Disgruntled clients are an inevitable consequence of doing business. Harry Schnulle was the client who fired me before I ever set boot in the barn.
“Aummh, Dr. Stork, a guy on the phone says he’s got three cows with sore feet he needs looked at this evening.”
It was 4:45 p.m. on a Friday, and I had to collect Calvin and Paige from daycare by 6 p.m. Sore feet are seldom life-threatening, and I had a hunch they hadn’t just pulled up lame.
“Tell him I’ll be there at 5:45 tomorrow morning.”
I asked Joyce the tenor of his response. “Well,” she said, “there was something about you kissing his hinder... Right before he hung up, he said if we were the last vet clinic in Wisconsin, he’d sell his cows, move to Michigan, and milk goats.”
With fine veterinarians in Jefferson, Watertown, Waterloo, Mayville, and Fort Atkinson, it took him two years to work through the rotation and end up back at me.
Nearly ripping the door off the truck, he growled, “Are you a (fill in your favorite expletive) cow vet? They ain’t no cow vets around these parts anymore.” He was on a roll; there was no time to spit. Shards of Copenhagen and saliva spewed from the corners of his mouth like an Arkansas Razorback Boar.
I’ve found the most disarming approach to a raging lunatic is to respond inversely proportional to their onslaught. “Well, you show me the cow, if I can fix ‘er, I reckon I am,” I drawled in my best Central Illinois Mushmouth.
Harry Schnulle remained uncharmed. “Well, grab your stuff and get in here ‘fore the cow dies of old age.”
With his wife, Bonnie, he milked 70 fine Holsteins in a tie-stall barn. His son, Chris, whom I’d yet to meet, was herdsman. Every visit Harry would assure me, “Yeah, probably next time, Chris will be takin’ over.” I had started to wonder if Harry had sucked too much silo gas.
So often I had heard about Chris, my ears had gone numb. As if anything could have prepared me.
I heard an elbow bump, and the spring stretch. Before the milkhouse door whah-whumped shut, the happy rhythm of footsteps skipping eighth notes in the manger came closer.
Indeed, Harry had not been imagining his son, Chris.
He extended his right hand, bent at the wrist in order to make a proper introduction. A red OshKosh B’gosh bandana was rolled tightly and tied on top of his head. In retrospect, a perfect accent piece for equally faded summer-weight flannel. With the sleeves cut off and tied playfully in a matching bow well above his waist, his youth and farm-fitness were on full display.
Daisy Duke had nothing on Chris Schnulle.
Though devout in my heterosexuality, there was no denying the man was rockin’ a shamefully short pair of cutoff American Eagle denims.
“Good morning, I’m Chris.”
I was going to need a little time to swing the vague image of the barrel-chested, tobacco spittin’, “mini-me” I had sketched in my head… to Chris.
“Well, Harry,” I stammered, “I reckon Chris and I can take it from here.”
Marilyn Claas may have ensured its expression, but if any Stork’s Y chromosome were to be mapped, there would be an allele that requires he be up before the cock crows. By 6:30 a.m., I’ll have 40 mg of caffeine on board, effectively preventing the ascending loops of my kidneys from properly reabsorbing both sodium and potassium. If there is to be a continuous stream of thought (pun incidental), there must be a pit stop.
There are seldom organized facilities, which does not mean there is not etiquette. Discretion is accomplished dependent upon urgency, the style of barn you’re working in, and familiarity with the farmer. If in a large free-stall barn with cross alleys, you simply fall behind while the herdsman throws the headlocks for the next group. In a tie-stall or stanchion barn, you remove yourself by 2-3 cows and assume a 45-degree angle away from farmer.
In the presence of wives and milkmaids, you choose a location several paces more removed than in a single-gender barn. Without looking over your shoulder, you exaggerate the step up, in effect telegraphing your intention, and removing yourself from any responsibility as to how the lady of the barn chooses to react.
So, what then are the rules in a rural, yet professional setting, in the presence of a man who has been kind enough to make his preferences clear as RuPaul Charles at a feed mill?
The Schnulle barn was of the 60-stanchion variety, with no corner to step behind. I’d try and set up at the opposite end of the barn, but Chris was young, quick, and moved with purpose.
Holding back 16 ounces of dark roast is not to be taken lightly; yet I wanted desperately to be respectful. Recalling the Kegel exercises, I’d break stream and keep walking.
Two decades later the hurt has faded, but not once did he so much as look my way.
In six years and 500 pages of writing, I have relearned that sometimes you don’t know the end, until you tell the story. Give-em-Heckl-Harry Schnulle, the ex-Marine, was a straight shooter.
Though it took a hundred visits to the farm before I got to meet Chris, I felt I already knew him. Harry spoke of him often, and described him to the core: a nice guy, hard worker, and a fine cow man.
Dr. Bill Stork is a country veterinarian from Lake Mills. He has been writing a column in the Lake Mills Leader for the past five years and recently wrote a book, In Herriot’s Shadow.