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Harry's Gang: Doc was a character

I heard Ricard Puumala passed away last week. The funeral is tomorrow and I'm planning to go, out of deep respect for my old friend.

Doc Puumala seemed old when I met him, back in 1999 when I first got to town. He was 30 years older than me. He was filling up his truck at the same time I was getting gas, and he struck up a conversation that seemed, to me, a bit odd. He was insinuating he carried dead bodies around in his truck. Well, he didn't actually insinuate it, he outright said he needed his truck to haul dead bodies. I was bemused by this tiny old man, but, after he left, I found out he was the county coroner and was telling me the truth.

I soon discovered that conversations with Doc Puumala were often a bit odd but always fun and fascinating.

Soon after that first meeting, I went to his clinic for a physical. It was our first professional meeting, and he mentioned that he watched "Harry's Gang" on cable access TV. The exam lasted three hours, during which we discussed a whole lot more than medicine, and during which my wife was driving around town frantically, waiting for my call to pick me up. She assumed it was taking so long because they must have found something seriously wrong with me. Instead, Doc Puumala was telling me hunting stories and giving me a history of the town I had just adopted as my own. He gave me a clean bill, but advised me to cut down on the alcohol and get more exercise.

Boundaries seemed a foreign term for him, existing only to limit his curiosity and fun. I've heard stories, but my own experience was peculiar enough. He called once, told me to check my freezer, and hung up. I did, and there was a box of ice cream sandwiches that I did not buy. I assume he stopped by the house unannounced to share some ice cream. Finding no one was home, he tried the door, found it open, and put the ice cream in my freezer. I asked him about it. He would neither confirm nor deny. He just gave me that grin.

I had him as a guest on "Harry's Gang" many times, talking about various issues like the hospital expansion in 2004, and for several episodes where we talked about his favorite issue: health care directives. He's the one who told me that directives, also called living wills, were really just a heartfelt letter to your spouse or family, so they would know what you wanted when the time came. "Tell your clients ... we don't read those things. We walk out into the hallway and say, 'Who's the health care agent? What do you want us to do?'' he said many times. "It's helpful if the agent knows exactly what their spouse wants done." I still give my clients that advice.

Doc Puumala was a little intimidating. Obviously far more brilliant than I was, he was funnier, too, which was hard for me to handle. He didn't seem to notice. I never knew when I'd expect a call from him, but once I answered the phone I immediately knew who it was. "Puumala here. Just called to BS," he'd say, except he said the word in full, whispering it as if he didn't want his third-grade teacher to hear him swear. You could hear his grin on the other end of the phone, and the call wasn't over until he decided it was over.

I went to visit him at Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton quite a few times, but soon he didn't even recognize me and the visits became less frequent. But I stopped by his room last fall, when I was touring the nursing home. He was in a wheelchair, and I introduced myself. He was obviously confused. I finally said, "I'm Pete. I used to make you laugh." He lifted his head slightly and gave me that mischievous Doc Puumala grin. For a second, I think he remembered.

I won't soon forget Doc Puumala.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry's Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].