Review of ‘Fields and Pastures New: My First Year as a Country Vet’

Fields and Pastures New: My First Year as a Country Vet
Dr. John McCormack (Fawcett Columbine)

Newly hatched from veterinary school, John McCormack set up practice in Choctaw County, Alabama. He was the county's first veterinarian. And he had hurdles to leap.

"Is this the venetian?" callers would ask. Some addressed him as the "vegetarian." He was called the veneer, veteran, vetran, vitnery, vanadium, vendetta, even the Vatican. Meanwhile, he vied with homegrown "experts," who dispensed such nostrums as a burlap sack soaked in burnt motor oil, to cure hog lice.

Ten minutes after the McCormacks arrived at their new home, their first customer knocked, a mill worker in overalls. He carried a beagle pup. "I reckon he's been poisoned," said the man, giving the favorite local sick-dog diagnosis. A 4-year-old girl stood beside him, pretty and blue-eyed. But McCormack could read the family history in "her sad, dirty face and ragged dress." Diagnosis: hookworm. McCormack's own dog donated blood. A few days later, the restored pup returned home, tail wagging, a good omen for the new practice.

This book is the Southern hospitality version of James Herriot's vet- erinary tales from rural England. McCormack does not quite have Herriot's gift for splitting sides or inducing throat lumps. But he takes us to a world that can seem more remote than Herriot's British dales, and he makes it seem like home.

It was 1963. All was not, of course, magnolias and manners in Alabama. McCormack notes the plight of black farmers in this relentlessly segregated state. And taking on a federal contract to inspect cattle, he discovers the local hatred for government - the same government that would, by extension, enforce desegregation. But those grave issues are, by and large, not his subject here. When McCormack tested a herd positive for brucellosis, the enraged rancher drew back his fist. But the would-be attacker abruptly keeled over. "For the first time in my life," says McCormack, "I had witnessed, firsthand, an acute attack of snuff overload!"

One farmer explained how he treated his sick cow: first, he split open the tail and sprinkled the wound with salt and pepper to cure an imaginary ailment, "hollertail"; next, he bored into the horns to relieve the equally imaginary "hollerhorn"; and then, said the farmer, "I treated her for the tightback with a turpentine-soaked corncob." Meanwhile, the farmer said, his wife had "heated some lard and I poured that down 'er just in case she'd been snake bit, and then I been givin' 'er some high-priced sick cow powders that I got from down at the co-op." From the veterinarian, the farmer sought advice. "Reckon there's anything else I could do fer 'er?" he asked. "I haven't missed anything, have I?"

McCormack learned to be politic. "Your cow," he would tell a farmer, is suffering from "chronic energy deficiency." He might add the technical term - "Meager Manger Syndrome." It meant "Your cow is starving." Helping an interestingly named farmer, Stink Clark, the vet tactfully suggested that his cow was suffering from "hardware disease" - swallowing nails and wire strands that had been left lying in the paddock.

It was an uphill trudge, introducing scientific animal care. McCormack, meanwhile, learned a few things himself. For instance, cows actually do throw up, sometimes on the young vet who has just proclaimed they do not. He learned not to drive his prized truck into sodden spring pastures. And he learned about decency from a poor farmer, after saving the family's sole cow with a calcium injection. He left with $10, a big bunch of collard greens, two pounds of homemade butter and a hamper of sweet potatoes. During a year of plying the back roads, country music on his radio, McCormack had amputated a dog's leg on a porch and had seen huge "bubbas" faint at the first spurt of surgical blood. He cured Sir Alfred, a rich woman's beloved ram, but then presided at the pampered sheep's funeral after it discovered and ingested a 50-pound sack of dog food. He tried to catch a pet monkey in a tree, but McCormack's acrophobia froze him on a high branch and he required help from volunteer firefighters. He later received in the mail six packages of peanuts and a note: "For your monkey. You can have some too while you are resting in the tree. THE MONKEY PHANTOM."

There was Tiger, the spoiled Chihuahua, who learned to be a real dog. And there was Wild Eddy, the drunken client who chased McCormack on a golf course in his jeep. Moonshine was offered. One veterinary incident left McCormack driving through town wearing pink Jockey shorts. Walter, the local policeman, stopped him, stared, then asked about a dog with worms. Early on McCormack told himself, "I think I'm gonna love these people!" By the end of that first year, he did.

Writers Richard and Joyce Wolkomir review books from their home in Vermont.

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