After seasons of proving myself at many of the other chores of branding, on this day, I’m in charge of castrations. After the calf slides to a stop and both the heel rope and the top man are firmly in place, I step forward and kneel down by the calf’s belly. I stretch out the scrotum and slice across the lower third of it with a sharp knife. The testicles usually pop out on their own, but sometimes you have to fish around, pressing here and there, to get them to come free. Pulled out several inches, they’re still connected by silvery-blue cords that have to be either carefully scraped through with a knife or cut through with a pliers-like tool that simultaneously severs and crushes them. Skill comes into play here to prevent excessive bleeding. The scraping technique causes the arteries to spasm and close down and takes considerable care to do right; on the other hand the cutting-crushing tool, an emasculatome, is more foolproof, sealing the arteries by intense pressure, and can be used in full confidence by just about anyone with a bit of grip strength.
The bags are sometimes tossed into a pile for counting, sometimes simply thrown away. The testicles go into a separate bucket of water. Depending on whether somebody wants to go the trouble, they’ll be cleaned and frozen later – and yep, people really do eat them.
Needless to say, your hands get bloody right off in this kind of work. The blood dries and sticks to your hands, coats your pantlegs. The testicles are sticky, sometimes adhering to your fingers so that you have to sling your hand vigorously to get them to drop into the collection bucket. Keeping the knife sharp is a constant battle, but as about half the calves are heifers, there’s usually time to keep up with it.
Castration and ear marking is skilled work for two reasons. One is that you want to do the work accurately, and get the calf through it with a minimum of blood and stress. Second is that you are holding a naked razor-sharp blade and a lot of people with other matters taking their full attention want someone they can trust.
The hot hours pass. A dozen or so at a time, we work our way through half the calves.
We break for lunch, shutting down the noisy blast of the propane branding iron furnace, and trooping out to sit on a grassy spot next to a loading chute. Roping horses have their girths loosened, and stand hipshot in the shade of a long trailer. Ranch dogs show up and beg for pieces of our sandwiches, or prospect for edible bits out in the branding corral. We talk horses and heifers (the two-legged kind), old friends and old dogs.
Finally we pry ourselves up from our resting places and go back to the corral, where we rope, drag, tussle, stick, slice, burn. The calves match us move for move with panicked determination – they struggle, buck, squirm, kick, quiver and bawl. We respond by overcoming, enduring or ignoring them.
At the end of the day, all of them are turned out to their still-waiting mothers, and the lot of them are herded off to a distant pasture to rest, graze and recuperate. The rest of us mosey up to the ranch house where dinner’s ready.
I sit down with my plate in a low, loose chair, and am so bone-deep tired that when I discover I don’t have a fork, it’s a good five minutes before I manage to muster the energy to heave myself up and get one.
As I break bread with my friends, again the feeling of kinship – of shared work, of difficult tasks done well, of eating and talking and joking together – washes over me. After a childhood of divorce and moving, a series of different schools and strange new faces, and an eternity with the Stepfather from Hell, here I am in the company of the people who took me in, who allowed me to prove myself. These are people who like and respect me, who value me for my contributions and my company, and who put up with my peccadilloes. Surely no Bar Mitzvah, no tribal rite of manhood in New Guinea or Africa or South America, could do any better job of making a boy feel accepted, validated, even loved.
I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I rest in the comfort of knowing that these are my People, and this is where I belong.
I have wrestled with more than calves today.
Something has nagged at me off and on for many hours. Time after time throughout the waning day, the picture of a little dog named Molly has come into my mind. I’ve drifted back, over and over, to something I learned from her recently, and I’m no longer sure I can justify enjoying the things I’ve done today.
Thanks to Molly, I’m seeing today in a different light. Something has changed in me, some new channel has opened up, and in through it are trickling new thoughts, things I never knew I never knew.
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