Vagneur: Coming to take me away
“The men in white coats” conjures up rather frightening images in our minds, at least mine. Not that I’m crazy, but well, there’s a reason for it all if you’ll let me explain. You likely remember Dr. Seuss, and if so, you may be familiar with his poem “I Love My Job,” the last few lines pointing out that he so over-loves his job, the men in white coats are coming to take him away. Away to the mental institution, if you get the drift of his poem.
The last stanza goes exactly like this: “I’m happy to be here. I am. I am / I’m the happiest slave of the Firm, I am / I love this work. I love these chores / I love the meetings with deadly bores / I love my job — I’ll say it again — I even love those friendly men / Those friendly men who’ve come today, in clean white coats to take me away!!!!!”
In 1966, someone named Napoleon XIV recorded a song named “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” a song about psychiatric attendants in white coats that was soon banned in various markets because the powers that were decided it might be construed to be making fun of the mentally ill. The beginnings of political correctness, perhaps, a malady I hope you never find in this column.
Back in my junior high school days (pre-1966), I used to try out budding philosophic rants on my parents, tossing verbal caricatures of my daily life their way with studied consistency, and although quite patient, my mother would sometimes say, in a jocular way, “Oh, Tony, with your distrust of authority and love of arguing, the men in white coats will someday come to take you away.” Everyone in the family thought it was kind of funny, and I got reminded of the “men in white coats” with some regularity.
It so happened one day in school that I came down with a severe case of whatever was going around and retreated to my grandmother’s house over on Bleeker Street. Rather delirious with a high fever and with no one at home to assuage my worry over my condition, I parked myself in a big leather chair that sat in my grandmother’s kitchen, the warmest room in the old Victorian. That chair was the most comfortable in all of creation — I spent many afternoons napping there after a long day on the slopes. A rather large window looked out onto Second Street from the kitchen, and one could easily see any visitors who might be arriving.
And that’s how I saw my mother’s prediction working its way to fruition. As I rocked and shivered under a big wool blanket, a long, white ambulance with red lights on top came to a casual stop in front of the walk. This, of course, piqued my curiosity immediately, knowing I hadn’t called for a ride and no one was home to do it for me.
The door slammed, and from around the driver’s side came a smiling, blond man whom I’d never seen before, dressed all in white, down to and including his shoes. Holy shit, this is getting serious, but surely he got the wrong address or the whole thing is just one big mistake.
His stride across the porch was quick, a forceful knock upon the door instantaneously ratcheted my heart rate up, and the question suddenly became, “Should I answer the knock or hope it all goes away?” On legs already shaky from the school plague, I wriggled my way to the door and with apprehensive hand turned the knob, my mother’s words about “the white coats” literally ringing in my ears.
The nice blond man in the starched white uniform said, “Hello; you must be Tony.” OK, that was it — my mind immediately began buzzing like the whine of a sawmill blade; I couldn’t hear, breathe or think, and as my legs crumbled beneath me, I grabbed at the doorjamb for balance. “This can’t be real — I’m not insane. Oh yeah, maybe you are, young man.” This was really it — no kidding — my ride to the asylum had finally arrived.
As it turned out, by the strangest of coincidences, and you might have guessed it, the man in white had been a student of my grandmother’s back in her school teaching days at some far-off town and, being in Aspen on ambulance business, stopped in to say hello. Grandma, naturally, had bragged me up in either letters or conversations with the driver of the “funny wagon,” so he made a well-educated guess as to my identity.
The gods do mess with me on occasion, but that was one of their better ones. It’s not funny. Ha-ha. He-he.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tony Vagneur: Although hard to find these days, true root cellars are art, and can still be useful today.