I could feel the rumble and vibration coming up through my cowboy boots as the earth moved under my feet on the dirt road. The road was flanked by a 6 ft. ditch on one side – the bottom of it dry and full of weeds so thick it was dark even in the daylight – and a barbed wire fence on the other side, its three strands pulled tight between fencepost buried deep. I stood in the center of the path trying, desperately to stretch my 5th grade frame as tall as I could while standing on the “mound” where flecks of grass often grow in the middle of a well-used dirt road.
There were probably only 15 or 20 of them, although it may as well have been a hundred or more, running together as they were herded out of the pasture, through the aluminum gate with the dust rising around them like an impending storm. They were, of course, supposed to turn left, towards the barn, and move up the road together where they would be watered, fed and put into a different pasture. Instead, however, they turned towards me, picking up speed as they thundered down the road eating up the twenty or thirty yards between the gate and where I stood. I looked quickly to my right and thought about just jumping down into that ditch, wondering what snake or wasp nest would be waiting for me at the bottom. On my left stood that fence, its barbs caught with tuffs of hair from some bull or cow that had gotten too close. I knew I would never make it in that direction and the thought of getting caught in that fence made me hold my ground.
With no place to turn I did the only thing I could think to do. I screwed up my courage, leaned towards the thundering herd with a yell I struck the ground as hard as I could with the stick I had picked up in the field earlier that morning. That stick, which had seemed so strong and sturdy to me, literally exploded into dust and the pieces fell around my feet. I stood there, in shock; my heart racing, looking down where the stick had disintegrated wondering what to do next.
Earlier that morning it was the beginning of a hot, eastern North Carolina day on a farm down in Beaufort County, near my grandparents’ home in Pantego, NC. We were in our usual spots – me and Elvis & Ray – piled into the back of my Uncle Bill’s pick-up truck heading down one of the many dirt roads that crisscrossed his thousand acre farm. Even for summer the air was cool that early in the morning and the dew hung to the long grass in the fields like crystal necklaces strewn along the ground. I used to go down there for a couple of weeks in the summer to spend time on my “Uncle Bill’s” farm. Uncle Bill and Aunt Lib (no relation) had a huge farm on Beech Ridge Road near Belhaven, NC. Lib Hackett had taught my mother in high school, and we had stayed in touch with Lib and her husband Bill over the years, visiting them often, when we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Uncle Bill was a “cowboy” of sorts to me. He wore khaki pants with white shirts, brown belts and cowboy boots and always doffed a light colored, felt cowboy hat with a sweat stain around the band. He was a North Carolina Democrat with a salty vocabulary and a strong opinion about most everything.
I was a city boy from Wilmington, North Carolina, and on that farm, at the young age of 10 and 11, I learned to drive a tractor, plow a field in a straight line, bale hay, shovel feed in the barn and work with the 300 + Herford cattle my Uncle Bill raised for beef. Elvis & Ray (we always said their names together as if they were one person) were from the black family that lived in a small house on the property. Their father, Johnny, worked for Uncle Bill for many years as the foreman on the farm. Segregation was still a problem in the south at the time, and I was probably one of the few “white boys” Elvis and Ray knew and spent time with. They were certainly the only “black boys” I knew at the time.
We had several items on our to-do list that morning, starting with finding a cow who had slipped away to give birth the day before. We found her and her new born calf on the backside of one the fields and put that calf up on the tailgate of the pick-up. The goal was to get the cow and calf back to the barn where they would be given special care. I can still see that momma cow’s big, worried eyes and hear her moos of concern as she followed us up the dirt road back to the barn. I have to say I was sure shocked to watch the afterbirth, swinging behind her as she walked, drop onto the road – and completely horrified when Uncle Bill stopped the truck and told us to grab the shovel and bury it in the road – mumbling something about coyotes and other critters. It was disgusting and, yet, fascinating at the same time, as we maneuvered that gelatinous mass into the hole and covered it up.
Later that morning we headed back out to the pastures to find where a fence had been broken by a tree that fell in a late night storm. I remember finding a “walking stick” from the branches that lay on the ground and picking it up and pulling some of the bark off the sides while the adults worked on the tree and stretched out some new barbed wire. When they determined that the repair would take longer than planned, Uncle Bill decided to move the 15 or 20 head of cattle in that pasture up the road to another pasture back towards the barn.
Elvis and Ray took off out in the pasture with their dad to round them up and Uncle Bill, with me in the back, drove the pick-up out through the gate and up the road to a side path. That’s when he asked me to go back down the dirt road about 20 yards past the gate to “make sure those cows don’t turn away from the barn”. I remember feeling important and maybe a little taller as I walked down the road to the spot on which, as I was about to find out, I would make my stand.
It seemed like minutes ticked by as I looked at what was left in the dust of my trusted stick. That’s when I noticed the line of cows, standing shoulder to shoulder across that road, the dust settling around them as they looked at me curiously, with their huge cow eyes. And that’s when, determined to win this in front of Uncle Bill and Elvis & Ray, I took off my cowboy hat with a “rebel yell” and ran straight at that line of beef – most of them eye-level or taller than me! To my surprise, and immense relief, they looked at me as if I was out of my mind and then turned and ran the other way. I can still hear the whoops, hollers and applause from my crowd of witnesses as I confidently trotted up the road behind those cows, trying not to let them see the relief on my face, feeling older and wiser and in charge. As a “city boy” I gained some respect on the farm that day and moved a little towards manhood.
I’ve faced a few “Jesus Take the Wheel” moments at other times in my life – on a sailboat off Holden Beach, on a raft in the Chattooga River and even in my back yard, chasing a black bear towards the woods and seeing him stop and turn to look at me, as if to ask, “Do you have what it takes?” I don’t always know if I do at those moments, but what I have learned is you have to go BIG at times like that to show them you aren’t afraid – even when you’re scared to death.
Oh, and that stick I depended on has always been a reminder to me to put my trust in a higher place. As the Psalmist says, “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid. YOUR rod and YOUR staff protect and comfort me.” It’s always good to check your “equipment” to determine if the things you are depending on can be trusted.