A slide show: Old pictures narrated in a yell by his daughter. Joe Sorkness is turning 97, and is deaf. He still lives in Jamestown, N.D., where he spends time piled in a chair, squinting at the Wall Street Journal through coke-bottle glasses that make his eyes look as big as eggs.
are in Norway, where we met a young boy who could raise one
eyebrow, traveling with his mother. Do you remember? We kept
running into him at hotels. He and his wife visited me in August.
They live in England."
Joe says it was a long
time ago. This slide show is a walk through his hometown covered in
thick gauze. It is broadcast on a wall in need of paint: The studs
show like bones on a March elk. Joe's shoulders are hunched and
cockeyed; one leg is much longer than the other from a broken leg,
then a broken hip. When he lifts a knee to get into bed, you can
see the outline of his femur.
What comes clear
to Joe are the people he never really knew: his father, his
brother, his son.
He asks: "Have you seen
His daughter tells him: "Your brother
Sidney died in a car wreck 40 years ago."
out of town when Sidney died, so I couldn't go to his funeral."
This is a breach of reality to cushion deadening fact: In some
slides, you can see Joe by the grave.
volunteered for World War I, only to be rejected because his father
was on the draft board and knew his birthday: January 1901. "I
missed my chance to be a hero," Joe says. His father saw no need to
have his son slaughtered at 17. Joe volunteered for World War II.
But he was the only doctor in Jamestown, and so, condemned to a
place so broad and flat that the horizon curves, he missed the
battles his friends knew: Leyte Gulf, Pointe du Hoc, Hurtgen
But there were compensations. When Joe
was in the hospital with a broken hip, a man came to his bedside:
"You saved my son's life 40 years ago. He's a doctor now." A woman,
recalling her surgery, called his voice and footsteps outside her
room "the most reassuring sound in the world."
And the hospital supply foreman says he told his
assistant to stall on doctors' orders while he was away. Except for
Joe: "Give him whatever he asks for; have it shipped as fast as you
Joe's son, Paul, also a doctor, died at
65, of a stroke. "How did he die?" Joe asks. "And where is he now?"
What is it like to volunteer for and miss the
two most deadly wars of the century, then outlive your son and
older brother? Do you begin to feel immortal? Because in America,
at 97, you almost are. His daughter asks: "What do you make of it
"I don't know yet."
"OK, the last 97."
Interesting like a ruptured
appendix or pneumonia in the 1920s, before penicillin or even
sulpha. Perhaps the vestiges of such helplessness are what made him
gruff, attentive mostly to real illness, scoffing at all
"Take some aspirin!" he'd growl, if your
ailment didn't pass muster.
"What did you do
during the Depression, when no one could pay?" his daughter
"People paid however they could, sometimes
with a bag of grain, or a chicken." Two Navajo rugs on the living
room floor recall a hysterectomy 60 years
"And the rest, who had nothing?"
"They always paid." House calls made in the
Depression were paid off after the Cold War. Monthly installments
of $10 came in - 20 years after Joe retired.
father was the first of three generations to graduate from the
University of Minnesota Medical School. Joe drove his father's cart
through Fargo during the 1918 flu epidemic and remembers him
pointing, and saying: "Two will die there tonight. And one will die
there." In a small town on the prairie, the people dying are
friends and relatives.
Joe's father wore himself
out during that plague, and died at 53. Joe's mother died shortly
after his birth. Assuming he would die young, too, Joe never
worried about the cigars he smoked for 70 years, or about his diet
of meat with few vegetables and a crippling work ethic. He turned
out to be durable, and North Dakota air is
Time for him must make a rushing sound,
like other strong things he knew: a train, or a twister. A
4-year-old great-granddaughter recently commented on the difference
between Pacific and Central Time. "Two hours is a long time," she
said. Joe might disagree.
One slide is of "the
boys," Joe's duck-hunting buddies, all in their 70s and 80s in the
photo. Two are still alive. Many fought in wars; the others had
good excuses. They took summer trips to a cabin in the pot-hole
country. Hunched and worn-in, all Republicans, and all kind and
hard-working if closed-minded, they ate jellied beef loaf on rye
with A1 sauce: a relic of Norwegian taste, probably
Joe remembers: Warm summer winds smelled
of sweetgrass after rain. The rain that fell on Sidney, the wind
that blew Paul's kite. They mowed the lawn and sometimes took
target practice at cans.
One of them, a doctor
friend of Joe's, ran while pushing the mower, as if the
fast-growing grass threatened to make him a prairie version of
Sisyphus. Or maybe he ran from habit: Old-style anesthetics like
ether and nitrous oxide wore off quickly. You learned to work
Joe does a crossword puzzle while his
birthday presents are unwrapped for him. He squints at an obscure
gift: a can of cashews - -I don't know what that is' - and peers
tentatively out the window into the night sky. It was never
remarkable to him as a boy, even though the sunsets were pink. As a
man, he worked too hard to look for the long curtain of the Aurora
Borealis. Now, the stars are circled with
Joe Sorkness died Aug.
31. His grandson, former HCN intern Auden Schendler, lives and
writes in Carbondale, Colorado.