My Three Fathers

Dad and James

   Author’s Note–  The following piece was written about two years ago. Its original intended audience was family and friends. In the interim, my Dad has been transformed into an eternal being, now existing in splendor with The Creator. I decided to publish this in honor of my Dad and in recognition that part of him continues to be present on this Earth in the form of his three children, his five grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter. I will see you soon, Dad. I love you and remain grateful for all you did for me. My life is a testament to your guiding hand.

There is always a small gasp of surprise accompanied by a quizzical expression when I tell people I have three fathers. Most think I refer to my natural father, and two step-fathers, or perhaps with a godfather thrown in there somewhere. They seem puzzled when I tell them no permutation of those three possibilities explains my unique situation. Everyone requests an explanation of this curious phenomenon. I’m happy to oblige, but this one takes a little time.

An examination of just what a father is seems in order, especially now that I find myself at that point in life where I, myself, am a father of sorts.  To my surprise and amazement, I seem to be muddling through it. Throughout my youth, I never seriously felt that I had the right stuff to become a Dad. After all, Dad was someone whose wisdom massively exceeded my ability to comprehend. A Dad always knows, without hesitation or any necessity for deliberation, precisely the correct course of action to solve any problem, be it a broken washing machine, a suboptimal report card or inappropriate behavior at Sunday School. Dad knew without fail, how to do everything from changing a tire or building a room onto the house, to more delicate matters such as comforting my Mom when she became distraught over mostly non-issues. Heck, he could even distinguish her real from her not so real crises.  Would that that skill were passed genetically. It seemed to me that this type of Solomonian wisdom was simply beyond my reach.

I realized fairly early on that achieving Dad-dom would be a reach for me. As I watched Dad toil infatigueably, day after day , to provide our daily necessities and what he could of our wants, it just appeared altogether impossibly difficult. In my soul, I knew I was too lazy for all that self sacrifice stuff. Playing ball, watching TV, and later, pursuing girls, proved infinitely more appealing to me. He arose at hours that didn’t even appear on my clock to leave for his customary day of hard physical labor, and came dragging home, way past dark, only to ingest a few bites of Mom’s dinners, bathe, and fall into bed, renewing his body for a repeat performance in a few short hours. Fatherhood seemed to involve a superhuman amount of work. It seemed way too much for a mere mortal like me.

Yet the list of Dad duties extends far beyond self denial. Dadness requires the passing of both knowledge and wisdom. Some things I learned from my Dad were merely osmotic. The basic concepts of what is right and what is wrong simply appeared in me, following the gradient between a high concentration of moral values ( my Dad) to a lesser concentration (me).  Watching him conduct his life, handle his family, and interact with neighbors, I acquired a strong sense of fairness, honesty, and right and wrong. I have since grown into an adult, become educated, and experienced a fair amount of the world, both good and bad. The moral compass constructed in my soul by Dad has never grown cloudy or spun in circles. His indelible impressions on my inner man have led me through the tempests of life on an even keel.

Other things I learned were taught in a practical way. An excellent example is the highly valuable life lesson about work ethic. When I was in high school and had finally acquired that most prized of all teenage possessions, the driver’s license, I fervently desired the second most sought after- a car of my very own. Dad saw this as a teaching opportunity. It was time to learn about hard work, reward, and the value of money. Nowadays, many teenagers are gifted with a fancy expensive automobile as soon as they earn a license. To their detriment, this phenomenon likely reflects the parents’ own ego gratification, at the cost of a lost chance to teach youngsters a solid, dependable core value lesson. Such an opportunity certainly was not wasted in my own case. Dad sat me down and explained the relationship between effort and reward. Dad elucidated for me the many splendors of hard work- self discipline, financial reward, enhanced physical fitness, and the satisfaction of making your own way. He explained how a real man cannot be truly satisfied, deep down inside, with mere handouts. Only the fruits of his own efforts provide that inner sense of worth that leads to true contentment. Only then does he truly value that car, bought by the sweat of his own brow.

Once the school year was complete, off to work I went. I worked with my Dad in the tough, physically demanding world of construction. Dad was self-employed in the land clearing and drainage business. My first job consisted of refueling the dragline he operated. That mechanical beast was enormous at seventy five feet tall, and its appetite for fuel was even larger. The pickup truck Dad drove holding the daily fifty five gallon allotment of fuel had to be left near the road, while the machine might be a half mile deep in the woods. My task was not unlike that of Sisyphus- constantly hauling the heavy five gallon cans of fuel to the machine, only to see it converted to carbon dioxide and energy before the next trip was complete. I would fill two five gallon containers, drag both them and myself through the woods, fill the machine even while it continued to move, then trudge back to the truck and begin again. I kept rolling that particular stone up the hill for the entire summer.

All his predictions about this task proved true. I did manage at least a modest gain in physical strength, and I earned enough money by the end of the summer to buy my first car. I was in heaven, despite the fact that the car was an older, battered economy model. I treasured it and lavished it with massive amounts of TLC. Other guys, sporting attention grabbing girl magnet cars laughed at my ride, but I never cared. I EARNED this car myself. Even today, I reminisce fondly about it. I began to understand the relationship between effort and reward. I discovered the joy of accomplishment. That car was not simply a possession, but rather a symbol of my new found self reliance.

Dad had not had the opportunity to be educated academically, but his genius was undeniable. True, he couldn’t introduce me to quantum mechanics or expound about the breathtaking beauty of Shakespeare’s plays, but Berkeley County schools provided teachers for that part of my education. His lessons were taught in the classroom of the real world. His instruction shaped every area of my life and formed the bedrock of my life view. There can be no doubt that my accomplishments, however modest, are all grounded in those fundamentals. All that I am as a person I owe to him and my Mom’s guiding hands. Without them, I shudder to think how my life may have turned out. All that has followed in my adult life was built on that foundation.

Nothing came easily to me. Academic success came at a price, despite having a few friends for whom it all just seemed so effortless. Their calls to put down the books and join their parties were hard to resist, and but I knew that grasping the plum for which I reached would take absolutely everything I had. So, most parties went unattended. Even dates got triaged to less critical status. I was totally, completely obsessed with admission to medical school. I even arranged a meeting with my local state representative at the capitol (at Dad’s insistence), just in case my academic record needed a measure of political impetus to ensure success. Dad felt strongly that achieving anything in life beyond a subsistence existence required the blessing of the political machine. I will never know if that meeting with our county’s senior senator produced such an effect or was immediately forgotten as soon as the door shut behind me. I suspect the latter was the case. My lack of confidence in a political intercession for medical school admission merely gave me added incentive in my studies. I sweated it out throughout my undergraduate years, bypassing much of the reverie that most college students enjoy, all in a do or die maximum effort to gain my place in med school.

Some things just remain etched in 72 point bold Helvetica in our memories for our entire lives. The first girlfriend, the first drive to the store all alone, and the day THE letter came- the letter that announced that I had been selected to join the class of 1977 at the Medical University of South Carolina. I remember it like it was this morning, despite being some thirty three years distant now. I was working at a local hospital as an orderly to help put myself through college. The Letter had arrived that morning, but I waited to open it until my shift that evening in the ER. I finally screwed up the courage to peek inside it on my dinner break. I nervously, cautiously, gently opened the folded paper that held the course of my entire life within. I carefully let my eyes take in the first line. The only word that mattered was the first- “Congratulations”.  Trying to convey my feelings upon reading that word seems impossible, like explaining a sunset in the Bahamas to a blind man, or attempting to communicate what sex feels like. Suddenly, life was completely different. I knew that if I worked really, really hard, one day I would be one of them- a doctor. As I watched the doctors go about their business, there seemed to be a new- felt kinship with them.  I was now a brother in arms. Someday, I too would be a doctor. I had no idea what kind of doctor, but the glorious reality was that I would be a DOCTOR!!

Med school was all I had imagined- tough, demanding, intimidating, and all together fascinating. As I progressed through the classes, rounds, lectures, and endless hours of study, it seemed I was living a real life version of an old classic novel- “Two Years Before the Books.” I studied from 8 AM until 11 PM for those first two basic science years in a battle to attain reasonable marks. At that point, I already knew I wanted to become a surgeon. Anatomy had held a special attraction for me and I had always enjoyed working with my hands. Surgery just seemed the epitome of medical science. All the esoteric knowledge acquired in the classroom was combined with the physician’s motor skills and his ability to think on his feet resulting in an outcome that was easily judged by the least sophisticated casual observer on the street- a basic form of what might these days be called an intent to treat analysis. Or maybe I had seen one too many episodes of Ben Casey. My mind was made up- I would be a surgeon.

But what area of surgery should I pursue? Initially, I felt general surgery was the right path. A general contractor, instead of just a plumber or an electrician seemed sensible. But, as the movie trailer announcers say, “A new wind was about to blow.”

Somehow, I heard one day about a meeting for the entire class in the large auditorium where we heard many of our lectures. We had now reached our third year, when the bulk of our learning was now done on the wards. An interesting program had been devised which allowed medical students the opportunity to leave the confines of the academic world, and venture into the real world with real practicing doctors. The format of that meeting was straightforward. Physicians of various specialties gave brief descriptions of where they worked and what they did. As I sat, mostly bored, I wondered if I had wasted valuable study time when my next Father made a rather grand ascension to the podium.

Dressed in an impressive three piece suit, and sporting an even more impressive, almost stentorian voicing and appearance was the man who would set in motion the course of the remainder of my life. J. Lorin Mason was his name and orthopedic surgery was his game. I vividly recall his presentation. He made orthopedic practice seem better than possessing the ability to reanimate corpses, and I was enthralled. After his speech, I hardly paid any attention to the remaining speakers. I knew in my soul that I was destined to go to Florence, South Carolina and spend a six week externship with this man. I had no idea at the time how profound his influence on me would ultimately prove to be.

I knew I had made the correct choice even before we began the formal externship. The medical school ,amazingly, made arrangements for me and my fellow student and embryonic orthopedic surgeon, Jim Bethea, to visit Dr. Mason in Florence. The university aircraft, a nice Beechcraft Baron, was put at our disposal. Being a lifelong aviation enthusiast, I was thrilled. I was absolutely fascinated by the flight, especially as I was allowed to ride shotgun and observe the pilot’s activities in detail. The remainder of the trip was a thing of wonder. We were greeted by Dr. Mason and it seemed the entire city of Florence when we arrived at the offices of Pee Dee Orthopedics. We even made the paper. “All this for a junior medical student” I thought. “I’m going to like this orthopedic business.”

Jim and I lived like kings in Florence. We had our own apartment, paid for by the University. Everyone was cordial and treated us like family. It truly was a heady experience for a couple of guys who hadn’t yet demonstrated anything beyond the ability to gain admission to medical school.  Even the doctors in Dr. Mason’s practice were benevolent. They showed patience and a real interest in teaching us some basic concepts in orthopedics. However, as nice as they were, their devotion to our education was several magnitudes of order less than that of Dr. Mason. At the time, I was completely unable to appreciate the sacrifice he of himself and his time for us. It was only years later, when I did some teaching myself, that I understood.  He never seemed to mind taking time after work hours to sit down with us and attempt to give us a basic grounding in the art and science of orthopedic surgery.

His teaching methods at times, seemed reminiscent of those of a marine drill instructor, and I was just as intimidated as a Parris Island recruit.  I can now look back with understanding and fondness at the occasions he referred to me as “dicknose”, for example. Initially, his entire approach to Jim and me, as well as his employees, nurses, and scrub technicians, seemed harsh. Little by little, though, I began to look beneath that gruff exterior to see and appreciate the real Lorin Mason.

It is hard for me to easily put into words everything that Dr. Mason taught me.  He showed me not only the technical part of being an orthopedist, but what it meant to be a compassionate physician. At the University, I learned science, and lots of it. Little regard was given to what it means to really take care of sick and injured people. Lorin showed me that. Early in my rotation with him, he got a call to go to the emergency department to see a young girl with a badly broken forearm. I will always remember that scene. As we walked into the room, she was visibly in pain. She was about 20 years old and had a terribly deformed right wrist, damaged in a fall at home. Dr. Mason walked over to her and in a very soothing tone, explained exactly what he planned to do. He then gave her, ever so gently, an injection of local anesthetic. Once the medication had done its work, he grasped her wrist and made a quick, deft movement she never even felt. As he applied a plaster splint to her arm, she let out a sigh of relief- her pain had totally disappeared! I was in awe of him now. Having just spent four months on the internal medicine service, I was flabbergasted that a person’s problem could be so simply and completely fixed. After all, I had seen the medical doctors treating high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. They NEVER seemed to actually cure their patient’s problems. The best they could manage was to keep the symptoms under control. This orthopedic surgeon could FIX the problem. It hit right at that moment that orthopedic surgery was to be my life’s work.

I was so excited to get to go to the operating room with Dr. Mason the following week. The first case was an ankle surgery- a fracture that required surgical fixation with a special metal plate and screws, if memory serves. I had read up on the case the previous night, but admittedly, it was after some social activity that involved “moderate” alcohol consumption. Upon opening the skin, Dr. Mason asked me a basic anatomy question. Of course, I fumbled the answer. He glared at me and noted that as a student, I wasn’t expected to know much, but anyone who had passed gross human anatomy should know that answer.  With that, he demanded that I leave not only the operating theater, but the hospital as well. I was instructed to walk back to the office and study ankle anatomy. It was a lesson well learned. It became clear to me that being in the OR was a privilege- one that had to be earned. Preparation was all important. I never forgot that lesson, along with many others. This particular one served me well throughout my residency and my practice.

He also taught me to see my patients as people, not merely a disease process. I remember examining a middle aged black man who suffered from painful arthritis of the hip. My clumsy exam had caused his hip to pain him significantly. Dr. Mason reminded me that he was a human being, not a manikin, and that I should respect him and be more sensitive with my exams. I saw this trait repeatedly demonstrated during my time with him. He was helping me make that transition from the teaching hospital mentality to being a real doctor. At the teaching facility, patients seemed to be valuable only as an opportunity to see in real life the diseases we read about in the books.

It seemed that he and I were so different in so many ways that the development of a friendship that would last a lifetime would be impossible. He seemed the antithesis of me- brash, bold, supremely self confident, and socially adept. He was also at the pinnacle of his surgical skills, which he displayed with relish in the operating theater. In stark contrast, I was but a simple country boy who was way out of his depth in all these areas.  Coming from an extremely modest background, I felt ill at ease in most situations. I had minimal medical knowledge, no surgical skills at all, and felt like the proverbial fish out of water.

During my childhood and adolescence, I had heard my parents and their friends exchange “doctor stories.” I was always in awe when they spoke of the physicians who cared for them through injuries and illnesses. They seemed to ascribe almost God-like characteristics to them. I suppose hearing these accounts, mostly delivered in hushed, reverent tones, led me to believe that, as a group, doctors were more highly evolved than us gentry folk. That may be the reason I initially was completely intimidated by them.

As I went on to “climb the evolutionary tree”, as it were, I realized that for the most part, physicians are normal people, complete with all the foibles that accompany humanity. I found this to be true in Dr. Mason’s case. After peeling away the outer layers of bravado, I discovered a genuine human being who cared deeply about his patients, his students, and his profession.

When I first heard him mention that he dabbled in painting, I was totally surprised.  His persona seemed diametrically opposed to the meek, introspective, reflective personality I had erroneously always associated with artistic types. I was, frankly, shocked to see the quality of his paintings. He has never ceased unveiling new aspects of his complicated person. Once more, I learned from him. Never again will I judge a person quickly, or by observing only a portion of his overall life.

While working under Dr. Mason’s tutelage, another of the most important events of my life occurred. I met my future wife.

We were doing a surgical case at a small hospital in Florence, and our nurse anesthetist for the day was a strikingly beautiful young woman of Scandinavian descent named Sheila Hemmingsen. I could barely focus on the case for want of stealing periodic glances at her as we worked. Even Dr. Mason made note of her charms later as we reviewed the day’s cases in his office late that afternoon.

Kay, Dr. Mason’s nurse and girl Friday, had secretly made a blind date for me with Sheila.  I believe it was a Friday night when we first met formally. I immediately fell totally in love, although I couldn’t be sure if the attraction was for her or her brand new canary yellow Chevrolet Corvette. Here she was, a gorgeous woman with a new ‘Vette. It had to be fate, or karma, or something. Eventually I realized that was actually the intervening hand of God. Our first date consisted of me driving her, and her car, down to Myrtle Beach. The sudden rainstorm which forced us to stop and install the hardtop certainly didn’t dampen our mutual attraction. Some thirty five years later, we remain inseparable. She is the mother of my two incredibly beautiful daughters, and will always be the love of my life.

As my residency ended, I found myself thirsting for more knowledge and better surgical skills prior to beginning my own practice, just as Dr. Mason had predicted. I sought to spend some time in a post-residency program to gain special expertise in a subspecialty field. Since Dr. Mason’s major contribution to orthopedics had been in area of arthroscopy, I naturally desired more education in that burgeoning, but new, area of orthopedics. I scoured the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons publications for available fellowships. I settled on spending time with an internationally known arthroscopist and knee surgeon in the Los Angeles area. His program was prestigious, and he accepted only a single fellow for each period. I was doubtful that I would be chosen from the many, many applicants for this highly sought after position. After all, I would be competing with graduates of big name programs like Harvard, Hopkins, and Duke. Once more, I was the country boy from South Carolina.

One last time, Dr, Mason changed my life. He made a concerted effort to get me the fellowship. He attended most of the major orthopedic meetings around the country. At each one, he repeatedly suggested to Dr. Jackson that he strongly consider me as his next fellow. After I had arrived in California, I asked Dr. Jackson why he chose me. His replied that when he sat down to make the decision, all he could hear in his mind was the voice of Lorin Mason telling him that I was the best choice. Doing that fellowship proved to be another major event in my life. I learned much about techniques in surgery which advanced me professionally.   Manifold deeply rewarding opportunities resulted from having done that particular fellowship, things which I never would have been able to experience without it.

Time has continued to flow, like a river, towards its emptying place in eternity’s ocean. As it does, life changes with its current. As I write, more than thirty years have come and gone since I first entered medical school. My children are grown and on their own. My own orthopedic practice is beginning to draw to a close. As luck would have it, Dr.Mason  and his bride have moved from Florence to a small retirement village not very far from my own home. We have had the opportunity to meet a few times for dinner and remembrances. Even today, when I see him, I feel a mixture of intimidation, respect, and love for the man who so deeply influenced my life. I can only hope that I have been able to have some small similar impact on someone else’s life.

What about the third Father? Who might he be? He is my heavenly Father. God has been central to my life since I was a child. The love and gifts bestowed on me by my two earthly fathers, as great as they have been, cannot be compared to the love and care given from above by my Heavenly Father. He gave me life. He gave me parents who loved and nurtured me,  a mentor to help me in choosing and developing my life’s work, a beautiful and steadfast wife, two intelligent and equally beautiful daughters, and more earthly riches than any man deserves or needs. For these things, I am thankful. I have lived a life that is the envy of many and a joy to me and my family.

Yet, my Heavenly Father has given me an even greater gift- the gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.

I often wonder what heaven will be like. It seems hard to imagine that it will be the wings and clouds of folklore and movies. I suppose we will exist in a dimension inconceivable in this life. At long last, I will be able to see clearly, no longer through a glass darkly, able at last to fully understand all the mysteries of creation I so diligently studied in the present life. We will exist in perfect harmony with God, His brilliant glory, and all His saints, just as He originally intended. If we are able to discern our loved ones from our time on earth, I will be afforded the opportunity to spend eternity with my three fathers, as well as my family and friends in Christ in a new dimension of holy perfection.

I just hope Dr. Mason doesn’t spend eternity asking me to leave heaven because I didn’t prepare enough. I learned my lesson well.


About castingawayblog

I am a retired orthopedic surgeon with fly fishing in my bones! Living in coastal South Carolina, saltwater fly fishing is my passion, though I also love to use the long rod in freshwater. I have been known to use conventional gear as well.
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3 Responses to My Three Fathers

  1. Holly Massey says:

    W O W . . .That was outstanding!!!!!!!

    Holly L. Massey
    Environmental Health & Safety Coordinator
    Authorized OSHA Trainer, General Industry, Georgia Tech, 2010
    Authorized OSHA Trainer, Construction Industry, NC State University, 2011
    Authorized American Heart Association Emergency Care Instructor
    Coastal Carolina University
    PO Box 261954
    Conway, South Carolina 29528
    843-349-6438 Office
    843-349-2384 Fax
    843-450-5018 Cell

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  2. Betty Martin says:

    What an impressive tribute to such deserving people.I did not know your father very well but have to agree that his production of such am impressive man as yourself is a reward in itself. Working with Dr, Loren Mason was also an experience that I myself will never forget. He truly is a person to be admired for his work and devotion to his practice. Also must comment that if had I hand picked a son -in-law I could not have done a better job. You have been such a blessing to me and my family and are such a kind and devoted man to your patients and especially to your family. May God’s love always abide with you and guide you through the rest of your time here on earth and I’m looking forward to that time in Glory when you will continue to serve others as He has allowed you to do here on this earth.

  3. Sheila says:

    James, it’s amazing how God reunites us many years later with a friend and such meaningful words that are so touching. I never knew the details but your true character now is so clear. I send our best regards to all! Sheila

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