Bill Blair received his discharge from the Navy on a September morning in 1954. He’d served on hospital ships off Inchon and Pusan, Korea, for two years and then completed his service at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, a cluster of wooden barracks on a grassy hillside in Oakland, California.
On the afternoon of his discharge, he borrowed a convertible and headed across the Bay Bridge, an unplanned adventure that seemed like just the ticket for a fellow with some time on his hands. The sky was the same lovely shade of blue as the hyacinths in the bridal bouquet at his sister’s wedding, four months earlier. He’d gotten a weekend’s leave and made it home to Michigan just in time for a pre-wedding family breakfast at which his years of service were so celebrated that the very thing he’d sought from the trip, a return to the life he’d known before open wounds and gangrenous limbs and amputations, slipped finally and irrevocably out of his grasp. Outside the church, he stood with his parents in his dress blues and felt as lonely as he ever had in his life.
He’d first seen San Francisco from the deck of the USS Haven under a sky choked with clouds. Now, as he drove, he found himself drawn less to the bright downtown than to the low-lying hills beyond it, beribboned with candy-colored houses. He stayed on the highway, heading for the next set of hills, and soon he was moving alongside the flat pale bay, approaching the airport. Seagulls swooped out of the sky, tiny icons of the aircraft landing on the glittering tarmac. This was the first convertible he’d ever driven, and despite all his time at sea he’d never had quite such a confrontation with the wind. His face was pummeled, his hair blown flatter than the bunk of an enlisted man. Up ahead of him, on the prow of the car, the noble brave Pontiac bore down on the unknown with an attitude of calm determination.
Leaving the bayshore, Bill meandered for a mile or two until he found the King’s Highway, or so it would be called if the name were rendered in English—this he knew from the bits of Spanish he’d picked up in Oakland. El Camino Real. This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn. He pointed the chrome Indian westward and drove through neighborhoods of brand-new houses that seemed like decoys for something marvelous he would discover soon.
Twisting past a golf course, he entered a grove of pines. Narrow roads split off and disappeared around curves and up hills. On an impulse he followed one of these, winding among low-hanging branches with leaves like tiny silver spears. When he slowed down, a smell of earth and bark came to him, and overlaying that something pleasantly medicinal, the inside of a pharmacy staffed by wood creatures. The road leveled off, and a path beckoned him to leave the car and make his way to a clearing where a magnificent oak tree stood guard.
He was the grandson of a farmer on his mother’s side and a doctor on his father’s, both third generation Michiganders. As a boy, he’d expected a life like that of his father, the doctor’s son, who’d gone to work at a local bank and was now president and chairman of the board, a man who dressed in a suit and tie every day and had the house painted biannually because it was important to keep up appearances. Bill’s mother was an exemplary housekeeper, using vinegar to make the windows sparkle and bleach to keep the bedsheets bright on the line. Known locally as the gal whose one visit to Chicago had left her half-blind after a small rock kicked up by a streetcar struck her in the eye, she had a glass eyeball with a blue iris two or three shades lighter than her true eye color, an asymmetry that made her shy with strangers and unassailable to her children. Bill had grown up believing virtue was a ticket to contentment, but the war had exploded that notion and he needed something to replace it.
The oak was the most splendid tree he’d ever seen, its gnarled branches snaking every which way. He would learn later that it was a California live oak, species Quercus agrifolia, or sharp-leaved oak, and the ground beneath it was carpeted with curled, brittle leaves and peculiar elongated acorns. An idea had been forming during his last months of service that his skills and training could be adapted toward a type of medicine that might, over time, supplant his memories of men blown open with bodies that wouldn’t to be subjected to such violence: the bodies of children. He would have to do a second residency in pediatrics, but he did not mind the idea of deferring his work life for a few more years. A period of preparation more or less equal to the number of months he’d given the Navy might in some way cancel that experience and return him to the confidence and optimism he’d felt on the day he received his sheepskin from the University of Michigan Medical School, the best he could hope for now that his family had mistaken him for a hero. He surveyed the land in front of him and slipped into a reverie in which he was surrounded by children, dozens of them, darting between trees, throwing balls, jumping in leaf piles, calling olly olly oxen free—more children than he could father himself but not nearly as many as he could help.