Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chapter 3: Life ain't always peaches and roses.

This is Chapter 3 of my Memoir.
Read Chapter 1 here...
Read Chapter 2 here...

Most little girls fill their days wearing puffy pink princess dresses, twirling and having tea parties with their stuffed animals. I spent most of my childhood days dressed in sensible, androgynous chore clothing that hid dirt stains. I was often found riding on the seat of a heavily used pick up truck while my parents did horse chores or playing in the haybarn with my sister. As much as I loved animals and farm life, I secretly longed for a fancy world of pretty pink frills, sparkly shoes and tea time. Even at three years of age, I had developed a small sense of misplacement. I was a pink girly girl living in a gritty, manure spattered world.

A rancher's viability is a selfless one full of hard work, long days and dedication. Existence on a farm is not for the delicate or the faint of heart. Ranching is full of God's grandeur, the error of man, nature's fury and harsh realities. Farm life is both glorious and grueling. Even as a very young child, I was not sheltered from any of these things.

Autumn in southeast Iowa was beautiful. The red, gold and orange leaves that adorned the hilly thickets of maples, oak and elm trees were Mother Nature at her finest. The corn fields grew golden corn so high that it looked like it could dance with the silver clouds. The Des Moines River flowed wide and strong, carving out a path through the beautiful fertile valley of Van Buren County. Like a finishing touch on the picturesque painting, my families' magnificent 40 horse herd dotted the pastures and harvested cornfields of Lick Creek Farm.

Fall turned to winter, snow angels were made, and family Christmas' were all about the cherubic yellow pigtailed sisters. Jessi and I were showered with home-made Raggedy Ann dolls, lace trimmed flannel nightgowns and Little Golden books. I was extra thrilled to receive a pretty pink coat. It was so light colored and girly.. and it was PINK! Life was good. Every day, we donned our heavy coats, warm boots and gloves to accompany our parents as they fed square bales of hay to their horses. The herd would see the red Ford truck and gallop towards us through the snow, with their ears pricked forward as foggy breath escaped their pink nostrils, in ready anticipation of their food.

Then winter changed to spring. Delicate foliage sprouted from the ground, the Redbud trees were a vision of rosy pink perfection and Morel mushrooms were hunted with keen vision. Excitement was building for our next trip west. Daily horse chores kept my folks' eyes constantly on the herd. One spring day in 1978, during a normal pasture feeding complete with a head count, my Mom only counted 39. Dad captained the second count, which was still one short. They counted again, but this time they checked off each horse's name. Mercury, the pretty steel grey horse, was nowhere to be found.

There was always a hushed panic that set in when one horse was missing. Horses are herd animals and prefer companions. When two horses weren't present for "role call", they were often found together, hidden from sight by a cluster of trees.  However, one horse absent often beckoned a far more grim discovery. My parents were tense as they drove around the farm, searching for Mercury. My sister and I were stoically sandwiched between them on the bench seat as we bounced through the rugged field full of broken corn stalks and rough terrain.  Few words were uttered. We all searched desperately with baited breath. We scanned the tree line along the edge of the pasture. We squinted into the thickets. We traveled the fences, checking for breaks in the wire. We drove by the pond, hoping to find the horse drinking water.

We then crested a hill, where we spotted a lifeless grey form. It was the body of poor Mercury. Sharp words sliced like daggers through the cool air and tears were shed. We were all overwhelmed with frustration and sadness, but with livestock, there is inevitable death. Still, the horse was not old and had shown no previous signs of illness. It seemed odd. Something wasn't "normal" about the passing of this sweet grey horse.

Upon the head count the following day, we came up short two more horses. My sister and I, aged three and four, sat silent and wide eyed as my Dad caught sight of something at the edge of the field and quickly maneuvered the truck around.  Upon doing this, he accidentally ran over Nikki, the family dog. She was severely injured but alive. Tension was at an all time high when we found two other horses dead. Our worst fears were confirmed. Something was amiss. Cowboy, a black Quarter Horse, and Euchre, a kind-eyed sorrel with a flaxen mane and tail, were both gone, and our family dog, the one who often rode on the seat while I curled up on the floorboards, needed immediate medical attention.

We called a local veterinarian for Nikki and the horses. Because the local veterinarians could not determine the cause of the horse deaths, my dad hauled a horse corpse to Aimes, Iowa for an autopsy. Caused by a unique weather pattern that year, the corn stalks in many fields produced mold spores; specific mold spores that, if eaten, were lethal to horses. The horse tested positive to having ingested these toxic mold spores. The veterinarians informed my parents that whichever horses were affected would show brain deterioration immediately. They instructed my family to remove all the livestock from pastures and to place them into a dry lot. Anything that consumed the poison would die within 10 days.

As my Dad always said, "Ranching is not always peaches and roses."

We watched the herd closely and waited. It was agonizing. Within that time, seven more horses perished. This included an adorable pony named Butterscotch and a sweet young sorrel named Rusty. With ten horses (one fourth of the entire herd) dead, it was a great emotional and financial loss for my family. We all still remember that time with a heavy heart.

Fortunately, Nikki, our spunky Australian Shepard, survived with a crushed pelvis. Her life was forever changed with special diets because of troublesome bowel movements, but she still lived to be 13 and enjoyed many rides on the truck seat.

Throughout this stressful period of my childhood, one memory rings so clear that I can still feel it nagging at my conscience. Sometime between traveling to the veterinarian and dragging deceased horses to the timber, I accidentally left a half-eaten chocolate bar in the pocket of my new light pink puffer coat. My mom washed that coat with the chocolate in the pocket, and it ruined the jacket. The guilt I felt was crushing. I was traumatized. I cried hot, salty tears and apologized profusely for my error. I didn't eat chocolate again until I was 30 years old. Yet somehow, I'm fairly certain that my intense reaction had very little to do with the death a pale pink coat.

to be continued.....


  1. This:

    The corn fields grew golden corn so high that it looked like it could dance with the silver clouds.

    Oh Johi, so good. Stellar. Bravo!

    And that was quite a life lesson to learn for 2 very young girls. The death of animals AND a puffy pink coat is tragic indeed.

    1. Thank you. I've been working extra hard on these memoir pieces. I'm glad you liked it.

  2. I loved this. And the horses dying made me very sad & emotional. Then I nailed a whole slab of whittakers fruit & nut. Because I'm pms-ing like a bastard right now. But I really loved it. You are a very talented lady my gorgeous friend x

  3. That was beautiful, Johi, the best chapter so far. Your writing is poignant and pristine.