Friday, September 21, 2018

Dad and the Murdered Calf

Our culture has changed dramatically since I was a boy. One place I notice change is in parenting. Our culture challenges fathers in ways it never challenged me when I was a young dad. Young men today hear strident voices telling them they are responsible for all of society’s ills. Toxic masculinity, inherent male chauvinism, clueless gender roles, are a few of the grenades lobbed their way. I know the young dads today are up to the challenge. But as I remember my own father, I can't help but think that the current generation might learn a bit from him. So I’ve decided to do a few blog posts about him. This first one I posted in slightly different form some years ago

Western Colorado in the 50's was, in many ways, still a frontier. A small town might have a part-time police chief, but out in the hinterland, the ranches and farms that hugged the rising swell of Grand Mesa, disputes and disagreements were settled by the men involved. Guns were common, and all men knew how to use them. My dad was a man among men.

Our ranch lay on a narrow gravel road that skirted Surface Creek Canyon. Most of the neighboring farmers and ranchers were self-sufficient and self-contained people, but they were friendly and would certainly lend a helping hand when needed. 

The only real exception I can remember was the Dermot family. They were sour, unpleasant people, touchy and arrogant. Frank was tall and dark, with a cadaverous face, flat, black eyes, and a narrow gash of a mouth that perpetually held a cigarette butt.  Edith, his wife, was short, squat, and sullen. Their two sons, Johnny and Ray, were in their early 20's. They were bullies, and little kids like me were justifiably afraid of them. The community knew, but could not prove, that they were responsible for periodic acts of vandalism and petty theft.

My folks invested two hundred dollars, a small fortune then, to purchase a Brown Swiss heifer, a lovely animal with large brown eyes and soft, beige and tan coat. She was to be the future of the small dairy herd Dad was trying to develop. 

Only a few weeks after we brought her home, Dad found her in the pasture adjacent to the Dermot place, dead with a bullet-hole in her head. 

Dad had no doubt it was Johnny Dermot's doing. I could hear Dad and Mom talking late into the night about this devastating blow to our financial security.
The next day we were driving back from town on the road that passed the Dermot place. We had just passed their turn-off when we saw Johnny walking along the side of the road toward us. Johnny was dressed with all the James Dean arrogance of the fifties: hair greased and sculpted, cigarette pack rolled up in the sleeve of his white tee-shirt, tight blue jeans, a lit Chesterfield hanging from his lower lip.

Dad slowed and then stopped the car, rolled down the window, and addressed Johnny as he came even with the car. He explained that he'd found our heifer shot dead. Please be more careful, Johnny, Dad said with a smile.

Johnny answered Dad with a burst of profanity and continued walking past the car.  I remembered being shocked and frightened that anyone would have the nerve to talk to my father that way. Dad slammed the car into reverse and rocketed back to stay even with Johnny. He didn't say anything. He just looked at the kid, and it was an awful look.

We drove home in silence. Dad's jaws was clenched and his eyes burned like blue flame. Mom was upset, and I, with boyish naivete, was simply excited to see what would come next. Dad parked the car in our driveway, jammed down the emergency brake, and strode into the house. Mom and I followed rather timidly.

We saw Dad go to the closet where he kept his guns. He carefully removed his deer rifle, a .270 caliber with a scope. "What are you going to do, Bus?" my mom asked in a tremulous voice, her eyes wide with fear. "I'm going out to the back pasture, and if I see that kid back there, I'm going to shoot him in the leg."

To this day I have mixed emotions about that afternoon, about seeing my father stride off across the field toward the back pasture.  He walked with an awful calmness, almost a serenity, the rifle in the crook of his arm, his face like flint.

I'm still relieved, grateful, that Johnny Dermot stayed out of our south pasture that afternoon and in the days that followed. I am absolutely confident Dad would have shot him, just as I am confident he would have believed it was the right thing to do.

The terrible wrath I saw in my father that day was frightening. It smoldered in his eyes, like the coals of a hardwood fire. He could have killed that kid.

And, frankly, I'm proud that I had a father like that, a man whose commitment to his family and his home meant he would defend it, even violently if need be. Because the same man who walked into the pasture with a gun on his arm put me to bed at night. I was never afraid when my father was around.