Fresh out of reading matter, I\’ve been rereading James Herriot for probably the fourth time. And like every time before, I\’m amazed at how he does it: the cold nights attending cows in labor in the byres, the crusty farmers, the patient beasts, his own foibles. How did this lively voice emerge unscathed from decades of large-animal practice?
And I\’ve been thinking about my maternal grandfather, also a vet, whose career overlapped Herriot\’s (my grandfather was probably fifteen years his senior) in Spain rather than Yorkshire. Like Herriot, by the time my grandfather retired in the 1960\’s his work had changed from healing mules, donkeys and horses to overseeing sanitation and medication practices for industrial chicken farms and piggeries.
As veterinarian, he had been one of the quartet of professional men reigning over the village, the others being the doctor, the mayor, and the priest. But my grandfather was different from them: he did not go to church—a gesture far bolder than, say, being a tattooed transsexual in the middle of Kansas in this day and age. He also, in the early decades of the 20th century, scandalized everyone by insisting that my grandmother accompany him to the movies, the only man in the village to do so.
Another one of his traits, and one that drove my grandmother to distraction, was his reluctance to demand payment for services. People didn\’t have to ask for credit—he offered it voluntarily. “Did you see how those children were dressed?” he would respond as my grandmother complained about yet another unremunerated visit. “I couldn\’t possibly stand there and ask for money. Do you want those people to starve?” It didn\’t matter how much a client owed. If a mule fell into a ditch or a cow came down with mastitis, my grandfather would put on his cap, hop on his bicycle, and get to work.
That was in the days when I knew him, in the long summers that my parents and I spent at my grandparents\’ farm. But years before I was born, before the Spanish Civil War changed everything, my grandfather used to drive to his visits in his own car. But with the war, the car was requisitioned by the Republican forces, food became scarce, and my grandfather and his family knew the terror of rushing out of bed in the middle of the night and cowering in a nearby ditch to escape bombardments.
They also knew the terror of civil strife, where old grudges were settled by a false accusation, a knock on the door at dawn, and execution in the field behind the house. The middle class, the well-to-do were special targets of the rage of the disaffected poor.
And here is where my grandfather\’s reluctance to exact payment from his peasant clients saved the entire family. In the anarchy of the war, when certain villages were marked for certain raids, my grandfather would secretly be given advance warning, told to keep his head low and disappear for a few days.
I don\’t remember much about his work as a vet. It either took place away from the house or, when an animal was brought to him, I was kept indoors, well out of the way. But I must have seen something, because one of my favorite games was to “disinfect” my toy horse\’s leg by rubbing it briskly with a rag, fling the rag to the ground as I\’d seen my grandfather do with used cotton swabs, administer a shot by means of a discarded nail, then pick up the rag, disinfect, and start all over again….I think about that, every time I give one of my goats a shot.