John Schatz ’64
A guy with the word “cardiologist” before his name usually doesn’t conclude a lecture on leaky heart valves with a story about his burger-munching dog or one about red-tail hawks, complete with screeching sound effects.But as John Schatz ’64 finished his talk, “I felt like telling them about Pooch, my thirteen-year-old puppy. You could see the ‘little boy’ immediately come out in their older, learned faces.”
Schatz been telling stories and reading poems for more than twenty years, though now at more conventional venues. When not performing an angioplasty or studying an ultrasound heart exam, he might be heard telling tales at the Pacific Grove Art Center, near his home in Carmel, California.
Schatz’s storytelling evolved from his days working in New York City in the mid-1970s. “I had an academic research job, I was a father, I owned a home, and I was also getting a divorce,” he said. “I wrote in a journal. The journal became my friend; I carried it everywhere I went. Writing stories became my therapy.”
In those days he studied heart attacks at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital on the Upper West Side. “I operated on dogs’ hearts, learning how to decrease the damage to heart muscle,” he said. Schatz would wear jeans and a bandanna to work; his literary heroes became Ginsberg and Ferlingetti.
While reading Kerouac’s On the Road, Schatz decided it was his time to shamble down his own road. While Steinbeck had his poodle, Schatz traveled with a big-eared black mutt he rescued from the research operating table. “People ask me what kind of dog he is,” Schatz says in “Pooch,” one of his stories. “I tell them, ‘Jewish, like my kids.’”
Schatz and his dog hitchhiked as far as Detroit, where a couple of thugs tried to roll him. That ended his fantasy of life on the road. From Detroit, they flew United the rest of the way to Carmel, where his former wife, Susan, was living with their two daughters, Ellen and Stephanie.
The first six weeks Schatz was in California, he’d work shifts in the emergency room and sleep there at the hospital. “Nights I didn’t sleep in the hospital, I’d take a sleeping bag, go down to the beach, build a fire, and sleep out there with the dog.”
Schatz and Susan have stayed on friendly terms (she and their daughter Ellen accompanied him to his 30th Reunion). “We became the California nuclear family,” he said, recalling daughters’ birthday parties complete with kids, playmates, his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and his new girlfriend.
At one birthday party, he couldn’t help but notice that his daughter Stephanie had a crush on one of her little friends. In the poem “Seven — the Birthday Party,” Schatz writes, “How was I to know he’d kick up the air? My little girl stopped short to stare and giggle….I pulled her close and whispered in her ear: ‘Remember this feeling kid, you’ll seek it for years.’”
Over the years, Schatz’s life has reverted toward some degree of conventionality, if not conformity. Today, he’s chief of cardiology at the Natividad Medical Center in Monterey. His living quarters have also improved from those first weeks on the beach. He rents part of a house about a block from the beach in Carmel. He always includes a poem with the rent check.
Schatz recently put his poems and stories on a CD and tape calledAbe Lincoln Mimics Fred Astaire. “I’ve always admired Fred Astaire,” he said of the title. “But when I try to dance like him, I always end up looking like Abe Lincoln.” The cover of the CD shows Schatz leaping Abe-like through the air in top hat and tails. Schatz is a painter, too, and has produced a few posters combining poetry with his paintings.
Schatz has traveled East to a few Bates Reunions and was a hit as the after-dinner speaker at his cluster Thirtieth in 1993. At Reunion, the parade of classes caught his fancy, which he tells in a story called “The Reunion”:
The Fiftieth Reunion class leads the parade. In a Teddy Roosevelt stance, a senior citizen charges forth in his wheelchair, an oxygen tank strapped to the back and a gold cape draped over his shoulders. Class banners are born by class members, like Ivanhoe, Richard III, and Lancelot in a tournament of life that Fellini would have difficulty topping. A carnival air strikes this human parade in a birth-to-death spectacle. I watched this circus and retreated to the dorm room, where I was safe. I figured, if I didn’t march in that parade, I could live forever. I remember looking in the mirror at the gray hair and the beard. I tried to conjure up a few important thoughts: Given the choice to live forever alone, or to be mortal with my classmates, I have to admit that the class won out. But only on my terms. I donned a purple bathing suit and some matching running shoes by Saucony and hailed a roving golf cart. I told my driver to take me to the 20th Reunion group. I guess my classmates remembered me. They didn’t bat an eye seeing this shirtless figure approaching at full speed. One clear thinker said, “Schatz: Hold this banner.” And we were marching…in that direction.
John Schatz hasn’t stopped since.
By H. Jay Burns