Kids, cows, and country

Elmo, my grandfather who preceded the red-furred muppet by almost a century, was a huge man, with gigantic rough hands and a practical attitude born of growing up barefooted and picking cotton. Every sentence he uttered ended with the phrase, “on it,” as in, “I’m going to check that heifer in the south pasture, on it.” He raised cattle in deep East Texas, where he had a small house on a lake and a yard full of ticks. His feats of apparent fearlessness frightened and magnetized his city-bred grandchildren, my younger brother and me, who spent a few weeks with him every summer.

Brother and I were relative city folk, coming from the great metropolis of Waco, Tex., and country life left us alternately bored and trepidatious. Bored if we weren’t bumping slowly over the back roads, unbuckled in the front seat of a pickup, feeding cows. Trepidatious when we found ourselves surrounded by a dozens of cattle, mooing, lowing, and bobbing their heads at us. I always had to remind myself that cows are not carnivores -- they were just after the cow chips.

One terrifying cow encounter involved an unhappy bull that suddenly started rearing and snorting, jumping around like a mad animal. Elmo roped him, yanked the rope hard, then whapped the bull upside the head with his cowboy-booted foot in one smoothly executed high kick. Watching from a fence, we never doubted the outcome: Elmo would win. The bull paused in his fit, shook his head, and immediately simmered down.

Brother and I managed many times on our visits to highlight our city-mouse ignorance. Elmo took us fishing a few times, mostly for bluegill in a nearby creek. As he caught fish, he would string them on a line and leave the line in the creek. I was unfamiliar with this procedure. Frustrated after hours of sitting on that creek bank, catching nothing, I suddenly saw several fish that appeared to be swimming at the water’s edge just downstream. Excited, I tiptoed toward them, anxious not to scare them away. Slowly, I dropped my line -- which dangled from the requisite bamboo fishing pole -- into the water. My bacon bait swayed enticingly before the nearest bluegill.

Then, in a flash, the fish went for the bait. I had caught one! I started pulling it in, when I noticed that several other fish seemed to be following it. At first, I didn’t understand. Then, with embarrassment, I realized the truth -- I had caught a bunch of fish that had already been caught. Elmo thought it was hilarious, on it.

The realities of country living sometimes were too much for us to understand. When Brother was four, Elmo took him out to feed the cattle. On the road, they found one of my grandfather’s bulls, seriously injured. Elmo got out of the truck with his rifle and dispatched the animal in one shot.

When he got back into the truck, Brother asked him why he had done that. “He was sick,” Elmo replied, briefly, as if that were explanation enough. They got home a few hours later, and my brother asked to use the old rotary phone. When he got my mother on the line, he immediately asked her to come get him. “Why?” she asked. “Because,” he replied, “if you don’t, and I get sick, Grandpa’s gonna shoot me.”

In the end, Brother decided to go ahead and stay, but neither one of us owns a single cow today – we’ve opted for dogs, instead. Yet those were interesting times, that riding around in a beat-up truck, being the focal point of a cow’s life when it hears the horn honk, visiting the older folk who lived miles from one another (and maybe they were lonely or maybe they liked it that way), eating huge country breakfasts because you really did need fuel for the day, and talking about a special visit into “town.” I guess what we never truly understood was how difficult such a life was, taking its toll on finances and health. To us, it was a completely different world, a place to visit and learn and grow to appreciate, at least some parts, anyway. On it.

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