In the summer of 1953 I learned all I needed to know about milking a cow. As it happened, I didn’t learn much. What little I learned was through a brief, but intimate brush with Bessie the cow, a fine bovine specimen who had delivered many healthy baby calves, and had produced an abundance of high grade milk. It was indeed a pleasure to get to know Bessie up close and personal. As you can see from the below picture, I have what I considered to be a firm grip on one of Bessie’s private parts. Little did I know at the time that I was to become a key player in Bessie’s untimely demise.
As a city boy, I also learned that the beast called a steer is an offshoot from the bovine species, and specifically from the males of that species. It seems that steers are far better at producing meat than either cows or bulls, so a kind of treatment is applied to produce as many steers as possible. I will avoid the details, but the baby bulls are pulled aside one by one, and their vital organs which make them bulls are made inoperative. They are functionally enucleated as bulls! No doubt PETA would not sanction this procedure.
After the deed is done, the former little bulls grow faster, develop steaks and roasts that are powerfully tasty, and they lose all interest in the females of the species. With their masculinity gone, they rarely notice when the females are in heat, and they don’t interfere with the real bulls in the pasture, who are still hot to trot.
As it happened, Bessie was one of a herd of bovine tended by my recently acquired father-in-law. I had married his daughter only a few years earlier, and up to that point, had spent little time on a farm. I was a died-in-the-wool city kid with absolutely no cool on the farm.
As part of a family deal, I agreed to work on the farm, performing those duties as assigned throughout the summer in exchange for board and room until I could find somewhere else to live, and something else to do to support his daughter. Following three years in the military, this was my first civilian job, and one for which I held few credentials. But then what can you do when your daughter marries a city kid?
A short time after we moved in, the boss man, my father-in-law, was called off the farm, and was scheduled to be out of town for several days. His departing instructions to me were startling, requiring me to make a few major adjustments in my thinking. He said that Bessie, the cow with whom I had become intimately familiar, was down in a bog next to the pond in the southeast quarter-section near the oil tanks. I had to brush-up on my farm lingo to understand exactly what he was talking about.
According to his story, Bessie had ingested some unknown length of barbed-wire and was not doing well. As a result, she had lost her appetite, lost weight and strength, and when she strayed into the boggy part of the pasture next to the pond, she simply didn’t have the power to get herself out of that predicament.
I understood all of this, but was curious about exactly why a cow, any cow, might eat barbed wire. I understood that cows had four stomachs. One was a holding tank where food was sent for subsequent processing. The others were somewhere else in the digestive process. Exactly where all the barbed wire might be in her many stomachs or elsewhere was unknown.
This reminded me of an earlier experience I had while a friend and I were skinny-dipping in a nearby pasture. During that episode, a totally strange cow came upon us while we were partially submerged, and stark naked. I had left my clothes in a pile by the edge of the pond. This strange cow came completely across the pasture to the edge of the pond where I had left my clothes, and initially watched us swimming. After her curiosity was satisfied, she noticed my pile of clothes, and proceeded to eat my socks, my shirt, and my under shorts while we watched helplessly from the middle of the pond. Fortunately, she did not eat my pants nor my shoes, leaving me enough clothes to sneak back home decently clad. This made it somewhat understandable that a cow might choose to eat a length of barbed wire, barbs and all. In Bessie’s defense, quite possibly she was simply munching on a bunch of straw which had a length of barbed wire hidden within.
The balance of my father-in-law’s instructions were the ones that required mental adjustments. He told me to get his 22 rifle and a box of shells, and put Bessie out of her misery. With that simple instruction he left for several days!!!
As the hired help, I had little recourse but to comply with his instructions. I got the rifle, a half-full box of shells, jumped into the truck and drove to the southeast corner of the section. Up to that time I had carved two notches on my belt. I had managed to capture and subdue a rat in the wardroom of a Navy L.S.T. with the assistance of two other persons. I had also outwitted an attack mouse single-handedly while being armed with a standard household broom. Both had put up valiant defenses, but persistence and cunning proved them to be bantam weights. I was concerned that Bessie, a heavyweight, might not succumb so readily.
When I arrived at the pasture, I opened the gate, and drove around the terraces to the pond at the bottom of the hill. Near the spillway, sure enough, there was Bessie mired in a bog up to her belly. Her legs were completely down in the muck, and her seven-hundred pound carcass appeared to be resting firmly on the surrounding mud several feet from the nearest water. Except for the disappearance of her legs, she seemed to be alert, responsive, and she watched me intently with her big brown eyes. Indeed, she seemed never to take her eyes off of me.
Quite possibly, she might have believed that I was her savior, and had come from afar to drag her out of the muck to safety. If she had any such notion, I really don’t know. If at that moment, she remembered that she was suffering from serious gastro-intestinal difficulties from eating barbed-wire, I don’t know that either. In any event, while she might have thought that I was her savior, I knew that I was, in fact, her executioner, making the procedure eminently more painful for me, than it was for her, I thought. Throughout this process, I was plotting my strategy, while Bessie might have been considering exactly how I was going to extricate her from the muck. And all the time, she was looking at me with her big brown eyes.
After surveying the situation, I went back to the truck to get the gun. It was a bolt action, single shot rifle which loaded each shell from a cylinder under the barrel. I loaded the cylinder with 22-caliber shells until it was full. Then I walked back to Bessie, who was watching me continuously.
At this point, I needed to determine exactly where I was going to aim to put poor Bessie out of her misery. I determined that her head was the obvious target to work most quickly and painlessly. My former victims, the rat and the mouse, were easy prey, and would likely have been dispatched into the hereafter with a single shot. With this confidence, I aimed directly at Miss Bessie’s head and fired my first round. I anticipated she would react immediately, slump, then sag down onto the bog in which she was mired.
The first shot was devastating, – to me. I don’t believe Bessie even blinked, but from all outward appearances, nothing seemed to happen. Bessie continued looking at me with her big brown eyes. I reloaded with the bolt action, and decided that I should plan my next shot with more deliberation. As I was firing from almost point-blank range, there was no way to actually miss Bessie’s rather substantial head. I fired a second time, and again failed to acknowledge any perceptible response from Bessie. I knew I was not firing blanks, because I had loaded each of the shells myself.
After the first two shots, I looked closely at Bessie to see if I could identify an entry wound, or any sign that I was making a difference, like blood. I could find nothing at all, yet I assumed that I had inflicted pain and discomfort on my intended victim, and I was feeling terribly guilty about the whole process. In desperation I reloaded and fired another dozen shells directly at Bessie’s head, and nothing seemed to phase her in the least. She never sagged, or slumped, or even blinked perceptibly with each round that I fired. Shortly thereafter I emptied the box of shells I had brought with me to the pasture. Bessie remained alert, responsive, and upright in the bog to my complete dismay. If she even had a headache, it was not apparent.
After firing a half-box of shells, I was forced to conclude that Bessie’s head was made of cast iron. It was completely impenetrable using small caliber rifle shells at close range. I was quickly running out of reasonable options, and poor Bessie seemed no worse for the wear. I considered other options like a ball peen hammer or a fencepost, which might require at least one or several forceful blows with Bessie watching. I just as quickly dismissed these options.
I knew there was a full box of shells at the house. During my trip back to the house I started hoping that Bessie would be more cooperative by dying during my absence. I fetched the new box of shells and returned to the bog to find Bessie still holding her head up proudly, and watching me this time like a hawk.
Finally I figured there must be several fleshy, less bony entries into the vital centers of Bessie’s brain. I will spare the details of this figuring, but within a few more minutes and several more rounds, poor Bessie was delivered to that glorious glue factory in the sky. Fortunately for me, an autopsy was never performed on Bessie’s carcass, which would have suggested that she was caught in the crossfire between two small armies.
The whole scene generated a powerful sense of guilt for having disposed of one of God’s creatures in such a manner, the pain from which lingers to the present day. Upon my father-in-law’s return, he asked about Bessie. I confessed that laying Bessie to rest required far more shells than I was comfortably prepared to fire at one of God’s creatures, who throughout the entire process, was watching my every move with her big brown eyes.
I believe he was not at all surprised, but then, – that is what you get when your daughter marries a city kid.