Over the years, I had developed a nearly bullet-proof wardrobe scheme for a job that would turn Mike Rowe's stomach. I pull my Helly Hansen 100% waterproof, rubber rainpants and jacket tight at the neck and over my boots, like a farm-ready, cold weather dive suit.
In the bucket of iodine water were two bottles of Calcium and Dextrose, 20cc of Banamine to help her inevitable discomfort (think IV Advil), 4cc of lidocaine for an epidural, and two feet of umbilical tape (medical shoestring) on an S-curved needle big enough to drive any reasonable woman to a life of chastity. Over my right shoulder was a 10-foot bull halter to anchor her front so I could work on her back end. In my left hand were five gallons of water for cleaning things up. I had two cups of sugar in a zip-lock in my hip pocket.
The Holstein dairy cow may be the mother breed of the human race, but I have yet to meet one that is house-trained. After they spend the night in the adjacent free-stall barn for comfort and lounging, Elmer brings them in for feed and milking. As they saunter, they eliminate, often mid-stride. On average, a cow eats 50lbs of feed and drinks 30 gallons of water per day. Most of what goes in, must come back out.
In Elmer’s barn, there’s precious little evidence.
The driveway is scraped clean and lime is spread before the first udder is prepped for milking. The gutters behind the cow are bedded deeply with fresh yellow straw.
There’s something that always squared me up about a dairyman in uniform. Gerstner’s was a family farm with a capital “F,” complete with “I” bolts in the beam to swing the grandkids and a Jersey heifer in a pen for the “Little Britches” class at the county fair.
Elmer was in the middle of the row by the time I arrived. I sat my bucket on the drive to exchange a handshake, the likes of which you will not find at a law school class reunion. His striped shirt was tucked into grey khakis and bound by a black leather belt. A white oval patch that read “Elmer” in blue cursive letters over his left pocket ensured you were dealing with the guy who wrote the checks.
“She’s in the lean-to on the south side of the barn; be there as soon as I pull these units,” he pointed through the sliding doors.
I picked up and walked past 50 cows, clean tails and round udders. Working conditions require the country vet to wear tall rubber boots. To ensure they can be pulled over your Red Wings, there is always a bit of “slop”. This was a farm where you pick up your heels so the man knows you’re there to work.
I hiked the halter back up to my neck as I slid the door at the end of the barn, and pulled it closed again.
It is not until times like these that you start to realize all the observations that serve to size up the extent to which your existence is in danger.
There was a 50-foot lot between the barn and the maternity pen. The snowfall and run-off from the barn roof made for a boot-suckin’ mess. At a right angle from the barn was the remnant of a cinder-block wall, just high enough for a cow to easily step over. Surrounding the barn was a three-wire high-tension electric fence. Holsteins raised by hand are prone to gravitate around feed and comfort; Elmer Gerstner was not about to take chances on a jail-break.
I walked on the only firm ground, which was under the over-hang and sat my bucket down. Sliding open a hanging door that kept the prevailing northwest wind off the new mothers, I was met with a 5-foot high, sturdy green gate.
At this time it is important to clarify: the second rule of farms and ranches is to leave every gate exactly as you find it.
Rule 1: Save thy biscuit.
Every observation I had made to this point put my risk of bodily harm squarely between zero and none. Still, for reasons I have yet to explain, as I stepped into the pen, I pulled the hanging door just far enough onto its bracket to keep the wind from sucking it like a sail and pulling it off its tracks.
And, in flagrant violation of Rule Number 2, I draped the chain over the gate, without latching it.
My patient faced away from me, licking her calf. The handle clanked onto the rim of the stainless-steel bucket. Like a wrester hearing the bell, she spun so fast the centrifugal force of her uterus nearly knocked her from her feet.
Clearly confusing the guy there to fix the problem for the one who caused it, she gathered in an instant and charged.
She buried her head in my solar plexus and drove me through the gate I had not latched, and the door I had failed to hook.
In retrospect I’m amazed at the sheer volume of thoughts that can cross a person’s mind in a relatively short, and otherwise perilous, period of time.
Feeling like Dick the Bruiser riding André the Giant's shoulder across the ring headed for the turnbuckle, I contemplated my options: it would be important not to let her body-slam my lumbo-sacrum across the old block wall. Sore knees have robbed my ability to squat in front of a cow; paralysis would be even more of an impediment.
Johnny’s dad kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile…
If she deposited me in the mud, there would surely be blood, and a beer would eventually go down nicely.
The problem was that a dismount in the slop would negate my legendary footwork in trying to escape. Not wanting to be responsible for the escape of an otherwise prized cow, I took comfort in the earlier observation that the far pasture gate was closed. I clung to the five gallons of water. Clearly after being charged by a 1400lb cow, the last thing you want to do is have to walk all the way back to the milk house and refill.
I’ve been to a rodeo or two, and the cowboy’s ultimate goal is the proverbial “8 second ride”. They’re clinging to the back of an intact male Brahman, not the head of a recently calved Holstein. But in my defense, they have a rope, firm footing and a couple clowns for protection.
As unlikely as this scenario seemed, it would be better if it were witnessed. I wasn't necessarily thinking bail out, but it might be cool for Elmer to see how this all went down.
It seemed like an hour from the time I heard the barn door roll open and saw Elmer in my peripheral vision. He stuck out his chest, waved his arms and growled, “Damn it Bridgette, Doc is here to help you.”
With that, she shrunk and sulked like a scolded kindergartner and I slid off her head without so much as a scuff.
Walter Peyton always prided himself in getting up before the 250lb linebacker who had tackled him.
Neurologically intact and unbroken, I asked Elmer, “What do you think the Packers' chances are against the Bears at Lambeau tonight?”
“Depends on which Favre shows up,” Elmer grinned.
While circling the lot high-centered on the crown of Bridgette’s head and clinging to her ears, I'd had a fully developed thought about balance, in the cosmic sense. Replacing a cow’s uterus under ideal conditions can be a Herculean physical task. Given the headwinds on the front end of this little obstetrical catastrophe, surely the Gods would smile. And they did. Though the displacement was complete, it was also clean.
“What do you think, run her into her stanchion in the barn?” Elmer asked. Having had so much success to this point, “Sure,” I replied.
We did just that and she was the model patient. The calcium in her vein induced contraction of the uterus and the sugar caused it to sweat and shrink. We scrubbed it clean, and with a few grunts perfectly apropos for a Sunday morning, textbook anatomy was restored.