Writers’ conventional wisdom tells me this; every story has background, but you don’t have to tell the whole story. In fact you shouldn’t tell the whole story. The background, that bigger story, is probably only important to you and not your readers. I was never good at following advice, nor have I often been accused of being conventional. And so I offer you this today, a detour from the current road trip which takes you into the past. Let me add that no cows were hurt in the writing of this story.
I had never seen Henry in the pool hall. Henry was our closest neighbor to the south and my Dad’s best friend. He was a kind man, and that day he had a worried look on his face. Standing in the doorway and calling my name his eyes, behind silver framed glasses, said something was wrong.
I had come to the pool hall in Danvers, not far from the community hall where basketball practice was in its first week, to use the phone and wait until my parents could pick me up and bring me home to the farm. Mom usually made the short three mile trip after she helped Dad bring the cows across the road and he began to get ready for milking. Why Henry was there confused me.
“Your Mom called and asked me to come get you David. Your Dad’s cows were hit on the road.”
I got my satchel and simply walked away from the game of eight ball I was playing. The thought of cows hit on the road was our family’s biggest fear realized. I don’t think I had ever been in Henry’s car. As we neared the three mile Y intersection on Route 9 Henry said this.
“Your Dad’s upset.” I had never heard Henry talk about my Dad’s emotions, or anyone’s for that matter. “The state police were called.”
He paused and I pondered the gravity of what he just said. I wanted to know which cows were hit, but Henry wouldn’t necessarily know their names. Instead I asked
“Who hit them?”
“Mr. Lindenfelser’s hired man.”
Our farm was split in half by Illinois Route 9 that ran from Bloomington and parts east to Pekin and parts west. Near the current road there was, when I was younger, a still visible trace in our front yard of the previous road, the old state road, which ran at a different angle. When the road’s route was changed it created little triangular patches of land, small pie shaped plots, that were remnants of progress I guess, but awkward, almost too small to farm. The new road was concrete and would be forever known in our family as the hard road.
Land that was ill suited for farming, with a creek, near the timber, a natural pasture, was north of the road and the best farmland, along with the dairy barn and our house, was south of the road. My Dad, his father in law, and for all we knew everyone and anyone that had ever milked cows on that farm had driven cows across the road to pasture in the morning and back across the road to the milking barn in the evening during the time of year the pasture provided sufficient food for the cows. Always Jersey cows. Rich raw Jersey milk was delivered to the little town of Danvers until pasteurization and homogenization requirements during World War II put local small farm dairy delivery out of business due to the cost of upgraded equipment. Dad and his father in law built a new barn in 1941 and shipped Grade A milk to a larger dairy until he sold the cows in the late 70’s. Much changed, but driving cows across Route 9 stayed the same. We had never had cows hit on the hard road even though it had grown to be busy. Trucks hauled corn to the barges in Pekin. Car traffic grew and grew over the years, until they built Interstate 74.
Getting the cars across the road required at least two people (better three) or two people and a good dog. We had some good dogs. It was Mom and Dad and our border collie Champ the afternoon the cows were hit. The cows gathered at a gate near the road, usually by themselves, sometimes requiring someone to go get them. When they were at the gate Mom took her place on the road to the west with a red flag, Dad checked the traffic both ways, opened the gate, and took his place with a flag to the east. The cows crossed between them, protected by their owners.
“Sic ‘em Champ” was the command for the dog, waiting behind the cows, to get them moving, nipping at their heels if needed. Both the cows and the dog knew the drill, so it all happened pretty much at once.
The people, Mom to the west and Dad to the east, stood in the road with red flags high in the air. The west was the biggest worry, because there was a hill. Cars and trucks could crest the hill and be on the cows quickly. You could see a long ways to the east and vehicles could see you. If anything was coming west, either past the hill or on the hill behind it, we waited to release the cows. But if a vehicle was coming way east you could almost have the cows across the road before they arrived, and if not they were easily stopped. Dad claims he saw nothing coming when he opened the gate, but after he took his position on the road with the flag he saw the white car way down past the bridge from the east.
The cows were moving slowly across the road as dairy cows do, placid, not in a hurry. Champ moved back and forth behind them, but not nipping or making them run. Dad saw that the car was coming fast and began to wave the flag. It was not unusual to stop a car from one direction or the other. Most saw not only the flag but the mass of cows on the road. We drove as many as 26 cows across the road twice a day in late spring, summer, and early fall. You could see them on the road from far off. More noticeable were the red flags held by our family.
The car continued to approach, speeding Dad figured. The speed limit there was 60. Dad walked down the road towards the car and waved the flag faster, listening for the driver to let off on the accelerator and slow his vehicle. Nothing changed. He saw it was a white Pontiac convertible. By the sound he knew it needed a muffler. He thought he’d seen the car before.
It kept coming. Dad ran towards the car, whipping the flag, a large piece of bright red cloth on a metal rod, back and forth quickly and yelling, both to the driver and to his wife Catherine. The sound of the engine didn’t change. Dad looked back and saw the road covered with his cows. He looked at the car and saw the driver, a skinny man with a cigarette in his mouth and long blonde hair. At the last moment he jumped into the ditch and threw the flag at the car and its driver. It landed on the hood. He heard the sound of his cows being hit, the impact, breaking glass, frantic mooing of the cattle. Only then did he hear the squeal of tires, brakes finally being applied.
As Henry and I approached the farm we could see the lights from the state police car flashing. When Henry got closer and stopped I saw three cows. Mom had taken the rest to the lot by the barn. Queenie lay near the road, not moving. Bess was lying in the yard with her head up and her feet under her. Blood ran from her nose. Wilma was in the ditch and Dad was near her. She was struggling, trying to get up, while Dad held her head down. A state policeman with a clip board was talking with a man by a white car. He had pale blue eyes and greasy hair. Blood had spattered his white Tee shirt.
We walked to where Dad was holding Wilma down, her back legs were obviously broken. A bone, amazingly white, poked through the skin.
“Is there anything more I can do to help Dean?”
“No Henry we’re about done here. Thank you very much. You can go home.” Henry walked back to his car.
“David, I need you to go into the house, in me and Mom’s room, and get that nickel plated pistol Denny brought home from Germany. It’s in the bottom drawer of Mom’s dresser. Bring that and four shells. They’re .22 longs. The shells are in my sock drawer in the chest of drawers.”
I knew all that but Dad didn’t know I did. I ran to the house.
Dad loved his cows like we all did. He named them himself, sometime with our help, and kept their names on a chart in the barn for breeding. They were purebred Jerseys, not registered, but beautiful animals from a herd that had been on that farm continuously for as long as we knew. Dad thought Queenie had a regal look. She had a white blaze above her black nose and two white socks by her hoofs. Wilma was a dark Jersey, almost black, and had long legs. She was a great milker. Dad named her after Wilma Rudolf, the Olympic African American sprinter he admired so much, flashing down t he track on our black and white TV screen with that long stride. I don’t know how Bess got her name. Bess would walk up to you in the pasture and nuzzle you until petted her.
Queenie, Mom later said, was the first to be hit and never saw the car. Her head was down, the car’s right side, the bumper and fender, hit her squarely in the head, breaking her horns and killing her outright, throwing her in the ditch where I saw her lying. After hitting Queenie the car was thrown into Wilma, striking her in the back legs and lifting her up on the hood for a time. She rolled off, tried to get up, fell, inched her way onto the shoulder. The car was slowing then and hit Bess, pushing her over. She slid down the pavement, knocking down another cow, but was able to get up, only to walk into the yard and lay down of her own accord.
I brought the gun to my Dad. The policeman standing beside him, asking questions, offered Dad his own pistol, which was a larger caliber. Dad refused it.
“I’ll do this myself officer. After I’m done taking care of my cows here I’ll talk to you.”
I looked closely at my Dad as he loaded the revolver. His hands were shaking.
“You go to the barn and help your Mom with the milking.”
“I want to stay.”
“No. You go.”
I was almost to the barn when I heard the snap of the .22 pistol. Just a snap. Then another.
Days later I was helping Dad at the corn crib. We were putting the speed jack on the corn elevator so it would be ready when we started shucking corn. I wasn’t much help with mechanical things but I enjoyed being with Dad and he liked having me around. Out of the blue he said this:
“You know what that man said to me when he got out of his car after killing my cows?”
“He said ‘Where were you?’ Can you imagine? ‘Where were you?’ Dumb bastard. Dumb hillbilly bastard.”
With that my Dad started to cry. It had happened days before and only now did Dad cry. I didn’t know what to do. Just he and I standing in the lot by the corn crib in the afternoon, him crying. I put my hand on his shoulder. He reached for the red handkerchief he always kept in his bib overalls and blew his nose.
Mr. Lindenfelser’s hired man was from Kentucky.