The drive to my uncle’s farm gives me plenty of time to ponder my unwanted future as a cattle rancher and farmer. Farm life is lonely for a kid; my closest friend is a mile away. I can ride my bike to his house, but I’d like to have a friend next door, one I could talk to from my bedroom window. I’d like to walk to school with my friends instead of riding the bus. I’m not miles and miles out of the city; but where I live, you’re more likely to hear a coyote than neighbors fighting.
As my father turns into Uncle Fred’s driveway, my aunt screeches, “It’s Timmy Joe.” I love my aunt. I know I’m her only sister’s son, but that voice. I’m sure anyone within miles can hear.
Aunt Ester is a pan of water at full boil. She’s bubbling over with excitement. “Why, Timmy Joe, you’ll soon be all grown up. You’re going to be raising cattle and showing them at the fair. Before long you’ll be graduating from high school and off to college.”
Off to college would be nice. None of her kids went to college. They were in the armed forces and then came home to farm. At least she thinks I’ll go to college; I don’t want to work on the farm or in the factory. Johnny’s dad works in the factory, and he’s always complaining about how he hates it. I tell her, “I’d rather play baseball or ride my bike. If they want me to have an animal, why not a dog?”
Aunt Ester gives me an “I know, honey” smile. The one that’s more a smirk than a smile. “Come with me to the kitchen; I just backed a batch of chocolate chip cookies.”
Chocolate chip cookies can solve almost any problem, and Aunt Ester’s cookies are the best. With cookies and milk, I may be able to face what’s coming next, picking out a calf. My aunt says, “Now, Timmy, they’re going to try and convince you they know what’s best. Don’t let them pick the calf. I know you’re not sure of yourself, but they’re showing off. You pick the one you want. Use your heart. Understand?”
This gives me some assurance that at least someone in the family knows how I feel. I say I’ll do my best. She responds, “God knows that’s all any of us can do.”
She kisses me and shoos me out the door, watching and waving with thumbs up as I head to the barn. I wave back and yell, “Thanks for the cookies.”
As I expected, the cattle yard is muddy and full of manure. I’m not sure what to do, so I follow my dad and uncle. Suddenly, a wet nose is nudging me in the back. I turn to see this heifer staring at me, and she nudges my hand this time. Yelling to Dad, I say, “Here is the one I’d like. Some of the herd starts complaining with loud moos, and I feel sad that she’s leaving the herd. She climbs the ramp into the truck willingly. There’s no more noise from the herd. Perhaps they’ve forgotten her already, or maybe she’s not so sad after all.
My Herford calf has no horns, a white face, white underbelly, and white stocking feet. I join the 4-H pledging my head, hands, heart, and health to something, so I can participate in the annual fair.
I teach Betsy to follow, both with and without a harness, and keep up her appearance with shampoos and frequent brushing. While Mom and I are cleaning her hooves, she kicks, hitting Mom. I learn a whole new vocabulary, words I’m warned not to use.
Finally, the big weekend comes. Dad and I take Betsy to the fair. All the other 4-H’ers are there with their animals: cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, anything that you can raise on a farm. We settle Betsy into her stall with fresh straw. I like the smell of straw. I drive the tractor when they’re baling and that’s fun. There are a few bales at the end to rest on. Dad asks if I need a blanket or anything for the night. Everything I need to sleep is in my room at home; why is he asking? He tells me I’m expected to sleep at the fair, on the straw, behind the butt of Betsy.
Have you ever seen a cow piss or take a dump? It sprays everywhere. No way am I sleeping at her butt or any cow’s butt. When I refuse, Dad looks like I’ve disowned him. His eyes survey Betsy, the stall, the other cattle, the kids, and then settles on my hair. He won’t look me in the eye. His peevish grin that says, “look at my son,” is gone. He pulls a Camel cigarette out of the pack, compacts the tobacco by tapping it on his Zippo lighter, then starts to light it, but stops, remembering he’s in the barn. He keeps it unlit in his mouth.
Dad stands still, placing his hands in the pockets of the denim bib overalls. He’s sulking like I do when I’m mad. He realizes I’m not giving in and finally looks me in the eye. “We can go home. Your mom will drive you back in the morning.”
Dad brings me back because he can’t stay away. He won’t abandon me. Besides, other dads are here with their sons. I think he’s the one living a childhood taken away by WWII. He left school after eighth grade to work on the farm. His two older brothers were fighting in the war. He told me once, “I had to farm. There was no time for things like 4-H. You never regret what you did, but what you didn’t do.”
I win a blue ribbon for my breed, but lose the best of show. I kept Betsy and she had a calf, but next year I grow garden vegetables. I win all blue ribbons, and I’m featured, with pictures, in the local paper. Not a cattleman, but vegetables are farming too.
Overriding the cicadas, the noon fire siren wails. I’m surprised to see the square empty. My sister approaches me and says, “It’s time to go.” Only then do I realize I’m not a young boy but a physician who inherited Dad’s land that someone else farms.
“Where are they burying Uncle Fred?” I ask.
“Next to Aunt Ester in the family plot, adjacent to his farm.”
“Are there still cattle?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I’d like to pet a heifer, lead her around, give her a bath, take a nap on a bale of hay in the barn.”