Interview with John P. Ayres
Is Part Of
Broome County Oral History Project
Interview with: Dr. John P. Ayres
Interviewed by: Susan Dobandi
Date of interview: 4 March 1978
Susan: Dr. Ayres, could you start by telling us where you were born, something of your parents and, ah, your early childhood experiences, and then go on with your schooling and how you became a veterinarian?
Dr. Ayres: I was born in, ah, Broome County, in Corbettsville, NY, Snake Creek Road, which in those days was a dirt road, and my father didn't own the farm that I was born on, so I presume that makes me a tenant farmer’s son, which seem to make for great relationships and rapport with some people. However, my father had the determination that someday he would own that farm, and he did own the farm and today I own the farm, which is the story that, ah, goes with the majority of people in this country. Ah, my mother was orphaned at—at sixteen and she had, ah, five younger brothers and sisters and, ah, she went to work and supported them and held her family together in turn, so I was therefore blessed with two people that were ideal for parents, because my father was a strong, steady, determined individual, in a rural atmosphere, and had a—had a very happy boyhood on the farm, perhaps the happiest days of my life, and again I emphasize, as a tenant farmer’s son, because ah, having lived 60-plus years I find out that the biggest asset is not being left with money, but being left with pride and responsibility to this government, that we live and enjoy and have the opportunity to develop ourselves to our maximum, and my parents strongly believed that and in those days the farm we had, ah, was primarily a dairy farm, a small dairy farm of a hundred seventy-five acres.
Our house had at least four if not five bedrooms, as I recall, and we were, had none of the niceties that we reflect on today. We had three stoves that burned wood, that was our only source of heat and therefore, of course they went out at night and it was a question of my father getting up, perhaps at 4:30 in the morning, as I recall, and getting the first stove started, and then the rest of us coming down one by one and, ah, entering into it. Having no heat in the house, obviously we had no running water. The well for the house was thirty feet from the house, and that was partly the responsibility of us children, to bring the water in—in pails, and the warm water was heated on the tank on the side of the stove, as I recall, and that took care of the acid, of getting the water in. The waste material of the body, the toilet was the common standard privy at the time. It was located twenty feet from the rear of the house, and everything that James, ah, Whitcomb Riley, as I recall he wrote a piece of poetry on “The Passing of the Backhouse,” and that is, ah, one that certainly fills the bill and describes it as accurately as any farmer’s son could. We—ah, my brothers and I had—we were blessed with two brothers and two sisters. We all went to the Corbettsville school, which was a two-room schoolhouse—one floor above the other, and it still stands and is now a residence—and I think that was the first time I realized that I was handicapped. I was handicapped in being left-handed and had a schoolteacher who had one thought, that I would become right-handed and it was a question of wills, and I'm still left-handed today, but I well remember her hitting with the ruler, hitting my left hand with the ruler when I'd use it, and I lived long enough to tell her when I was a fairly successful doctor that—that was the only thing I regretted of that period in school, that she had many valuable assets, but her determination to break me was probably only exceeded by my determination that I wouldn't be broken. That was my first handicap, and there came a time, then, when we left there and moved into Binghamton and left the farm behind, and my father went to work because he couldn't buy that farm for another man at a dollar a day. I remember his wages were a dollar a day, and he was considered to work for that a minimum of ten hours each day, so it was about ten cents an hour he got.
Obviously, living in Binghamton and working outside was something couldn't successfully for him, and so he located a job in Kirkwood and operated a feed and coal supply that, ah, took care of the people in the Village of Kirkwood and the farmers throughout there, and it probably was the best thing that period in my life, because again I mention I was blessed with a farmer who could be a businessman, who never thought this country owed him a living. He was grateful for what it offered and he imbued that to us, that we had the opportunity to achieve whatever we wanted. That was a period somewhere between 1925 and 1930 that we were there, and that, in that period, I had many friends there, and I want to emphasize that because I still have, ah, but the outstanding unfortunate thing that happened to me there was in the Kirkwood school, which again was a two room school. I went there and I was the only Catholic boy in eight grades when Al Smith dared to run for President, and I still carry one of the scars over my eye from the beatings I used to take because a Catholic dared to run for President. I laugh now when people tell about minorities and their problems. I don't know what they would do if they were the one in the entire school, ah, but the challenge was there, and today I say, “God Bless it,” because it's the challenges that makes us if we have the guts to rise above them, because of the ones that attacked me in those days, we all lived to forget, though—that period, most of us were kids, we were all kids. We really didn't know what the whole problem was about. It was only what, we were getting it at home and it was through ignorance that we were receiving it, and my side of the question wasn't, of course, was, ah, that someday there was going to be a Catholic President, and I've lived long enough to see one and I'd have to admit that I didn't vote for him when he ran. I—I was one that voted for Richard Nixon [in 1960], so you see, the years have worn off the antagonism that might have developed in my mind so that I would’ve blindly voted for the man of my religion, and instead I voted against him.
And of many of those that perhaps were pretty unfriendly at that period, I lived to do their veterinary work, which I think is a challenge to many of us, to overcome the difficulties that we have in our youth. Then I went on from Kirkwood and my father bought the farm I was born on and we went back, we turned to the farm, and from there I—I gradually formed the opinion I would become a veterinarian those years, even when my father had this feed business.
I was out working and I bought a horse for eighteen dollars—I bought a horse for eighteen dollars—and I agreed to work for the man eighteen days, and when my father looked over the horse he told me, as a good father should, “You got the horse in effect without my advice. It's not worth bringing it home.” The horse lasted a few months, lasted such a short time that I hadn't earned the payment on the farmer’s farm for it, and my father insisted that I go there after the horse was dead and work it out with the farmer. It was a humiliating thing, but it was the best thing happened to me. If you give a man your word, you keep your word. If you buy something, good or bad, you’re stuck with it. There is no whining, no whimpering or crying out, and I look back and I think that was my first real business transaction that was a complete flop, but I had two parents and neither one relented. I had to go there and pick potatoes in the fields in the fall after the horse was dead until I paid for a dead horse, and so I thoroughly understand the expression about buying a dead horse because I bought one almost dead, with that I formed my opinion on there ought to be a better way to do business that I had done, and I—I think it was a beginning of a challenge to me, because I think each one of these, ah, strengthens my determination to do more.
I had dogs in those days, and cats, I always had them as a boy, and ah, we were impoverished, ah, not with the point of pity do I say, but it wasn't considered practical and it wasn't practical to take the dog to a veterinarian in, in those days. So I had a dog with distemper in that town of Kirkwood, and I went and talked with the man about it and he gave me some sulfur to give the dog and he knew it would cure the dog, and well, the dog would throw up, I guess every time I'd push the sulfur down the poor dog, and eventually the dog had fits—he had repeated fits in our home—and the man was corning along that I had talked to, and he was carrying his gun, and I remember as a boy him opening the bedroom window, saying, “That dog has rabies,” and shooting it and splattering the brains over the wall of the bedroom. Of course the dog had distemper and, ah, I guess that again fortified my there must be a better way than this, and—
Then we went back to the farm and I raised rabbits. My brothers and I had, at one time, over a hundred rabbits, and we got into other things that—raising calves, and of course we had dairy cattle, and in that transition on the farm from being born there and then coming back years later, I reflect on what a vast difference, how things were changing—when we left that farm we had no running water, we had no inside toilets in the house. We were cold in the winter, we, ah, we had an old broken down car when we left the farm. It was a used car.
In the winter when we needed water for the cattle we had a stream, there was a little stream, there was a pipe, brought water outside the barn. The cows would go out to drink, and the pipe would freeze in the winter, so you would have to go down to Snake Creek and cut a hole and drive the cows down through the snow, and they'd slide on the ice and I—I just can't remember any of our cattle breaking legs there, but how many, many cattle I saw afterward did break their legs on the ice trying to get out to drink water where the holes had been cut for them—then when we returned to the farm, all that had changed. We put in a heat within the house, got a new well, added inside plumbing so that my poor mother, for the first time on that farm ever, had running water. We had the same thing at the barn, a well, drinking buckets for the cows, metal stanchions, and the biggest thing of all from the standpoint of quality of milk—and even we could detect that—was, for the first time, we really had electricity and we had the means of quick refrigeration of milk so that we had quality milk.
When we left the farm in the summer we had to get ice out of our icehouse that had been put there the previous winter, that we had put there, by cutting it off of the Susquehanna River and hauling it up on big sleighs with the horse. The farmers got together, pooled their efforts and brought this ice home, and then it was covered with sawdust, and then in the summer, piece by piece, it was taken out. It was cleaned off, as best one could, of the sawdust, and put in water to chill the milk down instead—in that period of time of change we had, it was the beginning of quality controlled milk and we had inspectors coming to the farm and the improvement in milk rapidly following.
One of my memories there, however, was again the question of veterinary services and a dog I had that would never stay home. He was probably the stud dog of the town of Conklin, and at my end I guess I was sort of proud of him, ’cause he took on many a dog and whipped them. He also got into a bit of trouble, too, of course, got me in and therefore got my family in, and so my family made arrangements for me to take the dog with my oldest brother to this man—now long since dead, so I guess I could tell the story on how the operation, how that dog was castrated—and he took the dog into the barn and he wrapped a chain around the dog's mouth and he told my brother to hold that, and he took out his jackknife and then he deliberately sharpened while I was watching him, and then he just cut the testicles off. There was no tying off blood vessels or nothing, and that dog lingered along for perhaps three or four days before he finally bled to death at our home, and I watched it each day, and my parents didn't know but they thought there was something wrong, but they thought that man had more experience and he assured them that the bleeding would stop, well, it didn't fix it at all. The dog bled to death. So I think that was the final straw in in that aspect of my thinking there must be a better way to do this, and it sort of convinced me that, ah, I was going to do a little more with that, even though I would talk to people about becoming a lawyer, and in due time I went to Cornell, and then I was trying to get one year in and my father had a stroke. He was confined to a wheelchair from then on.
The Depression was on us and there was no question about, ah, help in those days. There was no tuition assistance program and again I say, “Thank God there was no tuition assistance program.” I have little respect for the present-day college students who whine for extra money when there are jobs available all over the county for them. I was successful in the veterinarian college. I was given a room in the basement to live in, and I worked for 40¢ an hour and I used to have to sit up nights, watch the mares have colts, and I cleaned laboratory equipment and so forth, and I worked my way through college and I—I came home rarely, because as I say, I, my pride had then, I think, equalled my parents’. I wouldn't ask them for a penny, because I knew they had all the struggling they could trying to maintain the homestead, and with my father in a wheelchair and confined. I learned at that point in life when he had this stroke that—it was interesting, that everyone my father owed money to had it well-documented, people who owed my father, and I knew they did even from the days in the feed business, he didn't have it well-tallied, and many of the people I think owed him never paid him. I think, again, it sort of toughened me to realize life was that way. In fact, I remember one man, he said he owed my father and he said he wanted to work it out in plowing, and he came to our farm and he plowed until he thought the bill was square, and at that time, nor until the time he died, no one ever knew how much he owed my father, and he wouldn't tell us and we didn't know, but it was a question. My father was primarily a dairy man and a smalltime, ah, fellow in this market that we call this outside world, and he wasn't able to cope, so financially, we weren't in a good, ah, set of financial circumstances, not because he didn't work, but because he didn't realize that everything had to be documented. He was, at that point, not businesslike enough in case of catastrophe, which we've all learned we have to be, but it did provide a good basis for me to realize that if I was going to make it at Cornell, I was going to make it on my own, and I did, and I remember the high point of my life in that was when I came home and I gave my mother three hundred dollars, besides going through college, and then I went to New York and worked, and in due time I worked in dog and cat hospitals, and then I came back and went to work for the Dairymen's League—[Clock chimes]---which was a milk company, and I worked for them two years until the Army called me up, and I was five years in the Army.
Then I came home and became City Veterinarian of Binghamton, and in that period I had seen the transition, the change that had gone on again, and of course I was then completely on the other side. I was no longer someone from off the farm. I was then a man that had become a doctor of veterinary medicine and served in the ranks of the Army in quality control of foods in general, from the state of Maine to Florida and as far west as Michigan. I served in ranks of Lieutenant and Captain and Major and Lt. Colonel—ah, in fact, when I came home from the Army I was Chief Veterinarian in the First Air Force and I was the youngest veterinarian in it, and the Chief, so I came home with that kind of background to bring about quality control of foods in general in the City of Binghamton and the farms that supplied milk to the city and the milk plants, and found myself pitted to some degree against many of my former acquaintances—I use “acquaintances” rather than “friends” because I, ah—some of them didn't accept change, men who get older, I guess many men don't accept change, especially coming from a younger person—but I remained a city veterinarian for fourteen years before I went with the State. I saw all the changes come about. I saw rabies so bad in Broome County in 1947 that we had over 50 cases of rabies in the city of Binghamton in July of 1947, and I can say in 1977 we didn't have a single case in the city, and the few cases that we do have outside of the city are generally attributed to wildlife, where I'm sure rabies will always exist, but by vaccinations we eliminate that, so that three quarters of the veterinarians in the county have never seen a case of rabies. They talk about it, and we know it's there in wildlife, but we just don't see it. That was accomplished by the use of vaccination, and the same thing is true with the dogs, but I've experienced—in treating my own dog in Kirkwood with distemper and using sulfur, it merely made the dog vomit and had him shot in the head in my bedroom—has changed now by the advent of vaccination, so that no dog need die of distemper, it's a question of, perhaps, our failure to get to the people that can do it. On the other hand, I do think there was a—a stronger character in the people then—if they couldn't afford a veterinarian, they said they couldn't—today many people want the dogs, or want the children, and yet they don't want what goes with them, and so it is part of the work and the responsibility that goes with having pets or having children, you have to have enough responsibility to be willing to sacrifice for them, and sacrifice isn't done by an expression of words, but by acts.
Susan: Let's continue, Dr. Ayres, by telling us something about the women in your life.
Dr. Ayres: Well, the women in my life start with my mother, and my mother was a school teacher, and in those days it took two short winter courses to become a school teacher and one stayed ahead of one’s students, I believe, and therefore she was the one that instilled into us education was the only way to get ahead in this country, that was the, ah, the best and logical course of events. I can remember when I would be losing the rounds while Al Smith ran for President, this mother of mine’d tell me at home how I could overcome them, and that was only one way, by education, and my mother was proud in the sense of real pride, but she knew that success for our family meant being a partner to my father, and she was that, and many a night and many a morning my mother was with us milking the cows, which today might sound degrading, but my mother, she was the best.
Then the next woman in my life was my wife, and my wife, thank God, was a nurse. She was of the generation when the nurse had all the basic training that was needed to inculcate in her mind the willingness to, ah, take care of the patient in all events, so—so it really did never seem to me a difference whether the patient was a human or an animal, and I've been privileged, as a result of having such a partner, to have my practice always contiguous to my house. When I had a heavy practice and my wife could advise the owners of animals as well as I could, and many times, I've had to admit, much better. She had a charm that I didn't have, because I was of the generation that, ah, was pretty practical, and you had to tell someone very bluntly whether the animal would make it or not, and there was an economic value on animals in a large animal practice that there isn't on a small animal practice. My wife had the right background by becoming a nurse, and my wife is first generation from Lithuania. Her father came from Lithuania and crossed over the border and got away from the Russians who had engulfed, ah, Lithuania years ago, as they again did after World War II, and that little country, like the little country that my people immigrated from, Ireland, has stood the mistreatment of a larger power all the time, and my mother dwelt much on history and pride, family loyalty, and knew that her people had come from Nova Scotia and she carefully documented what little knowledge she had, sufficient that even though she never knew her relatives in Nova Scotia, nor did her father before her know the relatives in Nova Scotia, with what she had documented I was able, after a hundred-plus years, to locate relatives in Nova Scotia and develop a genealogy and have composed and written a twelve-page booklet on my relatives from the time that they appeared in Nova Scotia in about the year of 1800.
Last fall my wife and I went to Ireland and tried to establish connections there, but in a country that, ah, 50% were either starved to death or forced into immigration by the horrendous laws of England, ah, it is very hard to establish much on genealogy—however, we are pursuing it and we'll follow along on that. But prior to that time, even before I retired and became, in the present-day terminology, the “double dipper”—because, ah, I did continue my Army career in reserve and I continued my work for New York State until I achieved a pension in both, ah, I have kept my private practice—but I did start with my children and, I have a boy and a girl and I started taking them, first to Puerto Rico, and I went on a group tour and promptly left the tour and took my children down to the most godforsaken areas that existed in old San Juan and so forth, where people were living in tin shacks under lean-tos, et cetera, that they had never seen before, and from there we continued taking various trips to Spain, Mexico and Italy, ah, primarily for the children by that time, and I thought back of, ah, when we stood at Rome—when my mother made one trip, and that was into Canada, she always asked me, sometime before I die, to make a trip to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Shrine in Canada, little thinking I'd get to the Vatican first—then, ah, my daughter followed the image of her mother, I think, and was inclined at times to become a nurse, but she went into Languages in the SUNY system and she went through college, and in the summer she has worked, just like my son that's in Pre-Med, he worked the last two summers at General Hospital, and again, thank God he started the first summer in the laundry room and I was pleased when his boss told me that fall—that fall he was through, he told me, that's where every doctor ought to start, down there where the towels came down with the blood and fecal deposits and pieces of bones and everything else that goes with a hospital come down, the laundry room, and I think too many people rise too fast out of the basement of life and not realize what's down there, so I was pleased when he got that job, and then last summer he worked as an orderly in General Hospital, and I think that he has now an awareness of, if he is gonna become a medical doctor, of the basic thing that goes with it, the understanding that goes with it, and of course he had all the years with me, because my practice being next to my home, he was able to render first aid, and both of my children helped me on caesarean sections and so forth—rubbed the little puppies and kittens, ah, from the minute they were brought life on into them, when they were overwhelmed with disease or need patrician or something, so they both had the opportunity to learn, and I look back at my life now and reflect on the terrible situation that so many children come up in—the terrible situation of not knowing how their parents make money—not knowing what makes this country tick—and I think they've have had that opportunity. I thank God that they've had as much as they have had, that they realize how money came in this house and how it went out of this house because the business was, ah, contiguous to it, and in so many lives today the check comes in once or twice a month and it has to do, therefore there is a price paid for it. The price is that while we probably have now the most intelligent people graduating from our schools, they may also be the most immature.
Susan: That about sums it up, doesn't it?
Dr. Ayres: In retirement I enjoy every day, and like any doctor I think I'll probably continue practicing until I cross the divide, if God gives me the strength.
Susan: Well, thank you, Dr. Ayres, it's been nice of you to take time out from your busy life to talk with us. Thank you.