My grandfather was, in a number of ways, larger than life. He was physically large–a massive man with a huge belly and equally huge appetite (an appetite which I seem to have inherited, and battle by running). His involvement in the lives of many people was even larger–He was very well respected by the folks of Terre Haute, Indiana. His life story is fascinating, and I love to hear my mother relay stories about him. He is a man whose generosity superseded any kind of budgetary sense, and from what I know, he often helped people for free, and sometimes based payment on the result of a coin toss (HMO’s be damned, he was a doctor who wanted to help people). People listened to him–he was the doctor, and if one questioned his judgment, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
He was an imperfect man, but a great man.
To this day, over 20 years since he passed away, my family still hears about the lives he touched. His name was Dr. Gordon McLaughlin (there is another Dr. Gordon McLaughlin, his son–a radiologist), but everyone called him Doctor Mac, or simply Mac (my cousins and I called him “Grandpa Mac”). An old-time doc, with values much different than those typical of today, he made house calls and spoke to folks in a way that might be considered unacceptable these days. These days he might be considered abrasive or rude, and perhaps he was both, but he was beloved. His way with people was acceptable because he wasn’t just their doctor–he was an important figure in their lives.
He started off a general practitioner, and later became a pediatrician. Despite the shift in specialty, he always saw people of all ages (and he worked until he could physically work no more, up until the very end). I was once told by an old friend and patient of his that, when asked how long she could continue to see him as her doctor, he responded with, “Until you’re too embarrassed to come here.”
He lived on a large piece of the land in the country (1oo or so acres) with his wife and 6 children. It was there that my mother and Uncle Gordon grew up and drove cool cars. Later, my Uncle David raised cows and took care of the property, fixing the tractors and cutting down (and planting) trees.
His first wife, my maternal grandmother, passed away when my mother and her brother were very young from chemical encephalitis. (There was another brother, Michael, who died as baby.) I know sadly little about Virginia McLaughlin. I do know that the family, including his second wife, always remained very close with Virginia’s parents, the Flory’s, who lived in Brown County.
As a result, there was a wide age range among his children. His second wife, Dorothy, who everyone called “Dot,” was the grandmother that I knew and loved. I called her Grandma Mac. She treated all of her grandchildren as her own. Why wouldn’t she? It was her very nature. I never much thought about the fact that she wasn’t my grandmother by blood. She was just Grandma Mac.
I remember sitting on his lap when we visited. His chair was a massive recliner… Not the type we see these days. He usually arrived home from work just after Uncle David had had sufficient time to get all the nieces and nephews wound up.
There was am asphalt basketball court (two hoops) beside the house. I cannot guess his weight (surely it was over 300 pounds), but they tell me he was a skinny and fantastic basketball player when he was a younger man. “Toss me that ball Matt,” he said, as I grabbed another rebound for him. He’d then step to another side of the basketball court and take another shot, from very far away. Shoosh! He never missed! He taught me how to aim a .22 (in 1961 he was a member of the six-man team representing the United States in the World Championship Trapshooting Tourney in Oslo, Norway). The home had more rifles and shotguns than some gun stores! Such things weren’t considered as taboo back then.
He took me to see the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater: Star Wars.
Sitting in his recliner in front of the TV, he chewed on a cigar (he never smoked them, just chewed on them), as he sometimes drifted to sleep and sometimes answered a call (patients called his home at all hours). He’d wake up, exhausted from his non-stop work, and tell a joke or ask about school or karate, or ask Dot to bring him some potato chips, before drifting back to sleep. Once in a while he had an x-ray in hand, and we sat there on his favorite chair looking at it. He held it to the light and told me which bones were which… HIPAA wasn’t a thing back then.
It was never long before the answering machine would go off again. It was a very strange device… Massive by today’s standards. The recording, which I can still hear today, was Grandma Mac. With her Southern Indiana accent, the message began, “Hello, this is the McLaughlin residence…” If Grandpa Mac didn’t pick up, we all heard details of someone’s diarrhea or aching knee or puking child or someone just calling to check in and say hi. Imagine calling your doctor at home these days! As I slept I was sometimes woken up by the squeal of the answering machine. As I said: All hours.
One of his favorite jokes, I have been told, goes like this:
What’s the difference between God and a doctor? God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.
We lived in Auburn, Indiana, about 4 hours from Terre Haute, and despite the distance, my family made frequent visits to the Southern Indiana town. Before we left he would often pull me or one of my sisters aside, and us $100 and say, “This is for your mom.” I cannot imagine how many trips to the doctors office we saved because of him. He gave us all of our immunizations, and when we had an earache, my mom would simply call her father and he would call in a prescription. Even our family doctor, all the way up in Auburn, knew Doctor Mac. There were never any questions about who called in the prescription or why.
When we weren’t in Terre Haute, he called very often, despite the high costs of long distance phone calls at the time. If I was lucky enough to answer first, he would spend some time chatting with me about school or friends or sports, and sometimes share a relatively inappropriate joke. Long distance wasn’t very good then, and it sounded like he was calling from China. If we called him we called collect–at his insistence.
I loved going to visit Terre Haute, being in the humid, rolling fields of his property, being with cousins and aunts and uncles who were still in high school, and eager to play with their little nieces and nephews. Aunt Tracy and Aunt Brenda (twins) always took us places: the pool, a movie, and arcade. They always had gun in their cars, and always shared. They were high-energy. Uncle Kevin taught me about Trigonometry (tried to, at least) and Chess, and helped me set up race car tracks. He liked to play board games with us.
Uncle David–He’s a story all to himself. Uncle David always had something fun and dangerous to do, and whatever he had us doing, my mother was generally not pleased with her little brother. If she tried to scold him he would simply throw her over one massive shoulder and spin around the room until she begged him to stop (punching him on the back was as effective as punching a buffalo).
We jumped on him, pulled his hair, wrestled and fed the cows. On those rare occasions when there was snow in Terre Haute, he pulled us for hours on a sled behind the tractor. Sometimes he hoisted us to the roof of the carport, where we would leap from the roof into his arms.
When he mooed at the cows and they came running (as fast as cows ‘run’), and I thought for sure that he knew some sort of cow language. Looking back, I suppose they just knew he had the food, although I prefer to think that he did know how to speak cow. One time, while heading out to the barn to feed the cows, I was distracted (as usual) and not watching where I was going. When I stepped in a large pile of cow poop, Uncle David laughed like it was the funniest thing that ever happened. Again, he got scolded by his big sister.
Grandma Mac–a character herself–always had a joke (she has a wonderful sense of humor–a requirement of the McLaughlin household) or a song, and plenty of food. She was no soft-spoken grandmother, but she was loving and wonderful. Based on the number of Girl Scout cookies in the house, it seems that they single-handedly funded the local troops. Maybe Doc Mac couldn’t say no when someone came into his office trying to sell them.
Uncle Gordon and Aunt Cheryl, closer to my mother’s age, lived on a lake in Indianapolis. That lake offered much more fun and many extraordinary memories. Being at their home and playing on that lake was the closest thing we ever experienced to a vacation, and I think it was more fun being there than on any ‘real’ vacation.
My mother has many stories about her dad. One of my favorites is about a time when a tornado came near their home. She was a young girl, and frightened to death of a tornado. Her father, returning from work, snapped an old shovel in half and placed it alongside the long winding driveway for her to find. He told her that the tornado had been coming toward the house, and when he saw what was about to happen, he threw the shovel at it, knocking it the other direction. For years she believed him. The mental image of him doing this is as real as any childhood memory. For all I care, he really did knock a tornado away from his house by heaving a shovel at it.
These are a couple of articles that appeared in a Terre Haute, Indiana newspaper not long after he passed away. I have read them countless times. When my Grandfather called the patient referenced in the article below “a dumbass,” one must understand who he was. His girth was far eclipsed by his temper, generosity and loving heart.
It is obvious that the writer of the article wasn’t put off by his words. On the contrary. Her affinity for Doctor Mac is obvious. I’ve read the following articles countless times, and I never tire of them. I’ve attempted to contact the writers to thank them, but without success.