Doc Always Closed the Argument

WHEN A.W. Plummer, M.D., was first out of medical school, he was driving his horse and spanking new ``doctor's gig'' to the outskirts of town to make a house call, and as he passed the four-square home of the Widow Townshend he saw that she was having a chimney fire. The widow kept to herself and was a complete stranger to the young physician. Dr. Plummer pulled a rein and the horse turned into the driveway to stop near enough to the widow's front door so he could rap on it with the handle end of his whip. The widow responded to the commotion. First, she parted the curtain by the side window to look out and satisfied the caller meant her no harm, she opened the door a crack to say, ``What do you want?''

Dr. Plummer always spoke by the card, lest equivocation undo him, and his careful answer was, ``I don't want anything, but I stopped to ask if you know your chimney is on fire?''

At this, the Widow Townshend said, ``Is that all?''

Dr. Plummer said, ``It's all I think of at the moment,'' and he touched up his horse and rode on about his business. On his return from the house call he saw that the belching smoke from the widow's chimney had subsided, so he assumed the fire had burned itself out. Chimney fires will often do that and no harm done.

But this chimney fire of the Widow Townshend originated an expression, and shows us how catch phrases can come to life in a small town and run through generations until the beginnings are forgotten. Dr. Plummer told about that chimney fire, and it lingered long after he, in his late 90s, left us. Long after the state motor vehicle people lifted his driver's license because of advanced age, he would telephone me (and others) on occasion, and I would drive him in his automobile to visit a patient, and often to the state capital where he delighted to make remarks at legislative hearings.

He had served a couple of terms in the House back in his 50s, and he never got over it. His orations at these hearings were Ciceronian, and the captive committeemen who had to listen were usually more impressed by the style than by the matter. Young members sat in awe, as the art of a fine political oration was new to them. The older members waited patiently for The Doc to come to the end and say, ``I thank you, Gentlemen!'' The first lady-gentleman in the Maine legislature was still far ahead. Then one of the committee would ask, ``Is that all?''

Doc would smile and say, ``It's all I think of at the moment.''

Back home, any situation suggesting a conclusion would get that answer, often without direct reference to Dr. Plummer or the Widow Townshend. ``Is that all?'' Karl Heistermann would ask a customer in the grocery store, and out would come, ``It's all I think of at the moment.'' It was in annual town meeting that I got a crack at the saying. Doc was far in front as our senior citizen, a true civis mundis, scholar, fine judge of horseflesh, and so on. I had been town meeting moderator for years - as much a fixture as The Doc.

Still alert and still agile, he came in that blustery March morning to take his usual place in a front seat, and he nominated me with his punctilious parliamentary precision, `` ... and I ask unanimous consent that nominations cease and the clerk be instructed to cast one ballot.'' Saves time, and I was a shoo-in. Everybody realized the time was approaching when we'd have town meetings without The Doc. Every courtesy was accorded him. That particular year we had a thumping big outcry over financing the water system, and The Doc was at least a trifle off base in his positive logic.

Years before, the town had put in its own water system and operated it as a town department - no company, no district. The system served only the villagers; the farmers went on using their wells. But in laying out the pipelines, the engineers had been generous with fire hydrants, and just about every villager had a hydrant right by his front door. Some with double frontage had two. Since fire hydrants come under ``public safety,'' there was always an appropriation in town meeting to cover ``hydrant rental,'' and thus the farmers all paid taxes to subsidize cheap water for the villagers. When anybody from the outlying sections questioned this, he became a victim of the majority and got nowhere, and Doc Plummer, being a villager, was always in favor of hydrant rentals.

This particular year the farmers blew off steam, and The Doc made his usual defense - an eloquent address in quick forensic art lent profundity to his shallow premise. He finished, and turning toward me, the moderator, he said, ``I thank you!''

I said, ``Is that all?'' Doc made his usual answer, and as the next year's town meeting proved, it was all.

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