By Bill Stork, DVM
By 1982 my dream of becoming a veterinarian was in overdrive. A misnomer, there was not so much as a pond in sight from Lakeview High School. However, it was but 250 yards from the Brush College Animal Hospital, which in turn was 4 1/2 blocks from home.
So, like Billy from Family Circus, several days a week and every weekend I would go from home to the clinic, to school and back to the clinic. There Dr. William Van Alstine graciously provided every opportunity to be involved in the intricacies of companion animal medicine and practice ownership, and $2.85 an hour. If on any entrance exam or interview I were to be grilled on cage cleaning, baseboard scrubbing, mopping, defecation decontamination, weed pulling or kennel painting, I knew it cold.
Woefully deficient was my exposure to production animal medicine. So when spring break rolled around in my junior year of high school, I contemplated beach or mountains. Looking to beef up my resume, I opted for a week on "the farm."
From the road, "the farm" looked like Sanford and Son meets House on the Rock. Had American Pickers been on the air 30 years ago, they would have never left McLean County, Illinois. Butch and Nancy were lifelong friends of our family and were more than happy for me to move in. The educational value of the trip will forever be in debate, and I am still trying to bring my cholesterol in line.
I could stare at this page until Thanksgiving trying to build an image of Butch without using "grizzly bear." It can't be done. Whether by razor or genetics, he wore a full red beard and no mustache that, in the absence of a neck, merged with or substituted for chest hair. He wore his blue chambray work shirt (yes, singular) unbuttoned most of the year; Butch was well insulated. His head was the size and shape of BJ Raji's football helmet, with a laugh to match. Mostly at his own jokes, which, after a half dozen Our Fathers and Hail Marys, have left no permanent scar.
There's an old joke. A Texas rancher drawls, "I get up every morning, git in my pickup truck, and drive. By sunset, I git to the other side of my ranch." Guy from Wisconsin, "Yup, I had a truck like that." Butch bought it. It was a 1970 Chevy half-ton; the kind with green on the top, white down the middle, and rust on the bottom. No two tires matched, borrowed from a hay rack. The most reliable parts could have been the shocks and springs on the passenger side. With Butch on the driver side for 10 years, she was darn near at capacity, and if you put a bowling ball on the passenger seat, it would have rolled through the driver’s door. Rather than "three on the tree," there was scrap iron through the floorboard. An old mud flap, four rivets, and natural ventilation kept most of the exhaust out as muffler and tailpipe were long gone. With the clutch of little value, mostly it was "find and grind."
The accommodations and transportation may not have been plush, but the education was priceless. Being the youngest and the dumbest, I was designated to pull newborn calves onto the hood of a 1950 Plymouth turned upside down and hitched behind a tractor. Mom would follow into a maternity pen so the calf could be licked and nursed in privacy. I learned about setting corner posts, cross braces, and splicing woven wire. I will not soon forget which pocket not to put pliers in, so as to not get knocked down by an old Hereford cross named "Red" scratching her head. Always applicable, I mastered how to walk across a cow yard without your boots being pulled off your feet by the mud. Early on, I perfected the art of going for coffee, lunch and parts.
Butch greeted every familiar car and truck, which was most, with a wave. His cavernous cranium never deviating, his free right hand would trace the shape of, and a few inches above, the steering wheel and dashboard. As he neared his reach and the center of the truck, he'd rotate his palm uphill toward the passenger door as the car passed.
All the above being the absolute truth, one week in Farmer City, Illinois, 30 years ago, left an indelible impression on this city boy. With living in a small town comes opportunity. Maybe not unique, but more accessible, is familiarity and interdependence. If we let it, we can appreciate and respect folks at a deeper and more significant level when they are one of a few, rather than a blur on the tollway. Take it from someone who spent 28 years in a town of 100k, Lake Mills, Wisconsin, is a jewel. Celebrate every day you get to live or visit here.