Sam Venable 

Department of Irony

Through a series of weird circumstances, my wife and I both visited several doctors recently. Nothing serious. Just the usual jabs, pokes, and other painful intrusions. Plus, of course, the co-pay.

Despite this discomfort, though, one thought kept running through my head: It could be worse.

I reached this conclusion after visiting with Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin. J.R. is immersed in another book about our area. He doesn’t know when it’ll be out. In fact, he doesn’t even have a working title.

“I started out to write about the 20 most interesting people I’ve met down through the years,” he told me. “After I hit 20, I decided to expand it to 50. Then 100. I’m over 200 right now and still writing.”

You’ve heard of several of these individuals. The late U.S. Senator Howard Baker and author Alex Haley immediately come to mind. But there are countless dozens of others whose only historical legacy is their name etched onto a gravestone.

One of these folks was “Uncle” Campbell Sharp.

Back in the day, Uncle (lots of old men answered to that title, regardless of bloodline) Campbell’s farm lay to the east of the Irwin place. J.R. believes he was born around the Civil War and died, in his late 80s, shortly after World War II.

“I was around him a lot when I was a boy,” Irwin recalled. “He was a kind, gentle man by disposition. But physically? Whew! He was tough. Very tough.”

How tough? Hold onto your hemostat.

This guy underwent the same surgery three times.

On his kitchen table.

Without anesthesia.

“Many times I heard my grandfather tell about those operations,” J.R. said. “And I saw the scars on Uncle Campbell’s side and back myself.”

According to local lore, Uncle Campbell had been injured in a fall from his barn. He landed on his back, hitting a stump—“and it set up some sort of infection,” said J.R.

“A doctor looked at the wound and said he needed to be taken to Knoxville immediately for an operation. Uncle Campbell wouldn’t hear of it. He said if somebody would show him where to cut, he’d just do it himself.”

I was visibly wincing as J.R. continued: “Uncle Campbell got four strong men to hold him down on the table and told the doctor to cut. Later, another infection appeared. So he got the same four men to hold him down again for another operation.”

Don’t relax yet.

“The wound got infected all over again, but by that time the wheat harvest was on and Uncle Campbell didn’t want to bother the men. He got up on that same kitchen table, wrapped his arms around the legs, and let the doctor cut a third time.

“That one did the trick. He healed, kept farming, raised a big family and lived to a ripe old age.”

Now, then – what was it you were saying about the “good ol’ days” of medicine?

Sam Venable is an author, entertainer and columnist for the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. He may be reached at .