Friday, October 3, 1997
Magic river keeps Doc in East End

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Doc Shelton operates from a picnic table by a playfield.

shelton
Doc Shelton
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
"Welcome to my office," he said, spreading his bony arms under the shade of an ancient sycamore tree.

"The doctor is in."

His specialty is telling stories. His tales are set in the East End. They're about floods chasing his family away and the river calling him back. They're about yesterday and today. They're stories of a life.

"The '37 flood got in our basement when we lived on a hillside and had five families staying in our house. So, we left the East End for two years.

"We thought we had enough floods. But we had to come back. It's like drinking from the proverbial sacred pool. One sip and you have to go back for more.

"I love to fish on the river. You might not get a bite all day. But you can meditate for hours. In your mind, you are 100 miles away from your worries."

Doc Shelton is not famous. Or well-schooled. He has an eighth-grade education.

Few outside the East End know Doc. Fewer still know his first name.

"It's Corbin. I was named after the mailman. I was delivered first class."

Corbin "Doc" Shelton is a character, the kind of person many folks give a wide berth when he approaches them on the sidewalk. Colorful, eccentric, maybe a little odd, he's liable to offend those of us more comfortable with homogenized culture.

But what we miss, passing by a man like Doc, are the stories, windows on other worlds, other times, other peoples' lives. And Doc doesn't need much. Just an audience.

"I come out here every afternoon," he said. "From this picnic table, I can see all the different sights and sounds in the world." A traffic copter buzzes overhead. A distant train sounds its lonesome whistle.

Doc breathes in the sound. "Train's going west," he declares. Pulling on his beard, he turns toward a nearby baseball diamond. "I played many'a ball game on that old field."

He tells of a long-ago game. The other grade school's team was old. Real old. "They had so many dag-gone ringers on it they had gray in their beards."

Behind him, the fading sun of anearly fall afternoon turns the Ohio River into a silver streak.

Before him, the traffic rushes along Eastern Avenue, the street Doc has walked as a man and boy for 60 of his 76 years.

On this day, Doc is not alone with his memories. His picnic table is surrounded by squealing young girls at soccer practice.

"You can tell they're not from the neighborhood," he says. To him, the dead giveaway is not their clean, new uniforms. Or the nice cars their parents drive.

"Listen to their names," Doc says. The soccer coach is calling the roll:

"Kendra"

"Amber"

"Cassandra"

"Buffy."

"Those are wealthy names," Doc says. "They're all right. But just once I'd like to see a girl named Rebecca and hear someone out here call her Becky."

During time-outs, the girls sneak peeks at the old man with the long white hair and still longer white beard.

A few players point at his sweat-stained cowboy hat, the one with the rolled brim that holds its crease out of habit and sheer cussedness.

Across the table, a soccer mom tries her best to ignore Doc. She pretends not to hear him when he tells a joke about a bickering couple and a traffic cop. She purses her lips, keeps her cell phone at the ready and holds her car keys in the quick getaway position.

Doc understands.

"I know I'm weird," he says.

"I have three strikes against me. I have this long beard. I wear this cowboy hat. And I live here - in the East End."

He grew up in the red-brick building across the street from the picnic table by the playfield. Doc lives in two rooms on the second floor he once shared with his mother, father and sister.

He sleeps in what used to be his mother's dining room. He eats in the kitchen where she fixed the dinners he carried down the steps and into the street for his father.

"My dad was a motorman on a streetcar. He'd come by at night and I'd be waiting with his meal, a pork chop, potatoes and vegetables from the oven. And, a scalding hot thermos of coffee."

The streetcar would glide to a stop and Doc would hop on. He'd ride, sitting next to his father, to the end of the line.

Then he'd smell the hot coffee as it tumbled into his father's cup. He'd savor the aroma of the pork chop. And feel the touch of the man's hand on his back.

"On the way home I'd sit on the brake wheel."

He admits it wasn't much of a trip. They didn't go around the world or stay a week at Disneyland.

"But by the time I got home I felt like I was sitting on top of the world."

From time to time, Doc interrupts his story to steal a glance at the soccer players. His blue eyes are startling in their softness considering what they've seen.

"I've had three strokes and two heart attacks. Been married and divorced four times. Marriage is a death wish. But I'm going to keep doing it 'til I get it right."

He goes back to recounting his life by the numbers.

"I had one cerebral hemorrhage - when I was 50. I drove home from work and kept passing out. When I came to, I had been operated on and could only remember three things, my name, my phone number and my Social Security number."

He had to learn how to read again. So, he went to the library and "read all the books I never read in school." Westerns by Zane Grey. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Doc had one more ailment on his list. He holds up his right arm. "I broke this bum arm in two places. The doctor never put it in a cast. My folks couldn't afford it, I guess. It was the Depression.

"Then, during the '37 flood, I got a cut on the arm. Dirty flood water got into it as I helped evacuate a family from their flooded house. That left the arm partly paralyzed. A doctor told me it would just be something to put in a coat sleeve."

That didn't keep Doc from working. His lined and weathered face tells of a lifetime spent working outdoors.

Doc confirms that with more numbers: six years on a farm, eight years on an oil barge, 21 years driving bulldozers.

"Let me tell one more story before you go," Doc says.

The soccer girls are long gone. They've been replaced by neighborhood boys playing a ragged game of football.

"Watch out for that blond kid," Doc whispers. "He has sticky fingers. He'll lose your wallet for you."

The football game moves down field.

Doc readies himself for the walk back home. Grabbing his cane, he slowly gets to his feet.

"I've enjoyed my life," he says.

"I've made some mistakes. And there are some things I'd rather have done differently. But if I had to live my life over again, I doubt if I'd have sense enough to change."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

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