Stranded between the towns of Reno and Elko, tucked within one of the many folds of the tortured basin-and-range topography of central Nevada, was Battle Mountain, a mining town, more a hovel than a village. In an earlier life, I’d pass through Battle Mountain on I-80, driving a flatbed loaded with drilling pipe. Always I stopped in Elko, about an hour away, just to avoid the place. Each time I’d drive by that fringe of shacks that went for homes, I’d pray that the weather would hold, for the gusting, torrential windstorms had waylaid many a trucker there, upending their freight in the bar ditches.
But this time when I came, I’d flown up to Elko in a small commuter plane out of Henderson Field in the City of Dreams. It had been in the sixties when I left Henderson Field in Vegas. In Elko it was snowing. Elko was a town that had been built on the riches of gold mining on a massive scale, but the open mining pit extracting gold from the folds of the fecund earth surrounding the town was not to be seen.
Having completed my internal medicine residency at the University of New Mexico just a few months prior, I perused all the medical journals looking for work. The George Washington University Medical School was the most expensive medical school in America. So far, I had looked through my options to pay back the government. The Armed Forces, a strong presence on campus, waived me unfit for service because of my colitis. Next, there was the PHS, who affiliated throughout the Union serving the Native Americans from Florida to Alaska. But the girl I was seeing, a doctor in her own right, point blank refused to move somewhere like Lame Deer, which had a spot for the both of us. I returned from interviewing for Lame Deer after I put her back on a plane in Billings that whisked her away to Phoenix, while I drove back from Billings behind the wheel of an old Ford-150 that my father had bequeathed me. On the driveway were packed my things in a very tidy fashion. Nothing about Natalia was untidy. There was not that much, for I’d accumulated little. When I rang her door bell, a man who looked more like a surfer dude answered. Sylvia came up beside him and put her arm around him. “You get the big picture, ace?”
“What about all those promises you made to me.”
“Like you’d follow me anywhere.”
“You mean like Lame Deer?”
“Like Lame Deer…”
“That or anywhere. You’re a loser Tony. I take those promises back.”
Then she was gone. Bereft of all that mattered to me, I left, carrying the few boxes that constituted my life until that day and drove back to Fountain Hills, where my parents kept a condominium they weren’t using at the time. I wrote a letter begging her to come back, but it was marked “return to sender.”
Then there were earth-shaking rumors that the government was reneging on their contracts. Though they were paying their doctors their salaries, they were denying them the funds they’d set aside for payment of their student loans. For what paltry salary they received from the PHS, they never did get their loans repaid. At least not all of them.
Then an unexpected coup: if I moved to Ricks, Idaho and practiced for two years there, the state of Idaho would apply forty thousand against the loan. The caveat was that they didn’t have the funds at the time, but they suspected they would in another six months, when the legislature reconvened.
When the funding was forthcoming, they conveniently forgot the verbal agreement we’d come to before I moved to Ricks. A new doctor came in who was afforded the largesse of the state budget. I would not stand for it. Shutting down my practice, I moved to Las Vegas where I worked in a busy urgent care for Southwest Associates. All the time, I looked around at places that would provide some school loan debt relief. I stayed on at Southwest Associates for half a year, before becoming enticed to work for a physician assistant in Overton, and hour to the east-by-northeast from Vegas. There I was promised loan repayment if they could fill the coffers. I spoke to a woman, Stevie Janelle, who headed up the plan to provide loan repayment. She said it was likely that the program, with its funding, would materialize within the year. She gave me a list of under-served sites within the state. From there I began my odyssey into the hinterlands of Nevada.
In Overton, at the Moapa Clinic, things were in total disarray. Claire Sanders, a woman of steel, with a gold-plated heart, at least twenty years older, had held the clinic together for a score of years. Exhausted in a way I was when I was a resident, she was anxious to retire. While I was working with her, a group of crooked businessmen from Vegas bought, and then ransacked the clinic.
Battle Mountain was the next. Leaving Vegas on a commuter plane, the temperature was in the sixties, the skies were clear. Somewhere along the flight path, we entered a snow storm, flakes of it flowing out horizontally. There was no sky. Time and time again, the air currents punched and jabbed us.
As I disembarked, there was a tall, stout man with a beefy handshake. Parking in a “no parking” space next the curb, he emerged from his camouflaged Humvee. How he recognized me, I have no idea. “Name’s Henry Lacy, but you can just call me Hank. I’m the sole doctor at Battle Mountain right now.” Hank appeared to be in his fifties. With his beard and the Semper Fi tattoo on his right forearm, he looked as though he should be playing bass for ZZ Top, at least the Marine version of the band. Beneath the belly of the storm, tortured flakes of snow pummeled back and forth under a cloud cover that couldn’t be more than a thousand feet above the streets of Elko. In my Levi jacket and tennis shoes, I was seriously underdressed. Hank was wearing a camouflaged down coat and matching ball cap.
Perplexed, I said, “Just what is it that you do, Hank?”
“Some people in Battle Mountain call me the mayor, but really I’m the doctor who tends to their medical misadventures.”
We got into the vehicle which had a bumper sticker that said, “Keep Honking. I’m just reloading.” And by-god, he might have meant it; there was a gun rack holding two rifles in front of the rear window. “See, I wanted to show you personally what we have in Battle Mountain. I hope you don’t mind isolation?”
“Ask me after I’ve seen the place.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“I hope you don’t have any addictions?”
“Just women.” He smiled.
“That’s bad enough! I’ve been married and divorced three times. You can shoot me if I marry the squaw that I’m living with right now.”
“I’m curious; why do you ask?” He looked over at me. “See the last doctor we had up here, not including Old Doc Harris, died of a Demerol overdose. You’d be taking his place.”
“He must have had the same girlfriend that I had.”
“Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
“Me? Been here for about two decades. In my spare time – what little time I have – I’m the medical editor for Soldier and Fortune Magazine.” Just why the magazine would need a medical editor baffled me.
“Not at all. Was down in Nicaragua last year treating contras that got themselves shot up. I was also collecting notes for a book I was going to write.”
“Sounds like a masterpiece. I’m anxious to read it.”
“I just got a laser sight for my rifle.” He pointed at a small cardboard box on the backseat. I’ve got the sweetest 30.06. This afternoon, I plan to test it out in the woods. Tell me, you much of an outdoorsman.”
“You mean like hunting and fishing?”
“What else could I mean?”
“Then the answer’s no.”
The medical center in Battle Mountain was a large red Quonset hut in bad need of paint. By proximity, it was on the apron of the airport at Battle Mountain. It was still snowing, and just as blustery as Elko. My heart sank. I realized I could not be tethered to such a pathetic hovel as this. After taking the tour, Hank drove me back to Elko where I caught the last flight to Vegas.
By Joseph Dylan