Elder Statesman: Semper Fi, Dr. Doolittle
EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in June 2001. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
Dr. Doolittle has died.
But he will never be dead. He left part of himself in too many people to ever die.
Dr. Doolittle was Saul Millstein the most gentle, loving warrior one would ever meet. He was a dive-bomber pilot with the Marines during World War II who won medals for his bravery in the Solomon Islands. In his later years, he was a man who created a virtual Noah’s Ark on his farm in Melrose because he wanted children to have an island of peace and tranquility in a world of violence.
I first met him at his petting zoo, so it was hard to reckon him as the man who fought in one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific during World War II.
He died fittingly as the nation celebrated Memorial Day on Monday. He did not go gently into the night, but only after a traditional Marine Corps fight. He was battling cancer for the second time and when he breathed his last, cancer knew it had met a formidable foe.
In fact, right up to the last, he had planned to attend the 59th anniversary of his “Hensagliska Warriors,” the VMSB-144 squadron with whom he fought in the Pacific during World War II. He did all the planning for the reunion from his hospital bed, which he called “Squadron Headquarters.”
I visited him on Sunday in his corner VA hospital room that he had packed with memorabilia. It was a short visit because he summarily dismissed me almost as if he was still the colonel and I was his corporal.
I left thinking I would see him again. I think he knew different.
At that same time, he had another visitor, Thelma McDaniel of Roseburg. Earlier, Saul had given me a book of poems Thelma had written called “You Are Special.” The book of poems is dedicated this way: “To Dr. Doolittle. I am thankful to be his friend. He is kind to animals as well as people. I am happy to add him to my friendship list. Those of you who know ‘Doc’ know what I mean when I say he is a gentleman.”
In an earlier column, I wrote about Saul being ill, I asked readers to send him a card or a letter. The readers overwhelmed him with mail, which he mockingly blamed me for sapping his energy while reading them.
He tried to put on his old Marine tough-guy attitude, but in truth he was deeply touched. Despite his illness, he answered each letter.
Among those who wrote him was my eldest daughter, Eularee Smith of Eugene. They became instant pen pals when she told him about her dog, Ty Cobb, and he shared tales about his dogs. She bought a pink dogwood tree with instructions that I plant it in Roseburg in honor of Saul. She wrote: “Old Colonels never die, they just bloom brighter.”
The nurseryman told her it probably wouldn’t bloom the first year. It is obvious he didn’t know the colonel. It bloomed profusely in April.
On Tuesday my daughter called me and opened the conversation by asking me if I had visited Saul recently. I had to tell her that he died Monday. There was a long pause, and then she said, “I knew something had happened because yesterday I just couldn’t get him out of my mind.”
Wednesday there was a distinctive letter in the stack of mail I picked up from my rural mailbox. It was from Saul, a short note to say: “When we next spend a few valuable moments together.”
In the upper right hand corner, encircled inside a heart, where these words:
“Friends are angels who lift us to our feet when our own wings have trouble remembering how to fly.”
It was postmarked Tuesday, May 29.
He signed the letter as usual, “Semper Fi from the Colonel.”
Semper Fi, Colonel from your faithful corporal.