Driving around the countryside on calls during the spring and summer takes my mind back to my childhood days on the farm in Oklahoma. The smells of the vegetation bathed in a morning dew or refreshed by an afternoon shower bring a smile to my face and lowers my blood pressure nearly as much as petting my Labrador retrievers at the end of the day. I can’t help but think if more of the road warriors with whom I share the road all day long shared my joy for nature, there would surely be less honking and more smiles and friendly waves.
My recollections of Oklahoma country life bring to mind how country folk deal with their neighbors and even people they don’t know. Most farmers or ranchers wave to all people they meet on the road even if they are perfect strangers. (I always wondered how you could know someone was a perfect stranger, not just an average stranger.) Neighbors share labor and even expensive equipment to accomplish large jobs. My dad died when I was fifteen. Neighbors helped my mom and me get our crops planted that season. I still remember that help and feel an obligation to help others with their difficult jobs even today. It’s part of my roots.
For ranchers, early summer brings brandings. The new calves, born February through April, are doing well enough by that time of the year to allow for vaccinations, castration of the males, and branding. Brands are burned into the thick hide of the calves as an indelible proof of ownership. Each brand, many formed by special characters, is “owned” by a single rancher in a state and is recorded in the state’s brand office. A “branding” refers to the process of rounding up the entire herd of cattle for sorting into groups and performing all necessary procedures on each animal prior to the animals being put out to grazing pastures for the summer. Brandings usually require many more hands than normally are present on any one ranch, so neighbors routinely come together to help each other accomplish the task.
Kathi and I still do veterinary work for a few smaller ranches. The work at these ranches allows me to make an imaginary journey back to my days in the country, to be a country boy for a few days. Going to a branding for me is like a golf enthusiast playing eighteen holes of golf at Pebble Beach. The branding crews are often made up of neighbors, friends and family. There will usually be workers from age six to the late seventies, each performing a job that fits each person’s abilities; children, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas. Some bring up the cows, some perform the needed work on each animal, some keep records. And as the process goes on, the crew usually becomes proficient enough to make even Henry Ford proud of the production line. I join in just as a crew member, not a veterinarian, but rather a member of the rural community. After all, I need to pay back for the help my mom and I received. That’s the deal; it’s a lifelong commitment.
Kathi was not able to attend my favorite branding this year, so I went by myself. As the cattle were being gathered, the crew discovered a two-month-old calf that was extremely sick. The calf was placed in a pickup to be hauled to the barn, but the calf died during the short ride. A cursory exam of the calf yielded no obvious malady, and none of the rest of the calves appeared to be sick, so we decided to process the rest of the herd and then do a necropsy to establish the cause of death. The branding crew included two young girls who were seven and nine years old. These two, who were self- proclaimed future veterinarians, took it upon themselves to make sure their grandpa and I didn’t forget to solve the mystery of the dead calf. At any halt in the processing of the herd, the two future DVM’s would ask if it was time to check the dead calf. Each time our answer of “not yet” was followed by a long, heavy sigh.
During one of the short halts in the cattle work, the two girls’ grandmother related how our young clinicians came to her and said “we think the calf is still alive!” One girl thought the calf’s leg had moved and the other swore she saw the calf’s eye move. Grandmother accompanied the two out to the pickup holding this miracle calf that had reportedly risen from the dead! HALLELUJAH! The girls had collected bouquets of wildflowers and placed them on this small creature, arguably one of nature’s most beautiful animals even without the wildflower garlands. I can imagine they had been so intent studying their potential patient that in their minds the calf had moved. For their sake I wish it were so. But many years attending animals that I wished I could have convinced to breathe again, to move, had taught me to accept the end all animals must endure.
Eventually we worked the last calf and cow. Frequently an older crew member would say “Is that the last one? We should have done that one sooner.” After a whole day being bombarded by the sounds of cows and calves banging the metal chutes as they moved through, the chute area became silent; silent like it had been before we started. The pace switched gears as everything slowed down. The cows and calves were reunited in pens with hay and water and allowed to settle before being returned to pastures. Part of the crew prepared a barbeque at the ranch’s picnic pavilion. After almost continual movement for the whole day, it was now time to relax, to eat, to visit, to get updated on many long-time friends’ lives.
For me there is a special feeling of contentment that accompanies the combination of tired muscles and the accomplishment of a worthy task. And to be able to spend time eating great food while being serenaded by the special bubbling sounds of a mountain stream and visiting with a group of hard working people, many good friends, that is heaven for a farm kid from Oklahoma! But had we forgotten something? I suddenly was returned to reality by two small pleading voices: “Grandpa, we must find out what happened to the baby calf!”
Sundown was near as grandpa, two future veterinarians, and one old, tired veterinarian scurried out to a special place where a necropsy could be performed. My two future clinicians quickly became pathologists. I laid out knives, a bucket of disinfectant, and pulled on shoulder-length gloves, then regular gloves. Both my assistants likewise gloved up with my large gloves. These two little warriors created quite a sight standing in that pasture, fingers pointed toward heaven, in the waning light of a long day, half their small bodies covered with plastic gloves. I quickly made cuts into our subject, the now certain-to-all dead calf. The appearance of each new body part led to many “ooh, what’s that? Can I take that home?” After a search in every direction, I concluded there was no readily apparent cause for the calf’s death. Veterinary medicine does not always furnish an obvious answer. The further pursuit of an answer to our mystery was completely terminated as long shadows of night completely consumed our laboratory. As we cleaned up and prepared to leave, my two assistants heaped gratitude on me for allowing them to help. Little did they know I was the one honored to be able to demonstrate to them their first necropsy.
What a great day! It had been a good day in the country for an old veterinarian to visit his roots and continue to repay a debt for a kindness received at an early age. More importantly, it had been a good day for two young girls to ignite new interests in their dreams of becoming veterinarians. If those two girls do become veterinarians, I have a hunch veterinary medicine will be in good hands. And as I grow older, maybe I can still participate in brandings by keeping records. And maybe I’ll be the one to say: “Is that the last animal? We should have worked that one earlier.”