Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 8
Let the Good Times Roll
It was a good thing we didn’t need TV to entertain us, for we had only two channels and most of the time, though that snow lay on the ground 8 months of the year, it was present on the television all year long. But not to worry, we had neighbors that could easily rate higher than anything CBC had to offer. As summer rolled over into fall, Ernie got the season off to a grand start.
A constant source of perplexity to my urban friends to the south was what on earth we did up north to entertain ourselves. The thought of only two T.V. channels, three radio channels, a movie house 50 miles away, and one local rodeo a year sent shivers of terror up and down their spines. Videos were not yet available and anything more cultural than a fiddle contest just didn’t happen.
What these city dwellers, however, never took into account when speculating on this topic were the rich natural resources available to northerners in the form of their neighbors. I’d put my neighbors up against any Emmy winning TV show. It was not that they especially tried to be amusing, but they were an unconventional lot who rarely did things the usual way. I have always felt the real reason that the North exists is not to be a major cardinal direction. Rather its true function is as a place of refuge for all those people who won’t cop to orthodoxy. We had a particularly talented crew in the Clear Hills district whose basic life choices provided one another with endless hours of storytelling over coffee on Saturday nights. This was the leisure time activity of choice for those of us so deprived of the mainstream possibilities. And with inventive neighbors like Pete, Tim, Gordon, Vern, Clarence and in this case Ernie, boredom was not part of our vocabulary.
It was goose hunting season again. As the skies blackened each day with great V’s of geese, my goose hunting neighbors got antsy waiting for the season to open. Since they could not yet hunt, they devoted much of their spare time to thinking about hunting. Schemes for outsmarting the geese were concocted and revised and honed, all with a male’s bias toward greater efficiency and less effort.
Meanwhile, the geese would fly in and settle down on the swathed grain for a quality barley breakfast and then balance their diets with green stuff from late fall pastures and hay meadows. Since we lived on a fly-way, thousands of geese visited us and could quickly demolish crops and pastures if the welcome mat was too liberally extended to these otherwise gracious creatures. The main method of keeping the odds more balanced was to install propane cannons in the fields across the district that would fire off at irregular intervals. This noise would lift a huge flock off your field so you could share the feeding duties with your neighbor until his cannon went off. Goose hunting season was a noisy time of the year. But having this sound of blasting cannons made the geese rather gun shy and the hunters had to be even more clever than usual.
All of this was the source of inspiration for Ernie’s rather remarkable scheme birthed one morning while watching the geese grazing amongst his neighbor, Vern’s, cattle. A favorite early morning activity in the district was cruising slowly along the gravel roads looking at things and thinking. You just ambled along in your truck seeing how the fields were growing, whose weren’t growing, whose truck was parked in whose driveway, keeping up on the neighborhood news. It was just one such early morning jaunt that brought Ernie along side of Vern’s south cattle pasture. He pulled his truck over to the side of the road to watch something he hadn’t ever noticed before. He noted with amazement that the geese would walk right in and around these bovines with neither group paying the other any heed. He turned off the motor of his truck and reflected quietly for a while. Suddenly it hit him. “Why not?” his old goose hunter’s mind concluded, and he started his truck and headed home.
The normal way to hunt geese is to dig pits near a body of water they may land on, so that the hunter can be concealed from their excellent eyesight. Most goose hunters will tell you that no matter how enthusiastic they may be about the sport, the digging part is never their favorite. The damp and the cold and the muck are enough to stifle even a zealot. With the discovery Ernie had made that morning, he was sure he would never have to dig pits again.
Now Ernie was not a cattleman or even a full time farmer for that matter. But like most non-farmers in the community, he kept a few head of cattle and put in a bit of crop. And like most people with cattle, he had an old cow hide kicking about. This was going to form the foundation for his scheme. It would be so darned simple. He would just go out to Vern’s pasture, since it was always a haunt for geese, throw the cow hide over himself and play make believe cow, ala wolf in sheep’s clothing. It would be like having his own red and white furry duck blind, only he’d use the idea for geese. “What’s more, this outfit would let him get so close he’d practically be able to take one by hand,” he snickered to himself.
When the season opened, Ernie was at his battle station. The geese landed in the pasture in early morning and stayed until the cattle got up to graze. Ernie figured to sneak under the fence in a well protected part of the field, get under his hide and then proceed toward the flock. He fantasized about telling his triumphs cavalierly at coffee Saturday night to all his pit-digging buddies. “Ha, will they ever feel stupid when I tell ’em what I did,” he chuckled to himself.
It was not long before he had the geese in sight and was inching his way closer. Walking under the cow hide was not so easy as he imagined and trying to retain his bovine semblance completely occupied his attention. That was unfortunate, for there was one small detail Ernie had missed while watching the goose-cattle interaction several days before. That detail was Vern’s 2000 pound horned Hereford bull that was still in with the cows that year.
Bulls, like most male animals, have a keen sense of territory. They will challenge anyone or anything that comes in uninvited, especially a strange male-scented cow. And believe me, there was no stranger looking cow than Ernie under his hide. Unbeknownst to Ernie, whose entire focus was on bagging a goose, Vern’s bull was now alarmed, antagonized and throwing dirt. Ernie should have heard the snorting and the heavy breathing and the pawing on hard ground, but he didn’t. He was so close to a goose by now he could smell it roasting in the pan. Not until the bull snorted under Ernie’s cow hide, was he aware of his oversight. The effect this had on Ernie was similar to causally glancing into your rear view mirror to find an 18 wheeler two inches from your bumper on a down hill run. Ernie did what you would have done, he shifted into over drive and stepped on the gas.
Over in Vern’s barnyard, Vern was just heading in for noon meal. As he looked south, he noticed that his cows appeared alarmed. They were holding their heads high, tails aloft and moving at a pounding full trot, advancing on a willow thicket. He watched, curious as to what had them in such a huff. Just then emerging at the far end from the other side of this same willow thicket came a most unusual spectacle.
Leading the parade was his neighbor, Ernie, running with yard long strides, cow hide flowing out behind like a cape. Fear had frozen every part of his body but his legs, so dropping the cape was not a possibility. A few steps behind him was Vern’s bull snorting and ducking his head at the interloper he was pursuing. Relying on that training all men receive as young boys as to how to outrun a bully, Ernie zigged and zagged in a desperate attempt to shake off his pursuer. Vern, chewing a stem of grass, folded his arms across his chest and relaxed his long, lanky body into the door frame to watch in bemused silence. The entourage now lengthened out by 30 head of cattle that had caught up to this caravan. Ernie was fast losing ground. In a final bid to have yet another day of life on this earth, he dove into the closest willow thicket and tried to remain as motionless as his pounding heart and gasping lungs would allow him. The bull, angry at being robbed of a contest, stormed around the thicket and trumpeted his frustration to the sky. We can only guess what Ernie was doing at the same time.
The heat of the midday encouraged the bull to simmer down, and after he and the cows had stomped about the thicket to make their point, they gradually moved on to find some shade. The only sign of what had transpired that morning was a tatty old cow hide swinging slightly in a gentle breeze from the branches of a willow bush. Vern pulled himself back up to his full height and went in for lunch, chuckling quietly.
No one knows exactly when Ernie crawled out of his fortress. Ernie’s wife confirmed that he had made it home for supper. The community story tellers collected all the juicy details that Ernie would likely leave out. When we gathered for coffee Saturday night at Pete’s, one of the conspirators pushed back his chair on its two hind legs and casually asked Vern if he knew anything about that cow hide hanging up in a willow thicket in his south pasture. Ernie sunk down in his chair discretely and prepared himself for what was to come. We could all empathize with Ernie’s position. Each one of us knew that sooner or later the evening’s entertainment would be at our own expense. But that never stopped our pursuit of the truth.
That particular evening went late. Our stomachs hurt from all the laughing and toward the end of the evening, our heads were getting a bit foggy from the Jack Daniels that had somehow diluted the coffee. Had you polled each person as they stepped out into the dark at the end of that evening, they’d have told you straight up. No one felt they’d missed out on anything of importance in life, least of all the good times.
Watch for Episode 9: The Fuzzy Faced Guru. If you would like to receive these stories in your email along with other blogs I write, just do what the subscription box to your right says do. You are most welcome in our growing community of readers. Some days we ponder together, some days reminisce, and other days we just laugh. The only thing we can’t seem to do is get together for coffee.
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