Growing up in a big farm family involves growing through stages. For example, clothing is handed down from older to younger. Theoretically the oldest boy or girl is the luckiest because they get to be first time wearers. I don’t know if that was true in our family as clothing often came from the older cousins. I was the third boy, by the time I inherited a pair of jeans there were patches on the patches. It really didn’t matter, that’s just the way it was done. Used or not, if it was put in your drawer, it was new to you.
Chores were another thing that were passed down as everyone got older. The youngest did the dishes until they were old enough to go down to the barn. Then came feeding the chickens and picking eggs. As you approached double digits, you would graduate to feeding calves. A little older, you would throw down silage from the silo and feed the cows. The eldest of the teenage kids milked cows and cleaned barn. As we graduated off the farm, the next in line took your place.
There were other things too that the older kids handed off to the younger ones. I dis-stinkly remember one time Dad shot a skunk that was raising havoc in the chicken coop. Since he had done the shooting, he didn’t have to do the removing. In cases like this he would get us kids to play a game of Wahoo (a card game called crazy 8’s). The loser had to dig a hole and bury the skunk. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but according to my older siblings, old enough to participate in a game of Wahoo. I guess I lost because they told me I had to bury the skunk.
I wasn’t quite big enough to dig a hole. Someone did that for me. My older sister suggested I use a scoop shovel to slide under the stinking animal and drag it to the hole. She also suggested I hold my nose with the other hand and to be careful that I didn’t touch it as it would stink up my clothes. It was a memorable experience and inspired me to learn how to become a better Wahoo player, at least better than my younger siblings.
This morning I took the Jersey Boys out for a walk. The boys are two calves named Joe and Vinney that are being trained to become oxen. The first step is to train them to lead. It is best to start when they are small so you can physically handle them when they make a break for it. Joe and Vinney were born in September. They are probably getting to about 350-400 pounds. The first two or three times were spent going around and around in a circle until they figured out they were not going to get away from the old guy on the rope. Once they submit, the rest is just a lot of patience and practice.
I learned about training oxen when I was in high school. I showed dairy animals in FFA classes at the fair. They had to be trained to lead to be exhibited. Patience and practice. During this time, our old team of horses died. I already had the draft horse itch, but no horses. I did the next best thing. I picked out a couple of white Holstein bull calves and started to train them to lead. I got the Foxfire Book that shows how to carve an ox yoke and managed to crudely rough one out. I took a couple of small white oak saplings and formed the bows. When I was done, I fitted it on the calves. They looked just like the oxen in the pictures, only smaller.
The day came to see if they could pull something. I remembered seeing a picture of a two wheeled ox cart. At this point I enlisted my younger brother Ron’s help. He was a pretty handy kid for his size and age. We sorted through the scrap pile behind the tools house for parts. We knew wheels had to be round. Two gears taken off some junked piece of machinery seemed to fit the purpose. We found a rod that fit through the holes to serve as an axle. It didn’t matter that there was quite a bit of slack. It was better that way anyway because it would pull easier. We managed to figure out a platform to sit on and a tongue to attach to the ox yoke. It wasn’t exactly factory built, but we figured it was good enough for what we wanted to do.
It was time to give it a try. Because this was their maiden voyage, I decided it would be best to start at the top of the hill and go towards the barn. John and Thor, the oxen in training, were more willing to be led towards the barn than away from it anyway.
Being the older sibling, it was my duty to do the ox handling. Ron’s job was to provide the ballast. Besides, someone should be lucky enough to experience the exhilaration of this historic moment. Even at his young age, he appeared skeptical. “It will be ok” I assured him, “I’ll Lead them down the hill. It will be fun”.
Reluctantly he agreed and climbed on the platform. “Are you ready”? I think he nodded. “Hump”, I uttered, the sound I use to get the calves moving. I tugged on the lead ropes. They eased into the yoke. As things do before all hell breaks loose, things went well. One step, two steps, the cast iron gears hit the gravel about the time they emitted a loud screech. I suppose we should have added a little grease, but in our hurry, we hadn’t thought of it.
The young, less than seasoned future beasts of burden, suddenly began paying attention. This became abundantly apparent by the sudden tautness I felt in the lead ropes. I don’t think it could have been the terrified look on the passenger’s face or his shrill utterance, but something inspired them to liberate the lead ropes from the bullwacker’s hands. Hands stinging from the rope burns, I stood by helplessly watching the trio bounce wildly down the hill at a speed faster than you think cattle can run. The sound of steel hitting rocks, amplified by squeaks and squeals and muffled screams, was pretty traumatic for me.
Amazingly, young Ron held on as the beasts slammed into the closed gate. “Wow, I bet that was fun”, I remember I probably said when I reached the site of the culmination of that historic ride. The story has a happy ending. The oxen grew up, performed farm chores, participated in community parades and left us with many special family memories.
Being an older brother carries lifelong burdens. In a conversation with Ron today, many years after this historic incident, he reminded me who was holding the ropes and who was riding the cart. The way I remember it, all I got was rope burn, he got one heck of a ride!