At dad’s passing, memories come flooding back

Tom West - West Words
West Words by Tom West

On the evening of July 13, 1957, my dad and I, age 10, boarded a train bound for Chicago to attend a White Sox-Yankees doubleheader.

It remains my favorite memory of my dad, and not just because he took the seat behind the post so that I could see the entire infield, while he had to stretch to see the action.

On the way home, we stopped at dawn to refuel at Winona, and got off the train to stretch our legs. We started talking to another passenger and, when we explained that we had been in Chicago to see the White Sox, he told me how lucky I was. He had grown up six blocks from the White Sox’ park and never made it to a game there.

That memory and many others have come flooding back in the past few days. My dad passed away last week in Colorado, at age 97, after breaking his hip more than two years ago, and then sliding slowly downhill.

But my memories aren’t of the frail father. Rather, I remember the times we spent together during my childhood. I dreamed of being the second coming of Warren Spahn, the Milwaukee Braves’ Hall of Fame lefty with a high leg kick. My dad played catch with me on many summer evenings, even though my rag arm combined with the high leg kick meant that every third or fourth pitch sailed five feet over his head into the neighbor’s yard. He never told me to give it up, but instead turned patiently and walked after the ball.

Finally, he had a tarp made with a chute the size of the strike zone, and hung it on our swing set. He told me that I was throwing so hard that he was afraid he’d be hurt, although I think the only things he was worried about hurting were my feelings.

However, one time I persuaded him to pitch to me in our small back yard with the tarp as a backstop. He told me only to bunt because it was too hazardous to swing away. But at the end of the session I asked him to throw just one pitch, just one, and let me swing away.

He finally relented, and I hit what would have been a pop foul between third and home on a regular field. Alas, it wasn’t a regular field, and the sound of our neighbor’s window shattering made me want to run and hide. Not my dad. When the neighbor looked out the window, my dad hollered his apologies and told the neighbor to send him the repair bill. He took the hit for me.

He was pretty much unflappable. One day when I was 15, a friend and I wanted to play basketball in our driveway, but I needed to move my dad’s car. I borrowed his keys. The car had an engine worthy of Daytona. Showing off for my friend, I spun the wheels off the cement and onto the gravel  not once, but four or five times. When I brought back his keys, my dad just said quietly, “At least now we know you aren’t ready to get your license yet.” Message delivered.

My dad was a smart guy — so smart that he skipped two grades, graduating from high school at age 16. He loved football, and that fall, he was a walk-on with the Minnesota Gophers freshman football team. At 160 pounds, the idea that he could play tackle in the Big Ten seems ludicrous today, but he was tough enough, if not big or fast enough.

The next year, he transferred to Iowa State, graduating at age 21 with a degree in veterinary medicine. From the time he was a small boy, he wanted to be a veterinarian like his father. Not once did he ever express regret that none of his three children wanted to follow in his footsteps, but we had plenty of opportunities to see what being a veterinarian was all about. From the time I was 3, he occasionally babysat me by taking me along on calls. Often at first, I had to stay in the milkhouse, out of harm’s way.

When I was a little older, I helped him. Sometimes, I was called upon to catch pigs so he could vaccinate them. His advice was, “Catch the biggest hog in the pen first.”

One time, he was de-horning cattle on a hot summer day. My job was to snub the cattle and hold their heads steady while he sawed off the horns. The key to avoid getting tired, he said, was to keep breathing while he was sawing. He was right, of course. Many of us bear down on physically demanding tasks, and stop breathing normally.

He often served as the official veterinarian for the county fair. One year during the fair, some carnies walked into his office carrying a 12-foot boa constrictor that had stopped eating. Without blinking an eye, my dad set up a step ladder, the carnies draped the snake over it, with its head on the paint ledge, and my dad looked in its mouth. He had read somewhere that snakes often get trenchmouth, so he dabbed its mouth with some medicine and sent them on their way.

A few days later he asked the carnies how the snake was doing, and they said they had skinned it. That upset him. He was sure it would have recovered, and that it had just gone dormant until it felt better

My favorite veterinary story is of a Cesearean birth my dad performed on a black lab. All of the puppies appeared to be stillborn. Then I noticed that one of them twitched. It took some doing, but I convinced my dad that it had, so he gave all the pups a shot of adrenaline, put them under a heat lamp, and he managed to save two.

At age 55, he decided to go back to college, and earned a master’s degree in veterinary anatomy from Purdue University. His reasoning: “I keep getting a year older, but the hogs and the cows stay about the same age.”

From there, he went to work for the American Veterinary Medical Association as its director of scientific activities. A big part of his job was arranging the accreditation visits at the two dozen veterinary colleges around the nation.

He worked until age 71, and then enjoyed 26 years of retirement in Colorado. In his last years, I called him every Sunday, and made at least one trip each year to visit, usually during the NCAA basketball tournament. He remained coherent until the last few months. He always said he was lucky, and I agree. He had a long, happy, full life.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He can be reached at 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].