We moved back from Cheyenne when I was two — Dad got out of the Air Force and went back to the farm.
The older and further removed from the farm I am, the less saying “I grew up on a farm” means. Even Lee has no idea what it means to grow up on a farm, and he grew up on an acreage outside Sioux Falls. He thinks he knows, and then he puts his foot in his mouth.
Yes, we had animals. No, it’s not the same thing as “having animals.” Yes, we grew crops. No, it’s not the same thing as having a garden. Yes, the wheat rippled in the wind. No, it’s not the same as when you drive past a field on the Interstate. The more I try to explain, the finer I have to cut my meaning into bits. I can’t sum up the Farm into a couple of easy sentences: it was the best of farms, it was the worst of farms. That farm. I live there in dreams.
Last night I read a few more pages of Bird by Bird, the bit where she talks about having a one-inch frame in order to see the world. Today my one-inch square is branding cattle.
The cattle we raised on the farm went through the corrals at least once, in the spring. The ones that lived went through it again in late summer, to be sold. They were two-year calves, and the first year they got branded.
There are two types of branding iron: electric and the kind that you hold in a heater until they’re red-hot. You have to burn through the hair and the outer layer of skin, but you don’t want to burn down to the flesh, or it’ll get infected.
The heater was a tubular contraption with a door welded onto the side, and that hooked up to a propane tank. It sat near the ground on squat legs and turned the ground black underneath it. The ground was covered with slush and snow; I was still wearing my snow boots. The air reeked of burnt hair, but the propane tank smelled even stronger — and of course we stood near it, soaking up warmth in the nose-biting air. The propane burned with a steady roar that changed tone if you picked up a brand and turned it around in the flames. The edges of the brand would crackle and spark as the stuck hair burned off.
The cattle were driven, one by one, into the branding chute, which had a vee of prison bars inside it, and metal panels at the bottom to keep the cattle from breaking their legs as they struggled and kicked. As soon as you were ready to deal with the animal, you pulled down a lever that tightened the vee across the animal’s legs and chest, wedging them in. The lever also trapped the animal’s head in a kind of sideways guillotine contraption, two metal panels with a hole in the middle.
The cattle would almost always walk into the chute without too much trouble (although there were cattle prods to help them along), but when you pinched them between the bars, their legs would almost always scrabble for a minute, then stop. Their eyes would show white around all the edges, and some of them would pant. Often, they would shit or piss themselves. The insides of the chute were always caked with finely-splattered shit.
The cattle got an antibiotics shot, half a big pink pill as big as my palm (they had grooves down the middle so you could snap them in half), a numbered tag in one ear, and a fly-tag in the other. The numbered tags smelled like plastic; the fly-tags smelled acrid and were sticky to the touch. My childhood was filled with mysterious, stinking chemicals.
(When I went through the DARE anti-drug program in elementary school, I’d have to repress a smile every time the cop said “pill pusher,” because to me it meant something else entirely.)
The method of castration they used is a blank spot. Later we had sheep, which were castrated with thick rubber bands that closed off their nut-sacks until they dried up and fell off. With the cattle, I remember the dogs hanging around and looking especially attentive, but that was it. It could have just been that I was told not to look. At the time I didn’t wonder about it.
We didn’t count the process by animal, or by dozen animals, but by the hundreds. A cuppa hunnert head a cows. No single animal mattered, and neither did any single human being: we were a machine that produced meat, all of us together. Some of us happened to do more of the eating.
Animal in, animal out.
They might have tried to get me to brand a cow once, just for laughs, but if so I don’t remember it. I wouldn’t have been strong enough. The branding irons were heavy. Hard for a kid to do just the right amount of damage, and no more.
The hair hissed; the skin sizzled; the flesh spluttered as the animal moaned in pain, its lungs too compressed for a good yell. It was bad if you heard that last set of sounds. You might step up to whoever was doing the branding to give them a break, you heard that sound, especially if followed by a curse.
The only guy I remember having a problem being gentle was my cousin Alan. He got too rowdy about it once — the word rowdy covers a lot of territory — and slammed into the bars over and over again, to hear the animal moan. He whooped while he did it, cackling and looking around to see if anyone else was laughing. He wore a vest and a thinly-plaid cotton shirt underneath, even though it was cold, and a baseball cap. He was a tow-headed punk amongst cowboys.
The adults ignored him, and eventually he stopped. If they’d said boo to him he would have just kept going. But when he couldn’t get a rise out of anyone, he moved on. There were just too many cattle to get done.
Off to the left of the branding chute was a dip tank, full of dip. It was the same color as the “dip” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And it stank, it stank like fly-tags, but stronger, enough to turn your stomach if you got too close.
The empty tank was made of cement and was shaped like a one-lane swimming pool, a dropoff on the near side and a ramp leading out. The cattle would run into the tank, fall into the dip, and climb out the other side, spraying chartreuse liquid off their sides and onto the ground. I can’t remember whether they were dipped at the same time they were branded or later, in the summer, when the flies were bad. The era of maintaining small swimming pools full of pesticides is over
Branding would go on for days, an elaborate game that moved a hundred head of cattle in and out of a series of pens. Like everything else on the farm, it tended to strip away a certain sense of individuality that seems common elsewhere.
Here’s an example: pets.
Like members of the family, people say, then explain elaborate rituals of how their pets needed to be treated, how different pets need to be treated and fed and coddled and spoiled.
It shocks me.
Cats eat mice. Dogs herd cattle. Children do chores. Wives handle the house. Cowboys handle the cattle and the horses. The horses do the rounding up. The cattle do the dying.
Family was a machine for turning babies into cowboys and wives. If you were unsuitable they sent you off to do something else, like be a priest or a retail clerk. If you were a horse or a dog they put you down.
I struggle with this other world, where cats go through surgeries and dogs are cremated. Parts of it are wonderful: the part where you like your spouse, you like your kids, and that matters. But parts of it seem insane: the ease with which people dispose of each other, the constant justification of luxuries (bottled water is madness to me), this desire to always have something new, as though having something without a history were a mark of pride. Everything cracked, patched, and repainted tells its own story, which you can read just by looking at it: I survived. Ironically, out here it becomes a kind of mark of individuality: doing without, patching things up, enduring undramatically, the way a machine endures.
Here’s the story of my adult life: I live in a weird fairyland, by turns pointlessly whimsical and cruel. But, in the end, I would not go back.