Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Most folks these days don’t think about cattle much. Our increasingly urbanized populace knows, vaguely, that beef and dairy products come from cattle. They may have a half-way decent mental image of what most cattle look like – big, boxy critters, basically a perambulating digestive system with beef mounted around the periphery, a head on one end and a big bag for producing milk and cheeses on the other. There are other things that go on at the end across from the head, things which are best not discussed in polite company. That will not, of course, prevent me from discussing them here.
But what these urban and suburban dwellers don’t understand is the bovine species’ largely unsuspected and malicious intelligence, nor how quickly they can turn that malice into action. But when I was a young fellow, back in Allamakee County, in the heart of northeast Iowa’s dairy country, we understood it all too well.
As for the city-dweller’s misconceptions of the nature of cows, this is something I learned from the first good friend I ever had who hailed from a big city – something that had to wait until I joined the Army.
Fort Dix, New Jersey – sometime in the early Eighties
It was a hot, sweaty, humid day at Fort Dix, New Jersey – the exact wrong sort of day to be suffering through an Army Basic Training field exercise.
Not that there is a right sort of day to be suffering through an Army Basic Training field exercise.
At the end of a “lane” that featured lots of pyrotechnics and tear gas, we were given five minutes to rest and recover before the next bit of training. The moment the Drill Sergeant yelled “Fall out,” I staggered to a tree and crashed to the ground under the shading branches.
My buddy, a skinny city kid from Philadelphia, dropped down to the sandy ground beside me, groaning. “I think I cracked a rib,” he complained. “Damn grenade simulator went off right behind me. Knocked me right over. Think I hit a rock when I went down.” He rubbed his ribs. “Man, imagine if this was real. I mean, real people shooting real shit at us. Can you imagine that? Scare the crap out of me, I tell you that.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied, with big-tough-country-kid nonchalance. “I’ve faced stuff more frightening that bullets and grenades.”
“The hell you say,” my buddy said. “What’s scarier than bullets and grenades?”
Back in Allamakee County
The Old Man had raised Black Angus cattle for many years but had mostly foregone farming by the time I was old enough to wander around much on my own. Black Angus cattle are compact, even-tempered beasts, but are still big enough and unpredictable enough to cause problems, but all in all, Dad didn’t have too much trouble with them.
Later, though, his timbered acreage in Allamakee County was surrounded by dairy farms, the favored breed for which in those days were Holsteins – big cattle, heavy, sometimes bad-tempered. Most of my friends’ families were involved in the dairy business to some extent or another, and the neighbor’s cattle had the uncanny ability to break fences and would frequently wander onto our property, at which point it became my job to run them off.
I once broached the subject of using my .30-30 to run them instead into the big freezer in the workshop but was rebuffed with a loud roar.
Instead, I experimented with a few other means of chasing errant bovines off the Clark property. One of my early efforts involved an old fiberglass recurve bow and blunt arrows, which I bounced off bovine rib cages and hindquarters. This had less than positive results, either merely annoying the cattle or angering them. After spending half an hour about twenty feet up a big box-elder tree one afternoon with four or five angry cows milling about beneath, I gave up on the archery solution.
We finally settled on light skeet loads of #9 shot from a 12 gauge, delivered from about 20-30 yards. The light shot warmed the cows’ hindquarters without penetrating the skin, and that usually moved the cows along – except for the odd instance that saw the Old Man or myself running around the flat ground across the creek with a few cows in pursuit.
Holsteins were cows to watch out for. But there was one local bovine, not a cow as such but most emphatically a bull, the very thought of whom struck terror into the hearts of all the local kids.
A Local Legend
This huge Holstein bull lived on one of the farms belonging to the expansive Duffy clan. Unfortunately, the farm in question lay in a pleasant little valley through which ran the pleasant little waterway of Waterloo Creek, in which swam a pleasant little population of pleasant little trout. The bull maintained a constant vigil of what he thought of as his personal stretch of Waterloo Creek. His zeal in pursuing trespassers made him a constant problem for those of us with a passion for fishing; his evil disposition, vast size and uncanny deviousness made him dangerous for even his owner. The bull was a killer, and only the board full of blue ribbons and large sums he earned his owner in stud fees had preserved him to this point. His back was as broad as a ’69 Cadillac, his head larger than a twenty-gallon washtub topped by needle-tipped horns. His eyes glittered red and angry, full of hate for any moving object that was not one of his cows.
This bull was notorious enough, in fact, that all the local folk had unanimously given him a name. He had some long, fancy pedigree name that nobody knew or cared about; instead, he was known locally as The Antichrist.
My first encounter with The Antichrist occurred when I was about fifteen. I was mooching around in the Waterloo Creek valley looking over some favored fishing spots. There was a beautiful big pool in a pasture on the back reaches of one of the Duffy farms that always held fat brown trout.
I was just climbing over the fence when I heard a strangled bellow. I froze in place, the top strand of barbed wire uncomfortably close to some delicate real estate and looked over to the trees along the creek.
There stood The Antichrist, a massive, menacing presence. He lifted a front hoof and dropped it. He let out a snort that could as easily come from some massive, primeval monster.
I disengaged from the fence and stole quietly away. No amount of trout was worth chancing The Antichrist. Several of my friends had already had close calls with him, and I had no desire to repeat their experiences.
But the closest call we ever had with The Antichrist happened two or three years later and involved my friend Jon’s big-city cousin Albert and a time-honored country kid tradition: A snipe hunt.
Now most folks nowadays wouldn’t fall for this stunt. Even the most urbane of urban dwellers have heard of this old trick, I suspect in part because of this Internet thing all the kids are doing these days. But back in the late Seventies, the Internets weren’t even a gleam in Al Gore’s eyes yet, and precautionary information traveled more slowly.
So, when my buddy Jon’s cousin Albert was coming to visit from Chicago, we had no trouble selling him on the exciting adventure of a nighttime snipe hunt. Albert’s family were staying with Jon’s aunt and uncle in town, but Albert had spent quite a bit of time hanging out with us out in the boonies, and was taking rather enthusiastically to fishing, camping and woods-bumming; in other words, a typical summer.
We set the date for our snipe hunt on a warm July weekend. Albert’s folks dropped him off at the Hooper place that Saturday afternoon. I was already in residence; Jon and I had been plotting for two hours before Albert showed up. All was in readiness.
Jon had through mysterious means obtained a large burlap sack, big enough to contain a small elephant. I had a small, cheap plastic flashlight. The hill we chose for the exercise contained some of the nastiest brush to be found in northeast Iowa – acres of blackberry brambles, sumac thickets, and towering oaks that blocked out the sun even on the brightest of days; the evening coming promised only the thinnest of sliver moons to light the forest. Perfect!
The day ended, and after supper the three of us were standing in the Hooper barnyard planning strategy.
“OK, since you’re new, Albert,” Jon was saying, “You’ll have to stand in the brush and hold the sack. The thing is, you can’t shoot at night, so what we’ll do is to loop around up to the top of the hill and sort of drive the snipe down to you. You stand and hold the sack and catch the snipe as they come a-runnin’ down the hill.”
“Won’t they fly?” Albert wanted to know.
“Nope.” I assured him. “Snipes only fly in daylight. They’d rather run after dark, that way they don’t run into trees and such.”
Albert looked around at the gathering gloom.
“Are you sure?” he quavered.
“Hey!” Jon protested, using a phrase that foretold unspeakable horror to anyone who knew Jon and I better. “Trust us!”
We drove out to a quiet stretch of country road. “Up there,” Jon indicated one particularly large, dark hillside covered with hardwood timber. “That’s where were going.”
We climbed out of The Van, hopped a barbed wire fence, and headed up the hill. It was a good mile from the road that we placed Albert, holding his sack, on the edge of a blackberry thicket.
“We’ll have to take the flashlight, Albert.” Jon informed our victim. “We’ll need it to see our way up to the top.”
“Uh, ok….” Albert sounded doubtful. There under the trees it was darker than a crow’s wing in a pile of coal on a dark night. We left Albert holding the bag, and aided by the anemic flashlight beam, trooped on up the hill.
Jon and I had forgotten one crucial detail about this hillside, where this evening there grazed a herd of Holstein cattle. We had neglected to consider who owned this hill overlooking the Waterloo Creek valley.
Once we were out of earshot of Albert’s stand, we could no longer contain our glee at his predicament.
“Now,” Jon was telling me, “we can loop around over the top of the hill and down the other side, and then we’ll follow the road back to The Van. We can go into town and have something to eat. We’ll go back and get old Albert about 2AM, hawhawhawhaw!!”
“Hawhawhawhaw!!” I replied. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face after four hours in those woods!! This is gonna be great!!”
We’d forgotten about the lynchpin of the Duffy dairy herd.
“Hawhawhawhaw!” Jon and I laughed our way through the woods, up the hill to the meadow on the top.
As Jon and I entered the open meadow at the top of the hill, we were still filled with mirth. We had forgotten that his father was grazing his cattle in the high meadow.
A deep, rolling snort echoed across the dark meadow. We strained to see the source of the sound; even in the open it was too dark to see much of anything.
“Haw?” Jon querulously asked the darkness.
Somewhere out in the darkness, The Antichrist stomped one foot. A tremor went through the ground beneath our feet; several branches fell from the trees behind us. Jon looked at me, his eyes wide with terror.
“It’s The Antichrist!” Jon shouted at me. “I forgot about him!”
“What should we do?” I shouted back.
“RUN!!!” Jon screeched.
The thunder of hoofbeats was already drumming in the dark, getting louder by the second.
To say that we ran for our lives is the grossest of understatements. We flew down that hill. We crashed through thickets in which a bulldozer would have helplessly bogged down. We ran over and snapped off saplings four and five inches thick, without notice. About one-third of the way down was a ravine; on the way up we’d been required to climb carefully down one side and scramble up the other. On the way down, both of us leaped the 20-foot chasm without missing a stride. Behind us was the ever-present thunder of hooves, slowly gaining on us; The Antichrist plowed a 6-foot wide swath through the trees; the farmer who owned the place in fact gained a full winter’s worth of firewood from the felled timber.
At one point during our headlong flight, dimly in the recesses of my subconscious, I recalled that we’d left Albert on the edge of a thicket nearby. He must have heard our headlong rush to escape a ton of pounding, snorting death; he called out to us.
“Are there any snipe, guys? Are the snipe coming?” I had a sudden flashed mental image of Albert standing, holding his sack, unaware of the onrushing Death in the darkness.
“RUN!” I shouted at Albert.
“What? Why?” he shouted back.
“BULL!” both Jon and I bellowed at once.
Albert had been wearing new white sneakers. As I flashed past Albert’s stand, I saw only a glimpse of two white sneakers and two huge, white eyes staring. The hoofbeats were getting closer; I reached deep inside myself, pulled out a little bit of extra energy from some unknown place, and put on some speed.
The pounding behind me had doubled somehow; then, suddenly, I was passed in the dark by a flying pair of white sneakers.
It seems Albert had been a varsity sprinter on his Chicago school’s track team. In his big-city ignorance of country ways, he didn’t realize how the ability to run like the very wind was frequently of great use in our hunting, fishing and camping adventures. At least not until the thundering sound of The Antichrist’s charge reached his ears. The very air crackled as Albert ran past us; a faint smell of ozone followed his flight. Jon and I homed in on the trail of acrid odor and followed it all the way back to the road where Jon’s van was parked, where we easily cleared the 3-strand barbed wire with single, effortless arching leaps.
The Antichrist skidded to a stop, frustrated by the barbed wire, his intent of reducing us to minor portions of the landscape deterred. We managed to halt our flight about 50 feet from the fence; the three of us turned to see The Antichrists’ beady, hateful eyes glittering at us in the faint glow of the moonlight. The bull casually lowered his head, scored out a foot-long sliver from a wooden fencepost with one horn, and let out one more mighty snort which blew Albert’s hat off; then he slowly turned, and ponderously made his way off into the darkness, towards his waiting cows.
Albert bent over suddenly. Jon grabbed for his arm, fearing he was fainting from terror. I grabbed his other arm; Albert was shaking uncontrollably. We both shook him, hoping to break him loose from whatever horror assailed him.
“Ha! Ha! HAHAHAHAHAA!!!! Albert was laughing! Not just laughing but laughing uproariously! Not a terrified, hysterical laugh, but a wild, carefree laugh, as one who’s just witnessed what was very possibly the greatest act of comedy he’d ever see in his life.
“You guys…” he panted, when he finally regained the ability to speak, “you guys, you told me…”
“What?” Jon demanded. “What did we tell you?”
“You told me it was the most exciting hunting there was!” Albert giggled. “I guess you sure showed me! It was sure exciting after all, it sure was!” Albert collapsed into the dust of the graveled road, clutching his sides.
Over Albert’s convulsing form, Jon and I looked at each other. We were witnesses to a Phenomenon; one we’d never expected. Despite all his citified manners, despite his pitiful lack of knowledge of fishing, shooting, hunting, tanning hides, running a trapline, or pretty much anything useful, Albert had the one quality that would gain him acceptance faster than any.
Albert was a good sport.
In time, he learned the rest.
Back at Fort Dix
“Cows,” my old Army buddy scoffed. “The hell you say. Ain’t nobody afraid of cows.”
Nearby, a kid from upstate New York suddenly popped upright. “Cows? Where?”
Another guy, this one from rural Wyoming, snapped out of a doze. “Cows? I don’t want to get mixed up with cows. They’ll have calves this time of year. They get mean when they have calves.”
A third kid, this one from central Missouri, chimed in. “Cows, oh, man, this is bad enough already without a bunch of damn cows wandering around.”
“Come on,” my big-city buddy replied to us all. “You’re all a bunch of big corn-fed farm boys, and you’re telling me you’re afraid of cows?”
“Not afraid, so much,” the guy from Wyoming said. We all knew he came from a long line of ranchers. “Just real, real cautious.”
I could tell my big-city buddy didn’t believe us. Most folks these days don’t think about cattle much. But even at the thought, my head came up automatically, scanning the open woods around us, not for Soviet soldiers, armored vehicle or even drill sergeants, but for cows.
As It Stands Today…
I’m still cautious around cows.
The stretches of Colorado landscape where I do my woods-bumming these days is frequently shared with cattle. These are beef cattle, usually Herefords or the Hereford-Angus crosses known as black baldies. These are reasonably tolerant cattle, and the fact that they spend summers on open range makes them cautious themselves and prone to staying away from people.
Also, bulls these days are mostly kept confined; AI (no, not that AI – Artificial Insemination) has replaced the need for most ranchers and farmers to herd a bull with their cows. But occasionally, usually in the distance, I can hear the ringing bellow of a bull. It’s a weirdly primal sound, one that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Most of the folks hereabouts, though, fish and hike unmolested by cows, and so miss out on the chance to amass tales of adventure. They really don’t know what they’re missing.