Doc and the Cowboy

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In the mid-1960s, I was neighbors with a University of Tennessee animal-science senior in a two-story building that had been built as a motel. It was on Laurel Avenue a half block east of Fort Sanders Hospital and had been designed for guests who needed a place to stay while relatives were hospitalized.

I was on the ground floor, Roy lived upstairs. He was from rural Virginia.

Though southern Appalachia is far removed from the cattle-raising plains of the West, Roy was a true cowboy. In his early 20s, he already was a successful rancher, leasing pasturage in a nearby county for his beef cattle. Roy exhibited Hollywood-cowboy traits, too. He was taciturn when sober and rowdy when drunk. And he was known to sometimes carry a .38 revolver.

A behest from Roy led to my discovery of the Doc. The Doc was a general practitioner whose office hours were 5 to 9 p.m. three days a week. The unusual hours were suited to his specialty, abortion, at the time a shadowy, illegal practice. His office was on the fringe of downtown, less than a mile from our apartments. (In this story, he will be called the Doc; the other names have been changed.)

Roy had come to me in an uncharacteristic panic. He had gotten a girl pregnant and he asked if I knew where she could get an abortion. I asked my cohorts at the newspaper and obtained the Doc’s name. I didn’t see Roy for a couple of weeks, and I assumed that he and his girlfriend had visited the Doc.

But the Doc’s name came up again later when my friend Stanley came to me when his girlfriend Jeannie got pregnant. Jeannie had decided not to have the baby. Stanley wasn’t mature enough for fatherhood and Jeannie was well aware of that. Indeed, a couple of months later, Stanley would be making another trip to the Doc’s—with another girlfriend.

In 1967, the options available to those confronted with an unwanted pregnancy were limited. The Pill had been available for a few years, but to most it was still a novelty, controversial. Roe v. Wade was five years away.

Knoxville had a home run by the Florence Crittenton Agency, a discreet place where unwed mothers-to-be could stay during their last three months of pregnancy—if they could take time off from school or work.

The Doc provided another option. Stanley cadged the money for his fee from a fraternity brother. Immediately after the procedure, Jeannie, pale and shaken, rested in my apartment; the Doc had no recovery facilities and Stanley lived in the frat house.

Later, through my job, I became friends with an emergency-room nurse. She knew about the Doc. But she was more familiar with the girls who were brought to the hospital after amateur attempts at abortion, often of the coat-hanger variety.

But that all came later, after Roy’s situation resulted in a first-hand encounter with a time-tested solution to unexpected pregnancy. One night shortly after I had sent Stanley to the Doc, I was awakened by yelling outside my window.

The father of Roy’s girlfriend, flanked by his two sons, was facing the building’s second-floor balcony, where Roy was standing, shirtless, revolver in hand. The girl was behind her dad, at the rear of a mud-spattered car that I took to be the family sedan.

The yelling was mostly from Roy and mostly along the lines of “I’m not the one knocked her up.” The father’s arguments were measured, spoken quietly and determinedly. It was evident that the pistol in Roy’s hand was the reason he and his sons had not bounded up the stairs for a more physical confrontation.

As other lights came on, the girl and her family climbed into the car and retreated. The next day I asked Roy what all the yelling was about. He didn’t say much—just that he didn’t think he would need the abortionist’s services.

I don’t know whether his girlfriend had the baby. If Roy knew, he wasn’t saying. But he did ask me to help him move his cows to another farm, on the other side of Knoxville about 70 miles from the girl’s home county.

A few months later, Roy graduated and moved back to Virginia. After Roe v. Wade, the Doc retired, his services no longer needed.

Chris Wohlwend
Contributing Writer

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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