My first three years of college I lived in the dormitories; all the better to bear-down on academics. We shared the cafeteria with twelve floors of co-eds next door, and they served chicken Kiev for breakfast every Sunday. For the middle years, I rented places with monikers like The Barn and the Big Square Grey House, with men who would go on to become attorneys, physics teachers, consultants, and engineers.
The focus was always on higher education, but occasionally it would strike us that rigors of weekday learning would best be augmented by spirited socialization and modest libation on a Saturday evening. These notions were often spontaneous and coincident with a sporting event or the availability of a band. When they did, we had the facilities to accommodate and a friend named Dave Rosen.
Natural Dave was the bartender at our favorite music bar who’d spin your bottle on his knuckle, tap the top, and spin the cap into the garbage six feet away. He was also the third ranked light heavyweight kickboxer in the world. Between Mudhens sets one Saturday night, Dave’s face was even longer than usual. He’d resigned himself to law school the next semester after three failed attempts to get into the veterinary program. I’d just applied for the first time. Word was the number of applicants for the class of ’92 was way down.
For four years we were friends, and lab mates. When he was feeling pent-up between fights, he’d whizz his foot past your ear when you least expected it. I never paid full-price for a keg again.
I had met my girlfriend early in my first year of veterinary school. She had invested a small inheritance in a two-bedroom bungalow three blocks from the world’s second Jimmy John’s and eight blocks from the vet school. It was a wonderful arrangement – JJ’s sold their day-old bread for a nickel a loaf.
Academics came easier to her than to me. I let affairs of the heart supersede those of the head, a miscalculation that left me with a GPA that was not acceptable to the administration. Dr. Small and Dr. Smetzer gave me two options, while a woman named Nancy Bailey who only ever wore khaki skirts and navy-blue blazers tried to convince me I’d be much happier doing something else. By her way of observing I didn’t really fit, in vet school. I could either take Ms. Bailey’s suggestion and seek employment in an alternative profession, or make a second attempt at the first year of vet school.
I chose B.
After four years, my girlfriend graduated on time, sold the house, and moved north.
Being blessed with a bonus year, I was in need of a place to live, so with two grueling semesters and a summer internship separating us from the real-world and responsibility, my friend Arlin Rodgers and I gathered our collection of fine pressboard and Goodwill furnishings, cinder-block book shelves, and four hundred CDs, and hunkered down for the homestretch in a government-assisted graduate housing commune called Winfield Village.
Green Street at the U of Illinois wasn’t exactly The French Quarter, but one could always find more entertainment at Murphy’s, Mabel’s, or The Rose Bowl than memorizing the volatile fatty acids produced in a cow’s rumen and the Krebs cycle. Vet Village was four miles south, just enough separation from the temptations of campus so that more mature students could focus on the business of their Master’s, PhD, and professional degrees.
Each building was divided into four apartments with a three by three slab of concrete out front to fit a lawn chair and watch the kids tricycle down the sidewalk, or admire the stars, take a leak, and replay the concert Arlin and I had just left at two in the morning. There were two bedrooms upstairs. The living room was spacious enough to accommodate a broken Naugahyde Lazy Boy, a dog couch (that would eventually be rejected by St. Vincent de Paul), a love seat, and a pair of Klipsch Forte speakers I’d used to DJ graduations and school socials to make a little book money. Out the sliding doors was the patio, just big enough for a hammock, Weber grill, recycling bin, and a quarter barrel. It was surrounded by a six-foot cedar-stained, staggered board fence, to separate us from our poor neighbors.
Our idea of interior decoration was the inside cover of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres album affixed to the kitchen wall by three push pins, and a starving-artist variety Velvet Elvis that Arlin had fetched from a dumpster, hanging cock-eyed over the dog couch.
The non-veterinary population of Winfield Village featured a fairly uniform distribution of largely Asian engineering and computer-based PhD candidates, serious-minded business students in late-model BMWs, and middle-aged aggies in work boots and pickups. Many were tuning up for their second careers and had already married and started families.
Winfield unit six, apartment three
The base population was Arlin and me, two cats inherited from Tom Shackelford, and three dogs: Cooder, Herschel, and Abby.
Cooder was born in a hollowed log next to Boneyard Creek, just off campus. He and his litter were surrendered to the shelter at weaning. The humane society brought the litter to the vet school to be spayed and neutered. It was a one-way ticket for Cooder.
He took his name and personality from blues guitar genius and historian Ry Cooder.
Cooder had two gears…
While I studied for my National Board Exams, he occupied the indent at the west end of the dog couch for fourteen boring days. Breathing four times a minute, at times his big-brown eyes would be the only thing moving, for fear he’d disturb Tom’s two cats sleeping on top of him.
Our classmate Scott Waterman (who would go to bars as Jim Carrey, in character) had a hunting dummy launcher. With a .38 shell it could shoot the canvas decoy a hundred-fifty yards. Cooder was like a ghost. When we played fetch with all the dogs across the creek and into the bean field, you never actually saw him run, you never saw him take off with the pack, but he always returned with the dummy.
Abby was the Golden Retriever equivalent of a remarkably fertile, dumb blonde. Abby was calendar-girl gorgeous, had OFA certified excellent hips and elbows, and never barked. She was trainable. She learned to sit, stay, come, and shake on the first go. Her puppies had Westminster conformation, housetrained in a week, and never flinched on the sound of a twenty-gauge pheasant gun. For three-hundred dollars a pup, Abby gave twenty-one families the dog of a lifetime, and Arlin a 1989 Chevy S-10 with an after-market CD player. That said, Abby was so dumb, she didn’t know how to play with other dogs.
Then there was Herschel.
The first thing you’ll notice is he gets his own introduction, and his own paragraph. I stared at the screen for half an hour, and finally messaged Arlin, “How would you describe Herschel?” The response came a day later:
In three words: Benji’s evil twin.
Most people under 50 don’t know Benji.
I’ll explain later.
Herschel was a scruffy-brown rat-dog who never once could you say misbehaved. He would not come when you called him, but you never had to wait for him. He would not sit or stay, or walk on a leash, but you never feared he’d run into traffic. Herschel conformed to nothing.
Across Curtis Avenue from Vet Village was a farm field and miles of grass waterways. A dog park, before their time.
Our friend Rand had shoulders like a Brahman bull, a head like a dorm room beer fridge, and a voice like Wolfman Jack’s big brother. For three and a half years he cavorted around the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine in flannel shirts and work boots, portending to be the next James Herriot. One day into his first dairy internship he examined a Holstein with bad feet, mastitis, and a displaced abomasum. Bessie’s fate was the rendering plant. With a heart bigger than his head, Dr. Gus permanently became the world’s biggest pet vet.
While Rand was in northern Wisconsin on his one-and-done large animal residency, we watched his two dogs. Our herd of three, was now at five. I’d often take the dogs to the field on my bike. I held Cooder, Jarvis, and Sam’s leashes to my left, and Abby and Herschel’s on the right. They were mushing me down the sidewalk at fifteen miles per hour, when suddenly I could not help but notice I was lying face down on the blacktop with my legs tangled through the frame of the bike. I was jolted back to consciousness by Herschel licking the blood from my left eye.
He’d stopped to take a shit.
With five dogs at times, and two cats, apartment three could sound like an animal shelter at feeding time. Having spent his high-school years in Texas, Arlin was a hard-core Dallas Cowboy’s Fan, a serviceable guitar player, and songwriter. When he wasn’t yelling at Troy Aikman on Sunday afternoons, he’d be warbling an homage to his freshman anatomy dog Spotina, a waltz sung to the tune of Marty Robbin’s country classic, El Paso.
Down in the Ill-nois town of Ur-bana,
I fell in love with a Labrador pup
Arlin and I were disciples of the great Lone Star singer-songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen Jr., and Lyle Lovett. Though I was not blessed with Arlin’s perfect pitch and golden throat, I’d sing along karaoke-style as he picked The Front Porch Song.
Winfield Unit six, apartment 4
Our unfortunate neighbors, The Baptists.
I describe them not to be in the least derogatory or judgmental. Nearly thirty-years on, I’m not proud, that’s all I knew of them. And even that is based on observation and assumption. They were a family of two parents and three uber-polite kids. Each Sunday morning they left the house properly dressed, and in formation from dad to the youngest boy. The ritual was repeated on both Sunday and Wednesday evenings, at precisely the same time. The only time we spoke was to borrow the symbolic cup of flour when I was out, and desperate. Mrs. B gave freely, and did not ask for so much as a moment of silence in return.
I’d like to think that Arlin and I weren’t oblivious. There were two sheets of 3/8-inch drywall and a two-by-four between their lives and ours. There was never so much as a thump-thump on the wall (that we heard) to criticize or mute our ninety-decibel existence.
Looking to practice on dairy cows, horses, dogs, and cats, my girlfriend had taken a job in Wisconsin at the Jefferson Veterinary Clinic. We tried to see one another as often as possible. I’d travel to Wisconsin and ride with her boss, the legendary Ed Dettmers, learning how to palpate cows, and locate the best meatloaf lunch specials. Long-distance love ain’t easy working around emergencies, internships, and clinical schedules. We hadn’t seen one another for a month.
She had been on-call Friday night, which continued into a Saturday that featured every malady that can befall a peri-parturient dairy cow. After two calvings, three milk fevers, and a DA surgery, she made it to Winfield near midnight, exhausted.
We celebrated our reunion in a fashion frowned on by the Catholic church for a couple not yet wed, and fell into blissful sleep, wrapped in one another’s arms. I woke shortly after dawn, stretched, and dozed a half-dozen times while counting my blessings. I delicately extracted from my lover’s embrace so she could continue the restoration she so desperately needed. I squatted next to the bed to collect the material from our passionate reunion. Nothing. I dropped to my knees and swept an arc the length of my arm, which yielded three dirty socks, and the early onset of panic. I looked down my arm to see Cooder.
Standardly, he would have been stretched and standing at the door on the cue of the first wiggle of my toe. On that day, his muzzle was firmly fixed to the carpet, and his caramel-colored eyebrows dropped - first one, then the other. I mimed, C-o-o-d-e-r?! The brows twitched and his eyes looked up so that all I saw was glistening-white sclera and a half-moon sliver of deep-brown iris.
His previous power-eating résumé included a half-crate of FFA Fruit Sale oranges with the rind, six pounds of Hills Maintenance Diet, and an entire Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
As fate would have it, I was the student on-call that weekend for small animal surgery. The resident who would supervise me was a phenomenal surgeon. Dr. James McKenna once corrected a patent ductus arteriosus on a one-kilogram Miniature Poodle puppy. Out of the OR his favorite party trick was to pass a strand of cooked spaghetti in one nostril, and out the other. A million-dollar surgical theater at a world-class veterinary teaching hospital would in no-way spare the jabs, and we were weeks shy of Vetscapades, the annual all-school, no-holds-barred, student-faculty roast. I could only imagine the medical record would read:
“Nurse, the serosa and mucosa of the jejunum appear to be intact and healthy, we’ve managed to successfully extract the intestinal foreign body, it appears to be barely used.”
Cooder was a veteran of induced emesis. I descended the stairs two-at-a-time. As I rifled through the medicine cabinet for hydrogen peroxide, Cooder took his place on the Formica in the corner of the kitchen. I un-capped the brown bottle, straddled my friend, pointed his chocolate nose to the ceiling and instructed him to chug like a frat boy. After three good glugs his stomach started to churn.
We crossed the living room in two strides, I flung the front door open and pushed the reluctant little lab onto the concrete pad. I stood in the open door, praying for puke, and contemplating my first phone call if he didn’t... just as the Baptists emerged to begin their journey to Sunday’s first worship.
Vanity aside, I decided in a split it would be less scarring on the kids to see what Cooder was about to eject onto their path than a pasty white, six-four Sasquatch in tighty-whities trying to block their vision.
I shut the door as if to separate myself from the scene, and split the metal blinds.
As the Baptists made the turn from their step to the sidewalk, Cooder heaved three Kleenex and a University Health Department-issued Trojan condom onto the sixth square.
Mr. B lifted his chin just a tick, stepped on the ball of his left foot and pivoted a perfect military turn for two counts, then planted his right and turned again.
His family marched a perfect square around the scene.
To this day I wonder if The Baptist’s Sunday prayers for the salvation of the Heathens to the East are not the force that’s kept me safe from serious harm.