Ray Hicks and the Doctors

Joseph D. Sobol, Ph.D.

When I arrived at the Medical Center in Johnson City, Tennessee, one evening in the spring of 2001, Ray Hicks, the patriarch of American traditional storytellers, was in one of those tiny cubicles in the innards of the emergency room on a narrow, rolling bed a foot too short for him.  A cultural standoff was in progress.

He’d been there since just after noon.  The hospital staff seemed to be hoping that he’d get tired and go home—after first making an appointment to come back and see a specialist like a good citizen of the nation of Modern Medicine.  Ray’s family knew that he was not now, nor had he ever been, a citizen of that nation, and that if they took him home, they’d never get him back down.  So each camp was trying to wait the other out.

Ray’s wife, Rosa, was there, and two of their daughters, Juanita and Jeannette, and also Emily Eddy, the librarian from Jonesborough, Tennessee, who had been so alarmed at Ray’s condition on her last visit to his house that she absolutely insisted on coming back the following Monday to drive him to Johnson City.  Ray had missed the previous October’s National Storytelling Festival for the first time since he’d broken his back in 1976.  All this winter, he had struggled, unable to keep food down or to digest it, and he had grown as thin and wasted as a blighted pine tree.  He was in a great deal of pain and discomfort, there where his unpadded bones rubbed the unpadded gurney, and if he hadn’t been so weak, he surely would have bolted hours ago.

I went to the desk-duty nurse and asked her a rhetorical question.  “Did you know,” I asked, “that you have one of the greatest traditional storytellers in America in that room in there, and that you’ve had him in there waiting for six hours?”

She said she’d heard something about that, yes, and that they had to have a doctor come and look at him in order to admit him, and the doctors were all very busy.  But they would keep on working at it.

So they worked at it for another hour or so, and we kept Ray company as best we could. Finally, at around quarter to eight, a green-scrubbed intern came sweeping into the cubicle with a medical student at either arm, each holding a clipboard.  The intern had been briefed.  “Well, now, is this Mr. Raymond Hicks, the famous storyteller? he asked.

Everyone began to stammer in protest till Juanita summarized: “His name is Leonard Ray Hicks, but everyone just calls him Ray.”

“Well then, Mr. Hicks, I’m here to take your medical history.  What seems to be the matter today?”

When Ray heard the word history, he suddenly figured he was in the right place.  So he put his hands behind his head and stretched out a bit and said, “We-e-ll, it all started back in nineteen and seventy-five when I went to entertain at the governor of Tennessee’s place in Nashville, Tennessee, and on the way back, my water stopped. …”

All the other adults in the room began furiously interpreting between Ray and the intern as we tried to translate from the endless and seamless world of stories to the fragmented terrain of medical data.  He’d had a prostate operation in 1975, it hadn’t gone well, and he’d had discomfort ever since.  He broke his back in 1976 in a truck accident, he’d spent many months recovering, and still had pain from that.  He hadn’t been able to keep food down or let it out all winter, and he’d been losing weight that he couldn’t afford to lose. And that was it—that was his whole medical history.

“So how are you feeling right now, Mr. Hicks?”

And Ray began: “When I was a boy, we had two cows.

“And I had to take ’em over the mountain to graze ’cause they’d eat up all the tender grass near the house.  And one day when we uz over yander, it came on to stormin’ and a-thunderin’ and a-lightenin’, and I was scairt I’z gonna be struck and killed.  So I ran and hid inside a hollered-out tree stump.

“And then I saw that there was a nest o’ white blood-suckin’ spiders in that holler log, and they was a-crawlin’ up my pants legs and a-bitin’ and suckin’ my blood.  And I didn’t know whether to climb out o’ there and maybe get struck and killed by ligthnin’ or to stay in there and get bitten up by them blood suckin’ spiders.

“And,” Ray concluded, “that’s about how I feel right now.”

“Hmm,” said the intern impatiently.  “What about drinking, Mr. Hicks? Do you have a drinking problem?”

Ray looked around at us with that glint in his eye.  “Only problem is—cain’t afford it none.” And Ray began to discourse on the differences between patent whiskey and moonshine and the different grades and potencies of the latter when the doctor cut him off.

“What about smoking? Do you still smoke?”

“Don’t smoke nothin’ but what I roll my own.  Prince Albert.  Healthier than the store-bought kind—it don’t have so many chemicals.”

The intern was not very interested in the subtleties of store-bought vs. homemade whiskey and tobacco.  He kept on asking brief questions and struggling to deflect the answers before Ray could get up any kind of head of steam.  It was like watching a game of cultural pingpong, where the service kept changing sides.  Finally Ray took dead-aim between that intern’s eyes; he rared back and said, “Now what you’uns are a-sayin’ puts me in mind —

“— of a feller lived up near me who swore that he had a cat in his stomach.

“And none of his friends could tell him no different.  He just said he had a cat in his stomach and it a-botherin’ him.

“And his friends got together, and they went in it (note—yes--it means conspired) with a doctor.  Real medical doctor, jus’ like you-uns.  And they talked it over, and they decided that to help this feller, they was gonna have to operate.  Only they was gonna go out and get them a cat.  And when that feller woke up from the operation, they was gonna hold up that cat.  And say, ‘Here it is—we got ’im!’

“So that’s what they did.  They took this feller, and they put him under fast asleep, and when he opened his eyes, they held out this cat—they had ’em a gray tomcat.  And they held it up to the feller, and they said, ‘Here it is—we got ’im!’

“Now that feller opened his eyes, and he looked at that gray tomcat.  And he looked at the doctor and at his friends all standin’ round, and he said:

“‘That ain’t the one.  The one inside o’ me’s a black ’un.’

“So if you’re fixin’ on operatin’ on somebody,” Ray said to the intern, “you got to remember—first you got to find out what color’s the cat!”

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