every scar tells a story

Back in a simpler, better time …

In my case, five scars bring back memories of Dr. Weems Pennington Sr., a doctor who epitomized what a family physician should be. He was smart, kind, funny, and kept many of us rolling despite an excess of maladies, ills, and accidents. He had a way of teaching you to be courageous no matter what bedeviled you. He’s been gone for seven years but he lives on in the hearts and minds of many, and he always will.

Weems "Doc Penny" Pennington
Weems “Doc Penny” Pennington

My first memory of Penny Doc (we reversed the “Doc Penny” nickname) is having my left hand stitched up one day. And a lot of stitches were required, 58!

I was about nine when I decided to climb the side of a shed at my grandmother’s farm. When I was about three feet off the ground, climbing hard, my left hand came down hard on a nail sticking out at a 45-degree angle. I let go with both hands and the nail ripped me open as I fell. Off to Penny Doc’s clinic in the old hotel building we flew where he stitched me up good as new. Eight men held me down as doc did his thing.

When I was 14, a rash of boils plagued me, what some call carbuncles, an ugly word that accurately conveys the pain they cause. Two huge boils had my right arm swollen and red. The pain was unbelievable. It hurt for my shirt to touch me. Dad took me to Dr. Pennington’s new clinic attached to the City Pharmacy.

“What you got here boy,” Dr. Pennington said as he grabbed a glistening scalpel from a steaming autoclave. He held the scalpel just above what looked like a red, fleshy volcano full of heat from infection. Then he dug into me and I felt the blood drain from my face. Out came the core and he went on to the next one, digging into it. Out came the core. By now sweat drenched me and I felt wobbly. I was not, however, going to let him know I was hurting and afraid. Doc inspired bravery.

“You did pretty good,” said Doc. “Most men I know would have fainted.” I never had a boil again. The two scars from those boils can be seen to this day, giving me reason to recall my bravery and liberation from boils so long ago.

My next scar came September 25, 1964. It was my first road game as a Red Devil against Wrens. In the very first play, the kickoff, I ran down staying close to the sideline, lingering, to play containment. A player threw a block on me and I hopped right up. Back on the sideline, teammate Gartrell Blackman said, “What’s wrong with your foot?”

The sock on my left foot was crimson, soaked in blood. Dr. Pennington took me to the team bus where he cut away two good-sized chunks like stew meat and stitched me up. A shot for pain and I went back to playing safety. To this day, two scars remain where cleatless posts ripped into me, reminders of Doctor Pennington and me on a bus in Wrens, Georgia.

I’d have to wait five years for my next Penny Doc encounter. Working at Elijah Clark State Park one summer a bush hog fell from a tractor as I was positioning wooden blocks beneath it, crushing my left index finger. Taking my leather work glove off what I saw made me faint. Penny Doc set the last joint’s bones and I was almost good as new.

I recall also a time when Dad took me to see Dr. Pennington after hours in his old home a stone’s throw from the courthouse. To this day I can see him fishing around in his black medical bag. Many times he gave me shots of penicillin and bicillin that worked like a charm. I never had to go to him twice for the same ailment.

I have great memories of Dr. Pennington despite the pain that accompanied some visits. Not all visits though were a matter of dread. Each football season the entire team would strip down to its skivvies for the annual beore-season physical. There was, of course, horsing around and a lot of jokes.

And then there was the time in 1972, when Penny doc examined my wife and turned to me, “Boy, you done “dooed” it now. Nine months later, my first daughter was born in the small clinic attached to his house on the Elberton Highway. Doc and Margaret let me assist. What a night to remember that was.

Many times members of my family bounced back to good health thanks to Dr. Pennington’s expertise. He had a bedside manner sorely missing in many of today’s physicians. I saw a doctor over here, across the Savannah. He acted more like an appliance salesman at Sears than he did a family physician, and I left feeling as bad as when I arrived. There was something about seeing Dr. Pennington, though, that made you feel better right away, those two boils I had being the exception.

What a gift he was to the people of Lincoln County. Our own Mickie McGee wrote a wonderful tribute to Penny Doc following his passing back in the July 12, 2007, issue of the Lincoln Journal. She wrote, in part … “The young physician arrived in Lincolnton in June of 1946, just after the war, in search of a car and ended up with not only a car, but a career that would last a lifetime.

“Back then you couldn’t find a car to buy anywhere,” Doc once recalled. “We happened to hear of one for sale here [in Lincolnton] and we came over to see it.”

Doc’s wife, Margaret, whom he met and married while he was an intern at Macon General Hospital and she was a nurse, accompanied him on the fateful day and mentioned to Doc that before they left town after the car purchase, she’d like to have a cold Coca-Cola from a soda fountain.

Clad in his Army flight surgeon’s uniform, Doc, with Margaret in tow, stopped in at City Pharmacy, which was then located in the old downtown hotel building, more recently occupied by Badcock Furniture. The pharmacy was owned and operated by Dr. Clark Spratlin.

Noticing the medical insignia on Doc’s uniform, the pharmacist asked Doc if he’d consider practicing medicine here since the only two doctors in Lincolnton were approaching retirement.

“We said, ‘Yes,’” Doc stated, “but we only intended to stay about a year.”

Thank goodness that one year stretched into approximately 60 years. And Margaret’s wanting a soft drink is most fitting. How many times did others and I enjoy a Coke at Dr. Pennington’s City Pharmacy fountain.

Dr. Pennington was a remarkable man. He was a pilot famous for some of his flying exploits. I heard that he even flew beneath a bridge once to prove to a male patient he could “make water” after all. I never knew if the story was true but it made for a great tale.

Doc was a ham radio operator as well. He once had me come to his house so I could talk to the woman up in West Virginia that in time would be the mother of my girls, Beth and Becky, over his amateur radio station. And then Beth herself was born in his home clinic, fittingly completing the circle.

It was such a loss for the county and medicine itself when Doc passed away June 27, 2007. If you’re like me, you can’t drive by his old clinic or house without calling up memories of how he got you back up to speed. I see him even now with his dark military haircut and then years later with his more relaxed silver hair. I can hear his wonderful laugh too.

You come across some people in this life who set the bar high and few others ever measure up to that standard. Penny Doc, that boy from Matthews, Georgia, who ended up in Lincolnton grew up to be just such a man. He came looking for a car but found and gave back so much more.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground. He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine. Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.” Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.<br /> Visit my website at <a href="http://www.tompoland.net">www.tompoland.net</a><br /> Email me at <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected]</a></p> Visit his website at www.tompoland.net Email him at [email protected]