A FEW DOC BUNNER STORIES
By Steve Moreland, February 24, 2018
Daniel John Bunner was born May 13, 1928 to George W. Bunner and Kathryn Egan Bunner, and grew up on the family ranch near Hyannis, Nebraska. He graduated from Hyannis High School in1945, attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and was in the army stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas from 1954 to 1956. He married Beverly Tetherow in 1955, and they were divorced in 1964. He graduated from Colorado State University in 1963, with a degree in Veterinary Medicine. Through the years, he was a veterinarian in Martin, South Dakota, and Merriman and Cody in Nebraska. D.J. Bunner, DVM died March 27, 2001 in an automobile accident six miles west of Merriman. He was returning from Alliance, where he had spent the day with an accountant finishing up his income taxes.
My first memory of “Doc” Bunner was shortly after he had graduated from vet school, when he started his first veterinary practice at Martin. Doc had gone to school in Hyannis at the same time as Lois Lichty, who had married Joy Fairhead. Joy was my dad’s cousin, as his dad (Joy J. Fairhead) was a brother to my dad’s mother (Grace Fairhead Moreland). It must have been in 1964 when Fairheads invited our family out to a Sunday dinner, because Doc Bunner was newly established as a veterinarian in Martin, and he and his wife were also guests that day. Soon thereafter, Doctor John and his wife Beverly divorced. I would have been 12 years old at the time.
D.J. (John) Bunner was a brilliant person, and college came very easy for him. One source told me that John Bunner earned seven different college degrees, including architecture and veterinary medicine. He evidently had a photographic memory, as he could skim through reading material and tell you exactly what he had read and what page it was on. Doctor John was a very competent veterinarian, with one qualification—that being when he was sober. He did quite enjoy tipping the bottle, and tended to take his hobby to extremes. Shortly after he had moved to Martin, he and his wife split the sheets. Thereafter he could possibly have been considered an opportunist when it came to chasing skirts. One story is that he and another man had made plans to attend the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. The other man arrived in Martin to pick up Doc, quite early in the morning. He pounded on the door and hollered, “Is my wife in there?” Doc sleepily and hesitatingly replied from inside, “What is your name?”
There were several experiences through the years when a rancher would summon Doc Bunner to perform a C-section on a heifer. Doc would get a good start on the operation, but would get the shakes and be unable to complete the task. Often it was a case of the rancher taking over the needle and thread while Doc talked that person through the procedure. Frequently the end results would not be positive.
For quite a few years, the Dr. Pepper soda pop company ran this ad: “Drink a bite to eat at 10, 2, and 4.” One rancher picked up on that and gave John Bunner the moniker “Dr. Peppermint.” His reasoning was that Doc was usually pretty hung over in the morning, but from 10 until 2 he was a real good vet. After 4, he was drunk enough to not be quite so good again. He also said that Dr. Bunner had small delicate hands and when he was sober, could do very beautiful stitching while sewing up a C-section or a wound.
Back in the late 1970’s there was a rash of unexplained livestock mutilations in the area. Bright lights could be seen at night, and people were a bit on edge about it all. One nice spring morning, as Dad was caking cows and calves, he came upon a mutilated calf. He loaded it onto the back of his pickup, and showed it to me before hauling it in to Merriman to show Dr. Bunner. Alvin Rhodes, Clyde Weber, and others were also on hand to check out the calf. With the sex organs missing, it was a little hard to tell it was a heifer, but there were three perfect circles cut out around the navel, the udder area, and under the tail. Dr. Bunner stated that even with a compass and a scalpel, he couldn’t have done that neat of a job. The mystery remains yet unsolved.
One time Doc was analyzing a very sick yearling heifer in a barn. He took the animal’s temperature and made his diagnosis. He told the rancher, “She needs a shot,” and the rancher replied, “Do whatever is necessary.” Doc went out to his vehicle, and likely while there he “took a shot” from his ever-present thermos jug. He reentered the barn and gave the sick critter a shot—with his pistol, right between the eyes.
Before the early 1970’s, ranchers didn’t pregnancy check their cows like we all seem to do now. In January of 1972, Joy Fairhead had noticed that quite a few of his younger cows were cycling and acting like they weren’t bred. He decided to have Dr. Bunner come out to preg-check about 200 head. Joy’s son, John (who was my age), was working that year on the Monahan Ranch near Hyannis. I had attended one year at Chadron State College, and had spent the fall of 1971 working on an elk hunting camp in northwestern Wyoming. Having just recently joined the Nebraska National Guard out of Chadron, I was helping Dad on our ranch while waiting to go to regular army basic training in Fort Ord, California. I had a young horse that needed some experience, so volunteered to help Joy Fairhead and his hired hand, Bill Good, gather these cows and put them through the chute to preg check.
It was a cold wintery day, so we ran these 200 or so young cows through the barn and caught them one by one in the milking stanchion. Doctor John was arming each cow. Some of the cows seemed to display a little “dead hair,” and Doc soon correlated that these particular cows would be “open.” Occasionally, Doc would go out to his vehicle to obtain a new plastic glove and just a wee nip from his thermos jug. He would come back with additional confidence, and soon he was predicting how each cow would check out before he actually armed them. Amazingly he was right about 100 percent of the time. Vibrio seemed to have gotten a toehold on these young cows, and over half of them were being called open. Uncle Joy was looking sadder all the time, and Doc’s jocular predicting and always being right was starting to get on his nerves. He said, “Doc, don’t worry about the prediction, just give me the definite answer after you use the normal arming method.” That took a little of the fun out of it for Doc, but he did comply. These cows were kept over, and I don’t think nearly as many were actually open as were called to be.
My dad, Bob Moreland, held an annual Green Valley Country Music Hereford Bull Sale at our ranch northeast of Merriman. There were eleven of these sales during the years of 1973 through 1983. They were held on the last Wednesday of October each year. The bulls had to have their blood drawn to be eligible to be sold into states other than Nebraska. Dr. Bunner was chosen to do the blood drawing for some of these years. One year, he was attaching nose tongs on each bull, pulling their head around, and trying to get blood drawn from their jugular vein. Even with a choke rope, he had substantial trouble with each bull in trying to obtain enough blood. Finally he started drawing blood from the bulls’ tails with much better results. We wondered at the time why he wasn’t using this method all along, as it seemed to be easier on both Doc and each bull.
Rob Cole lived about 35 miles south of Merriman, and raised some nice Quarter Horses. He told about one Sunday when a buyer from Iowa came to look at horses, and ended up purchasing one. This was before the days of needing a Coggins test, but the horse did have to have a current health inspection to be hauled into Iowa. Rob followed the Iowa horse buyer as far as Merriman, hoping to find Doc Bunner available to do the health inspection. When they arrived in town, they drove to Doc’s trailer house, which was north of the railroad tracks and east of Highway 61. Sure enough, on this hot Sunday summer afternoon, Doc was home sitting on a lawn chair, soaking up cold beer and the cool shade of the trees in his yard. Rob drove up to the fence in front of Bunner’s house, and hollered, “Doc, could you do a health inspection on an Iowa bound horse?” Doc kind of perked up, but had trouble rising out of his lawn chair, and even more trouble walking over to his yard gate. Meanwhile the buyer had unloaded his horse for Doc to look at. Rob did a good job of mimicking Doc when he was telling me the story, and he mimed holding onto the gate post while looking closely at the animal. He slurred and stammered his words as he queried, “Whaaat color is your horse?” Rob assured him it was just a plain ordinary sorrel.
Rob Cole also told about a bus trip to the National Finals Rodeo during one of the first years the finals were held in Nevada, with quite a few people from this area enjoying traveling together to the big rodeo. The only problem was the weather. As a storm was supposed to hit Wyoming, the trip was re-routed quite a ways south to try to get around the storm. The plan didn’t work, and the bus was snowed in at a truck stop for a couple days. Time hung heavy on the travelers’ hands, and quite a few card games helped pass the time. Doc Bunner was one of the passengers of this bus, and somehow he found liquor to be available. He was sitting across from Brad Adamson in a booth at the truck stop café, and the waitress had just brought Brad a hamburger. Doc had imbibed quite a bit and was not in the best of condition. Seeing the lady bringing what he thought was an ashtray, he snuffed out his cigarette on the top of Brad’s hamburger.
One day at noon in March of 2016, I stopped at the Sand Café in Merriman to have dinner. Jim McConaughey was in there also, so we sat across from each other. A new addition to the room was a fancy pool table with ornately braided side pockets. I commented to Jim that this was a pretty fancy piece of furniture. I then asked Jim if he had ever played much pool. He replied that he used to play quite a bit. I asked him if he was as good a pool player as he was a calf roper, because he had been a very good calf-tier back in the day, and had won several nice belt buckles to prove it. Jim said yes, he had been about as good at pool as he had been at roping and tying calves. He said he’d learned a lot of his pool playing techniques from Doc Bunner. Then Jim laughed and told this story. These are Jim McConaughtey’s words:
“One time I went in the Sand Bar in the middle of the afternoon, and Doc was in there in pretty sad shape. About that time a traveling man stopped at the bar, dressed in a business suit and tie. He ordered a drink, and then turned around to look at the pool table. He casually asked if anyone would be interested in a game of pool. Doc perked right up, jerked a little, and said that he would play. The salesman asked if he wanted to put some money on the deal. Doc thought that would be a good idea, and they settled on the winner getting a hundred dollars from the loser. Doc then said, “Jim, can you help me?” I said, “I can’t help you, Doc. This game is one on one.” Doc explained, “I mean, could you help me get over to the pool table.” I helped Doc get to the pool table, and he proceeded to win the game and take the salesman’s hundred dollar bill.”
Another time Doc was in the Sand Bar. This was shortly after Art Abbott had purchased the Half Diamond E Ranch south of Merriman from Woodrow and Marvin Metzger. Art Abbott had some cows he wanted Doc to pregnancy check that afternoon, and Doc knew it. He was enjoying his time at the bar, and the phone had already rang there once, with Art’s agitated voice asking when Doc would be coming. Doctor John said, “One more drink, and then I’ll head that way.” About that time a man entered the Sand Bar, and asked the bartender if he knew how to get to Art Abbott’s new Half Diamond E Ranch. Doc Bunner perked right up and interrupted by saying, “Mister, you are in luck. I am just ready to go to the Half Diamond E to pregnancy check some cows, and you can follow me.” The other man said, “Well, I know where the turn-off is at the highway, but was wondering how far it is back in there.” Doc stood up and used his left arm and right hand to imitate the left arm going up the rectum of a cow to his shoulder. He slowly and seriously said, “About this far.”
One Easter Sunday morning, I was feeding cattle and noticed a very sick calf. I called every vet I could think of, but none of them seemed to be answering their phones. This was before the days when answering machines and cell phones were in common use. I was running out of options, when it occurred to me that Doc Bunner was probably still practicing, and since he lived in Cody, he would be about the closest vet available anyway. I gave him a ring on the phone, and he said to bring the calf to town. I loaded the calf onto a ten-foot Triggs trailer and headed my pickup to Cody. Going a little bit too fast, I got pulled over by a state patrolman. This little misdeed ended up costing a fifty dollar fine plus twenty-five dollar court costs, but soon I was again on my way at a more sedate speed. I drove to Dr. Bunner’s house, and went up the sidewalk to knock on his door. He came out to the trailer with a rectal thermometer, and stuck it up the calf’s posterior. After a few moments, he retracted the thermometer and proclaimed, “The calf doesn’t have a fever. I don’t think it’s sick.” After assuring him that the calf was not feeling up to snuff, I pressured him to look closer and hopefully come up with a remedy.
Doc looked again at the calf and said, “Well, it does look quite dehydrated. A drug company just sent me some free samples of electrolyte, and you can take them home, mix it with water, and give it to the calf.” I suggested that he could sure do it then and there if he would. He said, “Oh, you will have just as good of success if you take the calf back home and do it.” I said, “Okay, Doc, what do I owe you?” He suggested that twenty dollars would cover the office call. As I was writing out my check, I casually answered, “So, have you had a pretty busy spring, Doc? Have you done many caesareans?” His dead-pan reply was, “Fewer than ever.” I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he hadn’t done a single one, but that was a pretty appropriate answer.
Ed Minor tells of being in Merriman’s Sand Bar with Doc one evening. Doc was sitting on one of the high bar stools, and all of a sudden passed out and tipped backwards off the stool. He hit the floor with a terrible thud, and landed flat on his back. Ed was there immediately to see if Doc was hurt. He said that Doc blinked his eyes a couple times, and profoundly proclaimed, “I think I forgot to pull the rip-cord.” Guess you can’t keep a good man down.
DeWayne Lancaster was in Cody’s Double D Café one evening when Doc Bunner came in. Doc shuffled over to him, put his arm over his shoulder, and said, “DeWayne, I’ve got a job for you.” “And what would that be?” came the question. Doc responded, “I need an assistant town drunk.” DeWayne grinned and said he felt honored to be asked.
Doc, we miss ya!