Vet in a spin, p.1
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       Vet in a Spin, p.1

           James Herriot
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Vet in a Spin

  Vet in a Spin [112-2.5]



  More musings and anecdotes from everyone's favorite country veterinarian,

  James Herriot.

  Chapter One Vet in a Spin With love to ROSIE, JIM and GILL .

  . .

  This was a very different uniform. The welling tons and breeches of my

  country vet days seemed far away as I climbed into the baggy flying

  suit and pulled on the sheepskin boots and the gloves the silk ones

  first then the big clumsy pair on top. It was all new but I had a

  feeling of pride.

  Leather helmet and goggles next, then I fastened on my parachute,

  passing the straps over my shoulders and between my legs and buckling

  them against my chest before shuffling out of the flight hut on to the

  long stretch of sunlit grass.

  Flying Officer Wood ham was waiting for me there. He was to be my

  instructor and he glanced at me apprehensively as though he didn't

  relish the prospect.

  With his dark boyish good looks he resembled all the pictures I had

  seen of Battle of Britain pilots and in fact, like all our instructors,

  he had been through this crisis in our history. They had been sent

  here as a kind of holiday after their tremendous experience but it was

  said that they regarded their operations against the enemy as a picnic

  compared with this. They had faced the might of the Luftwaffe without

  flinching but we terrified them.

  As we walked over the grass I could see one of my friends coming in to


  The little biplane slewed and weaved crazily in the sky. It just

  missed a clump of trees, then about fifty feet from the ground it

  dropped like a stone, bounced high on its wheels, bounced twice again

  then zigzagged to a halt. The helmeted head in the rear cockpit jerked

  and nodded as though it were ma king some pointed remarks to the head

  in front. Flying Officer Wood ham's face was expressionless but I knew

  what he was thinking. It was his turn next.

  The Tiger Moth looked very small and alone on the wide stretch of


  I climbed up and strapped myself into the cockpit while my instructor

  got in behind me. He went through the drill which I would soon know by

  heart like a piece of poetry. A fitter gave the propeller a few turns

  for priming. Then 'contact!" the fitter swung the prop, the engine

  roared, the chocks were pulled away from the wheels and we were away,

  bumping over the grass; then suddenly and miraculously lifting and

  soaring high over the straggle of huts into the summer sky with the

  patchwork of the soft countryside of southern England unfolding beneath


  I felt a sudden elation, not just because I liked the sensation but

  because I had waited so long for this moment. The months of drilling

  and marching and studying navigation had been leading up to the time

  when I would take to the air and now it had arrived.

  FO Wood ham's voice came over the intercom.

  "Now you've got her. Take the stick and hold her steady. Watch the

  artificial horizon and keep it level. See that cloud ahead? Line

  yourself up with it and keep your nose on it."

  I gripped the joystick in my gauntleted hand. This was lovely. And

  easy, too.

  They had told me flying would be a simple matter and they had been

  right. It was child's play. Cruising along I glanced down at the

  grandstand of Ascot racecourse far below.

  I was just beginning to smile happily when a voice crashed in my ear.

  "Rela' for God's sake! What the hell are you playing at?"

  I couldn't understand him. I felt perfectly relaxed and I thought I

  was coin fine, but in the mirror I could see my instructor's eyes

  glaring through h goggles.

  "No, no, no! That's no bloody good! Relax, can't you hear me,


  "Yes, sir," I quavered and immediately began to stiffen up. I couldn't

  imagine what was troubling the man but as I began to stare with

  increasing desperation, now at the artificial horizon then at the nose

  of the aircraft against the cloud^ ahead, the noises over the intercom

  became increasingly apoplectic.

  I didn't seem to have a single problem, yet all I could hear were

  curses an groans and on one occasion the voice rose to a scream.

  "Get your bloody finger out, will you!" ; I stopped enjoying myself

  and a faint misery welled in me. And as al way when that happened I

  began to think of Helen and the happier life I had left behind. In the

  open cockpit the wind thundered in my ears, lending vivid life to the

  picture forming in my mind.

  The wind was thundering here, too, but it was against the window of our

  bed-sitter. It was early November and a golden autumn had changed with

  brute suddenness to arctic cold. For two weeks an icy rain had swept

  the grey town and villages which huddled in the folds of the Yorkshire

  Dales, turning the fields into shallow lakes and the farmyards into

  squelching mud-holes.

  Everybody had colds. Some said it was flu, but whatever it was it

  decimated the population. Half of Darrow by seemed to be in bed and

  the other half sneezing at each other.

  I myself was on a knife edge, crouching over the fire, sucking an

  antiseptic lozenge and wincing every time I had to swallow. My throat

  felt raw and there was an ominous tickling at the back of my nose. I

  shivered as the rain hurled a drumming cascade of water against the

  glass. I was all alone in the practice Siegfried had gone away for a

  few days and I just daren't catch cold.

  It all depended on tonight. If only I could stay indoors and then have

  a good sleep I could throw this off, but as I glanced over at the phone

  on the bedside table it looked like a crouching beast ready to


  Helen was sit ting on the other side of the fire, knitting. She didn't

  have a cold, - she never did. And even in those early days of our

  marriage I couldn't help feeling it was a little unfair. Even now,

  thirty-five years later, things are just the same and, as I go around

  sniffling. I still feel tight-lipped at her obstinate refusal to join


  I pulled my chair closer to the blaze. There was al ways a lot of

  night work in our kind of practice but maybe I would be lucky. It was

  eight o'clock wild never a cheep and perhaps fate had decreed that I

  would not be hauled out in that sodden darkness in my weakened state.

  Helen came to the end of a row and held up her knitting. It was a

  sweater for me, about half done.

  "How does it look, Jim?" she asked.

  I smiled. There was something in her gesture that seemed to epitomise

  our life together. I opened my mouth to tell her it was simply

  smashing when the phone pealed with a suddenness which made me bite my


  Tremblingly I lifted the receiver while horrid visions of calv

  heifers fload' before me. An hour with my shirt off would just tip me

  nicely over the brim' "This is Sow den of Long Pasture," a voice


  "Yes, Mr Sow den?" I gripped the phone tightly. I would know my fate

  in a moment.

  "I 'ave a big calf 'ere. Looks very dowry and grunt in' bad. Will ye


  A long breath of relief escaped me. A calf with probable stomach

  trouble. It Could have been a lot worse.

  "Right' I'll see you in twenty minutes," I said.

  As I turned back to the cosy warmth of the little room the injustice of

  life smote me.

  "I've got to go out, Helen."

  "Oh, no."

  "Yes, and I have this cold coming on," I whimpered.

  "And just listen to that rain!

  "Yes, you must wrap up well, Jim."

  I scowled at her.

  "That place is ten miles away, and a cheerless dump if ever there was

  one. There's not a warm corner anywhere." I fingered my aching


  "A trip out there's just what I need I'm sure I've got a


  I don't know if all veterinary surgeons blame their wives when they get

  an unwanted call, but heaven help me, I've done it all my life.

  Instead of giving me a swift kick in the pants Helen smiled up at me.

  "I'm really sorry, Jim, but maybe it won't take you long. And you can

  have a bowl of hot soup when you get back."

  I nodded sulkily. Yes, that was something to look forward to. Helen

  had made some brisket broth that day, rich and meaty, crowded with

  celery, leeks and carrots and with a flavour to bring a man back from

  the dead. I kissed her and trailed off into the night.

  Long Pasture Farm was in the little hamlet of Dowsett and I had

  travelled this narrow road many times. It snaked its way high into the

  wild country and on summer days the bare lonely hills had a serene

  beauty; treeless and austere, but with a clean wind sweeping over the

  grassy miles.

  But tonight as I peered unhappily through the streaming windscreen the

  unseen surrounding black bulk pressed close and I could imagine the

  dripping stone walls climbing high to the summits where the rain drove

  across the moorland, drenching the heather and bracken, churning the

  dark mirrors of the bog water into liquid mud.

  When I saw Mr Sow den I realised that I was really quite fit. He had

  obviously been suffering from the prevalent malady for some time, but

  like most farmers he just had to keep going at his hard ceaseless work.

  He looked at me from Swimming eyes, gave a couple of racking coughs

  that almost tore him apart and led me into the buildings. He held an

  oil lamp high as we entered a lofty barn and in the feeble light I

  discerned various rusting farm implements, a heap of potatoeS and

  another of turnips and in a corner a makeshift pen where my patient


  It wasn't the two week old baby calf I had half expected, but a little

  animal of six months, almost stirk age, but not well-grown. It had all

  the signs of a 'bad doer'_ thin and pot-bellied with its light roan

  coat hanging in a thick overgrown fringe below its abdomen.

  "All us been a poor calf," Mr Sow den wheezed between coughs.

  "Never seemed to put on flesh. Rain stopped for a bit this afternoon,

  so ah let 'im out for a bit Of fresh air and now look at 'im."

  I climbed into the pen and as I slipped the thermometer into the rectum

  I Studied the little creature. He offered no resistance as I gently

  pushed him to one side, his head hung down and he gazed apathetically

  at the floor from deep Sunk eyes. Worst of all was the noise he was ma

  king. It was more than a grunt - rather a long, painful groan repeated

  every few seconds.

  "It certainly looks like his stomach," I said.

  "Which field was he in this afternoon ?"

  I nob but let 'im have a walk round "'orchard for a couple of hours."

  "I see." I looked at the thermometer. The temperature was subnormal

  Suppose there's a bit of fruit Lying around there."

  t Mr Sow den went into another paroxysm, then leaned on the boards of s

  pen to recover his breath.

  "Aye, there's apples and pears all over "'grass. I t a helluva crop

  this year."

  I I put the stethoscope over the rumen and instead of the normal surge

  bubble of the healthy stomach I heard only a deathly silence. I

  palpated flank and felt the typical doughy fullness of impaction.

  ] "Well, Mr Sow den, I think he's got a bellyful of fruit and it's

  brought ' digestion to a complete halt. He's in a bad way."

  The farmer shrugged.

  "Well. if 'e's just a bit lounged up a good dose of fins oil 'ud


  "I'm afraid it's not as simple as that," I said.

  "This is a serious condition' "Well what are we goin' to do about it

  then?" He wiped his nose and fool at me morosely. .

  I hesitated. It was bitterly cold in the old building and already I

  was feel shivery and my throat ached. The thought of Helen and the

  bed-sitter and warm fire was unbearably attractive. But I had seen

  impactions like this before and tried treating them with purgatives and

  it didn't work. This animal; temperature was falling to the moribund

  level and he had a sunken eve if didn't do something drastic he would

  be dead by morning

  "There's only one thing will save him," I said.

  "And that s a rumenotomy.

  "A what?"

  "An operation. Open up his first stomach and clear out all the stuff

  that shouldn't he there' .... ~.~. ~ . ~. ... ~- . ~.

  _. . _ _ . _. . ~ _ _ . _ _ .

  "Are you sure? Dye not think a good pint of oil would put 'im right.

  It' be a lot easier."

  It would indeed. For a moment the fireside and Helen glowed like a

  jewel a cave, then I glanced at the calf. Scraggy and long-haired, he

  looked utterly unimportant, infinitely vulnerable and dependent. It

  would be the easiest thing in the world to leave him groaning in the

  dark till morning

  "I'm quite sure, Mr Sow den. He's so weak that I think I'll do it

  under a local' anaesthetic, so we'll need some help."

  The farmer nodded slowly.

  "Aw right, ah'll go down "'village and get Geor Hindley." He coughed

  again, painfully.

  "But by yaw, ah could do without this tonight. Ah'm sure I've got

  brown chi tis."

  Brown chi tis was a common malady among the farmers of those days a'

  there was no doubt this poor man was suffering from it but my pang of

  sympathy faded as he left because he took the lamp with him and the

  darkness closed tightly on me. There are all kinds of barns. Some of

  them are small, cosy and fragrant with hay, but this was a terrible

  place. I had been in here on sunny afternoons and even then the dank

  gloom of crumbling walls and rotting beams was like a clammy blanket

  and all warmth and softness seemed to disappear among the cob webbed

  rafters high above. I used to feel that people with starry eyed

  notions of farm ing ought to take a look inside that barn. It was

  evocative of the
grim comfortless other side of the agricultural life.

  ~` I had it to myself now, and as I stood there listening to the wind

  rattling door on its latch a variety of draughts whistled round me and

  a remorseless drip-drip from the broken pan tiles on the roof sent icy

  droplets trickling my head and neck. And as the minutes ticked away I

  began to hop from to foot in a vain effort to keep warm.

  Dales farmers are never in a hurry and I hadn't expected a quick

  return, after fifteen minutes in the impenetrable blackness bitter

  thoughts began to ad me Where the hell was the man? Maybe he and

  George Hindley were brewing a pot of tea for themselves or perhaps

  settling down to a quick game of dominoes.

  My legs were trembling by the time the oil lamp reappeared in the

  entrance and Mr Sow den ushered his neighbour inside.

  "Good evening, George," I said.

  "How are you?"

  "Only moderate, Mr Herriot," the newcomer sniffled.

  "This bloody caud's just ah ah whooosh - just get tin' a haud o' me."

  He blew lustily into a red handkerchief and gazed at me blearily.

  I looked around me.

  "Well let's get started. We'll need an operating table Perhaps you

  could stack up a few straw bales?"

  The two men trailed out and returned, carrying a couple of bales


  When they were built up they were about the right height but rather


  "We could do with a board on top." I blew on my freezing fingers and

  stamped my feet.

  "Any ideas?"

  Mr Sow den rubbed his chin.

  "Aye, we'll get a door." He shuffled out into the yard with his lamp

  and I watched him struggling to lift one of the cow byre doors from its

  hinges George went to give him a hand and as the two of them pulled and

  heaved I thought wearily that veterinary operations didn't trouble me

  all that much but get ting ready for them was a killer.

  Finally the men staggered back into the barn, laid the door on top of

  the bales and the theatre was ready.

  "Let's get him up," I gasped.

  We lifted the unresisting little creature on to the improvised table

  and stretched him on his right side. Mr Sow den held his head while

  George took charge of the tail and the rear end.

  Quickly I laid out my instruments, removed coat and jacket and rolled

  up my shirt sleeves.

  "Damn! We've no hot water. Will you bring some, Mr Sow den?"

  I held the head and again waited interminably while the farmer went to

  the house. This time it was worse without my warm clothing and the

  cold ate into me as I pictured the farm kitchen and the slow scooping

  of the water from the side boiler into a bucket, then the unhurried

  journey back to the buildings.

  When Mr Sow den finally reappeared I added antiseptic to the bucket and

  scrubbed my arms feverishly. Then I clipped the hair on the left side

  and filled the syringe with local anaesthetic. But as I infiltrated

  the area I felt my hopes sinking.

  "I can hardly see a damn thing." I looked helplessly at the oil lamp

  balanced on a nearby turnip chopper.

  "That light's in the wrong place."

  Wordlessly Mr Sow den left his place and began to tie a length of

  plough cord to a beam. He threw it over another beam and made it fast

  before suspending the lamp above the calf. It was a big improvement

  but it took a long time and by the time he had finished I had abandoned

  all hope of ever throwing off my cold. I was frozen right through and

  a burning sensation had started in my chest I would soon be in the same

  state as my helpers. Brown chi tis was just round the corner.

  Anyway, at least I could start now, and I incised skin, muscles,

  peritoneum and rumen al wall at record speed. I plunged an arm deep

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