This is a true story I’m about to tell you.
I know it’s true, because while I wasn’t yet born, I have heard the story, over and over, told by all the participants, my whole life.
It is an illustration of the sort of people my parents were, and a glimpse at the kind of life I experienced on my grandparent’s farm in West Virginia, in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. This life is one that is long gone, and was a part of the past even as I lived it, for most of my peers were astonished that I was privy to experiences that were most similar to the lifestyles of the earlier decades of the twentieth century.
Now, before I get on to the meat of the story, as it were, I have to give a few caveats and warnings.
You see, there is livestock in this story, and there is some violence, both in word and deed. That is to say, while there is no blood and guts involved, there is a might bit of pain and no small amount of cussing that goes on in this tale.
So, if you are a vegan, or an animal rights activist, you might not want to read this story, because I suspect you will not see the humor in it, and might get the idea that I and my family are a bunch of hillbilly barbarians who treat animals like objects with no feelings of remorse. This could not be further from the truth, of course, because we always treated our pets and livestock with fondness,love and care, if not always with dignity, as you will see. But, we took care of them when they were sick, we helped them give birth, we nurtured and loved them and fed them well and generally, gave them happy lives, filled with as much tranquility as possible, with a few exceptions.
This story illustrates one of those exceptions.
I am not sure why I am telling you all this tale, except that I was thinking about my Dad, who is now older than my Grandpa was in this story, and he is a little bit unwell, and I wanted to maybe share a bit of him with my readers, who will likely never have any other chance at meeting him, either virtually (he hates computers) or in the flesh, as he also hates traveling.
So, here it is, the story of my Dad and The Cow. (Not “a cow,” mind you, but “The Cow.” For him, his entire life since this happened, there has only been one cow. Kind of like Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, to whom he referred ever after as “The Woman.”)
A long time ago, there were two people who grew up to be my father and my mother. They were as different as two people could be, and in fact, some
would say that they aren’t really real people at all, just characters in an unwritten novel.
But, I reckon that they are real enough, because they came together and made me and last I checked, characters in unwritten novels don’t make a great
habit out of procreating amongst themselves.
My father grew up in the city, to a shabbily genteel family of reasonably educated introverts. His father’s family, before the Depression, had been
very well off, so there was still an aura of decayed refinement tot hem….especially to his aunts and uncles.
His father, however, was an alcoholic, and his mother, my Gram, was born very poor, and from a family well known to be opinionated extroverts, so Dad
had an interesting childhood.
It was a city childhood, with baseball in the backlots, paper routes, milk delivery and weekly outings to the movies. His mother was quite
liberated, meaning she could smoke, drink and cuss a blue streak as well as his dad, all the while taking care of five children, getting food on the
table with no budget, make clothes for herself and said children with no budget or patterns, either, -and- work as a waitress if need be. During
prohibition, Gram told me worked as a waitress in a speakeasy…..but that is another story.
So, my Dad took after his father’s family in a lot of ways: he was highly intelligent, well-read and quite intellectual, but in his way, shy. He hated
school, though, so he took to skipping and hanging out in poolhalls where he learned to play pool well enough to hustle by the time he was fifteen. I think this is part of what made him such a good gunner in the Navy, since he was found to have an uncanny instinctive
understanding of the aiming and firing of the big twelve-inch guns on his ship, so much so, that they sent him to training usually only given to
officers in the operation of said weapons.
And, then, there was my Mom, and she was very different from my father. A plain-spoken country girl to the core, she was born in Buffalo, New York,
but her folks moved to West Virginia when she was four. The year she turned four was also when she learned how to drive the family tractor. Her father
worked in a munitions plant in Nitro, West Virginia, while she and her mother and brothers ran the vegetable farm….they sold vegetables by the
truckload, had milk and beef cows, pigs, geese, ducks and chickens.
Mom grew up knowing how to milk a cow, pasteurize milk, castrate hogs, kill and butcher anything, how to grow any plant, and harvest it, and how to
drive anything that had wheels and moved, preferably fast. She also grew up knowing how to devil her mother to distraction, wrestle her older brothers
and knock them into the pigpen, and how best to sneak herself and them into and out of the house for late night drinking forays.
She played basketball in school, and when she had a legal driver’s license, she tricked out her car with the help of an older brother with a genius for
auto mechanics, and then went and raced at a local racetrack. At first, she raced in the women’s races, which were called “Powderpuff Derbies”, and
then, later against the male drivers. She won, too.
All of this went on behind the back of her father, who disapproved of that sort thing for women, and her mother, who was such a good Christian woman
that no one ever said anything bad about her.
So here was Dad, the intellectual introvert, straight out of the Navy, and my Mom, the extroverted closet race-car driver. They met at a honky-tonk by
the name of “The Garden of Eden,” and apparently, it was love, or lust, at first sight.
Mom had her own apartment, and Dad took to basically living there, and his mother noticed an even worse tendency to take up way too much time in the
bathroom grooming. She figured he had a girl somewhere.
A few months after they met, they decided to get married, a decision probably based on the fact that I was thinking about being born. They, being
of adult age and independent means, decided that they had no need to tell their parents.
So, one weekend, they drove off to Virginia Beach, eloped, drove back the next
day, and Dad said, “Surprise, I’m married,” to his parents as he moved officially out of their house to Mom’s apartment.
Mom told her Mom, my Grandma, over the phone, and then brought Dad to her parent’s farm to meet them the next weekend.
Now, as I said, my Dad was sometimes very shy and awkward, and a very reserved person. There was not much hugging and kissing in his family. I
guess they were too stiff and Germanic and formal for all of that stuff, so he was already somewhat uncomfortable when my Grandma greeted him with a big smile and a hearty hug and kiss, and a comment to my Mom about how handsome
he was with his blue eyes, fair skin and ash brown hair. All of her children were dark skinned with brown or black hair and dark eyes, their high cheekbones and sturdy builds pointing to her own Cherokee lineage.
He was more uncomfortable when he shook hands with my Grandpa, a very short, wiry old man whose parents were Welsh and Anglo-Irish immigrants. Grandpa turned his fiery blue eyes up up at Dad, narrowed them and grunted through frowning lips, “We’re about to move the cows. I guess you can come help.”
Mom was enthusiastic, and took off after her three brothers, bouncing and laughing down over the steep hill to the pasture where the herd was milling about in typical bovine fashion.
Meanwhile, Grandpa, obviously having already measured Dad up as a stupid city feller, set him a simple task. He was to wait beside the open gate of
the second pasture, and when the cows came up, he was to usher them into the gate, and close and lock it behind them.
“George,” my Grandpa says, “Now, when these here cows come up,” he said, “There’s gonna be one cow in front. She’s whatchacall the lead cow, and
she’s the boss, you see, do you understand what I am saying, George?”
Dad nodded and Grandpa continued, after spitting a stream of tobacco juice to the ground, knocking a grasshopper from a stalk of grass. “Now this here
lead cow, whatever she does, them other cows, they do it, too. So, you just gotta make sure she goes in that gate, and all them other cows will follow
her slicker’n a whistle, ’cause they are pretty stupid, dontcha see?” Dad nodded.
“Think you can do that for me, George?”
Dad nodded again. Grandpa turned and headed down this steep hill, where the cows and his kids waited.
Grandma sat on the fence, and watched it all, grinning. Dad had no idea why she was grinning. He thought maybe she was just friendly, and so he smiled
at her, and she called out, “You watch out for that cow, there George….she’s a character.”
Dad nodded and smiled charmingly, thinking that no cow could scare him: they were no problem. Didn’t his grandfather make his fortune with a
slaughterhouse, butcher shop and meat packing company? Why he was heir to a line of German butchers, right, and wouldn’t that cow smell that on him?
Sure, no problem.
So, Dad turned and waited. From down below, he heard Grandpa and Mom and her brothers shouting, the lowing of the cows, and finally the thunder of their hooves as they trotted ponderously up the hill.
Well, they crested the hill and he saw that the herd was around twenty head of prime White-Faced Hereford beef cattle.
For those who don’t know from beef cattle, Herefords were the favored beef cattle breed for years in the US, particularly in the southeast. They are
characterized by reddish brown bodies, with white socks, and white splashes on their faces. They are generally of two body types: either tall and rangy
with long legs, or stocky and square with short legs. My grandpa had some of both, but he favored the leggy ones, because he thought that they were hardier.
So, they crested the hill, with, strangely enough, the lead cow in the lead.
She was of the leggy sort, and she was tall. And she was big. And she had horns.
And she had a mean, canny look in her eyes. She stopped at the top of the hill, and leveled that look at Dad, while lowering her head and snorting derisively.
She didn’t look like a character to him; she looked downright evil.
Lead cows don’t get to be lead cows by giving tea parties and telling all the other cows how pretty they are. They get where they are by being the
biggest, smartest, wickedest critters of the herd. (And that is assuming that the herd did not have a bull in residence. Dad was lucky that this herd was currently sans bull. If not, it would have bode ill for him.)
And this lead cow was giving Dad the once over, and had judged him to be nothing she had to worry about, or listen to, for that matter. She pricked her ears forward, just to hear what he might say, while pointing her horns in his general direction.
Dad saw this large creature snorting at him in a semi-threatening fashion,and proceeded to gesticulate towards the gate, in an attempt to usher her
inside. “Come on, girl,” he said politely, “Let’s go in the gate, come on.”
She pawed the earth, lowered her head, snorted, and turned cold eyes upon my father. He wisely ceased his gesticulation and fell silent. With that, she
jerked her head up, and turning faster than anything that big and ungainly had a right to, twitched her tail, and cantered down the hill. The entire
herd of cows, steers, heifers and calves turned and followed her, their thunderous hoofbeats churning up an enormous cloud of red clay dust.
Dad swallowed and glanced over at Grandma who was holding her hands over her mouth to try and cover the fact that she was laughing. Nothing could cover her pink tinged cheeks, shaking shoulders and suspiciously bright eyes, however.
At that precise moment, my Grandpa stepped through the cloud of dust, mad as hell. He stalked up to my Dad with Mom and her brothers trailing him,
Grandpa stopped in front of Dad and put his hands on his hips, glaring up at his obviously worthless son-in-law. “Dammit George, now what happened? I told you what she was likely to do, and you let her get away with it? Now, you can’t let her buffalo you like that, you need to let her know who’s boss here! You’re a city boy, but you’re still smarter than a cow. You gotta be firm with’em.”
He punched his left palm with his right hand for emphasis.
He looked like he’d rather have punched Dad.
Dad swallowed, head bowed, and nodded. “I’m sorry, don’t know what happened, sir, yessir, I’ll let her know who’s boss, yessir, I’m sorry….”
“Dammit, I gotta go back over that hill and get them cows up here again, and this time, I want you to pick you up a stick and hit her a good one and holler at her, and she’ll go in that gate real docile-like if you do that.”
Fierce gas-jet eyes narrowed and stared up at my father’s grey blue ones. “Think you can do that for me, George?”
Dad nodded, and Grandpa stalked off, impatiently sweeping his arms at his children for them to follow.
The fell in behind him, glancing back at Dad and snickering.
Dad glanced over at Grandma, who by this time had recovered her composure. She nodded at the treeline near the fence. “There’s some sticks there you
So, he went and got a stick, about the thickness of his thumb, which considering my Dad is not a small man, is pretty good sized.
Moments later, he heard the shouts, the cows lowing, and thier hooves thundering. Then, there she was, rising up to the top of the hill.
She looked at the gate and saw -him- again. She shook her head, and pawed the ground, snorting. Her tail twitched impatiently as she stared at this
stupid human who thought he could tell her what to do.
Dad advanced on her, stick in hand, and he half-yelled at her, obviously feeling somewhat silly and ill at ease to be addressing a cow with a
murderous look in her eyes.
Keeping well out of reach of the horns, he sternly declared, “Into that gate, cow, or I’ll hit you.” She huffed and began to turn.
He yelled, “Dammit, I said,” and struck her in the ribs, promptly breaking the stick which turned out to be rotted on the inside.
Apparently, it felt no worse than a fly bite, for all that show of strength did was hasten her progress back down the hill. All of the other bovines
turned tail and followed at an udder-swinging trot.
This left Dad with a nub of a stick and an empty pasture with which to confront Grandpa, who cursed with each step as he trudged up the hill.
Turning to my Grandma for comfort, he saw her clinging weakly to the fence, head thrown back, tears cascading down her face as she laughed.
No help there.
Dad flushed as Grandpa stomped up to him and spat on the ground. “Dammit, George, now that wasn’t no good, she done got away from you again!”
Catching sight of the stick, he grabbed it from my Dad’s hand and broke it between his fingers, exclaiming, “Why, Goddammit, that ain’t no kind of
stick! What the hell is that, no wonder that ole bitch done turned her back on you! When I said stick, I meant a stick, a real hefty one.”
He cast about for something that would fit the bill and came up with a fallen branch that was about the size and weight of a baseball bat. It
wasn’t so much of a stick as a cudgel. He whacked the fencepost with it, and satisfied with its solidity, half threw it at my father.
The veins on his temple were beginning to show as he hollered, “Now take this damned stick George, and when that ole bitch of a cow comes up to you,
I want you to hit her, and hit her hard and show her you mean business and make sure she gets her ass in that gate, cause I don’t want to be chasing
those damned cows back up this hill! I’m too goddamned old for this shit!”
Dad swallowed and took the stick, his hands closing around it tightly.
Clutching it, he nodded, murmuring, “Yessir, I will, I’ll hit her with the stick, nosir, you don’t have to go down over the hill again, nope, I’ll get
them in the gate, yessir, I will.”
Fuming, Grandpa clomped off, not even bothering to motion for his children to follow. They padded after him, with only a few snickers punctuating thier
Dad hefted the stick, and brandished it like a baseball bat. Baseball he knew from, and the stick almost had the comforting feel of a Louisville
Slugger in his grip. He settled himself to wait, eyes forward, face resolute.
From down below came the shouts, the mooing, the hooves, and finally, the sight of her horns cresting the hill. (Dad swears he heard the theme to “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,” playing in his head at that moment. Who am I to argue with him?)
Without waiting for her usual commentary of snorting and pawing, Dad walked up and yelled savagely at The Cow, “Get in there!”
The cow narrowed her eyes and Dad aimed a blow to her shoulder. He pulled the stick back like he was Babe Ruth, and threw his considerable strength
into the swing.
He was concentrating on the swing so much, he didn’t see the cow turn her head as she prepared to return from whence she came.
Roaring, “NOOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs, Dad hit the cow right between the eyes, full force, with the stick. He hit her so hard, that his bones
were jarred by the impact, and the stick cracked and broke on her head.
She had turned right into the blow.
While my Dad looked on in horror, her eyes rolled and showed the whites, and with the barest of grunts, she fell to her knees. Dad stood dumbly over her, adrenaline pumping, his heart racing, a broken stick drooping in his hand.
The cow sagged from her knees to the ground, and was still.
The other cows, wide eyed, took in this situation, and made a hasty decision. They, as one, dashed into the gate, past my father and thier
Dad closed the gate, and glanced up at my Grandma, his face white as a sheet.
Grandma was laughing so hard, she had fallen from the fence, and was sitting in heap on the grass, hiccuping and pointing, tears completely obscuring her glasses. She told me years later that she nearly wet her pants, she laughed so hard.
Appalled, Dad walked back over to the cow and looked down at her unmoving bulk, and nudged her with his foot, the murder weapon still broken in his hand.
She did not move.
Grandpa huffed up, and stopped in front of his favorite cow. Frowning, he put his hands on his hips, and stared up at Dad, shaking his head. He
slapped the stick out of his son-in-law’s hand.
“Jesus Christ, George! I told you to -hit- her,” he shouted, “Not -kill- her!”
Mom and her brothers couldn’t speak for laughing, while they watched their red-faced father lean over to check on the fallen animal.
At that moment, she moaned, and scrabbled to her feet. She swayed and took one look at my father, snorted, moaned again, and staggered double-time to the gate. There she waited patiently to be let in.
He opened the gate and beckoned her in. She followed him, quite docile, into the smaller pasture, though she shuffled and shook her head a bit oddly. Dad patted her gently on the rump as she went past, relieved that he had not, indeed, killed a not-quite-innocent-but-favored cow, that day. He swung the gate closed and latched it carefully, then dusted off his hands, folding his arms, and smiled broadly at his short father-in-law who shook his head in disbelief.
As for The Cow, she was fine, if a bit less apt to be aggressive around humans.
She soon lost her status as the leader of the herd, though, not because of her fateful encounter with my Dad.
It was because Grandpa had bought and brought in a new bull, Daniel, who soon asserted his testosterone and became the top bovine on the farm.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.