If you live in a rural community or a small town, there’s a good chance you or your children have been involved in 4-H. Maybe you’re even one of the 3,500-plus volunteers across the country who helps lead a local 4-H club. If so, thanks for all you do.
Today, more than 6.5 million young folks from farms, towns and cities participate in 4-H, making it the largest non-school youth organization in the nation. The perfect answer to “there’s nothing to do,” 4-H clubs give youngsters a hands-on opportunity to learn about science and engineering, nutrition and community service, public speaking, photography, and even rocketry and GPS mapping.
Of course, I’d never heard of any of those programs back when I was growing up in rural Nebraska. In my day, joining the local 4-H club meant raising and entering a calf, lamb or pig in the county fair. Or, in my wife’s case, her 4-H club taught her about gardening and flower arranging.
My first 4-H project was a docile little Suffolk lamb, followed the next year by a Duroc pig. As I
recall, neither of them won ribbons at the county fair, but I did learn a little about trying to train a pig to behave in the show ring. As I remember it, he didn’t.
My third year as a 4-H member, I moved into the big leagues when my dad decided I was old enough to raise and train a calf. Together, Dad and I drove out to a ranch in eastern Wyoming, where we picked out a stocky little Angus steer for my 4-H project. Turns out, it was the beginning of my undoing.
That black calf was gentle enough. He’d gladly come forward for a carefully measured bucket of grain and stand quietly while I scratched behind his ears. He’d even let me bathe him with a bucket of water and a scrub brush. The problem seemed to arise when I tried to halter-break him.
I’d pull. The calf would pull back. The harder I pulled, the more determined that calf was to resist.
“I’ll fix this,” my dad observed one morning.
He started up our little Ford Fordson tractor and drove it to the pen, bringing along a length of rope. Attaching one end of the rope to the halter and the other end to the tractor drawbar, he put the tractor in low gear and began to creep slowly forward. My stubborn calf suddenly found himself being pulled along.
Not without a high degree of resistance, however. All four hooves remained planted in the dirt, creating four little furrows as the calf skidded forward.
“Try that a few times, and maybe you’ll get your calf halter-broke before the county fair,” my dad suggested.
So, for the next couple of weeks, my calf and I and our little Ford tractor embarked on halter-breaking lessons. By the end of the second week, he would sorta come along grudgingly when I tugged at the halter rope.
Then, the day came to load my calf in our old truck and haul him to the fairgrounds.
My dad backed the truck up to the loading chute, and with a little effort, I led my calf down the chute and along the alleyway to the weigh-in scales. He looked about as nervous as I was, but at least he was following along. I climbed up on the gate while the fair officials noted my calf’s weight and handed me a slip of paper telling me which stall I should take him to in the livestock barn halfway across the fairgrounds.
The scale gate had just swung open, and I was about to lead my calf toward the livestock barn, when some yardbird squatting on the top rail of that alleyway reached out and swatted my calf’s behind. Big mistake!
With eyes big as pies, that black calf took off like a bottle rocket, with me hanging on to the halter rope. He dragged me past the garden show, past the building displaying homemade pies and jams and jellies, and through the carnival grounds.
Finally, his panic attack near done, my calf came to a standstill, his tongue hanging out. I was standing there, scraped and bruised, when a stranger approached.
“The judging starts tomorrow morning, son. Are you and your calf OK?”
I wasn’t sure about us being OK, but at least we were both alive. Gingerly, we limped toward the livestock barn and found our assigned stall.
My story does have a happy ending. The next day, my calf won a third-place ribbon in his class – my first and only 4-H ribbon. I’m proud to report my calf behaved like a perfect gentleman, walking beside me around the show ring like a seasoned pro.
According to National 4-H headquarters, more than 60 million people have been 4-H members over the years. Alumni include famous entertainers such as Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, Jermaine Jackson and Sissy Spacek, as well as sports celebrities, astronauts, governors and congressmen, corporate executives, and college presidents.
But I have to wonder. Did any of them ever try to halter-break a
little black Angus steer as stubborn as mine?
Jerry is now trying to leash-train his Daschund puppy, Nicholas, at their
home in Parkville, Missouri. So far,
however, Nicholas is winning.