The blonde nurse looked up from her desk in the reception room of Dr. Raworth Williams' offices in Dallas. She smiled brightly. "Do you wish to become a patient?" she asked.
"No," I said. "I wish to become better informed on Dr. Williams' remarkable career as a polo player. I just arrived in town from Tulsa. I had hoped to see Dr. Williams there. He was supposed to bring up a team to play a 12-goal exhibition game against Minneapolis. However, the players he was counting on had other commitments and so the exhibition was called off. So I called Dr. Williams and he said he'd be glad to talk to me here in Dallas and take me out to see his breeding and training farm, where I understand he also has a fine polo field." I handed her a card.
"Oh, yes," said the nurse, looking at the card, "Dr. Williams is expecting you. He's seeing his last patient for the day right now. It shouldn't be too long. Won't you sit down?"
"Thank you," I said.
November 13, 1961
The nurse looked at the card again. "Are you going to give Dr. Williams a write-up?"
"That is my intention," I said. "But it was also my intention to witness a National Inter-Circuit polo tournament in Tulsa. There were supposed to be teams there from California, Illinois, New York and Texas. But, for one reason or another, all the out-of-town teams withdrew with the exception of San Antonio. The national tournament boiled down to a single game. Of course, it's easy to understand how these things fall through. Most of the players are business and professional men and a certain number of them are bound to have conflicts. Fielding a team in a tournament is no casual business when you consider the number of ponies that have to be brought along by each player. But, I suppose, working with a well-known polo player like Dr. Williams, you know a great deal more about these things than I do."
The nurse shook her head. "I don't know a thing," she said, "because I'm not Dr. Williams' regular nurse. I'm just filling in during his regular nurse's vacation."
"Well, then," I said, "I can tell you one thing. Dr. Williams is an amazing man to be playing a rough, fast, hard-riding, bruising game like polo at the age of 66. Have you any idea of the punishment that man has taken on the polo field?"
"I don't believe so," said the nurse.
"Just 21 fractures, that's all," I said. "Seven hand fractures, 11 ribs broken, a fractured ankle, two fractures of the transverse process of the vertebra. All this plus a shoulder injury. And never, at any time, did he stay in bed more than two or three days."
"Well, I declare," said the nurse. Suddenly, she stood up at her desk. "I believe doctor's finished with that last patient now."
Dr. Williams, wearing a long white coat, walked through the reception room to the door, shook hands with a heavyset man and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "I'll see you next week," he said. He turned and faced the nurse's desk. He was a man standing about 5 feet 9, strong-jawed, with iron-gray hair, lean, flat-waisted, quick to smile. He glanced inquiringly at the nurse.
"This is the man come to do the write-up, doctor," she said.
"Oh, yes," said Dr. Williams, putting out his hand. "How do you do. I'm glad you could come down from Tulsa. I've kept the afternoon free so's we could go out and see the farm. Afterwards, I thought we'd have dinner."
"That would be wonderful, doctor," I said.
He frowned suddenly.
"Only one thing bothers me," he said. "Now I'll be pleased to show you around the farm and talk polo all you want. But since I spoke to you on the phone I've had some misgivings about a write-up. I just don't see how I deserve a write-up. Three years ago I might have, but now—well, what have I done lately?"
"Three years ago, doctor," I said, "you took a team representing the Dallas Athletic Club to the National Open at Oak Brook Polo Club in Hinsdale, Ill. and you won what is known as the world series of polo. Two years before that you were a member of the Brandy-wine, Pa. team that also won the National Open. In 1948 your team won the National Inter-Circuit. For years you've been the only left-handed player in high-goal polo, and I think you still are."
"Well," said Dr. Williams, "Young Tommy Hitchcock, the son of the great 10-goaler, is a left-hander and he's got a one-goal handicap right now. I believe he's still in Harvard. But that doesn't alter the fact that I haven't been on a winning team in a big tournament lately."
"But it's perfectly possible, isn't it," I said, "that you could captain another great team to represent the Dallas Athletic Club and go after the National Open championship again next year? Maybe sign up Bob Skene again? I believe that, along with Cecil Smith, Skene is one of the two 10-goal players in the country?"
The doctor nodded.
"But," I persisted, "I'm not thinking of tournaments and championships. I'm thinking of a man who has been playing polo for 35 years and is still playing two and three times a week, even if only in pickup matches out at your own field. I'd like to find out how a man of 66 can do it—how he can stay in shape to do it. I mean to say, you take a 66-year-old golfer. Show me one who isn't using a cart."
"Golf carts should be outlawed," said the doctor. He reflected a moment and then chuckled. "I remember some years ago in Chicago, a reporter asked me, 'Doctor, how do you get in shape for tournament polo?' I said, 'Hell's bells, young man, I have never been out of shape.' Oh, I was a goin' dude then, as we say in Texas. But it was the absolute truth. I was raised on a ranch in West Texas and I swear to you I can't remember when I learned to ride. At the University of Texas, before I went on to medical school at Columbia University in New York, I played quarterback on the football team and first base on the baseball team. When I finished my internship at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York I set up practice here in Dallas and started playing polo as a member of a National Guard team and have been at it ever since."
"And you don't think all this justifies a write-up?"
The doctor shook his head. "I'm speaking of lately—lately."
"All right. How about just last spring when you were awarded the Governor of Texas Polo Award? Cecil Smith got the first one, you got the second. And on the occasion of your award, somebody said that you had the physique of a man of 35. How about all the things you've done to promote polo in Dallas? How about your term as governor of the Southwestern Circuit of the U.S. Polo Association?"
The doctor rubbed his chin.
I said, "I see only one thing that could militate against this write-up."
Dr. Williams' eyes narrowed. "What?" he said.
"Well, to be frank with you, doctor, as I am sure you would be with a patient, the one thing that would give me pause would be to learn that you're easing up in polo and that some of the younger players are easing up on you. Pulling up for you, I believe the phrase is. Avoiding any hard-riding body contact. Making allowances for your age."
The doctor's eyes flashed, and he seemed to blanch under his tan.
"Nobody pulls up for me," he snapped. "And I don't pull up for anybody else. The day they start pulling up for Doc Williams, that's the day I quit—and quit for good."
He nodded his head vigorously and slipped out of his white coat. He started back to the examining rooms. "I'll be with you in a minute," he said. "We'll get on out to the farm and look at some horses."
A little later Dr. Williams, wearing a broad-brimmed Stetson, was behind the wheel of his air-conditioned Cadillac, holding the speedometer needle at an even 70. He was pointed for his 100-acre farm, which is about 12 miles northwest of Dallas.
"We were speaking," he said, "of the Dallas Athletic Club winning the National Open in 1958. You must remember that another Dallas team, the Circle F, captained by Russell Firestone Jr., won the Open the following year and took the National 20-goal championship as well."
"Isn't it true, doctor, that polo is enjoying a modest sort of renaissance throughout the country?"
"Yes, and particularly in Florida and the Middle West. A magazine had quite a write-up this past summer on what Robert Uihlein and his associates have done to popularize the game in Milwaukee."
"I read that write-up," I said. "I was surprised to see that the polo games played at Mr. Uihlein's farm drew crowds as large as 3,000 regularly."
Dr. Williams laughed shortly.
"That's very encouraging, of course," he said, "but I can remember when the East-West and International games played at the Meadow Brook club on Long Island, New York would draw 30, 000 spectators—and turn people away Those were the golden days of polo, the late 1920s and most of the 1930s. Those were the days of Tommy Hitchcock, Mike Phipps, Stewart Iglehart and the other of that caliber—Cecil Smith, a 10-goaler then and a 10-goaler today at the age of 58. Why, they used to field 30-and even 40-goal teams. When we won the National Open we had a team handicap of 26."
"Polo," I said, "probably was out-drawing the New York baseball clubs most of the time in those golden days."
"Without a doubt," the doctor said.
"Well, what made polo decline as a spectator sport?"
"The war," said the doctor. "Polo was expendable as a spectator sport and many players went into service. The cavalry was mechanized. A lot of officers had been polo players and the National Guard units had teams. Then there were the high income taxes. Naturally, that hit hard at an expensive game like polo."
"Taxes aren't getting any lower, doctor. How come polo is gaining again?"
"Well, the younger players have formed clubs and they share ponies. This enables young men who couldn't possibly afford to keep a string of ponies to play regularly."
Dr. Williams had turned off the Stemmons Expressway and was now on Highway 77. After a while he pointed to a road sign.
"Joe Field Road," I read aloud.
"Joe Field," said Dr. Williams, "was a patient of mine. I have him to thank for the farm we're going to see. One day when he was leaving my office, he said, 'Doc, a man never amounts to anything until he owns land. I've put in a bid in your name for some farmland northwest of town.' Well, I said, 'Whoa. What will I do with that kind of property?' Joe Field looked at me and said, 'Doc, you just hold on to it.'
"Well, sir, I did just that. I paid about $30,000 for the property. I've already gotten back nearly twice that amount and still have practically all the land. I was paid for a small parcel that will accommodate an extension of the Stemmons Expressway and I was also compensated by the power company that had run a line across one corner. Now the area is zoned for industrial use, and I don't know what it will bring if I ever decide to sell. I don't want ever to lose my polo field, but—bearing in mind the advice Joe Field gave me—I've put my profits and somewhat more into 275 acres about 50 miles farther out."
The car turned left off 77 at Forest Lane, and after a few hundred yards it swung into a driveway that led to an old, small farmhouse.
I stay out here most of the time," said Dr. Williams. "It's not much of a house, but I like it. Yonder are the stables and the corrals and the polo field I'm so proud of. Actually, there are a couple of other fields on the property, but this is the one where all the big games are played. We play the Intra-Circuit and intercity games here, and there's usually some kind of action two or three times a week. Porfirio Rubirosa will be playing here later this month. He ought to be a big attraction—to the womenfolks, anyway. Seriously, he's a fine player."
He touched his shoulder. "This shoulder condition of mine has improved considerably of recent months. Some of the boys were remarking the other day that I'm hitting the ball very well right now, very well indeed."
He gazed out over his field. "You'll notice the creeks running around the field make it an island. You see those three ponies looking at us over the fence? They've been to the polo wars, all right. On the right there is Blue Bug, my favorite, and next is Billy the Skid. I named him for Billy Skidmore who sold him to me—Billy's a six-goal player. The third pony there is Shorty. I never know exactly how many horses are here, what with the foals and the colts and the fillies and the mares and my stud. Generally in the neighborhood of 30, I would say. I always have several ponies in training as working cow ponies at various ranches near by."
We turned back to the farmhouse. The doctor unlocked the front door and led the way into the living room and a scene of monumental clutter. There were polo trophies everywhere: cups, plates, trays, bowls, boxes, lighters, automobile radiator emblems. There were stacks upon stacks of horse journals, dominated by a pile of back issues of The Chronicle, published in the citadel of the horse, Middleburg, Va., lately become an international dateline because of the Kennedys sometimes being in residence there. In the corners there were polo mallets by the score, polo balls were here, there and everywhere. A great bookcase was filled with trophies and books about horses. Through one door there was a glimpse of the kitchen, with trophies atop the deepfreeze, polo balls spilling out of sacks and filling paper cartons to the brim. And more mallets leaning against the walls.
Dr. Williams walked over to a closet and opened it. It was filled with mallets. He reached in and picked one mallet from a coat hook. "This is one I'm proud to own. I'm like a kid with a Roger Maris bat. This mallet was given to me by Bob Skene, the 10-goaler who played with us in the Open."
"You live here alone, doctor?"
"I spend all the time I can here. I like to ride in the evenings and in the mornings. A couple of nights a week I stay downtown at the Athletic Club. I have a woman come in to clean. I'm after her all the time to keep those trophies polished, but I guess I ask too much. The place is cleaned well, even if it is in some disarray."
The doctor looked around and then turned to answer an unasked question.
"I've been married," he said. "We had no children. I come from a family of 11 children and I'm the only one who didn't have any." He paused and picked up a trophy tray. "Why," he said, "it's difficult to read this inscription. This simply has to be polished." He sat down in a big chair near the fireplace. He was silent a moment.
"On the subject of marriage," he said, "I must confess that I have come to have some sympathy for a woman's inability to understand why a man would put the price of a mink coat into a polo pony."
I sat down on a sofa, moving some horse magazines out of the way. "Doctor," I said, "as a busy surgeon, you must have had situations when your polo and professional interests were in conflict."
"Yes," said Dr. Williams, "many, many times. Surgery is my first love and there's never any doubt about that. But on frequent occasions I've been off playing in a tournament when some emergency has come up. I've often been called off the field and rushed to the airport to fly back to Dallas for an operation. And there have been times when I was able to see that the patient was making a good recovery and get back to the tournament before it was over. Frequently I've dropped out of a game to give first aid to a fellow player who has been injured."
"I've had to respond to some emergencies right here at the farm. Just the other morning I discovered a deep gash in the leg of a broodmare I acquired recently. The mares had gotten into a fight and I had to run down to stop it. It's most unusual for broodmares to fight. Anyway, I took a figure-eight stitch in the leg of this new mare and I think she'll be all right.
Some years ago," he went on, "one of my broodmares named Meadow Brown was about to drop a foal a little ahead of schedule. In her distress she had made her way to the side of the house, just outside my bedroom window. I was awakened by her groans. I threw on a robe and rushed out and sized up the situation. It was a difficult delivery. I suppose I got unduly excited because I was accustomed to leave such matters to my vet. I started to run across the field to the house of the man working for me yelling, 'Get the vet! Get the vet!"
"Then I suddenly stopped in my tracks. 'Whoa!' I said, 'what's the matter with you? You're a hell of a doctor! Get on back there and help that poor mare!' "
The doctor threw back his head and laughed at himself. "Now this," he said, "was a Fourth of July morning. And do you know what flashed into my mind as I turned and ran toward the mare?"
"Another Fourth of July morning more than 40 years ago. I was riding ambulance for St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. We had an emergency call to an apartment on Washington Square. It was a middle-class family of some means, but they couldn't locate the family doctor immediately. The mother was about to give birth prematurely. It was a most difficult delivery. And, mind you, twins. I handled that situation with all the confidence of a young intern in his 20s. The father was so grateful that as we left to take the twins to the hospital to be put in an incubator he stuck something in my jacket pocket. I later found out it was $35. It was against the rules to accept gratuities, but somehow my fellow interns and the ambulance driver persuaded me that $35 spent on a big steak dinner might advance the cause of medicine generally—or at least around St. Vincent's, where interns were paid precisely nothing.
"I'm rambling on. But I swear to you I thought of all that during the few seconds it took me to get back to that mare. I saw immediately what the difficulty was, and with a little assistance from me the birth was accomplished and we got a beautiful colt. Later I named him War Meadow and he played for our team in the National Open of '58."
Dr. Williams stood up. "It's time we had some dinner," he said.
A little later we were seated in a booth in a roadside restaurant on Highway 77. As we scanned the big menu, the doctor suddenly leaned forward and said, "You know, I'm glad you came to Dallas and insisted on this write-up. Not because I want any attention focused on me. I still say I don't deserve that. But just talking about polo—and a little about medicine—has made me realize how fortunate I am to have had these interests. I love them both." He thought a minute and then he said carefully: "I believe I'd rather operate than play polo."
A waitress, a pretty, languid Texas girl, had come to the booth and stood there, pencil poised. The doctor looked at her and then looked at the menu again. He lowered it and went on: "You know, I wish every man could come to the age of 50 with a sport that he can play year round. He'll work better for it. Of course, a man can't take up a game like polo at 50, but there are lots of things he can do. Golf—without that blasted cart, mind you—swimming, volleyball. I saw somewhere that Dr. Paul Dudley White, General Eisenhower's doctor, is preaching the gospel of bicycle riding. He's campaigning for bicycle paths to be built along roadways. That's all to the good."
The waitress stood there. She yawned.
Dr. Williams glanced at the girl, and continued:
"As I say, this write-up business has reminded me of the joy I've had from polo. I've played all over the United States and in Hawaii, too. I've made wonderful friends. I wouldn't begin to mention their names, I'd be sure to forget somebody. They're wonderful people in polo, simply wonderful."
The waitress scratched her head with the eraser end of her pencil. "I could recommend the filet mignon highly," she drawled.
The doctor ignored her. "Last summer," he said, "I went to England with an American team that included Alan Corey and George Sherman of Meadow Brook on Long Island, Billy Hudson and Juan Rodriquez of Dallas. It was a 21-goal team with Corey at 9, Sherman at 3, Hudson at 2 and Rodriquez at 7. By the way, George Sherman is vice-chairman of the U.S. Polo Association. I was along as a spare. My handicap had dropped from 2 to one, partly because of this shoulder condition. But I was well represented as far as the ponies were concerned. 1 shipped over three of my own and Hudson had three I raised and sold to him. Well, to make a long story short, I never got to play in any of the international games. The English have a rule against left-handers. However, 1 did play some polo on Cowdray Park, which is on Lord Cowdray's estate."
"You can't ever go wrong," said the waitress, "on that Kansas City sirloin."
Well," said the doctor, "the day of the biggest game of all, the British royal family was there. Afterward, everybody went to a tent that had been put up behind the royal box. Champagne was served. I tried to make myself inconspicuous because I hadn't played. But, lo and behold, Prince Philip came up to me and said, 'You're Dr. Williams. Cowdray has been telling me about you. Sorry about this left-handed rule. As you know, I couldn't play myself because I pulled a muscle in my thigh.' I was on the verge of telling the Prince what to do for that condition, but I caught myself in time. 'This man has the best medical skills of England at his beck and call,' I said to myself, 'and he doesn't require any advice from a country doctor.' Well, they couldn't have been nicer. Somebody maneuvered me over to a place near the Queen and I was presented. I couldn't tell you what I said. Then I was moved along and found myself chatting with the Queen Mother. 'Dr. Williams,' she said, 'you have some splendid horses.' Well, do you know that we got to talking, and I couldn't tell you if my life depended on it whether we talked for five minutes or 20? I never met any more friendly or gracious people."
"I've been out to the state fair all day," said the waitress, making each statement a question, "and my feet are killing me? tell you I'm just ready to go to bed and sleep a week?"
"When it came time for me to go," said Dr. Williams, "the Sherman and Corey children got together and said, 'Dr. Williams, we're taking you out to dinner and then we're going to the airport to see you off.' I said, 'I'll do the taking out to dinner.' Do you know those young people wouldn't hear of it? Insisted I be their guest? Took me to the airport? And when we found out the plane wouldn't leave for an hour or so, they wouldn't budge until takeoff time? 'We promised you we'd see you off, and that's just exactly what we're going to do!' they said. Well, sir, there was a heavy rainstorm at takeoff time, but I tell you I hardly noticed. Going up the steps to the plane, I waved to the children and went in and took my seat, fastened my belt and leaned my head back. 'What a day!' I said to myself, 'what a perfectly wonderful day and what wonderful, wonderful people!' "
All the time we had held the big menus in our hands. I had noticed the doctor's hands as he talked. The fingers were strong and the wrists were as thick as Mickey Mantle's.
"Broiled chicken possibly?" asked the waitress.
The doctor turned and looked at her and for the first time he betrayed the merest trace of irritation.
"Look here, young lady," he said, "you're a new girl here, I gather. You don't know me. I come in here three or four times a week and I'm accustomed to taking my time in ordering my dinner."
The girl's eyes widened. Clearly, some sort of identification was called for, some kind of status had to be established. I waited for Dr. Raworth Williams to indicate somehow that he was a distinguished surgeon of long standing, a professor of clinical urology at Southwestern Medical College, a member of the American College of Surgeons, a graduate of one of the nation's great medical schools. He didn't say anything quite like that. What he said was: "1 happen to have the polo field up the line and this gentleman here is giving it a write-up."
And then we both ordered filet mignon, which was what the footsore, state-fair-weary waitress had suggested in the first place.