Heart Beat

UPDATED 03/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

WEARING BAGGY RED-CHECKED PANTS, FLOPPY oversize shoes and a red rubber nose, John Dodge lopes into the hospital room, takes a quick look at 4-year-old Charlie Greener, who is suffering from lymphoma, and comes up with a novel treatment: Flailing a flyswatter, Dodge pretends to annihilate a huge black rubber bug he has slipped under Charlie's bedclothes. The procedure is a success: Charlie breaks out in a grin. "This is the only thing that brings a smile to his face," says Chuck Greener, the little boy's father. "Even in the worst of times, even if he's under medication, Charlie's mood lifts even just knowing the clowns will be coming."

Given Dodge's proficiency as J.J. the Clown, it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. But he does. Whenever this 43-year-old isn't administering "kitty cat scans," "red nose transplants" and "chocolate milk transfusions" at Washington's Children's National Medical Center, he is usually wearing a uniform of a different sort—as an accident reconstructionist for the Baltimore police department's traffic investigation unit, where his job is to examine the scene at some of the city's most grisly auto wrecks.

Some might find the dual careers incongruous. But for Dodge, being a man in blue—and a man in greasepaint—is the most rewarding twin calling he can imagine. "It's my yin and yang," he says in the tight-lipped fashion of someone who has seen more tragedy than he cares to recall. "It keeps me in balance."

Most days, Dodge, who has moonlighted as an amateur puppeteer and magician for 17 years, begins his shift with Baltimore's finest at 10 p.m. and often spends the next 8 hours either interviewing crash survivors—or notifying next of kin. Over Thanksgiving, for example, he was called to an accident in which a 19-year-old drunk driver had slammed his car into a set of concrete steps, killing himself and injuring four passengers. "I see those scenes," says Dodge, "and I try to get them out of my head."

The best way to do that, he finds, is to make the 45-minute drive to D.C.'s children's hospital, which he does as often as three times a week. There, on one recent morning, 4-year-old Jorden Ford of Cheverly, Md., stricken with leukemia and wary of clowns, refused to crack a smile—at least until J.J. pulled two spongy red noses out of thin air. "Thank you," Jorden's grateful mother, Winnie, told Dodge. "You made him smile today."

Known by the hospital staff for his corn-laden humor (noisemakers, an eye chart reading "I-C-U-R-A-Q-T"), Dodge will stoop to any level for a laugh. "And the kids love it," says Stacy Murphy, a registered nurse in the hospital's hematology-oncology unit. "They stop whatever they're doing to watch. Sometimes the kids who are in isolation get out of bed to stand by the door and look through the glass."

But for all the fun and games, J.J.'s work has a serious side. Dodge performs as part of a 50-person Clown Care Unit operated in 10 East Coast hospitals by New York City's not-for-profit Big Apple Circus, which requires that all prospective clowns undergo a six-week training program. "It takes a special kind of person to put aside death and sorrow," explains his wife, Cathy, 45, a sales director for a software firm and a part-time puppeteer. "When John goes out of a room and washes his hands, he says he's mentally washing the sadness away."

Nothing in Dodge's background pointed to a career in either police work or clowning. The son of an olive-oil company manager and a part-time barmaid, Dodge joined his hometown Baltimore police force at age 22. A few years later, a fellow cop, a part-time magician, introduced him to fake noses and magic tricks. "Once I put the face on, and the wardrobe, I fell in love with it," says Dodge. "I loved the whole sense of play, and I loved the feedback."

Seven years ago, as a favor to an acquaintance, Dodge put on his clown duds and made his first hospital visit, to cheer up a 7-year-old girl with a brain tumor. "I wanted to reach out and put a smile on her face," says Dodge. "I wanted her to have a few minutes of fun." After hearing about the Clown Care Unit from a friend, he signed up last year, but not without first receiving a warning. "You're going to see some rough things," one veteran told him.

"Listen," he replied, "in my line of work, I see people before they even make it to the hospital."

Today, when not spending time with Matthew, 16, and Megan, 12, his children from a first marriage that ended in 1995, Dodge can usually be found in his basement rec room honing his magic tricks and poring over his prized possession—a collection of joke books by the likes of Henny Youngman and Milton Berle.

Still, what he loves most is being onstage, especially if it's in a hospital. "The fact that I can go into a situation and touch the soul," he says. "That's a feeling that's hard to beat."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
GLENN GARELIK in Washington

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