I’m wandering down an empty county road in rural Alabama. I do this a lot. Not because I’m lost, but because I’m trying to find a job site to deliver a few trees.
I’m used to following directions that include things like: turn left at the old barn, then once you go over the bridge on Moccasin Creek, just stay straight for about two miles. You’ll come over a big hill and at the bottom down yonder in the distance, you’ll see two gravel roads on the left side, right next to each other. Take the first one and just follow it a piece down through the woods. You ‘ll see our trucks in the clearing.
Que the banjo music.
Today is like that. I have a house number, but the GPS is laughing at me. This Lee County Road has changed names three times since I left civilization. Meaning since I passed the last gas station.
There are a few numbers on a few mailboxes. I’m looking for 4400. Three miles back the numbers were running around 257. 289. 417. When the road changed names, the numbers went to 18, 23, 39. As soon as I crossed the creek, I got more in the right neighborhood starting with 2376, 2482. I’m driving like a Grandpa, sitting forward, bent over the steering wheel, trying to make out numbers. There’s 39_1 and 3_98. Getting closer, even though some numbers are missing.
When I pull up to 4400, there’s a narrow gravel drive that winds up the hill and disappears into the Pines. I’m cautious about taking a trailer down country driveways not knowing if I can get turned around.
An older gentleman on a golf cart pulls up.
“Something I can do for you?”
I’m looking for the business end of a 12 gauge. You never know.
“I’ve got a few trees to drop off at this address. I’m debating if I can make it in and out of that drive before I pull in.”
“That’ll be for my son-n-law. He’s not here. Just follow me. You should make it just fine. There’s a big circle at the top of the hill.”
I make it to the top of the hill and golf-cart-guy is waving me back into a spot where he wants me to unload.
“Don’t worry about the grass. If you mess it up, he can fix it. He’s a landscaper.”
He reaches out to shake my hand. “How you doing? I’m Doc Patton. I kinda keep an eye out on things out here. I live across the road. I was checking on my donkeys when I saw you pull up.”
I’m untying my tarp and he’s talking the whole time. “I retired last year. Got nothing else to do. I’ll be 75 this summer, but I can help you get these off.”
Here’s a man who loved his work enough to keep going well after quitting-time.
“You said ‘Doc’. What kind of medical practice?” I like hearing people’s stories.
“I was a veterinarian for 50 years. Always loved the animals. People are too crazy for my taste.”
I dove in a little deeper. “You work with livestock or small animals?” I roll up the tarp and get in the bed of my truck, then I step up on the trailer to start standing up trees.
“Both. But the last ten years or so I gave up on the big animals. Too hard on my tired old back, I guess.”
I’m moving Willow Oaks to the side of the trailer. “When I was about 12 or 13, can’t really recall. I was young. The Vet came out to our farm one night. We had a cow having trouble calving. Ending up the calf was dead inside his Mama. The Doc put on his long gloves, took a surgical knife, and put both arms up inside the cow and removed that calf piece by piece. Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
He grins. I can tell that his mind is chasing his own memories. “I know. I know. I’ve had a few similar experiences. You deal with animals long enough and you never know what you’re gonna run into.”
He helped me move the trees off to the side. There’s an envelope duct tapped to the post of a basketball goal. “That’s mine, I think. Wes said he’d leave me a check.”
“That’s my son-n-law for you.” He makes an announcement. “I’ve got two jobs now that I’m retired. I play with my grandkids. I’ve got eight of them and they all live within three miles of me. And my other job is to pester the stew out of my son-n-law, which I take great pride in doing well.”
“So, what do you do with yourself now that you put away your medical bag?”
“I’ve got 60 something donkeys that I fool around with. My wife thinks I’ve lost my mind. And I still get asked to help out with a few animals every now and then.”
“Like last week. Our neighbors down the road called me. Their dog had been going downhill for a while. He got real bad on a Friday night. They called their Vet but got his answering service who told them to bring him in on Monday. These Vets today think you can do this job during office hours. You can’t just leave an animal like that laying on the front porch waiting for Monday. So, they called me.”
“I wasn’t about to let that poor fella suffer all weekend long. They sat with him for a while, and when they finally gave me the nod, I helped him pass on. After all these years, it’s still the hardest thing I do.”
I collect myself. “Hey, you gotta meet Max. He’s in the back seat.”
I open the back door and Max sits up. Doc Patton leans in and Max gets the head rub of a lifetime. He seems to appreciate that these hands know exactly what a dog likes.
“He’s a nice looking dog. I can tell he’s got a good soul.”
I’m beaming with approval. “Yep. He loves to ride with me. He won’t let me leave without him.”
We shake hands. He offers up an invitation. “If you got time, you oughta come over and see my donkeys. I’ll bet you’ve never seen a whole herd of Hee Haw Jennys and Jacks before. You can’t help but smile.”
“I’d love to, but I got another drop to make.”
“Well, look. You tell that son-n-law of mine that if he don’t come get these trees he might find them planted in my yard before dark tonight.”
“Doc, good to meet you. I’m glad to know a fella that loves his animals.”
“Grandkids and donkeys. It don’t get no better in my book.”
I pull out onto the county road. I can see in my side mirror Doc Patton waving from his golf cart. In the pasture to my right is a herd, and I mean a herd, of donkeys.
Good luck Doc. There’s not many of you left.