5-4040


I considered lacing this ink with diethyl ether, for context. I inherited the ability but opted to spare you the experience. It has an unmatched penetrating “solventy” odor, a sweet alcoholic cocktail with notes of institutional disinfectant and dread disease. It was the most popular general anesthetic during the 19th century through the 1950’s. It is more flammable than, well, anything else. Fumes will render you unconscious and immobile in seconds. Side effects include debilitating headaches, nausea, uncontrollable salivation, cardiac arrhythmia, and maybe death. Those vapors hung about, ever-present throughout my youth.

Organic solvents are only part of this story. It is more about the man that wielded them, Gilbert Jay Srb. There are about 160 people with the Srb surname in the USA, 80 in the Czech Republic and 40 in Austria. There are a few more scattered about having no issue with disregarding vowels.

“Gil” was born five miles north of Dodge, Nebraska in 1895. Everyone on the farm was a musician. Gil was set apart by his ability to play baseball. He was scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals while playing for the semi-pro Hastings All-Stars. Three Srb brothers attended Creighton University, Gilbert Jay M.D. bass horn, piano and accordion; Joseph M.D. trombone; and Adolf, M.D. trumpet and baton. Brother Jerome received a Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Nebraska and later became a Professor there. Jerome was accomplished on the violin and baritone horn. The brothers perpetuated the tradition of having a Czech Orchestra play at funerals. The Srb Orchestra was revered in the Corn Belt. Omaha to North Platte, Sioux City to Rolla; the mid-west Czech colonies would compete for their presence. Twelve of their Czech arrangements were memorialized in vinyl during the 1970s, a posthumous homage. I have the cassette edition.

Gil married Esther Simonson, whose parents emigrated from Odense, Denmark and homesteaded near Hampton. Esther attended Dana College and The Lord Lister Hospital in Omaha for her R.N. They tended to the health of the rural Nebraska community for 50 years. It is rumored that Gil delivered more Nebraska babies than anyone else, ever.

Their practice remained in Dodge, on Main Street. A shotgun store front; waiting room, examination, and the dark room, locked and full of sera, sulfa, salves and silver nitrate. The door with an obscured glass pane proclaiming PRIVATE separated the residence from the practice. One had to wade past the ailing citizens in the waiting room, through a cloud of ether, most frequently immobilizing a hapless farmer requiring sutures, to get to the living area. A parlor, bedrooms and at the very back, a kitchen with the ceaselessly boiling pot of ground glass syringes.

Here, Gilbert, Esther, son Rodney Lee, nicknamed Knute to his family, Mogen to his closest buddies, and their daughter Janet made their home. Knute was killed in action in Korea, 1951. I was born to Janet a year later and everyone in town, to this day, calls me Knute or Tommy Srb, neither of which is my name. Gil and Esther liked to travel. Road trips to Los Angeles to visit Esther’s siblings and touring up and down the Pacific Coast Highway were a favorite.

When families were strapped, Gil and Esther accepted farm products in lieu of cash, for medical services, but only if offered. As the string of townships bristled over Catholics marrying Lutherans, Germans marrying anyone, bankers abusing the needy, the weather abusing the farmers, Gil elevated himself and family above it all, a selfless commitment to serving his neighbors.

The Office was open every day but Thursday. Thursday; rounds at Omaha hospitals, a haircut or a quick visit to the AKSARBEN horse track. Dinner at an Omaha steakhouse was mandatory. He saw patients until midnight on Saturday. On that night farms would empty into town to do business, buy groceries, a concert and popcorn on Main Street and a dance at the Auditorium. After treatment Gil was famous for saying, “that will be a dollar if you have one” easing an already traumatic encounter. The top right hand desk drawer in the examination room held nickels reserved for any child that ventured in there. A nickel could get you a single scoop ice cream cone at Shulte’s Tavern two doors down.

Gil bought a new Chrysler Imperial or New Yorker every couple years. This seemed extravagant and Gil got a kick out of people’s reaction to the finned and chromed beasts. Gil was the only emergency medical responder for two counties. He needed speed and space to transport patients to Westpoint, Omaha, and for the most dire cases, Rochester, Minnesota. He drove fast and skillfully. The State Troopers knew him, his cars, and his license plate, 5-4040. His plate never changed but the cars did. From about age 10 until his 30’s, Joe rode with Gil when Gil gave him the high sign. Joe was strong and real smart. Most importantly, Joe was a universal blood donor; he was my Dad. Gil and Joe had some exciting adventures, but kept their stories just between themselves. There were 600 residents in Dodge, Nebraska. Eventually stories leaked out and I sopped them up.

With big cars came the big show, Gil wore suits, and white shirts and a grey felt fedora, like George Raft. He had a high polish silver H.N. White e flat bass horn, and a $6.00 blue zircon pinky ring that looked like the real deal. Gil sported a gold Rolex that he picked up in Europe while reconnecting with family. He played cards as well as he played that bass horn. No child went without a musical instrument if they needed one, and nobody suffered in any way if he could help out. Now I play his bass horn and my daughter has that ring. My brother wears Gil’s watch. There are not many people still around that remember Gilbert Jay Srb, but Gil and his diethyl ether are the reason that lot of people are around at all.