When I was in 9th grade I joined the Future Farmers Of America. Mom and Dad helped me buy some sheep for my project. My uncle Art came out and gave me some pointers on how to shear. Back in his youth, he, dad and their brothers had a flock of sheep. I think they used hand shears, a spring loaded scissor- like snipper and later a hand crank machine with a clipper head attachment. Being one of the younger ones, it was dad’s job to catch sheep and sit them for the shearer. I think he said he got 25 cents a day. The wool was sold as a cash crop. I don’t think it brought much during the depression years.
Back then I never really mastered the art of sheep shearing. I was a pretty good cow clipper, not as good as my brother Duane who won several FFA cow clipping contests, but good enough not to do any serious damage. My problem was, after being shown several times, I was never able to quite master sheep tipping. It sounds easy, but it AIN’T.
Never having a large flock, I managed to remove the wool cow clip style. I’d tie up their heads and clip them from the top down. I’ll admit, they didn’t look quite as good as the ones you see at the fair. I don’t know for sure if sheep really care how they look. I do know my sheep hid out in the woods for a couple of weeks until some wool grew back. My sister Iris gave me a hair cut one time so I kind of knew what they felt like.
I sold the sheep the summer of 1972 and used the money to buy a black, 1965 Dodge Coronet so I could go off to college. The future Mrs Ed, whom I met at U of M Morris, liked the car so I guess it worked out ok.
I went sheep-less until 1985 when we bought the farm. That fall I bought 7 Hampshire ewes. I raised some lambs, sold the wethers, and kept the ewe lambs. I didn’t have to worry about shearing until spring. I believe there were 12 when that fateful day arrived.
I was ready, so I thought. I had ordered an Oyster Clipmaster from Nasco. It came in a heavy box for it’s size. I unwrapped it like a kid at Christmas. I loved the feel of the shiny new chrome and black clippers. I carefully unwrapped the dangerously looking, razor sharp blades from their oily wrapper. I even looked at the directions to see how they were to be mounted. I remember Uncle Art telling me to have some kerosene on hand to dip them in, to keep them from getting gummed up with lanolin. (the sticky, waxy stuff that makes your skin soft and makes you smell like a sheep).
I got out my newly purchased sheep books. The ones that tell you all about the diseases that your sheep can die from. I skipped over that part and went right to the chapter on shearing. I studied the diagrams. “Set the sheep on its back. Position it’s head between your knee and something else. Make your first cut …… etc, etc. Be careful not to nick the skin, the sharp clipper blades can …. Avoid making second cuts as it degrades the wool and you will be docked at time of sale”.
About now I’m starting to get second thoughts. My first second thought was what Mrs Ed had said when I was about to order the $100 plus Clipmaster. “Are you sure you need that?”. “Are you sure you know how to shear a sheep?” And finally, “Maybe you should hire someone to shear them for you”.
Over this many years of marriage, I have almost learned to listen and pay attention when she says something like that. The young Mr. Ed, ego bruised, did the only thing he could do, sent the order in.
The day of reckoning came. I pulled on the old bibs, knowing they would be coated with greasy lanolin and smelling like sheep by the time I finished. I figured I’d just hang them on the line when I was done. Pretty thoughtful I thought.
Clipmaster in one hand, coffee can with kerosene in the other, sheep book with dog eared chapter tucked under my arm, I headed out to the barn. Upon entering the door, the sheep instinctively inched to the far side of the pen. I had fed them earlier that morning so they knew I was up to something. How come sheep always expect the worst?
I ran an extension cord from the light socket. I strategically placed my coffee can where I could reach it when the blades got gummed up. I was ready to tackle my first sheep …and they knew it.
Seven 200 lb ewes intermixed with half grown lambs, launched the “melee” maneuver. That’s when the flock moves first in a clockwise motion and then shifts instantly into a counterclockwise swirl depending on which way the catcher is approaching. It was obvious no one wanted to be first.
I grabbed a leg and pulled, hoping to separate at least one from the crowd. The momentum pulled me in to the middle of this dense mass. I was forced to let go. My next move was to grab one around the neck. Better leverage I thought. I wrestled her to the edge. It was Edith!
In those days I made the mistake of naming all the sheep. I thought I could declare them as dependents on my taxes. I didn’t. Mrs.Ed said the IRS might get a little suspicious with 12 dependents under age three.
Edith was no ordinary sheep. She was big and strong and could hold her own amongst the flock. I guess she figured it was her duty to put this bibbed intruder in his place. I grabbed Edith just like it said to in the book, around the neck, bending her head sideways. The book said this causes the sheep to lose its balance and tip onto its butt. I should have let Edith read the book. Next thing I know I am on my back with Edith stomping at my head. Not to be deterred or stomped, I sprang to my feet and grabbed her again. The adrenlin must have kicked in because I soon had Edith on her butt. The other sheep stared in amazement.
Time to reach for my the Clipmaster. When something is out of reach, six inches is still six inches. I struggled, trying to keep her feet from touching the ground where she could get some traction. I wiggled her towards the machine until I could finally catch the cord with my foot. I paused for a moment to regain my composure and gather my thoughts. I rehearsed the directions in my mind. “Start your first cut behind the ear and proceed down along the flank. Ear, flank, I had a mental picture. I flicked the slide switch on the clippers. BZZZZ. Edith freaked. Somehow she managed to get her back leg firmly lodged on my ankle. I learned then why there are no one legged sheep shearers. Down I went, Edith was back on top.
More second thoughts crept into my mind. “I can do this” I said to myself. “I have to do this”. Brushing off the straw and some other sticky brown stuff from my overalls, I gave Edith the look of a determined crazy man. She stepped away from the flock and soon we were back to where we were before, “Start at the ear…..”
Clippers powered up, blades flashing, I began my first cut. The wool peeled away, just like the book said it would. I felt the lanolin on my fingers, the smell of a freshly shorn sheep filled my nostrils. A feeling of joy began to well up in my inner soul. I was doing it! I was shearing a sheep the way it was meant to be!
I probably should have stopped there. If only there were clear indisputable signals to let a person know exactly when to quit when one is ahead. The second cut went ok, even the third one wasn’t bad. Then I did it. I had the clippers too far away from the sheep. This left a patch of wool that was too long. “Darn, I got to make a second cut. Hopefully they won’t notice when I take it in to sell”.
Now there is a fine line when it comes to positioning a clipper next to a sheep’s body. And there is a fine line when it comes to adjusting clipper blades. Too loose, they won’t cut, too tight, they get hot. I sure didn’t want them to be too loose so…. Needless to say, friction creates heat. Heat, next to bare skin … You get the picture. In order to avoid the dreaded second cut, I guided the clippers in tight. I didn’t notice right away, but Edith did.
I’m not sure what happened in the next few seconds but I can tell you what I surmised from the results. Remember the part about being careful not to nick the sheep’s skin … Suddenly the meaning of that caution became crystal clear. Not only was Edith smoking, she was bleeding. They should have included another caution “If you do knick a sheep, don’t panic and nip your fingers cause it hurts”.
So, what does one do with a half shorn crazy sheep with a significant cut on her side, not to mention a slightly nipped finger? A reasonable person may have done something different. Did I mention lanolin is pretty good at slowing down bleeding? Besides, I sure didn’t want to get docked for having blood stained wool.
My sheep book suggested putting together a shepherd’s first aid kit. It advised things like iodine, bandages, string, sutures, needles and thread. Finally I had done something right. I rushed to my special cabinet where I kept my sheep supplies. I dusted off the first aid kit which I had assembled in a piece of Mrs Ed’s Tupperware. I retrieved needle and thread. I took a part of a minute to glance at the chapter on stitching up a wounded sheep. ” Not as bad as a c-section” I thought, “This should be easy”.
“Edith, oh Edith” I called. She was having none of it. She was perfectly willing to run around half naked and wounded than to have me anywhere her. Desperate times call for drastic action. My dairy farmer instincts took over. Quick, make a stanchion to hold her head. Upon locating two stout two by fours, I fashioned a makeshift head stall. I secured it to a gate. I grabbed Edith by the ears and forced her head between the boards. I secured the top with a pretty good twine string. “Cleanse the wound” the book said. I did. “Apply iodine or other disinfectant”. No problem. “Gently and carefully pull the edges of the skin together and sew using small (some kind of surgical) stitches.
It became abundantly clear, Edith would rather risk dying. Having been drug around, wrestled on her back, scorched and slashed with a Clipmaster, she wasn’t even considering letting me practice my sewing skills.
Time to regroup. “Ok” I thought to myself “she is secure and the bleeding has subsided. I was a pretty good cow clipper in my day. It will take a little longer, but I can get the wool off”. So I did. Now there still was the matter of the gash on her side. Fortunately the lanolin and iodine had curtailed the bleeding but it looked pretty bad. Wanting to spare Mrs Ed the shock of seeing a wounded sheep, I figured I’d better cover it up. Unfortunately the book didn’t specify how many and how big of bandages one should have on hand. Needless to say, I was a little short.
You know how sometimes fate intervenes just when you need it too? It was just at that moment when I looked up and saw that roll of duct tape I had left hanging in the barn the last time I fixed the water tank. It was a real “Red Green” moment. I grabbed the tape and the bandages, squeezed the skin flaps as best I could and started wrapping. A couple dozen times around the middle, Edith was ready to go.
I finished shearing the rest of the flock cow clip style without incident. Mrs Ed seemed pleasantly surprised to see the newly shorn sheep. It was probably good that Edith hadn’t quite forgiven me and was staying way back in the flock.
Shearing time is like birthdays. Once you reach a certain age, they seem to come faster. Through the course of that year, I acquired more sheep. As shearing time neared Mrs Ed asked me when I was going to shear the sheep. “You know,” I said “We have so many sheep now that it might be time to hire a professional. Besides my time is needed to work on those other projects”. She reluctantly agreed. “You are so good at it, maybe you can take the Clipmaster and give him some pointers” “Yup” I thought to myself, “you can never learn enough about the versatility of duct tape”.