By SCOTT GRABER
It’s Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, and Susan and I are at the Graduate Hotel in Richmond, Va. Tomorrow morning we will rise, breakfast on bagels, then drive 50 miles to King George, Va., where Gail Wertz and Andy Ball own and operate two farms.
They raise Black Angus cattle on these two farms and live in a historic house that overlooks the Rappahannock River. We’ve been to their place once before.
Many years ago, I was employed at Baylor Medical School in Houston. My father was trying to get me interested in medicine and arranged for me to work in a lab where I removed spleens from living mice. I would irradiate one-half of the spleen, and that half would soon die — the object was to see how much spleen I could kill before the spleen lost its regenerative ability.
There were other undergraduates working at Baylor in the summer of 1965, and one of those people was Gail. She was a Biology major at William and Mary and she had some actual understanding of RNA and DNA and what we might learn from this experiment. She often helped me with my “surgery,” usually we ate our lunch together and I was astounded that this young coed found me interesting on any level.
As we worked, blood-speckled in our lab coats, the Baylor medical students would show up pretending they wanted to help — but the only thing they wanted was Gail’s telephone number. This onslaught of male medical students started at 10 in the morning and continued until 5 in the evening.
In between these unannounced arrivals, we would talk about which of these men was interesting, who deserved a date and who did not deserve a second look. When she “accepted” an invitation, I was often part of the deal. Not an ideal situation for the medical student, but Gail would usually insist.
It was a spectacular summer that involved road trips to the Gulf, Houston’s Alley Theatre and drinking Lone Star Beer in a variety cowboy-themed venues. I cannot deny that I was smitten, but I knew that she looked upon me as a friend — a good friend — and if those were the terms of our relationship, well, I was willing to accept those terms.
At the end of the summer she returned to William and Mary and I went back to The Citadel. Notwithstanding a distance of 500 miles, our friendship continued, and in a rash moment I put her photograph on my desk. Thirty seconds later a cadet walked into my room, stopped in his tracks, and said, “She cannot be your girlfriend.”
“No,” I replied. “I mean yes. Yes, we’re friends …”
“You must be kidding, Graber, nobody is just ‘friends’ with a face like that.”
At that moment I was a junior, and cadet in question was a senior holding rank and sway in India Company.
“I think we should bring her down for the Miss Citadel contest,” he said.
“I’m not sure she will be interested,” I countered.
“Let’s give her a reason to be interested.”
As I have repeatedly written (in these pages), I was not much of a cadet; nor an athlete; nor did I have (for most of my time) any rank. But when Gail decided to be I Company’s representative in the pageant my stock rose like an Atlas missile.
Although Gail did not win the title, every cadet in India fell in love with her. And I’m sure that this connection with Gail was a big factor in the rebuilding of my self-esteem; and the acquisition of some much-needed status.
Eventually I lost touch with Gail. I knew she got her doctorate in molecular biology but didn’t know she enjoyed 36 years of continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health, winning the prestigious MERIT award. Nor did I know that her laboratory developed the methodology for genetically engineering RNA-based viruses — work that was the basis for the successful Ebola vaccine.
Several years ago I got an e-mail which read, “Once, long ago, I knew a boy at Baylor, in Houston, Texas. He answered to the name of Scott Graber. Would that be you?”
“I am an old man, and regrettably my memory has faded these last few years,” I said in reply, “I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember a ‘Dr. Gail Wertz.’ … I do, however, remember a dark-eyed, dark-haired goddess who once taught me everything about small animal splenectomy. Would that be you?”
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.