Vets Might Fly, page 9
The incident came back to me as I sat in my room in St John's Wood
reading Black's Veterinary Dictionary. It was a bulky volume to carry
around and my RAF friends used to rib me about my 'vest pocket
edition', but I had resolved to keep reading it in spare moments to
remind me of my real life.
I had reached the letter
"C' and as the word
"Castration' looked up at me from the page I was jerked back to Rory.
I was castrating pigs. There were several litters to do and I was in a
hurry and failed to notice the Irish farm worker's mounting
apprehension. His young boss was catching the little animals and
handing them to Rory who held them upside down, gripped between his
thighs with their legs apart, and as I quickly incised the scrotums and
drew out the testicles my blade almost touched the rough material of
his trouser crutch.
"For God's sake, have a care, Mr Herriot!" he gasped at last.
I looked up from my work.
"What's wrong, Rory?"
"Watch what you're doin' with that bloody knife! You're whip pin' it
round between me legs like a bloody Red Indian. You'll do me a
mischief afore you've finished!"
"Aye, be careful, Mr Herriot," the young farmer cried.
"Don't geld Rory instead of the pig. His missus ud never forgive ye."
He burst into a loud peal of laughter, the Irishman grinned sheepishly
and I giggled.
That was my undoing because the momentary inattention sent the blade
slicing across my left forefinger. The razor-sharp edge went deep and
in an instant the entire neighbour hood seemed flooded with my blood.
I thought I would never staunch the flow. The red ooze continued,
despite a long session of self-doctoring from the car boot, and when I
finally drove away my finger was swathed in the biggest, clumsiest
dressing I have ever seen. I had finally been forced to apply a large
pad of cotton wool held in place with an enormous length of three-inch
It was dark when I left the farm. About five o'clock on a late
December day, the light gone early and the stars beginning to show in a
frosty sky. I drove slowly, the enormous finger jutting upwards from
the wheel, pointing the way between the headlights like a guiding
beacon. I was within half a mile of Darrow by with the lights of the
little town beginning to wink between the bare roadside branches when a
car approached, went past, then I heard a squeal of brakes as it
stopped and began to double back.
It passed me again, drew into the side and I saw a frantically waving
I pulled up and a young man jumped from the driving seat and ran
He pushed his head in at the window.
"Are you the vet?" His voice was breathless, panic-stricken.
"Yes, I am."
"Oh thank God! We're passing through on the way to Manchester and
we've been to your surgery . . . they said you were out this way . .
. described your car.
Please help us!"
"What's the trouble?"
"It's our dog . . . in the back of the car. He's got a ball stuck in
his throat. I ... I think he might be dead."
I was out of my seat and running along the road before he had finished.
It was a big white saloon and in the darkness of the back seat a
wailing chorus issued from several little heads silhouetted against the
I tore open the door and the wailing took on words.
"Oh Benny, Benny, Benny...!"
I dimly discerned a large dog spread over the knees of four small
"Oh Daddy, he's dead, he's dead!"
"Let's have him out," I gasped, and as the young man pulled on the
forelegs I supported the body, which slid and toppled on to the tarmac
with a horrible limpness.
I pawed at the hairy form.
"I can't see a bloody thing! Help me pull him round."
We dragged the unresisting bulk into the headlights' glare and I could
see it all. A huge, beautiful collie in his luxuriant prime, mouth
gaping, tongue lolling, eyes staring lifelessly at nothing. He wasn't
The young father took one look then gripped his head with both hands.
"Oh God, oh God...." From within the car I heard the quiet sobbing of
his wife and the piercing cries from the back.
"Benny ... Benny...."
I grabbed the man's shoulder and shouted at him.
"What did you say about a ball?"
"It's in his throat . . . I've had my fingers in his mouth for ages
but I couldn't move it." The words came mumbling up from beneath the
I pushed my hand into the mouth and I could feel it all right. A
sphere of hard solid rubber not much bigger than a golf ball and jammed
like a cork in the pharynx, effectively blocking the trachea. I
scrabbled feverishly at the wet smoothness but there was nothing to get
hold of. It took me about three seconds to realise that no human
agency would ever get the ball out that way and without thinking I
withdrew my hands, braced both thumbs behind the angle of the lower jaw
The ball shot forth, bounced on the frosty road and rolled sadly on to
the grass verge. I touched the corneal surface of the eye. No reflex.
I slumped to my knees, burdened by the hopeless regret that I hadn't
had the chance to do this just a bit sooner. The only function I could
perform now was to take the body back to Skeldale House for disposal. I
couldn't allow the family to drive to Manchester with a dead dog. But I
wished fervently that I had been able to do more, and as I passed my
hand along the richly coloured coat over the ribs the vast bandaged
finger stood out like a symbol of my helplessness.
It was when I was gazing dully at the finger, the heel of my hand
resting in an intercostal space, that I felt the faintest flutter from
I jerked upright with a hoarse cry.
"His heart's still beating! He's not gone yet!" I began to work on
the dog with all I had. And out there in the darkness of that lonely
country road it wasn't much. No stimulant injections, no oxygen
cylinders or intratracheal tubes. But I depressed his chest with my
palms every three seconds in the old-fashioned way, willing the dog to
breathe as the eyes still stared at nothing. Every now and then I blew
desperately down the throat or probed between the ribs for that almost
I don't know which I noticed first, the slight twitch of an eyelid or
the small lift of the ribs which pulled the icy Yorkshire air into his
lungs. Maybe they both happened at once but from that moment
everything was dreamlike and wonderful. I lost count of time as I sat
there while the breathing became deep and regular and the animal began
to be aware of his surroundings; and by the time he started to look
around him and twitch his tail tentatively I realised suddenly that I
was stiff jointed and almost frozen to the spot.
With some difficulty I got up and watched in disbelief as the collie
where he was received with screams of delight.
The man seemed stunned. Throughout the recovery he had kept muttering
"You just flicked that ball out . . . just flicked it out. Why didn't
I think of that . . . ?" And when he turned to me before leaving he
appeared to be still in a state of shock.
"I don't . . . I don't know how to thank you," he said huskily.
"It's a miracle."
He leaned against the car for a second.
"And now what is your fee? How much do I owe you?"
I rubbed my chin. I had used no drugs. The only expenditure had been
"Five bob," I said.
"And never let him play with such a little ball again."
He handed the money over, shook my hand and drove away. His wife, who
had never left her place, waved as she left, but my greatest reward was
in the last shadowy glimpse of the back seat where little arms twined
around the dog hugging him ecstatically, and in the cries, thankful and
joyous, fading into the night.
"Benny ... Benny ... Benny...."
Vets often wonder after a patient's recovery just how much credit they
might take. Maybe it would have got better without treatment it
happened sometimes; it was difficult to be sure.
But when you know without a shadow of a doubt that, even without doing
any thing clever, you have pulled an animal back from the brink of
death into the living, breathing world, it is a satisfaction which
lingers, flowing like balm over the discomforts and frustrations of
veterinary practice, making everything right.
Yet, in the case of Benny the whole thing had an unreal quality. I
never even glimpsed the faces of those happy children nor that of their
mother huddled in the front seat. I had a vague impression of their
father but he had spent most of the time with his head in his hands. I
wouldn't have known him if I met him in the street. Even the dog, in
the unnatural glare of the headlights, was a blurred memory.
It seemed the family had the same feeling because a week later I had a
pleasant letter from the mother. She apologised for skulking out of
the way so shamelessly, she thanked me for saving the life of their
beloved dog who was now prancing around with the children as though
nothing had happened, and she finished with the regret that she hadn't
even asked me my name.
Yes, it had been a strange episode, and not only were those people
unaware of my name but I'd like to bet they would fail to recognise me
if they saw me again.
In fact, loo king back at the affair, the only thing which stood out
unequivocal and substantial was my great white-bound digit which had
hovered constantly over the scene, almost taking on a personality and
significance of its own. I am sure that is what the family remembered
best about me because of the way the mother's letter began.
"Dear Vet with the bandaged finger. . ."
;5 Chapter Eight My stint in London was nearing its end. Our
breaking-in weeks were nearly over and we waited for news of posting to
Initial Training Wing.
The air was thick with rum ours. We were going to Aberystwyth in
Wales; too far away for me, I wanted the north. Then we were going to
New quay in Cornwall; worse still. I was aware that the impending
birth of AC2 Herriot's child did not influence the general war
strategy but I still wanted to be as near to Helen as possible at the
The whole London phase is blurred in my memory. Possibly because
everything was so new and different that the impressions could not be
fully absorbed, and also perhaps because I was tired most of the time.
I think we were all tired.
Few of us were used to being jerked from slumber at 6 a.m. every
morning and spending the day in continual physical activity. If we
weren't being drilled we were being marched to meals, to classes, to
talks. I had lived in a motor car for a few years and the rediscovery
of my legs was painful.
There were times, too, when I wondered what it was all about. Like all
the other young men I had imagined that after a few brisk preliminaries
I would be sitting in an aeroplane, learning to fly, but it turned out
that this was so far in the future that it was hardly mentioned. At
the ITW we would spend months learning navigation, principles of
flight, morse and many other things.
I was thankful for one blessing. I had passed the mathematics exam. I
have always counted on my fingers and still do and I had been so
nervous about this that I went to classes with the ATC in Darrow by
before my call-up, dredging from my school days horrific calculations
about trains passing each other at different speeds and water running
in and out of bath tubs. But I had managed to scrape through and felt
ready to face any thing.
There were some unexpected shocks in London. I didn't anticipate
spending days mucking out some of the dirtiest piggeries I had ever
seen. Somebody must have had the idea of converting all the RAF waste
food into pork and bacon and of course there was plenty of labour at
hand. I had a strong feeling of unreality as, with other aspiring
pilots, I threw muck and swill around hour after hour.
There was another time I had the same feeling. One night three of us
decided to go to the cinema. We took pains to get to the front of the
queue for the evening meal so that we would be in time for the start of
the picture. When the doors of the huge dining room at the zoo were
thrown open we were first in, but a sergeant cook met us in the
entrance with: "I want three volunteers for dishwashing you, you and
you," and marched us away.
He probably had a kind heart because he patted our shoulders as we
climbed miserably into greasy dungarees.
"Never mind, lads," he said.
"I'll see you get a real good meal afterwards."
My friends were taken somewhere else and I found myself alone in a kind
of dungeon at the end of a metal chute. Very soon dirty plates began
to cascade down the chute and my job was to knock the food remains off
them and transfer them to a mechanical washer.
The menu that night was cottage pie and chips, a combination which has
remained engraved on my memory. For more than two hours I stood at bay
while a nonstop torrent of crockery poured down on me; thousands and
thousands of plates, every one bearing a smear of cottage pie, a blob
of cold gravy, a few adhering chips.
As I reeled around in the meaty steam a little tune tinkled
repetitively in my mind; it was the song Siegfried and I were forever
singing as we waited to enter the RAF, the popular jingle which in our
innocence we thought typified the new life ahead.
"If I only had wings Oh what a difference it would make to things, All
day long I'd be in the sky, up on high Talking to the birdies that pass
But in this reeking cavern with my hands, face, hair and every pore of
my skin impregnated with cottage pie and chips, those bird
At last, however, the plates began to slow down and finally stopped
The sergeant came in beaming and congratulated me on doing a fine job.
He led me back to the dining hall, vast and empty save for my two
friends. They both wore bemused, slightly stunned expressions and I am
pretty sure I looked the same.
"Sit down here, lads," the sergeant said. We took our places side by
side in a corner with the bare boards of the table stretching away into
told you you'd get a real good meal, didn't I? Well, here it is." He
slid three heaped platefuls in front of us.
"There yare,"he said.
"Cottage pie and chips, double help in's!"
The following day I might have felt more disenchanted than ever, but
news of the posting blotted out all other feelings. It seemed too good
to be true I was going to Scar borough. I had been there and I knew it
as a beautiful seaside resort, but that wasn't why I was so delighted.
It was because it was in Yorkshire.
Chapter Nine As we marched out of the station into the streets of Scar
borough I could hardly believe I was back in Yorkshire. But if there
had been any doubt in my mind it would have been immediately resolved
by my first breath of the crisp, tangy air. Even in winter there had