About this time nine years ago my wife Karen and I headed for the hills of East Texas in order to give Hurricane Ike plenty of room. Of course, he followed us up there like a trailer hooked to the car. But, enough about that.
After the tempest erupted we drove into Palestine, the county seat of Anderson County, and I showed Karen the hospital in which I was born, a handsome old two-story brick building with impressive carvings over the entryway (that’s it in the photo), sitting nicely among majestic trees. It’s the sort of building you see in old movies. You know, the way hospitals and schools used to look when they had character, before they were replaced by modern, bland edifices that are all steel and glass.
We got out of the car and admired the place which hadn’t been a hospital for a long time. It felt comforting somehow, standing in the shadow of the structure where I first drew breath and bellowed out at the world (a habit that I’ve kept up).
Standing there felt satisfying and right. It felt like coming home.
I was so moved that I called my sister Diane on my cell phone and told her about it. She listened politely and then told me that I wasn’t born in that hospital at all. She said that I was apparently standing in front of the old I&GN Railroad hospital, which had nothing to do with us since our father hadn’t worked for the railroad. The building where I was born, she said, was several blocks away.
Diane had been nearly a teenager when I arrived, so she undoubtedly knew what she was talking about. I tried to follow her directions but never found anything that looked like it might have once been a hospital. Except, that is, for the one that was built a few months after my birth and was standing vacant amid weeds and bushes that were quickly consuming it. Palestine obviously goes through hospitals with an aggressive appetite.
So, the circumstances of my birth appear to be hazy. Not the actual, biological part, since I have to assume I made my entrance in the same way that many billions of humans had before and since. The precise geography is the crux of the conundrum.
I know I was born at six a.m. on the twelfth of May in 1952, less than a month before Queen Elizabeth – the second, not the first – was crowned in England and seven months before Ike – the president, not the hurricane – was elected.
My birth certificate states that I was delivered by R. H. Bell, M.D. in something called the Palestine Sanitarium. Which has always been a little off-putting, to tell you the truth, since I’ve always equated sanitariums with gothic mansions behind tall iron gates where lunatics and people with horrible diseases were stashed away. But that’s what the public hospital in Palestine was called in that era, so that’s what’s written in slanting cursive on my official record.
In an attempt to locate the hallowed ground, I telephoned Deloris Stroud in Palestine. Miss Deloris, now deceased, was the mother of Jim Bob and Tim, two of my boyhood friends, one of whom I had to conclude had been born in that sanitarium as well. She said it had been on Neches Street, somewhere across from Dr. Bell’s house. So he’d had only to step across the road from his front door to pull me into existence; he probably hurried over there to do it between cups of coffee after his breakfast.
Miss Deloris told me that hospital had been gone for years. And why wouldn’t it have been? Why should any of this work out to my satisfaction?
I might as well face the fact that I will never lay eyes on the exact location of my birth. The single, faded photo I located on the internet is of a dismal, white stucco building not much larger than a two-story house, and not nearly as attractive as the railroad hospital. Nothing of it remains.
It’s a good thing that I’m not a member of that tribe on some island in the South Pacific that I once read about where old people try to make it back to the exact spot where they were born when it’s time for them to die. So, I guess, they can end up where they started out, sort of like getting off the train at the same station where you got on it. Talk about wrapping things up neatly in a full circle.
If I was in that tribe, I wouldn’t know where to report when the time comes.
I teach writing workshops on occasion to people who want to pen their memoirs. Since that trip to Palestine I encourage them to have their facts, and their buildings, in order before writing a single sentence.