In twenty-eight years as a country veterinarian, I have seen my mom’s dinner table doctrine confirmed on a daily basis.
Alma Ann Stork saw only good.
There was the repentant Milwaukee slumlord, who found himself living in a mobile home at the dead end of a farm lane. Two cylindrical Shih Tzus he’d clearly fed before himself were his only companions, and heat source. We clipped their matted coats, cured their skin infections, and extracted their rotting teeth. He paid us what he could, and thanked us with two packs of Dollar-Store sandwich cookies.
I’ve watched a man drive all day to pick up a farm dog with a broken leg in Iowa and bring him to our clinic for treatment. In the process of assessing the fracture, I learned he had done three tours in Vietnam as a combat medic and saved a hundred soldiers and a Senator’s son.
Hardwired with the git-‘er-done ethic I learned in my dad’s garage, and armed with a college education my family pinched nickels to pay for, I’ve been blessed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the most purpose-driven people I know: the family farmer.
When I finally hang up my stethoscope and coveralls, I hope to have given a fraction of what my profession has provided.
That said, my path was anything but manifest destiny.
I was always that kid. In kindergarten our family insurance man mentioned his litter of six-week-old Collie pups, “Little Bill can just come out and play with them.” I slept on the basement floor for a week so Sugar wouldn’t whine.
Our family vet was Dr. Bill VanAlstine at the Brush College Animal Hospital. He would lend me his stethoscope so I could listen to Sugar’s heartbeat and promised me a job when I was fourteen. My first day was March 4th, 1979.
Folks in my family knew how to build, fix, and grow things. I was the first to even think about college.
I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian and the school was The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. Oblivious that my application was underwhelming, I applied.
I snuck in under the wire.
At the end of my third year, I took my first swing at the Veterinary Aptitude Test. I scored in the seventieth percentile, almost good enough to clean box stalls in the horse barn. Senior year I brought my score up twenty points. I graduated from college with no-kinda-cum-laude, and a degree in Animal Science, but the seas parted. Fall of 1987 saw the fewest applications in the history of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
I was number thirteen on the wait list. The door was open, if just a crack. They called me for an interview.
For two hours we talked about everything from pulling calves out of the mud, to Muddy Waters. I had worked for a Lebanese immigrant named Boonton Syalavong, cleaning cages in a rodent research lab, all four years as an undergrad. Doctor Dave Smetzer was the professor of Cardiology. Thin-as-a-fence-wire, he spoke with a wicked-witch smoker’s cackle. Pointing at my application with the earpiece of his glasses, “Mr. Stork, you worked for Boon,” he nodded to his colleagues and closed my file.
I was the last one accepted.
That year I was an hour early to every lecture, and never missed a study group. I drank black coffee by the gallon and chewed tobacco by the bushel to stay awake, but the best mark I could muster was a D.
The Assistant Dean reluctantly offered that I could repeat my freshman year. An additional year of vet school would cost our family twenty-five-thousand blue-collar-(1989)-dollars.
I broke the news to my parents in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. Standing at the work bench, Dad pointed with a half-inch ratchet, “Son, did you try your best?”
Mom was on the stoop, “How can we help?”
Tail-winded by my parent’s support, after a year-long review, I arrived at my sophomore year of vet school.
And then I ran into a buzz saw. Harry Reynolds was a silver-haired ex-Marine and Golden Glove Boxing champion who taught clinical pathology. His class required a functional mastery of biology, chemistry, and anatomy, and touched every day of practice. Harry was fair, but merciless.
I carried a comfortable C for two semesters. Then came the final, and the wheels fell off. The bell curve looked like a plowed field; I’d missed a C by two percentage points.
The board who had let me in under the wire and granted my first, second chance, felt like a firing squad. After an impassioned plea, the board granted a re-take, in mid-July.
On test day, Dr. Reynolds escorted us to a windowless meeting room deep in the bowels of the basic science building. With tobacco-stained fingertips, he laid our future on the table in twelve stapled pages.
Three-and-a-half hours later, the bell tolled. I staggered to the vestibule, and stood framed by the floor-length windows. Storm clouds roiled like creamer in a coffee cup. I looked to the sky and asked for a sign.
For a second-and-a-half the clouds parted and the sun shone on my face like a stage light.
I passed by one point.
I’ll take credit for some measure of resilience, but all I am, I owe to a dad whose first requirement was that I give it my best shot, and a mom who only wanted to help.