“Hi. This is Roger,” a voice squeaks through my phone, “What’cha do’in?”
“Ahh, nothing, “ I say suspiciously, knowing that I often am but he seldom is, especially at this time of night when there are still chores to be done.
“Why don’t you come on over to the barn?”
“Its after dinner, Roger, I’m already in my jammies.” I fib, slouched in my chair a glass of wine in my hand and my head blissfully empty.
‘That’s okay, the cows don’t care! There’s something in the barn you’ve never seen before. Come on over, it’ll be interesting.”
It had only been a few months since I had met Roger but I recognized what he just said as Roger-speak for: a cow has done something really stupid and you’re not going to believe it unless you see it. That is the first part, the innocent part of Roger-speak. It is the second part, the ‘it’ll be interesting’ part, that is not so innocent. ‘It’ll be interesting’ in Roger-speak means: It is a real mess and I’m not sure how I am going to work it out but it would be nice if you were here to help me figure it out and get as dirty and frustrated as I am going to get.
How can I resist an invitation like that?
It’s 7pm when I leave my house, the slow part of the day when everything and everybody (except farmers) (and those who help farmers) have gone home to relax and enjoy a nice drink slouched in a comfortable chair. In the car I replay in my head the rest of the conversation:
“One of the heifers calves got unhitched in the barn and got herself turned backward and hung up over the hitching rail.”
“Hung up?” I ask bewildered.
“Yes, hung up.” He says with a mixture of pride and exasperation.
“On the hitching rail?”
“Yes, she is hung up on the hitching rail….the pipe we tie the cows to.
“You have a calf hung up over the hitching rail….backwards,’ I say still perplexed as comprehension is slow to make my acquaintance.
“Yes. We have a calf hung up over the hitching rail and she’s backward,” the change in pronouns not lost on me despite my continued confusion.
“Her front end is in the stall with her feet in the bedding and her back end is up over the hitching rail so that her rear feet are in the food, in the manger. The rail is running between her ribs and her hips so she can’t go anywhere. She didn’t seem like she was minding it much so I left her right there so she could think about things and went down and had supper.”
“This could be interesting,” I say, rising from my chair. “I’ll be right there.”
“I’ll see you at the barn,” says Roger.
Arriving at the barn I meet Roger as he walks up from his house. Roger is in his mid-fifties, willow thin (he would have to gain 20 lbs. to be called skinny) and likely to be wearing something that is completely inappropriate. The middle son of three, he started feeding calves when he was just a boy and other than a few years in the army, he has spent his entire life on this, his family’s farm. Far from being worn out though, he still works harder than anyone I know, and does so with a smile, an easy laugh and a generous spirit.
As we walk into the barn Roger grabs the long-handled metal scrapper and starts to clean up the center aisle. I turn quickly right and walk down the manger to take a look at the calf. I know Roger is watching me as he pretends to be busy; he loves these episodes. To him, it is like watching live TV in the barn. And I know what he wants to see. He wants to see me to jump and exclaim and celebrate the astonishing stupidity of this particular calf and all cows in general. He gets great satisfaction whenever he can have this primary bovine trait confirmed. It is a combination of ‘how big a fool can a cow be’ and ‘how big a fool must I be for depending on them to make my living.’ Roger is not your everyday dairy farmer.
I come back scratching my head allowing him only partial satisfaction even though I am quite impressed with the idiocy of this animal. The calf really is stuck backward over the rail, just like an old pillow thrown over the back of a chair.
“Maybe if I get in front of her I can push her back and she’ll be able to squirm her way over the pipe, “ I say not very convincingly.
“She’s hard stuck” Roger replies, “I don’t think this is a one-man job.”
“Well, let me try and if I can’t get her off I’ll come back and we’ll think of something else.” The change of pronouns is not lost on Roger.
I walk back to the end of the barn and step between the two calves lying in their proper places. The circus cow stands above them, quietly chewing, looking contently at me. I put my hands on her head and push hard trying to turn her to one side and then the other figuring that if I can get her head turned the rest of her will follow. Nothing doing. I then try to push her straight back but she is having none of it. Push a calf forward and she’ll go backward. Push it backward and she’ll go forward. Besides, even though this is just a calf, it is still a big animal, perhaps 350 pounds and no one I know is ever going to push her off this rail.
I ponder and then I try again adding a few grunts and choice words to my workout. Again nothing. The calf has barely noticed my efforts. Never missing a chew, she continues to blankly stare at me. I have no idea what she is thinking, if she is thinking. For effect she lifts her tail and, well, does what cows do best. Cows are not good communicators but they can be very expressive. This one, it seems, has a lot to express.
As I give up the brawn approach Roger arrives carrying an old, dirty piece of rope with a loop on one end. I had never seen this rope before.
“Where was that hiding?” I ask as a way to stall and catch more of my breath.
“I keep it behind the ladder, behind the yellow rope and the come-along. It hangs on a peg with my hat and an old rag. I don’t use it much”
“Good to know” I say, wondering what else is hanging on these old barn walls. I look at the rope and I look at the calf and I look at the rope and I look at the calf and I realize I have no idea what he is going to do with either. I am stumped.
Understand I come by it honestly. I have no experience unhanging heifer calves. I was not taught this in school. I have read no books on the subject. It is not a popular topic for TV shows. You never see this on ESPN. It has never, ever come up in idle conversation and it is not something anyone I know has any experience with. Anyone, that is, except Roger.
Roger has 50 years of experience in the barn and he has seen and had to deal with 50 years of idiot cows. He may not have dealt with this exact situation but I figure he has dealt with situations that are similar enough to this one. I am sure he has had cows hung up on fences or gates or across downed tree limbs before and since I haven’t seen any skeletons draped over any of these things on my wanderings around the farm he must have been successful unhanging the hung. Getting a calf off a hitching rail is just another opportunity to use those same old tricks.
Furthermore, this is exactly the kind of thing farmers do talk about. Listen in on a conversation between farmers and you will either hear complaints about the weather or stories of the things that went to Hell- the tractor that broke down, the hay wagon that got stuck, the bull that was too lazy to do his job or the raccoons in the silo.
Even if you were to make up an absolutely ludicrous predicament some farmer somewhere would surly say: “Yup, I remember up on the old Smith farm. A heifer calf was flying around there once doing loops above the barn. Wouldn’t cha know she got herself stuck up in the old birch tree? Old man Smith had a helluva time getting her down; used the old flying calf rope. I’ve had a flying calf rope ever since just in case.” It is probably hanging on a peg behind a rope, behind a hat, behind a rag.
“Pushing didn’t seem to work, “ I say leaning on the calf.
“Have any other ideas?”
Roger paints a beautiful picture with words.
“Best let these other two calves go before all hell breaks loose,” he says. “We don’t want them getting stepped on and adding to the confusion.”
I reach down and unclip the two properly placed calves as Roger waves his ball cap above them. With a yell and a prod we get the two calves up and out into the center aisle and away from trouble. Roger hands me one end of the rope.
“Grab this and pull” Roger tells me as he climbs over the rail into the manger, “I’m going to get the legs. Careful.”
This is more Roger-speak. What he means by this is: ‘Grab the end of this rope and put it over the hitching rail. I am going to loop it around her back legs and then try to lift them over the bar. When I lift her legs up pull hard, we don’t want to lose any ground when she starts to fight us. Once we get the legs over the rail she will tumble down into the stall and we can get her straightened out. Oh, and stay out of the way if you can. She’ll likely be out of balance and there’s no telling which way any of her parts might go. I’ll try not to get kicked myself. And don’t forget about the gutter right behind you, its full of shit.’
And so we do it. Roger puts the loop around the calf’s back legs cinching them together as I pull the rope taut. He then grabs the back legs and lifts them struggling to get the heavy end of the now mildly curious calf high enough to get it over the rail. I pull on the rope, not letting any of the hard won height get lost between each lift. A minute later and a lot more lifts and pulls, lifts and pulls, the calf tumbles over into the stall. I lurch here, the calf lurches there we all lurch everywhere and then we all stop. The calf stands up, I stoop over and Roger retrieves the rope. Except from our breathing, the barn is back to normal.
I manage to come away with only a few glancing kicks to my legs and Roger has pinched his hand but no blood is gushing from either of us and the shit has stayed mostly in the gutter. The calf, still chewing, pretends to act as if nothing happened. The operation is a success.
“That wasn’t so bad” Roger says almost disappointedly.
“No, it really wasn’t. Its good she didn’t try to fight us, too much.”
“They usually go under the railing when they go,” Roger adds, “but not this one. She had to try to go over it. Its always something.”
We stand there inspecting our hands, catching our breath.
“Do you think she learned anything?” Roger asks, both not expecting an answer and knowing what the answer is. To him, a cow learning a lesson, learning anything, is as likely as a cow quoting Shakespeare.
“I don’t think so, Roger. But at least we know that she’ll never be the one that jumps over the moon.”
Roger brightens and looks at me eagerly. “We’d need a longer rope but, who knows…..it’d be interesting.”