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Monday
Aug311992

The day I was a cowboy

On a Labor Day weekend when I was a kid, our family looked outside and saw cattle standing around.
Not an unusual sight for Iowa, but pretty strange to us since the nearest cattle farm was several miles away. There were cattle in the yard, in the driveway and out on the highway.
Following the cattle down the highway like a trail of bread crumbs — large, foamy-mouthed bread crumbs — we found their source. A semi-trailer truck overturned in a ditch after failing to negotiate a turn.
Now, like oil spilling out of the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground on a reef in Alaska, cattle were spilling out of this truck. The cattle spill, however, was probably far less environmentally harmful than the oil spill, unless you take into account the amount of methane gas these cattle were emitting, which was probably more than usual after being frightened by the crash and then excited by their newfound freedom.
Mom and Dad told us kids we were going to help contain this cattle spill by herding them down the road about a mile to the sale barn in town.
I protested, mainly because there was something I wanted to watch on TV. Furthermore, I couldn’t see how we could help with this. We had no horses, no lassos, no spurs, no bandanas. This was a job best left to professionals with all the necessary equipment. But the yellow pages had no listings for “cowboys.”
So out we went. I was surprised at the ease with which Mom and Dad calmly approached the cattle, stretching their arms out wide and yelling at the large animals with a low, guttural bellowing I never imagined they could produce: “HAH!” They expertly steered the cattle in the right direction, coaxing them into a slow trot down the highway, all without even touching them.
Mom and Dad both grew up on farms, but this was the first time I had seen their large animal-moving technique. All our neighbors were out helping, too, and like us, weren’t active farmers. But all seemed to know what to do either because they were brought up on a farm or because something about their make-up as Iowans triggered some deep instinct or some long-dormant cattle-herding memory passed through the genes.
The neighborhood was moving cattle as if they had practiced it as some sort of community disaster preparedness measure — a cattle spill drill. But their techniques were completely foreign to me.
I tried to mimic them as cattle approached me. I held my arms out in front of a steer, trying to fool him into thinking I was a moving, talking fence. “C’mon, let’s go,” I said. But the steer, sensing my fear, brazenly ignored my orders and ran behind me in the opposite direction. 
Quickly, I began to see how my parents and neighbors developed their expert, bellowing “HAH!” because in my anger at this unsteerable steer, I started yelling like that, too.
“HAH, you stupid cow!” I said chasing him. Now, the steer was scared. I had him on the run. Except, he was running in exactly the opposite direction I wanted him to go. He ended up in the neighbor’s 7-foot-high corn field, the last place you want to chase any 1,000-pound mammal. 
As an experienced cowhand came to take control of my problem, I was given charge of a steer straying into the yard. This time, I had a better understanding of what to do and was able — with only slight difficulty — to get this steer down the road.
Eventually, an untold number of us got the cattle moving down the highway. I don’t know how many there were because people lined the road to the sale barn. Oncoming traffic pulled over and drivers helped. 
What first looked to me like a frightening disaster — cattle in our yard, appearing out of the blue like some sort of oversized and abnormal precipitation — turned into a fun, fulfilling family outing. We jokingly called it “The First Annual Great Columbus City Labor Day Cattle Drive.”
And although I knew it was joke, I kind of hoped it would be annual. What a great way to bring the community together, I thought. Someday it would rank right up there with the running of the bulls in Spain, attracting tourists from around the world. 
But when the next Labor Day came around, there was no cattle spill.
Only memories of my one-day gig as a cowboy.

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