I have had the jobs. Some would curl your hair. Some might make you cry. You will be jealous, amazed and appalled.
This is a series which requires this prologue because my first “job” was unpaid, working for my family. This is true of many kids, particularly kids in the farming community, though I was not, technically, a farmer’s daughter. My dad was one of three local veterinarians in our small town. He had what is referred to as a mixed practice, treating both large and small animals. Our house (the building on the left in the photo,) was about a mile outside of town. Dad converted one of our two garages into an office (on the left side of the house, above) where he did small animal examinations and surgeries, and kept the records and pharmacy. The office always smelled of disinfectant and yellow sulfa powder, and occasionally, catbox. Shrill barking or yeowling often accompanied the day if we had tenants in the two small animal cages.
Outside, we had a front pasture, a back pasture, an alfalfa field and several outbuildings. We kept, at various times, peacocks, steers, lambs, a burro, and pigs. We always had horses, dogs and cats. We had so many cats we gave up naming them. We usually had other people’s animals around for treatment or kenneling. We also had people. We were a family of five including three daughters, of which I am “the middlest.” We usually had a secretary helping out at least part-time during office hours, and sometimes we had a trained vet assistant or new vet intern living with us in our guest room. When he didn’t have someone like that to help during busy times, Dad would hire a “hand,” usually a local high school boy, to work with him on the place and go out on calls. Dad had a fiberglass box that fit into the back of the pickup truck, with doors that opened to reveal drawers, bins for instruments and meds, and refrigerated storage for antibiotics. It smelled of gravel roads, disinfectant and dog hair. We had a two-way radio in those pre-cellphone days that helped us keep Dad rolling day and night. Dad’s appointed rounds kicked the postal service’s ass.
Mom did the books and managed the office. We girls helped, marginally, with housecleaning, and with other chores. It was always us younger girls’ job to take the dogs out to the clinic in the evening, and feed and water them and the cats, and any visiting animals. Except during the longest days of summer, this meant traversing the big, dark empty space between house and outbuilding. The light from the front door didn’t reach all the way to the clinic so we got pretty speedy, once the dogs were penned up, racing back to the house. In case there were, you know, monsters or something stalking us out there in the dark. My little sister had a fear of stepping on a toad, so she not only had to be fast, she had to step lightly. She got pretty close to high speed levitation. We’d arrive back at the front step, huffing and wild-eyed, just before getting ready for bed. Other jobs included horse chores, pig chores, yard and garden (same as anywhere,) and office and clinic help, our topic for today.
As I said, we had a secretary part-time, and Mom covered the office most of the rest of the time. Dad was often around, working on animals or projects in the clinic. But there were gaps; Mom needed to get something in town, Dad was on a call, the secretary was at lunch or getting supplies from an outbuilding, or it was her day off. From the time my older sister went off to college, when I was ten years old, we younger girls had to cover the office from time to time, dealing with the public, answering the phone calls, relaying client questions to Dad over the tw0-way radio.
This is how that worked. The office phone rang (spoken rule: answer the phone with the words “Val-Vet Clinic” no later than the third ring; implied addendum: kill yourself if you have to to get there in time.) We got the pertinent information, and then, keeping the client on the line, called Dad on the two-way.
Me: “KNGY-976, Base One to Unit One” (Note: For a long time, there was only Base One and Unit One. Then my dad opened a second office twenty miles away and hired a vet who also had a truck so then there was also Base Two and Unit Two. Not confusing at all.)
Dad: “Unit One.”
Me: “Yeah, I’ve got John Smith on the phone? He says he has a cow with a prolapsed uterus? Over.”
Dad: “Ask him how long it’s been that way. Over.” (I do.)
Me: “He says she calved last night, but was still straining when they turned in, so he guesses sometime this morning. Over.” (It’s now 5:00 pm.)
Dad: (Pause while he swears.) “Tell him I’ll be there when I finish up at the Halvorsen’s. Probably be an hour or so. (Another pause for swearing. He won’t be home until well after dinner.) Over.”
Me: “10-4. Over and out.”
YES, I got to speak radio code for REAL! It was cool, even if it made me very nervous. I remember being informed the FCC monitored our little conversations and could prosecute us if we did it wrong. I am sure now that my parents meant we shouldn’t be silly using the radio but I developed a Big Brother complex at an early age. Oh, and “prolapsed uterus?” I was proficient at saying it long before I knew what it meant. I always prayed someone would turn up to answer the phone before the dreaded third ring, but phone duty was not the biggie.
The WORST was when we heard a vehicle pull up, and some farmer, usually one we didn’t know, rang the buzzer. I remember looking at my little sister. “You go,” I told her. “No, it’s your turn,” she’d say. “Please?” I begged. She’d either roll her eyes and go or refuse and I’d descend to the office, thinking dark thoughts. I just wanted to watch Gilligan’s Island. Typically, the grizzled farmer would be standing in the reception area, in his shit-spattered working best, looking as askance at me as I was at him. “I need some penicillin,” he’d say. “How much?” I’d ask. “Better give me two bottles. Oh, and some boluses. Give me three of those.” If the client needed something more exotic than ear tags, cat or dog worm pills, syringes and needles (you heard me,) or the above mentioned goodies, I’d have to give Dad a call on the two-way to clarify. If Dad was away from the truck, say with his arm inside a cow trying to restore a prolapsed uterus, Farmer Smith and I would be on our own. “It isn’t the penicillin I want, but I don’t remember the right name.” “Tetracycline?” I’d guess. “No, that isn’t it. I think Doc keeps it in the second refrigerator.” I’d rummage and pull out a couple of bottles for him to check out. “That’s the one!” Then I’d look up the prices and write up a ticket, praying I remembered how to do it correctly, how to figure tax on the monstrous adding machine, which copy to give the client, and generally trying not to look like an imbecile. At least once I even filled in the check blank for a client who “forgot his glasses” so he could sign it. Please consider this, an eleven or twelve year old girl alone in an office full of drugs, some of which could be recreational, with a cash box, dealing with total strangers who drove in off the highway. It was a more innocent place and time. I did it all the time, and the biggest thing I worried about was screwing up. If a client didn’t get what he needed from our office, he’d go to another vet. This was unthinkable. On the other hand, there were lots of ten- and eleven-year-olds driving pickups and tractors around on their family’s farm fields, literally farming. I didn’t learn to drive until I was fourteen at the earliest, so in some ways, I was a late bloomer.
Sometimes Dad would call one of us down to give him a hand during small animal surgeries, like spays. We’d help hold the animal until it was anesthetized, then stand by while he laid it out on its back and tied its paws with gauze to rings on the sides of the stainless steel operating table, and shaved the incision area. Dad scrubbed up and we would help him into his surgical cap, mask, gown, and gloves. Dad looked just like the surgeons on TV as he made the incision, splitting open the iodine-swabbed abdomen. The inside of a living creature has a distinctive aroma that is hard to describe. It isn’t quite like meat, and if the gut is intact, there isn’t a fecal odor, either. It is a solemn, unsettling smell. There is an inescapable feeling of voyeurism, viewing the tender, pulsing organs in various shades of pink and gray. Our job was to let Dad (who was intently focused on the job at hand,) know if the animal stopped breathing. Dad worked, and I watched closely praying the whole time, afraid I’d miss the moment the short, spread out gasps stopped completely. Afraid I wouldn’t alert my dad to trouble in time. Life and death. My first job.