It was a summer day much like this one. The humidity was nearly as visible as rain. I could see the water droplets on the outside of my bedroom window. In 1970 we didn’t have any air conditioning, only the attic fan pulling in through the window screen what little was left of the early morning coolness.
Dad came to my door. “Put your boots on. The cows are down by the barn, and I need your help.”
He was gone before I could ask, “What for?” Which really didn’t matter because I was going anyway. I lived on a ‘need to know’ basis.
My favorite pair of boots for working around the barn were my dark green muck boots. Stiff soles. A heel that made me an inch taller. They pulled on and up over the top of my calf. I could stomp on a loaded cow pie just to watch it splatter. I wore them in the creek when we were putting down rock to shore up the mud where we crossed with the truck. Mostly, I liked them because they were just like the pair that Dad wore.
When I came out the back door, Dad was shuffling around inside the smokehouse. No meat had ever been smoked in there in my lifetime, but once upon a time, I am told, slabs of ham and bacon and jerky hung from the rafters. It was more of a tool shed in my day.
Dad came out with a long-handled pair of pliers. “What we doing?” I knew we were not running calves through the chute. It was too early in the season to be headed to the sale barn in Jackson. Pliers looked to me more like fence work than cow work.
“One of the cows has a tin can hung up on her front hoof. She’s bleeding and it’s done got infected. I gotta get it off.”
“How you gonna do that?”
“Don’t know yet.”
We went through the gate in front of the barn. The cows were in the pasture out back. Dad opened the wide gate to the pen and the inner gate to the chute that went to the pinch gate. But the pinch gate stayed closed. We circled the herd and started culling out the ones we could let go. The patient with the tin can was limping around in front of us.
You might not know this, but it’s easier to move a whole herd in one direction than it is to let most of them go free in the hope that you can corner just one or two. If you nudge all of them, they all go together. They plod along without a care in the world. But, if you separate out just one, and she sees the other 40 headed for the lake, she gets all nervous.
This was mistake number one.
She got all jumpy on us. “Cut her off, don’t let her get by you.” Mind you I’m 120 lbs soaking wet. She is 800 lbs of upset beef. But if you can stand your ground without wetting your britches, she’ll turn.
We finally got her to go through the first gate. She was spinning and limping and bawling. The rest of the herd had stopped and spread out about fifty yards away. Every head looking our way. Curious. Wondering if one of them might be next.
We walked around and came through the barn into the pen. Her eyes wide open. Her haunches twitching to shake off the flies. Dad nudged her toward the inner gate. He wanted her in a smaller space. Less room to move around.
“Don’t you just wanna get her in the pinch gate so she can’t move at all?”
“Naw. She’ll be fine. I can reach through the gate and grab the can with these pliers. No need to hem her up.”
This was mistake number two.
The entire corral was built out of Oak planks. Rough cut 1x10s. Used cross ties for posts. The fence stood over 6 foot tall. I had to climb up on the first board to see over the top. I remember we had to drill pilot holes in order to drive nails, the wood was so hard and dense. The two gates were easily 10-12ft long. Massive strap hinges and a long angle brace up high on the hinge side to keep everything from sagging. You get a bunch of cows hemmed up and you need something that can take all the pushing and shoving.
Dad tossed a handful of hay over the gate, hoping it would keep her occupied while he grabbed the can with the pliers. She was not close enough for him to reach through with just his arm. There was just enough room between the boards that Dad stepped through with one leg, leaned down and swung his upper body through the gap. One foot outside the gate. The rest of him inside the gate.
He was taking this approach because he thought that might help him make a faster getaway if necessary. Yet another miscalculation.
She turned and looked at him, then went back to the hay. Her nerves had settled down a bit by now. You could tell she was holding her weight off the hoof with the can on it. A Vienna Sausage can of all things. It was jammed up between the clove of her hoof. Bloody. Flies swarming. It had to hurt.
At full extension, Dad could just barely reach the can with the pliers while keeping his balance straddled through the gate. I would not have thought of it then but looking back he looked like he was doing Yoga. The Half Moon Warrior.
“I need to be quick at this. Grab it, pull and get out of the way. You stand back a little bit.” No argument from me.
When the moment of truth came, it took two tugs with the pliers to loosen the can. Which was just enough time to give the cow a chance to react. Cows can be slow and lumbering beasts. I learned that day that they can also be quick as lightning.
Maybe it was the pain. Maybe the unexpected yank with the pliers. In one motion, as the can came off, she turned and headbutted Dad in the shoulder and chest. The impact split out one of those 1” Oak boards and put him through the gate. He ended up on his rear end in the dried manure. His cap was left laying inside the gate with the cow.
I can only describe the look on his face as one of surprise. After a moment, he grinned and held up the pliers still holding the can. “Got it.”
“Well,” he said as he stood and dusted himself off. And this is a line I heard over and over from him through the years. I have used it on many occasions as I have rethought some of my less than perfect moments in my life.
He moaned as he rubbed his shoulder. “Well, as I was sitting there on the ground I said to myself. Self, there might have been a better way to do this.”