Vet in a spin, p.1
Vet in a Spin, p.1James Herriot
Vet in a Spin [112-2.5]
By: JAMES HERRIOT
More musings and anecdotes from everyone's favorite country veterinarian,
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
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
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."
"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
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
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.
"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
"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
~` 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.
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
Vet in a Spin by James Herriot / History & Fiction / Humor have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes