Vet in Green Pastures, page 1
VET IN GREEN PASTURES
It is not a love of animals that makes a vet, but rather a respect for them. A respect for their feelings when sick or injured, an awareness of their reactions when frightened.
Add to this the incentive to cure disease and ease suffering and the courage to take a life when pain is beyond control — and you have the essential ingredients.
But where to begin?
For me, it was in a small village in Wales …
If, to you, chocolate biscuits are still ‘special’ and roast chicken still a ‘treat’; if, when aeroplanes fly overhead at night, you keep your eyes fixed firmly upon the ground, then you were probably, like me, about seven when the War started. And at that age, becoming a country vet could hardly have been further from my mind.
The austerity that accompanied that conflict was not too great a hardship for the folks of Abergranog, for the community had never indulged in luxuries, due to a combination of hard times and a strong religious doctrine that anything enjoyable was bad for the soul.
It would be hypocritical to deny youngsters of today the pleasures they seem to take for granted, for in Abergranog in those days we had enough. The leavening of wartime restrictions did nothing more than prolong the status quo and keep us slim and eager and very much on our toes for any information as to the whereabouts of ‘specials’.
‘There’s bananas in Powell the Fruit!’ I remember the cry well, and that I ran all the way down to the shop … but I never saw any.
I did see the lemon that John Pope’s father brought back when he came on leave. We raffled it at school for the War Effort. I would have given my right arm to have won it that day.
The whole school was allowed to feel it.
‘Just feel it and don’t squeeze it,’ were the instructions. But some boys — Boxy Potter was one — squeezed it hard.
So did I. So it can’t have been much cop.
So much for ‘treats’ and ‘specials’. But it was Mr Talfyn Thomas who was responsible for the night flying tactics we were advised to adopt; in fact, he frightened the pants off our butties one day when he told us all about air raids.
Mr Talfyn Thomas was Chief Warden for Abergranog and came to talk to us at school in the Big Hall. He came in his Chapel suit, tie on as well, with the little cutty-back collar, a tin helmet, gas mask, arm band with ARP written on it and a bucket of sand which he placed beside him.
‘What does ARP stand for?’ he shouted, in the same voice he used in temperance classes, where we had to go to learn about drinking.
‘A Runty Pig!’ whispered Boxy Potter behind me, and we all laughed, but Talfyn was oblivious to that remark, for he was lost in his zeal to save Abergranog from the Germans.
He told us about the sirens and fire watching and what to do with the sand, and it all sounded most exciting. At last he came to the ‘blackout’ and the danger of showing lights at night. He narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice to a hiss, as he did when he talked about ‘The Devil’s Brew’.
‘At night, ’ew boys, at night if ’ew’m out an’ ’ew hears Jerry overhead, don’t look up! Don’t look up, for ’ewer eyes do shine like cats’ in the dark! An’ if ’e sees ’ew …’ He threw his arms in the air and shouted: ‘IT’S BOOM BOOM! GOODBYE, DAIO!’
I never forgot it.
But there was fun to be had, too, slipping newts into cardboard gasmask boxes, sticking window tape over girls’ spectacles or filling inkwells with sand. The summer was fine, with ripe whinberries thick on the Incline, apples to be scrumped and the hedgerows full of blackberries.
To add to all this, I had an unexpected bonus. In fact, it was Mr Talfyn Thomas who was instrumental in one of the major achievements of my boyhood days and, maybe, even beyond.
I was allowed legal access to Little Pant.
Little Pant was the farm at the back of our house. It was made up of three lumpy cow pastures in the shape of an ‘L’, with a small cow house and barn in the angle.
Five fat and happy cows lived off the uneven sward, tended by Arty Parry, who also delivered milk. The owners were the Misses Prowle, two sisters who were very proper and described by Mother as ‘a bit tetchy’.
It was easy to scramble over our back wall and make sorties into the fields. They were of the old-fashioned type, rare today, for they were permanent to a degree. Uneven, lush, tussocky grass with scattered coltsfoot and buttercup, and clutches of thistles growing in odd patches that were occasionally scythed wearily by Arty.
Throughout the pasture lay hidden, like some manurial minefield, cowpats in various stages of crusted maturity, that attracted hordes of buzzing brown flies, multicoloured beetles and small boys’ boots.
That was one of the reasons I was forbidden in the fields, the other being that the Misses Prowle didn’t like trespassers.
My passport to Little Pant came as a result of ‘Air Raid Dispersal’, as explained in the Big Hall by Mr Talfyn Thomas. In the event of an air raid during school time, all children living within half a mile would be allowed home. Those living beyond the ‘safe distance’ would have to go to a friend’s house within the limit.
Because I lived over a mile by road, I was allocated a place in Wendel Weekes’ house. His father was a bus driver with Western Welsh and bred wire-haired fox terriers. Wendel was a good friend of mine and I welcomed the choice … although I would have much preferred to go straight home.
It was Miss Webb, our teacher, who gave me the idea when she was telling us about maps, and how black lines were for rivers and stripes for railways, brown for high ground and green for low.
‘“As the crow flies”,’ she said in her sing-song voice, ‘means that if a crow was to fly, say, from school to Abergranog Park, it wouldn’t go round the road, it would go straight from here over the farm and into the park. Much quicker it would be, wouldn’t it?’
I lived on Bowen’s Pitch next to the park and I was on to it like a shot.
I bit my pen handle hard with excitement, waiting for class to end so that I could tell Miss Webb of my scheme.
‘“As the crow flies”,’ I told her confidently, ‘I could be home very quickly if I went through Little Pant. Mother would be very pleased if I could, because she gets worried if I’m in school an’ there are Germans about.’
She listened to my explanation and said she would have to talk to Mr Talfyn Thomas.
To my surprise and delight, it worked. Subject to certain conditions, I would be allowed to go through Little Pant in order to get home during an air raid.
The conditions were, firstly, that the Misses Prowle should give permission and, secondly, that Miss Webb should come with me on a trial trip to ensure it was all right.
The Misses Prowle agreed, for both Mr Talfyn Thomas and they were big Chapel people and, subject to Miss Webb sanctioning the route, I had made it.
The day she came with me it had been raining and she walked with high, stilty steps to try and keep her shoes dry.
The cows were in the second field, and when we started across I felt her hand grip mine so tightly that my fingers stuck together.
‘You’re not afraid of cows, Hugh?’ she asked, in a shrill voice.
‘No, Miss Web
She quickened her step, forgetting the wet grass as we skirted the grazing bunch.
‘Have they got names?’ she asked, breathing rather fast.
‘Yes, Miss Webb. And I know them all.’ To have Miss Webb all to myself and to teach her about the cows was making my day.
‘The big grey is Old Blod and the little grey is Young Blod,’ I explained. ‘Because she’s her daughter. The red cow looking at us is called Lewis, because she came from Mr Lewis, Ty-Canol. The little brown one is very special because she is pedigree. Her name is Cystrema Golden Platter, but we call her Cis.’
‘And the big black one?’ she asked, nervously.
I savoured the moment. It had had to come and I wondered whether she would react as the Misses Prowle had done when they called one day and Mother proudly asked me to name the cows.
‘The black one,’ I said, looking up into her face, ‘is called Old Thundertits!’
Miss Webb did react, though not quite as obviously as the Misses Prowle. I don’t need to explain, of course, that Arty had let the name slip and that she was really called Blackie.
I suppose it was a wicked thing to long for an air raid, but I did, and I had to wait three weeks for the siren to blow in school time.
It came one Wednesday, just after dinner time, and, with instructions to go speedily home, class was abandoned. I set off down the road for the gate to Little Pant. Once inside the first field I slackened pace and scuffed delightedly through the long grass.
I was halfway across the second field, which I thought was empty, when I saw her, Old Thundertits, lying on her side, all by herself.
She seemed such an odd shape, her stomach blown up like a drum, and she was grunting great squirts of steam from her nose. I stood and watched for some minutes before I plucked up courage to draw closer.
Her one horn was covered in fresh soil where it had been digging in the ground and her eyes were stary and unblinking. It was only when I was very close that I noticed the lump beneath her tail. It was large and balloon-like and shimmered in the afternoon sun.
Every time she grunted it grew bigger and, when it suddenly moved, I held my breath.
I stood transfixed as the lump elongated, wriggled and writhed behind the old cow. Suddenly I was conscious of a droning in the air above, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the swelling behind the straining legs. Old Thundertits was gasping, then the shape grew suddenly much bigger and the droning sound louder. For a fleeting second a great shadow covered us both, then there was a ‘pop’, the balloon burst and amid a rush of brown water I saw two small feet and a head appear. It was a baby calf.
Although I’d never seen anything like it in my life before, I didn’t feel frightened or ill — just mesmerised. Then the feet moved up and down as if waving at me and the mouth partly opened to give out a watery bawling sound. Still moving its feet, it bawled again, then pushed out a short pink tongue that curled up to its nose.
I was in no doubt that the little creature was asking for help, so I squatted down and took hold of one of the legs with both hands.
I shall never, ever forget the sensation. Warm and tacky it was, but it was the wonderful feeling of life, even though it was just a leg, that thrilled the whole of my tingling body.
The leg plucked back a shade, but I didn’t let go. Then it came forward about six inches; I re-adjusted my squat and pulled gently, and the little creature came forward even more. Both legs were now clear to the shoulders and the head was quite free. Suddenly, Old Thundertits gave one mighty heave and the calf shot halfway out, accompanied by a great flood that ran all around my boots. I stood up a little, and as I did there was another heave and out it came — all of it — wet and still bawling and its big brown eyes blinking in the light.
I stayed and watched the old lady get up and lick her newborn. It was unbelievable how quickly it tried to stand. I made a move to help but Old Thundertits moaned at me, so I left it alone.
It was only when All-Clear sounded that I remembered about the air raid and, running through the cow pats, I sped home to tell Mother.
It was all the talk of Abergranog the following day. Quite a lot of folk had seen the stray Heinkel He III, with the black cross and swastika on its tail, sail up the valley.
‘I saw the German pilot,’ said Boxy Potter. ‘Clear as anything. Come right over our garden, just as I got home.’
The rest of the class listened in awe as Boxy described the sight. Even Miss Webb let him have full rein, and he made the most of it.
‘You must have seen it!’ He looked over to my desk with a superior sneer on his spotty face. ‘It come right over Little Pant as ’ew was goin’ home.’
The eyes of Class Two fell upon me.
‘Did ’ew see it?’ asked Wendel.
‘No. I didn’t,’ I replied.
‘Hidin’ ’ewer eyes, was ’ew?’ Boxy chimed in sarcastically.
The whole class laughed and waited for my reaction.
‘I was watching a calf bein’ born,’ I said nonchalantly.
There were gasps of surprise and admiration. Boxy sat down and I knew I had stolen his glory.
‘Was this at Little Pant, Hugh?’ Miss Webb took up the management of the class again.
‘Which cow was the mother?’
‘Old … Blackie, Miss.’ Miss Webb gave a short gasp, then smiled.
‘Now that was interesting. Come up to the front and tell us all about it.’
So up to the front I went and told them.
I described the experience with such graphic detail that, when I came to the part where all the skin and brown jelly came oozing out, Boxy Potter had to leave the room.
That pleased me no end.
When I had finished I went back to my seat feeling pretty good.
* * *
If that experience did anything to guide me into the veterinary profession I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time. But no doubt, subconsciously, it started me on a trail that otherwise I might never have known.
The valley environment, while not conducive to veterinary practice, was not completely devoid of rural atmosphere as were some of the mining villages. There were of course the slag heaps, mine shafts and fiery furnaces, but we did have Little Pant and on the west slope was the Trevethin Wood. Rising steeply to three hundred feet, it harboured a variety of trees in straggling abundance rarely seen today, now that shaded green armies of spruce and fir stand rigidly aligned on every hill.
There were boughs to swing upon, trunks to scale, nuts to eat and huts to build. In the undergrowth there were rabbits to be tracked, nests to discover and secret hiding places. To the village kids it was paradise, a natural garden with bees and butterflies, shade and sunshine and, if one wanted, peace and isolation.
But in stark contrast, as if to emphasise the divide between good and evil, between it and the village ran the Avon Llwyd, the Grey River.
Born fresh and free at the valley head, in its travels it absorbed the trappings of the community’s rejection as displayed by bottles and tins, lumpy sacks tightly secured, assorted garments, dead sheep, old tyres and slimy, unidentifiable objects that floated along on a cushion of grey-black scum.
There was no life in the Grey River in those days.
Any natural movement, other than the turgid swirling of its pockmarked, evil surface, was confined to the large grey rats that scurried over its black shores, happy in the knowledge that their environment was of such a filthy nature that there was no competition for the right of possession.
And yet, this Stygian watercourse, like Little Pant, also played a part in moulding my ambitions towards a veterinary life.
To cross the river there was a bridge at Cwm Frwdd Halt and another, about a mile or so downstream, at the Foundry. It made a pleasant walk after Chapel to cros
But to the boys of the village there was only one way to the Trevethin Wood: across the Boggy Pipe.
Where it came from, where it went and what its purpose was I didn’t know — even to this day I’m not too sure — but it was black, fifty feet long, three feet in diameter and it traversed the river. On each bank, two brick pillars eight feet high, topped with smooth concrete, stabilised either end of the pipe and supported the black iron girder that ran beneath it right across the murky divide.
At two-foot intervals, raised iron hoops clamped the girth of the pipe to the girder.
In the unlikely event of anyone being foolish enough to try to climb upon the pillars, rows of razor-sharp, multicoloured fragments of broken bottles had been embedded in the concrete to foil the attempt.
As if this wasn’t sufficient to deter such a maniacal act, barbed wire had been wound in profusion around the front of the pillar and the first three feet of the pipe, to make the passage from pillar to pipe an act beyond the comprehension of any rational mind.
It was this pipe that the village boys regularly traversed in order to get to the Trevethin Wood.
To the accomplished it presented no problem. To others it was a void in the happiness of youthful experience and a barrier to full involvement and participation in the joys of the Trevethin Wood. When gangs crossed the pipe, the weak had to run up-or downstream to the bridges. Breathlessly we would stumble through the trees to the other side, eager to join up with the mob. But by the time contact had been made, nuts had been devoured, blackberries consumed, trees booked and friendships struck.
If you didn’t go across the Boggy Pipe it was useless. You missed out on everything.
There were two reasons why I had never attempted to cross the Boggy Pipe. One was that Mother had forbidden it, and the other, that I was very, very scared.
Many was the night I had attempted to cross it in my mind as I lay in bed. But even in the secure and friendly confines of my room, I could not bring myself mentally to finish the course. I saw myself isolated for ever, clinging to the middle, the waters of the Avon Llwyd sucking at my feet, while dead sheep, multicoloured rats, green glass bottles and slimy things spun in a devil’s merry-go-round beneath.