Category Archives: Anxiety

Under Fire

The Upper Meramec

Map showing Wesco where Dave came under fire in 1973 and the scene of the 2013 shooting near Steelville

When I was 34 and recently divorced, a graduate school friend, Jim offered to take me fishing. An ardent angler, he had explored much of the Upper Meramec River south of Steelville, Missouri to find the best locations. I bought a cheap spinning rod, some lures and a tackle box and equipped myself with a fishing license. Jim took me to a spot just beyond the tiny village of Wesco in the southern reaches of Crawford County. Here the dirt road crossed the narrow river on a concrete slab, providing easy passage at low water.

We pulled off and parked in the grass. As we walked upstream along the east bank Jim cast his lures into promising pools visible from the shore. The riverbank was narrow, constrained behind us by trees and thick brush, and in places we had to wade in the river get through. Jim was hoping for bass or catfish, but had to settle for a few crappie.

We came to a place where the river turned and widened. Jim pointed to some whirlpool flows near the opposite bank. “That’s a deep spot, where bass and catfish like to hide,” he said, adding that we could probably wade halfway across to make casting into this pool easier. We did, but my lure snagged in the pool, because I was less experienced than Jim. “Sometimes property owners along the river sink old bed springs into these pools to frustrate fishermen. They consider the whole river to be their private property.”

I had a girlfriend, Billie, with two daughters, Angela 10, and Erin 8. A couple of weeks after my trip with Jim I offered to take them down to Wesco to enjoy the river and maybe catch some fish. We parked where we had before and I led them along the bank to the spot with the deep pool. We waded out to get closer to the pool at the bend in the river. Then I heard something that sounded like a man shouting. I looked up and saw on the western bank of the river a lawn with a house at the back. I couldn’t make out what the man who had come out of the house was saying but I saw that he had a rifle. Unsatisfied with our lack of response he fired some shots into the air.

I told Billie and the girls to get down and we crouched and beat a retreat into the thick brush beyond the eastern bank. I listened for the sound of bullets crashing thought the trees above us but heard none. I was scared but focused on getting us to safety. We cut through the brush on a zig-zag course back to the car and I drove to the Crawford County Sheriff’s office in Steelville, the county seat. It was maybe 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon when I opened the door to find a thin young man sitting at a desk with a radio dispatch console.

“The sheriff isn’t here; I’m his son and I’m just filling in as a dispatcher.”

I told him our story. “You shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “It’s private property.” I was dumfounded by his response. I had seen no signs forbidding trespassing. I said, “What?”

He continued. “That’s a well respected family from St. Louis who come down here on the weekend to enjoy their property. They’re entirely within their rights to drive trespassers off.” “Who are they?” I asked. “I can’t tell you that,” the young man replied.   I was still shocked and said nothing as I returned to the car. All sorts of thought raced through my mind; the first was that the young dispatcher would be singing a different tune of one if the children had been shot by this guy, and other was that it’s OK to shoot at women and children in Crawford County.

Monday morning I called Ben Roth, the attorney who had handled my divorce. He said that Missouri had never defined property rights in rivers and streams. Some owners consider the whole stream, including the opposite bank to be theirs. The guy we had encountered must have held this belief because he was still shooting as we reached the bank opposite his property.
All of this happened 41 year ago, in the summer of 1973. I never went back to Wesco nor did I take anyone fishing on the upper Meramec again. I didn’t have time to research Crawford County property records to determine the name of the man who had threatened us with gunfire.

The Meramec at Wesco is not easily floatable in low water, but that’s not the case 28.6 river miles north near Steelville, where it’s good deal wider. It was there in August 2013, that a man, James Crocker, shot and killed Paul Dart, Jr. a member of a large canoe-float party. It’s clear from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage that many canoe-float parties involve a lot of drinking and pot-smoking. Property owners along the river get tired of trash and human waste left by drunken floaters.

Given my experience with Billie and the girls, I wanted to know how law enforcement in Crawford County would handle this new case. The circumstances were different: to any observer, we had looked like a family with two children simply wading in the river. Dart’s group included nearly 50 people and some were intoxicated. They stopped at a gravel bar and one of them walked into the woods to urinate. Croker appeared with a 9-mm handgun and told them to get off his land. When they didn’t budge, he fired a warning shot next to the man who was relieving himself. Then other floaters reproached Crocker and a dispute arose over the ownership of the gravel bar. One of the floaters, not Dart, picked up a rock and Crocker shot Dart in the face. He died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.

Had things changed in Crawford County in the 40 years since our incident? Apparently so. The press and TV news supplied extensive coverage, and on Sunday, the day after the killing, the county prosecutor, William Seay, charged Crocker with second-degree murder along with several other violations The trail began on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 and the jury took only two hours to convict Crocker of second-degree murder. Crocker’s defense rested on his claim that the floating party was trespassing on his land, but a surveyor testified that Crocker’s property line was 381 feet from the gravel bar where the shooting took place. A self-defense claim by Crocker was rejected by the jury who recommended a sentence of 25 years. All 59 of the 60 potential jurors admitted to owning firearms, but the panel of twelve jurors selected sent a message by their finding, that you just can’t shoot at people who you believe to be trespassing. I wish that sentiment had prevailed 40 years ago when I visited the sheriff’s office in Steelville.

The Robot

P4900 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

P4900 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

A few years ago, Barbara and I saw an exhibition of the Roomba®, a robotic vacuum cleaner that patrolled a small patch of floor delimited by two-by-fours. Disk-shaped and about three inches thick, it buzzed and whirred, glanced off the barriers, and turned half or three-quarter pirouettes on the little wheels underneath. Unanswered by this demonstration was how well it cleaned floors.“That can’t possibly work,” I told Barb, “and look at the price: it’s almost two hundred bucks. What a rip-off.” We both laughed, and forgot the weird little machine.

In 2006 I was waiting for the results of a test for a brain tumor, when my favorite household gadget and useless accessory catalog arrived in the mail. There it was on the front page, a robotic vacuum costing only fifty dollars and promising to “pick up dirt, dust, hair and more from wood, carpet, vinyl and tile floors!”  My judgment collapsed. “I deserve a little distraction from all this worry about the tumor,” I told myself as I placed my order. I felt guilty, but just as quickly found the excuse I needed: “Well, it’s not much money and it might be fun. Besides, if I can get it to work in just one or two rooms, it could be worth it.” The mind that rationalized this purchase just as easily suppressed the memory of the Consumer Reports article that panned robotic vacuums as next to useless.

I unpacked the new machine a few days later, charged it up and turned it loose in the living room. It rolled and whirred, just like the Roomba®. It bounced off a couple of obstacles and sought refuge under a table. Each time it struck a table leg it pivoted neatly and charged into another leg. Our two cats, who flee at the sound of a real vacuum cleaner, ignored it.

Its major flaw, not to be deduced from the advertising, was obvious: it had no memory of where it had been. How long, I wondered, would it take to extricate itself from under the table in the corner of the large and still to be vacuumed room? At last, the robot broke free and headed for the large rubber plant in the corner.

The latest model (P3IP4960)

The latest model (P4960)

A few days later, after learning that I didn’t have the brain tumor that I had used to excuse buying it the first place, I tried the vacuum out in my study, which has a plastic mat under my chair to protect the floor. I left the room.  After twenty minutes, it fell silent. Did the battery run down? No. It stalled trying to get over the one-eighth inch edge of my floor mat and had shut itself off. To its credit, it had collected a couple of dust bunnies, but two white paper punched-out holes lay undisturbed next to my desk.

I now understood why it sold so cheaply. Pricier models, I learned, come equipped with a remote control, supplying what every memoryless robot needs, some means for a human operator to tell it exactly what to do.

Next week: Fireworks at 18 Pearl


Woody Allen's imagination a work in Hanna and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen’s imagination at work in Hanna and Her Sisters (1986)

In 2006 I went to an ear specialist to check out the mild deafness and stuffiness in my right ear that had persisted for two months. She looked in my ear and at my hearing test. “Let’s get an MRI,” she said. “With the MRI, we can check out muscles of the Eustachian tube and also see if there might be a small benign tumor on the hearing nerve. Why don’t you come back in two weeks.”

I was scared. I knew about acoustic tumors, to which she was referring. Hadn’t I spent five year researching diagnostics tools for them in the 1970s at Washington University Medical School? These rare tumors are benign, but they grow close to your brain and threaten vital functions like breathing. Surgery to remove them involves a long recovery and can destroy your hearing and balance. Few surgeons, I feared, had enough experience with this delicate surgery to minimize complications.

Now I was frightened. What would happen to the class I had just committed to teach in the evening? Could the university cover for me and let me resume after my convalescence , or would they just find someone else? How could my wife and I handle a lengthy disability? My anxiety deepened and the knot in the pit of my stomach grew tighter. I remembered Hanna and her Sisters in which Woody Allen’s hypochondriac Mickey Sachs undergoes in 1986 the tests I was given in twenty years later, for the same type of tumor. My anxious imaginings were no match for the fictional Mickey’s maniacal forebodings, but I could see myself in a wheel chair condemned to life of poverty, pain and immobility.    I prayed that my scans would be clean just as his were.

Woody Allen's Mickey Sachs undergoes a brain scan.

Woody Allen’s Mickey Sachs undergoes a brain scan.

There was hope: Derald Brackmann in Los Angeles specializes in this surgery and has done almost three thousand cases. I knew Derald from my years in research and, I remembered, he trained at Washington University. I even had a group photo showing both of us in our white lab coats in 1972. Perhaps, I thought, the photo would help me persuade my doctor to refer me to Brackmann rather than to someone in St. Louis with less experience.

My fear rose and fell. I kept busy, but stopped for prayer at least every half-hour: “Please God, don’t let this be a brain tumor,” I implored. As an agnostic, I sounded like a hypocrite to myself, praying, but I had to do something to ward off the tumor. Then I thought of death. Why should I die, or not die, at sixty-eight?

Washington University Otolaryngology faculty in 1972. Wally Berkowitz is second from left in the back row. Dave is send from right int he front row

Washington University Otolaryngology faculty in 1972. Wally Berkowitz is second from left in the back row. Dave is second from right in the front row. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Bohne, Ph.D)

One morning in the shower, the name Wally Berkowitz came into my mind, from nowhere. Derald Brackmann didn’t train in St. Louis. The young physician in the 1972 photo was Berkowitz, not Brackmann. My link to the perfect surgeon for my tumor evaporated

On my return appointment, I waited in the examination room. From next door, I heard muffled conversation. Was my doctor reviewing my MRI with a colleague, trying to figure out how to break the bad news to me? As the conversation continued, the words became clearer. She was advising another patient about a sinus condition.  At last she knocked on the door and came in. “How has your hearing been?” she asked. “About the same,” I said, “and my right ear still feels full.” “We’ll she said, your MRI was normal, with just a few insignificant age-related vascular changes. There’s no tumor.”

Next week: The Robot