Between a rock and a hard place

What follows is a tale of stones: one figurative, one literal.

The figurative stone was a stone face. The literal one was a stone turd.

Now some clarification. Everyone knows what stone-faced means. Maybe your image of a stone face is different from mine, but we both have an essential picture.

But a stone turd? Does such a thing even exist?

You bet they do, pardner, but like just about everything else, they ain’t makin’ ’em the way they used to. Or if they are, we’re not seeing how it’s done.

See, stone turds are like everything else that was once organic but’s now stone – they’re fossils.

I’ve no idea how fossils become such, only that it takes a long, long time — almost as long as finding an honest politician. And while we’ve seen all sorts of fossils in museums, from trilobites to ammonites, odds are we’ve never seen fossilized feces. But like The Living Goddess of Kathmandu, just because you’ve never seen it, doesn’t it doesn’t exist.

Now a logical question: Even though they exist, who on God’s green earth would have one?

And now a logical answer: Since petrified poop is rock, you’d expect they’d be owned by rock collectors, which they are. Looping back, there was a man in My Home Town who owned a vast rock collection, including among it fossilized you-know-what.

His name was Ralph Bristol, and he wasn’t simply a rock collector, but was one of the foremost collectors of his day. He also had a quirky sense of humor, which is how one of his stone turds got him to be a co-star of this story.

The unflappable doc

The other co-star — he of the stone face – was Dr. Carl Merkel.

Dr. Merkel was the chief of surgery in the Saranac Lake General Hospital, but beyond the title, he was The Man. He had pioneered various chest surgery methods and was renowned for his work with thoracoplasty — a way of collapsing a tubercular lung so the disease didn’t spread. My brother had an externship at our hospital and got to observe Dr. Merkel’s surgeries, and he summed up his skill by saying, “Carl Merkel did not make mistakes.”

His surgical skill aside, Dr. Merkel was a pillar of the community, involved in town activities from being on the school board to helping start the Pee Wee Hockey league.

From my earliest years, I remember him years as greatly respected and beloved. I also remember him as having a face that looked like it was carved out of granite. He was good looking, but not in a Hollywood way so much as a rugged, craggy one.

Of course, I knew who Dr. Merkel was, but I didn’t know him in any real sense. In fact, I don’t remember ever saying anything to him but hello. And truth be told, I was intimidated by him, not by his actions but by his looks: He always looked deathly serious. Whenever I saw him, he was striding, briskly and purposefully — someone who never dawdled and was not to be trifled with. I don’t recall him smiling, and I never thought of him having a sense of humor. I just thought of him as one very cool character. I found out how just how cool he was after Mrs. Bristol told me this story.

Rock and roll

It was the 1950s, and Mr. Bristol had a several-day hospital stay. This was The Old Days, and the hospital was in what’s now the NCCC admin building.

Another sign it was The Old Days was that medical technique and technology were, by today’s standards, primitive. For example, hypodermic needles were not disposable but got sharpened and re-sharpened. This meant they were a whole lot bigger than today’s disposable needles. If my recollection is correct, they were at least as thick as ten-penny nails.

Something else: Anesthesia was in its infancy, and people dying from it, while tragic, was not uncommon.

A final sign of those times: Bed pans weren’t the light plastic ones we now have. Uh-uh, they were enameled steel. So not only were they heavier, but they carried sound like a gong.

Mr. Bristol, lying abed in the aforementioned hospital, took the aforementioned steel bed pan and put in it the aforementioned calcified crap. Then he pulled the cord to get a nurse to his room.

As it turned out, the nurse who showed up was young, inexperienced and easily shaken.

“Here,” said Mr. Bristol, handing her the bed pan. “My stomach’s a bit upset.”

An upset stomach was no big deal, so she nodded and gave a sympathetic cluck or two and was on her way. But as she walked in the hall, the turd rolled over. Or more exactly, it rattled over, sounding exactly like it was — a rock in a steel can.

The nurse looked in the bed pan. Then she gasped.

This turd was not only hard as a rock, but it was so big that if it’d come from any two-legged animal, it could only have been Sasquatch.

As she stood there, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, Dr. Merkel steamed into view. Frantically, she waved him over.

“Dr. Merkel! Dr. Merkel!” she squeaked. “Come here, come here!”

He went up to her and she held out the bedpan.

“L-l-l-ook,” she managed.

Dr. Merkel glanced once, shook his head and said, “Ralph Bristol and his damned practical jokes.”

Then, without missing a beat, he steamed off, never having cracked even a hint of a smile.

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