Life and Death at Midnight

Photo courtesy: Brock Johansen/

Once off the blacktop you could hear the rocks on the dirt road bounce off the bottom of the Camaro. Sometimes it felt like they’d come through the floorboards. It was especially bad if the road hadn’t been graded and oiled for a while or there had been a hard rain.

The few lights that were on the paved road gave way to the complete darkness of a dirt road that led nearly nowhere else but home. It was the kind of road where you looked for the reflection of animal eyes in the upcoming ditches and got ready to hit the brakes.

Other than a ramshackle general store with a coal stove for heat, and an Assembly of God church across from that store, there wasn’t much on our road. Maybe a handful of houses spread over a couple of miles, and then nothing but soybean fields, pasture, and forest.

We liked to look up at the sky when we got home at night. The stars were like nothing we’d seen growing up in New York. When our porch light was off there was total darkness. The light show was always amazing.

Something caught my wife’s eye as we approached the house. There were what looked to be headlights in the field below the house. Really unusual for what was probably around 10:30pm.

We had been visiting Francis and “Ecey” (Emma Carolyn) Gwaltney. The Gwaltneys were English professors at Arkansas Tech who would occasionally invite students to their home for dinner, some beers, and conversation about anything and everything.

Francis Irby Gwaltney wrote “The Day the Century Ended” about his combat experiences in the Philippines during World War II. The book was made into a movie called “Between Heaven and Hell.” Francis served in the army with Norman Mailer, who met his last wife of six, Norris (Barbara Norris Church) at a party the Gwaltney’s threw for Norman.

Francis wrote a number of books in his time, mostly set in Arkansas. One was “Destiny’s Chickens.” I took the author’s photo for the book jacket and got a credit.

Gwaltney was also a friend of U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers who grew up with him in Charleston, Arkansas.

Francis used to joke that my wife’s New York accent reminded him of Judy Holiday.

If Gwaltney liked you he gave you his infamous chili in a coffee can. The trick was to eat it before it melted the can. I still have the recipe.

Francis died in 1981.

This looked like the life I wanted. It looked like the life I was headed for. Go to graduate school. Teach. Write stuff. Hang out with smart, cool people. Not have to dig ditches.

Or my favorite: Man makes plans, God laughs.

The phone seemed especially loud as we made our way into the house. It was Earl’s wife, Lola.

“Can you go down to the field and help Earl out? “ Lola’s tone was urgent.

“One of the cows is having trouble delivering. It’s a breech birth.” From the tone in Lola’s voice it didn’t sound good. While I’d heard of breech births, I wasn’t really sure of the implications. That was about to change.

I made my way toward the headlights to find Earl and another man, who turned out to be a veterinarian, looking down at one of the white face cows illuminated by a spotlight on the back of the pick-up. She was on her side, eyes wide open in that cow eye kind of way. I imagine I’d look that way if I were the cow too.

Around back I could see two small, slimy hooves emerging. The cow seemed like she was trying to give birth but nothing was happening.

“Come over here and help us tie her down.” I knew Earl was serious and hurried around to where he told me to go.

“We’re going to chain the cow’s front legs to the back of the pick-up and her hind legs to the fence post. We need to cut her open.” The vet sounded insistent.

I wasn’t sure what part of “we” in the “we need to cut her open” I was going to be.

The last time I had cut a cow it was medium rare and came with a baked potato.

Interesting night, so far.

Not an hour ago I was reading Norman Mailer’s personal letters from Bellevue Hospital to Francis. Mailer had been under observation after stabbing one of his earlier wives. Now I’m trying to pull a scared cow’s forelegs up to get chains around them.

It took all three of us to finally get cow the restrained. In the process, Earl got kicked in the hand. It wasn’t broken, but was bleeding pretty good and his hand swelled up quickly. The vet sprayed some antiseptic on the wound and wrapped it with gauze and tape.

“We need to get that calf out of there.” The vet was urgent. If the calf was going to make it we needed to do a Caesarian section on the animal. If not, both cow and calf could die.

The vet splashed some water from a jug on the cow’s side, handed me a can of shaving cream and told me where to spread it. In no time at all, the vet shaved a large patch of the cow’s side clean. He covered the bare cow skin with antiseptic. She clearly didn’t care for what was happening.

“You’re going to have to have to help get the calf out.” Earl held up his hand. There was a twinkle in his eye the darkest of nights couldn’t hide.

The scalpel glared in the spotlight. It was so small compared to everything else before me, but it was all I could see.

“Get down here and hold her,” the vet ordered more than asked.

Earl was near the cow’s head, I pushed down directly on the other side of the animal from the vet as he sliced into her skin. I could feel the sweat on my face, my long hair sticking to my neck. At the same time I felt cold.

“You gonna be alright?” Earl as much asked as reassured me.

There wasn’t as much blood as I thought there’d be, although there was enough.

I could see the layers of the cow’s anatomy and then some organs.

“Hold her open” was the next thing I heard.

Earl had one daughter and no sons. The daughter came to visit, but not real often.

The daughter had a little female dachshund-type dog named Sam that she no longer wanted. She left Sam with Earl and Lola to live on the farm.

Our dog Pepper loved Sam. In fact Sam was possibly the only dog he would tolerate.

What Earl and Lola wouldn’t tolerate was an animal in the house. Though ill-suited for it, and not used to cold nights outside that’s where Sam slept most of the time.

On the coldest nights we’d take her in.

When Sam became sick we took her to the vet.

Once, as we were getting ready to leave the house, we called Pepper to come in. Nothing.

Sam was around and my wife told her to go get Pepper. She did. It was pretty amazing.

He was covered in mud and burrs, but was fine.

Lola once told me Earl looked forward to our visits, and would sometimes call me to help him with repairs or chores he could have easily done himself. My guess is he could have done them better.

As it turned out, it’s not likely I’ll ever have to help with a cow Caesarian again, but I’m glad I did when I had the opportunity.

We learned to make and can preserves from fruit we picked ourselves. My wife got a sewing machine and made some of her own clothes.

We learned that if you hear an owl during the late afternoon it’ll probably storm that night. Same thing when you see the cattle lie down under trees. We learned that a sickly green cast to the sky was bad news as well.

I found myself liking the people we lived with more and more. Sometimes it takes years for life’s lessons to sink in.

The vet grabbed one side of the open wound and nodded at me to grab the other.

He worked his arm into the cow’s body and after some straining came up with bad news.

The umbilical cord had wrapped around the calf’s neck strangling it.

“Help me get the calf out.” The vet was having trouble. A newborn white-face (Hereford) can weigh up to 80 pounds. “The faster we can close this cow back up the better her chances.”

I don’t remember clearly what part of the dead calf I grabbed, it may have been a fore leg, but I remember being surprised at how heavy the poor beast was. Dead weight?

We pulled the calf out in increments careful not to do any more damage to the cow.

The dead calf was now on the ground. I stared at the animal and back at the vet already putting the cow back together with what seemed a pretty large needle and thread.

“Wanna try?” the vet laughed at me.

I had already lit up a Winston.

When I looked up at Earl he was smiling. He nodded at me with approval. He wasn’t given to emotional displays. Earl never high fived anyone.

There was cow placenta and blood all over me. A small play about life and death, and what you can do when you have to, just happened. It would take me years to realize what I had learned that night.

There was the education I was getting in class that would eventually lead me to a career in journalism.

Then there was the education I was getting in South New Hope that would eventually become part of who I am. I learned to love and see the humanity in people whose views were very different from mine.

When the vet finished sewing the cow back up, we freed her from her restraints.

We pushed at her to get up and after a few tries she was on her feet. Earl said he would put her in the pen near the barn until she healed.

“What are we going to do with the calf?” I wondered.

Earl and the vet glanced at each other and Earl said, “just leave it where it is.”

I don’t know what I expected to happen. Did I expect we’d bury the thing? Say a prayer?

When I got back to the house it was after midnight. With cow all over me, the dog couldn’t stop licking my pants. He was being a dog.

I soaked in the tub for a long time that night. There was nothing in life that could have prepared me for what I saw and did that night.

There are people I grew up with who have lived in the same borough of New York City for their entire lives. Each to their own, I always say, but how do you really grow when all you know and do, is all you’ve known and done? It would be like prison for me.

The next morning I opened the door to let Pepper out. Dog noses being what they are, he followed his to what smelled like food. Pepper was right.

The calf’s fate was to become food. Just not people food.

Other than matted down grass with some blood stains, and a few small bone fragments, last night’s drama in the pasture left few clues of even happening.


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