Dr. Gene

Dr. Gene

Moliere’s wonderful play, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, is a comedy about a conman who poses as a doctor in a small village. He is called in to examine an ailing, comely lass, the family watching as the bawdy “doc” fondles the beauty, and hilarity ensues. A parent asks if the girl will live. The “doctor” replies (paraphrasing), “Some would say yes, and some would say no. As for me, I say yes and no.”

I mention this because today on my walk, I stopped and watched a gorgeous prairie king snake, light grey and ringed with brown splotches, maybe three feet long, sunning itself. A granddad and grandson came along, and I pointed to the king snake, and the boy was thrilled, and we all introduced ourselves. And I told them about the different snakes which live around here.

The grandfather said, “So, you’re a biologist? Dr. Baldwin, is it?”

I assured them I was just Genehouse, a modest and unassuming nobody. And we all went on our ways.

I used to visit Alton two or three times a year, when I lived in Chicago. I’d stay with friends and spend my days in the woods, hunting for Indian artifacts. On one such day, it was hot and muggy, and I left my secret hunting ground early. I put some arrowheads I had found on the passenger seat and drove to the small riverside village of Elsah, just to look around. The nineteenth century houses are national historic landmarks. Tom Sawyer might emerge from Aunt Polly’s cottage and whitewash her fence.

I passed by historic Principia College, recalling that there had been an amazing discovery on the campus as, a few months ago, a workman working a bulldozer for a water line uncovered a skull and tusks of a wooly mammoth. The rest of the bones had been excavated, a full skeleton, and were in a laboratory being cleaned and assembled.

On impulse, I drove up to the security gate, and a friendly security guy asked if he could help me. I cheerfully said yes, I’d like to see the wooly mammoth. You and everybody else, the man told me. The campus was closed for summer, and the college (I knew this) was a private school, and I would not be allowed to visit.

C’est la vie. I put the car in reverse.

Then the guy spotted the arrowheads on my car seat. Did you find those? Yes. Around here? A few miles from here. Can I see some ID?

I handed the guard my driver’s license. He asked, “Do you have a university affiliation?” I answered yes; I was in a master’s degree program at DePaul University.

The guard fetched a walkie talkie and paged Dr. So-and-So. “Yes ma’am,” he said, “I have a Dr. Baldwin here at the entrance. He’s an archaeologist.”

As my friend Charlie Baird would exclaim, “Kiss Miss Mitchell.” I had instantly become Dr. Ewing “Gene” Baldwin from DePaul University. I had a split second to correct the man, or confirm I was indeed Dr. Gene. I did not correct him, I was now acting in a play, something I knew a little about.

“He’d like to see the wooly mammoth,” the guard said on his walkie talkie.

Five minutes later, a golf cart drove up with Dr. So-and-So at the wheel, and she greeted me and escorted me to the laboratory, where I was able to see the disassembled mammoth. We talked about prehistoric critters and the evidence that Native Americans had lived on this very spot, perhaps twelve thousand years ago. I gave the good doctor two arrowheads. It was jolly. Until I started getting nervous, me, the doctor in spite of himself.

And then Dr. So-and-So said, “Dr. Baldwin, would you care to come back to Principia this fall and do some archaeology lectures?”

Reader, what was I to do? I said yes, I’d be delighted to lecture, here is my card (which read nothing about DePaul University). We shook hands, and Dr. So-and-So drove me back to the gate, and she said she’d be in touch. Was I qualified to deliver college lectures on archaeology? Some would say yes, and some would say no. As for me, I say yes and no.

Besides, I knew Dr. So-and-So would google me as soon as I drove off. The jig—the gig—would be up. Acting over, no curtain call, no fall lectures to comely coeds, but it was my best performance, and I drove away a happy man, having seen a 20,000-year-old wooly mammoth.

As the French would say (I forgot to tell you, I’m now Dr. Gene, professor of romance languages at the Sorbonne), C’est la vie.

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