Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mostly a Bull Story

My parents live in the house I was raised in - about 4 miles from my present property as the crow flies. The house was built in 1957 next to my dad's parents' house which was built in the 1880's. My dad grew up in that old house with a well for water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity.  All that came to the old house as my dad grew into his teens.  He grew up on the small family farm of about 60 acres.

Dad always wanted to be a farmer. But he married my mother in a world where 60 acres was inadequate to generate enough money to feed and cloth an early-consumerist family, though it generated tremendous garden vegetables of all kinds that could be canned or frozen, cows for milk and butter, beef and pork for slaughtering. Farm families ate very well around here in the late 1950's. The main groceries you needed were grain related, bread and flour.

That was when I was born. My dad worked for a manufacturing company.  He was there when that company unionized.  Like my granddad, who was a union worker for Lockheed, my dad was a union man though he remained a conservative, agriculturally minded man.  All my life I heard my dad express his desire to just be a farmer.  He jumped from job to job for better money until he worked for more than two decades with the local electricity company.

Upon his retirement he became the farmer he always wanted to be.  He had had a small number of breeding cattle for most of his life.  This gradually multiplied to a medium sized herd by the time my dad's cousin died and willed dad another 60 acres which happened to adjoin his original farm.  He busied himself with 120 acres until selling the part willed to him in the past year. At his age he wanted to cut back.  And he was thankful that he had had about 15 good years of being a small-time farmer, his life's desire.

But, with age, he decided he did not need all those cattle, he did not need all that land to mow, all those fences to maintain. The recent tornado took away my grand dad's birth house and messed up more property than my dad wanted to repair.  So he sold it to another, bigger, farmer.  He is now back to his original acreage.  His herd is small again.  It is time to take things slower and have less responsibility while still keeping a foot in the enjoyment of farming as a lifestyle.

Which means that sometimes things can be ridiculous.

My mom and dad play Rook at monthly parties of rotating hosts with their closest lifelong friends. Mom calls it "the Rook crowd".  Coming home about 10:30 one recent Saturday night my parents topped a hill near their house which is on the closest major road.  From the top of this hill you can look out on a good chunk of our family farm, largely unchanged since my childhood from this perspective.  Pastures, trees, hedge rows near fence lines.  Scattered odd rusting equipment or tools here and there.

But you cannot see any of that at night.  You are just driving home from the Rook crowd and you suddenly see three sets of county sheriff patrol cars flashing in the night on the road ahead just before you turn to go to mom and dad's house. Dad slowed down and saw his neighbor, a farmer on a full-time scale managing hundreds of acres of property, parked in his truck on the side of the road.

Dad asked this farmer, Reagan, what was happening.  Like my dad, Reagan has lived all his life on his land and his family goes back to the late 1800's here.  Reagan replied that there was a call into the county that someone's bull was loose in the main road.  The deputies had the bull spotted in their flashlights further up the road.  So dad left Reagan and drove a bit further, very slowly, a blue and white dance of light all around the trees and fields in the darkness.  The sound of sheriff radio traffic piping in now and then in the background. Dad stopped the car, walked across the road, as the very light traffic was slowly working through all this, a car or truck now and again. Headed someplace else.

"That's my bull," my dad proclaimed in the darkness, my mom waiting in their still-running Lincoln.  Dad was not surprised it was his bull, he figured it had to be given where the bull was. There are nearby farms but none the size of Reagan's. Another bull would have to run far to get to where this one was.  The sheriff's deputies helped run the bull back across the road with their flashlights. Dad, not expecting any trouble, was just coming home from playing cards and having dinner with old friends.  He did not have a flashlight and was dressed in house slippers and dressy khaki pants.

The bull is a 2000 pound Charolais and he was fenced-up by himself that night. Ordinarily this was no big deal.  The bull is very docile.  But, as I said, Reagan had bought half of Dad's land recently and that Charolais had actually bred cattle on that land last year. Reagan, for the first time since he bought the place, had about 40 heifers and not one but three bulls breeding, screaming and bellowing ("bawling" as my dad says) in the night.  So my dad's bull decided he should get part of this action. No one told the bull the land was not his any more. He apparently ran the fence line until he found a weakness in that corner and tore out into the main road.

Instead of running the fence on the outside over to where the three bulls were, dad's bull crossed the main road and starting bellowing at the six, yes six - nine all total, bulls who were "servicing" (as my grandfather used to say) 80 more heifers over on Reagan's original property.  Dad said that when he walked up his bull was bawling into the dark pasture before him as several of the six other bulls had approached the fence line.  All the bulls were excited and stomping and roaring at each other.

The deputies finally helped dad get the bull back into his property.  But it wasn't that easy.  Dad plowed through the brush and the darkness from the road to his fence and opened a gate for the bull to enter the property again.  But by the time he got it open the bull had taken off along the fence line away from the open gate.  The deputies stayed on it to keep the bull out of the road but the bull refused to come back toward the gate.  Dad hollered about another gate close to where the bull was standing and a sheriff's deputy found it, opened it, and the bull went in without any resistance.

Dad walked down to where Reagan sat in his truck and inspected where the bull had torn out in a fence corner near the road.  By this time my mom had driven on home.  She went to bed immediately. In the meantime, Reagan had a flashlight as well as the lights on his truck so he pulled down and found where dad's bull broke through.  He left his truck on the side of the road and kept it running while keeping an eye on the fence to make sure dad's bull didn't come right back through again.

Dad checked the gate that the deputy had used, making sure it was properly closed before walking behind his bull, driving it toward another fenced zone where he would be separated from the area where he broke out.  The normally tame bull was not cooperative.  So there dad stood in the darkness wearing his slippers walking through the pasture along a trail he knew trying to drive his bull.  After so long the bull decided this was not the direction he wanted to be going.  He stopped and shook himself.  My dad got vocal with him wanting to make the bull go on by the force of his voice.

The bull turned and walked toward my dad a pace or two, stomping and snorting and bellowing at Reagan's chorus of bulls who were all pretty pissed off and still bawling at dad's bull.  Dad briefly thought his bull might charge him.  But finally he went on through the other gate further within dad's land. Dad, still without a flashlight, worked his way back over to his house, slipped on some cowboy boots, got in his truck, and went over into the pasture to where he used to have a catch lot shoot for cattle.  He took a panel that had broken off years ago, tossed it in the back of his truck and drove back to where the fence was broken through.

By now everyone was gone.  The deputies left fairly quickly. Reagan hung around until dad finally got the bull through the second gate then he went to his nearby home.  The bulls finally settled down. The bawling became mere skirmishing, a loud occasional echoing blow, then it was silent until the heifers started in again much later.  Dad plopped the panel up and nailed it securely to either side of the break. He could fix it better in the morning. That would do for now.  At least he had boots on now and a flashlight.

In reciting this story to me my dad concluded by reflecting back to his boyhood on this very land: "Well I've had the training for it."  Laughing at the years of bizarre farm experiences involving repair or immediate action.  It was about 12:30 when dad finally got in and took off the khaki pants and shirt he had been playing cards in two and half hours earlier. "I thought I was getting in early but I got in late," he chuckled as he finished telling me the story.

Part of connecting with a sense of place is experiencing (and creating) the folk lore about that place. It gives depth and character through time. You become invested in not just the mundane and forgotten, though that is collectively important too. You become invested in exceptional moments of excitement having to do with the place.  That is the essence of farm life really.  The simplicity of it punctuated sometimes by ridiculous moments. Like when nine bulls are having a love fest and one bull is left out.  It almost caused a big problem but luckily, as usual, it turned out alright.

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