Vagneur: The teacher |

Vagneur: The teacher

Two of us, trapped by circumstances beyond our control, stood looking at each other, one unaware of the life-threatening condition she was in and the other worried about the fresh stitches in his recently repaired, partially torn Achilles tendon.

“Just watch the cow,” my dad had said. “I’ve doctored her up, but if she goes down, run over to the house and get me. I’ve gotta get some supper and a quick nap.”

“But Dad, I can’t run — my stitches. Is there anything else I can do?”

“Yeah, if you want you can take that hunting knife hanging over there along the wall and plunge it into her left haunch, up high, letting the built-up gases in her stomach come out. It’s up to you.”

And he left me there with two choices, in a freezing-cold barn, a dim kerosene lantern burning over my head, the night outside as black as the sense of unfair responsibility that hung in the air and surrounded me like a cloak of futility. At my insistence, Dad had left his border collie, Wolf, behind for company, but the instinctual pull of evolutionary power through countless millennia was too strong, and Wolf could not forsake his allegiance to my father, and soon he silently slipped away through a crack in the barn door.

I was 9 years old, temporarily crippled as the result of a runaway folding chair dolly hitting me squarely above my left heel, ripping through the skin and about half of my Achilles. It was a Red Brick school-activity night of some kind, and while the parents did the dishes in the basement kitchen, we kids made havoc out of the gymnasium upstairs, spinning that dolly around like a game of “crack the whip” on ice. Tired, I had quit and was walking off the floor when struck from behind. Fortunately, Dr. Lewis’ office was directly across Bleeker Street, and patching me up got him out of helping with the cleanup.

The cow’s eyes bulged, and her tongue slacked out of her mouth; she was clearly suffering, the victim of severe gastrointestinal distress, brought on by what, no one could say. Maybe too much alfalfa in the hay, maybe something else, but my dad had been working feverishly to save her life, and now it seemed, at least for a while, I was the one responsible for her well-being.

Ranch kids have many unique opportunities to study animals up close, and I learned that cow from front to back. I studied her long eyelashes; the depth of her wary, unfocused gaze; the ballpark ratio of red to white hair on her now-distorted Hereford body. I watched as tiny bugs crawled over her coarse hide and ran my hand through the hair, both to comfort her and to attempt to dislodge the scurrying insects; studied her udder and could see that she’d had a calf suckling her. But mostly I studied the anatomy of her distended stomach and tried to determine, with certainty, the place I would thrust the knife, deep into the bloated, gas-filled rumen, if circumstances required.

And what else do little boys wonder about? The realization that a prolonged path to death is painful and ugly, but how attractive could salvation be with a 10-inch hunting knife stuck in your gut? Would my dad fall asleep and leave me out there all night? How cold do your feet have to get before they freeze? If I run and tear the catgut (or pig sinew) out of my stitched-up Achilles, will I ever get a second chance? Come on, cow, please, please stay on your feet. If you fall on your left side, you’re gonna die and it’ll be my fault. You goddam four-legged son of a bitch — get well, goddammit. Ranch kids learn to cuss at a young age because that’s what you do for lack of a better idea.

The cow lived, through no fault of mine, and over the years my dad and I went on to other escapades with cattle, many of them in the cold of dark winter nights, him showing me how it all was done. We helped first-calf heifers with their initial calving and removed afterbirth from recalcitrant uteruses. We rejoiced at easy and healthy births and did whatever else needed doing.

I’ve messed with cows all my life, and yet I wish I were as good at it as my dad. Working side by side with him or struggling on my own after he died, his world always seemed bigger, more graceful to me. Sometimes I still see myself in that long-ago barn, watching a bloated cow unknowingly bargain with death while I stood and watched, pondering impossible choices.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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