Thursday, July 31, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2004

I sometimes think of our first dog, shortly after we were married. Let’s place this in the summer or fall of 1957. We had rented a house on a bluff overlooking Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena. It was part of a property including a stable owned by Chuck and Bobbi Williams, owners and operators of the Arroyo Seco Stables. To our north was the York Street Overpass. Next door to us, picking up traffic from the Overpass, was a popular diner with a large parking lot. To our east and south curved a major road and to our west, behind the house, was the bluff, probably 10 feet. At the foot of the bluff lay a level area behind the stable barns where we built a corral and kept our horses. Also behind the barns lay a collection of old cars and car parts that some uninformed people might mistake for a trash pile. In reality, it was Chuck Williams’ priceless treasure trove. Beyond the corral and trove area lay a city park and the Pasadena Freeway.

We had lots of property, horses and cats, but we were dogless. Joanne answered an ad one day and went to an apartment where she picked up a German Shepherd named Norman. The ad represented him as two years old. He was actually six, or even older. He had lived with one family for five years and then been placed for adoption because – who knows why; the important thing is that Norman was sensitive and intelligent. He had been to several other families before he came our way, but was so shattered by the loss of his first home that he could never adjust to subsequent homes. Also, when Norman came to us, he was under quarantine by the L.A. County Health Department because he had bit someone.

When Joanne answered this ad, I knew nothing about it. This was a nacky notion she came up with all by herself. We had only been married for 16 months. I’m more used to her doing this now, but it was a big surprise to me that day. I had been off fishing that day in a small boat offshore from Santa Monica. There we were, three innocents afloat, even including the clueless boat owner. He landed a barracuda, which fell flopping and wriggling onto the bottom of the boat. Our host grabbed a hammer and pounded on the fish, screaming, “Kill him! Kill him!” I was afraid he would punch a hole in the boat and sink us all in the ocean with the other barracudas. He didn’t sink the boat, but he did splatter us all with barracuda parts. I drove home with the windows open, but still could scarcely stand my own smell.

When I arrived home I found my wife in the company of a large German Shepherd who tried to bite me. I couldn’t blame Norman. I was a stranger who smelled like a barracuda. This could not be reassuring. But, thanks to Joanne’s strenuous intervention, he did not devour me and by the next day, I was his favorite person.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death of the Black Calf

The End of the Black Calf
©Ken Harris, 2006

When we last left this story, Joanne was standing in the middle of a pasture dressed in hose, heels and clutching an extremely dirty blouse. The cow, still in discomfort, nosed at her long, thin, black calf wondering whether it had been worth the effort. And Barbara Van Landingham cooed over the latest addition to the nursery, wondering how they would ever, in a year’s time, find the resolve to kill the beast and eat him.

Joanne said that the real problem would be letting him live long enough to get big enough to eat. She never spoke truer words. This calf was BIG! He was also MEAN! (This is a really unpleasant combination in calves, and I don’t recommend it.) In just a few short weeks he destroyed the flower beds, knocked down the fences, pulled seedling trees out of the ground, treed the cat, nigh pulverized the dog and Barbara found that neither she nor any of her family could even go into their own pasture.

At last Barbara decided that castrating the calf would improve its temperament. We agreed that when the calf reached six weeks of age, we would do the dirty deed.

I don’t know why females think castration improves a male’s temperament. It certainly wouldn’t have improved mine.

And so on a bright, sunny, Saturday morning we showed up at the Van Landingham house ready for work. The calf, who had been named Sunshine, or Sweetness, they should have named him Damien or Be’elzebub, had been penned up. We went to the pen and found ourselves looking eyeball to eyeball with the animal. We checked our tools, Phisohex, clamps, razor blade, and ropes. Lots of ropes.

So we were ready. Be’elzebub wasn’t. He doubted our sublime intent and wouldn’t stick his head in a noose. At last we got a bit of a noose around him and, from the top of the corral, I threw myself on his head. We dropped to the ground, the calf and I, and Joanne lashed his hind feet to the bottom of a corral post and then his front feet to the bottom of another corral post. He was lying flat on his side and I still had hold of his head.

As soon as Joanne made her first incision, the calf objected strenuously. He lifted me up by his neck and slammed me into the ground while at the same time pulling in with his feet. These gyrations went on through the entire delicate procedure. I didn’t dare let go of the head because he would certainly have wreaked havoc (and wrecked everything around him).

At last the job was done. I let go of his head. Joanne untied him. He had pulled so hard he had snapped one of the corral posts off at ground level. It’s a good thing we nailed him when he was only six weeks old. Otherwise I’m not sure who would have done what with which to whom.

When we finally killed him, some months later, he was two axe handles broad and did everything but breathe fire. But he had good taste.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Driving a Dead Cow

Driving a Dead Cow
©Ken Harris, 2008

It was a dark and stormy winter afternoon in the 1990s in North San Juan, California. One of our short-yearling steers lay dead in the mud, stiff and ungainly. This was a disagreeable event at a disagreeable time in a disagreeable place.

Our “ranch” lay on two horizontal planes joined by five hundred feet or so of more or less 45ยบ real estate. On the upper plane sat our house, on the lower plane a pasture and a seasonal stream. In between, on a bulldozer enhanced level patch of ground, sat our barns and a fattening pen, protected by large madrone and bull pine trees and lots of manzanita and Scotch broom brush. But the trees and brush didn’t offer sufficient protection, for the steer lay dead in the field of mud we called our fattening pen. Joanne, Bill Brown, a man whom we occasionally hired to help us do grunt work, and I glumly surveyed the scene as the rain whipped in our faces and dripped down the backs of our slickers.

We had to figure out what to do with this large, dead animal. We couldn’t just leave him there for the coyotes, buzzards, flies and microbes. The carcass would perfume the valley for weeks.

We had to get him out of his mud puddle and off to some place where we could bury him. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our 4-wheel drive pick-up anywhere near the carcass without taking out a side of the fattening pen and driving on serious mud. Even if we took out the side of the pen, mud driving is a minor art form in itself. From a previous experience I knew that chains just dig you in deeper and faster.

At last we came up with a plan. Bill and I tied two long ropes around the dead steer’s head and then the three of us rolled the carcass onto its back and pointed it in the direction of the entrance to the fattening pen. Then Bill and I looped our ropes over our chests and arms and began tugging like two mules breaking sod. Joanne stood behind with a hind hoof in each hand, like a pioneer woman gripping plough handles, keeping the steer on its back and giving some direction to our efforts. She steered as Bill and I strained, hopping the steer’s head wouldn’t pop off before we got to where we could attach him to the pick-up.

Success! We got a whole carcass all the way to the pick-up. The rain and wind were just as bad, but my arms were so sore I didn’t even notice. We towed the animal downhill to the level pasture and Bill and I grabbed shovels. Seems you never have a backhoe when you need one.

Of course we had to bury the animal. We couldn’t cut it up for steaks and ribs because we didn’t know why it had died, basic knowledge you really want to have about your food.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Birth and Other Inconveniences

On Birth and Other Inconveniences of Life’
©Ken Harris, 2007

Puppies, guppies and other wildlife young were not occasions for great comment in our family. Someone was always whelping, calving, littering or otherwise inconveniencing themselves. Doesn’t everyone hatch chicks in their ovens?

Occasionally, however, some truly spectacular births occurr. One such was the birth of our neighbor’s calf. We were living in Auburn then. Our neighbors, the Van Landinghams, didn’t know much about cows or calves, but that didn’t keep them from having a pregnant white face cow. This poor cow had been trying to have a calf all day, but things just weren’t working out for her.

My wife, Joanne, was teaching math at a local high school at the time. I mention this to explain her inappropriate apparel. I was working for Intercoast Life Insurance as an underwriter and working on my teaching credential at the University of California, Davis. I had arrived home from school fairly early, but even so Joanne had arrived before me. As I drove up the hill to the house I could see her trying to help this cow through her hard birth, assisted by our neighbors.

Joanne was still wearing hose and heels because she didn’t even go up to the house to change into her grubbies, but just leaped headlong into the situation.
She was dressed for school, except for her blouse. She had removed that garment and wadded up in her hands to use it to get a better grip on the calf as she pulled. The calf had presented its front legs properly. This was not a breech birth situation. The calf was simply too large.

Some readers may not have had the opportunity to assist at a mammal’s birth. On the other hand, some female readers may have given birth to your own mammal, but hopefully not in the middle of a cow pasture surrounded by well meaning but ineffective amateurs

I drove on by the impromptu delivery room and changed my clothes. By the time I returned to the scene of the action, the blouse had been discarded in favor of a length of baling wire looped around the calf’s front feet. The blouse, too slimy to put back on, just lay heaped in the grass. Joanne tugged at the calf, and then I tugged at the calf, and then we tugged at the calf. But it was hopeless, and eventually even we saw that. The calf was stuck like a pig in a stove pipe.

We decided to call the vet. An ungenerous observer might say we should have called the vet in the beginning. But that would be – ungenerous. We always try to solve our problems by ourselves before we call in people with knowledge and tools. It’s our family, it’s a tradition.

As Barbara Van Landingham called Virgil Traynor, the newest veterinarian in town whom we called Virgil the Vet, her 12-year-old daughter, Julie came out with a jug of wine and some glasses. I don’t know about the cow, but the rest of us definitely needed a restorative.

Eventually Virgil the Vet arrived. He set up a pully arrangement attached to a frame connecting the good mother earth to the buttocks of the good mother cow. Then he attached a line to the calf’s front feet and, without benefit of clergy or contraction, began to crank away. The calf came out. A bull calf. A long, thin bull calf. I thought it was a wonder both mother and son survived the birthing process.

The cow bonded with her calf and began cleaning her up. But she was still having massive contractions. Finally, with a hearty shudder, she expelled a blob about the size of a basketball.

“What’s that?” Joanne asked.

“Uterus,” replied Virgil the Vet.

“What will we do?”

“Clean it off.” With that, Virgil began plucking blood clots off the uterus.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” contributed Paula, the older Van Landingham girl.

“Go somewhere else to be sick,” replied Paula’s unsympathetic mother, Barbara. “Don’t do it here.”

In short order, Virgil cleaned off the uterus, and was ready to place it back inside the cow. This was more easily said than done, for the cow was still shuddering and contracting. Moreover, the uterus, while it had shrunk a little, was still a formidably sized organ. Virgil didn’t want to spend time waiting for the cow to stop contracting and the uterus to shrink, which would surely have happened eventually. Instead, he and Joanne together put their hearts and hands into the reinsertion project. There followed a curious game of push-of-war (the opposite of tug-of-war).

At last the uterus was inside the cow where it belonged. At least, it was inside the cow. Who could say where inside the cow it actually was. Virgil rummaged through his shiny, new doctor’s bag. “Darn, I don’t have a needle or any thread. Oh, well, keep an eye on her and if the uterus falls out, give me a call.” As he was leaving, he added, “Call me tomorrow. I’m going out tonight.”

We left the cow tending her calf, who by this time had pulled himself together somewhat and looked a little more like a real calf than one from an alternative universe.

The next morning the cow was found grazing in her pasture, both calf and uterus following dutifully behind her. Another call made, and Virgil the Vet returned, this time with a needle and thread. This time the uterus, now the size of a small apple, went in easily.

Virgil charged the Van Landinghams for two calls. He also said that the cow would never have another calf, a reasonable enough assertion on the face of it. But in subsequent years, the cow had several more calves
What was I doing while all this tugging and pushing of generative organs was going on? Well, someone had to make notes.