Whispers from the Eisenhower era

2 strangers with age difference of 30 years meet in the back of an ambulance, where so much more than EMS happens

The final call, I hope. It's 5:30 in the morning, it's been a very long night, but it's almost over.

A call for an elderly male, possibly dehydrated, tops off the rest of them. I know I shouldn't be annoyed, so I suppress my sleep-deprived anger as we respond to the address, making peace with the fact that our service can be a glorified taxi company for people who can't find a ride to their doctor's office.

He lives by himself in a 10-room house on Lexington Avenue in the heart of South Providence, a few blocks from the corner where a 14-year-old girl was shot in the back of the head the day before she was to testify in a murder trial. She was killed in the middle of the day, in a neighborhood that once was home to the wealthiest families in New England.

Eisenhower was president when the man moved in. A lot has changed since that day; the same trees line the streets, but the people who once walked them in safety are gone. The mass exodus to suburbia and rural estates that began in the '50s took some homeowners away and replaced them with transient folks whose income or lack thereof does not afford them the luxury of home ownership.

Renters do not always take care of the old places like an owner/occupier does, no matter how conscientious they may be. The once-glorious houses have not weathered well, and many are in desperate need of attention.

"William" noticed that I absorbed every detail that I could about his place as I stood in his grand entryway. I was taking a little trip back in time, when home ownership brought with it pride of place and gleaming hardwoods, polished furniture and a sense of order that is absent in most of the homes I am called to now.

"Used to be quite a place," he said to me sadly after inviting us in.

"Still is," I replied, impressed that a man in his 80s managed to upkeep the old house as well as he did. Once you got past the '70s décor and some cobwebs, it truly was a lovely home.

"Never be the same," he said, referring to much more that his empty house.

I guess it won't. He had been vomiting since the morning, couldn't eat and was concerned that dehydration was setting in. He didn't want to worry his children, who lived "far away" and worried about him enough already, he said, and his wife was gone, going on 10 years now.

"Sorry to bother you fellas," he mentioned after telling us of his ills. He was lying on the stretcher inside the rescue after locking up and walking with us to the truck, pale, frail and not at all well.

His heart rate was in the 120s, hypotensive and in desperate need of hydration. I swear I heard his paper-thin skin crumple when I pinched him to see how long it took to recover its shape. Some flaked off through my fingertips and onto the sheets.

"You're pretty spry for an old guy," I mentioned, impressed with his vitality.

This was call number 30 since 5 p.m. yesterday. In that time I had carried people in their 40s from their third-floor apartments because they had the flu, extricated people in their 50s from their cars after fender-benders and pretty much served as a taxi for kids with fevers and grown men who drank themselves into a stupor.

"Well, I walk every day," he said.

I imagined him walking the same streets he did when he was a young man, when Eisenhower was president. The condition of the old neighborhood where he raised his family must break his heart, but you would never know it talking with him.

I asked him about the old days during our short trip to the hospital. He willingly obliged. He was born in 1927, the same year as my father.

I looked at him a little more closely as I inserted the needle into his arm, pulled the catheter back, attached the line and adjusted the flow on the IV. I felt the familiar sadness return.

Had my own dad beaten the cancer, he'd still be walking around the neighborhood where I grew up, telling me stories about the old days, rather than this stranger in my truck who temporarily took his place.

I must have passed the house on Lexington Avenue a thousand times on the way to other emergencies, never aware that inside was a lonely old guy who loved to tell stories but had nobody close to whom to tell them.

When he called 911 because he felt weak, worried and alone, he had no idea that the guy who would respond was worn-out, tired and looking forward to going home but more than willing to listen.

Two strangers with an age difference of 30 years meeting in the unlikeliest of places, the back of an ambulance, where so much more than EMS happens, connected, and they both were better for it.

Stranger or not, I'll take it. Thanks, William. And goodnight, Dad.

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