Animal Control Revisited

This was originally written in 2012 under the title "Voice Activated" and rewritten in 2014 with critiques from the Palmer Writer's Group - thanks to the group

Theodore Roosevelt said “The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I would add that when man and animal strive together, linked by voice and by love it's hardly even work. It is a pleasure that all should experience.

One of my brothers is former hippie dog musher who has grown up to be a communications technician. When he visits the police station in Homer Alaska, he is welcomed with open arms as the maintainer-in-chief of their 911 system. Still, some of the elder cops have an earlier memory of him.

In the 1970's it was not unusual to see this brother cruising down Main Street in a sled behind a dog team. Those officers describe him as “having a joint in one hand and a beer in the other.” At some point in time he would bellow “Home!” and the dog team would respond by heading up into the hills, skirting ravines and climbing to Crossman Ridge to eventually deposit him at his homestead. His participation in the trip home was not necessary and by the time they reached their destination, he was likely asleep. My brother's transportation then was voice activated to a degree that is not yet matched by today's digital technology.

On a related note, I recall walking to the pasture to bring the milk cows home and trying to ride a cow back to the barn. The cows did not object to me flopping onto their back on my belly and squirming around to get seated. However they weren't exactly cooperative, because they would just keep walking as if I weren't there. No amount of instructions would cause them to stop and let me get settled.

Our local priest, Father Jaimie, grew up on Mindanao in the Philippines. His family farmed and – as did most people in that time and area – had a water buffalo as a draft animal. Domesticated water buffalos resemble cows in many ways. One difference, which I envied, is that the water buffalos would kneel down upon request so that one could mount and ride them.

My grandfather loved horses but did not like cattle. Neither did he care for motorized equipment like tractors and he loathed my father's airplane. An uneasy peace reigned between them. Grandpa would not allow my Dad to put an airplane hanger on land to which he had title.

While my father lived with and worked with my grandfather, he developed his own enterprises. He bought and rented his own farm land. He and his mother (independent of my grandfather) developed a beef and dairy herd. My grandmother's involvement with cattle was consistent with the tradition of Scandinavians. People of Norwegian and Swedish descent believed that cattle were the domain of women.

I can recall sitting on a hill at age five, looking down and towards the southeast at my father and grandfather at work putting up hay on my father's land. Just to the south was the T-style airplane hanger that he built. The grass was cut and my grandfather drove a horse-drawn dump rake to gather the hay. Grandpa and his team of two dropped the hay in lines called windrows. My father drove a tractor that gathered the windrowed hay into great bunches and lifted them onto a stack. At regular intervals he dismounted to climb onto the stack and further prepare the hay.

My grandfather was skilled at driving horses. He was a tough, stormy man with a face like a hatchet, leathery skin and a body built from cord and sinew. By 1954 the stomach cancer that killed him the next spring was eating at his insides and the pain did much to intensify his already edgy temperament. Yet, he still could work with horses as if they were extensions of his limbs and his voice. Years later, when I first saw a pas de deux (dance for two) in a ballet, the first thing that came to my mind was my memory of Grandpa Gustav and his horses running that dump rake.

Later that year in the fall, I often went with my father to haul corn bundles. By that time, Grandpa was too sick to do much work. My father worked with two horses that he had raised and nurtured since colts. The pair pulled a wagon called a hay rack. The three of them worked together as a team.

Corn had been cut with a binder, and the cut corn was gathered into bundles tied by twine. The binder was followed by someone who picked up the bundles, stood them on end in self-supporting groups called “shocks” that looked to us kids like Indian teepees. My father loaded corn bundles into the hay rack with a pitchfork as the horses followed his instructions. These horses were voice activated. They moved forward, left, right, started and stopped by voice commands. This arrangement was more efficient than using a tractor because my Dad didn't have to constantly mount and dismount.

As we returned to the farm one day, I rode behind my father as he sat on top of the stacked corn at the front of the hay rack with the reins in his hands and drove the horses. It was a crystal clear day; there was no wind and the sun had that special warmth that is felt only in the fall. I thought then – and still do – the best moments in life are when you do good work and work goes well.