Baxter Black: Postcard to an old friend
November 19, 2010
I sent the final postcard to Bob before Christmas. For the last twenty years I’ve sent a postcard to Bob and Dottie from every place I traveled to. That would be over a thousand cards. I didn’t write much on them, just where I was, what the weather was doin’, and maybe what group I was speakin’ to. Now and then I would call and once or twice a year Dottie would write.
Bob was a cowboy when we met. He liked to rope and could tell a good story. We got acquainted when I was practicing veterinary medicine in Idaho. He worked for me as the feedlot doctor. The fact that he was twenty years older than me wasn’t a big deal. He’d had several jobs before he moved to the feedlot, so he had a broad range of experience, although doctoring cattle was not part of it. Even to this day I have rarely seen people with such eagerness to learn, especially someone over fifty years old! His job entailed the daily treatment of sick animals brought to the “doctor shacks,” as we called them.
My philosophy with the “head doctors” in our feedlots was to teach them the basics of diagnosis, treatment, cattle handling and necropsy. Beyond that I would include snippets of pathology, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, parasitology and nutrition. I used big words. They learned them. Some took more of an interest than others. Bob actually studied at night! I would lend him my school books. I would copy articles about bovine ailments. Since the writings routinely used scientific words, he would have to borrow my Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. He would bring it back everyday, in case I needed it. This went on for months.
He was a pack-a-day smoker, Winstons, I think, or Lucky Strikes.
Frequently he said he was going to quit smoking, but he never did. One morning he was returning my Dorland’s and went into a coughing spell. “I gotta quit these coffin nails,” he said, “Here’s your dictionary.”
I said, “Why don’t you just keep it till you smoke your next cigarette.”
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“What if I don’t smoke for a week?” he said, “Or a month?”
“You can keep it,” I said.
“Even a year?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said.
“Good,” he said, “I’ll quit tonight.”
“I said, “The deal’s only good right now.”
I could see his anxiety addiction. I knew how much he valued that book.
“Okay,” he said without much resolve. I reached into his shirt pocket and plucked out his nearly full pack. He looked stricken! It was like I had kidnapped his child!
He was hard to be around the next few weeks as he worked his way through chewin’ tobacco, Copenhagen, Skoal packs, smoking a pipe, spitting Red Man, chewing cigars, chewing gum, toothpicks and sunflower seeds. But he never smoked another cigarette.
He retired and we both moved on. I started sending postcards. Years went by. Dottie passed away. The last time I went by to see him he was in the assisted living home and we had a nice visit. I noticed on his bookshelf a worn copy of Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. My first thought was cigarettes. I didn’t have to look inside to see my name and an address that was 30 years old.