CHRISTMAS EVE AND it’s the answering service paging me to report a regular customer has called with a clogged toilet — the only one in the house. Snow crunched under foot and my truck groaned in protest at the bitter night air. Upon arrival, the usual questions were asked: missing any combs, toothbrushes or toys?
“Well, the boys were in the bathroom right before it overflowed.”
Sure enough, careful use of the closet auger brought back an Evil Knievel motorcycle, Weeble-Wobbles and Bristle Blocks! It was time to turn this one over to extract the remaining toys. But first, I had to dip out the soiled water from the trap.
“I can’t watch if you’re going to reach in there!” she said while making a hasty exit.
Her words sparked another Christmas memory.
At 14, I was working for Dr. Neibert, DVM. Holidays were times when regular full-time employees wanted time off and Doc often let me fill in, as those weren’t typically busy times. Dad dropped me off to work the evening shift, which would consist of cleaning the cat ward, dog kennels and preparing the evening meals.
“Yates!” Doc bellowed as I was barely inside the door. “Grab a bucket, some soap and get in the truck — we’ve got an emergency!”
A bucket and soap meant a farm call, which I often looked forward to — but on this night of nights with the mercury dipping well below freezing in a barn with no heat? I was not dressed for an outdoor outing where I’d be standing around as an assistant while Doc treated a sick barnyard animal.
Doc’s new junior veterinarian, Dan, who was home from college where he was studying to become a DVM, joined us. Both these men had arms like tree trunks and I was sandwiched between these two hulks as we flew down the highway.
I hated leaving the relative comfort of that sardine can, but Dan and Doc were already hustling towards the barn: an anxious farmer was framed in the lit doorway against a crystal-clear, star-lit sky and glistening fields of wind-swept snow. Moonlight danced off the blowing snow crystals; the snow crunched underfoot. The barn felt momentarily warm after racing through the howling wind gusts and it took me a moment to find everyone in this dimly lit cavernous barn. Stalls full of cows with each resident checking out the commotion caught my gaze, their breath crystallizing as it was exhaled. Doc hollered that I was to get hot water, and that snapped me back to attention.
Naturally, the hot water was at the opposite end from where they were and being a scrawny kid didn’t help for lugging a bucket full of water. During an emergency, Doc was strictly business, and he let me know I was taking too long. At least a third of the bucket’s contents ended up on my pants, but by now the cold was secondary. Doc’s tone of voice told me all I needed to know; this would be a life-or-death situation.
Rounding the end of the stall, I came upon the trio with Doc already stripped down to his T-shirt while kneeling at the business end of a cow lying on her side. Quickly soaping up, Doc reached inside and exclaimed that we needed the harness and chains from the back of his truck. I was on the run now and quickly returned. Both Doc and Dan frantically worked to harness the calf’s legs and Doc was barking orders like a drill sergeant! From what I could gather, the mother was in severe distress, having spent most of her day and early evening trying to deliver her calf. Now spent and exhausted, both lives were at stake.
“Yates, get your jacket and shirt off. I need someone with skinny arms to reach in and get this harness in place.”
In the back of my mind, I was silently hoping someone else with the same last name was standing behind me, but I was already by Doc’s side. Taking the straps, I did exactly as directed by Doc with Dan leaning in to offer encouragement.
Once the harness was secured in place, I figured pulling a calf would be like an easy tug-of-war game. Little did I know what nature held in store and the four of us strained with every muscle: Doc shouting encouragement and giving the mother the devil for not helping, all the while barking out orders to coordinate our efforts!
For a while, it was a frantic scene and then all at once it was over. Steam appeared to be rising off the newly breech-born calf that Doc was attending to as Dan was checking the mother. For that matter, steam seemed to be rising off us all, as we were drenched in sweat. That was hard work, but the reward of seeing both mother and calf nestled in the hay was a sight to behold. Smiles all around and more than one firm slap of congratulations on the back made me feel great.
As we drove back to the hospital, I couldn’t help but notice the clear star-lit sky and wondered if that star in the east always shone that brightly.
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].
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