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A Boy Named Sue (part 1)

A boy named Sue

By Bill Stork, DVM

County T north of Waterloo, Wisconsin is straight as a runway at O’Hare. There were 2500 fire numbers between the intersection of County I and a cow who had “cast her withers”. I wound the Cummins turbo-diesel up to “flyin’ low” and punched the button on the dash to engage the “Jake Brake” in order to save some pads and rotors upon re-entry. Not to mention, it sounds really cool.

For those who have seen the "No Engine Braking Except in Emergency" signs on the edge of small country towns looking to stay that way, and wondered… a “Jake” is a sort of mechanical parachute. Somewhere in the exhaust manifold, there is a gate that can be diverted so as to create back pressure against the pistons and slow down a big rig like a 53’ reefer with 40,000 of Florida citrus bound for Woodman’s, or a 4-ton mobile veterinary hospital on a mission.

Next time you find yourself waiting for the sun to rise on Mulderink's Hill overlooking I-94, stop and wait. The rhythmic whoosh and whine will be broken by a deep, guttural expulsion; like big Uncle Ernie on a cheap leather couch around half-time of the Dallas Cowboy game on Thanksgiving afternoon. That would be a long-haul road warrior drifting up the exit, approaching a Kwik Trip for some “Café Karuba,” hot-table gourmet cheeseburgers, and a seven-minute siesta.

Bill Stork, In Herriot's ShadowSunday morning my Satellite Radio takes a break. The rest of the week, “Janesville, Southern Wisconsin and Rock County’s ONLY source for real country music, 99.9 WJVL” plays both Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. But Sunday mornings are turned over to “Big Red,” who pulls out the Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Keith Whitley… and Johnny Cash.

Two miles South of Danville, and just past the big curve, we were up to the 9000s, so I backed off the throttle.

The snow was winged wide enough for an Australian Road Train at the driveway of N9880. A 2’x 4’ piece of plywood mounted on a pair of “T” posts, painted green and emblazoned with a big, gold “G” protected the silver rural mailbox, big as a baby’s bassinette, from decimation by flying frozen slush off the Dodge County plow.

The growling Jake Brake announced the cavalry had arrived. I turned down the drive past the “End County Maintenance” sign as Johnny lamented, “ …life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue,” and vowed to search the honky tonks and bars until he found the dirty, mangy, dog who'd hung the moniker around his neck and left his mom.

With the truck in 4-wheel high, I idled a quarter mile to the farm. The Dodge Ram barely rocked, in the absence of a single bottomless pot hole; a point not to go unnoticed, as the farm drive gets pounded by everything from grain buggies hauling 450 bushels of corn and silage wagons, to manure spreaders when the cows are done with said feed. Every day of the year it is a conduit for 10,000lbs of milk a day, hauled in a 50,000lb tanker truck. It is an active art to keeping it maintained.

October rains and harvest flag the inevitable approach of winter. An offset disk or a drag pulled behind a 4020 will loosen the surface like the infield at Wrigley. A half-load of fill is feathered into potholes the size of horse tanks. On the first night the sun is to set into permafrost, the finishing touch is applied. With a box-blade on a three-point, the washboard is graded smooth, until the spring thaw turns it to mush again.

Even though the storm had not stopped until a few hours before morning milking, there wasn’t a flake on the drive. Snow banks pushed two-widths onto the yard; windrows were cleaned up and piled high as a New Holland L-180 skid steer could reach around the hip-roof barn.

I checked my mirrors and dropped into reverse, oblivious to the foreboding as Johnny and his dad crashed into the street, “kicking and a gouging in the blood and the mud and the beer”...

The milk house was clean as Martha’s kitchen. A John Deere calendar hung on the door turned to the current month and year. Alligator clips on all four corners kept it from curling in the humidity. In black frames hung Somatic Cell Awards from 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2006: four entire years of producing milk averaging under 100,000 SCC. Certificates of pride: evidence that you were walking onto a farm where you could walk the driveway in your wingtips, and drink straight from the tank.

The plumbing that serves the twin-basin, stainless wash tanks is always a study in style and creativity. In this case, with a quarter-turn to the left on a repurposed Lucite knob from a shower stall, my dented stainless bucket was filled hot enough that the iodine steam singed my nostril hairs.

By now, you may be aware that I am prone to tangents; you may recall we have arrived at this farm to attend a cow having recently calved. In doing so she had unfortunately “cast her withers,” which is equivalent to “tossing her calf bed”: both of which are Norwegian-German dairy vernacular for a prolapsed uterus. It also means there will be laundry, and for a Cradle Catholic veterinarian, more times than not a few extra “Our Fathers and Hail Marys” the next time he finds himself behind the curtain at confession.

In the heat of restoring your patient to a more sustainable state of anatomy, there are times when a lifetime of association with construction workers* and 6 years on a hog farm come rushing back. You run through every illicit descriptor in your vocabulary and invent some new ones on the fly; all the while grunting like a Sumo wrestler in the throes of a prostate biopsy.

Medically speaking, the process of gestation and parturition stretches everything from the ovarian pedicle to the broad ligament that anchors the uterus itself, like a guide wire on a power pole. Mothers in the reading audience are thinking …duhh! The simple and repeatable fact that - across species - the female’s external genitalia can accept the male in such a fashion as to promote procreation, and then in nine months' time, allow passage of offspring; and in a few short weeks be ready for another round is undeniable proof there is a superior being.

However, when things go bad, it can be catastrophic. On an occasion when a cow generates intra-abdominal pressure that exceeds her ability to retain her “parts”, it all falls out behind. The void is filled on the next grunt by multiple loops of intestine. From that point, it takes effort to restore order.

Imagine that Shaquille O’Neal had a pair of rain pants. Tie them at the ankle with a piece of baler twine and fill them with pork chitterlings. Hang them about chest high, and grease them up with olive oil. Now, try and stuff them backwards through a mail slot.

And so I confidently strode onto Elmer Gerstner’s farm...

To be continued...

*Credit when it is due. At or near 70 years of age, the construction worker to whom I owe most of my ethic and education made the executive decision that cursing was crude. No patches, no hypnosis, just cold turkey. In one swoop, he scrubbed his language. I aspire to that policy, but have yet to adopt it as a whole.

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