Disgruntled clients are an inevitable consequence of doing business. There are days when you are working for a colleague’s unhappy client, and they're working for yours. There have been instances when my availability was an issue. For the last 15 years, I’ve been our only large animal veterinarian. Farmers have sought services I was not able to offer, or a second opinion on an under-performing herd.
Sometimes you just don’t know. It almost always hurts to see someone else’s truck backed up to the milk house of one of your farms. But, in a few rare instances, you’d rather bathe in honey and nap on a mound of fire ants in your BVDs, than pull up that drive.
Harry Schnulle was the client who fired me before I ever set boot in the barn.
Joyce Kuhl was the receptionist the day our clinic opened, in 1965. Four months after I was born. She was the Lake Mills Lutheran equivalent to Mother Teresa. In thirty years of service, she had been seasoned by clients, and hardened by our Scottish-German founder, Dr. Robert Hance Anderson.
She slid the pocket door far enough to block the exit of the exuberant Lab, “Aummh, Dr. Stork, there’s a guy on the phone says he’s got three cows with sore feet he needs looked at this evening.” Her lips pursed and eyes winced like a little league pitcher throwing to Barry Bonds.
A plaque of the Veterinarian’s Oath hangs above my desk. On graduation day I had sworn to “use my scientific knowledge and skill for the protection of animal health and welfare, and the prevention and relief of animal suffering.” It was 4:45 on a Friday evening, and I had to pick Calvin and Paige from daycare by 6:00. Sore feet are seldom life-threatening, and I had a hunch they hadn’t just pulled up lame since lunch. I wouldn’t expect Dr. Ben Graff to step away from happy hour on Friday because I turned my ankle making a post move in the Wednesday night basketball league.
Joyce was saved from the possibility of a decidedly un-professional diatribe by the family across the exam table. I took three yoga breaths, and responded in an italicized monotone, “Tell him I’ll be there at 5:45 tomorrow morning.” I was not on the schedule for Saturday morning, but Calvin’s first hockey game wasn’t until 9:00. I was hoping my offer to work well outside Banker’s Hours would buy back the cred lost by my inability to give three sore feet the urgency of a cardiac arrest.
The exam room walls are as sound-proof as a voting booth, a deficiency of construction begging awareness during end of life discussions, or going heavy on the cauliflower at lunch. As Pioneer, the Roseckes' 8-week-old lab pup, wriggled and panted, I listened for heart murmurs. Even through the stethoscope I heard, “Ok then, let us know if we can ever help you out again.”
As the door shut behind Brad and Kathy, I asked Joyce the tenor of his response. “Well," she said, “I won’t repeat every word, but there was something about you kissing his hinder...”
Counsel, enter into evidence, I will not do anything, for a buck.
"Right before he hung up, he said if we were the last vet clinic in Wisconsin, he’d sell his cows, move to Michigan, and milk goats.”
Evidently, Harry’s herd gets sore feet in “3s”.
With fine veterinarians in Jefferson, Watertown, Waterloo, Mayville, and Fort Atkinson, it took him two years to work through the rotation. By the time I was back in the cross-hairs, I suspect he’d forgotten about my first non-call to the farm.
There are a few things you never forget from vet school. Professor John Foreman advised us, always back into a farm. “If you get pissed off, or the farmer chases you out the door, you look like a damn fool if you back into the manure spreader or a 60-foot concrete silo,” he explained.
Well before the backup camera, Sirius Satellite Radio, and OnStar came The Blue Mule. The 1988 Chevy WT 150 had a manual transmission, plastic seats, and roll-up windows. The cell phone was hard-wired into the dash.
I swung wide at the fire number and spotted a slot in the door yard between the milk truck’s tracks and the granary. I found a gate post in my rear view. The Vortec V-6 ran like grandma’s Singer, but as I feathered my foot off the floor she made a throaty growl like Satchmo gargling single-malt. It was for occasions like these, and in homage to the construction worker who underwrote my education, that I cut firewood barehanded and changed my own oil. I’ve been known to suggest we need to give first impressions a second chance, yet I figured this was no place to waste one. I was early in the process of accumulating converts. I did not grow up on a farm, but was hoping my finesse on the clutch, the fade in my coveralls, or the callous in my palm might buy me a break.
I could have been Aesculapius, or Elvis in a Toga; it was all lost on Give-'em-Hell Harry (GHH) Schnulle.
I reached for the lever as the driver door flew open like an Alaska Grizzly after a PBJ left overnight on the dashboard of a dump truck.
“Are you a (fill in your favorite expletive) cow vet?” he growled like a football coach that just lost a playoff game, on a bad call.
You woulda thought we were in the Wild West looking to put together a posse. “They ain’t no damn cow vets around these parts anymore.” He was on a roll; there was no time to spit. Shards of Copenhagen and saliva spewed from the corners of his mouth like an Arkansas Razorback Boar with a tooth root abscess.
In the dairy farm dialect, the phrase, “Those vets down in 'Steubensville' are a bunch of idiots” usually translates either to “I owe them $2,500 and their office manager forbids them to set foot on this farm”, or “I am more of a pain than your craziest ex-girlfriend”.
With Harry Schnulle, it was option C: The United States Marine Corps. Stains in his white V-neck T-shirt suggested I was not his first victim. With a flat-top haircut and forearms like Popeye, with pressure wraps easing the onset of carpal tunnel, he was a precursor to a post on Facebook captioned, “There is no such thing as an ex-Marine.”
I’ve found the most disarming approach to a raging lunatic is to respond inversely proportional to their onslaught. “Well…” I stretched, like a dog stress-yawning. Dad's words, “Shut your mouth, and let your work do the talkin’…” echoed as I formulated a response.
I thought, “I’m a professional ballerina, this isn’t the recital?”, but decided it was too early for sarcasm.
“You show me the cow, if I can fix ‘er, I reckon I am,” I drawled in my best Central Illinois Mushmouth.
Harry Schnulle remained uncharmed.
Evidently, I was supposed to jump out of the truck with bucket in hand and a hoofknife in my teeth: “Well, grab your shit and get your ass in here ‘fore the cow dies of old age.”
I barely had the first patient’s foot tied securely when came the machine-gun interrogation: “You go to UW, grow up on a farm, how long you been out of school, you married, you live right in Lake Mills?”
Attention to the poor cow’s foot gave me time to divide my attention and cherry-pick my response. I cleaned the manure and gravel from the heel of her inside claw, and found a black streak, suggestive of an abscess.
Should I try and break him down with sarcasm right out of the gate, or should I play it straight? I traded the left hand for a Swiss hoof knife from my leg pocket, and cleared the healthy part of her hoof.
“Naw, I’m one of those flatlanders, migrated across the Cheddar Curtain two weeks after I graduated,” I deadpanned, just in case my humor-from-a-can missed.
“Well, what in the hell brought you all the way up here?” he squatted as deep as his sore knees could go, and bent until the bulging disk between L4 and L5 sent an electric fence shock down his sciatic nerve. He strained to critique what the rookie was up to.
Having isolated the devitalized area of the foot, I sunk the knife into the sole, liberating a sizzle, a hiss, and 3ccs of purulence.
“Love, initially.” I paused to wipe the sweat and fetid foot juice. “But this cow is a lot easier to get along with.”
As a rule, I try and fly above the “throw your mate under the manure spreader” track of barn-yard humor. In times of frustration or as an ice-breaker, I’ll stick my toe in. Harry jumped in feet-first with a crudely poetic analysis of the relative financial impact of boats, planes, and wives.
Had he not softened at least a bit, he’d blow an aneurism by the first visit. From the department of the obvious, he told of his service in the Marines, and that he’d served with Earl D. Woods, father of Tiger. “That man is an outright asshole,” said the guy who'd fired me before he’d ever met me, and practically dismantled my driver’s door on the first visit.
With his wife, Bonnie, he milked 70 fine Holsteins in a tie-stall barn. Every divider and drinking cup was solid as a soldier. The cows were bedded deep, and shit didn’t hit the floor before it was scraped into the gutter and scattered with barn lime. Harry softened from the GHH I met on day 1, toward “fuzz” as our visits became more frequent. His wife was not so warm and snuggly. I learned my first lesson on the debilitating effect of chronic pain. When we first met, Bonnie Schnulle made Harry look like Beetle Bailey. She’d beat the proverbial “bear with a sore butt” off the mountainside with a pitchfork in her right hand, and a bootstrap in her left… until the day she got her knees replaced. The first time I saw her after surgery was in the clinic with their three-legged Jack Russell Terrorist named Squeaks. I initially thought Harry was foolin’ around with a younger woman, and she was smiling, a first.
In short order, we settled into the realization that Dr. Stork really liked to get things done on the front end of the day, especially for farms on the periphery of the practice. Fortuitous, as Harry liked to have things done ten minutes before he called. The mark of a fine cow-man, there was more preventive than reactive work. Most of my calls were for sore feet, pregnancy checks, and a little off feed. Years in a dairy barn and the USMC had rendered a half-dozen joints bone-on-bone, but he was still plenty stout. If Harry called for a calving, you’d better eat your Wheaties and have a V-8.
Barns and farms can be like cable television networks. Working 30 cows and calves through the chute at the Scott Schulz farm is akin to an hour of Oprah: you’ll roll away fully apprised of who’s broken up, who's still together, and who is but shouldn’t be. Vaccinating calves at the Larry and Betty Dahl farm is a PG-13 Norwegian RFD: you can learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about old guns, tractors, trucks, cold and flu treatment, prophylaxis, and chiropractic. Larry found that if he took his work boots to the bench grinder and removed the tread and rubber outside the stitching, his back didn’t hurt. Each visit concludes with an Ole’ and Lena joke that’d knock an iron worker off an I-beam.
Harry’s place was Menard's meets Farm and Fleet. Once we’d addressed the retained placenta, displaced abomasum, or sole ulcer, Harry would regale us with home improvement tips on topics from dry wall hanging, mudding, and taping, to plumbing and electrical. Before I’d stow my gear I’d hear, “my son Chris will be taking over the herd pretty soon.” Though Chris had been elusive to this point, I was certain he was a fine herdsman. That said, I’d come to treasure time with Harry and his version of "This Old House”.
Harry Schnulle turned out to be one of the earliest installments of the inaccuracy of first impressions. Not only did GHH evolve into one of my favorite farm stops, he became our second call for every odd job from dry-wall to electrical. I was both broke and proud, but my building skills were one generation removed and supplanted by anatomy, pharmacology, and production animal medicine. I could handle matching the red, blue and black wires when replacing a fluorescent ballast, but a shower of sparks on my feet the first time I tried a three-way-switch brought an abrupt halt to my career as an electrician.
Dad always claimed, “You can’t beat a man at his own trade.” The Schnulle variant on Stork’s postulate would be “trades". Looking to polish up our unfinished garage, we dialed up 1-800-GHH. In the time it would have taken me to go to Menard's for supplies, he had the garage taped, mudded, and sanded. Half of which was spent bellyachin’ about the crew that hung the drywall. In two coats of paint, the seams in my garage were less visible than the living room, dining room, and kitchen.
My second patient in practice was a constipated Airedale. Moose was presented by a hyper-tanned lighting rep with a trailer hitch on his Tahoe. In the nearly 25 years since, Gray has been the friend you could call in a heartbeat, taught my kids to waterski, and provided every light switch and fixture in The Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic.
The reviews of Mittsy’s inaugural puppy class were exemplary. Favorite part: "great material, wonderful instructor, extremely relevant". Least favorite part: "the couple with the Wyoming cattle dog (Token) were disruptive, and the basement is dark as Big John’s tomb". Thankfully Gray had a stash of repurposed “scratch and dent” 4x4 fluorescent fixtures. In two trips to the truck, and an hour and a half, Harry had the basement glowing like Lambeau on Monday Night Football. Worthy of note: the basement ceiling is 9” Spancrete. Which explains why Harry brought his son TJ, who looks like he could have bored the holes and bent the conduit with his bare hands.
Like the “Free Beer Tomorrow” sign in the window of an Irish Pub, every visit Harry would assure me, “Yeah, probably next time, Chris will be takin’ over.” I had started to wonder if Harry had sucked too much silo gas, or was practicing some sort of existential new-age pain management: maybe if he imagined this character who would come and milk the herd, the pain in his knees and back would dissipate.
So often I had heard about Chris, my ears had gone numb. As if anything could have prepared me. We were 15 minutes and 10 cows into a herd check. I was dictating my findings on the last cow before the walkway. She had a CL on her left ovary and an excellent follicle on the right. Five ccs of Lutalyse and she’d surely be ready for love in the next three days.
Milkhouse doors have a rhythm and a percussion. It varies depending on direction of travel, age, construction, and whether they are closed by bungee, spring, or rope and pulley. The more mature dairyman with a milking unit in each hand will bump it twice as they scuffle through.
I heard an elbow bump, and the spring stretch. Before the door whah-whumped shut, the happy rhythm of footsteps skipping 8th notes in the manger came closer. On task, as dictated by Harry, I backed out and waited for the next cow, paying no mind to who might be approaching.
From my periphery, I could only tell this was something I had not often seen in a dairy barn. I would double down on the task at hand, and for the love of God, I would not stare.
Indeed, Harry had not been imagining his son, Chris.
As he rounded the headlocks, his skip slowed to a lilt. He extended his right hand, bent at the wrist in order to make a proper introduction; and then retracted it at the sight of the soiled sleeve on my arm. A retro-red OshKosh B’gosh bandana was rolled tightly and tied on top of his head. In retrospect, a perfect accent piece for equally faded summer-weight flannel. With the sleeves cut off and tied playfully in a matching bow well above his waist, his youth and farm-fitness were in full display.
Daisy Duke had nothing on Chris Schnulle.
Though devout in my heterosexuality, there was no denying the man was rockin’ a shamefully short pair of cutoff American Eagle denims that were not exactly “comfort cut”. Scorning the utilitarian Farm and Fleet issue Tingley rubber over-shoes, Chris blazed his own trail in barnyard footwear, sporting a vintage pair of mismatched high-top canvas Converse Chuck Taylor’s.
Deftly switching the barn book to his right hand, he extended his left, “Good morning, I’m Chris.”
I was going to need a little time to swing the vague image of the barrel-chested, tobacco spittin’, “mini-me” I had sketched in my head… to Chris. Normally palpating a cow takes 15 seconds or less. I gripped the tail of the next cow with my left hand and raked the manure from her rectum with my right. I shook hands with her cervix and cradled her right ovary, breaking down the process I’d repeated a thousand times a week as if it were my first cow. I searched for more substance than, “Good to meet ya’, your dad’s been telling me you were going to take over the herd.”
I pulled out and reported that the cow was 42 days pregnant, and on her first breeding.
“Well, Harry,” I stammered, “I reckon Chris and I can take it from here. You and Bonnie should get on that Goldwing in the garage and hit the road.”
We wrapped up the herd check with the requisite topics of crop failure, hay conditions, weather reports, and the Green Bay Packers. I half-feigned urgency, “Well, I’d better get to the next herd check.”
Koschnick Road falls off quickly to the east of the Schnulle Farm. By the time my truck appeared again, I was 200 yards out; they couldn’t see me scramble for the cell phone.
Glenn Fuller is one of my best friends and the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic staff artist. His walls are adorned with images of old men in Irish pubs at sunrise and a painting of his stunning ex-wife that will stop you cold and bring you to tears. To pay his bills, he creates things like the Klondike Bear, Nature Valley Granola Bar wrappers, and Frida.
Deeply embedded in the Chicago arts scene for the first 10 years of his career, Glenn knew adversity.
I was more curious than concerned. If for no other reason, fetching as it were, Chris' fashion sense was less than practical for day-in-day-out farming, and flatly uncomfortable as summer segued into fall. Glenn assured me Chris’ grand entrance was every bit his signature, a mirror image of the day Harry damn near dismantled the driver’s side door of my poor Chevy.
Recall, the Schnulle farm was the easternmost extension of our practice radius, and a solid 30-minute drive from HQ. Like his father, Chris milked at 4:30, but was even more attentive to detail. I’d try and arrive just as he hung the last unit. Cattle are creatures of habit. Like an old lady’s coffee clutch, disrupt their routine and they’ll lie down in the stall and get mastitis. Make ‘em a half hour late for breakfast and they’ll give you 10 pounds less milk, just to show you.
Thanks to Ms. Marilyn Claas, I found my groove early in practice. Rack-out at 4:38, yesterday’s news, two bowls of cereal, and the morning constitutional by 5:00. Marilyn paid off her farm and sold the cows a year after I arrived, but I’ve come to value the time. Work comes first, but if there’s not a farm call or cases to research, I’ll take a sunrise bike ride or rearrange the weights at the Lakers Athletic Club. To call it a workout would be somewhat of an over-statement and create an expectation of actual fitness, a state of being I’ve found elusive by any measure of function or appearance.
Marilyn Claas may have ensured its expression, but if any Stork’s Y chromosome were to be mapped, there would be an allele that requires he be up before the cock crows. What is equally certain is that the above activities are accompanied by a 16oz. Stanley Stainless vessel full of Cafe Karuba, Yuban, or on rare occasions, Starbucks Pike Place. By 6:30am, I’ll have 40mg of caffeine on board, effectively preventing the ascending loops of my kidneys from properly reabsorbing both sodium and potassium. If there is to be a continuous stream of thought (pun incidental), there must be a pit stop.
There are seldom organized facilities, which does not mean there is not etiquette. Discretion is accomplished on a sliding scale dependent upon urgency, the style of barn you’re working in, and familiarity with the farmer. If in a large free-stall barn with cross alleys, you simply fall behind while the herdsman throws the headlocks for the next group. In a tie-stall or stanchion barn, you remove yourself by 2-3 cows and assume a 45-degree angle away from farmer. The T-rule of public urinals is in effect, and an audible “coffee break” proclamation is optional. A veteran will have taken notice not to set up behind the heifer with light feet and an active tail.
High school tour groups, technician interns, and farm wives invoke an entirely different set of rules. In the case of the former, you search for a location that is sufficiently remote that no part of the activity is visible to the public. In the presence of wives and milkmaids, you choose a location several paces more removed than in a single-gender barn. Without looking over your shoulder, you exaggerate the step up, in effect telegraphing your intention, and removing yourself from any responsibility as to how the lady of the barn chooses to react.
It’s been 20 years from conception to completion of this particular story. Roughly 15,000 miles on a bicycle seat and a gradual rise in my PSA have rendered a tailwind more advantageous than I ever would have expected.
So, what then are the rules in a rural, yet professional setting, in the presence of a man who has been kind enough to make his preferences clear as RuPaul Charles at a feed mill?
My initial approach was to remove myself entirely, “Whoah, Chris, I put a hole through this sleeve, better run to the truck and grab another.”
A plan that worked well from July into November. The advance of Wisconsin winter and its requisite dress code, the prevailing northwest wind, and the evolutionary effects of the autonomic nervous system on one’s anatomy would eventually require me to move inside. The Schnulle barn was of the 60-stanchion variety, with calf and calving pens on the west end. There was no corner to step behind. I’d try and set up at the opposite end of the barn, but Chris was young, quick, and moved with purpose.
Holding back 16oz of dark roast is not to be taken lightly; yet I wanted desperately to be respectful. Recalling the Kegel exercises, I’d break stream and keep walking.
Two decades later the hurt has faded, but not once did he so much as look my way.
In six years and 500 pages of writing, I have relearned that sometimes you don’t know the end, until you tell the story.
Give-em-Hell-Harry Schnulle, the ex-Marine, was a straight shooter. Though it took a hundred visits to the farm before I got to meet Chris, I felt I already knew him. Harry spoke of him often, and described him to the core: a nice guy, hard worker, and a fine cow man.