Breaking Away

October and November are the months that remind me of escape. Not the I-need-to-get-away-from-the-cold-weather-and-go-someplace-sunny type of escape, but the animals-breaking-out-and-running-wild kind of escape.

Maybe it’s because the holidays are approaching and I think of animals leaving their cages to visit friends and relatives in the neighborhood. Or maybe it’s because nearly every holiday on the farm, the cows would break out and go running off down the road to get as far away as possible. For years we could never figure out why the animals on our farm always broke fences on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s. Then one day, the answer became obvious: we always started partying (and drinking) early in the day, then stumbled out to do our chores in the afternoon. At least one of us would forget to latch a gate, and invariably the cows would take the opportunity to party, too.

For example, we’d be halfway through dinner, or just yanking the turkey out of the oven, when one of us would catch sight of Renee–a big, fat, white Holstein cow with lots of black spots all over her–peering near-sightedly in at us through the big dining room window. It was sort of like being on Renee’s cow-TV channel. I can see her now: “hhhmmmmm, I wonder what the people do when they go inside the pointy-roof barn for the evening…hey, let’s go take a look!” (Without realizing until the last moment that if she could see us, then we could probably see her, too.) The rest of the herd would already be running off into the sunset, snatching mouthfuls of grass here and there. Their first stop was always the neighbors’ front yard, where they’d leave deep hoof-prints in the lawn and eat whatever lettuce, greens, or flowers were left over in the garden.

Bringing them back home was a challenge. Well, more like a pain in the butt, really. The weather was cold and usually wet, often it was dark, and I never remembered to grab a hat on the way out the door. By the time we found all of the cows (sometimes a half a mile away), their excitement had vanished and they were frightened by unfamiliar sounds and smells and the voices of strange people screaming at them. So when they heard us, it was easy for the cows to turn around and follow the pickup truck back home.

The bull, on the other hand, was a different matter. On our farm, we had around 200 cows, heifers, and calves–all female–but only one bull. We kept the bull separate from the rest of the herd. He had a big metal ring in his nose (quite a bit larger than the rings you see some people wearing today), and attached to that ring was a long metal chain. The chain was attached to a metal stake and the stake was driven into the ground in our front yard, which looked more like a small pasture, but without a fence. Every couple of days, Dad would pull up the stake and move the bull to another part of the yard to eat the grass down in a new spot. Needless to say, we didn’t need a lawn mower. We also didn’t need a guard dog, because the bull–bored as any lonely herd animal would be in that situation–would immediately come up and check out any car that pulled into the driveway (if it parked within reach of his chain). Like all bovines, he’d rub his nose on the windshield and side windows, scratch his enormous head on the side mirrors (often breaking them off), and–I think just for the hell of it–put his head down and push, rocking the whole vehicle back and forth. Dad rescued a quite a few terrified door-to-door salesmen, and always tried to explain to them that the bull was just “having a little fun.”

But when the bull got loose, it was serious business and, instead of the whole family running out to catch him, Dad made us all stay indoors while he went out alone with the lead-rope. Oddly, when the bull slipped his chain, he didn’t usually run to join the herd. Instead, he did exactly the same thing the cows did: he went directly to the neighbor’s front yard, as if he had been patiently watching all year while the neighbor planted his expensive, ornamental trees, dug up and aerated the soil in his flower beds, pulled the aphids off his roses, and lovingly tended his vegetable garden. All of that work must have been for a reason, right? What better reason than to provide more fun for a lonely bull?

Even now, 16 years later, when my friends complain about their gardens–too much rain, too little rain, late frosts, or early winters–I still think: “Well, at least you don’t have a 2,500 lb. bull wading through your compost pile.”