Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Placard 152"

       It was time to find a friend for Shiloh, my rescue steer. We acquired him two months earlier and no matter how much I fed him, brushed him and loved him, he continued to wander to the neighbor’s ranch in search of companionship with their bull. I could not stand the thought of him being in his pasture alone a moment longer. Wanting him to stay with me, I knew he needed a companion of his own kind.
   Spencer and I were leaving our ranch one morning, we stopped at another neighbor’s to say hello. I told them about our plans to spend the day at the auction and then we continued on our way. We were going to bring a young girlfriend home for Shiloh.
      When we arrived, the entire scene immediately put me in the past, to my childhood. I felt a strange sense of déjà vu; I was with my mother and Ross, my brother. Back then; we were waiting for my mother to bid on two calves, one for Ross and one for me.
      Now, 33 years later the auction seemed strikingly similar. Even the tiny café slinging greasy hamburgers, had the same appearance and feel. The cowboys and cowgirls ordered, patiently awaiting their meals. Spencer and I purchased a bottle of apple juice, found nothing else desirable and made our way to the equipment sales lot.
     We needed a trailer to transport Shiloh’s new companion back to the ranch. Soon, I found the perfect one. Its blue trim was the same color of our vehicle, so I bought it and we headed back to the auction arena.
      We had 30 minutes until the auction began. I opened our red cooler box and we ate lunch in the arena seating area. We enjoyed a delicious meal of organic yogurt; roasted soybeans; sliced vegetables; soymilk; applesauce; cheese and crackers; peanut butter crackers and juice.
     Show time! With Spencer and me in the front row, the calves paraded through the doors. In anticipation of the perfect heifer calf, I held my auction placard, #152. A tiny black and white something-or-other appeared. The auctioneer was talking so fast; I had no idea what he was saying.
     Innocently, I raised my placard to get his attention. The talking stopped and the animals filed out. Hmmm, I wondered. Did I buy that little black and white one? It was very adorable. Just in case I wasn’t the successful bidder, I thought, “Let’s try again.” 
      Another group of young calves ambled into the arena. I instantly spied another sweet face and held my placard high. Several other attendees raised their cards and not knowing what to do next, I kept my arm extended. My mind was tumbling in a sea of overly tight Wrangler jeans and beat-up cowboy hats. I wondered what I should do.
       Another group of young calves appeared. “Oh, look at that one over there, Spencer. Is that the kindest face on an animal?” Once again, I hoisted my placard skyward. Suddenly, the auction arena went silent as the auctioneer pointed at me and hollered into the microphone, “Do you know what you are doing here? Have you ever been to an auction?” I proudly told the auctioneer of my days at the auction some 33 years ago. Listening to the chuckles coming from the audience, I knew it was time for us to leave.
     Once inside the auction office, I handed the clerk my placard. She clicked away at her keyboard, printed up a sheet of paper and handed it to me. I was stunned to learn, I purchased not one, but three calves. I was informed two of the three were just a month old. They would need to be bottle-fed twice daily for six months.
       I nearly collapsed, as I already owned 24 other ranch animals. I wrote a check for the three calves, averaging $100.00 each. Hand in hand, Spencer and I walked outside. I needed a breath of fresh air. The calves were loaded into our shiny new trailer and it was time to make our way home. I never pulled a trailer and did not want anyone to realize how green I was at this auction business. Now, I longed for someone to follow our expanding herd home.
      The auction feed store had no calf milk formula; however, they gave us directions to another store a few miles down the road. There we found everything we needed to supplement and sustain our new calves. We purchased bottles, powdered calf milk and powdered vitamins. We were on the road again 45 minutes later.
      We were back at the ranch that evening at 7:00. When we arrived, I wondered how in the world I was going to unload the three calves from the back of the trailer. Being barely able to drive forward with the new trailer attached, I knew I had no chance of successfully backing the trailer up to the pen.
      All of a sudden, I saw headlights coming up our driveway. Knowing Spencer and I were returning from the auction that evening, my neighbors came to see if I needed assistance. I could hardly believe my eyes and was so thankful. They backed the trailer up to the pen and together; we unloaded the calves into their new home. They rinsed the trailer and put fresh straw into the stall for the calves’ bedding.
      I thanked them profusely for their help and bid them goodbye. Before leaving, they told me within a week’s time they would be moving up north. Once again, I felt my world falling apart. How would I manage without them? Since Mo Kitty, their cat, spent most of his time at my home anyway, they asked if I would take him. They barely extended their offer when I declared, “Yes, of course!”  I did it again. My love of animals overwhelmed any reasonable thoughts associated with the effort it would take to care for them.
      My husband was out of town and I was on my own that night. It was way past feeding time for the two young calves. Spencer was still asleep in the car, so I raced into the house to put the bottles together. Believing the most difficult part of this adventure behind me, I was anxious to feed the new calves and have them begin feeling at home.
      The calves, however, wanted nothing to do with the bottles or me. In their eyes and through their actions, I sensed their concerns, “Where is my mother? What is that funny shaped nipple Deborah is holding? Why is she trying to put it in our mouths?” I desperately and unsuccessfully attempted to feed them. Finally, I stopped and put the bottles down. I needed to feed the other ranch animals, take Spencer out of the car, prepare our dinner and tend to his nightly routine.
      Later that evening at 11:00, I called my mother, recounting the day’s events. Frustrated and exhausted, I hung up the telephone to prepare myself for a good night’s rest. An hour later unable to sleep, I crept out of bed. Dressed in my white nightgown and cowboy boots, I headed back out to the stall carrying warm milk for my two youngest calves. Again, they raced around in circles until I finally gave up.
      I lay down on top of the fresh straw, crying for what seemed an eternity. I feared my calves would go hungry and die of starvation during the night. They watched me and wondered what was happening. I came to the realization; I could not care for them on my own. I was overwhelmed with the feeling I was in way over my head.
      At 7:30 the next morning, I telephoned a neighbor telling him what happened the day before. He bellowed into my unprepared ear, “You did what? You have two bottle babies?” Immediately he barked, “I’ll be right over,” and hung up. Within 20 minutes he arrived at our ranch.
Without hesitation, he grabbed one of the two bottles, cornered Freckles, the one with, “the kindest face on an animal,” holding him around the neck. With his enormous fingers, he pried open the smallest bull calf’s mouth, shoving the bottle in. Within seconds, Freckles was suckling. Cody Bleu, the other bull calf, was a month older and did not need to be bottle-fed.
      Next he grabbed Patches, the “tiny black and white something-or-other,” backing her hind end into the corner of the corral. I watched in amazement as he pried the very adorable heifer calf’s mouth open, starting the feeding process. I was transfixed by yet another learning experience.
       As I observed, I suddenly felt as though the hairy arms cradling Patches did not belong to my neighbor, but to Ross, my brother, who died one year before. With his long sleeves rolled up, I watched as those familiar arms fed Patches. I felt a certain closeness to Ross I had not known in the final years of his life.
      Although I did not dare move from where I was standing, I wanted to reach out and touch my brother. Once the ravenous calf emptied the bottle, physical reality set in, replacing my neighbor’s arms with the image of my brother’s. So the tears streaming down my face would not be seen, I grabbed the empty bottles, quickly leaving the pen.
      I will never forget this experience. Although at times I feel lonely, I’m never alone. As I continue my journey through life, knowing this makes all the difference.  

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