Turn Right At….What?

By: Dr. Arn Anderson, DVM

North Texas has never been known for fog. Maine is known for fog but lately Texas is not known for rain much less any kind of airborne mist. That December morning we had fog as thick as gravy on chicken fried steak. The radio said we had minimal visibility and urged everyone to stay home if they could. We were supposed to be two counties away palpating heifers. This was a new client and a place we had never been. With printed directions in hand my technician and I headed down the county road; onward through the fog.

For the first thirty minutes we did pretty well until we crossed into territory where we had never been. But fog has a way to disorient, and common landmarks never appear and distances become lost in the haze. I asked the tech to read the directions the receptionist had taken from the new client’s phone dictation. She listed off the county road numbers, the right and left turns, the rail road tracks and even the big new convenience store. So far so good, even in the haze we had navigated fairly well and made the turn onto the farm-to-market road leading to the ranch. That’s when she read the last line; “When you see Jesus turn right”.

There was a short silence followed by my request for her to repeat the final crucial direction. I had heard her the first time but, like that spelling bee contestant asking for a word to be used in a sentence, I was trying to buy time for the direction to soak through the fog into my brain.

All rural veterinarians have buckets of stories about trying to follow directions to clients’ places. I’ve been told to turn at the big rock, the big tree and even the big bull. This works until the rock is bulldozed, the tree dies or the bull moves. I’ve been told to go to the cattle guard next to Joe’s gate, the pink house or the place where the clients’ parents lived. Again, Joe died in the 1930’s, I’m color blind and pink, well it’s not pink, and I’ve never known their parents.I even had one colleague that was instructed to come to the ranch to pull a calf by following the fire trucks. The client’s barn was on fire and he felt chasing the trucks would be the best way to find the cow.

Over the years we have learned the distance is arbitrary (a mile may actually be 3 miles), rural mail boxes usually do not have numbers on the side, and most people really don’t know left from right much less north from south. To make matters worse, in our county, roads can have three names; the state numerical designation, the new 911 name, and lastly what everyone really calls the road. Anyone that says the cow will be by the road has never thought that the cow can and usually does get up and move right after they call the vet. Clients are not confused, they simply know how to get home and rarely have to tell anyone how to get to their place over the phone.

I have tried a GPS with the sweet voice that tells you when to turn and how far to drive. After explaining to the Fort Worth police officer that the voice on my GPS had instructed me to nearly drive through the wall of the downtown bus terminal I have since resigned to the fact that I am not wired to be yelling at a talking machine and driving at the same time. Thus over the last twenty years my clinic has developed a unique shorthand of “L”s and “R”s, road numbers and geologic landmarks to successfully (most of the time) navigate through the back roads of Montague County.

That’s what made this set of directions odd. There it was “turn right at Jesus and go to the end of the road”. We were out of cell phone service, driving through the fog looking for Jesus. The more we drove the less we spoke. The fog played tricks with our minds and both of us were becoming worried in what form we would see Jesus. In Texas there are many euphemisms for dying. You can kick the bucket, pass over, buy the farm, go to your celestial home, croak, go to the other side and yes, for the faithful, go see Jesus. In the quiet fog we began to see things, shapes and movement; both of us imagining the worst scene from every horror movie ever made. What did the client mean by ‘see Jesus’? What did he mean by turn right? I wanted to meet a new client and palpate cows but not enough to see the bright light.

Out of desperation and in an unreasonable fear I took the next right and drove, looking for any house with a land line phone. We were soon rescued by a cowboy stepping over a cattle guard out of the fog waving at us. Even the blind hog will find the acorn, and we had turned right and driven up on the ranch. Trying to act relaxed and assured neither the tech nor I mentioned our directional apprehension. We checked the heifers and prepared to leave. I could not resist any longer and quietly asked about the cryptic directions. The owner said seriously everyone around his county knows about the giant statue right before his turn. No way could we have missed it right there on the corner. As we drove back to the county road I noticed the fog was starting to lift and the sun was coming through. As we rolled to a stop at the intersection there to my left, ascending through the fog, was a 30 foot concrete statue of Jesus with up raised arms complete with angels and a halo. The owner had given very precise directions. We simply missed the cue due to the fog.

Communication is essential to business, relationships and life in general. I think I am speaking clearly but my wife will testify that I mumble. She promises she told me something and I swear I never heard a thing. Our biggest problem with medical directives and instructions is simple clarity of communication. Clients hear what they want to hear and the rest is lost in the fog. As you work with your veterinarian on herd health take the time to have the directions, plan or recommendations put in writing. Read these recommendations and make sure you have your questions answered. The biggest mistakes I have encountered involved directions being misunderstood or not followed at all.

As we passed the big statue and started driving home I noticed a smaller concrete sculpture of Marilyn Monroe on the other side of the drive way. It was the iconic image of her with her skirt blowing up in New York. When I got back to the clinic I changed the directions in the computer to read “go ‘til you see Marilyn’s skirt, then turn right”. I figure if the next vet’s mind wanders the statue of Jesus will straighten him back out.

Pasture Lingerie

By: Arn Anderson, DVM

Tye was tight. He based his life on the old adage “waste not want not”, and he carried it to the extreme.

As a sworn bachelor, Tye never fell for the trap of current trends or popular opinion. His fences were really just continued patches of old wire. His farm shop resembled a warehouse of cast off, salvaged, repurposed and recycled hardware, farm equipment and building supplies. He had buckets of bent nails, piles of rusty hinges, boxes of old bottles and reclaimed wood screws. Tye made a religion of not buying anything new, and anything free (needed or not) was gathered onto the back of his flatbed farm truck and soon found a home in Tye’s farm shop. He truly lived the proverb “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”.

The hot dry summer had brought the flies and dried what native grass was left into long brittle stems. I had convinced Tye not to throw salt into the eyes of his yearlings and to let us come take a look at what his problem might be. It sounded like pinkeye, with cloudy eyes and blind cattle. Tye might be cheap but every now and then he accepted advice if he thought you may have a good idea. We found the yearlings penned behind the shop and Tye waiting at the head catch.

The pen and alleyway were constructed of WWII-era metal sheets used in the South Pacific to make runways for war planes. The chute itself actually looked like Tye had taken Johnny Cash’s advice, but instead of a Cadillac he built a squeeze and head gate one piece at a time from every known chute manufacturer. Random parts were welded, bolted and wired together to make a functional, albeit strange and multicolored, piece of equipment.

The cattle seemed to know their way through the maze and after examining a few draining, cloudy eyes we concluded our phone diagnosis of pinkeye was pretty good. I explained the use of antibiotics (not salt), the need for fly control, brush control and early recognition and treatment. We talked about vaccination, varieties of pinkeye, and prognosis. Just in passing our vet student extern mentioned that some people recommended putting a patch over the affected eye. This was meant to keep the sunlight out and reduce pain. The vet student and I climbed back into the truck and I told Tye to call back if things did not improve. I honestly never thought about the visit again until I drove by Tye’s place a week later accompanied by a couple more vet students.

As we rolled out on another farm call I made the curve and started to go by Tye’s front gate. I slowed to a stop. I had to look twice at the calf standing by the cattle guard Tye had built from reclaimed railroad iron. Chewing on a clump of dried bluestem was a baldy heifer with one eye covered with what, in all my copious experience, appeared as one half of a DD bra. It was like looking at an accident. I could not stop staring. I knew I needed to go but I couldn’t resist and I pulled the truck over the rails and up close to the heifer. No joke – she had half a bra, a big blue bra, glued over her right eye. Tye had taken the time to put the part with the wire on the top and he had cut off the straps.

The heifer trotted off to the rest of the group. Then we saw it. Like a bad underwear commercial, several of Tye’s heifers were modeling various styles, colors and configurations of bras. There was the other half of the DD, half an athletic bra, part of a leopard garment and the right half of a black lacy number. The calves were happy and grazing, each modeling their variety of ladies unspeakables. Even bent over the steering wheel and with all the laughter in the cab, I could hear Tye’s old truck rumbling up the gravel road. The students tried to erase their smiles and I jumped from the driver’s door to meet Tye and give them time to compose themselves.

Tye was ecstatic. He explained that while shopping for work clothes at the mission thrift store in town he had noticed the bras and remembered what the student had said. Well he thought about it and bought a bunch at the great price of four for a dollar.

Now, he had never bought a bra before but that sounded like a good price and the lady at the cash register had assured him he was getting a deal. He then used the tubes of glue he salvaged from the sale barn trash can, and what do you know? He had instant pinkeye patches. He explained in a serious tone that the wire reinforced ones worked the best and he could identify the calves by the color and style of their patch. Well I bowed out from the conversation with an explanation that I needed to go on a call. I made a circle through the bovine lingerie section and headed for the highway with both students on the floor roaring with laughter.

Pinkeye is a bacterial infection that can be spread through a number of vectors from flies to tall grass or hay. The proper name is contagious bovine keratoconjunctivitis, and a large amount of pinkeye is caused by a bacteria called Morexella Bovis. That said, it is important to remember that pinkeye is not all caused by the same bacteria. Vaccination can be effective if the timing is right and the environment and vectors are controlled. Early recognition and treatment will help lessen the severity. Most animals recover with little lasting damage but weight loss, market value and even the ability to gain later in life are all negatively affected by this disease. Other diseases can and will cause eye lesions. Visit with your veterinarian to confirm your diagnosis and establish a treatment and control plan.

Tye’s heifers all improved. We now warn all vet student externs to watch what they recommend. There was a rumor started by the ladies at the thrift store but I did my best to put that fire out. I will admit it was tough to try and explain why an old bachelor bought twenty bras in a single day.

The Night the Legos Led to Laughter

We were cleaning out the attic and came across the Lego box. The toy had seen heavy use; the cardboard box was crumpled, torn and stained. It wasn’t completely full and some of the pieces bore teeth marks, crayon stains and even evidence of having been burnt with a magnifying glass. My wife and I were trying to determine what to throw out, what to give to our adult kids, and what to simply haul to the barn to be gone through at a future date. One parent’s trash is another’s fondest memory. The Legos initiated a flashback of Christmases past.

My first Christmas out of vet school I lived in a rented farm house with a six year-old daughter, a four year-old son
and my seven-month-pregnant beautiful young wife. My hours as a new graduate were fair, yet as the new kid on the
block I was on call Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The kids had been practicing for a month for their roles in the Christmas play at church. My daughter was a bearded wise man and my son would play a cow. Neither one grew up to be in theater, so this story is not about dashing their hopes or revealing their potential. My wife’s goal had been to have a good meal Christmas Eve and then attend the play as a family. She had even borrowed a camcorder to record the event to send to the grandparents in Texas.

My job was to eat then go to the clinic and take care of the patients and boarders in time to make the play at church. The eating part was easy. After overfilling on buttermilk pie I dressed in my Sunday best and drove to the ask a vet 1/15clinic, planning my strategy to efficiently complete the evening treatments. With any luck I would get done without a call and meet my “wise man” and “cow” in time to wish them luck and get a good seat.

At the clinic, the plan was simple; clean, treat and feed the inside animals and move to the outside kennels to finish up. Six dogs, two cats and one hedgehog later, the inside was complete. I yanked on a jacket, pulled rubber boots over my good shoes and stepped into the attached outdoor kennels. The air had gotten colder and it was really dark but I found the light switch and was welcomed by six hungry, tail wagging, barking boarders. The chain link kennels had been built on the back of the clinic. Over the years a roof had been added, a feed room built and the gate to the parking lot had been locked. The chain link fence went from the concrete floor to the roof and was attached to the clinic with brackets and bolts. Actually it resembled the exercise yard at a federal prison.

After stepping out back into the kennels, I closed the door to the clinic and started cleaning and feeding, humming
“Away in a Manger” and giving each of the large dogs a little more food. You could tell I was getting in the Christmas spirit. I got done in plenty of time to lock up and drive to the church. It was a Christmas miracle. I hit the
outdoor light switch and grabbed the doorknob to head back in. Nothing turned; the door back into the clinic was locked. I tried again; still locked. Again, yep still locked. I turned the light back on sending the dogs into another howling welcome, which enticed me into a so Christmassy tirade of descriptive adjectives and species degrading epitaphs. I tried the gate to the parking lot; locked solid. I tried the hinges, the wall bolts, I tried to lift up the bottom of the fence and I looked for any weakness along the gutter in the runs. The place was well built and I was trapped. My phone was inside the clinic on the counter. Time was ticking, dogs were barking and I knew my little “cow”
was putting on his Hereford hat and getting in line at the play.

In the light of the single bulb it caught my eye. On the top corner next to the wall was one piece of chain link wire barely sticking out. They were probably singing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” by now. I had to act. Removing my tie, I wrapped my right hand and began to slowly unwrap the chain link. This was good heavy American stuff, not that cheap junk. Each pull and bend took a lot of effort. My tie was snagged and the wire cut into my arm but slowly I was unwinding the corner of the fence. The dogs had quit howling and the urgency of the moment had me focusing all my energy on unweaving the chain link. This made the escape from Alcatraz look like child’s play.

By now, I figured they were probably through the Christmas story and the wise men were bringing in the gifts. I yanked the corner down and, standing on a water bucket, lifted myself through the small gap, tumbling into the gravel parking lot. With agility never before seen I kicked off the rubber boots, unlocked the clinic’s side door, grabbed my phone and ran for the truck. Skidding into the church parking lot I doubled parked behind the Pastor’s car (he’d be the last to leave) and ran up the stairs, tying the tie. I arrived just in time to be handed a candle and join in singing “Silent Night”.

My wife shot me a glance, that to say the least, was not in the spirit of the season as the
kids, including my “wise man” and “cow”, paraded down the center aisle. My wife and I drove home in silence… no explanation would help my case. She had wanted one thing and I had failed. The kids were beaming, looking out the window of the truck for Santa and recounting the entire play. My cow had decided to cow kick the sheep next to him and my wise man had her beard snap up over her eyes but all in all I had missed the social event of their year. The silent night continued when we got home and got the kids to bed. Putting the toys under the tree, I decided to take the time and open the box of Legos. One thing led to another and soon my wife joined me there on the living room floor. We built a house and a barn complete with a truck and one cow/horse animal. We soon were talking about Christmases past and what we wanted to do in the future. I got my wife laughing about my unfortunate incarceration in the kennel and peace descended on my house.

I try to encourage all our Veterinarians to put their family first, take that vacation, leave for that game or ask for
the night off. We had been wrapped up for four years in school and that first Christmas my wife simply wanted
uninterrupted time. Work, meetings and everything else can be put on hold for at least a little time. Just take the
time – they are only cows and wise men once.

I will keep the Legos for myself. I also kept the video of the play. Right there at the end you see me standing at the back of the church, crumpled tie, blood trickling down my arm and yes, clear as day, my Santa boxers hanging out of the hole torn into my pants by the chain link. Merry Christmas.

On This Bench


They missed it, they overlooked it or they simply thought it was not worth the effort. The handmade wood bench sat under the kitchen table on the side closest to the door. The thieves had kicked open the locked door and entered the empty house at night through the living room.

This room was actually the log house that was built in 1875. The construction of the log home had been an upgrade from the dugout near the stream and that in itself had been a step up from the wagon bed. The logs had been cut with an axe from the scattered post oak trees that dotted the bluestem grass along Denton Creek.

The crooks scattered the family pictures, knocked over an end table, and tracked mud across the wood floor. They moved down the hall into the bedroom, ripped quilts from a trunk and nailed them over the windows. They didn’t want anyone to see as they tore through the 140 year old home.

They broke into the old upright piano, tossing hymnbooks aside and kicked the piano stool across the room. Once they made it to the kitchen they had their system of search and destroy down to a fine art. Pie-safe doors were snapped off, kitchen cabinets were emptied with the sweep of an arm and the bench was used as a foot stool to search the top shelf. Grabbing what loot they thought would resale they left through the kitchen door driving a boot toe through the screen.

There were footprints in the mud down to the county road and tire tracks leading up to the asphalt. My brother-in-law found the evidence feeding hay after dark. Something told him things weren’t right and leaving the tractor idling by the road he walked up to the scene by flashlight. What probably took them only minutes to ransack had taken a family 140 years to build. But they left the bench.

The bench had been made with tools from a carpenter’s trunk – tools that had earned a living and earned the money to move an emigrant family from the east coast to fresh land in north Texas. The bench had been made to accommodate a growing family.

It had been painted many times, the last color was a light blue and much of that had been worn off. As she sat in the kitchen that night, while we surveyed the damage and tried to tell the Sheriff what was missing, my wife ran her hand across the smooth bench top. On that bench her family had made plans to clear land, drawn out the map of the orchard and discussed their dreams.

On that bench new immigrants learned English and first generation Americans learned to read, studied for school and learned about God. Sitting there family members had prayed before meals, during storms, for someone’s safe return and more often than not for rain. On that bench marriages were announced, babies were rocked and problems were solved.

On that bench boys talked to grandma and mom before leaving for World War I, World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. On that bench family members packed relief boxes to ship to family in Europe following each World War. On that bench the first generation to go to High School waited on a bus and the first generation to go to college waited on a ride.

It was on that worn, old bench that fathers waited on babies to be born, discussed the price of cattle, decided who to vote for and figured out what bills could be paid. Through dozens of Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays, funerals, weddings and homecomings the bench witnessed a family’s life. On that bench boys were scolded for trapping skunks and bringing the pelts in the house.

On that bench Grandma watched as work men ran wires for a phone and to electrify the house. On that bench my wife’s grandfather wondered why anyone would want a bathroom in the house and on that bench he decided to sell his last team and get a Farmall. On that bench doctors from Bowie sat with the family and revealed their diagnoses of whooping cough, measles and diphtheria.

Good news, bad news, big decisions and everyday discussions flowed across the kitchen table from that bench. Dozens of bib overalls, illfitting church pants, khaki uniforms and hand-made dresses had kept the top worn smooth. When they worked their way out the nails had been pounded back in and someone had added a cross piece to tighten the bench up as the wood dried and cured. The bench had moved from the cabin to the kitchen as the lean-to was enclosed. It had sat under a hand-made table, a linoleum table and a new table with removable leafs. On that bench the family had endured prejudice for speaking German, they had listened to their children speak English and they had learned to adjust. On that bench dozens of children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins had learned about life, cried, laughed, sang and talked their way through 140 years. The bench had seen it all and the thieves had not seen the bench. That night, on that bench, my wife ran her hand on the smooth top and cried.

We live in a wonderful place, a beautiful state and a tremendous nation. We are fortunate to live in the country on family land. We are able to call the shots, make a living and raise our kids as we see fit. We have good neighbors and a strong community. We are blessed. Yes, sometimes we start to believe that nothing bad can happen but really we are not that naive. The thieves had read about Aunt Evelyn’s death in the paper and knew the house was empty. We live in the country but we are not isolated or immune from crime. We still pray for rain, for protection from storms and for the safe return of our loved ones. We need to continue to pray for deliverance and protection from evil. I think sometimes what is really important is not always the most valuable material procession but simply anything that ties the family back together, anything that endures regardless how plain or simple. Take stock of what is important.

We spent the weekend walking through the local flea market trade days trying to find the items that were stolen from my wife’s family. Some of the older family members thought maybe the thieves really needed the money and were hungry. They needed our prayers, I don’t know. The doors were repaired, the house cleaned up and the bench is back under the kitchen table ready, with God’s help, for another 140 years.