Sunday, May 16, 2010

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The start of an essay about my grandpa.

The first time Grandpa asked me to help on the farm we castrated cows with a pearl handled pocketknife. I was ten. He gripped the cow’s sack in his palm like an apple and hacked with an aggression I’d only seen used in the removal of branches from trees. The cow kicked against the chute, dust rising from its hide. Grandpa crouched on his hams in leather boots, back arched, wearing Wrangler jeans; ribbons of blood crisscrossed his forearm and painted the blade as his elbow slid back and forth like the piston atop a hay bailer.
Before we started, Grandpa gave me an electric cattle prod, a red handled metal shaft with two copper prongs on the end. He told me my job was to zap the cows if they got out of hand. “Just place the end of it on their back sides and push the button.” I nodded, unaware that he was about to cut testicles from bodies and my job was to send voltage through the bellyachers.
“Simmer down, damn it. I ain’t hurting ya,” Grandpa said angrily, like he himself had experienced a castration and could only recall feeling a little pressure. The cow’s neck was trapped in a green metallic vice at the end of a chute constructed from old mismatched fencing material and freeway signs. Grandpa sliced half way through the sack when the cow kicked, forcing a hoof through the faded words “Lane Ends Merge Right.”
He stepped back, shoulders down, blood up to his elbow, and examined the hoof still caught and struggling in the busted lumber. “Damn it all to hell,” he said, thrusting his bloody fist towards the damage, broad shoulders heaving; circles of sweat soaked the polyester between his love handles. “Zap him,” he said, and for a moment I felt like a Soviet officer taking orders from Stalin; but this 72-year-old man elbow deep in blood was no fascist, he was a farmer. A man raised to believe the soil creating the horizon was also the line between life and death.
Months earlier, Grandpa and I stood side-by-side watching acres of mature alfalfa dip in desert gusts, sunlight reflected mid-bend turning the tips white like some polished and precious metal. He placed his hand in my hair, and his calloused fingers scraped my forehead sounding like sandpaper. He breathed in deep, the kind of breath a person takes after an accomplishment, and pointed at what he’d created “What you think a that crop?” He looked down, lips slightly curled, and I recall felling like Grandpa had knowledge that I might never have. I didn’t know how long he’d spent that year tilling soil, planting seed, and irrigating, nor did I know how many bad crops he’d gone through before he learned to produce one so immaculate. I knew that Grandpa ran his farm alone, but those tight crops, all in equal slender rows, appeared like the work of many men.
The western landscape was a comforting voice to him, something I never fully understood. Plains of farmland surrounded my home, leaving me with feelings of isolation. I never cherished the dirt or respected its ability to bring forth life. I drove a tractor a couple of times and once rode a horse. I knew of beef in two forms, frozen and mobile. I knew of alfalfa as plants and as bales. I was deaf to the refining process. Cows wandered the fields behind my home, bellowing and whipping flies with their tails, and rarely did I ponder on the fact that these delightful eyesores made up my steak. Home was three miles from the nearest cul-de-sac and a town away from a mall; to a youth of the nineties, this distance felt like solitary confinement. I spent most summer days alone, watching Maury Povich and The Price Is Right, and eating gummy worms. Barbed wire fences stretched on for miles like an expansive prison yard and I often looked out on the sea of green pasture surrounding our home, wishing I could toss a rope to civilization and drag it closer.
For generations my forefathers survived by roping and wrestling cattle, by gripping testicles in hand and carving bulls into steers, and by harvesting crops. To my grandfather, farm work was survival. On the south side of Grandpa’s property he grew crops and on the north side he grazed cattle. My parents’ backyard bordered the north side of their farm. This made Grandpa perched atop a red Massy Ferguson Tractor dragging harrows and hay bailers the backdrop of my childhood and one of the few elements of living on a western farm I found interesting.
He walked along the property borders gripping a red bucket weighted with pliers and snips needed to mend fences, he stuffed Holstein’s into a red and blue cattle hauler, turned the corner towards Provo Center Street, trailer wobbling like a muffin on wheels. Occasionally, he parked his tractor in our driveway, motor noisy and leaking oil, and offered me a ride, and in the fall he filled our freezer with beef wrapped in white paper. His life appeared solitary as he wandered alone from one corner of the field to another, but at the end of his labors he always held a look of satisfaction, like the day had been spent in a rewarding conversation, and I often pondered on who he conversed with.
I studied Grandpa as he herded cows by waving his hands in large circles, sweat pooling under his arms, or as he irrigated the land by hopping over ditches in large black rubber boots. I was curious as to what he knew about farm life that made him love it so while I fond it so isolating. Sometimes I watched through the screen door of my home and other times from atop the trampoline. Occasionally he saw me and waved, but mostly he focused on his labors, and although I could only view him from a distance, I always focused on his lips to see if he was speaking to the stiff blades of grass the cows grazed on, or asking the heard why they bellowed so much. I often wondered if the land asked for water, or if the cows told Grandpa were the fences needed mending.