My grandfather has always been very important to me and has influenced who I am as much as any other man. He was a farmer and farmed almost until he was 80 in a small town in Iowa. We would travel to that town a couple times a year when I was growing up to visit my grandparents and stay on the farm. The following takes place during one of those stays and is as true as I can remember.
I must have been in elementary school. I say this because it seems to fit the activity. My grandparents raised some beef cattle and hogs as well as the fields of wheat, soybeans, corn, or whatever it was that had been planted that year. The farm is situated where a dirt road curves so that if you drove straight instead of following the curve you would end up first in my grandparents’ driveway and then, if you drove through the gate, in the field behind the house. A row of what I’m going to call cedar trees, though they were probably something else separated the house from the fencerow and the field beyond. The driveway turned into a track which curved to the south a bit before heading west into the field. This arrangement of road and field meant that there was a small area of land between the track and fencerow that wasn’t planted and miscellaneous machinery, wagons, and non-working cars belonging to my uncles usually resided in this spot. Now my grandparents had little interest and even less time for cable television so while on the farm my siblings and I had to find ways of amusing ourselves.
This particular day, we wandered to that island of no-mans-land between the corn field and fencerow and were exploring machines and cars covered in the fine dust that rose whenever the tractor passed on the worn track to or from the field. What we found that day was a cattle cute, what it became was a giant teeter-totter. A cattle cute, for those who don’t know, is a simple ramp used to get the cattle single file up into a truck for transport. There was a stationary cute across the road where the cattle were and there was this cute, on wheels, being kept temporarily in its present location. The wondrous thing for us its propensity to crash to the ground as my sister, some cousins and I clambered from one side to the other; the wheels acting as a fulcrum. As I remember, one of us was stationed on the hood of a nearby car in one stage of decomposition or another. The purpose of this scout was to watch for barn cats or other animals which may creep up under part of the cute which may be teetering or tottering at any given moment. I don’t know who it was that initially saw our victim, but I do remember standing on the hood of the car and seeing it for myself.
Now you should know that I am not a vegetarian. My grandparents raised cattle and hogs for later consumption but they were always very humane to all of their livestock. I’m sure if they were still farming today, they would be considered “organic” and “free range.” As the grandson of a farmer, I believe that corporate farming is one of the evils of our age. That being said, we always had a great affinity for the barn cats which lived outside and fed on the scraps my grandparents would set out. This was a practical thing as well, as the cats kept the mice and barn swallow populations in check. My siblings, cousins and I would name the cats and their kittens and look for them when we visited. “Paintbucket” was probably the mother of most of the latter generations of barn cats and lived as full a life as a barn cat can, but I digress.
I remember standing on the hood of the car and seeing the black cat curled up underneath the cattle cute. It looked as if it were sleeping and I am sure that at one point it had been. Our first attempts were to wake it up by clapping and yelling at it. This progressed to throwing stones from the gravel drive in an attempt to rouse it. These bounced off the cat and it did not stir. I remember walking toward the cat and until I was right next to it. I would have sworn it was sleeping. It was then I noticed that it had chosen a poor place to fall asleep. We had been playing both before and after dinner, at least we must have, and the accident occurred before we went in to eat. I don’t know how long or how many times we had bashed the poor cat with the large wooden sledge of a cattle cute, but some of what should have been inside the cat was now on the outside. Nothing terribly grotesque, just a little blood, but it was enough for us elementary-aged kids to know that this cat’s mice hunting days were over.
My respect and love for my grandfather manifested itself as fear at times when growing up. I was never afraid for myself, as he would never have injured any of us, but being in somewhat in awe of him I had a healthy fear of him as well. This was definitely present as those of us who had been playing, proverbial hats in hand, made the long dusty walk to the house to tell my grandfather what had happened. He was in the living room watching the news. I am sure they were probably talking about the price of beef, or pork, or corn. We solemnly approached his chair and with tears beginning to form in our eyes, we told him that we thought we had accidentally killed a cat. I don’t know if he asked and I don’t remember telling him what we were doing; perhaps he knew already, but he rose and asked us where it was. We led him, four or five small children around a man who was a giant then both literally and figuratively, out to the scene of the crime. We pointed from a distance and my grandfather approached the dead animal.
It is here that I need to make sure that everyone knows how a cat sleeps. If you need to google “sleeping cats” or “cat nap”, whatever you need to do to get a visual of this cat whose life had been snuffed out in this peaceful repose. You may notice, as I never had before, how almost circular they are when curled up like this. How they tuck their tails in as well and their ears are the only thing that belie the curve of their bodies.
Once again I will iterate that my grandfather is a practical man. Being such he ducked under the cattle cute and grabbed the cat. I don’t know if we were expecting or even wanted a burial for the poor beast or words to be spoken telling us it was ok but we received neither. Instead my grandfather, with the elegance of a champion discus thrower, hurled the cat as a Frisbee out in the corn field beyond the dirt drive. He then told us to have fun and went back into the house. At least I think that is what he said. I have a feeling he said something but I, like my sister and cousins, was standing on that dirt drive with my eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. We were staring. Staring, not at my grandfather as he walked back to the house, but rather at where the cat had disappeared into the setting sun and the rustling cornstalks.
We never used the cattle cute as a teeter-totter again.
Stephen Kadwell (an improvisor, asked to write a guest piece for our Improv Issue) is currently studying at the Second City conservatory as well as iO in Chicago. He performs with a yet to be named group and is a creative consultant for “Mommy” a two man sketch comedy team. He has a BA in Theatre from Western Michigan University and an M.Div from Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando Florida. Improv and comedy are two of his passions. He accepts donations.