Intra-Library Loan Time

9th level of the Harold Washington Library (Ch...

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Most of my research for Anne on Fire is now complete.  I’ve spoken with willing relatives and friends who knew details from my burn accident years ago or who knew my parents at the time.  I’ve requested as many medical records as possible, learning that there are some that simply are gone.  I’ve contacted doctors who worked on my case.  All in all, it’s been a fabulous and enlightening process where I’ve tried to cover the proverbial waterfront of information for clues and insight.  I was going over my findings with my friend Gloria when she said, “Gallagher, have you looked in the newspapers from that time to see if anything was published?  You know, a fire call, a news item.”

I hadn’t.  It was a great idea and prompted my call to the Brown County library (pictured here as is the interior of the Harold Washington Library), where of course they have old editions of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.  In our techno-driven age, most newspapers before the mid-1990s are not searchable online but preserved on micro-film.  Another call to the Harold Washington Library to request an intra-library loan…..and a stash of micro-film is on its way to Chicago.

My gut tells me there will be nothing useful for me in these newspapers.  At the same time, I can’t wait to wade through them on the micro-film machine.  You never know what you might find unless you look.  The process also brings about a sweet sense of closure to my search for information.  It motivates me to get back to the business of writing up the story. 

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Time-and-Space Leg-Look-Lag, or How About Some Denial?

Well, I finally did it. I actually opened and read the medical records I’d ordered about 18 months ago. I know this sounds strange. When they arrived in separate, non-descript manilla envelopes last March 2009, I quickly ripped opened one packet. Doing a quick flip through, I saw the unthinkable: My leg. I was 7 years old and the plastic surgeon took a full leg picture from various angles. While it was thankfully taken in black and white, the sight was such a shock to me that I put the package back in its envelope. Unbelieveable as it was, I had never seen a photo of my own leg. Truth be told, it looked awful and made me feel that way too. Good god that must have hurt, I thought realizing at the same time that I was starting to detach me from myself. That’s a long way of saying, I wanted to forget about the picture for a while. And so I did. It’s one of the many ways that this “project” of mine continues to surprise even me. More on what was in the two packages later.

Talking with Relatives

Man with street organ and monkey on chain.

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One of the most fascinating aspects of looking back in time is talking to my mother and father’s relatives. Memory is an interesting thing. So, apparently were the 1960s. Intuitively I think I knew that things were different for families in the 60s but mom’s cousin Verna told me today that ‘we dealt with the monkey rather than going to the organ grinder.”  There was a hesitancy to most everything back then — whether it was the idea of calling someone long distance or doing things against the grain. I was trying to figure out how, after the accident, I actually got to the hospital. My sister told me that mom called dad and had him drive home from the office to take me. Cousin Verna confirmed this possibility, “If it were me, I would have called [my husband] to come home from work. Remember, we dealt with the monkey so we would have hesitated to call the hospital and there probably wasn’t 911 back then.”

Another Strike-Out

When I emerged from my initial burn hospitalization after 3 months and countless surgeries, I headed to a place called the Curative Workshop (www.newcurative.org) for rehabilitation. I remember putting on a bathing suit and going into a round metal tub filled with warm water (maybe this was precurser to the modern-day hot tub but a whole lot less fun and definitely without the jets). Today I called the Curative Workshop and records from the 60s are long since destroyed. John, the medical records historian, has only been working there for 17 years which unfortunately didn’t help me. He also didn’t remember a worker there named Audrey. Another person I remember as the woman who helped me in that metal tub so many times over so many months. So, another strike-out today on the information front.

Finding People

Finding people after 40 years is something of a daunting task. Yes, there are some alive and well, and even willing to talk about what they remember of my accident. But then there are the ones I think of and only remember a first name — Maggie, my nurse in the hospital, or Audrey, the physical therapist. I talked to my friend Sue who works at the hospital where I was treated so many years ago and she confirmed that in our modern world, our modern human resources rules mean people can’t share much. So will I ever find these people I remember? And if I did, would they remember? Maggie the nurse would. When I was 18, I went to visit a friend at the hospital, St. Vincent’s. When I walked out of the elevator she ran toward me and hugged me. I had no idea who she was until she told me, tears in her eyes. How she remembered me then, 15 years after she had last seen me, still startles me.