Thursday, February 3, 2011

First Impressions: Letters of Caspar Henry Burton, Jr.

 Saturday, December 11, 1912.

St. Anthony, Nfld.
I HAVE just time to write you a few lines. Never have I met more fascinating people. Just how the general tone of this place could be improved I do not know. Dr. Grenfell(3) is even more charming than I had pictured him. I have put in a very busy day. Owing to a great lack of doctors and nurses I am posing, Dr. Armstrong's orders, as Doctor Burton. I have worked all day in the operating-room and etherized at two of the operations.
The hospital is crowded and Dr. Grenfell looks all in, but is the most buoyant man I have ever seen.
You can walk across the harbor on the ice and dog teams are everywhere.
My quarters are palatial and Dr. Armstrong has fixed it up so that I am to have my meals with him instead of with the mob.
Do not think that I am trying to fool people here. Dr. Armstrong quizzed me from A to Z and then with a wink dubbed me his assistant.
There is a boat due in a few days. So I will write again.
Sunday, December 10, 1912.
I AM going to try to keep a sort of diary; this you may like to read, and I think I may find it amusing in years to come. . .
On Sunday afternoon we went to the hospital and had a service for all the patients. Dr. Grenfell gave a little talk which I consider the most perfect Christian talk it has ever been my good fortune to listen to. In the evening we went to the Methodist Church where Dr. Grenfell conducted the service, as the pastor was away. He did this equally well.
Dr. Grenfell is very different from all descriptions of him. He is primarily an overgrown boy. He is very enthusiastic one minute and depressed the next, and takes no pains to conceal either condition of mind.
Now I am not a hero worshipper, in the Carlyle sense, but this man has one quality raised to the nth power. He literally sheds pleasure. Whoever he meets leaves him feeling more optimistic than before. I believe that Dr. Grenfell loves his neighbor in a simple boyish way more than anybody I have ever seen. This is the secret of his great power.
LATE yesterday night a man died of T.B., which is the curse of this country. Dr. Grenfell is such a Believer that he looks on the matter of "A man's body dying" in about the same way that Fr. Field(4) does. We did a P.M. and then went off rabbit shooting for the day --- Dr. Grenfell, Grant,(5) three men who live in St. Anthony and I.
Komatiking, or dog-sledging, has become my passion. It gives you the feeling of being in danger while you are perfectly safe. I have not an idea of how fast we went, but I don't think I ever went so fast in a runabout or rig of any sort. And the steering arrangements are crude, to put it mildly. We tramped on snowshoes all day after we left the dogs. This was also excellent sport. And Dr. Grenfell! He was as happy as a school-boy getting an unexpected holiday on account of the sudden death of the principal's wife. My outfit kept me perfectly warm and comfortable. Anything woolen is useless. Canvas and skins make you perfectly comfortable.
Tuesday, 12th.
I HAVE been on the jump in the hospital all day. Everything has gone badly. Every patient seems determined to have fever. Dr. G. "lit into a man" who was moaning. The man stopped. I went across the harbor with Dr. A. We found a girl in hysterics. She was artificially making her mouth foam. Dr. A. said to her, when we were alone, "Sit up, you can't fool me." She did. She then said she "warn't bein' treated right" and called Mrs. Tilley, her boss, names. Then Mrs. Tilley called her names, then Dr. A. told them both to shut up. Mr. T. walked along with us in silence, then he said, "Well, Doctors, they'se both women and they don't somehow like each other. They'se genrilly Hell to pay when that's the case, ain't there now, Doctor?"
IN hospital all day. Two operations O.K. I spent the evening with Dr. Grenfell at his house doing some blood counts, etc. He was using some of my blood for a trial. He made a mistake in arithmetic and got a terribly high count. He then looked in a book and turned to me and said, "I am sorry to break the news to you, but the book says 'such a condition is found only in pregnancy." Mrs. Grenfell said, "Wilf!" and the pretty, English governess blushed.
Thursday, 27th.
DR. G. has got the scientific bee in his bonnet for the time being. He and I have spent the entire day doing perfectly useless things in the laboratory while Dr. Armstrong has been able to get the hospital straightened out. Dr. Grenfell has made me sick laughing. When we weren't able to get a certain stain right, he counted out "eenye, meeny, miney, mo" down a line of bottles and tried the one he came to. The slide was ruined.
Dr. Armstrong and I have made a list of provisions which we are sending to St. John's for. It will chew up most of my money, I fancy. He is of a very donative nature and keeps producing gifts from his dozen trunks for the nurses.
IN hospital all day. Dr. G. is growing tired of "science." He forced himself to it this morning, but has just gone off with a dog team to have a "mug up" (tea) with some crony of his across the bay.
I am eating like a horse and enjoying it, why I don't know, as the food is well below par.
WE took out an eye. We had some trouble getting this man etherized this time, although he went under easily a week ago. After we had given him a whole can he murmured, "It don't seem to work, Doctor, although it tastes just as good."
I had dinner at the Grenfells'. We (the editorial we) will have to concede more and more to Mrs. Grenfell.(6) She has rare tact and sense. She never talks about the hospital or work and appears to take no interest. She does a lot of good without trying to get the credit of doing any. This species of human is a "rara avis."
Miss ------ is very pretty, every inch a lady, and well educated. I kept thinking, 'Here is all the stage set for a real romance. The lady knows nothing of your past. With a little effort, old boy, you might appear a pretty fine sort of chap. You might even, after things had gone a certain distance, tell of what a wild devil you had been, and let her think she had reformed you.' . . . But she is both sweet and shy. Either of those traits alone would hopelessly cramp my style and the combination bores me to tears. Why didn't she stay in England and be the poor Vicar's daughter? 

. . . 

DR. G. has a fit on for doing heart work. We have been making blood pressure curves, etc., of hearts. He pulled out two old tracings of men who died. Then he said, "Now we will see if we can't make you give one like these." He seemed terribly annoyed when I gave the most normal tracings of anybody. He says he knows I cheated, how, I don't know. But, joking aside, I certainly did get a good heart. My circulation is so good that one ear is all I have frozen so far. Everybody else is continually freezing fingers and particularly toes; these parts keep perfectly warm with me, and, by the way, just as sea-sickness is for some reason, unknown to me, considered a good joke, so freezing something is considered terribly amusing.
I had to go across the harbor this afternoon. I was blown back by a wind which I am sure came from the North Pole without stopping. As I came in the Guest House Grant was playing on the Victor a song from a comic opera "The Arcadians":
It's nice and warm, I think, that we shall have a lovely day,
Very, very warm for May, eighty in the shade they say --- just fawncy!
It really really looks as though we'll really have a lovely day,
Oh, what very charming weather!
But at my request he gladly took this off and played "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" sung by the Trinity mixed choir, which fitted the occasion better.
I am going to Griquet (eighteen miles) with Dr. Grenfell tomorrow to give a Christmas tree. Mrs. G. is also going if we can find a "woman-box" (I love that phrase) to put on a komatik.
This place was wrongly named. St. Anthony would never have had his chance to become a saint here!

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