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.


© 2016 carlgottliebdotnet

The Pigs, Part II

It rained the night before I was to help Earl get the pigs in his truck. The ground was muddy. The stench of the pig pen reached out to me long before I got near it. They say smell is the most evocative of our senses. I’m not sure what the smell of everything that composes the ground in a pig pen evokes, but I know I’ll never forget it.

The faded blue Chevy pick-up sat with its tailgate down, its back close to the pen. Earl, who had been looking at the pigs, turned to greet me.

The idea was simple. We had to get the pigs into truck and off to the butcher.

“Thanks for coming to help. Where’s Pepper?” Earl’s eyes smiled. He had always been amused by our dog.

“I thought he’d scare the pigs so I left him at the house.”

Pepper was a curious looking mongrel. His face was half black, half white. One ear up and one ear down. He had a broad, powerful chest. Where Pepper’s fur was white, it was silky. Where Pepper’s fur was black, well, there was almost no fur.

I think a veterinarian once told us one of Pepper’s testicles hadn’t descended, hence the weird furless, black patches.

When people asked what breed the dog was I’d sometimes say, “Australian Zweiback.”

And while Pepper was always up for going out, he was happy to stay home with my wife who brought him into the marriage.

“Good thinking, they’ll be nervous enough without him” – Earl nodded looking back at pen.

That may have been the last good good idea I had that day.

“How are we going to do this?” I asked.

Earl said we’d have to cut a portion of the fence out a little smaller than the width of the pick-up, and put some boards down as a ramp for the pigs.

“The only problem is getting the pigs up the ramp.” Earl’s eyes caught mine, “that’s where you come in.”

“I’m not as young as I used to be and it sometimes takes some doing to get the pigs to cooperate. Sometimes they need to be convinced.” Earl slow walked to the front of the truck and pulled out wire cutters.

With the fence cut, I hopped from the truck bed into the pen. My boots quickly sunk in the mud and waste. The smell got somehow got worse.

The pigs, not caring for my presence, moved away from me to the other side of the pen. I get that a lot.

Earl dropped the boards into the pen to form a ramp to the truck bed. “OK, you can get them in the truck now.” His drawl was reassuring.

I figured I’d try to shoo the pigs over to the truck using my body as a block. I’d  give them no choice but me or the the ramp.  It was me. With speed I never imagined a pig could achieve, the larger of the two ran at me and knocked me on my butt into the foul fecal morass.

“Be careful, they’re a little spooked.” Was that amusement in Earl’s voice?

I wiped my hands on my jeans as I got up. The pigs were making pig noises. I now believe they were mocking me in pig latin, or something.

By this time Earl had cut a fresh switch from a nearby tree.

“Try this” he said handing me the four foot limb. “It should get them moving.”

It did. It really got their attention. Pigs have sensitive skin and sensitive snouts. Needless to say they don’t like getting whacked on either.

For a minute it looked like one of the pigs might run up the ramp to escape me. No such luck.

“Don’t let them bite you.” Earl yelled as I tried to stay on my feet.

The irony of a Jewish kid from New York, who practiced Buddhism, being eaten by a pig after striking it with a stick.

Yes, Buddhism. My first wife and I practiced for a few years until we didn’t. Why? She said it was because I was looking for something. She was right.

Eastern religion and philosophy was a thing back then. While I couldn’t say I was much of a practicing Jew during my college days, the Buddhism we practiced didn’t ask for a renunciation of one’s faith.

Religious experimentation was part of the social revolution of the 60’s.

Today’s pundits like to talk about the collapse of trust in our institutions as if it’s something new. It’s about as new as each new generation that questions the last. Some generational revolutions are more jarring than others.

And as sure as the sun rises in the east, every revolution creates its own institutions. It’s the job of those institutions to perpetuate themselves. And so on.

And at the same time the fate of being devoured by angry swine flashed through my head. My feet came out from under me as if I’d been tackled by a linebacker. The best I can remember is that one pig knocked me over while the other trampled me.

They really didn’t want to become pork chops.

I scrambled from the nasty muck in which life could have started. Up the ramp, onto the bed of the pick-up and out of harm’s way. Past the point of dignity and filth, I wiped my hands on my shirt.

They say pigs are smarter than dogs, even smarter than chimpanzees. At this point they were smarter than a college sophomore. A low bar I concede, but a bar nonetheless.

“Should we just shoot them here?” I asked.

Earl didn’t think it was, “a good idea to have to lift all that dead weight into the back of the truck.”

I was beginning to understand why sophomores are called that.

Earl told me to wait in the bed of the pick-up while he went to the barn. I smoked a cigarette and pondered my education. I might be able to quote Shakespeare, but in a pinch I couldn’t keep myself alive if I had to kill, catch or grow my own food. That would change.

I wondered if someone who grew up in South New Hope would feel as lost in the world I came from.

The object in Earl’s hand puzzled me at first.

“You ever use a cattle prod?” He held the metal tube out for me to take.

It was a simple tool. When you pressed the two electrodes on the end into something the overlapping battery filled tubes collapsed, one into another, and completed the circuit. Result: a pretty jarring shock. Think malevolent shock absorber.

Earl smiled as I considered my next step. He studied me as I studied the pigs.

It was a smile I saw fairly often while I lived in Arkansas. It was a smile I didn’t understand until I grew up.

Back in the pig pen, with renewed purpose and armed with a better weapon I managed to zap one of the pigs with the prod.

The squeal was tremendous. The result was the same. Me in the crap. The pigs nowhere near the ramp. I’d been run over three times.

“You better get out of there,” Earl cautioned as both pigs stared me down.

A couple of hours had passed. I had accomplished nothing except for pissing off pigs, exhibiting my ineptitude and making a mess of myself.

Both of my parents were smart and even shrewd people. They built an incredibly successful business from nothing. It’s impossible to quantify what they taught me. But what you know has to fit where you are.

There was no calling the “super” out here.

And while I strained my brain to figure out how to get those pigs into that pick-up, I watched Earl go into the cab and come out with a paper bag (sack in the south).

Without a word to me he walked to the pen and called, “pig, pig, pig.”

They came quickly as he reached into the bag and started throwing kernels of feed corn on the ground. The pigs vacuumed the corn right up.

As they fed, Earl threw the corn closer and closer to the pick-up. It was as if the pigs were on a leash. They followed Earl’s corn trail up the ramp and into the back of the truck. He closed the tailgate and that was that.

It took about ten minutes. Maybe.

There’s no need to describe how the beasts became bacon and other tasty things. Not because I’m squeamish or because I’m afraid I’ll offend. Nature can defend the food chain. I’m just participate.

To this day, after dealing with screwing up, I ask myself the same question many people ask. “What have I learned from this?”

Sure, wear old clothes when you go rolling in pig crap. That’s easy.

Never underestimate your opponent. Your ego will make you lose every time.

I tried to overpower two animals that each weighed more than I did. Brains over brawn?

What Earl did was use the nature of those animals to win. Pigs gonna pig.

These weren’t the only things I learned in South New Hope.

Next: What I learned from taking part in a Caesarian section on a cow in the middle of the night.


© 2016 carlgottliebdotnet

The Pigs, Part I

The first time I realized there were pigs on Earl’s farm was when I went to see why Pepper was barking. They were well away from the three houses on the land and behind a stand of trees I hadn’t explored in my three months living in South New Hope. As I approached the pen, the stench made me realize why they were where they were. The pigs didn’t seem agitated by my agitated dog.

I calmed Pepper, who immediately pissed on the wire pig pen, snorted, then back-kicked some dirt on the pigs for good measure.

Pepper went off to greet my landlord, Earl, who was walking through the cow pasture to see what all the ruckus was about. Earl had the slow, deliberate walk of a man comfortable in his own skin. He always wore a fedora with the front slightly turned down. Like in the movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

Earl Hutcherson was not a big man. Five-foot-seven at the most. He was built squarely and solidly. His hands were hard and strong from a lifetime of supporting his family with manual labor. He had the kind of steely colored piercing eyes you couldn’t lie to.

I was a twenty year old college sophomore.

Earl and his brothers, Good and Toad, owned a good deal of Arkansas River bottom land as I understood it. They were all farmers.

Earl looked like he was “part Indian,” according to my local buddies. The complexion and high cheek bones. Indian heritage is very common in that part of the South. I never asked him about it. It didn’t matter.

Me and the pigs

Lola – some called her Momma Lola – was Earl’s wife. She was a tall, slender, stern looking woman afraid of nothing but spiders, tornadoes and hell. I once saw Lola grab up and wring the neck of a chicken that became that night’s dinner. I’ve never had cornbread as good as Lola’s.

Both Earl and Lola watched Lawrence Welk and “the Hee Haw” faithfully. Lola knew all the gossipy back-stories. As far as I can tell Earl was born in 1907 and Lola in 1908. They are both long passed, Lola going first.

The first time I met Earl was on the porch of the house I was going to live in. My friend Butch had an aunt who knew Lola from church. That’s how things work in rural Arkansas and everywhere else. It’s who you know.

The small house was $50 or $55 a month. Far less expensive than anything in town. I needed a cheap place to live having just married my first wife while on summer break.

“Where you from, son?” Earl got right to it. That was his way.

When I told him I was from New York he asked, “New York City?” I told him I was, but lived in a dorm at Arkansas Tech the year before.

“Are you a Jew?” The question stunned me. Even Lola, who was standing in the background, seemed surprised.

Oh shit. I’m out here in the middle of “throw your dead body in a hole in the middle of nowhere and cover it with dirt so you disappear forever country” and this isn’t what I wanted to hear.

“I am.” I answered. “Is that a problem?”

Turned out Earl and Lola knew I was Jewish through Butch’s aunt, who wanted to know what church I belonged to.

“No, you’re just the second Jew I’ve ever spoken with.” Earl was in his 60’s.

The first Jew was his foreman at a Kansas munitions plant where we was sent to work during World War II. That’s also the farthest he’d ever been from his land.

I asked Earl if the foreman treated him well. “He was always good to me,” I was very relieved to hear that.

During the time I lived on Earl’s farm we sometimes spoke about religion when I helped him with chores or when he felt like talking. He never asked me to attend his church. Lola and Earl went every Sunday. They were what I thought good people of any religion should be like.

Pepper as a pup in Cunningham Park, Queens

Earl’s farm was on a dusty, at times rutted, dirt road between Pottsville, and Russellville, Arkansas and the rich bottom land the he now leased to soybean farmers.

The family still kept Hereford’s for sale and for beef. They had an immense white Charolais bull named “Charlie.” Charlie could easily walk through the thin strands of barb wire that kept him from committing chaos, yet he never did. He didn’t seem to mind my presence when I walked across his pasture. I think it was his way of establishing my insignificance. His 2,000 pounds against my 150 pounds. I was barely worth an interruption to his grazing.

The four room house for rent was said to have been an old farmhand shack, the bathroom was added later.

If you looked at the ceiling just right you could see sky. Oddly, the roof never leaked.

There was no air conditioning. Heat consisted of propane fed space heaters.

Behind the house was a stock pond. A barbed wire cow pasture surrounded everything. The house was on well water that smelled like rotten eggs until we got a filter.

The view from the kitchen window was rolling pasture with stands of mature trees and Mount Nebo in the background. Sunsets could be spectacular.

During the spring and summer the honeysuckle that grew everywhere was intoxicating. We would come to pull the flowers apart and taste the incredibly sweet nectar.

As Earl approached, Pepper peeled off to inspect the two captive beasts again.

Earl asked if I knew anything about pigs.

“No, this is the closest I’ve come to live pigs in my life.” I stared at the surprisingly hairy beasts.

Earl stared surprisingly at me.

“Do you think you can help me get those pigs onto the pick-up and into the barn sometime this week?”

I told him I’d be glad to and we figured out the best time.

The pigs were soon to become all sorts of good things to eat.

Whenever Earl asked for help I was always happy to answer the call. As much for me as for him. Growing up in apartments in The Bronx and Queens was nothing like this.

Although I’d spent the past year living at school, and drove through lots of western Arkansas, I never got to know the people of the Arkansas River Valley until I moved into that run down house. The lessons I learned living in South New Hope have served me to this day.

The pigs were no different.


© 2016 carlgottliebdotnet