Dr. Bobby’s house was just across the lawn from the clinic. During the winter months when the soil was soft and the grass was dormant you could make out a narrow foot path carved lightly in the earth by countless footsteps coming and going that gently curved from the side entrance of the lobby to the wooden screen door on his back porch. It made sense in 1963 when the majority of your patients were plow mules and dairy cows to keep the small animal facility simple and close to home. After a long day driving from farm to farm, it was much easier and more convenient to walk across the yard after supper to attend to dogs that needed to be treated or to have surgery. Thirty five years later, we appreciated the proximity for a different reason. Dr. Bobby’s wife, Ms. Jo, was an accomplished southern cook and when lunch time rolled around we could smell the distinctive odor of foods like fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, cornbread or black-eyed peas from half-way across the yard. Her cooking was such a treat that, whenever possible, we arranged our farm calls to make it convenient for us to stop by Ms. Jo’s kitchen around midday to enjoy a hot, home cooked meal.
By the luck of the draw on New Year’s Day that year I happened to be the doctor on call for emergencies. After tending to a few farm calls that morning, I stopped by the clinic to re-stock the truck. It was close enough to lunch time that I was able to join the group around the table in Ms. Jo’s kitchen to enjoy some collard greens, ham and black-eyed peas with the Durham clan. The meal was delicious as always, and the conversation was light and amicable. Topics ranged from local and national politics to agriculture, to hunting and fishing and veterinary medicine. No one’s flaws, failures or idiosyncrasies were exempt from becoming the subject of gentle ridicule which meant that our meal was frequently interrupted by outbursts of laughter. And, although no one would ever admit it, I think it was generally accepted that literary license was allowed when re-telling stories that had been told for generations to help the plot unfold neatly and preserve the proper timing for revealing critical information.
Since the clinic was officially closed for the holiday there was no hurry to get up from the dining room table when we were finished. Everyone stayed put well after the table had been cleared enjoying the heavy sensation of having a belly full of great home cooking. Being the only vet on call, I was the first to get up and excuse myself from the table. I had some patients in the clinic that I needed to check on. I thanked Ms. Jo and complimented her once more on her handy work as I eased out from under the table and made my way outside. Despite being January 1st, I remember that it was very comfortable outside that day. The breeze was gentle and crisp, the pale blue winter sky didn’t hold a single cloud and I squinted at the bright sun in the southern sky that bathed the path in warm, pale yellow light. My eyes gradually adjusted. As I made my way across the side yard from Dr. Bobby’s house to the clinic, I saw a beat up, rusty old pickup truck heading slowly up the driveway to the parking lot. I stood by my truck and waited to see what this person might need. The driver was an elderly man who had recently retired from his small dairy farm outside of town. I saw the familiar logo on his feed mill cap and the ancient, rust colored sweat stain around the base of the crown as he passed by. He parked a few spaces over from where my truck was parked and his door squeaked loudly as he opened it to get out. It took him a few seconds to unfold himself from a sitting position. Once on his feet he still stooped a little, and he shuffled a bit when he walked. He was dressed in work clothes that had seen more than their share of long work days, and he used a cane to help himself along. I moved in his direction a few steps and smiled as he looked up at me.
“What can I help you with today?” I asked.
With a worried look on his face he answered, “Lawd, I believe I’ve got a mess on my hands.” He spoke with a thick Georgia accent that can only be cultivated by a lifetime of immersion in southern culture. “You see. “ He started again. ”I got this pup the other day. He was mighty small, and this mornin’ I set out to carry him over to my grandbaby’s house so’s they could play with him for a bit.” He paused. “I set him down in the back of the truck, but he was jumping up on the sides like he wanted to get out. I ‘spect he weren’t big enough to get out, but I didn’t want to take no chance. I ain’t got a box, but I got this old spare tire…”
I’ve always been amazed at how ingenious and resourceful old farmers and farm hands can be when they are faced with an unusual problem. The solution usually depends largely on what materials happen to be on hand because cost and time commitment are the key determinants in the decision making process. For example, you might have a barbed wire fence that is getting stretched out from the cows pushing against it to get to the grass on the other side. One of your recently weaned heifers – who is much smaller than the adult cows – figures out quickly that if she really wants the tall grass on the other side of the fence all she has to do is put her head under the top strand of wire and push the sagging strands of wire apart until she is able to step over the lower wires and graze the road sides or the hayfield – whatever is on the other side of the fence. Now, you might think the rational solution would be to fix the fence, but that would be too obvious. Fence mending takes time and money, two commodities that can be in short supply on a small dairy farm. So, you ask, how might a resourceful farmer solve this conundrum in a timely fashion? One way, which I have witnessed personally more than once, is to utilize two cheap and readily available materials on any farm – sticks and baling twine. First, you cut two saplings about 3 feet long, then tie the sticks together at one end with baling twine. Then separate the sticks and slide them down over the calf’s neck from above with one stick on the right and one stick on the left until half the length of the stick was above the neck and half was below. Then, squeeze the two ends below the neck together and tie them with baling twine. Now what you have is this contraption that looks like skinny yoke except that it is vertical instead of horizontal. A calf’s neck is wide from top to bottom and skinny from side to side. That keeps the sticks from spinning around. The head is too wide for the sticks to slide off frontwards and the shoulders are too wide to allow it to slide backwards. Hence, now whenever this calf tries to push out between the sagging fence wires the sticks will catch the top and the bottom wire and keep her from being able to slip through! See, problem solved!
As my farmer friend’s story began to unfold, I suspected that he may have utilized this method of containing his calves before himself. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about this old spare tire…
“So, I throwed this old spare tire up in the bed of the truck.” He started again, “and I turned it so’s the outside was facing up.”
If you happen not to be a mechanic, I should explain here that old steel truck rims are designed to center the width of the tire over the brake drum on the end of the axle. Consequently, there is a cavity on the side of the rim that normally faces to the inside of the vehicle to accommodate the brake assembly. Thus, with the tire lying flat and the side the of the rim that is normally on the outside of the vehicle facing up, there is space under the rim maybe 7 inches tall and 14 inches in diameter.
My farmer friend continued, “I knowed that pup weren’t strong enough to budge that tire, so’s I lifted up one side and slid that rascal up under there. I figured we was good, and I headed on down the road to my grandbaby’s house. When I got there though, the pup had done got stuck!”
I walked over and looked in the bed of the truck. I tried to contain my laughter. Sitting in the middle of the truck bed was an old spare tire with a little brown and black lop-eared puppy head poking up through the hole in the middle of the rim just looking around at the world. My farmer friend had not considered that the hole in the middle of the rim for the bearing cap might be just the wrong size for a 6 week old puppy. The fur on the puppies head looked funny from a distance so climbed up in the bed for a closer look. It was matted and damp and smelled like fried fish. There were also some small suds I could see in his ear. I smiled and asked the farmer what the pup had gotten into.
He shook his head as he started to talk. “Well…I didn’t know what to do. I tried to pull him out, but he wouldn’t budge. He got to squealing and crying so’s I quit. I figured if I slicked him up real good he might come out easier. So, I got a half-cup of oil out of the fry-daddy. It weren’t hot. And, I poured it all over his head real good. But, he still wouldn’t budge. Then, I thought to myself, maybe soap would be slicker than oil. So, I poured some dish soap over his head and worked it in real good, but he still wouldn’t budge.”
The whole time the farmer was talking, the pup was just looking around, not making a sound as if he had just resigned himself to the fact that he was stuck. Meanwhile, I’m trying desperately to conceal the silly grin on my face as I listen to him tell this story.
He continued. “After that I got real scared that I was gonna have to cut that rim somehow. But, I couldn’t think of anyway to do it without hurtin’ the pup. Then, I thought, maybe a vet could give him a shot to make relax so he wouldn’t fight none so’s I brought him here.”
The pup looked like a little shepherd mix. He had a long tapered muzzle, narrow head and half-lop ears. I could tell by his reaction to me as I assessed the situation that he was a good natured little guy. I stuck my finger between his neck and the wheel that encircled it. It was snug but there was a little bit of room. I propped one side of the tire up on the wheel well so I could get my arms underneath and feel from the underside. Sure enough, if I just pulled on the puppy’s body his neck skin bunched up behind his head at the opening and prevented any further progress. However, I was convinced that if his head would go through in one direction it should certainly be able to go back through the other direction. With one hand on each side of his neck I walked my fingers up to the back of his head. I gently pinched a fold of skin and pulled it through the opening in the wheel. I did the same thing on the other side of his neck gradually working as much skin as possible through the opening. With a few alternating tugs I managed to inch most of his neck skin back through the opening in the wheel. The ears were next. Gently I pinched the skin on the back of the ear where it attaches to the head and with some difficulty I slowly pulled the ear cartilage back through the opening. I repeated the process on the opposite side. Once the ears were through, the rest of the head came out easily. I lifted the puppy out from under the wheel and handed him back to the farmer.
“We I’ll be!” He exclaimed, smiling from ear to ear. “I thought for sure you was gonna have to knock that rascal out. Much obliged.”
He tucked the pup under his arm.
“Maybe it would be best to let him ride up front on the way back home.” I suggested with a smile.
“Oh, you better believe it! He gonna be right beside me all the way home!” Reaching into the front pocket of his overalls he asked, “What’d I owe you?”
“It’s on me this time.” I replied. “On the condition that you bring him by the office next week so we can start his immunizations. Let’s get him started off on the right foot.”
“Oh, I will! We was planning on that anyway!” He replied, “I am grateful for what you done. I can’t wait to tell my grand babies!”
As I watched him drive away, I smiled and shook my head. There were many days when it was too hot or too cold or too wet to be comfortable outside working on cows and horses. And, there were plenty of days inside the clinic when all the dogs wanted to bite, all cats wanted to scratch and all the clients wanted to argue. But, in that moment I was feeling very thankful for all the little happy adventures I was blessed to be a part of in doing what I do.