The incident with the heifer and her calf happened in the spring, down in the barnyard, out of sight from the house. It’s one of those things that remains clear in my memory after many years.
First, a warning: some people may find this too graphic and disturbing. Little House on the Prairie it is not.
But it is reality, and may have been an opportunity in the midst of emotional chaos for me to learn something important about real life, human nature, and myself. I Can’t say I understood it in that sense at the age of 12 when it happened. But I remembered it vividly over the many years since. I must admit I probably never did do it much justice in terms of conscious understanding until fairly recently. It’s never too late, but better sooner than later. That leads me to think now it may be an example of the importance of having people in a community who have the wisdom to help young people understand certain crucial experiences, including visions and dreams, as well as extraordinary and shocking events that are obviously flagged in one’s memory for a reason.
I was the oldest of a group of children, mostly from “broken homes,” who who were sent by a single parent to board on a horse farm north of Toronto in the mid-1950s. Because I was the oldest I helped with the chores. Sometimes I did them all, actually, but that’s another story.
Anyway, on this lovely, bright and sunny spring day in May the farmer and I were down in the barnyard with the heifer. We were waiting for the vet to arrive to get a dead calf out of her.
Back in the early fall of the previous year the farmer had arranged for a bull to be brought to the farm to impregnate the farm’s only cow, the one that provided milk for the house. He also let the bull get at the cow’s last heifer even though it was not mature enough. Even I, a kid from the big city, could see that, just from her overall size and the immaturity of her udder. He should have known better.
It must have been about midday or very early in the afternoon when the veterinarian arrived. I can see the scene clearly in my mind’s eye – the vet walking down the graveled slope, through the opened gate, into the barnyard. He was carrying a long length of stainless steel chain that caught the sun and reflected it over to me for one, startling moment. I was standing just outside the barn door about 10 metres away. I will never forget it.
The farmer was holding the heifer by a rope and halter. The vet walked around her several times, looking her over closely. The two men talked for a while. Then the vet turned and glanced over at me with an expression of some concern. He must have been wondering why I had to be there to watch what he was going to do. He had not until that moment shown any sign of what he might be feeling. But in that moment, when he looked over at me, I could see he wasn’t looking forward to the procedure at all. He looked grim, but accepting of what he knew he had to do.
He rolled up his sleeves as high as he could. Then he reached one hand and arm deep into the heifer’s rear and her inner parts and felt around in there for the calf. He was trying to find the rear legs, so he could tie the chain around them and pull the calf out.
The heifer began to bawl, to scream really, very loudly in pain as the vet kept feeling around inside her to find the legs. It seemed to take a long time, and she cried all the time. She was in so much pain she was immobilized by it. She just stood there and screamed in her way as the vet found first one leg of her calf, and then the other, and, with great effort, managed to get them partway out of her; far enough that he could wrap the chain around them. And then it became a matter of him pulling as hard as he could to get the calf the rest of the way out of her and end the poor, young animal’s suffering.
I watched the vet trying to pull the calf out of the bawling heifer, and knew in my heart this terrible scene was the farmer’s doing – the consequences of the thoughtless, greedy act of an insensitive man; and I despised him.
The heifer’s shrill screams got worse. I was afraid I might be told to help. Why else was I there? To watch? To remember? To learn something? I would have done as I was told, though, for her sake, and the vet’s too, to help bring the horrible experience to an end for both of them.
But it wasn’t necessary. The rest of her calf’s hind legs came out of the heifer, then the lower body, and finally the rest of it slid out fast and dropped onto the ground behind its mother. I remember thinking at that moment someone should have put a thick layer of clean straw there to catch the calf. That someone could have been me.
It was a beautifully formed black and white bull calf. Its white coat was amazingly bright and clean, even luminescent as it shone in the sun. And its black was deep and dark, and shining too, like ebony.
The vet untied the chain. “C’mere, boy, the farmer called to me finally. He never called me by my name. He always called me “boy,” like I didn’t have a name, like I was nobody. He told me to help the vet pick up the calf and carry it over to a small, farm wagon nearby as he kept a hold on the heifer with the halter and lead. The vet took the head and I took the hind feet.
“It’s beautiful,” I said quietly to the vet. He nodded, looked at me for a moment and replied as quietly, “yes, it is.” Then a moment later when he must have thought we were out of ear-shot, he glanced over at the farmer for a moment and said, “Goddamn him.”
Then the vet went back and examined the heifer for some time before picking up the chain and walking back up the graveled slope to where his truck was parked. He drove away and did not look back.
The farmer took the heifer to a stall in the barn. That morning he had instructed me to clean it thoroughly and spread new straw. So, that was good of him; I’ll grant him that. He came back out and hooked up the wagon to the tractor. He motioned for me to follow along on foot as he drove along the trail that led to the back fields. We went all the way to the fence that separated the last pasture from the hardwood bush. He told me to take hold of the dead calf’s feet, while he took it by the head with both hands. I was glad he did that. I didn’t want to hold the head. We lifted it out of the trailer, carried it to the fence, swung it a couple of times, and then tossed it over the fence into the bush.
That was about the same spot where I climbed the fence and walked through the woods most mornings on my way cross-country to school, about three miles from the farm. All that happened on a Saturday, I think. The next Monday on my way to school I looked for the calf but it wasn’t there. I thought I must have been mistaken about the location.
But of course now I realize it hadn’t taken nature and her scavengers long to take care of the remains.
The expression, “being thrown to the wolves” has perhaps more meaning to me on account of what I saw that day. It more than likely helped shape my response to so-called “conservative” attitudes that strike me – and a lot of other people, I’m sure – as brutal, unfeeling, and frankly, stupid: things like survival-of-the-fittest, in so many words, and other such nonsense, particularly when it’s applied to the poor, and especially the children of the poor.
It’s the greatest tragedy of our times that so many beautiful, innocent children the world over are being born into poverty and deprivation to an increasing extent. That’s happening even in my own rich country, and certainly in the United States, as the gap between rich and poor grows wider, aided and abetted by shallow conservative thinking, cleverly sold to the masses and turned into government policy.
The underlying tragedy is the extent to which we imperfect human creatures are so easily deceived and manipulated by the unscrupulous “will to power,” with terrible consequences
Truer words were never spoken than, “Forgive them Father, for they are stupid.”
How many children are as a result being “thrown to the wolves” over the back fence?