October 12 brings back Southeast Iowa memories of friends, brothers, and bull fighting.
When I was nine years old, Arnold Barker bought a magnificent Black Angus bull and moved it to a farm he owned along the Des Moines River near Bentonsport, though on the Vernon side of the river.
Arnold’s purchase of the bull was significant in my world because his grandsons Steve, Brett, and Quentin lived on the farm where the bull resided. Brett, the middle of the three, was my age, and I spent a lot of time fishing with the Barker boys, and, as I’ll get to, bull fighting. In addition to the three brothers, their cousins Robert and Ryne Barker were generally available if boredom required additional creativity. But, monotony was seldom a problem. By the time Arnold brought the bull home, we were armed with bb guns and fireworks, the latter which we smuggled in from Missouri in much the same way that slaves were transported to the Pearson house in Keosauqua during the days of the Underground Railroad.
Before going further, I should point out that the Barker place was not only on a gravel road, but also back a long lane, and, therefore, by my way of thinking, outside any legal jurisdiction. Besides, the statue of limitations has surely expired getting on forty years later. At the same time, to be safe I chose to pastor in another state leaving it to Robert to deal with any legal ramifications this narrative may surface. In his defense, I would point out that, Robert was not immediately complicit in this particular episode. There is a story involving a rabbit in which Robert is directly culpable. But, that was too close to Highway 2 for me to document in print.
Back to Arnold’s bull. Despite what city people may believe, a bull is not necessarily a vicious creature. While, he would never necessarily be a pet like say a lamb, provided you supply him with three key ingredients a bull is a fine neighbor. First, a bull likes to eat. Green grass is fine, standing corn is better. But, a bull wants food and lots of it. He wants to eat at his leisure and on his own schedule.
Second, a bull, likes consenting cows. Maybe it is because he resents that most of his brothers ended up in the ranks of the steers, but any farmer knows that a good bull is as committed to procreation as any living creature. Indeed, a bull’s zealous affection for the herd is the reason a farmer bought him the first place.
Third, a bull wants respect, preferably, at least a hundred yards of it. Even while eating grass, a bull keeps one eye on the borders of his pasture with the same attitude that the nation of Israel patrols its political boundaries. Provided, you stay on your patch of earth, the bull will show up for an occasional U.N. meeting. But, if you move into a bull’s version of the West Bank, he has nuclear weapons and he will scramble his jets to drop the bomb without a second thought.
So, there you have it. If a bull has those three things (grass, cows, and respect), boys crossing a field really need not be concerned. But, if you subtract even one of these elements then things can get very tense very quickly. If two elements are missing, then battles are certain. A bull deprived of food, cows, and respect guarantees a full scale shooting war.
You know where this is going. Arnold’s bull had none of the above. For reasons I can only assume were related to the timing of the spring calf crop, the bull was confined in a corral thereby depriving him of any female companionship. While Arnold and Duane (the Barker boys’ uncle) fed him on a regular basis, the Barker bull wasn’t eating on his own terms. He was on edge.
Respect, the third ingredient, was especially lacking. Though, the Barker boys and I had several hundred acres of bottom ground to roam – -we were limited only by the Des Moines to the north and we could roam all the way to Missouri going south – – we chose to disrespect the bull. As I said, there was no reason that we needed to be anywhere near the bull, except, of course, that we knew he was edgy and lethal and this intrigued us a great deal. So, without really discussing it per se, we chose to deprive the bull of the final essential ingredient, respect. The war was on.
You can imagine how bb guns and firecrackers were involved. But, one of our favorite tactics was to get down on all fours next to the pen and yell and paw at the ground. Picture four grade school aged boys mooing and braying and taunting. Quentin, the youngest of the three was especially talented at this. For his part, the bull would put his head down and snort and paw the ground. This would go on for a minute or two before the bull would charge. Granted, there was a fence between us, but if you’ve never had 1400 pounds of enraged, snorting, bellowing beef flying at you full speed you really can’t know the thrill of it all. There is a moment just before the bull hits his side of the corral in which you realize that the fence is not going to stop him. And, for Iowa farm boys in the early 70’s, it was in this split second of sheer terror that real living actually took place.
Of course, this charging routine got old for everyone pretty quickly. The bull soon figured out that he wasn’t getting through the fence and what with all the mooing and yelling we were getting hoarse. So, there was a temporary truce, which is when, Steve, the oldest of the Barker brothers came up with the idea of a trip line. Steve was a creative and visionary leader and he theorized that if we could string a trip line across the corral, when the bull charged we would be able to raise said trip line and the then tripped bull would go somersaulting across the pen like an Olympic gymnast. We had never seen a bull go head over heels, but we all agreed it would be a spectacular sight, especially if he didn’t stick the landing.
There were a couple of design issues. We needed a strong rope. For this, we braided bailer twine together. We had to figure out how to secure the rope so that when the bull ran into it that it would remain firm. Without getting into the technical details we solved that. The only remaining challenge was that we knew we would have to actually get into the pen both to secure one end of the trip line against the side of the barn. It would also be necessary to bait the bull into charging. Given that the bull would undoubtedly maul us if given the chance, we wisely deliberated for two or three minutes before deciding to go ahead with the plan.
While one or two of us lured the bull to the other end of the coral, we took turns running across the pen to try and tie the rope. Of course, whenever the bull noticed that we were in his territory he would snort and snarl and charge. Whereas before we were on the other side of the corral, this time we had about 10 yards of running and a fence to climb. I can distinctly remember tumbling over the fence onto my head as the bull crashed into the corral.
Quentin was the last to go. Keeping in mind that he was only eight old at the time, it was understandable that he was nearly in tears from fear. But, he was more scared of his older brothers and so he went into the bull ring. No matador ever did a finer job.
Of course, in the end, the bull simply ran through the rope and was none the worse for it. We all lived for the next adventure which probably involved the creek or the hay mow or some other hazard on Arnold Barker’s farm.
I did learn something about fear in it all. There are those who insist that the scariest thing they can imagine is speaking in front of a large group of people. They’ve obviously never been chased by an enraged Black Angus bull. As a pastor, I have spoken in front of thousands and while I was a little cotton mouthed, it doesn’t compare.
Iowa farm kids grow up and by the end of Junior High, Brett Barker and I went our separate ways. Years later, Brett tragically died in a construction accident. But, his birthday was October 12 and if there is never a day that I don’t think about Keosauqua, I don’t suppose that there is ever an October 12 that I don’t think of Brett.
Rev. Dr. Chris Brauns grew up on a farm near Keosauqua. He is a pastor in Stillman Valley, IL and the author of Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. His blog is www.chrisbrauns.com .