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Dressed for Calving

This morning a newsman told of a fireman who rescued a kitten from a burning building and gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When asked what it tasted like, he answered, “fur.”

The story reminded me of Dress Up Day 1960 at Redfield School. In an age where girls always wore skirts to school, Dress Up Day was a big deal. I wore the brown tweed suit I’d made in home economics class (and got an A, by the way). My outfit was completed with a white ruffled blouse, button earrings, a necklace, high heels and nylons with a garter belt. The boys wore suits or dress pants and sport coats.

It was Friday, so instead of changing clothes and preparing for an evening of triple deck Mexican Canasta with Celia and her friends (Celia was my landlord/friend/surrogate grandmother with whom I stayed during the school week) I packed a suitcase and rode home with the neighbors, Zelda and Quentin. Zelda was the older of the two siblings. She worked at the Spink County Bank and had a car. Quentin was my age and kind of an older brother. We had a love/hate relationship. Zelda was known to stop the car during the 20-mile trip and make us get out and walk until we stopped arguing.

Despite the walks, I arrived home well dressed and ready for a family weekend. We planned to drive to Orient to visit Grandma and Granddad Stoner, so I kept my good clothes on. We were eating supper when my younger brother, Chuck, ran into the house and cried, “There’s a foot sticking out!”

That might seem like a really strange comment, but we knew he had been checking his pregnant heifer, Sandy. Dad and I jumped from the table and ran for the barn. Dad surveyed the situation and got out his trusty calf puller. He put his hand into the womb to try and straighten the calf out so it could be born normally; he seemed to have the job done, but nothing happened.

Sandy looked tired and stressed — straining hard to bring her offspring into the light of day. Finally, Dad tied the bands of the calf puller to the calf’s legs, handed me the rope and said, “When I say ‘Pull,’ you pull with everything you’ve got.” Chuck grabbed the rope behind me. Finally Dad was ready and said, “Pull!” All three of us strained and slowly that little calf slid from its mother’s womb unto the golden straw where the new mommy stood. Dad knelt down beside the calf while Chuck and I held our breath. The calf was very still. Was it dead?

Dad took his handkerchief and cleaned the calf’s mouth out. Nothing. Then he held the mouth shut, put his mouth over that nose and started blowing big breaths into the lungs — once, twice, three times — and rubbing the calf’s side. Now Sandy started licking her baby and Dad was blowing into the nose again — once, twice, aha! At last, a breath on its own. Movement. The baby was alive!

As Sandy continued licking her baby, she looked at us as if to say, “Thank you,” and “I can take care of it now.” The baby was struggling to right itself — the prettiest little Jersey calf you ever saw. The three of us all stood in amazement at the miracle. After allowing ourselves a few minutes of wonder, we went back to the house and reported on the new birth. I washed my shoes off. Dad had to change clothes. Finally we got in the car to leave for grandpa’s farm. What a story we had to tell.

Grandma Stoner wasn’t sure I had been dressed appropriately for such an event. Almost 50 years later, I remember the brown tweed outfit more in conjunction with the calf’s birth than I do for getting a good grade at school. I also remember that I learned a lot about Dad that night. I never asked him what his resuscitative efforts tasted like, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have said “fur.”

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the March/April 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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