The best teachers speak little. They scout poignant, instructive moments and shepherd pupils to them. Fine educators midwife pregnant events. Silent experience writes young minds, indelible.
So my Father taught me. His course book was veterinary outings. “Son, get in the car. First autopsy.” Dad’s white Volkswagen bug bounced down dirt roads trailing a storm of dust. A rancher’s corral held the bloated corpse of a prized cow. Dad murmured with the cattleman about contagion. They shook hands. The farmer ambled off. A scalpel slid down the bovine belly. Tugging pulled aside the beast’s hide. Tissues shone, pink and white and yellow. Fluids leaked. “Move away, son.” I stepped back. “Farther. Over there.” Howard Lancaster pointed to the distant side of the corral. I slid through the rails into a field. A scalpel edge glistened in late morning sun, then nicked the pressurized abdomen. Whoosh! An emerald stream jetted from the wound, arcing across the corral, a firehose of grassy glop. The vaporous mess landed on my feet, painting sneakers and shins green and putrid. “Not quite far enough,” Father chuckled, and beckoned me. Methodically, the cow dismantled. As hours passed, parts spread across the enclosure: intestines, heart, liver, lungs. All good. Then, working inside the neck, dad grunted. He excised a large artery impaled by rusty wire. “Careless barnwork,” he whispered. Some hand lost baling wire while breaking bales of winter feed. The cow ate it. That metal strand crept from a stomach though bovine flesh until fatally situated. The farmer nodded and sighed. At least his herd faced no epidemic.
My middle sister tells a calving tale. Father roused Karen in the wee dark. (Why do cows always birth at ungodly hours?) The distressed heifer lay exhausted from long labor. Donning an armpit-length glove, he probed the birth canal to his elbow. The calf lay wrong. Dad could not grasp its feet. His arm was too big. He hatched a plan with pre-teen Karen. My skinny-armed sister reached into the cow’s birth canal, seized the calf’s legs. Dad pulled Karen and Karen hung on to the calf until it came free. The steaming, slimy newborn slid onto the stall floor. The mother grunted relief, and licked her baby.
My youngest sister, Jill, was Father’s prize student. She too pulled calves and de-horned steers and autopsied victims. She helped spay dogs and cats and de-scent skunks. Jill watched giant pills threaded down horse gullets, and pondered the plight of listless goldfish. But, unlike Karen and me, Jill learned Father’s trade. At seven, she cleaned kennels. She advanced to reception. But she kept going. Jill learned everything else. She assisted surgeries, billed, ran the front office, screened problem cases, herded the staff. She still does, though the clinic passed hands since Dad retired. Among his brood, Jill learned most in Father’s silent classroom.
Horace (Roman, 1st century B.C.) wrote: “Deep in the cavern of the infant’s breast / The father’s nature lurks, and lives anew” (Odes, 4.4). We three children of Howard hope so. Howard Lancaster turns eighty years of age on July 2, 2008. It is a privilege to be his child.