I grew up on a farm near a little town in Northwest Ohio. The farm was mainly grain producing but also had a bit of livestock. Steers and a horse to be exact. Steers are neutered male cattle primary raised for beef. So, every year, we’d get calves in the fall season, then feed and water these things until they weighed over a thousand pounds. The following summer we’d load them up and take them to the butcher. I was also a member of 4H, so from time to time, I’d take a steer to the local fair to show it and auction it off.
I never felt overly comfortable with this concept…showing a steer that is. I have a faint memory of when I was pretty young of walking through the fairgrounds as a summer storm rolled in. Animals get nervous around storms, and I remember one guy was leading his steer back to the barn for shelter. The animal was spooked and, lest I remind you, weighed over a thousand pounds. The guy was no match in this scenario and the steer got the best of him as he went into full freak out mode, broke the guy’s leg and ran off. I stuck around to watch as the medical personnel wrapped this guy’s leg, slapped him on a stretcher and shut him inside an ambulance. Perhaps that left a lasting impression on me as I led the behemoth bovine around the pasture to get him ready for the fair. I was likely more scared than excited to cash my check after selling it at auction.
Or perhaps it was the distant childhood memories of when the steers would get out of our rickety fence. Put 15 of these things in a paddock and whip up a summer storm and things can get out of control quickly. That’s what happened, as far as I can remember, one warm summer evening countless years ago. You know you’re from farm country when you have stories of when the cows got out, and no you’re not talking about your zipper being down.
Shortly after a summer squall had ended, the phone rang. Mom answered and within a moment, offered an inhale of surprise, “Ohhh! Ok, I’ll tell Bob.”
“Bob! Bob!” she yelled.
Seeing me first, “Where’s your dad?”
Shrugging my shoulders, she scurried to the other room. Upon finding him she exclaimed, “Bob, that was Rick. The steers broke out of the fence!”
Dad isn’t a quick man, except for when the cows got out. Popping from his chair he rushed to grab his boots and farmer’s baseball cap…you know the kind…dusty, worn, sporting the logo of the local seed company. And out he went, shouting over his should, “Come on Tony, let’s go get ‘em back!”
Kneehigh to a grasshopper at the time, I was there more to observe than to help. I was always up for an adventure, but also had the memory of the man’s broken leg, so I knew to stay near dad and out of harms way. We jumped on the tractor and off we went toward the direction of the boundless herd. Now, one thing about small farms in the back country…everyone knows everyone and everything about everything. So, wouldn’t you know that within a moment of the call, a half dozen local farmers were part of the pursuit.
Cattle are herd animals. They do what the others are doing. If one takes off that direction, the rest will follow. Not that any one of them are leaders, just that all are followers of any type of movement. So, there’s another danger when cattle get out…roads. You see, it’s not overly common for cows to be stampeding around the countryside in Northwest Ohio. That may be true of the prairies of the West, but in Ohio, you don’t expect that. So…you drive…like normal. The last thing on a driver’s mind is avoiding a herd crossing the road and causing a terrible accident. This situation needed solved, and solved fast.
As kids memories go, I don’t remember the span of time between that and when the herd started to return home. Or, how I ended up on a tractor with my Grandpa back at the barn (he and Grandma lived on the farm as well). But my final memory of the situation was the herd stampeding back toward our house. A couple 4-wheelers behind them and my dads tractor, driving them back home like they did in the old western movies…only no horses. Grandpa got down off the tractor and helped me down as well. He said, “Wave ‘em in Tony, help wave them in!”
“Ummm…wave them in?” I thought. “How about we all just jump back up on that safe tractor where we came from instead. How’s about that?” my brain processed.
But not one to disappoint Grandpa, I stood there with my massively broad and muscular 8-year-old frame (hey, this is my memory mind you), tossed my two hands up in the air and waved them in as if I was guiding in a jetliner for landing. In my purview, the rushing stampede of hooves and cattle and certain imminent death…all coming towards me at a high rate of speed. Roughly a quarter mile out, I glanced over at Grandpa who was furiously waving his arms as well. “Should we move?” I questioned. The tractor about 20 feet to my left seemingly calling my name. My Grandpa, about 20 feet to my right, calling them home.
“Nope, just stay right there. They won’t hurt you. We’re just here to guide them back into the paddock.” His voice, reassuring and confident.
And wouldn’t you know, the distance of the tractor and the placement of me and him made a nice curve for the herd to navigate as they slowed their pace and walked calmly back into the fenced in area. Another neighbor was part of the plan and once the last steer made its way in, he quickly moved a gate into place where the broken fence was. The fiasco was over.
“Grandpa, how did you know they would turn like that? I thought for sure they were going to run us right over!”
Calmly, he responded, “I’ve lived a lot of life. I know that cattle avoid objects. I knew the herd would simply follow the curve we made. Besides, if something went wrong, the tractor was right there. I would’ve scooped you up and made it to the safety of the tractor well before they would’ve hurt you. You’re my grandson, I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.”
Fences. Gates and barriers intended to keep something inside…something from getting out. Yet, sometimes, under the weight of it all, shouldn’t we sometimes consider letting it out? Aren’t broken fences sometimes a good thing? Getting it out in the open to talk about, to process, to admit to, to receive help, to share the burden. And in so doing, isn’t it nice sometimes when neighbors are there to help? Even family members…they can help lighten the load.
When those around us choose to be vulnerable, to be open, to break their walls down…may we…like my neighbors as a kid…be a help to them. May we…like my Grandpa…offer protection and love. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if, when we saw a broken fence, that we’d stop to help repair it, and help the person find peace and acceptance once again.
May we mend broken fences and seek to offer hope to the world.