I am going to have to start telling Dr. M. stories. I cannot tell you the good doctor’s full name, nor where I knew him, but please trust me on this one. There was a time in my life when I knew a veterinarian, and all of his stories are true, and I cannot keep them to myself.
First there was the day when Dr. M. was in his office, alone between noon and 1 p.m., and a woman called and insisted upon coming in with her Pekingese. For centuries, the Pekingese has been bred for a flat face. This leads to sinus trouble, but also to other shortcomings. When Dr. M. had finished inspecting this particular Peke, he took him off the table and dropped him – he swore – from no higher than six inches off the floor. As the dog hit the floor on all fours, his eyes fell out.
Dr. M. knew he only had a few seconds to pop the dog’s eyes back into their shallow sockets, because the muscles that held them in place were already contracting, and the two eyeballs, now dangling from the cords of blood vessels and nerves that led back into the dog’s head, would soon have no place to go.
The dog, meanwhile, was trying to navigate across the floor with the information that his swinging eyeballs were sending back to his brain, running in kind of a panicked zig-zag pattern, challenging his pursuer to reel him in while there was still time. Complicating the matter was the owner who screamed, fainted and crashed to the linoleum tiles, legs flying straight up and then down, spread-eagled on the examining room floor, skirt up to her waist. Who should the doctor attend to first?
He couldn’t leave the owner on the floor, but the dog’s eye sockets were tightening by the second and the Peke was one confused pooch. Dr. M., always a gentleman, chose to lift the owner to a chair, rearranging her garments. He then caught up with the dog, popping its eyes back in expertly and comforting it with soothing words. Moments later, the owner awoke, looked at the dog, screamed, fainted, and jack-knifed back to the floor.
After that day, Dr. M. accepted no more lunchtime appointments.
* * *
One day a local farmer came in and asked to speak to Dr. M. The farmer was having trouble with his dog. “Did you bring her in?” the doctor asked. No, he hadn’t. Dr. M. said, “Well, what kind of problem is she having?” The farmer said, “She’s havin’ trouble with her stool.” Dr. M. said, “Can you describe her stool for me?” The farmer did not reply. Instead, he reached into the pocket of his overalls. Dr. M. later said that when the specimens hit the counter-top, they sounded and rolled like marbles.
* * *
An elderly couple brought in their elderly dog to have it put down, put to sleep, euthanized – however you prefer to phrase it. The dog was old and infirm, and they could no longer care for it. Dr. M. injected it with Euthanol, and the couple took the body back home to bury in the garden.
That night, they were haunted by a familiar scratching at the back door. The sound persisted, and finally they went downstairs together, opened the door, and their dog, his fur covered with dirt, walked in, went to his dog bed, which they had not had the heart to remove, flopped down and went to sleep.
In the morning, they called Dr. M. with the news. He was astounded, embarrassed, and offered immediately to do the job right, for free. But the couple said no, it was clear to them now that the dog would go in his own time, and he did, about six months later.
* * *
Out in the country, someone had shot a very large dog in the dead of winter. The owners found their pet outdoors, on his side, frozen stiff. They brought the body to Dr. M. and asked if he would cremate it so that they could have the ashes. He said of course he would do that, and carried the body to the incinerator where he did the cremations. By mid-day, the dog had begun to thaw, and smell, but his legs still were sticking straight out, and he would not fit through the oven door. They tried forelegs first, back legs first, head first, but with no success. Finally, Dr. M. said to his assistant, “I’m using the bone saw.” The assistant paled and said, “No.” But Dr. M. wrinkled his nose and said, “Yes.” A few moments later, after an exercise that resembled tree trimming, the dog’s body glided smoothly through the small door, and began its journey back to ashes.
* * *
Dr. M. went to veterinary school at a college in Georgia, and shared one story about his student days. In a barn equipped with bleachers, from which the students observed, their instructor was going to show them how to manually check the placement of a calf. When the students arrived, the expectant mother was tethered in front of the bleachers. The students assumed that their instructor would wear a gigantic rubber glove, reaching all the way to the shoulder, but he topped that, appearing in a far more protective outfit, tall boots and a long yellow slicker complete with a rain hood and visor. In fact, only his eyes were visible. He asked for everyone’s undivided attention, moved in and lifted the cow’s tail. At that moment, the cow let go with a brown blast that hit the professor full in the face, covering the only part of him that was not covered already.
There was a moment’s silence, and then the laughter began. The professor cleaned up and attempted to begin again, but after half an hour in which order could not be restored, he canceled class and said they would try again the following week.
* * *
There was a Good Samaritan who drove Dr. M. nuts. Rather than take injured animals to the nearest shelter, she would bring them to Dr. M., who was obligated to heal them. But if he couldn’t find a home for them, he had to put them to sleep as soon as they were well. It was a frustrating cycle for him, and the woman was always scouring the roadsides. One day she drove into the lot at the animal hospital, popped the trunk and revealed a mutt with a shattered pelvis. He was about six months old, free-whelped (i.e., born in the woods) judging from the size of his navel scar, and terrified of people. He’d been hit by a car, and was one hurtin’ buckaroo.
All you can do for a shattered pelvis, at least in a garden-variety animal hospital, is give the dog a warm place to lay down, put food and water close by, clean up around him and let him heal on his own. The assistants figured this dog also needed a name; a local gentleman had been murdered by his wife the day before, and he was getting his 15 minutes of fame in the paper. The victim’s name was Cletus, and in tribute the appellation was passed on to the mutt.
Cletus was soon shortened to Clete, and Clete slowly got well. When it came time to put him down, Dr. M., not a cold-hearted man, put it off. The assistants cooperated by hiding Clete every night at 5 p.m. “Is there anything more we have to do today?” the doctor would ask, and the assistants would sing out, “No. We’re all done.” Clete lived on the edge for weeks.
One afternoon, a young couple came in with their new puppy, who had a bad case of worms. He needed a break, and he needed blood. Dr. M. frowned, then brightened. “I have a donor,” he said, and minutes later the puppy was getting a pint of Clete’s best. The puppy lived, Dr. M. was a hero, and Clete had a job.
And in a few days, he also had a bow tie, a clip-on for his collar that made him look like a Fuller Brush salesman. Hence he became, on formal occasions, “Mister Clete.”
In the next two years, he would donate 40 pints and save the lives of 20 dogs, get a write-up in the local paper, and have the run of the kennel. In the morning, Dr. M. would walk downstairs to make his rounds. At the bottom of the stairs was a grooming table where Dr. M. placed his coat. While he was checking each animal, Clete would walk halfway up the stairs, step onto the grooming table, and lay down on Dr. M.’s coat. Dr. M. would then return, shout, “Clete, get off of my coat!” and take the coat upstairs. This happened every morning.
Clete loved hot food. If he could steal it, it was delicious. Even food he didn’t like was irresistible if it was off limits. He would follow the assistants around when they fed the other dogs, and steal from the bucket when they turned their backs. He really liked cat food. One day, he noticed that a large male cat had not finished his breakfast. There was a gap between the door and the wall of the cat’s cage, and Clete thought he could get his questing snout in there without any difficulty. And he did.
Clete, at this moment in his personal history, was not afraid of cats. And when I said “male cat” a few moments ago, I meant male cat. This was a cat with balls like honeydew melons. While Clete emptied his bowl, the cat sat with his paws folded in front of him, unblinking. Clete was almost done when the cat’s paws snapped onto his face and held tight. Negotiation was out of the question. Clete’s inner bugler was sounding retreat and he pulled back as fast as he could, the cat’s claws leaving four red lines right through his whiskers. For the rest of his life, Clete was worshipfully respectful of cats.
Clete became attached to one assistant in particular and when she left (her husband was a serviceman who had been discharged), Clete spent the following week moping, not eating. He was left behind, and mourning the loss of his chance to have his own person.
But about a week later, the assistant and her husband returned. Having found an apartment up north, they came back for their belongings, and their dog. It was late afternoon on a warm Spring day, and when they opened the door and called to Clete, he came out running, and ran in a great circle around the hillside behind the hospital, running past the man and woman, looking at them, his eyes wide with joy, too excited to stop, taking off again in another great running loop, until after three laps he finally came to be held, to be loved, to go with his very own people, to his own home.