My father-in-law called me yesterday and asked if I was available to come over. “Sure,” I said, “what’s up?”

Coleman michele
Michele and her husband, Dave, live in southern Idaho where they boast an extensive collection of...

“Cows are out. Can you give me a hand getting them back in?”

That one question told me that he was officially scraping the bottom of the barrel – a man clear out of better options. I am the last person anyone wants to have to call when cattle are involved. For all my shortcomings, though, I am long on availability, so I said, “I’m on my way.” In fact, I was already out the door.

One thing about having both cattle and fences: Your brain undergoes a kind of permanent rewiring. It’s as if, in the back of your mind, a scanner is perpetually patrolling the perimeter of every situation, looking for signs that something bovine has breached wire. The conscious brain doesn’t even have to be in charge of your feet when you hear the words, “The cows are out.”

I remember one winter around Christmas, all the kids were home, and we were having a family game night. Lots was going on: popcorn popping, kids yelling about who did or did not grab the last spoon in the Pit game, Dave talking on the phone. No one was paying a bit of attention to him because domination of the wheat market was at stake. Then, whoever he was talking to said something urgent, and Dave asked, “Where are the cows now?” Without a word and in unison, just like a flank of flanneled zombies, every one of my kids stood up, grabbed their coats and boots, and walked out the door. I’m not even exaggerating. I’m glad they are conditioned – maybe Dave and I did do something right in the parenting department, but I can’t help but wonder why the power to put them into synchronized motion can’t be more universal. How come I don’t get that kind of reaction when dirty dishes are on the loose? When rocks have gotten into the hayfield? When it’s time to feed the cattle and, bless them, they are exactly where they should be?


Back to the matter at hand: The great cattle escape began when Dad Coleman was spraying dandelions and suddenly saw two cows, calves in tow, running down his driveway. They had escaped the field we use as a nursery, run through the stackyard and were now apparently headed for Canada. I have no idea how Dad got them back up to the stackyard by himself. It might have been that all their sisters and nieces and nephews were throwing a party back at the haystacks – tearing down bales off the north end, gossiping with the corralled heifers, making eyes at the bulls – and the runaways had second thoughts about missing out. All I know is that he managed to get everyone corralled, and now 50 cows and their calves were busy having a great time making a great big mess.

No one likes to be the person to end a party, but in theory, that was why I was there. The basic layout of the situation was that we had to bring the cattle down the stackyard, past or through the haystacks, and back through the failed gate into the field. In terms of a math equation, this was a one-plus-one-equals-two situation. Easy peasy. The problem was that we had me, and we had my father-in-law, which meant that my father-in-law was our only asset. Just for background, Dad is a brisk 91 years old. He uses a cane for stability when he’s dealing with cattle and has had a total of three knee replacements. I, on the other hand, still have all my knees and can run. Nevertheless, it wasn’t readily apparent which of us was the best candidate to bring the cattle down and who was best qualified to open and close the gate.

Actually, the answer was that I was best qualified for neither. In any situation when I need to make a split-second decision, I will always split the wrong direction, turn the cow the wrong way, let her slip past me and somehow offend her sensibilities in a dozen different ways. Dad knows this, and I could see his mind turning. He hesitated, then said, “Michele, why don’t you take the gate?” But then he thought it through and said, “Maybe you should bring the cows down.” Then he thought it through some more, “Would you like me to bring the cows down?”

“Why don’t I bring the cows down, Dad?” I tried for a look of confidence. “It might – definitely – take me several tries to get them all, but I will do my best.”

Thank heavens the hay partially obscured Dad Coleman’s view of my methodology because I was not born to run and cattle obviously are. Actually, in terms of athletic form, I and some few of the 10-year-old matriarchs are not all that different when you get us up to speed. We somehow manage to run while our midsections swing side to side, transforming us into huge and terrifying pendulums with forward momentum.

"Now, Michele," Dad yelled, "don’t let the cows come down between the stacks or between the east stack and the fence." Someone will have to draw me a picture of how I was supposed to manage that. I had left the dogs to their undeserved naps back at home, and in that moment, I suffered an acute attack of dog remorse. Honestly, though, I’m never sure if Bo and Molly will be more help or hindrance when I’m part of the equation.

In the end, pretty or not, Dad and I got the job done all by ourselves. I’ll have you know that of the four cows I had to bring down individually, I scored a perfect four out of four for running them between the stacks and through the mess of broken bales at the end of the gauntlet. Four out of four. It was exactly and precisely what I had been told not to do. If I had been playing a pinball game, though, I would have racked up one heck of a score. I guess I’ll take my victories where I can.