Steerage

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A friend and I had lunch last week and I learned she grew up on a farm in eastern Oregon, where she drove a combine, gathered eggs, herded cattle and did all those farm-ey things. We had lots in common; I didn’t grow up on a farm–far from it–but I did grow up in Fresno, California, where agricultural practices were so pervasive that “wheel-move irrigation” and the price of orange juice were a part of any teen’s lexicon.

We happily chatted away about aggie stuff and I told her I’d learned a lot about agriculture in my youth. Most memorably, however, I’d learned that you never slaughter cattle with your eyes closed.

I learned that last one second-hand (thank heavens). I was working in the university ag campus (also the setting for my earlier Halloween story), and my offices were right across the street from the abattoir. Abattoir is a fancy name for “the place they kill things to make meat,” aka “slaughterhouse.”

Students majoring in farm animals needed classes in meat production (one reason I was adamantly a crop science major). They’d learn how to lead the animals into the two-story abattoir on the top floor, kill them, send them down a chute to the lower floor, and turn them into hamburger, roasts, etc.

I admit I’m a hypocritical carnivore. I enjoy a good steak or fried chicken but prefer thinking that they grow on trees. I had no desire to go anywhere near the abattoir.

That ended one afternoon when the most ungodly screams, shrieks and bellows burst from the slaughterhouse. We dashed out of our office and across the street just as the police arrived and hysterical, ravaged students began streaming out of the building. We pieced together the story:

A lovelorn coed had followed her boyfriend’s lead and signed up for meat production. He grew up on a cattle farm; she grew up in the Bay area and had never seen a farm. Their first assignment was to turn a steer into umpteen pounds of barbecue for the university store.

The professor (who like most ag teachers had an odd sense of humor) decided to immerse the coed in the whole butchery experience, and assigned her the task of offing the steer and sending it down the chute. She must have really loved her boyfriend because she readily agreed…until she was actually facing the steer.

Nobody’s quite sure what happened next but I suspect she aimed, closed her eyes, the steer moved and she pressed the trigger. Turned out the steer was only stunned; it woke up on the way down, in a very bad mood, and charged off the slide into the waiting students.

There’s nothing like an enraged steer in a small enclosure for creating a panic. He bellowed, chased and trampled terrified students (getting a little of his own back, I hope). The police arrived, took in the scene–by this time the crowd was rooting for the steer–and wisely decided against doing a Bonnie and Clyde on the poor beast.

Finally the professor arrived and got things back to normal. We suggested that the steer deserved a reprieve in the manner of old (when a condemned man was set free if the noose broke on the gallows), but nobody listened. The steer was hamburgered, the coed sanctioned, and the wounded led off to the nurse’s station for band-aids and sympathy.

I heard later that the coed dumped the farmboy and took up with an MBA candidate. Probably just as well. I decided I just wasn’t cut out for farm life; I switched majors to electrical engineering.

2016-05-16T01:01:21+00:00

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