John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 8-5-13
So I found myself with my neighbor’s daughter, an LA belly dancer named Irene, crying on my shoulder: clearly one of those scenes that would make any farmer hope that someone had a movie camera handy to memorialize the moment. Except for the fact that Irene’s father had forbidden me to see her. And the inconvenient truth that she was crying because a vet had to put down a red-winged blackbird that had somehow become impaled on the antenna of her car. The bird had a broken wing.
“Can’t you, like, put the wing in a cast?” Irene asked, a question the vet did not consider worth answering.
“Irene,” I said placing a hand on her shoulder, “normally, a person doesn’t take a wild bird to the vet.”
“How would you know normal,” Irene asked rhetorically, mopping her eyes with the back of her hand, eyeshadow streaking her cheeks. Her visit to her father’s Fort Collins farm had been anything but normal so far: there had been a bat in her bed, a bug in her boot, a cat in her father’s truck engine, and now a bird caught on her antenna, all of which she’d told me about in gruesome detail on the way to the vet with the bird.
I’d been saying the word normally a lot that year, though it was mostly wishful thinking because my young farming career had been anything but normal. From that perspective, finding Irene alongside the road with a blackbird impaled on the antenna of her GTO was almost normal.
The vet had work to do and started toward the back of the building, bird in hand. “Sorry. Can’t do much for this bird.”
“Don’t feed it to the dogs,” Irene cried.
The vet shook his head and left. Irene watched him go through swinging doors where he was greeted by barking dogs.
“He’s going to feed the poor bird to the dogs,” Irene cried.
“No,” I said, “He won’t.” Though I had no idea what he might actually do. I did know I had to figure out what I planned to say to Irene’s father, Sam, who had forbidden me to see her. I recalled Sam telling several Farmer’s Daughter jokes that did not end well for the man involved, and, in fact, were not even jokes. They were more like short morality tales in which the man who messed with the Farmer’s Daughter ended up in a bad way, if not in a grave.
When I explained my possible doom to Irene, she wiped away her tears and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Then she took my hand, pulled me to my truck, telling me to take her to Sam’s farm, which I did. We arrived just as Sam returned to the house after setting the water. Irene lit into him like fire into dry weeds, telling him what had happened. I‘d never seen Sam so diminished. He gave me a wry smile and a wave goodbye.
I didn’t see Irene again, though driving her and the bird to a vet stood out as one of the more interesting things that happened during my first summer farming. The following summer, Sam pulled my truck out of a tight spot when I went off the ditch road, distracted by a bee in the cab. What goes around … ❖
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.