January 25, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
THE HERO OF THE HERD
Dr. John McCormack
Crown, 1999, $23.00.
Dr. John McCormack has added a third volume to his tales based on his experience as a veterinarian in Butler, Alabama, the county seat of Choctaw County. His first two books, FIELDS AND PASTURES NEW and A FRIEND OF THE FLOCK, did not exhaust the material he collected while serving as the only vet in the county for the ten years before he took a position as professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia. He was on call twenty-four hours a day, but he loved his work and the people he encountered in it.
The McCormacks moved to Butler in 1964, a few years after a paper mill had located in the county, bringing newcomers to the town from northern states. The Vanity Fair plant was new, and more oil was being discovered in the south part of the county. "In addition, the secret was out about the county's prominence as a deer and turkey hunter's paradise, which attracted hunters from all over the country. Because it was obviously an up-and-coming county with friendly people and many recreational opportunities, including a new nine-hole golf course, it just seemed like a good place to live and work."
Dr. McCormack and his family were happy in the small town where they were welcomed and accepted as soon as they arrived: "Those were happy years for my family and my practice..."; he feels fortunate that they were spared the "violence that erupted in places like Selma." He must also be grateful that he discovered the secret of his success as a writer in that time and place: "It was in the sixties when I realized that everyday humor might just save us all from ourselves....I know my life has been better since I learned to laugh at myself, and being a country veterinarian gave me a lot of opportunities to do just that."
The humor, usually directed at the doctor himself, is based on everyday occurrences in the work of a country vet. The first tale features a particularly nasty prank orchestrated by the "sanitary engineer," a fifteen-year old boy, in revenge for a prank the vet had played on him the week before. Dr. McCormack is humble and apologetic about his prank, hinting that he deserved the unforgettable retribution he had to suffer as payment.
The source of much of the humor is not in the incidents recounted but in the reactions of the animal owners and the local custom of making humor out of accidents, losses and embarrassing situations. When the doctor expresses admiration for a wife, an elegant lady who was always perfectly groomed and dressed, sitting on the side of the highway with her husband's bull while he takes a second bull injured in a freak accident to be examined, and wonders at how much she must love her husband, she answers "Either that, or maybe it's just because he had his ox in a ditch."
Humor was practiced professionally at some locations. Mrs. Ruby's store, between Lisman and Cromwell, was one of them. "Another benefit of relaxing at Miss Ruby's was the store sitters...The sole purpose for the sitters to be there was to insult incoming customers by making fun of their pickup trucks, low-rating their hunting dogs, and joking about how many weeds were in their cotton patches. A stranger wasn't messed with much, unless the foreigner said something disrespectful about the bad conditions of the local roads or how backward everybody around there seemed. Then he was fair game...Most outsiders who smarted off would be overwhelmed and have to escape out the door and scratch off in their cars, the echoes of the sitters’ guffaws ringing in their ears. What they wouldn't understand was it was just a group of friends having fun, and if they had just laughed along they might have enjoyed themselves. Actually, once the sitters got to know you, it was a bad sign if they didn't throw at least one good-natured insult your way." The doctor is greeted with, "What you doin' up here, Doc? Tryin' to run over some dogs?" followed by, "Naw, he's goin' around the county sowin' blackleg germs and sprayin' the air with hog cholery virus."
Another encounter with store sitters occurs in chapter 23, immediately after the lost vet has made the mistake of entering "The Last Chance," a honky-tonk just over the Alabama- Mississippi state line, an unsafe place where strangers are suspect and the regulars like nothing better than a brawl. He escapes while the bar sitters argue over the location of the farm the vet can't find and finds what he assumes is a safer place down the road in Buford's Gas and Gro. His request for directions to the farm he is trying to find is answered with the same question he heard in the honky-tonk: Which vet killed Fred Turner's black Jersey cow? Dr. McCormick leaves quickly: "...I wanted to get out of there before I confessed to being the vet responsible for the demise of Fred Turner's cow."
Another location for original humor is the golf course, where the vet has a match of triumphant victory after a dog bite renders his right hand useless. His partner advises, "I been tryin' to tell you all along to keep your right hand out of the shot. That's why you're always slicing it over to the right." His partner is correct. He shoots the best golf ever, but his buddies resent the advantages they have given him out of sympathy for an injury and even his best friend and partner won't talk to him. His hand heals, and his golf game descends to normal mediocrity again. "I was cautiously welcomed back into the brotherhood of local golfers," he reports. Since that day of glory, he occasionally thinks about improving his game. but he concludes, "I have decided the friendship of my golfing buddies is more important than scoring in the seventies."
The barbershop of Mr. Chappell is the main source of news in Butler at this time. "Not only did Chappell and his associate, Myatt, know everything on any given day, at least half their customers were equally as gifted. It was impossible to pay them a visit without having to suffer through an exhibition of their information-delivery prowess, but when you walked out the door you felt totally updated about affairs local, regional, international and even extramarital." Here, too, the waiters practice their wit, arguing about Alabama and Auburn, Fords and Chevrolets, and home remedies versus veterinarian-prescribed medicine.
When Dr. McCormick is talked into buying a new pickup by salesman Clatis Tew, he finds that the entire town knows that he is going to succumb to the charms of "the world's greatest pickup truck salesman and all-around good guy" before he knows it himself. When he starts to tell his wife, she answers, " Yeah, I know, you need to get a new truck." He asks how she knows. "Lucille down at the beauty parlor saw you and Clatis looking at that new one this morning. Plus, the way you've not exactly been yourself lately, I figure you've got the trading fever."
After the new truck is bought, the doctor rides around the town showing off his new white pickup, parking in front of Chappell's barbershop, "so the professional communicators there could pass judgment on the truck before they passed the news on to their customers." He has to endure the jokes of the Ford truck fans and to defend the virtues of his General Motors model, but these jokes and put-downs are part of the fun of getting a new truck.
The book ends with a nostalgic tribute to life in the small town where he started his professional career. "...I worked daily with good and honest, down-to-earth people. By big-city standards, our income was unimpressive, but my commute to the animal clinic took all of two minutes, except late at night, when it took a minute and a half, because I didn't see the need to stop for the traffic light. Butler was almost crime-free, and like many citizens, we never locked the doors of the house."
Chapter eight describes the inspection of the doctors records by an IRS agent from Mobile, and this anecdote gives a much more entertaining picture of the superiority of small-town manners and customs than the doctor's factual explanation can. The scathing portrait he creates is the opposite of the kind of personality Dr. McCormack has learned to appreciate in his small town world: friendly, courteous, helpful, considerate, and good-humored.