Remembering Mike Forney by Robert Day

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It was 1970, and more than half way through an early autumn night when I first met Mike Forney. Rebel, a Labrador retriever of mine, had been missing for two days and returned home in bad shape. Rebel was a male and probably in rut, Mike said later.

I was new in Chestertown, having just taken a teaching job “up to the college,” as my landlord Charlie Stokes at Fair Hope Farm put it. The yellow pages listed the Chestertown Animal Hospital, with an emergency number that turned out to be Mike’s home on Quaker Neck Road—not far from where I lived off Wilkins Lane. I had caught him just as he’d been awakened by another call: a barn near Still Pond had fallen on a horse; Mike said he’d stop by after looking at the horse.

All of you who knew him can see Mike now: He has driven his white vet truck to the Still Pond farm, getting out to greet the farmer and taking stock of the matter. Indeed, the barn has collapsed on the horse that is trapped under it. The farmer has a flashlight. Mike peers into the wreck, spots the horse, and then goes back to his truck for supplies. Making his way through the timbers and splinters of I-beams and broken trusses, he crawls up close. He is a man gentle with horses, lame or strong. Gentle with dogs in rut.

Watching Mike, as the farmer might have been doing that night, we see him go to the horse’s head. He lays his hand on its neck, talks to it and, as the farmer passes the light along the flanks and belly and haunches, sees what scrapes and wounds need tending. My guess is he gave the horse a shot to tranquilize it. The farmer has his tractor ready to clear away the rubble. Be careful, says Mike, backing out to help pull away the debris.

In the dark the two men wait for the tranquilizer to wear off. Finally, the horse lifts and shakes his head, then pulling itself together with Mike holding the halter, stands up, front legs first as they do. Mike uses a can of yellow spray antiseptic (that he would later use on Rebel) to treat the wounds, checking the condition of the legs and hoofs as well. He should be fine, says Mike. I’ve got to go on another call. I’ll stop back by.

Mike Forney was to me what he was to most of you who knew him only, with a few exceptions, maybe more so. Maybe not. He was learned (not only in veterinarian medicine, but in matters of music, literature, and general science). He was quick-witted, curious, had an affection for words, and told jokes and stories with glee. Along with Buddy Moffett (the three of us shared a blind in Morgnec Creek), we’d laugh our way through an afternoon’s shoot. Our jokes—even to the last years of Mike’s life—would now land us in a Political Correct Rehab Clinic. Yet he was neither a racist nor a chauvinist.

I remember his story of an African American couple who had returned late one summer night from Atlantic City to find Baby, their pet rabbit, dead. But maybe not. They drove to Mike’s home off Big Woods Road and, turning their headlights off and on, finally brought Mike to the window, asking what was the matter: I think Baby is dead, says the woman. But she still twitches, says the man.

Mike gets dressed and comes down to examine the rabbit. It is indeed dead, its twitching means that it has not been dead very long. Mike is sorry. Would you like me to dispose of her for you? He asks.   No, but thank you, says the man.   We want to bury her at the house, says the woman, taking Baby from Mike. But we don’t have a shovel, says the man to the woman. Mike lends them a shovel and off they go. We’ll bring the shovel to the office tomorrow, says the woman. No hurry, says Mike. What beautiful folks, Mike would say as a coda every time I’d hear him tell that story.

And so it was, and so Mike Forney was, for nearly fifty years of taking care of what he called “his people”—white or black or Hispanic, rich or poor, or somewhere in between. “His people” were any and all of us who had cats or dogs or horses or milk cows (or once I knew of a pet snake, and of many more than once, badly shot deer or geese or ducks brought in by non-hunters) that needed care. Because he understood his clients were human as well as the broken-legged 18-year old cat that my wife took to him to be put down, he treated both with respect. It was the kind of compassion that calls for emulation.

How we became friends (how any of us become friends) is part luck, part coincidence, part who we are, each of us, to the other. Thus in this combination, Mike and I became friends that first night with a tailgate examination of Rebel. I found a blanket and a flashlight. Mike got medical supplies, a stethoscope, bandage wraps, sutures. Rebel was bruised and battered, but no bones were broken. Mike put the dog under with a shot so he could work. Two gashes, one on the neck, the other on hip, needed cleaning, and then stitches (Mike could tie a surgeon’s knot with one hand.). I brought the flashlight to bear on the procedures.   An hour later, Mike was finished and I took Rebel into the house. He slept through dawn and then twenty-four hours more.

A few days later, Mike stopped to check on Rebel (he was doing fine) and to bring me a bag of fresh “calf fries” from working bull calves that morning. He had somehow learned I came from Kansas and so thought (as anyone naturally would) that a man from Kansas likes “calf fries.” I did indeed, saying that in my country they were called Prairie Oysters, and that further west in Colorado they were Mountain Oysters. In trade, Mike would, over the next few years, teach me the language of the Eastern Shore: “Neck,” “cove,” “bite,” “line” (not “rope),” “… get up and down with you.” He was William Warner before Beautiful Swimmers. “Bob, you need to know the lexicon of the Shore,” he told me: “Bug-eye,” “sook,” “doublers,” “trout lining,” “she-crab,” “bateaux.”

My lessons of Eastern Shore life and language were “peripatetic” (yes, Mike knew the word), but instead of me walking behind Aristotle, I rode in his truck while he drove from one farm to another. In those days, he didn’t much like the office so he took every outdoor call that came. If I was free (especially at night), I could ride along. On one trip I met a dairyman with a 19th-century chandelier in his milking parlor to give it… a touch of class, he said. He milked his twenty cows by hand; I had in Kansas milked one and when I bragged on it, the dairyman asked if I might like to do the afternoon milking: The dog will bring them up, he said. It was the dog that needed care; a cow had kicked it bad. Mike said it would live.

On other trips I got to know a treasured crab-picking woman in Rock Hall (sick parrot), who taught me the Crisfield-crab-ladies method. Also in Rock Hall, I was introduced to Paddles Orr; and later to Termite Coleman who, as folklore would have it, could eat a bushel of crabs at one sitting. Mike pointed out a hut at the end of a pier where I could get up and down with a man who sold soft shell crabs: Ask for the hotel size, Mike advised.

In this way we drove off and on, for years.   Fixing dogs, tending to lame horses, putting cats under, and once pulling a calf (I had done that in Kansas and was of decent help with the calf puller, tying it to a gate post in proper style.)

One night as we were driving Mike asked what English Professors do. He wasn’t being coy, just curious. I said I taught my students the lexicon of literature, using examples: Poetry, novels, short stories, drama. These were genres, and they had their general definitions. More precise definitions came as my students advanced: English sonnets, Italian sonnets. Then into the interiors of these forms: dramatic irony, first person narration (and the rules), point of view, the language of prosody. Monologue as opposed to dramatic monologue. Villanelles as a form of poetry.

What’s the difference between an elegy and a eulogy? Mike asked. We had just put down a horse for a man who, knowing I was an English teacher, wanted something to say as it was dying. Go gentle into that good night, I said. Go gentle into that good night, the man said. Thank you.

An elegy is a poem that honors the memory of the dead, I said. A eulogy honors that memory in prose.

Bob Day

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Bob GarsoN says:

    Oh, Bob Day…You’ve said it all…and, as usual… beautifully.

  2. Joan Oliver says:

    It took me a long time to acquire a best friend. Thirteen years ago I did just that, when I met Mike Forney. We worked together, laughed together, cried together, and never said a cross word to each other. I will miss him every day for the rest of my life.

  3. Mike Johnson says:

    Thanks for the eulogy. It was as beautiful as any elegy could ever be, in part due to the subject I am sure. Thank you.

  4. Debbie Brown says:

    Thank you, Thank you for such a wonderful remembrance of such a remarkable man. He will be missed.

    • Liz (Gates) Haslbeck says:

      I will remember him fondly forever. Thanks Bob Day for those images and stories.

  5. constance gossard says:

    I think there should be a day named after him ,he was very important in so many ways !More then animals he tried to help people als0 he is resepected in many ways.

  6. Jane E. Hukill says:

    Thank you for those exquisite words about Mike. He truly was a remarkable human being and I will miss him every time I take my dog for checkups. We were indeed lucky to have him here in Kent County.

  7. Carolyn Brown says:

    Just want to say — love this elegy/eulogy about Dr. Forney — just marvelous.

  8. Scott Bramble says:

    Thank you Professor. I am so glad I took a break from the day to read your remembrance. A fitting and moving tribute to a wonderful Kent Countian.

  9. Thank you for a wonderful remembrance of Dr. Michael Forney.

  10. Lynn Schriver says:

    Thank you Robert Day for sharing such wonderful memories of Dr. Forney. I am so grateful for al the knowledge he was blessed with to help so many animals, the kindness he freely shared, the humor he voiced with a twinkle in his eye. The three dogs and two cats I currently have the privilege of caring for, were all worked on with Dr. Forney’s magical surgeon hands. As many others I will miss him always.

  11. Eleanor Lenher, DVM says:

    Dr. Forney was a wonderful man. One of the treasures of the easten shore, if you will. He was a mentor to so many. A trusted veterinarian. A dear friend. His passing will leave the eastern shore with a hole. May we all try to fill that void by channelling his compassion for his job, his patients, his family, his beloved eastern shore. As the author said, go gentle into that good night. You will be missed by all who knew you, who’s lives you touched, go gentle into that good night.
    Eleanor Lenher, DVM

  12. Peggy States Edwards says:

    Beautiful, Bob Day. RIP Mike, you are missed by so many. A Kent County Legend. Thank you Bob for sharing.

  13. Jennifer Gilmer says:

    Thank you do much for sharing your wonderful memories of Dr. Forney. I have much love and respect for that man. We worked very closely for 9 years and I cherished every single minute of it. I was always standing beside him asking questions and he was explaining everything to me. He taught me so much and I am forever grateful. I will sheets hold a special place in my heart for him! Thanks again.

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