be okay to tell some stories about how well he really could see? I’ll test those waters, to see how the angels who monitor me 24-7 feel as I ease into it. They have their ways of letting me know.
I believe a good place to start is a morning I chanced into Leo and his second son, Bo, also a pediatrician, at a local breakfast place one morning. After being in private practice for a few years, Bo had recently gone to work for an HMO and was feeling a great weight had lifted off him. Bo always was a more business-like doctor than had been his father, many of whose patients were from poor black, Italian, Greek and Lebanese families, who often paid Leo’s doctor bills in fresh vegetables, home-baked bread, pies and cakes, and so forth. Leo made house calls in those families’ homes too. Some of the mothers, especially those living over the mountain, took not to liking Leo because he was wont to tell them he was into treating babies and not mommas, and for the nervous mommas sit down and be quiet while he examined and figured out what was wrong with the patients, that is, the babies. Sometimes he told mommas a lot sterner stuff than that: like it was their own over-heatedness that was playing out in their babies. And once I heard him tell a momma on the telephone that she had a lot of gall calling him on Sunday afternoon about her child’s fever, after it had started the preceding Wednesday, and it was because of people like her that he was retiring from the practice of medicine. Then, as he figured something really was wrong with this child, he told her to meet him with the child at the hospital. Later, Leo’s wife, Betty told me that the real reason Leo had retired was because he had contracted encephalitis and it had affected his memory and he was forgetting things like who was still sick, when he was supposed to see them, and so forth. So he took himself out of the calling to which he had dedicated his life.
So this morning over breakfast, Bo wants to talk about a new drug on the market that reduces fever in children and makes mommas happy and his life easier. I, now being a somewhat self-appointed expert on various forms of disease and wellness, pipe up that I think fever is what kills infections, and so why take a pill for it unless the fever is really high and putting a child at risk? As I smugly wait for Leo to nod approval, he says softly, “It’s babies who couldn’t make a fever that worried me.” Thus ended the lesson for that day from the master who now has Alzheimer’s, which breaks my heart but I suppose he doesn’t suffer too much from it. Last time Leo and I had a frank talk, which was before he knew of the Alzheimer’s, he said he was waiting on the Lord to take him. Why the Lord has now waited so darn long, I don’t know, but I sure do hope the Lord doesn’t wait much longer, even though Leo is a lot like Noah in that wonderful movie, the name of which I can’t now remember [The Notebook], but Noah’s wife was named Allie, and she got Alzheimer’s and he moved into the nursing home with her and looked after her.
Despite being a giant, Leo was a great dancer, talked women off their feet, made them laugh, flattered them, romanced them, but never beyond play-pretend. He once told me a story, I was about twelve, as a shapely red-head crossed in front of the car he and another man and I were in, during a fishing trip for speckled trout in Pensacola Bay. The fishing was awful and the woman was striking, and the other man and Leo were both gawking, even as Leo said that once he had done something he ought not to have done and Miss Betty had told him that if he ever did that again she would wait until he was asleep one night and would get a big rusty knife out of the kitchen and slit his throat, and she really meant it, too, he said. I wonder if it really was his throat that Betty told him she would slit. I know her well enough to wonder that.
One time I got involved in doing some legal work for them, the subject matter of which I’ll not get into other than to say and I was doing it for nothing, just as Leo had treated me and my brother and sister and my children for nothing; and I was doing it because I loved Leo and Betty. But eventually I let the situation get away from me; I was far too close to it, to be detached and professional, and I had to tell them to seek help from their regular lawyers and that took a while and some money but it worked out okay in the end, I hope. It would have worked out a lot better if they’d had the other lawyers to begin with, because the other lawyers would not have let them even get involved with what I let them get involved in. Betty was the leader, Leo was following, and I was tagging along, and it was during the darkest hour of it all that I heard Leo say things to Betty about how he would see it to the end, protect her interests, and he told me that he loved her (and for me to lay off her).
I have written to Leo and Betty that I do not wish to attend any funeral but would love to throw a party for whoever goes to the other side, and the one left behind and all the relatives and friends will be welcome at wherever I throw the party. Leo himself never was much for funerals: he told me he was glad his father, suffering a long time from leukemia, had finally crossed over and was now out of pain. I never heard Leo express concern about the state of his own soul, nor did I ever hear him talk about the state of anyone else’s. If he liked something, he complimented it. If he didn’t like something, he said so. He seemed, when I heard him speak of the Bible, to enjoy the Old Testament more than the New. He was one-quarter Jew, through is father and paternal grandfather. Like Old Testament men of God, he called a spade a spade, and some people didn’t like that.
[Leo finally crossed over in 2006, as I recall, and I stayed in the Keys and wrote a eulogy which left my heart heaving.]
Thank you, Lord, for putting Dr. Leo into my life. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
After re-reading that, I found myself thinking once again, if I had it to do over, the way I would practice law in Birmingham, the means available, was the way Leo practiced medicine. I would take care of my clients, those who could pay, would pay, the rest would get the best I had to offer just the same.
I found the eulogy I had written, but on rereading it, I felt it was too personal, perhaps too selfish on my part. But my dreams last night left me feeling I should include it anyway. For sure, the Bash in this memorial called a spade a spade.
DR. LEO BASHINSKY, IN MEMORIUM
Yesterday I received news from my oldest first Bashinsky cousin that his father, my Uncle Leo, passed away on July 22, which was the day I was moved to write “Fly Fishing,” in which I fondly reminisced about Leo fishing in the Keys. I have sensed for about two weeks, since I saw “A Prairie Home Companion,” in which there was an angel of death who came to get two people, that someone close to me was leaving this world. The memorial service is this coming Saturday, in the same Baptist church my father’s memorial
service was held last August, the same Baptist church my father and I attended together, until my mother became Episcopalian when I was eleven, and started taking me to that church with her. The explosion that caused in our family, well, perhaps it would be a digression from today’s writing to say any more than it was nuclear.
As was it nuclear for me to attend my own father’s memorial service, and hear a minister, who had once tried to do me in, eulogize a man I did not even know had existed, a man I’m not sure anyone in the church that day even knew had existed. One of my former wives was in the audience, and I saw and hugged her, and took her by the hand to sit with me in the family section. She got so upset by what she was hearing from this minister, who had once told her that I could so much as rot in hell when she had gone to him seeking to get him to intervene on my behalf with my father, and now here he was fawning all over my father’s money, it seemed to be all about his money, that she trembled in fury and muttered under her breath, “You cannot worship God and mammon!”
Now I am invited to go back into this same church, listen to yet another sermon by a man I would rather never see again, and even as I write these words this morning at 5:30 a.m., I am not clear what it is I am supposed to do about this. I have an invitation to stay in my first cousin’s home while I’m there, and I got an email from a friend last night, whose home I’ve stayed in before in Birmingham, just saying “Hi,” and not apparently knowing of my uncle’s passing. Yet every time I’ve been in Birmingham in the past year, she never accepted my overtures to have a meal somewhere with her husband and children, all of whom are quite dear to me. And when I was in
Birmingham, my first cousin never accepted any of my overtures for us to get together then. And I’m now to drive about 1,000 miles to a funeral in a church I would rather never see again, a church that has an entrance foyer and meeting room that reminds me of the interior of the posh country club I grew up in not all that far away?
Into my email account this morning also came a saying of Jesus, part of which is someone saying he wanted to follow Jesus, but he wanted first to go home and bury a dead relative, and Jesus said for the man to let the dead bury the dead, and to follow him instead. I felt like I buried Leo last Christmas, at a gathering his family had for and around him at the nursing home where he then was living, after his Alzheimer’s became so severe that his aging wife, “Miss Betty,” could no longer take care of him. Leo didn’t recognize me, and asked if all those people around him were his family? Speaking with the black woman, who had been his hospice caretaker before he moved to the nursing home, and her husband, I burst into tears over what was happening to this man I loved so much.
His remains were cremated, my cousin said, and the family is going to bring them down to the Keys and scatter them around Islamorada, and I am welcome to join in that ceremony for the man he said he knew was my surrogate father. I replied that I myself had long wanted to have my remains scattered in the Keys, and was surprised that my own father had not had his scattered here, in the place he so loved. My heart is breaking, I must be getting close to something important . . .
I remember the last time Leo and I had a private conversation. It was September 1998. I called him at home, said I had something I needed to come over and talk to him about. He said to come on. He was alone. I’d just recently learned through dreams, mine and two dear men friends’, that I had an older brother I had never heard about. When I asked Leo if it was true, he turned, looked into my eyes, said in as serious a tone as he possibly could use, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that!” So I had my worldly confirmation that the dreams were true. Leo then said some very rough things about my father, which went to the core of why they no longer had
dealings with each other on this world. There was no doubt Leo spoke the truth, it was not in him not to speak the truth. And the truth was not something that my father cared much for in those days, nor for as long as I knew him. This is so painful to write. Shit!
I sat on the news that I had an older brother until just before Christmas 1999, when I was suddenly moved to write to my father about it, explaining the dreams but leaving Leo out of it. I did not get a reply, other than the Christmas present of stock he traditionally gave to each of his children did not come to me that year. I took that as his answer, and said to myself, “Oh, well,” and turned my attention toward other matters. About two weeks later, I was suddenly moved to legally change my name to Sloan Young,
dropping Bashinsky, and to legally renounce my inheritance from my father, in writing, and to send him news of all of this. I thought that was the end of it, but about two weeks later, I was suddenly moved to write to my brother and sister, and daughters, and former wives, and tell them of what had happened. To that I received no reply, except from my sister, who was enraged that I had gotten her involved. Then I was suddenly moved to wind up all of my affairs in Birmingham, get a new passport, and leave, going I knew not where . . .
Where I went was around the world, on both sides of the equator, traveling mostly on credit cards, until I reached Hawaii and the credit cards played out, and then began my adventures in being homeless most of the time. As I was running for mayor of Key West in 2003, living in a homeless shelter, I was suddenly moved to start trying to turn it around, by legally changing my name back to Bashinsky, renouncing the renouncement of my inheritance, and
trying to gain audience with my father, who clearly was sending signals that he wanted to see me, though third parties, but he never accepted my overtures to actually get together, even after I traveled all the way to Alabama from Key West, with money given to me by Buz Dillon, Chief of Police, and Bob Tishenkel, City Attorney of Key West. For two months I tried to see my father, and when it did not play out, I returned to Key West, and then I went into a hell hole that I only started coming out of after my father passed away in August 2005.
I would be lying if I said that it didn’t bug the shit out of me that my
father then started coming to me in dreams after that, giving me this and that dirty assignment to do, to help him wind up his affairs on this world. The spirit energies around all of these assignments was simply vile. And this was but a piece of the awful work I then was doing, all somehow linked into all that had gone down between my father and me, going back a very long time, way back to my own son’s passing, which surely affected my father more than anyone but perhaps him then knew, because he had lost his own first born many years before, and had never shared the loss with any of us. I seriously doubt even his wife, my mother, knew of it. But Leo knew of it, as did my father’s father, who was the instigator of the boy and his mother being paid money to leave Alabama, and on going payments to never come back. A boy who was half white, half black, whose mother was the teenage daughter of two of the servants in my father’s childhood home, a woman my father loved with all of his heart and soul.
I can’t imagine the trauma that erupted in my father when he received my letter in late 1999, asking if I had this older brother, but saying nothing of the race of his mother. I cannot imagine such trauma. Nor can I imagine my father reacting as he did, by casting me out altogether; nor the reaction of my daughters, from whom I never again heard after I wrote to them about all of this. Poof! They were gone from my life. I saw them at my father’s memorial service, they came down from Kentucky, where they both live, for it. I tried to get close to them, but it was no go. I tried to set up a later visit, but it was no go. Their mother was there and she was no help
and actually promoted them not seeing me again, even when I saw a glimmer in my youngest daughter favoring a second get together.
Let the dead bury the dead, Jesus said. I went to one funeral, saw
absolutely nothing come out of it except perhaps changes in me, occasioned by my having gone through it. Am I being called back to Birmingham, to do that again? Would it be different this time? How can I know if I don’t go back? Yet nothing in me wants to go back. When I had that last intimate visit with Leo in September 1998, I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “I’m waiting on the Lord to take me.” He did not yet know he was moving into Alzheimer’s. He was lucid, deep, real, ironic. That was the Leo I had always
known. That was the Leo I had always loved, even when I saw he was consternated, or perhaps was just confused, about how my life was going. Yet he never turned me away, he always received me.
I knew Leo was leaving in 1990, when I was down in Islamorada, in June, and heard that “Dr. Bashinsky” was staying at the Islander. As far as I could tell, most people in the Keys called him “Dr.Bashinsky,” or just “Doc.” He was a retired pediatrician, the best baby doctor maybe God ever made. He was my baby doctor, after he came out of Duke Medical School. I never got beaten up again by my mother. Leo was my daughters’ baby doctor. Hell, he’s still my doctor, telling me to stay here in the Keys and wait on his remains to come here and we can say our good-byes again in the place we both so loved, and still love. Damn, what a rainstorm this is stirring up. Damn.
Leo fished a few times with Rick Ruoff, which is how they got to know and respect and love each other. But Rick was so busy, so booked in advance, like a year ahead, that it simply was not possible for Leo to work into that kind of routine with any regularity. And Rick was younger than me, and Bob Rhinnerman (spelling?) was closer to Leo’s age, older than me, and they seemed to hit it off really well, two old grouches going out and swapping yarns, and
complaining about getting old, and chasing bone fish, and then going home tired and looking forward to a good night’s sleep and then more of the same the next day. I hate writing what is coming, that the day I last fished with Rick early 1987, up on Key Largo, he told me that my father was the only person he had ever fished, who he had decided he could not fish again. Rick was a Will Rogers type, he never met a man he didn’t like, except my father. Maybe I needed to hear that then, to prepare me for what was coming later about a man I could not help but love, no matter what.
I remember that last time with Leo in the Keys, June 1990. I found him at the Islander, said I wanted to have dinner with him. He said when he would be at the Green Turtle later that evening, and I met him there. He had prime rib, I had snapper. The food wasn’t nearly as good, hadn’t been nearly as good for years, after Roxie sold it, but there were still photographs on the walls I’d seen there for years, including photographs of my family and first wife and me, and it was for old time’s sake. Leo talked about how terrible the fishing was, the flats were being run over by boats and the bone fish were scarce and the shrimp were too small to cast. I could see the light going out in his eyes, as he turned to face me and said I would catch more
fish on the flat in front of my father’s home, where he never stayed after things had happened there many years before when he was my father’s guest. I knew it was this great man’s way of telling me he wanted to fish alone and that he was returning me to my father, even though he had once told Rick Ruoff that “Sloan should have been my son.”
Hell, I WAS his son! Hell, I’m STILL his son! This sudden rain burst proves it! How many fathers I have had: the one whose seed made me; Leo, and others I have written about from time to time. Each one different, each one bearing gifts the others could not bring to me. Each one loving me as if I were his own son. Clarence W. Allgood, the federal judge I clerked for right out of law school. John Gillon, the crusty old lawyer who represented my father and his father, and our entire family. Lee Graham, the Episcopal minister whose message so captured my mother that she risked just about everything to join his church. Now God is my father, and through each of these men has and does God speak to me, as a son. But today, God is speaking to me through Leo, who called a spade a spade, because it was not in him to be any other way.
I hated it for Leo, that he was trapped in his body, unable to go fishing any more, his mind leaving him. I was angry that God did not take him. I’m still angry about it. I know there was good reason for it, but that does not change how I feel about the last years of this man who did so much good for me, for my children, for other people and their children, whose eulogy I would very much like to be able to give next Saturday, because I know it would be about a real person. But I’m not going to be able to do that, and maybe that’s why I’m doing it in this way, and maybe I’m going to send this writing to my first cousin, whose email address I have, who received the
“Fly Fishing” piece, for him to share it with his side of the family. I do not feel moved to send it to my brother and sister, but perhaps to my daughers I might send it, because there may be some things here they do not know and might like to know about their Dr. Leo. And to my closest friends, I might also send it, if for no other reason, to help them understand where some of my character traits came from.
Thank you, Lord, for putting Dr. Leo into my life. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
I never heard anything further about the ashes spreading in the Keys. I am unable to find the “Fly Fishing” piece.
June 23, 2012