I learn stuff the hard way. Like the time I lost an ox. Yes, a 2000 pound ox, bought with investors money, gone, vanished overnight.
This is the beginning of the “Saga of Norman, the Wonder Ox”. Norman began life as a small crossbred calf, caught between the world of dairy and beef. He was half Jersey and half black angus. He probably never knew his sire and dam, at least he never talked about them. Did I mention he was a talking ox? Just kidding, although he had a pretty distinct moo.
Norman was purchased at a sales barn by Rollie and Mary Miller about the time the movie City Slickers came out. If you have never seen it you probably don’t know what “IT” is. Billy Crystal figures it out in the movie. It has something to do with “bringing in the herd”. Pretty deep stuff. Norman is a major character.
Anyway Norman got a ride to his Floodwood farm in the back of a station wagon. During the next two years or so, Norman grew large on a ration of grain and hay. He learned to lead and pull logs with a makeshift harness. Oxen that work in teams, also known as spans, generally wear yokes made from wood. Norman was a solitary beast. Rollie was an improviser. He rigged a harness using an upside down horse collar. Norman never complained. His vanity never surfaced.
Sometime between his second and third birthday, Norman made his public debut. Rollie was a lumberjack interpreter at the Forest History Center. When the time was right, Norman headed for camp, this time in an old rusty, two horse stock trailer. Rollie told me later that Norman rode better in the back of the station wagon as he “rocked the trailer” all the way to town.
Norman became the star of “Real Horse and a Little Ox Power Day”. People came for miles and waited patiently just to see him perform the dangerous and dramatic cross haul. Bill ,the blacksmith, used to marvel at Norman’s speed. “You gotta put a line on the ground just to make sure you can see he’s moving”. Norman didn’t mind, he figured Bill to be a big steak eater anyway.
One spring cancer took our friend Rollie and it looked like Norman’s days were numbered. With the help of young budding author and occasional FHC volunteer, Matt Nelson, we came up with a plan to save Norman. Mary was willing to sell him for market price and there were a lot of Oxburgers. Matt created the Norman Newsletter to rally the Normanites, a group of investors who could “own a piece of Norman” for only $50. Norman certificates were printed and the money poured in. A few people wanted their share in steaks and roasts so we had to explain that it didn’t work that way. The best Norman could do was make them a pie. Most declined.
In a short period of time, an envelope of almost enough cash was assembled. Mr’s Ed and I were able to complete the financing. It was time to close the deal and pick up Norman.
I’ll never forget the pickup. It was fly season. Norman was hiding in the back of a loafing shed with the horses and another, “someday to be ” ox. I don’t remember his name, what I do remember was that Mary said Rollie bought him to team up with Norman but never got around to train him or even make him a steer. I was just a little reluctant to go into a small shed with three, fly stomping draft horses and a two year old bull to look for a black ox. Did I mention it was dark in there?
Somehow I managed to find him, slip a halter on and coax him to the door. He wasn’t exactly happy. You see in the world of horse flies, the color black says “lunch”. Something as big and black as Norman screams out BUFFET! With me on the halter rope and Mary on the business end of a stick, we managed to get Norman over to the trailer. Suddenly the “Hey, this is a trailer” bulb turns on and he proceeds to drag me back to the shed. Did I mention it was about 90 degrees and getting hotter by the minute? Bullwackers, as the men who drove oxen were called, had reputations for cussing. Perhaps my mutterings stirred something in Norman’s ancestral psyche, because the next time we worked our way back to the trailer he put both front feet in and stood there. From what happened next, I suspected Mary and Rollie had performed this ritual before. Details aside, Norman stepped into the trailer.
The ride home was eventful. For a ponderous ox, that boy could rock a trailer. Whenever I’d stop at a stop sign, he’d Beller for help. Needless to say, I “kept her moving” as I didn’t want to answer any questions.
No problem unloading the “car sick” beast. Don’t ask me why I knew he was car sick. Thank goodness for pressure washers. I led him to a corral behind the barn. One side had metal corral panels, the other side, a four foot high wolven wire fence. “Welcome to your new home, Norman, I’ll see you in the morning”.
Morning came. I went out to see how the old boy was doing. He wasn’t. Not that he wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t there. The pen is fifty feet square, pretty hard for anything to hide, particularly a 2000 pound ox. On closer inspection, I noticed a hole about the size of an ox in the wolven wire. “That wasn’t there yesterday” I thought to myself. I followed the tracks. They led me to the driveway and down Foss Road. Norman was heading home! Floodwood is 48 miles from my house. “I wonder how much of a head start he got”? I thought to myself. “Better get some help”.
To back track a little bit, did I mention that Mrs. Ed wasn’t exactly thrilled about adding an ox to the already in excess herd of horses? Also she was a little uneasy about a financed ox. “What are you going to tell people if he dies”? ” “He’s a young ox, he isn’t going to die” I assured her. I never considered that he might run away.
Thinking it was best not to worry her when she was still sleeping, I crept into Matt’s room. “Hey Matt”, I whispered, “want to go on an adventure?” Sure Dad” (that was during his unquestioning period. He got dressed and we headed outside. “What’s up?” he asked. ” Normans’ gone. We got to go find him”. Fortunately I was able to get my hand over his mouth in time to muffle his response, “I’m going to tell mom”.
We headed down the driveway. “See here are his tracks” I pointed out. “Dad,, you just stepped in a cow pie”. As we rounded the mailbox, the kid came up with another one of his prodigious ideas. “I think we had better bring Snuffy along”. Snuffy was our old veteran Border Collie. He didn’t get too excited except in emergency situations. I agreed and whistled for him. He reluctantly emerged from his dog house and wondered down the driveway towards us. “Snuffy, Normans’ run away. We got to find him!”
Snuffy came alive, like a bloodhound at a prison escape. Nose to the ground, he headed down Foss Road. “Come on Snuffy, get him” Matt yelled as we picked up the pace. It is only one half mile to highway 5. Number 5 is a blacktop road. I worried we might lose the track. Halfway there Snuffy stopped. Had he lost the trail? He stared into the woods.
It is no ordinary woods on the south side of Foss Road. It is swamp, alder brush and thick dark spruce. It’s where the big bucks hang out during deer season. We know because we never go in there to look for them. Impossible to fight through. Snuffy looked at us, looked back at the swamp, back at us, shook his head and dove in. Matt and I ran the last 50 yards. No. No way. No ordinary animal would enter that swamp.
We stopped and stared at the hole in the brush. Yup, about the size of an ox. I looked at the ground. The tracks too had stopped as if the ox had been lifted into the sky by a gigantic eagle. “I think he’s in there dad” “I think your right” I replied. “I’d better go tell mom”. I pleaded with him, “We can do this son”. “If we don’t make it, then you can tell mom”.
Fortunately big oxen make big trails. We followed, climbing over trees, fighting the brush, mosquitoes as big as horseflies and horse flies as big as humming birds. “Listen” Matt whispered “I think I hear Snuffy”. I listened. A muffled bark sounded like it was coming from a distant stand of spruce.” Matt plunged ahead. Being much smaller than me he could slide under the bigger brush. As long as It kept slapping me in the face, I figured I wouldn’t lose him.
The barks grew sharper. Snuffy had something. I hoped he had not been sidetracked by a squirrel, porcupine or worse yet, a skunk. Before I could say, slow down, Matt stopped, hunched over and peered into the dense spruce. “I think I see him” Matt said, pointing to a really dark spot. About that time, probably annoyed by a yapping border collie, Norman let out a bellow. It was music to my ears!
Now the way I figure it, Norman was on his way home. At his pace it took him half the night to traverse the first half mile. When the sun came up so did the horse flies. BUFFET” they buzzed to each other as they dive bombed the black beast. Norman had simply headed for cover, to lay low until nightfall. Fortunately for us, Snuffy got his man!
Getting Norman home was a bit of a challenge. I told Matt, “Let’s play the Rollie and Mary game.”What’s that” he asked?. “”Here, take this stick and act like you mean business”. It worked. Assisted by a flock of hungry horse flies and a fired up border collie, we got Norman to the barn in record time. Just as I turned to shut the barn door, I saw Matt streaking towards the house. “Matt” I called. Too late. ” Not now dad, I gotta tell mom!”
Young Matt Nelson and Norman the Wonder Ox