Hey friends, this is more of a short-story memoir than a blog. A snapshot of my childhood and the fondest of times…It’s a good read-aloud story if your kids are old enough, though it’s a little more graphic than your average chapter of Little House on the Prairie…
Dad was out of town on business, and Mom had driven my nine-year-old little brother into town for his Saturday-morning physical therapy—and then there would be errands to run. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler, Greg’s left arm and leg were twisted, his gait unsteady, his mind slow. “Result of a birth injury,” was the pediatrician’s best guess, “A lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.”
I was eleven and today it would be up to me to hold down the fort at our farm. These were pre-cell phone days, and save for our black lab, Shane, and the list of chores waiting on the counter, I was completely alone—and feeling proud of the responsibility Mom had entrusted to me.
The morning was bright and beautiful for late February. The valley was nestled under a tender blanket of Pacific Northwest fog, which habitually fingered its way along the Issaquah Creek until long after the sun had burned its way through the clouds. I looked over the list, grateful that Mom hadn’t saddled me with “girl jobs,” but had entrusted me with the barn chores.
“C’mon, Shane,” I said, slapping my leg. With a thick slab of toast in one hand and Shane’s warm muzzle at my other, we headed for the barn.
Our old dairy barn was my refuge. I spent countless hours there as a child, lying on sweet-smelling bales of hay in the hayloft, lulled by pigeons’ cooing in the rafters, or daydreaming about valiant ranch adventures, of which I was always the unassuming, horseback-riding hero. I slid open the barn door and a dozen horses’ noses peeked out from behind stall gates to greet me. Forty cattle stanchions had once lined these walls, securing the blocky heads of dairy cows as a gentle, leather-handed farmer milked them one-by-one, morning and night. When our family had moved to the farm six years ago, my dad had replaced the stanchions with horse stalls to accommodate our own three horses and those of people who would rent pasture and stall space from us.
A wide concrete aisle sprawled down the center of the barn. I’d learned to ride a bike on its smooth, cool surface, and for the past two years, my brother Greg has been wearing his training wheels thin on his small red bike. I loved watching him ride that bike. No limp, no wobble. Just breeze on his face, and speed. My mom’s mare whinnied at me, setting off a volley of nickers from the other horses. They were ready for breakfast.
I headed to the old milk shed where metal trash cans stored our grain, and measured each horse’s portion with a dented Folgers coffee-can scoop. Shane followed close behind, licking up the spilled kernels of corn or oats, his tongue leaving wet crescent-moon prints on the cold cement. I then topped off water buckets and tossed a pad of hay into each horse’s hay bin.
Next up, the cows. Shane and I ascended the steep stairs into the hayloft, breaking its morning stillness and setting off a flurry of pigeons. The hayloft was vast in both size and presence, with its massive beams and high-sheen hardwood floor, the color of fresh coffee. The floorboards, made of two-inch-thick clear fir, bore the sheen of decades of hay-bale polishings. The rough-hewn beams that supported the barn’s roof, easily two feet thick and hand-milled by the men who settled this valley, reminded me of the inside ribcage of a giant whale. I always felt a little Jonah-like when I stood in the middle of the floor and looked up. How tall had those trees been, which the settlers had felled to craft these beams? How tall would they be today?
Two floor-length windows opened onto our main pasture, and from that vantage point, even in the fog I could make out the rooflines of the next farm down the valley—the Verschaeve’s place, with its farmhouse, yellow dairy barn, and milk shed. Hector Verschaeve’s herd of purebred black-and-white Holsteins was undoubtedly getting its morning milking inside the yellow barn. Hector was an old, weathered dairyman. His place was one of the last farms in the valley still milking twice a day and selling to Darigold. He was more of a phantom than a real person to us kids. We rarely caught sight of him, and he was none-too-friendly whenever he saw us exploring the creek line near his property. I’d only heard him speak once, when he’d stormed across the pasture a few years back, bellowing at my dad in his thick German accent. Seems our Hereford bull had gotten loose among Hector’s purebred Holsteins (strong fences weren’t my dad’s forte). The following spring, Hector had sold us a mixed-breed calf.
Our small herd of Hereford-Angus-Holstein mutts gathered like clockwork beneath the hayloft window, their sweet steamy breath rising above their fuzzy winter coats. Spotting me, they jostled for position. In a few weeks, we’d no longer need to hay the cows morning and night; spring would be in full throttle, the grass would shoot up fresh and green, and the cows would have plenty to eat from the pasture alone. But today the grass was still the dull gray-green of winter, and the herd needed a little extra boost.
Taking the hay hook from its spot near the window, I impaled a bale from the stack near the back of the loft. I wasn’t strong enough to carry the bale, so I drug it across the slick floor and popped it open. I grabbed the pitchfork—its ancient, grey wood warm and smooth in my hand—and began tossing giant pads of hay to the hungry masses below. This I repeated with two more bales, spreading out the pads evenly so each cow would have plenty and there would be no fighting.
After the last pitchfork-full was launched, Shane flopped down before the open window to survey the contented herd. I joined him, my skinny legs dangling a few feet above the cows’ backs as I took a head count. It was probably too early in the year to worry about calving, but there were other threats to the herd—coyotes or breached fences—so it was habit to number them morning and night, and make sure all 18 head were accounted for. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… Seventeen head. I counted again. . .sixteen, seventeen. That couldn’t be right. I counted a third time. I was indeed one cow short. Who was missing?
To an outsider, these cows might all look alike, but to a rancher, each is an individual. I quickly realized it was Amy who was missing. Two springs earlier, I had watched Amy be born and she was a beauty, as cows go—a black white-face with large, gentle eyes. Mom had let me name her, and—having just finished Little Women—I’d chosen the prettiest March sister as her namesake.
I stood and scanned the pasture. In the distance, a dark mass, low to the ground, was barely visible through the fog. The mass wasn’t moving. I raced down the stairs, slipped through the pasture gate, and bolted into the fog, Shane at my heels. As I neared the far side of the pasture, I found Amy flat on her side, breathing heavily, and clearly in labor. I slowed to a walk and quietly approached.
A small pink muzzle and two tiny hooves were already sticking out of her hind side. Our cows usually calved quickly and with ease, but Amy was barely two, and this was her first calf. Her dark eyes lolled back in her head, and steam rose from her sweat-soaked hide. How long had she been laboring? A few hours? All night? Amy tossed her head toward me, and struggled nervously to her feet. Her eyes widened at Shane’s presence and she snorted a threat his direction. “Shane, go on!” I whispered and pointed. Obediently, Shane retreated about fifty feet and sat down facing us, his ears on high alert.
“Hey, Amy. . .” I crooned in my smoothest voice. “Hey, girl, it’s all right.” She looked horrible. And I was alone. I know enough about calving to recognize that this baby needed out—and quickly—or we might lose both the calf and its mother. I’d seen plenty of calves be born, but had never played midwife by myself before.
Amy groaned and contracted. Her back arched and she bore down, but the tiny hooves and muzzle didn’t budge. They showed no sign of life. The words of my brother’s pediatrician came to mind: “Likely the result of a birth injury. Lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.” Again Amy contracted. Hesitantly, I grabbed the tiny hooves and pulled as she pushed. But the hooves were too slippery, and I couldn’t get a firm grip. Amy folded her front legs and down she went onto her side, breathing hard.
“It’s okay, girl,” I said. I needed help, and Mom wouldn’t be home for hours. Frantically, my mind raced.
Hector Verschaeve knew everything about cows. I looked toward his barn. The doors were open and it looked pitch black inside, but Mr. Verschaeve was no doubt there, finishing up his morning milking. Except for a few covert explorations of his side of the creek, I had never set foot on his place, never spoken to him directly.
Amy groaned again, and flung her head my direction. She bore down, and when a stream of clear fluid squirted from her hind side, I ran for Verschaeves’ and didn’t stop running until I reached their fence line.
I pulled up short, and stared at that dark cavern of a doorway. My knees felt weak and my heart pounded, both from the running and from nerves. But I knew what I needed to do. I squeezed through the fence, crossed the barnyard, swallowed hard, and stepped into the cavern of Mr. Verschaeve’s barn.
My eyes struggled to adjust to the dark. Mr. Verschaeve’s silhouette, stark against the open door at the far end of the barn, was fast approaching, like a guard dog confronting an intruder. Before I could think what to say, he stood before me, eyebrows furrowed, a frown on his lips. Up close, I was struck by how short he was—barely a few inches taller than me. Yet his presence was striking. Deep-set eyes glared from above high, smooth cheekbones. His clean-shaven skin was tanned and oily. Deep creases cut across his forehead and down both cheeks. Thistled silver hair, cropped close, stood erect against the darkness. His arms hung from squared shoulders, their lean muscles outlined beneath his denim sleeves. His legs were thick, slightly-bowed tree trunks, solidly visible even through his loose overalls. He wore knee-high rubber boots caked in cow manure. But most remarkable were his hands, oversized in proportion to the rest of the man. Thick, leathery fingers curved from each calloused palm. Decades of milking cows morning and night read like a book in those hands.
“Good morning, Mr. Verschaeve,” I said. He stared stone-faced, unblinking. I swallowed hard and continued. “I’m Greg and Teda Voss’s daughter, from down the road. And one of our cows is down.” A faint flicker of acknowledgment now fleeted across his face. I had his attention, but still he didn’t speak.
“My parents aren’t home, sir…” I swallowed again but my mouth was dry. Behind him, his cows grew restless. Milked and fed, they were ready for pasture. An impatient, “Maaah,” broke the silence. Why won’t he say something? Is he angry that I’ve penetrated the fortress of his barn? Is he still mad that Greg and I had sneaked across the fence line to explore his side of the creek last October?
The Issaquah Creek cut through our pasture and into Verschaeves’. On the day in question last fall, the salmon had been spawning. Greg and I loved tracking these battle-scarred beasts as they fought their way upstream each autumn to lay their eggs in the very spot where they themselves had been hatched years before. Our quest for the biggest salmon had led us down the creek to the fence that separated our property from Verschaeves’. Just the other side of the fence was a deep pool, dense with wild mint, watercress, and horsetail reeds—a perfect pit stop for the salmon on their quest upstream. A half-dozen large shadowy figures taunted us from the depths of that pool.
“Let’s cross over!” Greg had said.
“You know we’re not supposed to be on Verschaeve’s property,” I replied, ever the rule-follower.
“No one’s looking, and I can scare those guys with my sword and make them swim to our side.” Greg waved his flimsy maple-branch “sword” at the shadows in the pool.
“Fine,” I relented. “But let’s be quick.” I put my foot on a lower strand of barbed wire, and pulled up on the wire above it, inviting Greg to squeeze through. Even on a flat surface, his balance was precarious, so I held the back of his jacket to steady him with my free hand as he bent to slip through the fence.
“Let go, Sis! I can do it myself! I’m not a baby.”
“I was just holding on to you to keep my balance, Greg,” I lied. “It’s slippery, and I don’t want to fall.”After freeing his jacket from more than one barb, I pushed him through and quickly followed.
Greg made his way toward the pool, brandished his sword at the shadows below. He slapped the surface of the water with the branch, but the unimpressed salmon barely flinched.
Just then, I heard the deep rumble of a tractor. In the distance, Mr. Verschaeve’s old Ford was pulling his manure spreader out of the barn.
“It’s Mr. Verschaeve! Get down!” I said. We crouched among the reeds. The tractor ambled toward us, but Mr. Verschaeve’s focus was on the spreader, behind.
“C’mon!” I said. For once, Greg didn’t resist my orders. We retraced our steps in record time.
Only when we were safely on our side of the fence did I dare look back at Mr. Verschaeve. He was standing behind the wheel of his tractor, staring straight at us. Had he seen us trespassing in his pasture? Would he call Dad? Busted, we slinked home, Greg’s sword dragging behind him.
All this flashed through my mind as I stood before Mr. Verschaeve now. In the distance, Amy let out a mournful, unnatural bellow, jerking me back to the present. Mr. Verschaeve’s eyes broke their stare and reflexively sought the source of her cry.
“The calf won’t come,” I blurted out. “Mr. Verschaeve, could you help? I need your help! Please, sir.”
He grunted and brushed past me toward the pasture. I scrambled behind, trotting to keep up with his brisk, short-legged strut. We crossed the barnyard, slipped through the fence, and in a moment we were at Amy’s side. She had not budged and this time she made no effort to stand as we approached. Shane paced anxiously at his post.
Mr. Verschaeve was transfigured in the presence of this struggling young cow. He began to speak soft German endearments to her. “Wie gehts, mein Mädchen? Ist schon gut. . . es ist gut, mein kleine Mädchen.” He held out a calloused hand to her, and she sniffed it cautiously. He stroked along her jowl, and scratched behind her ear. She relaxed visibly under his touch. He patted his way down her side, along her stiff hind quarters, until he was at her hind end. Running his fingers around the calf’s muzzle and hooves, he turned to me.
“Up!” He motioned with both arms, pointing at Amy. We had to get Amy to her feet. He rolled up his shirt sleeves.
“Come on, Amy! Up you go, girl!” I pushed at her chest, then pulled at her neck. She was unimpressed. I slapped wildly at her side. “Up you go, girl! C’mon!”
Nervously, Amy rose to her feet and took a few steps forward. Again she contracted and pushed. This time, Mr. Verschaeve plunged both hands inside her, grabbed the calf’s ankles, and pulled. The hooves eased forward until both ankles were visible. The calf’s muzzle came forward next, and then slowly, its forehead popped out, birth sac still covering its face. Eyes shut, there was no movement, no sign of life.
Amy bellowed. Mr. Verschaeve released the calf’s ankles and stepped back. He ran his wet hands over Amy’s haunches and felt under her tight belly. Glancing at me, he barked in thick, broken English, “Das. . .belt!” He pointed toward the leather belt that held up my Levis. I had bought it with my own money on an Indian reservation that summer, and it boasted genuine beadwork all the way around. I unbuckled the belt, slid it free, and handed it to Mr. Verschaeve. I hiked up my jeans and widened my stance to keep them from slipping down.
Masterfully, Mr. Verschaeve looped my belt around the calf’s ankles, wrapped the strap end around his wrist, braced his feet in the damp sod, and waited. When Amy contracted again, he pulled slow and steady with both hands, easing his full weight into the tension. This time, the calf’s shoulders and chest emerged. Its head flailed to one side.
It’s still alive!
Mr. Verschaeve pulled the birth sac from around the calf’s mouth and nose with one hand while maintaining slow pressure with the belt in the other. Fluid drained from the calf’s nostrils, and it tried to breathe, but with ribs still tightly squeezed, it couldn’t inhale. “Lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.” My pulse quickened.
Mr. Verschaeve wiped sweat from his forehead with the forearm of his free hand and pointed at the calf. “Too big.” A sickening pit knotted in my stomach. A third contraction brought no results, despite Mr. Verschaeve’s impressive strength. Nor a fourth, nor fifth. The calf was stuck.
Amy stood exhausted, legs sprawled, head hanging. Less steam came from her nostrils now. She was dehydrated, spent.
Mr. Verschaeve stepped back, thinking. “’ee’s caught,” he said, “. . .here.” He patted at his hips. I began to understand that the calf’s hips were stuck against the inside of his mother’s hips. “Hip lock,” I’d heard my parents call it in previous troubled deliveries over the years. Not unheard of with a large calf and a first-time mama.
Mr. Verschaeve stared at the calf, then sized up my scrawny arms and legs. I felt small and useless. He grabbed my shoulder and nudged me toward the half-exposed calf. “Hold. Like this,” he said, demonstrating that I was to wrap my arms around the calf’s chest and hoist it upward. “Now,” he said quietly, “you. . .go up, I…go down.” He grabbed the belt to show he would pull at a downward angle while I lifted the calf upward. He wanted the two of us to ease the calf’s hips up and over its mother’s.
He took his position and jerked his head impatiently for me to take mine. I sidled along Amy’s sweat-dried flank and wrapped my arms around the protruding calf. The warm wetness soaked through my shirt, and I felt queazy. My knees grew weak, like Amy’s. I can barely lift a bale of hay. What if I’m not strong enough to hoist this big calf? What if I’m not tall enough to give Mr. Verschaeve the height he needs to help the calf clear Amy’s hips? But we had no option. I waited.
Amy’s muscles grew taut and she arched her back. My heart raced. “Here we go!” I said. The cow moaned pitifully and her contraction was weak, but it was all we had.
“Now!” Mr. Verschaeve ordered. I locked my hands under the calf’s chest and began lifting as hard as I could. The calf wasn’t budging. Mr. Verschaeve pulled harder, the leather belt cutting into his wrists and the calf’s knobby ankles. Nothing.
In a final surge of strength, I thrust my left hip under the calf’s chest and pushed up with my legs as I lifted with my arms. Suddenly, as if a silent latch had released inside Amy, the calf began to slide forward. Mr. Verschaeve continued his steady, iron pull, and the calf slipped free, sliding headfirst in a wet heap upon the grass. My beaded Indian belt slackened, and Mr. Verschaeve tumbled onto his hind end.
“Aha!” he hollered, grinning broadly and clapping his wet, leathery hands. For a fleeting moment, the sternness washed from his face, and he was a joyful schoolboy. Shyly, he regained his stern façade and stood to his feet.
The calf right-sized its head, gasped a sweet lungful of morning air, and let out an indignant, ‘Maaaa!” Amy turned and was at its side in a flash, sniffing and licking, re-energized by her maternal drive.
Mr. Verschaeve released the dampened belt from the calf’s ankles and tossed it back to me. He gave Amy and the calf a methodical once-over. “Fine bull-calf,” he assessed, giving the calf’s blocky head a boyish rake.
Amy positioned herself protectively between us and her baby, her rough tongue licking vigorously to remove the remaining sac and clean her young charge, whose head wobbled comically under her tongue’s strong thrusts. Its new eyes blinked in the morning sun.
I stood engrossed, watching the two of them for several minutes before realizing that Mr. Verschaeve was gone. I looked up just in time to see his wiry figure slip back through the fence.
“Thank you, Mr. Verschaeve!” I shouted, jumping and waving both arms. Amy startled. The old dairyman looked up. Across that distance, our eyes met, and he gave me a firm nod. Then he turned and retreated into his barn.
The sun warmed the morning air, the fog lifted, and a beautiful day broke forth. For another hour or so, I sat quietly, watching our new bull-calf. He stood, wobbled toward his mama, and found a warm teat to suckle. Her colostrum—the first milk—would provide those crucial nutrients that propel every baby into a strong start in life. Amy stood, tired but content.
Strengthened by his meal and increasingly brave, the calf tottered tentatively toward me. His copper-colored neck rippled in the dewy sunlight and his facial markings were so white they cast a bluish hue. Large blue-grey eyes laced with long lashes winked at me. I froze as he ventured near, hoping he’d come close enough to touch. Bravely, purposefully, his neck strained toward my outstretched palm. His cold nose nudged my fingertips.
“Hey buddy,” I whisper. “How ya doin’?” His sandpaper-like tongue slobbered itself around my fingers. Instinctively, he suckled, his goopy, sandpapery tongue massaging the backside of my fingers. I raised my other hand to his shoulder, patted my way up his neck, and scratched behind his ear. For a minute or two, he tolerated my adorations, suckling my fingers and instinctively butting my hand for more. Then, becoming shy, he dropped my fingers and bolted for his mama. The picture of health, he scrambled to safety behind Amy’s bulk, thrusting his wet muzzle against her udder for security and suckling hard.
“Nice work, girl,” I said, patting Amy’s shoulder. By this afternoon, the proud mama and her robust little son would rejoin the herd, and life would move forward. I turned for the barn. Shane, still patiently waiting at his post, was on his feet in a flash. “Good boy, Shane,” I called, and slapped my leg. He bounded toward me, tail wagging, and I patted his head. Behind me, a sure-footed new calf trotted nimbly alongside its mother. A deep feeling of satisfaction swept over me. I had helped save a calf, kept something from going terribly wrong.
Later that day, as I sat watching a Shirley Temple movie in the living room, the crunch of gravel announced my mother’s Oldsmobile pulling into the drive. Car doors slammed shut and through the kitchen window I watched my brother’s cockeyed, tippy-toed gait carry him toward the house. Left arm curled against his chest, he wobbled his way up the porch stairs and through the kitchen door, my mother at his heels.
“Hi, honey,” she said to me, helping Greg off with his jacket. “So, how’s everything here? Chores go okay?”
“Yep, everything’s done,” I said. “Amy had her calf.”
“You’re kidding! This early?”
“First thing this morning. A red whiteface. Bull-calf. Big.”
“Can I name him? Can I?” Greg interrupted. “It’s my turn!”
“Sure, Greggie,” my mother said, straightening his shirt collar as he ambled by. Then—to me—“Did Amy do alright? Is the calf alright?”
“Fine,” I said. “Everyone’s fine.”