Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Snow Boots in the Summertime

Though I enjoy writing, there are times a picture is still worth the proverbial thousand words. As summer makes its stately progress past the solstice, the tender greens of the garden become the towering tendrils of vining tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. Chaos reigns as you wade into the mass to search out that first ripe tomato, or a small but tasty pepper for the salad. One day a cuke is cute and the next as long as a torpedo. The perennial bed is an explosion of daylily trumpets, balloon flower orbs and the spiky plates of coneflowers. If nature has provided, or if one is diligent in running the sprinkler, the annuals become a solid kaleidoscopic melange. The bounty of color and form makes a virtue of disorganization.

At least, I'd like to believe there are instances when disorganization can be a virtue. Every summer for nearly two decades, our family honed disorganization to an art form as we prepared for our county fair.

Its not that we didn't have a plan, or a schedule. In fact, year in and year out, we probably tied the calves up on exactly the same day. We looked for the fair schedule the same day; we finished the baked goods the same last minute; we made a desperate run to the farm supply store for show sticks and halters the same calendar date as the previous year. Consistent, yes! Prepared, no......

Lee was nine the summer we cleaned the junk out of the small lot across the driveway from the house, wired up the hogwire and put up a gate. She was game and we'd already made it clear that both girls were responsible for doing the chores. They wore snow boots to do their chores in the lot. They were barely big enough to haul the corn buckets from the bin to the bunk, but we only showed two steers with unusually calm dispositions for Hurst calves. We didn't win anything at all, but that really wasn't the point. Lee looked cute and no one got hurt; the fair was a success.

Annie was old enough to join her sister the next year, but our beginner's luck failed us. The calves chosen from our cow herd should have run steeplechase. As the door opened, they burst from the trailer in a blur, too fast to be shunted into the lot. They took off down the road, into the fields, and disappeared. Short 4-H season. When time came to gather the neighbor's cowherd in, he called us about a strange steer in his lot. But we never found the other one at all.

That was the end of home raised steers at Deadman's Hollow. From then on, we watched for Club Calf sale bills. For a couple of years, all five of us would buckle ourselves into the front of the pickup and travel clear out to Grand Island to buy some Simmental steers, big blond animals that begged to become cow hide rugs. We bought Simmental/Chianina cross steers. They were beautiful things, with dished noses and wide set eyes just like an Arabian horse. But no matter how well the girls fed them, they failed with the judges. Finally, we settled on a local farmer in Iowa who had alot of Angus in his fancy club calves. He was a good judge of animals and breeding. While we bought calves from him, the kids even won a few classes and a couple of Reserve Grand Champions.

And that was probably as much as we could ever expect. We were never calf jockeys. The steers lived out in the lot all summer. The old chicken house provided some shelter and so did the elm trees in the fence row, but they were fed, watered and housed the old fashioned way. The kids grew too; after "someone" left the gate unwired, all feed was carried over the fence. During winter mornings, they pulled their rubber boots over their pajamas, layered the hooded sweatshirts over their tangled hair and headed out to chop ice in the dark. The whole ritual was accomplished in total silence; no conversation til everyone thawed out in the bathroom.

The county fair was late in the first week of August when our kids were growing up. That meant we could wait to break the calves until after the 4th of July. After the grace period of early summer, when there was no bus to catch and the sun rose early, we sent the kids to the basement to find the halters and the lariat.

Blake possesses nearly an endless list of talents. But roping animals is not among them. If the whole situation had not been so tense, it would have been riotously funny. Here is the dad, circling the loop in his hand. Here are the two girls, arms out wide on one side of the chicken house, attempting to keep the steers calm. The animals know them, but they don't know that guy with the glasses and short hair; he's trouble and in their dim little brains, they know this. On the other side of the chicken house are the mom and the little boy. Before long, he'll be on the top of the chicken house as the steers avoid the approaching man with rope and trot their way around to the other side.

The girls know they could probably walk right up to at least one of their calves and slip the loop over their heads. But they can't dig in their heels and stop 1100 pounds of careening steer until the lariat is looped around one of the hedge posts in the lot. Their dad can't rope 'em, but he knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. My job is to grab the long end of the lariat while Blake is being drug around the lot and flip it around the nearest hedge post. Then.....hold on. Period.

Some steers behaved, stood there and allowed themselves to be haltered. Some jack knifed, bawled, and generally made us all sick at heart while they choked themselves and coughed. What a relief it was to have all the steers tied to posts so the girls could bring them water and feed. How many times did Blake tell them to 'scratch their steers.' They were never really scared of their steers that I recall, but they were never very sentimental either. Over the years, we had calves that were friendly, calves that were spooky, calves that chewed through ropes and had to be restrained with log chains, calves that bloated and needed to be poked, calves that were eating machines and calves that were gazelles. One year we kept a steer to fatten more for our freezer instead of showing him. He became so tame, he would follow us to the fence when we watered the mums because Kris had been feeding him volunteer corn stalks. Friendly or not, we ate him later.

Even after the steers were tied and calmed down, even after they could be led to water and stood quietly to have their feet moved and scratched with the curry comb, even if they didn't balk and dig in their considerable bulk, the good behavior had almost no predictive value on their actions in the show ring.

When the girls were young, the livestock show took place in a small ring made of cattle panels by the baseball fields in the park in Rock Port. If someone's steer took a notion to break out, it was quite a chase across the golf course. Later, the fair moved to the old sale barn outside arena. There was a lot more room and less chance for escape. Kids' steers still ran off when they hit the sand, or played bumper cars in hallways of the barn, but it did look more like a fair barn.

Other families had gear boxes and cooling fans. We washed our calves with Lemon Joy and fitted them with White Rain hair spray and baby powder. The kids were tired of brushing steers and the dad was so nervous he couldn't quit messing with them. Some years the judges wanted to see exhibitors in boots, sometimes in hats, but always with the curry comb in the back pocket. We crammed on weights and rate of gain. We noted whose steers were also in the weight class;some families always had wild steers. In the ring, the big kids helped the little kids; the ring men twisted tales when necessary. The crowd was silent except for the click of shutters as another year of kid and calf was recorded for posterity. Wherever their animals placed, the kids never betrayed emotion. They took their ribbons and headed back to the barn, ready for the next steer or a trip to the concession stand for pop or pie.

The steer show was always a family affair. The years all three kids showed steers we might have eight animals in the little lot. We always showed at least six, but only sold three at the auction. After all, there were four other Hurst kids showing steers as well and not enough bidders to cover them all.

The fair was more than just a livestock show. The girls had projects for cooking and sewing while they were younger with either their Grandma Millie or their mother as project leader. We were not very good about filling out the paper work and the process, but they did the work nonetheless and spent lots of time with Grandma and in the kitchen, more lasting than any ribbon. Millie always had a stack of girls sewing at her house...from neighbor girls Brooks' age on down to her own grandkids. The house would be festooned with fabrics; the iron would be steaming in one room while a canner of beans would be boiling in the other. Everyone was sweating even though the air conditioner was churning away. We all wore shoes for fear of pins in our bare feet.

All three kids took cooking exhibits over. We'd pore through recipes so they could pick out what they wished to bake. The girls kept baking long past their 4-H years in order to watch Grandpa Charlie bid on a cake or a pie to raise money for the fair. Even if Grandpa hadn't been at the sale to run the bid up, who wouldn't buy a chocolate cake or a cherry pie from a pony tailed chef in tall rubber boots??

The evening of the sale, our local Farm Bureau grilled burgers and served ice cream. The kids would be decked back out in their best show duds and the winning steers sported their big rosettes. I had several big 72 rolls of film on hand so I could record each kid and each animal for the buyers and sellers. It could be a long night if there were lots of hogs; a child can lead a steer to a place, but taking a photo of a hog properly presented required quick feet by the ring guys and no hesitation from the photographer. These were still the days of film and I never wanted to find out I'd cut off half the exhibitor or missed half the hog after the fact. Some of the kids I only saw once a year; the pictures I took were like growth charts scratched on the back of the closet door; the animals looked about the same from year to year, but the kid started just below the calf's nose, gripping the halter in two hands and finished his career with the halter nonchalantly hand on hip while he looked down on his steer.

I haven't been to the steer show for a few years. The dates have changed and we don't have kids showing anymore. But Aaron is seven and his daddy and mommy grew up that way. Our kids still have nightmares about forgetting to water the calves, or leaving the hydrant on. I'd hate to have Aaron miss out!!

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