When Dr. Francis Carlton Luckett arrived in the tiny farming town of Fentress, Texas, with his wife and infant daughter, in 1917, he planned to stay for one year. He moved there from Valentine, Texas, to fill the practice of a doctor who was serving in World War I. He said his family had nearly starved in Valentine because no one there ever got sick.
The local doctor, however, didn’t return home, but chose to move to San Antonio instead.
So Dr. Luckett remained in Fentress until his death in 1965.
Doctor Luckett was small–not much more than five feet tall–and spoke with a quiet, slow Mississippi drawl and a bit of a lisp. He moved slowly. There was usually a cigarette hanging precariously from his lower lip. How it stayed in place, no one ever knew.
I was fascinated by the photographs of his graduating class hanging in the dark hallway that led back to his waiting room. My mother would hold me up and point out the young man with the handlebar moustache who looked nothing like the doctor we’d come to visit.
He had worked his way through medical school at Tulane by playing the organ in a theater while silent films were shown.
He shared his music with the community by giving concerts and playing for weddings. More than once, he dismantled the organ in his living room, transported it to the Methodist church (whose organ was not in the best of shape), and rebuilt it so he could play at the weddings of young women whose births he had attended. He wrote a piano rag, “Hospital Row,” but, unfortunately, never put it on paper.
Dr. Luckett drove Cadillacs. In the 1950s they were finned and nearly as long as our small-town blocks. He looked very small sitting behind the wheel of those big cars. He drove slowly, starting at his two-storey house at the end of our street, gliding by our house in the mornings and then back home for lunch, and an hour later back to the office.
His personal life held much sadness. After his wife died, he reared his three little girls, just as he had reared his younger sister after their parents died. His oldest daughter died when she was in her forties.
Doctor took trips abroad and then told about his experiences in Sunday-night talks at the Methodist church. He took a three-month trip around the world while my mother was pregnant with me (a fact my parents successfully kept secret from my grandmother). On his last trip to the Holy Land, he brought back a vial of water from the Jordan River, and two infants–one the last baby he delivered, and the other, the last baby named for him–were baptized with that water.
Dr. Luckett was traditional in his views. I was six years old when I heard him agree with my Great-aunt Ethel that Man would never go the moon because it wasn’t in the Bible. They also agreed that when the new dial telephones were installed in Fentress, there would be trouble, because people would get the O and the zero mixed up.
Although he used the relatively new antibiotics liberally, Doctor believed in the healing properties of icthyol–“black salve.” Every house in town probably had a jar. My mother slapped the nasty ointment on me every time I picked up a splinter. I inherited a round cardboard container of it, with Doctor’s name handwritten in faded ink on the lid. He had prescribed it for my great-uncle’s mother-in-law, who died in the late 1940s at the age of nearly one hundred. I’ve never opened the container, but I suspect the contents are still good.
Dr. Luckett was an excellent surgeon and obstetrician. He charged $25.00 for a “baby case,” explaining privately that he chose the figure because it was low enough that he might get paid, and if he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter too much.
There’s no telling how many babies he saw into the world. He delivered my father’s youngest brother in 1919. He delivered me in 1951. In fact, my mother credited him with my being born at all. Several year before my birth she had lost a full-term baby because her doctor had not realized she would need a C-section. Later she learned that Dr. Luckett had asked one of her friends, “Is Crystal going to have a Caesarean?” When the friend said no, he had said, “She’s going to need one.” He’d never been her doctor, but just by observing her build, he had known.
Doctor and I had an excellent working relationship. He gave me shots. I blamed my mother.
He shot me full of penicillin for chronic throat and sinus infections (he and I are no doubt to blame for several antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, but in the ’50s it seemed the right thing to do). He hated to use needles on children, and somehow I knew that, so he and I remained friends. My mother was the enemy.
When I was six, he removed my tonsils, which were in such bad condition they fell apart in the forceps and and he had to pick them out piece by piece.
My mother was the enemy there, too. The book about tonsils said that during my convalescence, I would be fed ice cream, but when I said I was hungry, the nurse brought me red Jello. It stuck to my stitches. Thirty years later, when I complained, my mother asked why I didn’t just ask for ice cream. She hadn’t known it was an issue. I told her she was supposed to have known.
I should have mentioned it to Doctor. I’m sure he would have prescribed ice cream.
Dr. Luckett practiced until just a year or so before his death. When he died, it was because he just wore out. He had spent his life giving to the community.
In his early years in Fentress, Dr. Luckett lived next door to my father’s uncle and aunt. They thought highly of him, and their son went into medicine because of his influence.
Not long before her death, Aunt Bettie told me a story I’d never heard:
Soon after Dr. Luckett opened his practice in Fentress, he was called to deliver the baby of an Hispanic woman, the wife of a farm laborer. He entered the one-room shanty and found the pregnant woman lying on a bare dirt floor. Chickens roamed loose a few feet away.
He was horrified. He later said he had never seen such misery.
Riding back to town in his buggy, he said to himself, “This must not be.” He went to work creating a small maternity ward in his office building on the main street of town. For the rest of his years there, he required women who didn’t have a proper place to give birth, and who couldn’t afford hospital care, to come to his clinic. He was determined to give their children the best start in life that he could.
“When he provided a good place for those women,” said my aunt, “he raised the level of our community.”
And he no doubt saved dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lives of both women and children.
In the mid-1990s, thirty years after Dr. Luckett died, a clerk at a pharmacy in San Marcos, fifteen miles from Fentress, noted the address on my check and said, “Fentress. I was born in Fentress.”
My Southern upbringing coming to the fore, I asked about her family.
“Oh,” she said, “my family never lived there. I was just born there.”
She had no idea that her mother had given birth at Doctor’s clinic.
There was something else she didn’t know–that we were part of the same family.
We were both Dr. Luckett’s babies.
Image by HujiStat (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons