Roy Exum: Dr. McCallie’s Final Prank

Monday, October 14, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On what would be the last Sunday of his life, Chattanooga’s much-beloved David McCallie was asleep, finally comfortable on the recliner in his study. His three sons, tending to their 92-year-old father in his last days, quietly busied themselves with the complicated infusion device that would deliver his nutrients and medicines.

David Jr., Jack and Allen are all smart – two are doctors like their dad while Allen is a lawyer – but they took great pains to make sure there was no air in the line as they resumed his treatment. “A tiny bubble is okay,” Allen explained at his father’s funeral on Saturday, “but a large amount of air can cause huge problems and even be lethal.”

With David Jr. handling the settings and powering up the machine, Allen was connecting the delivery lines to a port for their father when a hovering Jack spied a small bubble making its way through the clear tubing. “It’ll be alright … it’s tiny,” he said, but all three boys intently watched the bubble as it went through the line and then inside their sleeping father’s shirt.

Suddenly the legendary Dr. McCallie convulsed, screaming out as his body jumped and twisted madly. Young David pounced on this machine of destruction, desperately trying to turn it off. Allen madly began crimping the deadly delivery lines, trying to stop any flow, and Jack scrambled to find the plug to stop all power. And then they heard the laugh, that trademark I-got-you-again giggle each had known since early childhood and marveled that their glorious Dad lived life full all the way to the end.

The three McCallie brothers spoke at length of the marvelous father Saturday, the First Presbyterian Church sanctuary packed with hundreds of close friends who could each have spoken just as long about David’s lifetime of contributions and achievements. Most of his talent and his contributions are not known to the general public – that was never his way. Instead he was always hurrying to the next thing, be it his patients, the Hospital Authority, the city’s quest for medical excellence, or his unquenchable desire to make this world better in any way he could.

I don’t remember the first time I met him but my mother does. She told me I was about four weeks old, living in Palo Alto, Calif., as my Dad did graduate work at Stanford. At the time, David was stationed in Oakland as a young doctor in the Navy and he would come on weekends to be with my parents. (This was before Mom and Dad took David and Maddin on a blind date -- that resulted in 59 years of marriage.)

As “Uncle David” hoisted my tiny three-week-old body in the air, he said, “Look, he’s got twin toes! That’s a sign of good luck,” he told my beaming mother. Had I been able to talk I would have added “intensely handsome,” “genius,”  and some other attributes but I held my tongue as everybody gathered to see how my second and third toes were uncommonly joined, something only an eagle-eyed physician would ever notice.

His wife, of course, was one of my mother’s closest friends so I have followed the McCallie family’s road to excellence all of my life. Originally there were four brothers but the youngest and the bravest, Freddy, died of brain cancer in 1986, not before teaching the McCallie family specifically and the rest of us in a general way about God’s compassion and grace in the face of death.

“I don’t think you learn grace. Instead you just fall into it and it envelopes you. That’s when you realize God’s grace was there long before you sought it,” Allen said as he spoke of his father’s marvelous instincts and blessings but he could have just as well been speaking of his mother, or of the beloved Freddy, who in his final days pleaded with his family to quit asking for so much during family prayers and instead praise the Lord much more.

David Jr., Jack and Allen spoke eloquently of their father and, gratefully, at length. David told how his Dad went out to McCallie every Thursday to wind a beautiful clock that has chimed for eight generations of McCallies. The boys recalled how Thomas Hooke McCallie, who pastored First Presbyterian during and after the Civil War, acquired the clock and how David has restored it to hallowed glory.

They told of nights at the family table and how the house on Edgewood Circle was always a bustle. Weddings, birthdays, graduations and such were reasons for celebration and, after Freddy, funerals were, too. Jack described practicing medicine alongside his Dad and relishing the lessons, the camaraderie and the deep love his father held for his family.

My goodness, eight rows of pews in the church were taken by McCallies who came from near and far. That’s what happens when you live an entire life that started as the annual McCallie Men’s Camping Trip but has now morphed into an “everybody’s included.” “We love each other very, very much,” said cousin Marshall McCallie, a former U.S. Ambassador to Namibia for then-president George H.W. Bush.

Last year, at age 91, David McCallie insisted on sleeping in a tent, as he had done each outing for just shy a century, and a wedding was even held at the woodsy gathering. As the happy couple made their way towards the getaway car, Dr. McCallie looked down at his belt and quipped, “Well, well, this is the first time I have ever worn a hunting knife at a wedding.”

Oh the stories, the stories. Dr. McCallie wrote a sage book including the memoirs of Rev. McCallie – he who lived 150 years ago – but the accolades could have easily fit the just deceased author. He was a legend in the community, in the medical arena but – most of all – he was a patriarch whose entire life is eloquently reflected in his three surviving sons and their families.

He will be remembered with love and adoration for many years to come and I hope that one day his sons will be able to tell of “the bubble trick” without having to pause in mid-sentence. The story is an instant family classic and is not sad at all, the love and the laughter a large part of David McCallie’s journey to catch up with Maddin and Freddy.

“Whoopee,” was the elder doctor’s yelp after any good thing happened. Whoopee indeed.

Dr. David McCallie
Dr. David McCallie

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