I tried getting into a cat cage but we couldn’t get the door shut.
Not long ago I returned for a visit, my first in several years. From the outside it hadn't changed at all. I'd always had a vague notion of what the building's rectangular shape suggested to me. and then it finally came to mind: it looked like a yellow shoe box without a top. It was still bordered in the front by an anemic “garden" plot, and on the long side facing Marvin's Auto Repair by a bed of jackstraw that nearly matched the color of the wall at whose base it festered.
I got out of my car. walked across the street, and peered in through the front door. It was Sunday and the place was closed for the afternoon but would open up again for an hour at five to accommodate customers who might want to pick up their pets or leave them off before the start of the week. Almost as if it were meant to happen, a young woman came walking across the darkened office toward me. She opened the door and smiled. "Hi," she said. "Can I help you?" She seemed so friendly that I decided to ask. "I didn't really want anything. It's just that I used to work here about ten years ago and I was . . . well. I was wondering if I could just have a quick look at the back. For old time's sake."
"Sure." she replied. "Come on in."
I followed her through the main lobby, noting the same old pictures of dogs still hanging on the walls; left, past the front examination room and the side entrance that led into the two-car. gravel-bed parking lot reserved for the doctors; down the hallway: left again, and finally right past the x-ray room on the left and the bathroom on the right. Finally we passed through a door and entered the back room. I was struck silent by the sort of nostalgic reverence one feels when visiting a special place from the past, a place filled with memories good and bad.
“How long did you work here?” the young woman asked.
“About four years,” I said, trying to assess how much the main room had changed. “Boy, it sure looks different, but . . .” There was a certain newness to the place but everything felt .the same and smelled the same. (I remember how aghast some of the first-time visitors used to be at the thick, condensed animal smell and at my insistence that I couldn't smell anything unusual.)
We went through the other rooms inside the building and then stepped outside where the runs were, which was really no longer outside as they had now been covered by a plastic roof. “How nice.” I thought aloud, remembering all the times it had rained and we 'd been forced to lake the dogs out and use only two of the twelve runs, those two covered by a heap of thorny bougainvillea vines. Our impromptu tour concluded, and as we walked back to the front office. I thanked the young woman and. trying to think of something appropriate to say in conveying to her the extent of my former involvement with the hospital (and to allude to my self-proclaimed legendary status as, in Dr. Smith’s own words, “the best worker we ever had”), I blurted out, “You know, I think I could work here tomorrow and it would be as if I had never left.”
She smiled and said, “Well, four years is quite a while.”
I was sixteen years old and a freshman in high school when I started to work at the Coronado Veterinary Hospital. My older brother had been working there about six months when he asked me one day if I would like to work there too. “Sure,” I said, ignorantly. I knew nothing about working for money, regularly, with the incumbent responsibility of maintaining a schedule of hours and days, and I knew even less about dogs and cats as our family had never owned any pets. Yet I had no excuse not to go to work and so one afternoon after school my brother took me down to the hospital and introduced me to Doctors Smith and Malone.
"Working in a veterinary hospital is damn hard,” Dr. Smith told me flatly, carefully enunciating each syllable of vet-er-i-nar-y. (Later I learned that any mispronunciation of the word, the most common of which was vet-i-nary, would irritate him greatly. “That’s the lazy man’s way of saying it. It's vet-er-i-nar-y,” he would say pedantically.) Right then I knew that Dr. Smith was the central hub around which the hospital revolved, though his duties were primarily administrative in nature and all of the surgical duties had been relegated to Dr. Malone.
I met Dr. Malone for the first time when my brother took me in the back to show me around and explain the duties of a kennel-boy. Dr. Malone was the perfect counterpart to the boisterous, bald, and beefy Dr. Smith. Classically Irish, quiet, with a head of thick, wavy, black hair combed straight back. Dr. Malone was the epitome of the devout, procreant Catholic, the father of, at last count, nine children.
Perhaps I was too naive to have known what I was getting myself into, but I did suspect, even though I'd never had a job before, that working at the veterinary hospital would not be typical of the kind of burger stand, car wash, summer fun employment positions mythically occupied by high school students. And too, that first day, I suspected that I would be spending a fair amount of time at the place after Doctor Smith “suggested” that I start work right then instead of waiting for the weekend. What I could not foresee, however. was the extent to which the Coronado Veterinary Hospital would permeate my existence for the next four years. During school, I worked four out of five weekdays from 3:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m.; every Saturday from 6:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.. with a three-and-a-half-hour break in between (a “split shift”); and from 6:00a.m. until 6:30 p.m. on Sundays, with a break of four and a half hours in between. I also worked there every summer during high school, six days a week, eight hours a day. For the first two years, until I was eighteen, the split shift was confined to Saturdays and Sundays, and on the summer weekdays I usually worked from 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. with an hour lunch break. After I turned eighteen. Dr. Smith merrily informed me that I now could work more than eight hours per day, and I consented, putting in eight, nine, and ten hours a day, six days a week.
The inordinate amount of time swallowed up by work, however, only partially alludes to the extent the hospital influenced my life then. For one thing, there was really no such thing as an easy day, only days that were less hard than others. Yet in the strange sort of way a masochist loves pain, I guess I loved working, though in the summer that thought seemed perverse at five o’clock in the morning when I would crawl from my bed like a zombie from his crypt and have my mother drive me to work. We lived at the Silver Strand Naval housing project, which was sort of a non-place, technically in Coronado but two miles removed from the beginning of the city proper via the Silver Strand highway.
That circumstance abetted over the years the feeling of stealthiness and detachment that work at the hospital cultivated in me toward Coronado. It was all so secretive, gliding through the early-morning darkness past the Navy’s amphibious base, the Hotel del Coronado, and down Orange Avenue, cold and vacant. past all the expensive houses inhabited by active and retired naval officers, doctors and lawyers, and into the decrepit part of town where the hospital awaited my arrival with its menagerie of awakening animals about to explode like a bomb. That ruinous corner of the city, then the sore-eyed site of the barracks-style naval housing that has since been done away with, became my home away from home, and I always found it amusing and appropriate that I knew more about the dogs in Coronado than the people who owned them, and took delight in startling a resident I might pass on the street while they were walking their dog and address the animal by its name.
At 6:00 a m., after I cracked open the door to the back room and hit the lights. I would be greeted by a cacophony of barks, ranging from the shrill yips of the toy poodles, chihuahuas, and puppies to the booming bass attacks of the shepherds, beagles, and bassets. “Quiet!” I would yell at the top of my lungs, which might or might not shock them into silence for a minute or less.
A cursory visual and nose scan would reveal the early-morning surprises: dogs that had defecated, urinated, vomited, or tried to dig their way out of their cages during the night and lay. panting, on top of a mound of wood splinters. On rare occasions. there were also those that had simply dropped dead.
At nine o’clock Dr. Malone would arrive and make the rounds, walking by each cage section with a clipboard and yellow pad. writing down the owner’s name of each animal and noting the nature of its illness. Sometimes I would leave notes on the cage if I happened to notice the animal coughing or if it had a bloody stool or if it was sneezing. When the rounds were complete, someone would assist the doctor and someone would start the baths.
Dr. Smith once explained to me that the primary objective of the kennelboy in assisting the doctor was to make sure the doctor never got bit. and to that end I fulfilled my responsibility, though it wasn’t easy at times, grappling with an ornery bulldog or trying to hold on to an irritated cat. (I soon came to notice the fundamental differences between dogs and cats. Cats were impervious to all the varied techniques one might employ to gain the confidence of dogs, to exert human control over the beasts. The cats were silent, reclusive. and unsocial, staring out of their cages with brooding, contemplative looks on their faces, as if they shared a collective intelligence that was conspiring to overthrow their human captors.)
The danger of being bitten by an animal never seemed very great, and surprisingly. I found that the larger dogs were generally less hostile than the smaller ones. The notable exception to this was a stately German shepherd named Kaiser. Kaiser had the reputation of being the kind of dog that, if personified, could be likened to a Mafia hit man: businesslike and deadly. He was one of the few truly frightening animals I ever encountered. One day my friend Rob, who had started work at the hospital a while after me. related a strange confrontation between Dr. Malone and Kaiser. "I was helping Dr. Malone one morning while you were outside giving baths,” he told me. “Kaiser came in to get his nails clipped, but before we put him on the table, Dr. Malone muzzled him, of course. We put him on the table and I was holding on to him, but when Dr. Malone lifted his front paw, Kaiser went wild and started rocking his head from side to side with me holding tight and rocking right along with him. He was so flipped out Dr. Malone got irked and gave up. We took Kaiser back to his cage and I left to do other things, but when I came back I saw Dr. Malone sitting inside the cage with the dog. He had taken the muzzle off Kaiser and they had been there quite a while. Dr. Malone was talking to the dog, staring into its face and shaking his finger at him as if he were saying, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ I didn’t think anybody had that kind of nerve.”
Although I was excluded from witnessing most major surgery as the animals would be heavily anesthetized and I wouldn't be needed to hold them; I did see a wide range of minor treatments administered, including teeth cleanings, the setting of broken bones, simple injections, foxtail extractions, and breedings (artificial inseminations). Foxtails are tiny arrow-shaped grass tips that would work their way into a dog's skin and then fester, causing a lesion not unlike a boil. Commonly they would invade a dog’s foot in between its toes and Dr. Malone would pull the projectiles out with a pair of tweezers and dress the wound. A basset hound came in one morning with a foxtail lodged in its cheek, of all places. Dr. Malone lanced the pus pocket and the yellow liquid oozed out like a cool lava flow.
Cruelly, my mother decided to serve poached eggs for lunch that afternoon.
Of all the duties I was required to perform. bathing was the one task that will forever wed the memory of the place to me. I hesitate to describe it as an endearing kind of marriage between me and that antediluvian bathtub, but it certainly was an intimate and long-lasting one. I can accurately contend that I bathed just about every kind of dog that existed in Coronado during the years of my employment, from chihuahua to great dane, with a few cats thrown in for good measure. During the hot. beautiful summers, when I resentfully envisioned my high school chums frolicking at the beach, the wooden platform in front of the tub became, literally, my station in life, but I would assume it every day with all the pride and alacrity of someone who knows his job well and performs it to the best of his abilities. On the average, I would bathe five or six dogs a day, and on busy days as many as twenty.
No matter how I tried, I just could not stay dry while giving baths, even though we were supplied with rubber aprons for protection. I found the aprons too restrictive and cumbersome and stopped wearing them altogether, preferring to slosh around all day in shoes so soaked I felt as if I were wearing wet sponges on my feet, reeking of flea killer in a tattered smock plastered with an assortment of dog fur and feeling like one of the half-beast half-human creatures from the island of Dr. Moreau. On one particularly hectic afternoon, when it seemed every time I got done with one bath there were two more added to the list. I came dangerously close to overstepping the bounds of sanity when, squeezing a dog’s anal gland (standard procedure, believe it or not) the impacted waste material splattered into my face. “Aaaaaaaarrghhh!” I screamed. I asked someone to watch the dog as I stormed inside to grab a towel to wash off my face. Dr. Malone and Dr. Smith were conferring about something near the examination table. This, I thought, would provide a dramatic spectacle which would impress upon them the limitless extent of my devotion to my job and my willingness to sacrifice human dignity so that one more dog would be flealess and clean. Neither one of them noticed me.
More demanding than the daily regimen of work was the cumulative effect it had on a weekly basis, when it was all I could do to go home at night, eat, go to sleep, and wake up at five the next morning and do it all over again. There were times when it seemed as though I should be living there. I once worked fourteen days without any time off, and when I finally did get a break, was called in because someone didn’t show up. Another time I took the initiative to start work at five in the morning instead of six for a couple of weeks because the work load was too overwhelming. One night I did sleep over in the place, when, due to a mix-up, I couldn’t get a ride home.
Because we had so little free time to ourselves, Rob and I would devise diversions to break up the monotony of work, work, and more work. We designated one week, for example, “grub week" and resolved not to shower or shave during the week, speculating that all the bathing would probably keep us halfway clean anyway. I bought a worm-eaten, flapping-sole pair of work boots and a khaki safari hat from a Salvation Army store for the occasion, but neither of the doctors gave us a second look. After I had cultivated a few days' beard growth, though. Dr. Smith shot a disapproving glance my way.
From time to time it was our duty to paint the cages inside and out, when there weren’t many animals, of course. Another brainstorm struck me one day as we were methodically slapping away with our brushes. “Rob," I said. "I’m going to try and get into one of these cages. Think I can do it?"
“A bottom cage maybe, but I don't know about the others." he replied. Each cage section had three levels: three bottom cages for large dogs; five medium-size cages on the second level; and five upper cages for tiny dogs and cats. Getting into a cage on the bottom level was easy. The second level was much more difficult but astonishingly, I was able to ball myself up and actually have Rob shut the door, a stipulation to qualify the attempt as being successful. Just then Dr. Malone came into the back room and Rob resumed painting, leaving me inside the cage, ready to spring out when the door was opened, like a toy snake stuffed inside a can. Dr. Malone came over to where we were working. “How’s it going?" he asked.
“Real good," said Rob, trying to keep the conversation as short as possible. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Dr. Malone and I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting out with laughter at how ridiculous a snapshot of the scene would look. After he left, I tried getting into a cat cage but we couldn’t get the door shut and gave up as the wooden sides began to creak as if about to split.
I must have had a fixation with crawling into small places because once I also got inside of the big clothes dryer in the back and had Rob turn it on for a few revolutions. Rob was the originator of another practical joke one morning, when, after Dr. Malone had us spread some mousetraps around the garage, he placed a Mickey Mouse squeeze toy borrowed from one of the canine boarders in one of the traps and left it on the examination table with a note that said, "Got one!"
Then there was the time during my hippie phase when I found some felt pens in the drawer underneath a table in the back and copied the likeness of Jimi Hendrix on the inside wall of a stall, figuring it was safe since the doctors rarely made their way out there. It was a huge mural of Jimi’s face, with stars and crescents in the background and a speech balloon that read. “There ain’t no life nowhere." Two days later Dr. Malone came out back, saw the picture, and angrily said, “Do we have a little boy out here?" I scrubbed it off within the hour.
The people and the dogs came and went during my years at the hospital and there were those of both kinds that left their impressions and teeth marks upon me. There was a one-bedroom apartment in the hospital, located in between the front office and the back, and a couple was hired to live in the apartment and work at the hospital full time. The attrition rate was high and months would sometimes go by between couples. Toni and Bill were a young couple who lasted a little less than a year. Our work relationship was stable, though Bill hated giving baths, was less than overjoyed about running the dogs, and dutifully tolerated assisting the doctor. He was a big man who was a frustrated revolutionary of sorts, frequently lecturing me about the evils of corporate capitalism. He was given to having a drink or two on Sunday afternoons. When drinking, his marginally controlled violent tendencies surfaced, but one night after work I accepted his offer for a glass of rum and Coke anyway as I had never had one before and thought it was a kind invitation. By the time I got to the apartment. Bill had already been drinking for a while; in fact, he was thoroughly inebriated. I was sitting across from him on a couch next to his wife, Toni, who was a bit younger than Bill and a bit older than me, when he suddenly hurled his glass at my head, missing it by inches, and accused me of conspiring to get something going with his wife, with whom I had to work simply because Bill was often busy helping the doctor. I got up immediately. ‘‘Well, I think I’d better be leaving,” I said, heading for the door. Bill grabbed me by the collar of my shirt.
‘‘I could put you through the wall right now if I wanted to,” he said.
“I know. I hope you decide not to.”
He didn’t and the next morning his wife wrote me a note apologizing for the incident, which Bill claimed to have no recollection of. They split up after they left the hospital and I saw Bill a few times at Mesa College, where he eventually became A.S.B. president one semester. I discovered that fact one day after seeing his picture in the school newspaper, a scarflike headband wrapped around his shoulder-length hair. I called him up once years ago and he told me he was living with a group of people he called “the family.” I have neither seen nor talked with him since.
Another couple, Dan and his wife, were probably the most mismatched couple I encountered. Dan was a tall, gangling, crew-cut fellow who was just a bit slow of mind and not too swift afoot either; he was in his early thirties. His wife was a diminutive, bespectacled, frail woman who looked old enough to be Dan’s mother, or perhaps an older aunt. It seemed to Rob and me that Dan’s wife was taking care of him somehow. I remember during the hectic early-morning hours as we were running around with dogs, mopping cages, and changing the cat cages, she would flitter about, her presence ghostlike, chopping up bits of raw liver on delicate saucers and putting them in the cages of a few of her favorite cats. I thought, too, that she looked abnormally pie-eyed at times, and Rob and I would joke about her being a drug addict. One morning I came to work and discovered Dan and his wife had been summarily dismissed after she had been caught raiding the morphine cabinet in the back.
Still another couple, Jack and his tubby wife Elsie, whom Rob and I referred to as “Elsie the cow,” provided more thrills and chills. Jack was an easygoing, slow-talking Southerner who looked as though he belonged somewhere else. He wore black pointy cowboy boots at work, the click-clacking of which irritated me after a while. One afternoon he asked me what I planned to do after I graduated from high school. I told him I planned on going to college and get a degree in something, anything. “Did I ever show you my degree, Ronnie?” he asked.
“You’ve got a degree. Jack?” I said, trying to sound more interested than disbelieving. “Gee that’s great. What’s it in?”
“Wait,” he said. “I'll go get it.”
He came back and handed me a slip of paper. It was a certificate stating that Jack had been released from the Arkansas State Prison, after having served time for third-degree murder and kidnapping. After I left the hospital, I traveled back East for a while and received a letter from Rob informing me that Jack and Elsie the cow had had a falling out and that Elsie had taken flight one night with one of the two cars they owned, as well as their small trailer, leaving Jack high and dry. Shortly thereafter, he, too, had taken flight.
Without doubt, however, the most interesting personality I met was Dr. Paul William Smith, D.V.M., a remarkable man. That statement is not necessarily born of retrospection; I knew it then when I worked for him for four years. Nor is it born of an obligatory respect; he is gone, having passed on in 1979. He remains to me someone who more impressed upon me than impressed me, which is to say remarkable. Physically he was the kind of person it was difficult to imagine ever having looked different in life, yet inside of his roundly huge body and Marlon Brando/ Captain Kurtz bald head, there certainly was a thinner, athletic younger man that had long since stopped trying to get out. His boyish enthusiasm for sports — any sport — was so energetic there were times I conjectured that the ultimate reason he had become a veterinarian was that it was sufficiently lucrative enough an occupation to support his love of games, which was costly since he had season passes to every professional and semiprofessional sports organization in San Diego during the years I knew him, including the San Diego Gulls hockey team, the Clippers basketball team when they were called the Conquistadors, the Padres, and of course the Chargers. In addition, he patronized virtually all non-regular sporting events, of which track and field meets were his favorite. In 1972 he flew to Mexico City for the Olympic games and frequently was off to different parts of the state and country for other meets.
Compounding the aspect of mere presence as a testimonial to his dedication to sports was Dr. Smith’s insistence not only to buy in amongst the best seats available to a particular event, but to buy the best seat in each respective house; for the Chargers it was the fifty-yard line; for the Conquistadors/Clippers, midcourt; for the Gulls, front-row comer on the home half of the rink; and the Padres, front row, left side of home plate.
Just how he managed to secure these choice spots was always a mystery to me that, over the years, became more understandable as the Dr. Smith persona became more clearly elucidated. Of course he bought the seats, but I think too, in conjunction with the probability that he had persevered to get them, it had as much to do with the presumptuous, indefatigable spirit of his character that did not so much intimidate people as possess them by some indefinable power of persuasion. It was hard to imagine him having ever not gotten precisely his own way in life, especially when it came to sports. There were times I would go to a hockey or basketball game or a track meet with him and his wife Eula-dean, who was always there with him, sitting by his side as if she too were possessed by him but happily and lovingly so, and he would drive his big blue Cadillac sedan with all the finesse of a tank jockey, through hostile terrain and traffic, in an effort to avoid paying the fee for the Sports Arena parking lot and facilitate a quick getaway afterward.
Our relationship was basically a good one. and although I wouldn't go so far as to suggest it was as intimate as that between a father and son, it possessed certain aspects of such an affiliation. At times I hated him for what I considered to be a callous display of authority and discipline, and at other times I realized he really cared about me, and in his own way, was capable of showing gratitude for a job well done.
Granted, he had a right to be authoritarian. but aside from a general feeling that I was overworked and underpaid, there were specific instances that grated on me. I will never forget all the Sunday mornings — which, in theory, offered me a day’s respite from the six-day-a-week routine of bathing and grooming — when Dr. Smith would roll in to work in that Cadillac Seville of his and inform me, with all the pomp of a plantation owner addressing a servant, that I could wash his car if I had the time, as if it were a privilege. After an exceptionally virulent work week my bitterness might have gone so far as to manifest itself in a few under-the-breath remarks and the throwing of a towel or bucket or sponge, but the job was always done, completely, with windows washed inside and out and the hubcaps and fenders buffed to the most brilliant luster the tattered rags I worked with could provide. Even on Sundays my feet were wet.
One Christmas morning Dr. Smith arrived at work, unceremoniously wished Rob and me a Merry Christmas, and told us that once we got caught up with our work, which was considerable during holidays, we could take a five-minute break. We had quite a laugh at this after he had gone back to the front office. “Ho, boy! Five whole minutes! Thank you Mr. Scrooge!” I said, still laughing but disgruntled nonetheless. It was the first time in three years he had ever authorized a break.
“Yeah,” said Rob. “I thought he was going to say, ‘When you get caught up with your work you can wash my car.’ ”
Ten minutes later Dr. Smith came into the back again. “If you get a chance, you can wash my car this morning, Ronnie.” he said. Five minutes before, I had begun to assemble rags and sponges. What was supposed to have been my Christmas present to Dr. Smith had become part of another day’s work.
The most severe encounter, and I think the one that began a slow process of estrangement between us, happened toward the end of my fourth summer at the hospital. By this time I felt that if I did not exactly own the place, it could not do without me, and as long as I maintained my work habits, this tiny world of dogs and cats, as insufferable as it may have been to any outsider, was mine; I had earned it and could keep it for as long as I wanted. Outside of this world, at the time, a countercultural movement had taken root, and as my friends from school began to let their hair grow, my visits to the barbershop became fewer and farther between. Other concessions to hippiedom I made were out of Dr. Smith’s jurisdiction, but I think the afternoon Rob and I had gone to Ferrer’s Surplus store during our lunch break and I had come back sporting a suede fringe jacket and a pair of nonprescription John Lennon granny glasses prompted his determination to nip in the bud my aspirations to become a flower child. A week later, as I was hosing down a dog run, he brusquely said to me, “Ronnie, I want you to get a haircut.”
I was taken back by this abrupt demand, as it did not relate to my work performance, but I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
A week passed and I hadn’t gotten a haircut, thinking that Dr. Smith would somehow forget or reconsider his demand and the whole thing would blow over. I should have known better. This time he issued an ultimatum. “Ronnie,” he said, “I ’ll give you one week to get your haircut or I’ll have to start looking for a new kennelboy.”
I thought this was a preposterous threat since I had considered myself irreplaceable, but realized nonetheless that he was going to keep on about it until I relented, which I resolved to do at my leisure. Finally, the day my time limit had expired, he came into the surgery room where I was assisting Dr. Malone. “Well, I guess we’ll have to start looking for a new kennelboy. Dr. Malone,” he said.
“Okay!” I angrily responded. “I’ll get it cut this afternoon. “On my break, seething in defeat, I walked to a small barber-shop I had passed for years on my way to work, located just down the street from the hospital. By today's standards, the length of my hair was short, but back then, during the genesis of the hair generation, anything that grew beyond the tops of the ears was considered abnormal. The barber was just finishing a job on one of his buddies and as they talked I began to feel like an intruder, the kind of out-of-towner who blows into the local watering hole of some tiny borough. When it was my turn, the barber looked at me and said, “Do you want a haircut or a hairdo? We don’t give hairdos, you know.” His buddy laughed.
This to me was the ultimate degradation, traceable to Dr. Smith, who had no hair and, I spitefully reasoned, was jealous. “I want a haircut,” I humbly replied.
In my estimation I had saved my job but had lost some degree of self-respect and dignity and for the next couple of weeks I confined my interaction with Dr. Smith to only those responses necessary to answer direct questions. But no matter how imposing he was or sought to be. there was something inadvertently comical about Dr. Smith that often smoothed over his abrasive traits. Etched in memory, for example, was the time he asked me if I wanted two tickets to the hockey game that week; he was going out of town on business and couldn't use them. I readily accepted. thinking it was nice of him to give them to me. “Fine” he said. “You can pay me later.”
The next night, as a friend and I were sitting in Dr. Smith’s seats, an usher approached and informed us that we were sitting in Dr. Smith’s seats. When we showed him our stubs and I explained that I worked for him, I was swelled by a sense of being affiliated with the Dr. Smith, though I literally had to pay for it.
That prideful sense of working for Dr. Paul William Smith surfaced again one Friday afternoon when my brother and I had gotten paid but didn't have time to make it to the bank and were being threatened with being stranded without funds for the weekend. Dr. Smith called up the bank in Coronado and told them he would appreciate it if they would let us in and cash our checks, which they did as Dr. Smith personally escorted us there.
In the tradition of the boss/mentor espousing when-I-was-a-boy lore to a potential protege. Dr. Smith would communicate to me some bit of learned wisdom or past feat that might provide me with an example from which I might prosper. Usually his face would break into his famous grin, his eyes would narrow, and he would say, “Ronnie, when I was a boy . . .“ and then let me have it. I was talking to him once about a heavy study load I had one week at school when he grinned and said, “Ronnie, when I was a young man going to veterinary school, I studied so much that I ’ll bet if you picked up that medical dictionary over there right now and picked out a word and closed the book, I could open it to the exact page that word was on.”
This was an enticement I couldn’t resist, so I picked a word out and he opened the book, but was off by ten pages or so. But it didn’t really matter that he hadn’t succeeded. That he had so confidently attempted to do it, that he believed that he could do it, was good enough to convince me that he had worn the book thin with usage in his younger days.
One Sunday afternoon I was hanging around the hospital on my break and I noticed a dachshund that had given birth to puppies a few days earlier seemed to be in some discomfort, so I called Dr. Smith. It was a relatively quiet day at the place and when he arrived I put the dog on the table. I felt inexplicably ill at ease with just the dog, myself, and Dr. Smith there; it was a rare moment shared by just the two of us and I sensed he was going to say . . . something. He felt the dog’s mammary glands to detect any unusual hardness and turned to me and said, “Ever felt a girl’s tits, Ronnie?”
I had expected something, but not this. I thought of lying but the truth reflexively slipped out. “No, I’ll just have to wait a while longer for the better things in life,” I managed.
“Well, that’s a good answer." he started, with his back toward me as he turned around to fill up a syringe, “but . . .“He turned back around, gave the shot, and I took the dog away. By the time I got back he was gone. To this day, I still wonder what was to come after "but . . . .”
Despite his haughty, almost bullyish demeanor at times. Dr. Smith was not an ogre incapable of thinking of anyone but himself. When I told him I was going out for the high school track team, influenced by his interest in the sport, he took an immediate interest and it never waned during my four years at Coronado High. In fact, he actually went to my track meets when he could, both at home and away, which was an act of dedication beyond common, obligatory parental attendance (most parents didn’t even show up). I would see him in the stands, conspicuous in a red baseball hat. hunched over, smoking a cigarette with that inscrutable grin on his face that seemed to indicate he was having a good time.
In his own unintentionally humorous manner, he sought to inspire me in my running. Once he related to me the training practices of the famous Czechoslovakian runner Emile Zatopek. "Ronnie, do you know how Zatopek trained? He would start running and run as fast as he could until he blacked out. And a few days later he would do it again, only this time he would be able to go a little bit further; and he would practice like this until he had it down that he would black out just as he hit the finish line for whatever race he happened to be running.” My friends and I joked about this for a while and I would tell them I was off to the beach to run until I blacked out.
As I was at best an average runner. I would relate to Dr. Smith in awe-struck tones the incredible times and Olympic potential of Stan Stolpe, our team’s best runner. “Ronnie,” he would say to me, wincing thoughtfully, as though he were about to impart a bit of great wisdom to me, “I want you to go up to Stolpe. look him in the eye. and tell him you ’re going to beat his ass.” Psychologically, I suppose, this ploy was designed to force me to work harder to beat Stolpe, but the thought of actually doing it made me cringe. Nevertheless, Dr. Smith’s intentions were good.
The Smith residence was an unimposing but magnificent house called the Knight Kail Kastle that was located about a mile away from the hospital on First Street. It was the last house on the street, boxed in by San Diego Bay on the east. First Street on the west, a chain-link fence that was the demarcation line between the North Island Naval Air Station and Dr. Smith's house on the north, and the Funk residence on the south, home of Maggie the Yorkshire terrier. Immediately inside the front door was a huge heated swimming pool over which hung an assortment of potted plants that thrived in the tropical humidity of the room. To further enhance the atmosphere, the Smiths also bought a parrot that flew about unrestricted. The pool room was enclosed by sheets of wavy, opaque plastic common to patio structures, which gave it the effect of being more outdoors than in, and was separated from the indoor portion of the house by sliding-glass doors that led into a den of sorts and an adjacent bar/counter that defined one side of the kitchen. Beyond these two rooms was an expansive living room that faced the bay through long rectangular windows.
I knew the house because I spent time working there for Dr. Smith, mostly on my 4 "off" days, mowing a small patch of grass that constituted the front lawn, pulling weeds, trimming around the sprinklers, and laboring for years over a third-acre patch of ground in front of the bay windows which was actually the back yard but was referred to by him as the front. I think I should have had more success had I attempted to carve a replica of the Colossus of Rhodes from a chunk of iron than all my combined efforts to domesticate this rocky, weed-ridden piece of turf that was about as fertile as the La Brea tar pits. At first Dr. Smith would drive me uptown and rent the most abused-looking Toro lawn mower he could find from two Dutch brothers who ran a small key/appliance shop, whom Rob and I referred to as the Katzenjammer twins. He would then drive me back and actually have me "mow” the "front." And I would, petrified that I was risking at least my eyesight and maybe my life dodging the rocks that were ferociously whipped back at me. Miraculously, I survived without injury.
I left the Coronado Veterinary Hospital to travel back East for a while and prepare for college. And. too, I suppose I quit because I had simply had enough and felt I had served well enough to merit an honorable discharge. A rift had grown between Dr. Smith and me, due not so much to irreconcilable differences between our respective generations but more to the natural discrepancies that surface between someone who is going through changes in his life and someone whose ways are irrevocably set. When I finally did go, he wrote a recommendation for me, hastily scribbled out in longhand on a small piece of stationery paper. It read: "Introducing Ronald Jennings who worked for us for four years. He is the best worker we have ever had and I recommend him 100%. He is going through some growing pains now, as we all did, otherwise he would still be working for us now. We hope to have him back. If there are any questions regarding the verification of this note do not hesitate to call me collect. (Signed) Dr. Paul Wm. Smith, D.V.M."
I still have the note. I’ve never used it and never really intended to use it. The real compensation I derived from it wouldn’t have been extracted from the capacity for which it was written anyway. Just to have it in writing from Dr. Paul Wm. Smith that I was the best worker the Coronado Veterinary Hospital ever had. That somehow made it worthwhile.