A lifetime of service on the North Dakota plains

  • Watercolor caricature of Joe Sorkness

    Diane Sylvain

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.

"Here we 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 Sidney?"

His daughter tells him: "Your brother Sidney died in a car wreck 40 years ago."

"I was 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.

Joe 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 Forest.

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 can."

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 all, Joe?"


"The last 100 years."

"I don't know yet."

"OK, the last 97."

"It was fairly interesting."

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 else.

"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 asks.

"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 ago.

"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.

His 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 clean.

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 Viking.

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 fast.

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 ghosts.

Joe Sorkness died Aug. 31. His grandson, former HCN intern Auden Schendler, lives and writes in Carbondale, Colorado.

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