Growing up on a farm in Georgia was one of my favorite things about my childhood. The Promised Land had acres and acres of fields full of cattle and hay that vibrated with the noises of bugs that were very comfortable with your presence and made sure you knew it. I spent my summers barefoot outside running through these fields until my feets were so calloused I could sprint down the gravel driveway with ease. I ran barefoot straight through cow patties, desperately trying to avoid the mean bull that would chase you if you crossed into his area of the farm. My mom, who worked in the school district as a lunch lady and had her summers off with us, would lock my sister and me out of the house and tell us to drink from the hose and eat from the vines. The water was extremely hot for a minute or two before the cool water from the well would reach the end of the hose. Rose and I would spend our days adventuring around, climbing the haybales in the shed, putting two cans on a string and giggling under the trees as we told ghost stories through our improvised radio, and we can’t forget the time we kept a log of every vehicle that went down our dirt road. We KNEW something was sure to be amiss in the tiny town we lived in and the cops would be so grateful we had written down exactly when Mr. Roger’s old Ford had driven past our house. We grinned at each other and said we were sure to crack the case. I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie when I was 7.
The Promised Land was a beef cattle farm full of red angus cattle, so their upkeep was relatively simple. Papa would bale the hay once a year from the fields into giant rolls, then roll them out whenever the cattle wanted more hay in the winter. Otherwise, the herd would roam throughout the fields grazing. Calf season would come along and Papa would “leave them to do their business” because “cows know what to do; it’s nature.” But whenever there would be a male calf, Papa would round the mom and her baby into the corral, then separate the baby male into the shoot. I would “help” by calling the calf, yelling and smacking my hands together to scare him into place. We would whistle the cattle dogs, Australian Blue Heelers, to nip the heels of the cows to separate the overly protective cows away from the baby. With all of the calves we would tag them, punching holes in their ear (not unlike my experience at Claire’s) to place the giant yellow tag. But with the males? Papa would take a giant rubber band and bend between the legs of the calf, from the middle, mind you, we don’t want to get kicked, and would wrap this rubber band around the balls of the male multiple times. The first time I saw him do this, I asked why.
“That boy will be a steer. That band will cut off circulation and the balls will fall off. Can’t have competition in the herd with the bull. There can only be one bull in a herd and we don’t want any fighting for the women.”
I never found the fallen off balls, even though I looked for years. I bet the dogs ate them.
Animals were a way of life for me. I loved them all. We had so many farm dogs growing up. Roxy the Rottweiler, Roxy the Rottweiler II when Roxy died of parvo, Bear the golden retriever who would snap an apple out of your hand like a coke fiend, Eva the German Shepherd, Dixie, Mattie, Blue, and Rebel the Australian Blue Heelers (Dixie hated me and let me know it by biting me twice, once on the face), my Bear the giant fluffy mutt who looked like the mix between an Akita and a Chow, Ringo a beautiful black and tan dog, my dog Bindi who looked like a fox, and at least two others from very early in my life I can’t remember the names of but they were also tan and black. These dogs followed Rose and me throughout the farms while we adventured on our shenanigans. Where we were, so were they, a constant backdrop to my childhood.
I loved our dogs, but they were also just dogs. They were working dogs, never allowed in the house, never allowed to go anywhere except a truck ride to the vet for their shots or maybe to the dump with me also in the back of the pickup. My dad would give the dogs beer to drink, for crissakes. When I became an adult and met people who made their dog their world, I just couldn’t relate. Dogs are animals, not people. Animals on the furniture? Never! Spending an extreme amount of money on the vet to save their life? There wasn’t enough money for us to go to the doctor, much less the dogs; animals died when they did and that was that.
When I was five, I came home one day, perhaps from preschool, and saw something black in the ditch. It was Ringo. He was whimpering. I ran to him and fell on my knees in the ditch next to him, stroking his fur and asking him why he didn’t come with me on home. I ran to my dad working in the shop and said something was wrong with Ringo. He followed me down our long driveway to the road, took one look at Ringo, and told me to stay put. When he came back, he was holding a gun.
“Stay and watch, kid, this is the circle of life.”
He shot Ringo dead…and it was the only merciful gunshot I ever saw my dad make.
Death happened a lot on the farm. Roxy came home frozen solid from the vet when parvo took her. She was buried on top of the giant hole we dug for one of the cows who had gotten sick. We needed a backhoe to dig the hole for Roxy and that cow. The pile of red Georgia clay stood taller than me.
When Eva disappeared one day, I looked all over the farm for her before finding her hiding under my grandparents’ deck. She was old, grey and sway-backed with her old German Shepherd hips. She whined when I crawled into the dirt with her. I laid my head on her stomach and she weakly licked my face a few times. I cried big tears into her fur as she took big heavy breaths and then died in my arms while flies crawled over us both.
She was buried next to Roxy.
Bear the golden retriever was a mess. I guess all retrievers are. When apple season was beginning, he would snatch the apples straight out of my hands while I pulled them from the trees. Throughout the fall, he would eat apples in the orchard until he threw up. He almost died one Thanksgiving when he decided to eat an entire turkey carcass that my dad had tossed over the back porch for the dogs to eat. We spent that Thanksgiving night on the phone with the vet, frantically trying to massage the bones down his dumbass throat while he struggled for air. It was a sleepless night but he pulled through.
When I was nine on New Year’s Eve, I think I walked out to get the mail or something near the road, and I saw Bear. He had been hit by a logging truck that was going down to clear the dirt road across the street. His body was everywhere, streaks of blood on our now-paved road. I ran in to tell my mom. It was a gruesome sight on the road. My mom screamed and cried, and then Papa took a shovel and scrapped Bear off the road into a wheelbarrow. His paw dangled out of the wheelbarrow, tufts of fur covering his intestines and kidneys.
He was buried next to the cow, Roxy, and Eva.