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>Dehorning Cows & Misery

September 5, 2010


Dehorning Cows
SNAPSHOT: There’s a look of real pride on my face in this one, working with the men. I’m holding tightly to a rope I’ve slipped over the back legs of one of our cows. Another man has secured the front legs and two others are holding its head still. Jose is going to do the cutting.
I learned to milk cows on the farm (and squirt the cats in the process) and to saddle and ride a horse. I learned that chasing chickens could be fun and that goats are stubborn, strong and nimble. I found this out one day trying to take four goats from one pen to another, all at once, on ropes. In a matter of seconds, one had run around me twice and the three others were pulling me in as many directions. No amount of pulling or tugging on my part had any effect and It took a few minutes of embarrassed shouting for help before Maria came and untangled me, barely repressing her chuckles.
I also learned about dehorning cows. And what the sight of blood, lots of blood, does to me.
This wasn’t my first experience with a bloody animal. That happened when I was four and we were living in Hollywood. One afternoon I was out playing, along with some older boys, when I discovered a bird in the gutter, a dead bird, although in retrospect I couldn’t have known that for sure. Its eyes were open, its feathers were intact and its pudgy little body didn’t appear injured. Nor had ants or the neighborhood cats gotten to it yet. But it was important for me to believe that it was dead because while I was staring at the bird, wondering if I should pick it up and maybe take it home or bury it, one of the older boys came over and placed his foot on it. I watched with a combination of fascination and horror as he slowly stepped on it until it burst and there’s blood flowing in the gutter and I can’t see the eyes anymore and the feathers are all bloody and the fat little body that a moment ago had seemed so normal, so ready to fly off, is now just a mangle. Such a lot of blood from such a small creature. I ran home, crying.

Such a lot of blood from a cow, too. It started innocently enough. Jose, hat in hand, was talking with Antonio. “Si, , manana les vamos a quitar los cuernos a las vacas.”
“Jose,” I asked, “Why do you have to take the horns off the cows?”
“To keep them from hurting each other,” was his laconic reply. Docile as they seem, I guess cows can get pretty ornery with each other and so the horns had to come off. The procedure is simple: The cows are led to a spot just outside the stable, ropes are thrown around them and they’re pulled off their feet. A couple of men wrap up the feet with more rope and keep the cow pinned down while Jose takes a saw and cuts off the horns.
“Doesn’t that hurt the cow?” I ask.
“Not at all. It’s just like cutting your fingernails.” He said he was going to bring in a couple of men from Santa Anita to help him and did I want to help, also?
My face lit up. “You bet!” I was becoming reasonably good at handling a horse, I was learning to rope, and now I was going to add to my cowboy resume by helping to round up our “herd” (two cows) rope ‘em, bring ‘em down and cut off the horns. Yee-haa!!
Late the next morning two men on horseback showed up at the farm and Jose told me to get ready. No need. I’d been ready since eight. The two men took their ropes from their saddles and turned the horses loose in the pasture.
Everything started out just fine. Jose led one of the cows from the stable to where we were waiting. One of the men wrapped a rope around the cow’s rear feet and yanked on it. The cow thudded down on its side and began lowing.
He handed me the rope. “Here. Just keep pulling on this, keep it tight. Don’t let the cow get to its feet.”
Now, it didn’t occur to me to ask why, if this procedure doesn’t hurt the cow, its feet have to be hogtied. I had simply taken Jose at his word that this was a painless procedure. So we were set: two men restraining the cow with ropes, one holding its head in place. Jose is ready to start.
He knelt down beside the cow’s head, grabbed a horn, decided where to make the cut and started. For a few seconds all went well as Jose cut through the horn. Then, three things happened in quick succession. First, long, pulsing streams of blood started to spurt out from where the horn, now falling to one side, had been. Second, the animal started lowing at a volume I never knew cows were capable of while at the same time thrashing about wildly. Third, I fainted. I could feel it coming. I tried not to. I fought against it. But the blood drained from my head in the same measure that it was spurting from the cow. I felt enormously light-headed and thousands and thousands of little white spots danced before my eyes. Then I collapsed to the ground, right there in front of the men. When I came to a short time later I was in Jose and Maria’s little house, lying on their bed with Maria bending over me, dabbing my brow with cool water. Outside I could hear the men laughing.
Even with my cowboy image seriously tarnished, I probably should have gone right back out and given it another try, but I had no heart for it. Plus, I didn’t want to take the chance of fainting dead away a second time in front of the men. So I waited inside, not wanting to be seen until they were finished with the second cow. When they had all left I went back into the house.
Sometime later I confronted Jose. “You said it wouldn’t hurt the cow,” I reproached him. “You said it was like cutting fingernails. What happened?”
 “Ever cut your nails too close to the quick?” he asked me and then walked off.


Felice, our now ten-year-old cat, was hit and killed one morning by a car on the highway alongside our farm. Her death hit all of us hard. Felice was a part of our family. She had endured everything we’d endured: the long drive from LA to Guadalajara, our dog breeding activities, the moves from house to house and then to the farm, where she became the dominant cat among our several farm cats. And now she was gone. I think the loss hurt Mom the most. Felice was always there to comfort her, always there as a confidant, loving and non-judgmental. Her death simply added one more brick to a wall of misery being erected by, and for, all three of us.
My own wall of misery seemed to be constantly under construction, growing higher, longer, more solid, day-by-day. For one thing, living fifteen miles out of town, I was isolated from all my friends. I had to take a bus to school every morning as well. Not the bus, but a bus. From day-to-day I never knew which bus I’d be taking. Some buses ran on some days, others on other days with no apparent rhyme or reason. I could never plan ahead for what bus would pass at what time on which day. For example, on one morning the bus from Cuautla might come by at 6:30. So the next morning I’d be out there by 6:15, but no bus. As a matter of fact, the Cuautla bus doesn’t come by again all week at that time. So I figure it’s a weekly run, but no, it’s not that either. I don’t catch it again until nine days later at 7:00. It was that way with all the buses: they just seemed to run whenever they felt like it. I had to be on a bus by 7:00 at the latest to make it to school on time. And that meant walking out to the highway no later than 6:15, and even then there was no guarantee that a bus would come by in time. Many a morning I sent up a silent supplication, Please, God, let the bus come now! When one finally came, I boarded, paid my one-peso fare and tried to do my homework and all the assigned reading in the thirty minutes it took to get to Colonia Chapalita, where I got off and waited for a city bus to take me to my stop at Vallarta and Costa Rica. 
Another brick of misery was my continuing struggle with acne: it was out of control and getting worse, month by month. And of course Mom continued to blame me for it with her usual litany of accusations: You’re not clean! You don’t bathe enough! You eat too much candy! You eat too many greasy foods! Later, of course, many, many years later, I would realize that that was all nonsense. But not now: my pimples were my fault.
The final brick: I failed the third year of secondary (the equivalent of ninth grade) at Colegio Cervantes. For four years I’d been a middle-of-the-pack student, sometimes rising closer to the top, sometimes dropping a bit, but never in danger of failing. But no longer. I neglected my homework and the assigned readings, except for what I could get done on the bus. I didn’t study. I hated memorizing the conjugations of regular and irregular verbs in my Spanish grammar class. Spanish literature bored me, and I had  no interest in the Mexican Revolution. Either one of them. I spent all my time in don Tommy’s (as we called him) organic chemistry class drawing hydroplanes and geometrical designs on my notebook. (I’ve no idea why hydroplanes; it’s not like Guadalajara
was the hydroplane capital of the world.) When he wouldn’t let me do my drawings, I simply sat at my desk and daydreamed. 
I gave no though to the future, not to next year, not even to tomorrow. I lived day-to-day, trying to hold my crumbling life together by ignoring all the problems crushing me under their weight: I couldn’t do anything about them so why dwell on them?
The situation boiled over when I gave Mom my final report card. She knew I had been doing poorly in school but I don’t think she realized just how poorly: I flunked. I didn’t realize it, either, but the difference was that I didn’t care.
“Don’t think you’re going back to school in the fall!” Mom railed. “I’m not going to keep paying tuition if all you’re going to do is sit on your big fat butt and fail. Enough of that! You’re going to start earning your keep, young man!”
I knew what the phrase “Earning my keep” meant but I’d no idea what Mom had in mind. I found out soon enough.
We now had a small herd of ten milk cows. Maria had been milking them and Jose, who had learned to drive from Mom, made daily deliveries along a small milk route we had established in Colonia Chapalita. I don’t know how we found these customers but I suspect Jose had done some door-to-door soliciting to get a few people to sign up and then word spread. To earn my keep, I was going to take over the milk route from Jose: I would be delivering milk seven days a week.
I dreaded doing this. I dreaded the possibility that some of my Mexican or American friends would see me. In the fall, when they were in school, this wouldn’t be a problem but over the summer it was entirely possible. To minimize the possibility, I’d drive very slowly, watching carefully for any sign that kids I know were around. If they were, I detoured and waited till they were gone. This at times resulted in deliveries that took twice as long as they should have. Mom wasn’t happy about this and it just added more fuel to the criticism fire.
Now, I struggled every day with something I could not detour around, could not avoid: the demoralizing reality that I had flunked out of school and become a milkman in Mexico.

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