From my feverish sickbed, I heard his knock on the door of our tiny funeral-home apartment. If I close my eyes tightly, I can see back to 1958. There he was, Dr. E.L. Harrell, sitting on the edge of my bed with his black medical bag on his lap.
The young doctor reached over and touched my forehead with the back of his hand. “Hmmmmm,” he said, pulling two things from his bag: a thermometer and one of those wooden ice-cream-stick-looking things. After checking my temperature, he said, “Say ahhhhhhh.” I can still taste the wood on my tongue and remember the gagging reflex. Once he listened to the rattling in my chest, he decided I needed a needle poked into my bony behind.
That’s how far back my memories go of my friend, Lanier Harrell.
On Aug. 19, Doc celebrated his 95th birthday. The next day, I was with a group of family and friends honoring the occasion. Watching others express their love for Doc triggered these memories:
§ As a high school football player—with the physique of a yardstick—I asked Doc how I could gain weight. He said, “Trust me. One day, you’ll be glad you don’t have a lot of weight that you want to lose.” Today, I say, “Amen.”
§ Clint Madray pitched a halftime hissy fit in Douglas. Our enraged coach flung his paper cup of Coke. Splat! It hit Doc in the back of his starched white shirt. Our team physician just kept walking. The Coffee County Trojans never knew what hit them when the Yellow Jackets swarmed out of the locker room.
§ Nine years later, I borrowed $3,000 to make a down payment on a one-third interest in Elliott Brack and Doc’s Wayne County Press. I can still hear Doc’s warning: “You need to know that this is a long-term investment. You won’t be getting your money back any time soon.” We were partners for just four years. A half-century later, Doc and I still laugh about that. Eventually, I got my money back.
§ But what I have gotten back that is more valuable is 50 years of a money-can’t-buy friendship. When my dad died in 1998, Doc became chairman of my informal personal board of directors. I covet and trust his plainspoken advice.
§ Doc is my encyclopedic answer man. If it’s medicine, history, sports, the Altamaha River or a myriad of other topics, I have Doc on speed dial. His memory—on most of what I want to know—would dazzle Google, the digital know-it-all.
§ Doc is a voracious reader. I thought I was, too, but he sprints through books, magazines and articles as if he were still running track at Waycross High School. I can’t keep up with his reading pace, but I do enjoy mailing him a reading packet every day but Sunday. I treasure the conversations that follow.
§ Doc and I share an affinity for a good story and mules. One of my favorite stories is about his boyhood in Jeff Davis County and his mule, Tom. Doc rode Tom—bareback—across the creek to catch the school bus. And then, his mule would trot back home.
That one story is a cornerstone in the foundation of why I love and respect Lanier Harrell. Beyond his academic and professional credentials, he’s down-to-earth. His agrarian roots match those of my great-grandparents. I feel a special genuineness to our connection.
Doc, I am grateful that you knocked on our door.
And you did more than doctor me.
You became my irreplaceable friend.