This is an excerpt from a book I am working on called "The Bushmen", which is about my firefighting crew in the mid 60's and some of the years leading up to them. This takes place in a little town of Lebam, which is Mabel spelled backwards, in Southwest Washington.
Dad decided to get three steers. This was getting much more ambitious than the chickens. He didn’t want any cows and neither did we, cause then we would have to go out and milk them every morning and night. Plus my dad had never milked a cow in his life. A lot of our neighbors milked cows, but dad and mom didn’t want anything to do with it.
Mom was raised on a big ranch out in Wyoming and I’m sure she was familiar with all of that, but I think one of the reasons she came out West was to get away from all that ranching stuff and also to get away from the terrible winters. She would occasionally complain about how tough those winters were and she would tell us how she had to walk four or five miles to school, sometimes getting a horse ride if there were extra horses available, but most of the time walking. She could walk faster than any women I ever met and most men for that matter.
Anyway, we got three calves and named them “Brocky”, “Blackie”, and “Spot.” We had to do some fence mending, but not much and there was plenty of tall grass for the cattle to eat, so much that we had a neighbor mow some of it and then, after it dried and was put in wind rows, we pitched it all in the back of a big wagon and threw it in the barn. It was a very unprofessional but to this day I can still remember being on the hay wagon pulling our very own load of hay and being so happy about the whole thing, my brother by my side and Pluto running along the wagon a barking and wagging his tail. God, I wish I could go back there for just a few hours and relive the scene. At the time, I knew it was an eternal scene, one that lives thru the ages. It stamped itself on my mind vividly, my dad, brother, the smell of the hay, Pluto running along, dad picking him up and throwing him in the hay wagon, he nuzzling our faces. Can you imagine it?
Dad talked about all the work that needed to be done if we were going to take this ranching business seriously. I didn’t realize this was a prelude to what was coming next, the fall harvest.
Brockie was first up. We had a farmer come over who was somewhat skilled at butchering and he showed us the ropes. I wasn’t very old when I watched them coax Brockie up to the wood shed window with some grain. I can still see it now as Brockie looks in thru the window of the dark woodshed and then the farmer takes a short handled sledge hammer and he hits poor Brockie right between the eyes. I didn’t see it coming and neither did Brockie. Brockie falls down to the ground and then his neck is slit and he bleeds all over the ground.
I was a little surprised at how quickly Brockie’s life was over and how soon he turned into a gut pile and a gag of maggots. This was a little rough on my gentle soul. I’m not making light of this. It took me a few quiet moments of reflection in the afternoon sun to process this. But I did. It didn’t scar me or nothing, but it did leave an impression of some sort I guess.
The rest of the day was spent gutting him out on the grass and moving this enormous gut pile into wheelbarrows and taking it out in the fields a little way from the house. I remember lots of flies on the hide and gut pile and mom saying “That’s the last time we are doing that in my back yard. Goodness gravy, who ever heard of such a thing?” Then she laughs and laughs at the hilarity of it all. Didn’t blame her none as it was a bloody mess.
It was a lot worse than watching the vet castrating our calves, but neither scene comes to mind as a picnic. In fact, I can’t believe my parents let me watch that stuff, in light of present day sensibilities. Now a days, everyone would think the parents had taken leave of their senses, but that was just the way it was in those days. We were moving up the ladder of rural pleasures, having previously learned how to chop a chicken’s head off, how to pluck a chicken, and how to cut it up for frying, all before we were even going to school.
And don’t get in the habit of just watching the whole procedure. Oh no!! I vividly remember holding the chicken’s two legs with my left hand and putting his head down on the chopping block, which was just a round of wood that had two nails on it, about a chicken’s neck width apart. The chicken wasn’t completely stupid and about this time, his big red eye would be looking at me as I raised the axe up and then let it fall on his neck. The trick then was to throw him down and away as his neck spurted blood, and as the chicken flopped and flipped, doing zunts and triple zunts all over the ground, doing the death dance like there was no tomorrow. And of course there wasn’t! Sometimes the chicken covered 20 or thirty feet, oftentimes retracing his steps.
It was quite a site to behold. Occasionally we would forget and let Pluto watch, and boy would he think that was exciting as he gave chase to the chicken. We would then have to scold Pluto, who was just doing what came naturally and hope we hadn’t turned him into a chicken killer.
So the old saying, “Just like a chicken with his head cut off” has a lot more meaning to me that it does to your average guy nowadays. What kids miss out on nowadays! They miss the rich texture of language and the connection to life and death and rebirth that a little farm exposure gives you.
So that summer was over and it was time for my first year of school. I walked about a mile to school. I usually packed a lunch as it was cheaper and my mom thought it was better for me. When I got to the school, I shared class with the second grade, there being two grades in each class room. The classes were relatively small, with the first and second grade being about 25 to 30 kids, mostly all sons and daughter of loggers, farmers, or most often, both.
I remember one day I got to eat lunch in the cafeteria, a school lunch I mean. That day they had biscuits and honey along with something else. It was the first time I had ever had honey. I loved it and went back for seconds. God it was good. The cafeteria was all steamy from the cooking and the moist air. There was no view out the windows, just fog, but it was ok, we were kind of water logged kids all the time anyway, so we didn’t know any difference.
During lunch hour we would play out in the football field. I remember that most of my lunch hour I would run around the track. I wanted to be a great football player just like Skippy Friese. But occasionally we would encounter a snake while we were running and then we would pick it up by its tail and swing it around and maybe throw it at the girls. That’s always a popular move with the ladies. I don’t remember any of the girls having a crush on me, no small wonder there. At that age we really thought girls were really for the birds anyway, sort of a second class creature. And I mean that sincerely. We just couldn’t imagine how it would be any fun to be a sissy little girl.