By Rita Jane Gabbett,
In 1962, we lived in the country and my mom didn’t drive, which made for precious few shots at community service. So, when the town asked us to play a key role in preparations for our town’s 125th anniversary celebration, my dad answered the call. I’m not sure he truly thought it through, though. And I’m pretty darned sure he didn’t talk it all the way through with my mom.
Delavan, Ill. (population 1,844) was going all out for this one – costumes, a festival, a parade; even a fine or a trip to a fake jail for any adult male over 18 who did not grow facial hair by the anniversary weekend.
Then someone must have gotten a heck of an idea. What about bringing in something authentic—something that would hearken back to those homesteading days on the great prairie? Maybe there was a debate about whether the great Native American Illiniwek tribe had ever lived near what would become Delavan in 1837. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. What I do know is that the agreed upon “big idea” ended up right at our doorstep.
It was our family’s finest hour of civic duty. It also made us celebrities of sorts in the months leading up to the celebration. Our farm and our family had been chosen to house and feed two real live buffalos.
The horse-trailer-turned-buffalo-hauler eased into the driveway like it was delivering a set of China instead of a pair of 2,000-pound beasts. We watched it roll up and down the ruts in our lane and heard each pebble pop as the tires ground over the gravel.
Jurassic Park had nothing on our imaginations as this prehistoric beast-mobile approached. I wondered if they’d be like raging bulls or wooly mammoths. I anticipated steam coming out of their nostrils, like I’d seen on a Yosemite Sam cartoon. I figured Babe the Blue Ox had nothing on these bad boys.
But mostly I hoped there would be no bloodshed — that they wouldn’t charge right out of that trailer and kill us all. Probably the real reason the driver was going so slowly was not to upset these monsters.
Dad waved the truck over to the side of a fenced-in pasture and pulled open its bent-up, broken-down gate. The truck crept in. Dad closed the gate behind it with a deconstructed coat hanger.
The driver put the truck into park, swung open the door and nodded to my dad who nodded back. A farmer’s nod is a businessman’s handshake. They both marched to the back of the trailer to meet their fate. As the driver slid open the trailer gate, I closed my eyes and prayed, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
We waited and listened and watched. Radio silence. It was like we had hit the pause button on this movie; only this wasn’t a movie and pause buttons hadn’t even been invented yet.
Dad clucked his teeth. “Come on, you. Get on outta there,” he commanded just like he did with the sheep. But these weren’t sheep. They just leveled back at Dad with a “You’re not the boss of me” glare.
The driver tried to coax them as well, to no avail. This went on for about ten minutes. Finally, Dad disappeared into our barely standing barn and emerged with a piece of rope. As fearless as a lion-tamer, he entered that trailer, loped the rope around one of the beasts and pulled. Nothing. These two were like a couple of extras in a Western saving their strength for the “stampede” cue card.
Dad found a stick and swatted their buffalo buttocks until they finally lumbered off the trailer and into the grazing pen. I have to say, it was worth the wait. In my six years on the planet, I had never seen anything as magnificent. It was as if the pictures in the World Book Encyclopedia had suddenly come to life.
They were a study in shades of chocolate—their milk chocolate matted fur, from collar to massive forequarters, against their dark chocolate furry faces and hindquarters. Talk about your facial hair! Their black nostrils were as big as my fists. No steam coming from them, but definite potential there. Their small half-moon horns stuck out of the sides of their heads like an afterthought, impossibly out of proportion to the bulk of their bodies, as were their tiny legs.
Dad had already placed two salt licks for them right near the jerry-rigged fence, literally inches from where we stood on its other side. After exchanging “Where the hell are we?” glances, the pair started lumbering toward the lick.
My 9-year-old sister Joie was the first to step back, followed by 8-year-old Mary. Susie, 7, was fearless and held her ground. Slowly, I crept back up but stayed behind her.
As they licked the salt, they exposed their exotic purple tongues, though that was not what held my gaze. Now, face to face with these beasts two dozen times my size, I was completely unprepared for their eyes. Not as beautiful as a horse’s, but absolutely soulful. There was nothing menacing here, no malicious intent. These were not the eyes of killers. So, we decided to name them: Bob and Charlie.
“You let them name them, John?” My mom shook her head in despair and thinly veiled disgust.
“What’s the difference? This is good education.”
I could write a book on the differences between my dad’s and my mom’s definitions of “good education.”
Our celebrity status began immediately. Every weekend, people from town piled in their Chevy Impalas and their Ford Fairlanes to educate their own children by driving to our farm. It was great fun to see them creep tentatively toward the fence, moms jerking curious children back by the collar. “Be careful! Stay back!”
Of course, they didn’t know what we now knew, which was that neither Bob nor Charlie ever did ANYTHING except stand in the same spot eating grass, licking salt and swatting flies with his tail. Like a carnival worker at the climax of a tent show, I would stride right past the quaking family, march straight up to Charlie’s nose and pet him through the fence to the gasps and awe of all assembled. The power was intoxicating. Charlie just chewed and blinked.
We were counting down the days to the festival. Dad had grown a mustache, which we thought was the most hilarious thing in the world. He used it to tickle us. Mom just rolled her eyes and smiled. It was two days before the parade and Mom had us all try on our granny dresses and bonnets. She had five identical outfits made for us four sisters plus our cousin Patty. They were yellow cotton gingham with a tiny blue flowered print that looked straight out of “Little House on the Prairie.” We were all going to ride in the parade in the cart hitched to our white stallion pony, Petty.
I squirmed and leaned toward the window as cars started to pull up right on our lawn. Mom was tugging at the dress caught on my waist. She pulled it down sharply and started pinning the hem at my ankles. Sewing was not her strong suit, so I stood as still as I could, flashing back to previous pinpricks. I was relieved when the dress came back up over my head and I was released in my white cotton underpants and undershirt to run upstairs and jumped back into my shorts, t-shirt and Keds before racing back down to see what was going on. More cars. Extended families with grandparents were piling out of them. Mom stayed in the house. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table and not looking happy. I flew past her, desperate to be part of the action, whatever it was.
Mom and Dad had argued the night before. She wanted him to take us girls the half-mile up the road and drop us off at Aunt Gee’s for the day.
“I sure as hell will not,” Dad had roared. Something about “They should see,” and “This is life.” I didn’t know what all that meant but I did know there were now more people in our yard than a school carnival and I was awfully glad not to be missing it; whatever it was. They kept on coming. Soon cars were parked in the ditches on either side of the narrow country road in front of our white wooden farmhouse. This was way beyond the usual weekend stream of buffalo gawkers. This was a full-on crowd.
Dad had hitched Petty, our white stallion pony, to the cart and put us girls in it so we could “see better.” I didn’t know what we were meant to see, as we saw these two just about every day.
There was a definite buzz in the air, and some confusion. One man thought us girls were hogging some kind of municipal pony ride and demanded that we get out of the cart and let his kids have a ride. I remember thinking: This is our farm. Our pony. Our cart. Buzz off, buster.
Bob and Charlie were oblivious, as usual. Bob blinked a fly out of his eye and Charlie shifted his weight as he bent down for another lick from his giant salt lollipop. I had grown to love these guys. They were overly large, whereas I was overly small. I could stare at them for hours and they would hold my gaze. There was a sense of mutual respect. The pair appeared to have adapted to their new lifestyle with us, just as we had adapted to ours with them. We made each other special.
Bob the butcher drove up in his rusted pastel blue Chevy truck. He was a family friend, a fellow Catholic. He had a friendly, high-pitched laugh. But he wasn’t laughing today. I remembered hearing that he had served in Korea, which was probably where he learned to shoot the rifle he was carrying. The crowd parted as Bob strode straight across the yard toward the other Bob and Charlie.
“Get back! Get back, now, all of you. Don’t want nobody to get hurt,” Dad commanded, pushing the crowd back like a Chicago cop. They did what they were told. Even Doctor Newman, who had driven out in his Cadillac convertible, obeyed my father. I was sitting in the cart with my three sisters. Dad was right. This had given us a better view. Our little white stallion Petty was twitching. Animals know.
Bob planted his feet on the ground spread far apart. He held that rifle up to his eye perfectly straight and level. He squeezed the trigger and hit Charlie right between the eyes. He squeezed again and hit him a second time, also in the skull. With the calm and the precision of a sniper, he then turned that rifle a level 30 degrees. Before Bob the buffalo could assimilate what had just occurred, Bob the butcher dropped him with two quick shots.
Their front legs buckled forward first. Then, no longer able to support their massive weight, each flopped over on his side. Charlie fell first, but Bob was so quick behind him that the dual dull thuds onto the soft soil sounded like a giant heartbeat. The crowd gasped. Joie squeezed her eyes shut. Mary screamed. Susie stood her ground. I went numb.
Dad shook Bob’s hand. Other men gathered and patted him on the back. The crowd became excited, talking, shrieking, some even laughing. Everyone recounting what they saw, what they heard and how they felt.
Under the cover of all the commotion, I quietly climbed out of the cart and crept forward toward my fallen comrades. There was very little blood. I guess that’s what you call a “clean kill.” I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. Everything went cold and hot at the same time. My whole body buzzed.
I stared at Charlie and Bob on the ground. Their eyes had lost their soulful gaze, but still seemed to hold mine. I felt so ashamed. Just that morning I had petted those nostrils now leaking purple blood. I had to wonder what God was thinking as he gazed down on us.
As it turns out, when the buffalo plan was hatched, the “big idea” wasn’t just about seeing what the heartland looked like 125 years ago. It was also about eating what they had for dinner back then. And it wasn’t beef.
Two days later we rode in the parade in the cart behind Petty in our old-time dresses and bonnets. We were still enjoying celebrity status, but to me, it was tainted with Charlie’s and Bob’s blood.
After the parade, we went down to the Lake Park, where the festival was in full swing. Huge billows of smoke came from a long open-pit grill. A crew of men had come all the way from Chicago to barbeque the buffalo meat. I kept my distance from them, from my parents, and from what was left of Charlie and Bob. I waved off the buffalo burger on offer, lying that I was full on potato chips. I wasn’t sure who I could trust anymore, including myself. Couldn’t I have done something to save them? After all, I wasn’t a baby. I was six.
Farm life was full of examples of life-and-death consequences. Our cats caught mice and ate them. We got our eggs from the chicken coop and had baked chicken from the same coop sometimes on Sundays. We never killed the sheep, just sheared them twice a year for their wool, though sometimes a lamb would fail to thrive. But I had never bonded with a mouse or a chicken or even a lamb the way I did with Bob and Charlie.
Later in school we would learn about the food chain and survival of the fittest. We’d learn that great herds once roamed these lands and Native Americans even killed a few of them for food, clothing and even shelter. I guess it’s easier to kill someone you don’t know. Years later, I’d read an article that explained how trees communicate with each other and even share nutrition. Another article claimed even plants faint before they are harvested, so I’m not sure where the line is.
I have seen only a few more live buffalo in all these years since that day, a few times at zoos and once on a game preserve. I still think they are some of God’s most majestic creatures. Their big brown eyes still look like they can see right into my soul. I’ve seen buffalo burgers on menus on occasion, but that is still a hard pass for me.
Janie Gabbett is a journalist who spent the bulk of her career working for the international news agency Reuters in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Chicago. Now she processes life by writing about it. Her essays have been published in Faith, Hope and Fiction, McSweeney’s and the Christian Science Monitor. When not writing, she is either working in her art studio or creating pillow forts and dinosaur menageries with her grandsons.