The traveling trophy

The traveling trophy

A life lesson learned decades ago in first-year veterinary school
Oct 01, 2009

Let me take you back a bit. The time is ripe (possibly overripe) to tell this story. It would seem that the statute of limitations has long expired, so I can sit back and freely spin this yarn without retribution.

Thirty-seven years have passed. It doesn't seem that long, but it never does to those of us who, like Rip Van Winkle, DVM, have awakened from a long parade of cat abscesses and knotted vicryl to find that the world is indeed a different place.

Let me take you back to my first year of veterinary school.

Besides the frequent all-night study sessions I also vividly remember softball. I'm talkin' 16-inch softball. It became apparent that 16-inch softball was, and probably still is, an obsession around Chicagoland. We played a lot of it during those first two years of veterinary school at the University of Illinois' Champaign-Urbana campus. As a small-town fella from southern Illinois, I was never exposed to 16-inch softball until I walked onto that campus. It was a lot of fun, and nearly everyone could play.

The ball is truly soft, so gloves are seldom worn. The ball must be lobbed to the batter. There are 10 players on a team.

The softball is the interesting part. After it is hit a number of times, it gets out of round and starts to look enormous as it leaves the pitcher's hand. Therefore this game is also called "mushball." The challenge is not so much hitting the ball as focusing on its likely center and trying to hit that spot. If you don't, you can easily look like a pre-schooler playing T-ball for the first time.

I wasn't very good at it, but some of my classmates could muscle it out of the park and play infield like Brooks Robinson.

Softball was just one of our diversions. We really needed relief from the sheer quantity of information we were expected to take in — so much that we felt like a mouse trying to swallow a 300-pound pig.

I am sure that pig today is well over 1,200 pounds.

So it was softball at noon, softball on the weekends and in the evenings if homework allowed. This form of softball is not inherently dangerous — or so I thought until one fall day. We were playing before class, and I was filling in at catcher. (I am sure whomever I was filling in for was a much better player, but I was pumped.)

Someone who hit a triple into right field was now standing on third base. This student was an enormous man: tall, heavily muscled and weighing at least 100 pounds more than I did. (Nobody really recruits 148-pound catchers.)

The next batter popped a small fly into short right field that dropped at the feet of my teammate, who picked it up and fired it like a rocket to (you guessed it) me. The big guy on third had long since left the bag, and that's when the lights went out. I woke up next to what would have been the dugout in a normal field.

That evening I started a lifelong friendship with aspirin. Thereafter, I tried to get picked to play on his team.

The border clash

One day in freshman anatomy class amid the warm bouquet of formalin and rotting animal carcasses, someone had a bright idea: Why don't we have a picnic and play the Purdue veterinary students in a cross-border rivalry game of softball?

Now, Purdue was not very far away, perhaps 100 miles. It seemed logical and a fun thing to do. Soon contact was made with the Purdue students, and so in the fall of 1971 we had our game at Turkey Run State Park, about equal distance for both teams.

All was well. The sun shone. The game was fun, and our IU team won handily. Many of us made new friends, or so it seemed.

We parted, and life went on.

On Monday morning we re-entered that dark path that every first-year vet student must follow: endless memorization of soon-forgotten facts and factoids to be vomited back onto paper during pressure-packed tests.

Still, in spite of the pressures, we played more softball and had some massive parties. Freshman survival tactics kicked in, and friendships were cemented.