Earning My Wages
I was eleven years old and pretty happy that we’d moved into town off the family farm. There was a lot more happening in my city neighborhood than out in the country, where all I had were two sisters and a brother to play and fight with. In town we could play ball any day at the empty lot across the street, go out at night soaping windows, or maybe toss a few eggs at passing cars and hide behind bushes if we were feeling really adventurous. All in all, the big city of 35,000 was a much more socially enriching environment.
But this story’s about a day back out at the farm. We had moved into that sophisticated urban environment of small town Missouri because my mom wanted us to go to better schools, but we still had the farm to take care of, so we spent a lot of time out there. We worked crops in the summertime, and I spent endless hours on a tractor driving up and down rows of corn or soy beans. In the winter, we had to feed the cattle, and I’d drive the old pickup around the field as my Dad stood in the bed and parceled out hay bales to the trail of hungry bovine.
Basically I did whatever jobs an 11-year old boy could do. Sometimes my father let me bring a friend from town out to help, but not if we had some serious work to get done. He always said, “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. And three boys is no boy at all.” So usually it was just me and him when we went out to work, and I got paid: 25 cents an hour, better than my beginning wage of 5 cents an hour, which is what I got for painting the yard fence when I was six years old.
On the summer day in question, we had our work cut out for us. It was about 7:30 in the morning when we came in over the cattle guard that marked the entrance to our farm, and we could feel it was going to be a hot day. Missouri can be hot in the summer, real hot, and cattle don’t like to move in the heat. They want to hang out down by the woods in the shade, or maybe even walk around in the creek to cool off, but they definitely don’t like being marched across a field to a corral where all they remember are maybe getting their horns cut off. And if they were unfortunate enough to give birth to baby bulls, their offspring didn’t keep their balls for long. And what mother of any species could forget the bawling those young bulls made when the vet slit the nutscack open and plopped those little testicles out, then so lovingly sprayed it with a massive, stinging dose of disinfectant. I wouldn’t soon forget the sight of that orange-colored medicine mixed with blood dripping off their emptied scrotums as the bulls-turned-steers limped weakly out of the stanchion. Come to think of it, developmentally I was about the same stage they were, and I really didn’t want to become a steer. Who would?
As I was saying, I think the cows had a collective memory of that corral that wasn’t perhaps the fondest, so it was tough to get them in there. But we had to, because the vet was coming at 9am and we had a busy morning lined up of dehornings, castrations, vaccinations for blackleg (never knew what blackleg was, I guess the vaccine worked), and spraying for flies.
The latter task was accomplished using a pump and a barrel of pesticide mounted on the rear of an old John Deere Model H tractor that you had to hand crank to start and was too small to plow or disc the fields but good for this one essential function. I think the cattle got the better end of that deal as we had a hose and a nozzle that sprayed the pesticide over their backs to keep the nasty horseflies off, while me or my Dad got to breathe in the fine mist of the poison as we were enveloped in its cloud. Thinking back, there were a lot of toxic substances we ran into on the farm, especially then, when nobody told us they were toxic.
The way we were going to get the cattle up was that I’d ride Golden Dale, our twelve year old mare (twelve is old for a horse in case you didn’t know), and my dad would herd on foot since there was only one horse. Golden Dale was still pretty spry despite her age and gentle enough that riding her bareback was better than using a saddle for several reasons, not the least of which is the difference between the horse’s back and hard saddle leather on those things between a boy’s legs. Unfortunately, that morning the cattle were toward the back of the 350 acre farm, so we had a ways to drive them.
By the way, I might as well admit right now, just as an aside, that I’m the hero of this story. I’m a pretty humble guy all in all, most days of the week, or maybe half the time, but on the morning I’m talking about I’ve got to admit I was just plain awesome, which is why this would be a good story to tell to my grandkids, though it would have to be on one of my days off from being a pretty humble guy.
As we were bringing the cattle up a ravine out into the big pasture that led up to the corral we had to get them into, one of the cows in the lead suddenly realized that they were headed toward a known cattle torture center and peeled off to the northwest toward a long valley which led down toward a creek and some woods. And of course she was one of the recognized leaders because, DUH, she was in the lead. The others started to follow her, picking up speed down the valley toward the woods where they would be able to scatter and disperse amongst the trees. Once they got in the woods, it would take hours to get them up to the corral.
Not that the lead cow understood the trouble she was about to cause us. Cows are amazingly stupid. An 11-year old boy can wave a stick at one of the 1500 pound behemoths running at him and she’ll turn around and run the other way, like she was a chicken or anything else ten times smaller rather than ten times bigger than the kid. But they do have a herd mentality that can be hard to deal with if a bunch of them start heading in the same direction, and now the lead cow felt it might be better to head down a valley rather than continue on an uphill path toward the corral. She had to have some vague collective memory of that fenced-in area as not being the land of milk and honey, or for a cow it would be a tall field of clover. We did have some fields like that, and she was headed for one.
I was mounted on Golden Dale bringing up the rear of the herd when this bovine mayhem started to unfold. Without thinking twice, I saw that I needed to do what I would do fairly easily if we’d been in an open field, gallop around to where the herd was breaking up and turn the lead cow around with my pre-pubescent hooping and hollering that only cows would be influenced by. Only problem was, there was a patch of woods between where I was and the valley where that lead cow was headed. But if I didn’t get through it before those cows in the lead had the whole herd running down that valley, our morning work schedule would be totally messed up and we’d be paying an expensive veterinarian to help us herd cattle up out of the woods. The cattle had to be in the corral when he arrived. I didn’t know how much the vet charged but it was a lot.
I looked at the woods, thought a split second, and told myself thank goodness I’m riding bareback, I can make it through there. I headed Golden Dale in the right direction, kicked her in the sides and she started galloping right toward the woods, and then right into them. I never could have done this with a saddle horn sticking in my stomach or chest as I lay down of the back of the mare, but riding bareback let me put my head and torso down beside Golden Dale’s thick neck and pull my legs up above her belly so that our combined profile was no more than that of the horse herself. And she knew how to take care of herself as she trotted and galloped through the trees, right under branches that scraped down my back and tree trunks that just brushed the sides of her torso as well as my drawn-up legs. I’d never seen anybody do this before, really why would you, it was dangerous as hell. Any one of those branches or tree trunks could have knocked me off the horse or broken my leg if I weren’t positioned just right, at one with the horse’s body while moving at a scary pace through the woods.
Then finally we broke out on the other side and into the valley. The lead cow was now running with a good fifteen or twenty others, starting to make the break from the herd. That was bad, but I was where I wanted to be and headed Golden Dale up the valley toward the renegades. Although originally used as a big strong work mare before tractors did all the pulling work, she was one heck of good stock horse as well, and she responded really nicely to my direction through the bridle. Heading strategically at the lead cow, I hooped and hollered and otherwise made a silly ass of myself, but it worked. The wild-eyed Hereford in the lead slowed down, and gradually stopped, looking around as if she would lead the bunch that were following her in any one of a number of random directions.
This is where a good horse responds quickly to the rider leading it back and forth in a half moon pattern that only makes sense if you’re telling the animals where NOT to go. Finally that ornery lead cow turned in the direction I wanted to head her and slowly plodded up, her followers in tow, across the pasture and up the incline toward the big red barn and corral.
As I trotted back and forth around this fifteen or twenty head of troublemakers and got them back with the herd and then gradually into the holding pen next to the corral, I breathed a sigh of relief and maybe felt a slight surge of pride at my high quality cow-herding abilities. My dad, on foot, brought up the rear of the main herd now as we got them all in the pen and shut the gate, just as the vet was pulling up the road.
Not much was said for the next few hours. We had a lot of tough, dirty work to do, and being as there’s no room in the holding pen or corral for a horse, I too was now on foot. If you’ve ever stepped in or just heard of or thought of stepping in a cow pie out in a field, imagine what it’s like when you’re in a holding pen and corral with a hundred head of pissing, shitting cattle, half of which seem to have diarrhea. After an hour or so the whole place is one stinking cow pie. And then by the end of the process, the yearling heifers in the pen are a bloody mess with red streaks down their white faces below where they used to have horns. Nicer yet, the former bull calves, now steers, have that mixture of red blood and orange disinfectant dribbling out of their empty nutsacks. And you’re out there under the hot mid-morning sun traipsing around in that steaming mush.
Oh the beautiful life out communing with nature in the countryside! It has occurred to me, when my city friends opine on how idyllic it must have been growing up on the farm, to invite them out on just such a morning. Please come on out, and give us a hand. We’d be glad to show you how absolutely charming it is, but you’d better have some damn good boots on.
After the vet left, shortly after noon, and we’d turned the dazed cattle back out to pasture, Dad and I were leaning up against the corral fence scraping the mud and manure off our boots with our pocketknives. He was not a chatty man, particularly not with his kids, not unkind, but he just didn’t have a lot to say about the obvious. But I’ll always remember the place, the time, and the words he uttered to me then, “Son, you did a fine job out there herding the cattle this morning, and you’ve gotten to be some decent help around the corral, too. I’m gonna raise you from 25 to 30 cents an hour.” I felt like the noonday sun was shining a spotlight right down on me.