By Bill Stork, DVM
We were recently approached by a retired social worker who spent a career's worth of compassion in the service of people in need. Motivated to redirect her energy and exercise her love of animals, she is planning a doggie daycare and walking service, here in Lake Mills.
In order to ensure that she breaks out of the not-for-profit business model, she has sought the input of potential customers and professionals. She approached Mittsy, our staff behaviorist, looking for insight and expertise. Apparently indefatigable in her mission to ensure the proper treatment and socialization of anything that breathes, Mittsy was quick to avail herself.
I was invited to attend as well and the calendar was marked, the last Monday before Labor Day. The three of us met at Waterhouse Foods for lunch. Molly sat across the table from me and armed with pen and a virgin legal pad, her enthusiasm was infectious.
I fully expected my input would be to focus on the prevention of infectious diseases and internal parasites. We weren’t quite that far when Molly commented about the dog walking service, "That shouldn’t really take all that much.” She was seeking input, so I pulled up my experience and that’s what I gave her.
“Molly, I wouldn’t start with any less than a 300,000 candle power headlamp, a fresh set of batteries, snow shoes, two “handyman” farm jacks capable of picking up a John Deere 4020, a snow shovel, four foot pry bar, several sturdy sections of 4x4’s, an assortment of shims, a zip-lock full of leftover New York Strip, a bottle of 12-year-old single malt Scotch, and Steve’s Car and Truck Service on speed dial.
She began to dutifully take notes, then slowly her head rose as she wasn’t sure if I was describing watching dogs or mining for coal.
My experience as a house-sitting dog walker spans two states and thirty five years. I declared my veterinary vocation somewhere around 8th grade. Even though I wouldn’t know a displaced abomasum from pemphigus for another 15 years, from that point forward I was the de facto dog walker of Nickey Avenue. That said, three ill-fated events have served to guarantee I will forever focus on the identification of periodontal disease and exfoliate cytology.
My first patient was a geriatric cocker spaniel named Burt whose family was taking a wood-paneled Ford station wagon to the Grand Canyon. He had chronic otitis and a mouth full of abscessed teeth that he would happily attempt to sink into any shadow that resembled a human appendage, detectable through the haze of his bilateral hyper-mature cataracts. Even if those hands belonged to he who was trying to snap a leash to his collar and take him for a “business trip” around the yard.
It’s an easy extrapolation as to how he may have gone AWOL, and why capturing him was an additional challenge after we had found the wayward blind-deaf spaniel. Knowing that Burt’s owner was a terminally cute 17-year-old dancer would only invite speculation as to why I would have contracted the job for little or nothin’ and question my sincerity and devotion to my future profession.
One would think that the warm-and-fuzzy of watching Burt reuniting with his family, and the reward of a Grand Canyon keychain and T-shirt might derail the dream of vet school and launch me into a career of walking dogs. Instead, I artfully avoided any conversation that might lead up to, “We’re only going to be gone for a few days, and she is such a nice dog…”
Until December 1993, when The Pope called.
With all due respect to my flatland upbringing, the minute my boots hit the ground in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, I was home. When Brett Favre took the field in relief of an injured Don Majkowski, it was time to sink roots.
Just past my elbow in the rectum of one of Joe Spoke’s Guernseys, I mentioned that I was looking for a good spot to build a house. My fingertips found the pea-sized fetus in the right horn of her uterus, and I reported to Joe she was pregnant. As we strolled three stalls west to our next cow, Joe responded,
“Well, Bill, halfway down Elm Point Road, on the edge of Korth farm there is a 1-acre lot that has been for sale forever”.
It was en route, so I stopped on my way back to the clinic. I could imagine a dining room picture window poised to watch the sunset over Dave’s corn and beans. In the living room I could peer over the Sunday paper and watch the deer and Sandhill Cranes graze Mr. Strasburg’s alfalfa. Elm Point was a dead-end road with lots of weekend traffic. Winters would be quiet. Once the leaves fell you could see the glimmer of Rock Lake from the bedroom window, 300 feet to the North.
I stood on the crown of the blacktop in my Lacrosse overshoes with thumbs through the straps of my coveralls and brought myself back to reality. There would be impediments, not the least of which was a grove of government-issued multiflora rosebushes and a hundred volunteer box elders.
“Son, you could put on a brand new pair of Levi’s, and by the time you got to the back of that lot, you’d be buck-naked and bloody,” Dad summed things up.
True enough, but we were no stranger to skid loaders, backhoes, chain saws and diesel fuel. Give us two good men, a ham sandwich for each one and a Stanley thermos of coffee. With an inch or so of rain and a 10-hour day, we’d turn that jungle into a manicured lawn.
My finish carpentry skills were pretty much maxed out when I built a clubhouse around the sandbox out of old pallets and plywood in 5th grade. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine did as well as any institution could in preparing its graduates for a career in animal health. There was little grey matter remaining for business and finance. I was driving a half-ton, two-wheel-drive, Chevy work truck showing 200k on the odometer when the cable on the speedometer broke a year ago. My “Sunday go to meetin’ and funeral” clothes consisted of the khakis and navy blue blazer from vet school graduation, and I packed my own lunch.
Short of divine intervention, being able to cash flow a mortgage seemed unthinkable, but damn, that was where I wanted to push my kids on a tire swing and retire.
Were it not for “The Pope,” it never would have happened.
Jim Pope is impeccably dressed, meticulously coiffed and well-spoken. He may fly his plane to Mexico on Friday, race a dune buggy across the Baja on Saturday and be carving up a slalom course on Sunday; but Monday morning at 4:00AM, he’ll be behind the desk and on the phone.
Jim was “Ask Jeeves” and “Match.com” when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were still in a garage in Seattle. In need of a sport coat that fits just right or the best sushi in Madison? He’s “got a guy”. Have a Saturday night and a lonely heart? Jim’s got a secretary who loves animals, western swing and two-steppin’.
Find yourself staring at an acre of scrub trees and rusty rolls of barbed wire and broken bottles, the number was the same. To say Jim is a banker would be equivalent to “Jimi Hendrix played a little guitar”.
His lending style has been referred to as aggressive, or at times creative. That said, have your eye on the Biltmore, and he’ll hook you up for 20k down and 7.5% Apr… until you’re 215 years old.
Jim Pope may be a modern day Milburn Drysdale, but under the lapel of his tailored suit beats a big, kind heart. There were two things he loved more than anything: pulling his mother behind his ski boat on Sunday mornings, and his little dog Rambo on his lap, beagle ears flapping in the breeze.
What Wikipedia doesn’t know is that the Vietnam veteran in the iconic 1982 film was named after an animal far more menacing than Sylvester Stallone with a knife, a machine gun, or dialogue. “Rambo” was an 18lb Jack Russell Terrorist-beagle-dachshund cross. Her black floppy ears and white tips of three toes and tail did not belie the devil within. Oh sure, she’d sniff your ear and lick your nose, but it was all a carefully calculated ploy to construct a false sense of security. Enter the room with a needle and syringe intent on vaccinating or heartworm testing, and she would draw “First Blood”. So much as think of a nail trimmer, and you would be unceremoniously dismantled, in seconds.
All of which was lost on The Pope. Across a boardroom table in a business deal, he made Donald Trump look like a 6-week-old Golden Retriever puppy. Bring Rambo to the vet and he was nervous as the proverbial Dallas “madam” in the front pew of a Catholic church. Upon arrival he’d be shaking like a dog trying to pass a pin-cushion. Conveniently, his pocket would ring.
With some combination of canned dog food, beach towels and sleight of hand, Rambo would be tested and protected. She’d be wagging her tail when Jim returned from icing a million dollar deal on a condo in Tahoe, while pacing a path in the black top.
The hard-wired cell phone on the dash of the old Chevy lit up as I reached to shift from 3rd to 4th. Two Styrofoam egg cartons squeaked at the bottom of a brown bag on the passenger seat. Loaded with enough provisions to “hunker-down”, as last night’s ten o’clock news warned of "8 to 10, with blowing and drifting."
“Hello, Mr. Bill, this is The Pope,” as only he could refer to himself.
“What can I do for you, Jim?” There was only one answer to whatever was the question from the man who held your mortgage and had saved you $1500 on a well.
“I’ve been called out of town and need someone to watch Rambo for a few days,” as if he were asking me to sweep the snow from his sidewalk.
There was a pause as I contemplated slamming the truck into a snowbank.
When the EMTs arrived, I would have neck pain and impaired speech. I had atropine on board that I could drip in one eye and dilate the pupil. Anisocoria and a case of unilateral partial paralysis would throw the neurologists off the trail long enough for Jim to find another pet sitter.
To be continued...