Roy Exum: The Bone Patient’s Tale

Sunday, June 9, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Early yesterday afternoon I was sitting on a bench outside the hotel, puffing my cigar and praying my pain meds would hurry their grip, when a nice lady from Cincinnati stopped to chat. The two of us, and many others at the hotel, are patients at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and a unique camaraderie always develops between us fellow strugglers.

Earlier in the week she was in tears, after finding out there was a six-day gap in her appointments as she fights bone cancer, and I might have given her a tip or two to get back in the system. So yesterday we were talking about books and I told her my best read in the last six months had been “Ghostman,” a thriller about bank robberies and the “ghost man” who make all the evidence disappear. I told her guys like me are fascinated by robbery plots and similar capers.

She smiled and asked if I had time to hear about her dad. His name was Johnny Summerly, which is fun because I can’t remember her name but Johnny soon got my attention. When he was a wee tot the Summerly family immigrated to the United States from Ireland. They settled in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Johnny and his six siblings grew up fiercely defending their Irish Catholic roots.

Was it tough, you bet, and at age 15 Johnny escaped when he lied about his age and his brother forged his dad’s name to get into World War II. At age 16 he was flying Liberators and, while he never talked much about the war, he said it was not uncommon for gunners in the front glass bubble to freeze to death because it wasn’t heated.

After America won in Europe and Japan, a grown-up Summerly returned to Pawtucket and got a job working for the Hassenfeld brothers, a toy company that you may remember became Hasbro toys. Every day at lunch Johnny would go to the same little meat-and-three diner and was soon befriended by three other men, having lunch at the same table for a year or so.

All three were courteous, well-dressed and polite, classy sort of guys and Johnny liked them quite well. So he thought nothing of it when one said they couldn’t be at lunch the next day and would Johnny mind accepting an envelope and passing it along to another guy 15 or 20 minute later. Johnny was delighted and – hey – the guys even left money to pay the 60 cents tab. Sure enough, a smiling man – also nattily dressed – came by as Summerly finished his lunch to pick up the envelope just like his friends promised.

Johnny never saw the three men again. Instead the largest bank robbery in the history of the United States at the time took place the next day in Boston – a 35-minute commute from Pawtucket – and four days later the Feds showed up at the toy company to take Johnny Summerly in for 12 hours of questioning.

It was immediately obvious Johnny was clean. He had unwittingly become an innocent conduit in the caper, which was soon billed as “the crime of the century” after the January 17, 1950 heist. There were few clues in the masterfully-executed robbery that yielded $1,218,211.29 in cash and another $1,557,183.83 in checks, which was really a big haul back then. But Johnny Summerly’s face was plastered in newspapers the world over as the lunch partner of the crooks. It turned out his three friends were hardly who or what they told Johnny for an entire year.

A couple of years later, Johnny married a lovely girl from England. Her parents were so mad they refused to attend the service because their lovely was marrying an Irish Catholic – which was sadly frowned on back in the ‘50s south of Boston. But their love stayed true every day until 22 years ago when Johnny Summerly passed away.

Oh, but there is one other thing. When Johnny and his bride were first married, they shared a one-room apartment –  that’s one room, not one bedroom – and when his wife got pregnant, he found a three-room apartment for their meager belongings. The third day after they moved to the new apartment, a livery truck pulled to the curb loaded with three rooms worth of beautiful furniture. With it was a note that the bone patient’s mother keeps among her most prized possessions. It says simply, “Thanks Johnny.”

* * *

My personal Mayo story took a big turn late Friday afternoon when a MRI exam, when compared to one taken at Erlanger Hospital three weeks ago, revealed the humerus bone in my right arm is swollen and inflamed.  I never knew bones could swell up and while the doctors say it is a quite painful thing when that happens, the choir will heartily sing, “Amen!”

Diagnostic tests will resume at Mayo Clinic for me, the bone patient, and the hundreds of others in rainy Minnesota on Monday. Hopefully it will be a touch warmer here after temperatures exceeded 60 degrees for maybe one hour all week. Minnesota has been so wet and cold in a very freakish spring some farms have already applied for crop insurance rather than plant seed six weeks later than usual.

Maybe this week everybody in Minnesota will get better.

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